“Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Arthur C. Clarke
It doesn’t make any sense, I thought as I stepped out of my dorm room and shut the door on the stinky mess behind me. The room smelled like the dirty clothes on the floor, the reworn socks and pants; the popcorn bags, still containing kernels that never popped; the boiled egg I ate half of the night before, the remaining half discarded on top of my mini-fridge. No plate, no container — it was just sitting there. As if I would ever eat it. After being stuck in my room all day, it took me a moment to realize the smell of the hallway was fresh; not particularly good, but clean. Absurd.
She would probably smell it, too, the very second she stepped into the room, I thought as I walked down the stairs. And it didn’t make any sense that she was here, because Paola’s manager had made it clear that “It is not public information that Mrs. Bianchi has a 20-year-old daughter, and everything shall remain like that.” He’d told me this on the phone two months before, in an overly formal English that almost buried his Italian accent. On that occasion, two months before, on Christmas day, the manager called me less than an hour after I’d hung up with Paola herself, who had called me for the first time to say that she was my birth mother. But I live far away, in Italy, and I cannot be publicly seen with you, so let’s be friends over the phone, I heard between the lines. To that, I would have answered, if she’d said it out loud, “No, let’s not.” But she didn’t verbalize her thoughts, so I didn’t have a chance to reject her at that time.
She would probably smell the vomit, too, I thought, as I watched her dismiss her driver across the street from my building and walk towards me. I knew that I smelled like vomit because I had spent the previous night throwing up the antibiotics they had given me at the hospital. I had been in the hospital for almost a week with a kidney infection — which is why Paola came here, to Texas. At least, that’s what she told me when she called to ask for my address. I knew that was not completely true. She’d come to the U.S. for the Grammy’s. Her latest album had a nomination. She was a good singer. I started listening to her music after that Christmas-day call. But, since I understood little to nothing of what her lyrics said, I wasn’t sure if I liked her music or not. I began to listen to it quite often, though, out of curiosity. Then, while she was in Los Angeles to possibly accept an award she ended up not winning, I happened to get sick. Only then did she come to Texas, to see me for the first time ever, two days after I left the hospital. And she found me in my messy dorm room, looking and smelling like I had thrown up the whole night, which I indeed had.
She started crying the minute she first saw me.
“I’m sorry it’s a mess,” I said as Paola and I walked into my room. I felt — and she probably did, too — the sudden punch in the face of the dirty clothes and the popcorn and vomit stench. I hoped her crying would block all that out. She was still crying when we sat down to talk; and she cried for a while even after we sat down. She’d cry, and smile, and say, “You are very beautiful” (sounding out the T like Italians do and lingering on the L). I considered saying she was beautiful, too, but didn’t. Between my mumbled apologies for the smell (there had to be a rotten potato in that room) and the lack of space on the floor for her to walk on, I didn’t have time or courage to say that she, too, was beautiful. But she was, indeed, stunning in a way — not the same way I had known her to be by seeing videos of her shows and interviews on YouTube, but in an off-handed way: delicate features contrasting with this funny little gap between her two front teeth. “When I finally had enough money to see a dentist,” she once said in an interview I watched online, “the teeth thing had already become a thing people thought of when they thought of me. So I am keeping the gap.” I was glad she did. The gap was a nice little distraction as I watched her talk once we sat across from each other: me on my desk chair, also covered in dirty clothes; her on the edge of my unmade bed. She went on with apologies, to which I would murmur sporadic It’s okays: for not letting me know she was coming; for taking so long to come; for not having come the week before, while I was in the hospital.
“By the way,” she said, “What did Dr. Deshmuk say?” I had mentioned his name once over the phone, a few weeks before.
There were literally thousands of answers to that question. In almost a week in the hospital, plus office visits, my doctor had said thousands of things to me. I had been ignoring most of them since last year, when he talked me into having a lithotripsy to break up my kidney stones so they would pass and I would stop having infections. Well, I was back to peeing blood in about eight months. So, when Paola looked at me with the most serious expression I had ever seen on her face in the whole ten minutes we had spent together, and she asked what the doctor had said, I decided to pick one of the thousand possible responses that did not include the sentence “We should try lithotripsy again.”
“That I should drink more water,” I said. “And that I should come back to see him in like a month, I guess.” This was sophism, not a lie.
“And how do you feel now?”
Paola’s question ran through my head twice. “Great, really,” I said. “Actually hungry for the first time in a while.”
Although it was afternoon already, I had not eaten anything all day. I was still asleep, after a long night, when Paola called to ask what my address was and to announce she was in Arlington. She was already on Cooper Street when she called, and Cooper Street literally crosses the university where I live. I was not sure why she had not called from California. Maybe coming was a last minute, airport decision. She was probably returning to Italy, probably with her current husband and their four-year-old daughter, and her manager and tour manager, when she thought, “Well, I should probably stop by Texas to see if Catarina is surviving.” So she sent her real family home — maybe with a lying goodbye, saying she had singing business in Texas — and came here, in a moment of pure guilt, because I could very well have died in the hospital the week before that very Tuesday. Still, even though coming here was a sudden, before-embarking decision, she could have called from the airport in Fort Worth, when she disembarked. That would have at least given me time to shower and maybe even clean up the room a little. Maybe hide the Anti-Bumps Shave Gel for Bikini Area that sat on my desk. She lingered a glance at it. And I would have hidden the picture of Jabbar and me kissing, too, which sat there by the gel. I had taken it out of the picture frame when we broke up two weeks before, but had not yet done anything else with it. I avoided looking at the picture so that Paola wouldn’t either, but could see now she’d focused on it.
“I feel like going to Wendy’s,” I said. “I need to eat something before I go to my class tonight.” And I immediately realized she had no idea what “Wendy’s” meant. “It’s a burger place.”
“I think you should eat something like . . . soup?” she said — not so much looking for the right word but, with a slight squint, for the right way to deliver it.
I think you should not think about what I should eat, I thought about saying. But instead, I said: “I think Wendy’s is fine, really. I’m fine.”
Britney Spears’ “Oops! I did it again” was on the radio when we walked into the Wendy’s on West Abram Street, the one right past the campus. Maybe because of the weird time of the day—too late for lunch, too early for dinner—only two tables other than our booth had people eating at them. In one, three loud-laughing house painters or plasterers, their pants and caps stained and splashed in white. In another, four high school kids, two boys and two girls. A skip-class double date. I envied one of the girls, because as soon as Paola and I sat on our booth with our food, I noticed the girl was dipping her French fries in her frosty drink, and I had not ordered a frosty. I ordered the usual, boring burger and fries with Dr. Pepper.
“You’ll have to try it!” I said when Paola asked what Dr. Pepper tasted like, and I slid my cup across the table for her.
It looked like she was hurting, the face she made with a squint again — but different, the squint of someone who tasted something objectionable. “I haven’t had soda in a long time,” she said, sharing my laughter. “It burns.”
The conversation spun-off to Thailand after that, because I had always felt that soda in Thailand had more of the burning and bubbling properties than anything I had ever tried. I told her that for easy conversation, figuring we both had topics we wished to avoid. “You made the same face I made when I first had Coke in Chiang Mai,” I said.
From Thailand we went on to London, where I’d also lived for a while, and how both of us love Queen Elizabeth because she is a cute old lady. We went on to Hogwarts and Harry Potter and J.K Rowling. “How come you’re such a nerd?” she asked, laughing. “I’ve never been a nerd,” she said.
“Who is he,” she asked in the very first awkward moment of silence we had during lunch.
I knew exactly who she was talking about, but I asked “Who?” I made her verbalize that she meant the guy in the picture. Jabbar. “Ex-boyfriend,” I said with a shrug. “Just didn’t work.”
I did not feel like talking to my new mother about my alcoholic, abusive ex-boyfriend whose picture still had a place on my desk. Then I would have to explain why we broke up. She would ask, I was sure. I would have to tell her how many times we’d broken up. I would have to bring fights up, yelling back and forth, bruises, him driving drunk and throwing the car against a street pole, nearly killing both of us. How could I say all that to my new mother without choking with every detail? Just hearing her repeat his name felt judgmental to me. And as she stared at me expecting further explanation, anything deeper than “Just didn’t work,” I felt naked. I felt like she could see bruises and abortion through my sweater. Would she judge me? I wondered, because I knew she, too, had considered abortion when she was pregnant with me. I wanted to ask why not, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do more than stare off at one of the vases with fake plants in one corner of Wendy’s. My eyes were red, I imagined, because I felt the salt burning them.
She reached across the table and put a hand on top of my hand. “Whenever you are ready,” she said, meaning that I didn’t have to share everything at once, I supposed.
But I took the sentence more literally, as in, “Whenever you are ready, we can leave,” like people say when they are done eating at a restaurant and they want to go home. “Yeah, we should go,” I said. “I have an evening class that I can’t skip.”
It was not an option to skip Creative Writing that day, because it was the workshop of my short story “Rotten Tangerine.” And because Paola couldn’t just show up and kidnap me from my own life, I thought, as I walked to Preston Hall, where I had that class. But during our goodbyes after Wendy’s, in the parking lot of my building, Paola had asked, “May I pick you up after class?” She wanted me to sleep over at the hotel in Dallas with her. “To talk some more,” she said.
I would rather have not — because I was tired, and I wanted to cry out how unfair I thought it was for her to impose herself back into my life, and how difficult it was for me to connect. Apparently not for her, but for me.
And I remembered what Professor Campbell had said that time after Paola had first called me. I used to show up during her office hours with no essay to pretend I needed help with, just some fake question I’d invented so I could talk to her. She’d say what I already knew she would, that I had rather convoluted phrases here and there, then she would always put the papers aside and ask, “How are you doing, really?” So on that day, shortly after Paola first called me, when I walked into Professor Campbell’s office with no essay in hand, no excuse at all, specifically to talk about the mother who had given me up for adoption and now supposedly wanted to be my mom, Professor Campbell said that Paola felt differently than I did because, in her head, she had always had me as a daughter. For twenty years she had had me as a daughter. And that was half of her whole life. In my head, though, I had always just been motherless. For twenty years I had been motherless. So we were on different pages. “It is understandable that you have a hard time connecting with her,” Professor Campbell said. And I thought of that on my way to Preston Hall going to class the night Paola arrived–I guess in order to forgive myself for having given in and said Yes when she asked if she might pick me up later that night, to talk some more.
We did. We talked some more. When we arrived at the hotel, Paola took me straight to her own room, directly across from the one her manager had arranged for me to have in case I would spend the night.
“I want you to have this,” Paola said handing me a regular, transparent-plastic pen with a blue lid that she took from one of the suitcases on the bed we stood by. The room was about eight times bigger than my dorm room, and it had two gigantic beds: one for Paola, by the window with a mesmerizing view of Dallas, another for her suitcases and bags.
I didn’t need a pen. I had several of those. But I limited myself to saying, “Thank you, Paola.” And then I said, “No, I can’t take it,” when she explained that that particular pen had been the one she used to sign her very first touring contract, the tour to Brazil during which she met my father. “But I do collect pens,” I said, as I sat by her side on the bed that had the suitcases on it — its right side had the smaller bags, which we pushed away form the edge of the bed before we sat down. I was surprised by the supposed coincidence of her giving me a pen. But it was not a coincidence.
“I know you collect pens,” she said. “You told me over the phone a few weeks ago.”
I thought it was nice that she had retained that information. It was a small detail, even for me. And I thought that if it was true that I had brought that up, I might have said that I used to collect pens, because my collection had been neglected for so long, and I had bits of it in so many places (Dad’s house, aunt’s house, sister’s house, cousin’s house) that it didn’t matter anymore. A person without a home cannot collect things.
“Are you sure you want to give this to me,” I asked, because I thought it was a big deal.
But she said, “Yes, I am sure. It’s yours.”
I analyzed the pen in my hand instead of looking straight at Paola. I knew she was looking straight at me. I had learned during the afternoon that she did that—she stared. There were teeth-dents on the lid of the pen, and I thought that was funny. “I bite pens, too,” I said, then looked at Paola. She was crying.
“I regret having left,” she said, “Did you know that? Did you know that I regret?” She asked. There was not anything other than “It’s okay” for me to say, but she would not take it. She wanted me to argue. She wanted me to be mad. And maybe I was, because she said I regret, not I regretted. Was that a language misleading subtlety? Did she mean to say she had always regretted? Or had she had a wonderful, guiltless life, and just then, after seeing me, did she start to regret? But really, did it make any difference? She was here, after all. And did it make me a terrible person that I kind of wished that she had had a terrible time thinking about me during the past twenty years? In all fairness to her, though, only two months before we met, when she called me on Christmas day to say, “Hi, I am your mother,” did she find out that my adoptive mother passed away when I was five years old, and I actually never had any mother. For the past twenty years, Paola did not know how much I needed her.
Before I could elaborate anything other than “It’s okay” and “It’s okay” again, someone knocked on the door. Thank God, because I was tired of petting Paola’s back and saying, “It’s okay.”
“Wait a minute,” she said, wiping the tears off her cheeks—to me first, and then louder, to the person on the door.
It was her manager, I learned a couple of minutes later, when Paola came back into the room and explained that her husband, Fabrizio, had been calling her phone and had not been able to reach her. Then he, worried, called the manager. “I will talk to him for a few minutes,” she said, “But wait for me, okay? Stay here,” she said before she kissed my forehead and stepped back outside—for more than a few minutes. I could not hear any of the conversation. She probably went to the manager’s room to talk in privacy, or to the room that theoretically was mine. I wondered if it was taking long because she had to make up details for the day, make up things she had done to tell her husband who thought she was here for work; or if it was taking long because she needed time to tell him every detail about how it was to meet her daughter, in the case that he knew about me. I wondered what she was saying about me, if that was the case. She was saying a lot, given the length of the conversation. It took her so many more minutes than just a few that I finally fell asleep. I had cleared more space on the right side of the bed to sit closer to the wall, so I could charge my phone using the outlets on the nightstand. Then I had leaned against the back of the bed, and slid down little by little, as I texted my best friend from Brazil about the day. I dozed off mid-sentence because I wanted to tell Thamires about Paola being here as much as I needed to sleep. When I woke up to go to the bathroom, three hours later, there was a heavy blanket covering me, and all the suitcases and small bags were gone. And Paola had fallen asleep on her bed by the window. That was creepy, I thought, that she threw a blanket on me.
“It is very much a mom thing to do,” Thamires told me the next morning when I texted her apologizing for having fallen asleep in the middle of our conversation, and explaining what had happened. “I don’t think it is creepy,” she said, “I think it is sweet.”
“How is it gonna be,” Thamires eventually asked, “when Paola leaves?” I had not thought of that before she asked. Not in a bad way, at least. But the question stuck in my head, and from then on every time Paola made me laugh I thought of it. I thought of it every time she did something amusingly weird, all European; or something creepily mother-like, or something nice, like remembering that I once over the phone mentioned that I do not eat things of the color orange. When I ordered a Caesar Salad for lunch in the hotel the Saturday of the week she arrived, and it came with an entire julienne-cut carrot, she made sure to clean it all out while I was in the bathroom, before I even saw it. But she didn’t see one last slice, under the last piece of chicken in the bottom of the bowl — so, when I ate the chicken and saw it she had to carefully tell me that I had eaten a bunch of lettuce that had been touched by slices of carrot. I didn’t even freak out, though. I laughed instead. I froze for a few seconds, to process the grossness of what had happened, but then I laughed at the image that came to my mind, of her picking slices of carrot from my food and trying to hide them. Particularly on that occasion, because it was a laughing moment, I thought very much about Thamires’ question. And particularly on that occasion, it made me suddenly sad, because I knew Paola was about to leave. She had, indeed, cancelled the plane ticket for the next day, that first Sunday, but I knew she was going to have a new one very soon. Paola thought about that, too, I found out later that Saturday. After spending every break between classes with her, and sleeping over every night since Tuesday, it had become easier to read her.
Not because of the carrot, nor the absurd amount of blood on Game of Thrones we binge watched the entire afternoon, but because of new antibiotics: I got sick, a little earlier than bedtime. I spent a whole episode trying to think it away, not to throw up, and to hide the chills I was starting to have. I didn’t want Paola to freak out, which by then I had learned that she did often.
“Are you okay?” she asked when I had a wave of chills that probably shook her spot on the bed. “Honey, you are burning,” she said upon feeling my forehead.
Trying to convince her otherwise was foolish, because I, too, felt her fingers like cubes of ice touching my face—and I knew it was not that her hand was cold. I was, indeed, burning. After being discovered, I didn’t have to restrain stomach sickness anymore, nor would I have been able to for much longer. I went to the bathroom, and Paola followed me there. I closed the door behind me when I stepped into the bathroom, but it was useless. The door was wide open three seconds later.
“You don’t want to see this,” I said, lifting the seat cover of the toilet.
She didn’t leave. She stayed there the whole time, which made me uncomfortable — but then again, there isn’t really a comfortable way to throw up. I wanted to explain to her that I was going to be okay, that getting sick was not abnormal for me, but for a long while I didn’t have long enough breaks to start a conversation.
When I did have a break, I sat on the floor, resting my back against the bathtub. I knew it was not yet time to walk back to the room, because I still felt sick. But I could talk.
“Sometimes the antibiotics they give me,” I said with a few pauses to clear my throat, “just don’t agree with me, so this happens.” My voice was hoarse.
Paola sat down by my side.
I was so weak and suddenly tired, that I didn’t even think twice. I laid down on the floor, resting my head on her lap. “Is this okay?” I asked.
She didn’t say Yes or No, and I couldn’t see if she nodded or shook her head because I was laying on my side, facing her feet. But she laid a hand on my arm, and another on my head, so I took it as a yes. It felt like a yes.
“How am I gonna know,” she asked between sniffs, “that you are okay?”
In a moment of pure exhaustion, eyes already closed, I said, “Stay, then,” and I immediately regretted it. I was such a hypocrite, I thought, as I sat back up and watched Paola’s expression freeze from worried to hurt.
For a moment, I thought she stopped breathing. How could I ask her to stay and do to more people what she had done to me—and then regret, not for one person, but a whole family? But how would I have been able not to ask her to stay? Would I, in the name of dignity, have been able to betray myself like that? Was it my job to not even try, in name of dignity?
If it was between losing nodding terms with fairness, and going back to being miserable and motherless, what should I choose?
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’m sorry.” And I hugged her.
Ursula Abdala is native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and currently lives in Arlington, Texas. Although her first language is Portuguese, it was in English that she found her passion for writing. Ursula is a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she studies Film and Creative Writing.