My mother acts like the conflict between her and me is semantic, rather than due to her crappy parenting. For instance, when I try to talk to her about how when I was a kid and she was pissed at me, or simply found me irritating and noisy, she would make me sit in the garage by myself for hours (pitch dark, smelling like rancid milk), she says, “It’s ridiculous to call that ‘abuse’! I never laid a hand on you. Your generation is much too loosey-goosey with words.”
Which makes me smile— maddening as my mother is, the way she’ll let fly some phrase like “loosey-goosey,” as if she’s a fifties housewife in a flowered apron, kills me.
So I press her. I want to know what other words she takes umbrage with.
She gives me a look to confirm that I’m not messing with her (my mother and I have minimal trust in each other), and says, “All right, what about gender? In my day, gender was a concrete thing that you just were. You all act as if it’s a costume you can just throw on. ‘Today I’m feeling like a girl.’ Gender is not something you feel!”
“Says the woman who tells me I ought to make an effort to look more feminine,” I say. “And what about your birthday twin?”
My mother hates it when I call David Bowie her birthday twin, though it is true they share the same birthday—same year as well as the same date. I realized this only after he died, and weirdly, this fact prompted me to call her when I heard the news. I took Bowie’s death hard. What my mother said: “You didn’t even know the man. It makes no sense to be so sad.”
Impossible to explain to her that as a kid, I felt more seen by David Bowie than I did by my own mother. Those long, dark hours in the garage, Bowie was who kept me company. I sang “Life on Mars?” to myself and the crickets.
On the phone that evening, I repeated “saddening bore” over and over again until my mother said, “Finis!”
Now she says, “His songs are nonsense.”
“And what do you mean by nonsense?”
My mother looks at me, again to verify that I’m not fucking with her, and apparently decides instead I’m a moron. She twirls one hand in the air, conveying dismissal. “Poppycock. Balderdash,” she says, and again my irritation at her dissolves in the face of her words. The fifties housewife with the apron morphs into some Victorian lord with a hooked, disdainful nose and a burgundy velvet smoking jacket.
Sometimes I think my mother and I would finally get along if, instead of trying to communicate, to explain ourselves to each other, we just sat across a table and occasionally emitted single words: “starship,” “pernicious,” “grasshopper.”
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books this July. Her fiction has been published widely. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, and other venues. She is Fiction Editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. www.michellenross.com