My mother-in-law, who has been sleeping on our couch the past two months, has become obsessed with reading the news on her phone. The phone is new, a birthday gift from my husband and me. She is a woman, has always been a woman, who likes to know about the world. But it’s only recently that she’s discovered the frequency with which she might engage with the world’s goings-on.
For years, my husband had been asking — we had, though I much less frequently than him — for her to upgrade her phone. She lived alone and far away and we wanted to be able to get in touch with her more often. In response to this request, she suggested more than once we planned to “track” her. She had a flip phone that she left places, lost often; she complained about the size and resolution of the pictures that we sent her of our kids.
It was, of course, the children that convinced her this was a worthwhile investment. My husband texted her a video of them playing as soon as he had transferred all her contacts and she sat, aghast, her eyes misting, as she watched the children — who were also in the next room playing — on her new phone. As an added present, my husband sat very close to her on our couch and taught her how it works. This was just days after her initial diagnosis; she’d come up for her birthday, and then told us she was sick.
The news has gotten faster, more impossible to fathom since we started asking my mother-in-law to replace her phone. This is not, as she is quickest to remind us, to say that the world has shifted so extremely, so much as that the awful that has always lived all over has started to be talked about more often in the news. She often says, now that she seems to plan to occupy our couch right up until the soon-coming apocalypse, the world has always been bad, we’re just talking about it more. She says this on her good days, when she’s feeling optimistic. This is her way of trying to give context, mitigate the horrors, that, on other days, have her reading indignantly and loudly, saying this is not the place her mother brought her to.
My mother-in-law’s an immigrant, from South Vietnam. For a while, the news sometimes involved the deaths of people that she loved; it involved the destruction, the burning or exploding, of places that she knew. At nineteen, she watched Saigon fall from a boat, her mother with her, people piled so close together she said she could taste their excrement and sweat. The man she married, also Vietnamese, was a math teacher, and had come over years before. They would meet and marry not long after her arrival. They would live predictable middle-class lives, a house, three kids, until my husband’s father died of an undetected bacterial infection of one of his heart valves when my husband was six. For a long time — according to my husband and my mother-in-law, although they never say it like this, and mostly when he talks about his childhood or his mother talks about it, they talk about how good she was, how much fun they had — it was hard.
On her worst days, my mother-in-law reminds us that people have to leave places and we should be preparing. She reminds us she left, her mother made it work, and that we might need to, too. We should, she says, be putting aside money, considering our options, though there is no money, right now, to be put aside. Some nights she tells us that we’re dumb and lazy and it’s her fault for raising her children in this place that makes people think they are invulnerable. She tells us that we have to have a plan.
Two months ago, she came up to stay with us a second time to see specialists. The Medicaid in New York is better, easier to access, than the Medicaid in Florida, and, after a few terrifying weeks in which she did not have coverage in either state, her move application was approved. Now she’s recovering from the surgery she had a month ago that removed both her breasts, and, I am, in addition to teaching full time at a public high school, helping rich kids write essays for their class assignments, commuting all over the city often until past my children’s bedtime, in order that we pay our rent. She’s staying on our couch, indefinitely, because she’s sick, but also, she lost her house two weeks ago.
Her son, my husband, is methodically starving us each night. He has been, not as recently as it used to be, laid off from his job and has since become obsessed with YouTube and Instagram videos about fitness and food consumption, and we no longer have white flour or sugar in the house. We no longer consume gluten, very little dairy — our food costs have nearly doubled — though he sometimes lets the children indulge in sweets on the weekends when they’re good.
My mother-in-law’s surgery did not go well; one of the tubes meant to drain the fluid from the site of removal got clogged, causing buildup that led to an infection, and she was very sick for a while. She received a tincture from a naturopath she found from a friend who left Florida for New York years ago and with whom she’s reconnected, also on the internet, through a breast cancer survivors’ Facebook group.
After dinner, every night, after the children have been put to bed, upon the recommendation of this naturopath — who was not covered by Medicaid and for whom my husband let his mother charge $1,500 to the only credit card we still have that works — her son, my husband, takes his mother into our room, closes the door, and applies a custom-made mixture to the scars that run horizontal across his mother’s upper body, then wraps fresh bandages over top.
This night, my mother-in-law has drunk more than usual. Her son, my husband, is at his first job interview in three months and I’ve been busy staring at my phone in case he sends a text or calls. While my husband makes a face and shakes his head any time his mother starts to drink too much, she knows I’m horrified of confrontation and has already popped the second bottle of wine before dinner’s been served.
I want to die before the world burns, our six-year-old says to me from the couch with one eye still on the TV show that I’ve let them watch, though we don’t let them watch TV on weekdays.
Honey, I say, looking over at my mother-in-law.
She sits between them. The couch is an Ikea love seat, set against the wall in the small room off the kitchen. The kitchen table sits a few feet from the couch. The apartment is just this room and the two bedrooms off of the long hall off of this room. My mother-in-law, once we’re all in bed each night, turns this love seat into her bed by taking off the back pillows and spreading a sheet over the two bottom cushions, another sheet and a large blanket that she brought from her house over top. Each morning, when my husband and I get up at 5:30 to get ready and make the children’s lunches, she’s already folded her sheets and blanket, eaten a single piece of gluten-free dry toast, and the coffee’s brewed.
The world isn’t going to burn, I say.
My mother-in-law looks at me.
It’s getting warmer, I say.
There will be massive civil unrest, my mother-in-law says.
The four-year-old looks like she might cry, looking at her grandmother. There will be hurricanes with wind forces that we’ve not been able to fathom up till now.
The children look back and forth between me and their grandmother. When they’re awake and she is here, their bodies are never far from hers. They look like her. I’m white, but they have her hair and skin, and, sometimes, when people see us all together — many of the mothers at our children’s school are older and her skin is almost flawless — they assume that she’s their mom.
Most of where your father grew up will be gone.
Do you guys want Brussels sprouts or edamame, I ask the children.
Corn, says the four-year-old.
Corn has hardly any nutrients, says their grandmother.
Corn’s fine, baby, I say.
You have to stop, I say, my whisper too loud.
She looks at me. They should know about the world, she says.
No one’s burning, I say.
The world is changing, I say. I almost tell her everything will be okay but then I don’t.
The insects are disappearing, mommy, says the six-year-old.
The world does not continue to exist without insects, my mother-in-law says.
Stop, I say again.
I fry the frozen dumplings that I know my mother-in-law wants to bring up but doesn’t. These I keep hidden from my husband, beneath the large bags of frozen fruit he gets at Whole Foods, for nights like this when he’s not home. I pour soy sauce over top of the dumplings and put salt and butter in the corn.
The infrastructures of most countries won’t be able to sustain the impact of the changes we’ll experience, says my mother-in-law.
The children look at her and then at me, and the three of them walk over to the table. I bring them each a plate and her a plate, and I kiss both of them on the tops of their heads.
Eat your food, I say.
Please, I say to her.
She smells like wine up close and I can see the bandages on her chest underneath her thin white button-up.
Fine, she says.
What do you girls want to talk about, I say as both of them watch us sit down.
My mother-in-law laughs and I do, too.
We get through dinner. My mother -in-law hardly eats and I watch her staring at the dumplings, thinking about how just before this they were frozen, how I didn’t really make them. I think I’m grateful to her for not saying this out loud.
When she goes, I check my phone for the 3,000th time and see a missed call from my husband. I sit a minute, listening to the children pick a story, listening to her start to read it, then I call.
Your mom’s drunk, I say.
Come home soon?
He’s been trying a long time to get a job and most of the time looks tired and beat down in a way I’ve never seen him. I like the sound of him laughing. I only wish it wasn’t from him drunk and far from us.
He didn’t get it, she says when I hang up.
For a while, my husband made a fair amount of money but it meant he had to travel and be far from us, so he stopped that job. It wasn’t worth it, he said. He started another job, less well-paying; a start-up. He didn’t like it; though he was older than most of his co-workers, he was the most recent hire, so when layoffs came he was the first that they laid off. Now he’s home all of the time and I’m not at all, and I can’t remember how we thought we’d all somehow get to always be together if he didn’t have a job.
My parents had money, I say. And we don’t speak.
When the children were born she stayed with us. For months I dreaded her coming. We had a much smaller one-bedroom apartment when we had our first baby and she tended to exhaust me after half an hour. When she left though, both times, six weeks after each child was born, I cried alone in the kitchen as she hugged my husband and the children, trying to imagine how I’d be able to parent, first at all, and then two children at once, without her there. My husband was traveling, and she cooked for us those weeks. She held and bathed and dressed and kissed the babies. She sat up with me as I nursed and we watched British murder mysteries and she brought me cups of tea and one of the large squares of artisanal dark chocolate that she always seemed to have in her purse.
One night, when the cable went out, and I was still up nursing, she told me about the day she left Saigon. They lived in Gia Dinh, half an hour away. It was April, she said, and hot. Her brother, three years older, had driven from the city center to come get them. Military officers shot at them and F-16s shot down from overhead. Her brother didn’t make it. They were stopped by Northern soldiers and had no papers, and he was shot. He fell down, she said, and we had to run from him. I went to hold him, to try to help him, but my mother pulled me back into the car. She and her mother hid in her brother’s car, it smelled like him, under the seats, another couple of hours, and her mother talked their way onto a ship. People piled over top of one another, she said. We heard them, she said, from the deck of the boat, chanting Ho Chi Minh. We watched them raise the flag. There was no water to drink on the ship, and no shade, a very small amount of rice, and their skin burned and blistered and her lips cracked. She told me her mother hung her own shirt over the side of the boat by a long rope. She pulled it up with both hands, once it was wet, and then used it to slowly, carefully, rub her daughter’s smarting skin. Her brother’s is the name she gave her first born son, my husband, when he was born.
These spineless motherfuckers, she says now, eyes on her phone again.
She whispers the name of the senator from Florida we both hate.
She itches then, up at her chest, and I realize it’s the time of night when my husband usually helps her, when they disappear into our room with a sponge and the roll of bandages.
Do you want ... I say to her. I gesture toward her chest and she looks down.
When we first met, my husband and I, he introduced me to his mother much earlier than any grown man should introduce a woman to his mother. We lived close to her then and he drove me to her house after work. He liked his mother, in a way that felt shocking. That first night, the two of them cooked dinner and I stood on the other side of the bar that separated her small kitchen from her living room and watched them, both their bodies slight but solid, their hands deft with knives and talking the whole time without stopping, standing with their shoulders brushing, comfortably. When we left, she went to kiss me, but I’d balked and leaned away from her as she did so. She’d touched my face then, with both her hands and smiled broadly, not saying anything.
Two weeks ago, we got a phone call from my husband’s brother saying that their mother’s house had been foreclosed on. The bank had sent a moving van and he had gone to oversee the house being cleared out. She was staying with us but said nothing. For thirty years, she was an administrative assistant at the office of a lawyer who retired six years ago, and we all, I think, assumed she’d had some sort of pension, money that she’d put away, from all those years. We’d not been down to stay with her since we had the second baby. She’d been up to stay with us. She lived frugally, we thought. Sometimes, she sent us checks that felt extravagant for how she lived, but also, that money sometimes kept us solvent; we used it for food, shoes for the kids, to pay our rent.
My husband’s brother sent us pictures of the stacks of stuff that had surrounded every room in his mother’s house, books, and newspapers, stacks of photographs, and clothes, and blankets, art supplies. It’s an immigrant thing, his wife told me on a phone call we had later. My husband’s brother’s wife’s family were immigrants as well. They can’t let go of things, she said. But my mother-in-law’s house had been neat and well-kept every time we’d gone to see her in the decade and a half before this. Maybe something’s wrong, I’d whispered at least once to all of them, my husband and his brother and his brother’s wife, but all of them had told me I was wrong. I know her the least of all of them.
At night, the week after we heard she’d lost the house, my husband sat up in bed after she had gone to sleep on the couch in the living room and our bedroom door was closed. Where will she go, he said, his face flat and worried. His brother also does not have much money. I thought, my husband said, I’d be able to take care of her.
My mother-in-law puts the phone down and stands up, and I go to the bathroom. My hands are sticky from the dumplings, the yogurt that I gave the children after. I wash them and fill a bowl with water, get the tincture from over top the sink. To get the children home we have to walk then take the city bus, and my mother-in-law has begun to pick them up. On the bus rides, the six-year-old told me, my-mother-in law lets them watch YouTube videos of female lions — lionesses, said the six-year-old, her shoulders back and smiling — grooming one another on her phone; they pick at one another’s bodies like they’re people; they cup one another’s faces and then pick at and lick one another’s fur; once, they had her show it to me and I couldn’t help but look away. I read that in Rwanda, said my mother-in-law, watching me blanch and go to do the dishes, unable to look too long at the preening lionesses, after the genocide, she said, people opened hair salons. I looked at her, my hands sunk in the sink, not understanding. Touching one another, she said, that was what they had.
She has never been thin but is less solid, her limbs look limper somehow than they ever have. I unroll and reroll the fresh bandage so as not to look at her while she slips off her button-up. She does not speak; her phone is on the couch and separate from her; I wait as she unwraps herself and I finger the glass bottle in one hand. The cap is small and black and I untwist it slowly. The scar is long and jagged and runs the full length of her chest.
Technically she could apply the tincture herself. The naturopath told her it was important that it always be applied by someone else. She points to where the skin is smarting, the red of it brighter, angry, risen more than it is elsewhere. I dip my finger in the tincture and keep my eyes fixed on the place where she has pointed as she wipes the scar clean with the sponge.
In this same room, two nights ago, while my husband was at a coffee that was supposed to lead to job prospects but had instead bled into drinks, my mother-in-law, desperate to talk to me about steel tariffs and the yield curve, stood by our bedroom door as I got dressed after a shower. The children were asleep and she stood at the threshold of our room leaning toward me. She hung onto the doorframe with her free hand, her phone still open to her news app in the other one. I did not grow up in a family where bodies were talked about much less looked at, and I tried to envision how I might close the door without offending or injuring her, but I could not. Instead, as she talked — she didn’t stare at me but also made no effort to avert her eyes — I pulled on my underwear and then my pants, towel tucked around me, chin pressing it into my chest. I had to let it drop to hook my bra. She kept talking, kept not not looking. I pulled a shirt over my head and brushed my hair. You’re too thin, she said an hour later, eyes angled toward her phone.
She holds her arms up and the skin sags below her triceps as I rub along the scar. I can smell the mint from her shampoo, the dumplings, the sweat smell that is my children’s, but also, a new one that is hers.
Another layer, she says.
Below the scar I see her belly, lumped and awkward, but also, her skin is smooth. I rub another layer over top the first. Her skin is hot up close and though the tincture’s cool, I still feel it underneath. I am taller than her, and I breathe only through my nose so as not to have her have to smell my breath. I rinse my hands in the wood bowl and wipe them on my shirt as she lets her arms rest. I wrap the bandage slowly, twice then three times. I have to bend at the waist and to lean forward. I cup her rib cage, with my right hand, as I loop the gauze around her back with my left. I think, after this, I won’t be able, ever, to look at her again. I think, after this, when she’s close to me, maybe I’ll know better what to do with all my limbs.
As she buttons up her shirt, the bandage tightly fastened, I go back into the kitchen to the sink. The drain is clogged and the standing water’s tepid; the texture of the scar, hard and almost scaly, feels stuck, somehow, to my skin. I watch her settle back onto the couch and she starts scrolling. I turn the faucet on and let it get so hot it scalds. I hold my hands underneath it for what feels like a long time, and I watch as they turn red and the tepid water underneath them rises slowly toward my wrists.
Lynn Steger Strong is the author of the novels HOLD STILL and WANT, which will be published by Henry Holt in July 2020. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Guernica, L.A. Review of Books, Lithub, Catapult, and elsewhere. She teaches writing.