What Is Yours Is Yours

是你的就是你的,不是你的就不是你的. That’s what my mother always told me. What is yours is yours, what is not yours is not yours. Once, she backed her silver 1994 Honda CRV over a man she didn’t want to love, but he came back to her on his knees, with subtracted teeth and a titanium spine but the same two fists, the same mouth misted over with mosquitoes. She told me this was the way it was, that you could hail-Mary your baby out of an eighth-story window and it would return to you as a man with your name fish-hooked through his lip or as a bald-assed moon to rope down and wig with your own hair: there was no getting rid of what belonged to you. You could try to get rid of a recurring dream by sleeping with an onion between your knees, or you could try to abandon the dog your daughter brought you instead of a grandchild, but the dream will dye every day into night and the dog will follow you as a fart, tethered forever to your ass. Once, my mother flayed a mole off my chin, a pearl sauced in blood, but it regrew the next month on the tip of my tongue, a territory I couldn’t taste from, a scar where I used to be fluent in salt. My fault, my mother said, for trying to take what is yours, even the ugly things. She said some of us inherit our mothers’ ugliness, and some of us inherit invisibly, only learning later what we were not responsible for, perpetual nosebleeds, forgetting god’s name, a desire to gnaw the inedible rinds of melons.    

And you could want, want with all the air in your bones, for something to steer you: a good man, a green card, a god, the CA lotto number, but if it wasn’t already yours, it would never be. If you were not meant to live in a beach house or straighten your teeth or look good with a perm. If you were not meant to be loved in this country or eat meat or marry for money. Sometimes it was better that way, to know the borders of what was yours and love it anyway, the way my mother’s sister loved her son despite the woman he killed, despite the daughter he orphaned, despite the time he broke into my room and threatened me onto my knees with a wrench. What he took that night was nothing that belonged to me. It was better to know the exact dimensions of your death, to know what radius to live within: my mother’s mother used to draw a circle in the dirt for her daughters to play inside. When they tried to leave it, wanting to climb the trees where laundry hung heavy as bodies or ride the water buffalo with tusks wide as their waists, my mother’s mother drew the circle again with her heels, deeper and narrower, and said every time you leave I’ll shrink it, take this as a lesson, one day this circle will close around you like a noose, I won’t permit even air inside you, so learn now: some places are not born to be yours.

My mother can tell the weather with her tongue. She tastes a flood in Maine, the salty palm of a hurricane mishandling Florida, drought everywhere else. Even now, she calls me about the trees downed in California, the mudslides in Washington, even though I’m only a city away from her. I live now with a woman who could narrate the weather channel, her hair bright as a licked dime, her anklebones I suck like salted nuts. When I tell my mother no, I’m alive, there is no hail here, no rain either, no mountains for the mud to run from, my mother asks me if I remember the summer it rained for nineteen days straight, unstitching the seams of ants that sewed the street to her mouth, and how the ceiling was needled with so many leaks, we ran from room to room with our hands out, trying to catch the rain like coins, our mouths open to swallow what the sky owed us. And afterward, even the sofa floated up, the one our grandfather had a heart attack on, the one with the cushions carved out and re-stuffed with plastic bags full of half-dollars.

The carpet rippled like a river-bottom, nippled with mushrooms we knew would poison us but that we plucked and rinsed and ate anyway, and as we waded naked through the water, my mother unhooked a mirror from my door and rode it like a silver surfboard. Drowned mice bobbed belly-up in the water. And we laughed, slapped down onto the water belly-first, paddled through the retired rain, sorting out what was ruined and what was salvageable, laying everything on the driveway to dry, the shining archaeology of our lives. Then the rain emptied us again that night, flooding everything we’d set out, and in the morning we walked out among our things, our dresses in confetti, the microwave a nest for crows, the curtains my grandmother stitched knives into, and laughed at ourselves, at what we thought had been over. What is not yours is not yours, my mother said, licking my salt-spangled forehead, my hair honed blacker than hers. Then what is ours? I might have asked, and she nodded at the sky and said what we have survived.

Originally published in The West Review, Winter 2020 Issue. Reprinted here by permission of the author.