99 Problems

Published on November 19th, 2020 | by Carla Rachel Sameth


Social Distance

Consistency was never my forte.

My son, Raphael, comes to visit one morning and after eating, our masks are still removed, still lying facedown on the table, and we sit around six-feet apart, the not magic of not quite six.

He is in the blue living room chair, which our cat, Princesa, usually stakes out. Knowing he’d be here with me today, the waking-up-to-a-long-day alone jolt was held at bay; my wife is at work. As I pass by his chair, he grabs my hand and holds on tight, leaning his head against me. I grip back, and miraculously, neither of us let go. With my other hand, I stroke his luscious soft curls, still my baby boy, but a young man, twenty-four and a half. Fuck the rules, we try to wear our masks, stay a proximity of the prescribed distance apart indoors, keep the windows open so air will move, though we long for AC in the sweltering heat. Over 100 degrees. But fuck the rules, I never was consistent I guess; we always keep getting drawn closer by the mother-son magnet. Call it an umbilical cord, call it what you want, there’s no pulling away when he holds my hand; I won’t do what I did that first visit of lockdown. When he reached out to hug me goodbye. And I—recoiled.

Photo by Ilona Panych on Unsplash

“Are people always trying to touch your hair?” I ask. I’m not comparing myself to the white strangers that like to touch Black hair, but I know that happens.

“Yes, but this isn’t…” We know, this is not that. But his beautiful hi-top hair is perhaps a moving target for some. For me, it’s intoxicating time travel back to mothering a younger son, that sweet musty top of the head smell. It’s knowledge of how precious and rare these tactile moments are. It’s failing to come up with any metaphor for the heaven that is a mother’s hand gripped by her son’s. Leaning into our love for each other, I’ve trapped this moment under a jar like those huge orange and black monarch butterflies that showed up this season, flitting about, strutting their stuff. Actually, I’d never trap those butterflies, they are made for freedom. And this love is not meant for constraint either.

“Do you know I can stalk you on Spotify?” I say.

“No, I didn’t,” he says and I point out the running list on Spotify that shows us what all our “friends” are listening to.

“You were listening to ‘Brighter Days’ by Cajmere with Dajae.” I try to impress him with my musical acumen but I bungle the names and am not sure who is the singer and who produced or wrote it. Of course he knows and corrects me gently.

I tell him that I wondered if he was feeling sad and longing for better days. He’s just returned from a road trip to Portland, Oregon. I don’t say how hearing the lyrics, my heart seized up with lurking mother worry that he might be soaking in despair. Never ending virus. Another Black man killed by police. Pasadena Anthony McClain. News cycle aging him prematurely. He’s not excited about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris though of course he’ll vote for them. He hoped for more inspired changes.

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

Being a rebel but also a wanna be rule follower, and in deference to my wife and trying to stay safe, I’ll sanitize the bathroom after he leaves, think about washing the floors later. Throw the cloth napkin I gave him to use into the laundry. Throw the bathroom hand towel into the laundry in case he used it. Close all the doors, turn on the air. Wonder what’s next. Give into the brutal loneliness after he leaves, make a gratitude list about all that’s good in my life and why I shouldn’t grieve. Or stare at the poem I’m editing again, trying to see if the magic will leap onto the page. Or off of it. Princesa will sit sentry beside me, meditate and attend readings. My wife will call; I will laugh at her corny gifs and ask about dinner. In the beginning of the pandemic I got creative and prepared recipes from the New York Times Sunday paper like “Linguine with Chickpeas, Broccoli and Ricotta” and improvised mango banana raspberry bread that fell flat. We don’t sanitize the groceries the way we did in the spring anymore, wipe down every surface; but we also don’t shop or eat the way we did. My wife says she wants to go back to her bachelor diet, simple bland protein; she’s gained too much weight. Less inviting food, the less she’ll consume. I’ve lost weight, while she’s at work. I’m home and don’t get hungry alone.

Over the years, I’ve learned how hard it is to figure out what keeps our children safe and healthy: when we most need to hang on and stay close and when letting go, with love, is most indicated.  And what keeps us, the parents, well?  What happens when what we crave the most, the touch of our children, whatever age, is also what could make us or them sick?

I just know for a few minutes that feel like hours, I relish my hand on my son’s head, other hand tightly held by his. I remember being a single mom with an infant son, the Winnie the Pooh blankets, a tool-patterned quilt made for us by the participants of a women’s pre-apprenticeship training program I led, the glider rocking chair, nursing until we’d both fall asleep, looking out on the San Gabriel mountains, wondering how we’d survive but knowing we were golden in that moment. Bathing in the milky sweet-sour smell and the held together drowsiness that said it doesn‘t matter right now, we’ll think about all the rest in the morning. Somehow like this moment, about twenty-three years later, breathing in each other’s presence.

Photo by Liviu Florescu on Unsplash

Then we let go of each other’s hands. I sit down away from him, on the couch, and later I hand him a book of baby pictures from right after he was born. And yes, he’s probably seen it before, but I hope there aren’t too many pictures of my enormous engorged breasts, just little baby Rafi, and all those that love him, aunts, grandparents, friends, cousins, his dad, and me. Everyone taking a turn to hold the new baby.

I hear that there are measures for calculating risk based on distance apart, touch, masked or unmasked contact. What is the data for measuring the effect of separation from those with whom we feel the most connection? I am not regretful any more about too much contact with him in these pandemic times. I’ll take my chances and I get that his bubble is a bubble bath of his friends, friends’ friends, his father and his father’s wife and all the rest. My bubble is mixed with my wife’s bubble and the assholes she works with in the unnamed city warehouse where many don’t practice social distancing or wear masks. Even when she asks them to step back.

“We need to be better about masks and distance,” my son and I tell each other and he nods in agreement.

“I know, Mom.”

Feature photo (rocking chair) by Fuad Obasesan

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About the Author

Carla Sameths memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, was published July 2019 and her chapbook, What Is Left is forthcoming (Oct./Nov. 2021) with dancing girl press. Her writing on blended/unblended, queer, biracial and single parent families appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including: The Rumpus, MUTHA Magazine, Brain/Child, Narratively, Longreads, Brevity Blog, Entropy, Angels Flight Literary West, Anti-Heroin Chic, Global Poemic, Full Grown People, and The Nervous Breakdown. Carla’s work has been twice named as Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays. A Pasadena Rose Poet, a West Hollywood Pride Poet, and a former PEN Teaching Artist, Carla teaches creative writing to high school and university students, and has taught incarcerated youth. She lives in Pasadena with her wife. https://carlasameth.com/

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