My Sweet Dandelion

Olena Jennings

My mother is always losing the mates to her shoes. She returns late at night. When I get up for a glass of water, I find her passed out on the couch, one shoe lonely on the floor. 

By the time the sun comes up, she is already sitting in the chair that I sat in when I had tea parties as a child. I like to watch the kids come home from the clubs, she says, exhaling Marlboro smoke.

I have to remember it was my choice to come live with her in Manhattan. I could have stayed with my father in the suburbs, but her life seemed more interesting. She was always talking about the parties. Once she ended up coming home with Noah Baumbach's leather jacket.

She takes me to the same parties. We go shopping at Bloomingdale's beforehand and buy a new dress each time. She is hoping we will appear in the society pages, so we have to look perfect. She spends an hour in the bathroom putting creams on her face before the black car from the limo service comes to pick us up. You are in high school, she says as if she has forgotten this fact. I ask her to hire a tutor for me. I want someone steady in my life, a grad student studying for comprehensive exams.

Later, when the parties become a chore, I stay in my bedroom, a room in a tower that has stairs leading to the roof. She comes in the late mornings, when she is vulnerable from lack of sleep, when it is easy to love her. I heard about my mother's childhood: cocaine before her first sip of alcohol and boyfriends who let her drive their motorcycles. By the time she was my age, she was thinking, My life has already been lived.

Then she met my father. He showed her a world full of windshield wipers in need of replacing, dentist appointments to be kept, and Sunday papers that made the mornings smell of ink.

She wasn't in love with him. She was in love with everyday life. Now my mother spends a lot of time with Gary the architect. He rebuilt the apartment. He knew which walls to knock down, which trimmings to preserve, and how she would prefer sleeping.

He arrives on his bicycle with the basket in front. He never kisses me on both cheeks like he kisses everyone else. Gary and my mother go out. They see Ozzie Osborne and Rob Zombie at Madison Square Garden. She pays for front row seats. They take pictures of each other until the usher threatens to confiscate the camera. 

Help me hang up my new poster, I call to Gary, already holding Monet's water lilies against the wall. Later, my mother calls. They are putting fake grass in the living room instead of carpeting. I was suffocated, she says, and Gary came up with a solution. It will feel like we're outside.

Eventually, she runs out of projects. Gary no longer visits. My mother doesn't get out of bed for a week. I bring her the foods she likes—vanilla ice cream, sushi, tangerines—but she never eats them and I can't prevent the room from smelling like greasy hair and morning breath. I want to lie down next to her, but she repulses me. If I get too close, I will become just like her.

One day when I come home from school, she is up and dressed. Vitamin Water is in her hand and her sheets are across the street at the dry cleaners. She says she is going to produce a film.

How did you decide this? I ask. Gary's friend is making the film, she says. Oh. I don't ask her if she talked to Gary. When she comes home from the meeting with the director, I wake up because I can hear her stumbling around. I go to lead her to her bedroom, but the sheets are still at the drycleaners.

She sleeps on the couch. I expect her to sleep in. She is up before me though, her body squished into one of the little chairs. The breeze from the window ruffles her skirt. It's cold, I say. I close the window. Like a child protesting, she opens it again. Fine, I say, catch cold. She looks at me sadly. Her eyes are large like a fawn's.

I don't know how to save you, I think. She looks out into the street. There is a man that looks so much like Gary with his curly black hair that I am sure she mistook him for her lost friend. By the time the movie is being made, she spends most of her time on the set. There is murder and once she comes home with fake blood underneath her fingernails. I became old while I was with Gary, she says. He is always creating, always giving birth in his own way. His architecture is his baby. She is fixated on the idea of birth. She likes to look at my baby pictures and at herself next to me. Her platinum blond hair was out of control. Her nails were long and she wore purple lipstick. 

Her obsession with babies causes her to let me keep the stray kitten that I find on the road when she forgets to pick me up from school. It is so small that I hardly notice it. She can't stop commenting on how much it looks like one of the kittens that was born on her childhood farm. It reminds her of her short childhood. Her childhood is the reason I let her call me a good girl. I am mute, pale against her. I test the warm milk on my wrist before putting it in the bowl for the kitten to lap up. My mother laughs at me. You're like a child playing house, she says, but when she goes for a walk she brings back miniature clothes. Those are made for dogs, I say. She forces a pink sweater on the kitten we name Dandelion. The name comes from another moment in her childhood when she lay in a lawn full of dandelions. Her father had neglected to remove them because he was too busy composing music.

I convince her I should go to New Zealand to save the whales. I could go back to my father's house, but he is having a new baby. My room is covered with the pastels that have always made me nauseous. She becomes so jealous of my ability to escape that she starts to take it out on the kitten. When I ask her to feed it, she forgets. It stands in front of the kitchen cabinet where we keep its food and cries. I'm sorry, she says, but she doesn't mean it.

One night when I find her in tears near the open window, I call my father. I didn't know who else to call, I say. I think I can already hear the baby screaming in the background. I hang up. I stare at the phone, waiting for him to call back. He doesn't. He is angry that I took my mother's side against his, but I am convinced that he is the one that made her this way. Don't sacrifice yourself for a man, she says. She is speaking from experience. Her life hangs on a thin thread.

I close the door and put in ear plugs. My mother moans. I regret that I left the kitten with her. I cover myself with the comforter. My body is still with fear. When I am convinced of the silence upstairs, I worry that I might find her crumbled on the sidewalk like the kitten.

In the morning, the kitten brushes against my legs and my mother apologizes. I love you, she says. It's important for you to go save the whales, she says. I want to tell her that I'm not interested in saving the whales. I want to get away from her. I made a terrible mistake moving to the city. Now I can't have my father back. You look like me when I was younger, she says.

In the end, I leave her with the kitten. She holds it up to her face to take a picture like she once held me. This time she has crow's feet around her eyes and her hair is dyed. I want to take it with me, but I can't leave her alone. My sweet dandelion, she says. She lights a cigarette, walks me to the door, and starts picking at the dead flowers that stand in the hall. There is a moment in our parting when I want to kiss her on the lips like a lover. 

She is my reflection. I want to devour it. I press my lips to her cheek instead.

My sweet dandelion, she says.


Olena Jennings

Olena Jennings completed her MFA at Columbia University and her MA at the University of Alberta. She is the author of the poetry collection "Songs from an Apartment," the chapbook "Memory Project" and her translations from the Ukrainian have been published in Poetry International, Poetry International Web, Chelsea, and the Wolf. Her translation with Oksana Lutsyshyna of Artem Chekh’s Absolute Zero was released in 2020 by Glagoslav and her novel Temporary Shelter is forthcoming in 2021 from Cervena Barva Press. Olena's feature articles and book reviews can be found on KGB Bar Lit, Fanzine, and the Millions. She is also the founder and curator of the Poets of Queens reading series.

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