To know my mother is to have had her ask you the question, “Would you stop bathing for an entire year for a million dollars?”
The way you might envision wrinkled Italian nonas clutching a Bible and a fistful of oregano as they scurry through a roadside market, my mother held close her copy of “The Book of Questions.” My formative years were spent studying my pores in a mirror while fielding inquiries such as, “If getting an enormous tattoo could save another’s life, would you do it?” In those moments, I’d have tattooed a squid riding an alpaca if it would have covered my T-zone.
As I waded through my high school homework assignments, my mother would peer creepily from behind a door, “Someone you love is brutally murdered and you know the identity of the killer, who goes acquitted. Do you seek revenge?”
My childhood was like being a permanent guest on the “Sally Jessy Raphael” show.
My mom, with cue cards and red-framed glasses perched on her nose, always was ready to delve into the intimate. No person or setting was off limits. She asked fellow PTA members if they’d injure small animals to absolve their debt. She probed grocery store baggers as to their willingness to disappear into the night, never to be heard from again, to live in prosperity in a Mexican palapa where margaritas flow from the bathroom faucets.
On my first date with the man who would become my husband, I leaned toward him, narrowed my heavily lined lids, and asked in a sultry whisper where in the world he would choose to live if he had no material concerns to consider. He met my gaze and bluntly returned, “I don’t think about counterfactual situations.”
My whole life had been constructed on a foundation of “what if” and “if you could.” I needed air. I needed space. I needed a dictionary to confirm what the hell counterfactual meant.
Soon after Greg and I became engaged and I was preparing my mother to meet him, I pleaded with her to surrender the interrogatories for their first encounter. No “What crime would you commit if it added years to your life?” No “Which sibling would you sacrifice if it guaranteed long lives for the others?” And certainly no “Would you have relations with a primate if it would result in a cure for cancer?”
My mom slumped in her seat, face wearied, as if I had told her that she no longer would be allowed to breathe air.
“What are we going to talk about?” she whined.
Weather. Flower arrangements. The Kennedy era. “The Apprentice.” SUVs. 401ks. Luftballoons. What are Luftballoons?
Nearly eight years after their first meeting, my mom has learned to communicate with Greg in a language they both can speak. There are still times she appears to be a hesitant backpacker in a strange land, straining to speak to the locals without glancing at her phrase book. Like polite foreigners, they use a lot of sweeping hand gestures and compliment each other’s cuisine and favorable public transit.
Even Greg and I are still working out the nouns and verbs in our lexicon. It’s difficult to override a childhood spent with Madame Slovinka ruminating over nonexistent possibilities, particularly when situations arise that set the section of my brain made of fortune cookies firing on all cylinders.
For instance, I recently noticed a bill fluttering in the grassy shoulder of the grocery store’s parking lot. Twenty dollars sitting there with a come-hither wave that I was powerless to resist. As I contemplated the half tube of mascara I could buy with $20, the kids demanded a sample of the blueberries we had bought. I fished out the basket when I noticed an object that — I’d be willing to bet — never has been found in a blueberry basket by anyone else: a die. Not a pair of dice, just the one.
In the space of five minutes, the universe had handed me $20 and a die. Clearly a higher being was trying to impart something of importance to me, something having to do with slot machines and rhinestones.
My mind spun with images of shrimp cocktail and yachts with landing pads. By the time I shared my discoveries with Greg, I had forgotten that I was dealing with the Anti-Hypothetical and already had doused myself in glitter and was scouring the Web for a flight to Vegas. I told him of my loot in a shrieking tone. He stared at me with eyes that were half closed until he said, “That’s weird. But you can’t go to Las Vegas because I have a business trip this week.”
My mother, as you might imagine, was dumbstruck by the auspicious items I had come to find. She couldn’t go to Vegas the next morning either, but she insisted we both continue to eat an all-blueberry diet until more divine riches were revealed. I just hope my payout arrives soon before I have to explain to Greg about my hypothetical color job that just ran me a hypothetical $200.
Erin Donovan moved with her family to the midcoast area where she constantly is told she says the word “scallops” incorrectly. She performs live and produces Web sketches derived from her popular humor blog I’m Gonna Kill Him. Follow her misadventures on imgonnakillhim.com and on Twitter at @gonnakillhim.