"But I saw you there," she'd say.
No, we'd tell her in unison, shaking our heads. It must have been two other boys. Two other boys who looked just like us.
"But--" she'd begin, and her face would seize for a moment in confusion before clearing. "It must have been," she'd say uncertainly, and look down at her plate.
This exchange occurred several times a month. It was a game for us, but an unsettling one. Was our mother playing along? But the look that crossed her face--of real worry, of fear that she was, as we said back then, not right, that she was unable to trust or believe her sight or memory--seemed too real, too spontaneous. We chose to believe that she was acting, for the alternative, that she was mad or, worse, genuinely moronic, was too frightening to contemplate seriously. Later, in our room, Owen and I would imitate her ("But--but--but--it was you!") and laugh, but afterward, lying in our beds, silent, considering the game's implications, we were troubled. We were young, but we both knew (from books, from our peers) what a mother was expected to do--to chastise, to teach, to instruct, to discipline if necessary--and furthermore, we both knew our mother was not fit for those tasks. What, we wondered, would we grow up to become under such a woman? Why was she so incapable? We treated her like most boys would treat small animals: kindly when we were feeling happy and generous, cruelly when we were not. It was intoxicating to know we had the power to make her shoulders relax, to make her lips part in an uncertain smile, and yet also to make her turn her face down, to make her rub her palm quickly against her leg, which she did when she was nervous or unhappy or confused. Despite our concerns, we never spoke of them aloud; the only discussions we had about her were tinged with derision or disgust. Worry pulled us closer to each other, made us ever bolder and more obnoxious. Surely, we thought, we would push her to a point where the real adult she'd kept cloaked so well would reveal itself. Like most children, we assumed all adults were naturally imbued with a sense of intimidation, of authority.
Besides her lack of substance, there were fundamental ways in which my mother might be considered a failure. She was a slipshod cook (her steamed broccoli was rubbery, its florets bristling with the crunchy carcasses of minuscule unseen beetles, her roasted chicken squeaky with blood) and an only occasional housekeeper--our father had bought her a vacuum cleaner, but it sat neglected in the coat closet until Owen and I one day dissected it for its parts. Nor did she seem to have any interests. We never saw her reading or writing or painting or gardening, all pastimes that we (even then) knew were of intrinsic worth and interest. On summer afternoons, we'd sometimes find her sitting in the living room, her legs tucked under her girlishly, a silly smile on her face, staring fixedly yet vacantly at a vast constellation of dust motes made visible by a stripe of sunlight.
Once I saw her praying. I went into the living room one afternoon after school and found her on her knees, her palms pressed together, her head lifted. Her lips were moving, but I couldn't hear what she was saying. She looked ridiculous, like an actress playing to an empty theater, and I was embarrassed for her. "What are you doing?" I asked, and she looked up, alarmed. "Nothing," she said, startled. But I knew what she was doing and knew too that she was lying.
What else can I say? I can say she was vague, drifty, probably even stupid. But here I must also say that she has remained an enigma to me, which is a difficult thing for any human to accomplish. And there are other things I remember of her as well: she was tall, and graceful, and although I am unable to recollect the specificities of her face, I know she was somewhat beautiful. An old, blurred sepia photograph Owen has hanging in his office confirms this. She was probably not considered as beautiful then as she would be now, for her face was ahead of her times--long, white, startled: a face that promised intelligence, mystery, depth. Today she would be called arresting. But my father must have considered her very beautiful, for I can think of no other reason that he might have married her. My father, when he spoke to women at all, enjoyed well-educated women, though he did not find them in any way sexually appealing. I assume this is because intelligent women reminded him of his sister, Sybil, who was a doctor in Rochester and whom he admired enormously. So he was left with beauty. It disappointed me when I discerned as an adolescent that my father had married my mother only for her beauty, but this was before I realized that parents disappoint us in many ways and it is best not to expect anything of them at all, for chances are that they won't be able to deliver it.
Excerpted from The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. Copyright © 2013 by Hanya Yanagihara. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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