My mom is hard to miss. She’s recognizable by her handmade skirts and Birkenstocks, by her playlists that range from Sinead O’Connor to Maroon 5. I can find her at night by the glow of Candy Crush on her phone screen. In grocery stores I track her by her sneeze: explosive, cathartic, followed by a “Whew! Thank you!” to all the people who offer a “bless you.”
When I was seven, I went to a birthday party at Inflatable Wonderland in the mall. After diving into the ball pit and getting lost in the maze, I realized suddenly I didn’t know where I was. Right as I started to panic, I saw a half-drunk diet Coke at the top of a staircase. I relaxed. It was a sign: your mom is here!
My concept of diet Coke was so entangled with what I knew about my mom that it never occurred to me that the drink could belong to someone else. And this time, it didn’t: when I ran up the stairs I spotted my mom, an arms’ length away from the clear plastic bottle, chatting with her friends and eating cake.
When I was thirteen and aching for independence, my mom would let me walk to Sonic with my friends. “You can use this money to get something for all of you,” she said, handing me ten dollars. “Just please get me –”
“Route 44 diet Coke, easy ice, regular cherry flavoring,” I said. “I know.”
My mom has drunk Coke religiously for my whole life, but every few years she decided that she needed to quit. This usually coincided with the end of a road trip; after an eighteen hour drive, followed by a week of Thanksgiving with my dad’s parents and a dozen holiday-hyper cousins, it’s no wonder that her veins flowed with more caffeine than blood by the time we returned home.
Mom insisted that she could quit cold turkey just by refusing to keep Coke in the house. For two days she drank milky coffee and complained. Soon we started dropping by the gas station to pick up a Coke every time we left the neighborhood. By the time the attendant knew her name, we were stocking twelve-packs in our pantry once again.
When I was seventeen I was dating a boy whose parents thought that artificial sweeteners were the devil. I came home from his house praising agave syrup and Medjool dates, and no one in my family would eat anything I baked for a month.
My mom asked me to get her a Coke from the store and I brought her a plastic bottle with a green label. “Coke Life!” I told her. “Sweetened with stevia! It’s so much better for you than aspartame.”
I didn’t know why stevia was supposed to be better than aspartame. Honestly, I didn’t care. I just cared about being right. (More accurately: I cared about proving her wrong).
When I took precalculus, I would rather fail my homework assignment than admit that she knew how to get the right answer. When she told me to wear sweatpants, I wore shorts. We fought about Coke; we fought about everything. She was the biggest figure in my life and I resented her for it.
A month before I left home, I convinced myself that my family’s method of storing food in the fridge was the single biggest disgrace I had ever witnessed. I waited until my mom left for a weekend trip, and in her absence, I pulled out all the food and the drinks and the cracked plastic shelves. I threw away limp celery and fuzzy mayonnaise. I wiped up crusted-on ketchup and spilled pickle juice, and I brushed out freezer-burnt peas and inexplicable crumbs. I used so much cleaning spray that when I breathed in, I tasted vinegar.
When I was finished, I made labels for every shelf to ensure that my new, superior organizational method would last forever. The bottom drawer became CHEESES, the middle shelf became MEAL PREP, and the top left corner — permanent home of a twelve-pack of Cokes and the occasional beer — became TOXIC WATER. Mom would know to laugh at this, I was pretty sure; just in case, I gave her a hug when she opened the front door, and my best don’t-be-mad-at-me smile.
After I moved out, I came home to visit early one Sunday morning. My dad scrambled eggs and my brother clattered around making his massive pre-workout smoothie, tripping on overgrown feet and grabbing ingredients from shelves I couldn’t reach. I was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping tea and feeling self-righteous.
“Guys,” I said, “Mom keeps saying she’s going to stop drinking Coke but every time she goes to HEB she gets more. Why can’t she just stop buying it? It’s not that hard!”
There was a long pause. My brother broke it by clapping Dad on the shoulder and saying, “I’ll let you take this one, Pops.”
My dad leaned against the stovetop, turning his back to the eggs. He uses this very specific voice when he talks to me about my mom. It’s kind of soft, like, I know you don’t understand this right now, and that’s okay, but can you maybe at least act as if you do?
“Have you considered the possibility that your mother might, perhaps, be a flawed human being?” he said. “That maybe her aspirations don’t always line up with her reality? Like all of us?”
“Yeah — well,” I said. I took a bite of toast. “I know. I’m just saying.”
My mom can throw me into a rage just by adjusting the strap of my tank top. We’ve gotten into fights about everything from swimsuit bottoms to plastic wrap. Sometimes just a single word — the intonation of an “oh,” the pitch of a “fine” — is enough to make one of us throw up our hands and storm away.
After our worst fights — after I say things to her I didn’t even know I was capable of thinking — I’ll slam the door or hang up the phone and think about how justified I am, how unreasonable she is, how I’m the virtuous one here and how she’s just being infuriating.
Fifteen minutes later I miss her. I scroll through Instagram to distract myself and I find myself bookmarking pictures of bullet journals and rumpled linen because I know I’ll want to show her when we’re friends again.
The only thing I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling is the thrift shop scene in the movie Lady Bird. Lady Bird and her mom stand side by side, flicking through the squeaky hangers and bickering furiously in whispers — “Stop yelling!” “I’m not yelling!” — and then her mom holds up a dress and instantly all is forgotten. “It’s perfect!”
Three months after I moved out and settled into my own apartment, I broke my foot. For three days I told myself it was a stress fracture and gritted my teeth, stumping painfully up and down the narrow staircase.
On Sunday night I called my parents. On Monday, I went to the doctor. The nurses sent me home with a gray plastic storm-trooper boot and dire warnings of possible surgery. It was a nonunion, they explained: after the bone had fractured, it had closed over itself, sealing each broken half rather than growing threads to bridge the gap.
When I found out that I would have to wear the boot for two months — that for two months I couldn’t return to my job, my house, the life I’d just started living — I cried in the car outside the doctor’s office.
While I wept my mom made plans. She arranged for a friend to drop off crutches and a knee scooter. She moved my dad’s home office upstairs and made me a bed on the futon. She researched orthopedic surgeons and bone growth stimulators, and she kept heating pads and ice packs in a constant rotation around my foot.
She also got me a dozen books from the library and two new pillows from IKEA. She bought me vanilla almond milk, ginger kombucha, and two different kinds of tea. At home she sat next to me, alternately offering suggestions — “Are you ready for some optimism now?” — or keeping me company in my gloom.
And now, I’ve been here for nearly a month. It’s afternoon. I close the curtains in the living room and turn on the lamp, settling down on the couch. Mom comes downstairs and opens the fridge. I hear the familiar pop-hiss as she opens the can, followed by a sip and a sigh.
When she sits down beside me, I hold out my hand. She gives me the can.
It tastes delicious.