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Svetlana Kitto | Longreads | February 2020 | 6 minutes (1,503 words)

Writing the Mother Wound, a series co-published with Writing our Lives and Longreads, examines the complexities of mother love. 

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My parents sat us down on the edge of their bed to tell us they were separating. There was a shimmering hologram sticker of blond-haired and blue-eyed Jesus in a white robe on the door of my dad’s bedside table. I had put my fingers over it many times, trying to take Jesus into my heart like I had seen on TV. Everything I knew about America I learned from TV. Please make sure my mom and dad don’t die before I wake up. Please make sure I don’t get kidnapped like the kid on Growing Pains. Thank you, Jesus. My dad also had pictures of Hindu gods all over the house and a small Buddha statue on top of his dresser, but there was nothing about them on TV. My mom was Latvian and Jewish, but none of that was on our walls. She deferred to my dad’s New Age Englishness, and that was that.

While my parents talked to us, holding our hands and being uncharacteristically gentle, my sister cried, and I felt something inside me warm up. I stared at my mom’s pink suede and snakeskin heels on the shoe rack at the foot of the bed. She didn’t wear them anymore because they “destroyed” her back. I wanted her to wear them so badly! I didn’t want them to hurt her back and I didn’t understand how a back could hurt. My dad’s back had a hurt too, both of them had “bad backs.” I thought this had to do with them being more like old people than young because of all the drugs they had used before getting sober when I was 5. I didn’t understand that my mom was really young. She was a really young person who wanted to be with her friends. 

After my parents separated, my mother moved my sister and me into a tiny one-bedroom on Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood. Down on Sunset Boulevard there was the Laugh Factory and Greenblatt’s Deli and the Coconut Teaser, a place for grown-ups I knew. What did grown-ups do in places? Up the street the other way was Fountain Avenue and the mouth of Laurel Canyon where I went to elementary school, just on top of the hill. After school, I rode my bike up and down our block, and one day, on the corner of Fountain and Laurel, I had my first existential crisis. I looked up at the sky and thought, overwhelmed and slightly horrified: I am me. I was 9. 

It was a Los Angeles childhood so a lot of our time was spent in the car — a beat-up gold Corolla with a Die Yuppie Scum bumper sticker on the back. My grandmother had given my mother the car to help her start her new life, separate from my father. If it was hot, the windows would be rolled down and the AC on. My mom would either be smoking or rolling a cigarette, which she could do with one hand. We would drive all over Hollywood running errands and visiting her friends, many of them sober, some of them still using, almost all of them gay men. All the first people I loved outside of my family were gay men. 

My mom’s best friend, Al Babayan, was the first person close to us to go. He was Armenian and had spent most of his childhood in Glendale in Los Angeles. He had slept with Stephan, who everyone knew had HIV. Al loved the Smiths; he was very sensitive. The first thing he would do when he visited us was check on our German shepherd Maya and make sure she had water. 

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I was very concerned about my mom’s romantic life. On the phone I would hear her say, “I’m just so fucking lonely.” I’d seen her break down in traffic, in the gold Corolla. “Your fucking father. Your fucking selfish father.” And it was true that my dad seemed to be fine, as the months went by piling on the girlfriends who looked nothing like my blond Jewish Latvian mother — women with names like Theresa Sullivan, Shannon O’Donoghue.

All the first people I loved outside of my family were gay men.

Still, I couldn’t understand my mom’s loneliness because she had so many friends and so many people who loved her and, as a result, loved her girls. Eeda and her girls had many places to go on the weekend. In the summer, my mom’s friend Tracy invited us to swim at her parent’s mansion in Santa Monica Canyon. It belonged to Tracy’s mother, who was the famous Hollywood actress Jean Simmons. She was never there when we were so we could play hide-and-seek in all the bedrooms and eat Chicken McNuggets by the pool.  

All of my mom’s friends had a different car to ride around the city in, looking out for meters that had leftover money in them, windows down and air-conditioning on at the same time, music blaring. If it wasn’t classical music, it was Massive Attack or Prince, whom my mom and her friends loved the most. He can play every instrument, Mom said. They were the same age. He’s a genius. You can’t tell if he’s gay or straight and it doesn’t matter, she said. Everyone wants to have sex with Prince. I would rewind the tape to play “Little Red Corvette,” “Kiss,” “I Would Die 4 U” over and over, and we would all sing. I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.

One day, my mom and I were driving to our bank in West Hollywood when I had a brilliant idea.

“Mom!” I said. “Why don’t you just be with a gay man? There are so many that you like!”

My mom paused. “Sleeping with a gay man would be like blowing your brains out with a shotgun right now,” she said gravely into the rearview mirror, shifting the car into park.

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The year Ryan White died, my mother moved us to a new apartment in a gated community called Park LaBrea. She had been promoted at the production house, and we were driving around in a newly leased Volkswagen convertible. Now, Tim or Tracy or Joelle would pile into the car and we would drive to the beach with the top down and the AC on. Al came over to our new place once before he died. He and my mom got into a fight. She knew he had fixed by the burn mark he left on the toilet. “No junkie wants to be told they can’t use,” she said. I remember going to see him in hospice care in Studio City. My sister cried and I thought about our dog, Maya. I wanted to cry so my mom knew I cared.

There was Daniel, whose rich parents bought him a house in Laurel Canyon with a beautiful pool that was like a dark lagoon with jets that pumped warm water. My mom had told me that Daniel’s parents bought him lots of things because they felt guilty, because they had never accepted their gay son and now he was going to die. Daniel’s skin was pocked, which I associated with his HIV, but I later learned they were actually acne scars. Daniel took lots of pictures of Eeda and her beautiful daughters by the pool and told me I looked like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. 

There were people who were friends of both my parents. Tim McGowan was one, and with him my mother’s relationship was a little rockier, probably because it was too much based in a shared bitterness toward my father. There was Bruce Almeda, a pastry chef from the South who called my dad Ma Bell because he was always on the phone. There was my dad’s friend Jimmy Drinkovitch who planned to commit suicide before he got really sick. He made a promise to his lover that if he killed himself he would tell him first so that they could go together. But in the end he didn’t tell him.

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With the deaths of Al and Daniel, my mom had lost her two closest friends. When she was working as an editor on the movie Mo’ Money, she met a successful music supervisor, who was also her boss. She wasn’t interested in him at first. But he wouldn’t leave her alone, she said. And eventually: He has nice calves, and he’s nothing like your father. He wanted her to quit her job and let him take care of all of us. Soon we were living with him and his two sons in a big house that wasn’t ours in Santa Monica. My mom started drinking again in secret. I was a teenager so I wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. I started drinking too.

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Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:

‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
Tar Bubbles, by Melissa Matthewson
‘To Be Well’: An Unmothered Daughter’s Search for Love, by Vanessa Mártir
Witness Mami Roar, by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
Leadership Academy, by Victor Yang

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Svetlana Kitto is a writer and oral historian in NYC. Her writing has been featured in The Cut, Hyperallergic, New York Times, Guernica, and VICE. She’s currently working on a novel called Purvs, which means “swamp” in Latvian and is the name of the country’s first gay club.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross