Author Archives

Tar Bubbles

Melissa Matthewson | Longreads | November 2019 | 9 minutes (2,451 words)

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

* * *

I used to play with tar bubbles on the pavement in the Missouri suburbs when I was just 5 while my mother watched, or didn’t, from our two-story home. I spent a wealth of time alone as I recall. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing, except that now, as an adult, I love to be solitary in abundance — walking through tall reeds on a lake shore and reading the sky for colors of rose and peach at the edge of night, crouching on one knee, measuring the pronounced shifts of the purpling dark, or surveying the birdhouses for bluebirds, perhaps a few feathers as testimony. In memory, as a child, my mother couldn’t be bothered with me, and so the hours turned. My mother must have thought, Give her a soda and the Beach Boys, her dolls, the second-story window, tar bubbles, she’ll be okay. Now, my daughter asks me when I depart for work or play, “Why do you always leave?” My mother never went away, but she was always absent. 

I was consumed with the bubbles — my favorite thing was to pop them, one by one, just off the sidewalk. There were differences between the beads of tar. Some were more satisfying to burst than others: those that had sufficient air rose firm unlike the already diminished bubbles that had no depth. The heat gave rise to the tar and on the hottest days, the tar bubbles multiplied to my thrill and captivation. Imagine the precision in directing fingers toward the condition of collapse. Such particular attendance to one thing. I’d lay there for hours hoping to find the one that would make me feel less deflated. Less alone. I think I might have gleaned a film of toxic glue in the creases of my skin, but you can’t have back those hours as a child when all that circled in your imagination were the stories of princesses perhaps and orphans and seahorses and Persephone and the quiet boredom of popping, over and over until the afternoon went.  

 It’s quite technical the variety of cracks that break on pavement, and necessary then to fill them with tar, at least it was in 1980: fatigue cracking, reflection cracking, edge cracking too. These terms have definitions, but I’d like to name my own — what is a crack but a split between two things, a fracture, a rupture? Gaps as in the seed head, the space between kernels, the pores of grain and chink of light underneath the doorframe, the interlude of two bodies making love, the burrows in dirt where vermin go, in a field mowed for a path, the separation of wake and dream, the break of keys on a piano. We always want to fill the cracks, seal them with something, anything, to perhaps ease the discomfort and the realization that we are always alone. Maybe to hide the loss that ascends from melody or sad stories. There’s always something that wants to grow in the gaps left behind. A filler: conversation, a weed, music. A way to save ourselves perhaps, but what if we left the gaps open, ajar? What would happen then? 

What is a crack but a split between two things, a fracture, a rupture?

Our Missouri home had Midwestern appeal, the American Dream, on the edge of a wood that to me, at the time, was enormous and churned forth with witches and ugly things, but also beautiful with ochre hickory and ground litter I liked to crunch over with my boots. I liked our deck, with the barbecue and hamburgers and the orioles with a patois of chatter. The long avenue of our staircase ascended to my bedroom where I hid in imagination and play, or where I’d sit at the top of the landing and listen to the adults in the kitchen laughing, whispering, smoking, maybe dancing. We sold the house after a few years — my father wanted the West where he had been born and grown into a man, so that home with its slanted roof and tar bubbles is now nothing but a distance. A longing.  

* * *

I have a daughter of my own, Ava, 8, who is delightfully imaginative and kind, and we spend time together often, so she asks me what happens after you die. Ava, for bird. For life. In Persian, Ava means voice, sound. As sky, heaven, opening. “Do you dream,” she wonders. “I think you return to the earth,” I reply. “Like what? Like a tree? I want to be a tree that doesn’t get cut down,” she answers, not waiting for me to respond. Later, we sit at a pond waiting for her brother and she takes a stick to a dead fish, bloated from the top of the head to neck (say, if a fish had a neck), overwhelmed with water. “Strange,” I say. “I’ve never seen that.” Blue dashers skitter across the pond, dizzying asymmetry and I can’t keep up. It’s hot here. She becomes frightened soon when the fish splashes and jumps suddenly in the pond as she pierces it — and in this unexpected action, she deteriorates, becomes all raw. I’m alone with her, and the breeze is so sudden and lovely on the hot afternoon, that I shush her. “Ava, the wind. Feel it.” Why should she cry — it’s just a fish, but she goes on. “I don’t want nightmares,” she says, and I become galled by her whimpers. I do not soothe her.  


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


There are other such times that my daughter enchants me (or impels me into tangents) with her wisdom, and I pay attention, cultivate an awareness and try my damnedest to listen and at least share in her spellbound fascination with the universe. I try hard not to be my own mother (not to be bothered, but oh, how I do it, and oh, how I hate myself for it). My daughter tells me she wants to live in Alaska during the summer. She was born on a night of heavy rain and loves storms and cold and bitter wind, watching out the window as the deluge saturates our farm, the world, covers all the oaks and orchard grass. She says to no one in particular, but maybe me, “The rain shines like diamonds.” 

She spends hours on the sidewalk one afternoon spreading petals from the cherry tree, making up titles for her installation: The Path That Never Ends, but Fades, or A Heart Exploding. When we live together in our small living room set up against the mountain, she listens to the stories on the radio and I ask her questions, but she’s distracted and not attending to me. She says, “I get lost in my land of over and over again.” 

* * *

When I’m away on one of my trips, the trips Ava complains about, the trips I tell her are important to me, something she’ll understand as she grows older (though, will she resent me for my absence? Even as she stretches her heart thrum through the phone on evenings when I call and we talk and she recites spells and rhymes she’s composed about words and the lines of their path), I watch two girls play by a fountain. 

I try hard not to be my own mother (not to be bothered, but oh, how I do it, and oh, how I hate myself for it).

They are without their mother, or father, or any guardian at all, which is unique and interesting, and they are eating cherries, discussing Montreal and underwear and miniature figurines. The precocious girl explains divorce to her friend in the unicorn helmet, “They are together, but not anymore. It’s like they had me and then —” she breaks and it makes me think of the way we talk to one another in threaded spontaneous associations and how one person will occupy the space more than another, and how we feel inadequate in our own selves because of this. The sky widens into purple as I observe the girls (they could tell I was snooping, but I pretended to look at my book every now and again) and I wonder how a small child understands separation. She is smart, this girl, already beautiful, with dark skin and big eyes, facial gestures that will change every man, every woman’s notion of attraction. Here now at this fountain, can she ever know the other girl in a way that isn’t contrived somehow? How can she reach across the grass and meet her friend? The sky becomes a strange color then, of shadows and gray, and I wonder how to escape the divide between us? Not so these little girls. They seem close enough tonight. As I watch the girls take off across the grass toward home, cherry juice on their lips and cheeks and hands, the fireflies arrive, popping incandescent in the night air. 

I think, I’m everything to my little daughter. The day before I leave for another trip, she follows me around the entire stretch of day and asks that we play her favorite game, the one where she lays on top of me in the side yard on my reclining chair and we listen to the sounds and count all the things we hear. We do this for several minutes until she speaks up and tells me what she has gathered: a scrub jay rustling above in the plum tree, the wind like a tender breath, a car racing by, the boys talking down in the field where they pick greens for salad. “What do I hear?” she wonders. I say, “The same.” Later, she asks that I take her for a walk to the mailboxes and talk, not about anything she says. Just talk. She clutches my hand and tells me about Paris and asks me, “What do you love?” I tell her, “This. I love this.” Upon return, she constructs fairy houses in the garden I tend out front with the sage and rudbeckia, oregano, bee balm and lavender. Little ladders and barns and Playmobil figures. I liken the fairly dwellings to the tar bubbles. I think it is the same attention for those gaps of time when time is everything and nothing at all. I leave them where they are when I sprinkle the garden with water and watch, as over time, they fall apart and she builds new ones. I don’t think my mother was everything to me. It was a consistent wandering away from home that I recall: into the woods, up the drive to the scary homes big with ghosts, places of mystery and riddle, through the Greenbriar to Bethie’s house. Away. Even now, a range I don’t want to cross. 

It’s then I have a terrible dream that wakes me at 3 a.m. I’m at a gathering in a barn loft with lengths of wood as the floor with spaces in between, many large openings revealing the floor beneath. The barn roof slants sharply to the ground. I’m drinking wine and my children are with me, playing, though I don’t seem to have any concern for their safety as they leap around the barn, peeking through the slats into the interstices and cracks. There are women at the party, dressed in elegant garments, but they are unaware of me as they speak to one another. I say, “I’m here, What now?” As I turn my back on the children, the night collapsing into indefinite contours, and raise my glass to the air, there ruptures a shriek, a few I think, eclipsing the tenor of celebration. I turn to see a child, I don’t know who, reach forward to grab my daughter as she slips and falls to the ground and is gone. 

It isn’t long after the dream that Ava discovers I’ll die and there is nothing to stop the tears. She’s young — this will all change — so I hold her, say, “We all die, but not too soon. Not too soon.” We continue to collect our time together in the expression of this new awareness — she sings to me lullabies, tells me stories, and dresses me up in tutus and glittery vests. I go with her when she asks, and if there were tar bubbles on the gravel road, I’d pop them with her. I let the things I don’t know about her stay fastened inside her until she will let me into her secrets, if ever a chance for this. 

On a warm day, I sit with her at the table out back and watch the new season come in like a deep breath: the grass laid out upon the earth, the geese streaming across the sky, the blue heron erupting from the pastures. We lay out a picnic in the yard with a quilt patched in pumpkins and goldenrod and sip lemonade together. I tell her of a time I took her shoes with me on a trip, by coincidence, a pair of pink Mary Janes. I found them stuffed into the pocket of my tote bag, having somehow missed them through packing, airport security. They were small. Shoes for a 3-year-old. I remember I was leaving for two weeks and when I arrived at my destination, I put them on the shelf near my books in my temporary home and consulted them every day as a reminder of who she was and who I was, should that ever disappear. While studying the shoes, I remembered a distant morning when I had come upon a cattle drive in the early reaches of winter near the township of Wisdom, Montana. Men on cow ponies drove the herd over the two-lane road covered in Angus muscle and sweat, the cattle’s highway to winter range and fresh grass, the sounds of thuds and hooves on pavement, the low moos of livestock and an occasional “Haw! Haw!” from the lead. A woman followed behind them all and with her, a bundled baby on the saddle, a pink face poised against the 30-degree wind. Tough and weathered, the woman and baby drew close, calm behind the herd, like a dream. I wanted to ride with them toward the Anaconda-Pintlers across the great plains of Montana and never look back. With them, I wanted to rinse my hands in the Big Hole River and kick my boots against the chutes and fences of the grazing pasture. I wanted to hold onto them forever, reins and sweat and grit and all. I wanted to preserve their fortitude, their fragility. I wanted to preserve their extinction.

I turn to Ava where we mingle in the grass and tell her all this and see the gaps in her teeth as she smiles, like open invitations, and think, maybe there’s something here that tells of our future circumstance, a distance we can’t know until tomorrow.  

* * *

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

* * *

Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in Guernica, DIAGRAM, American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, and The Rumpus among other publications. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is out now from Split Lip Press. She teaches at Southern Oregon University.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Editor: Jacob Z. Gross