Mom’s favorite trick was taking out her pulse and letting it shake the foundation to the core. Our house never reacted well to the occasion. The ceiling spawned anxious, gaping cracks and the walls throbbed and agonized to the unsparing progress of a marching band. The furniture knocked us about like angry fathers in a game of squash. We were often sandwiched between the fridge and the TV. It was mayhem.
Mom could keep alive without her heart beat for an impressive four minutes and ten seconds. By the end of it, we were always begging her to stop, for her welfare as much as ours. A pulse doesn’t look like anything, but you can feel it inside your skull and all the way down to the last nerve in your little toe. Imagine becoming your little toe, throbbing like the ocean tide. It sounds fun until you try it on for size.
When we were little, we carried nets. We wanted to catch her pulse, like you’d catch a butterfly, and Mom laughed, thumping her empty chest, singing a song about stealing a woman’s heart.
Later on, when we started going to school, we used to forget to take out our earplugs in class and the other kids would ask funny questions. We made up a lie that our father was a DJ who had to play loud techno music all day for practice, even though he was probably pretty silent in his grave. The kids thought we were deaf and dumb. Sometimes, we were. The earplugs never helped, anyway.
If she was in a good and loving mood, Mom’s concerts could be the best feeling in the world. We lay on the floor, soaked and ragged and vulnerable to the earthquake, and we didn’t care that we were getting older. Her pulse wasn’t just beat, there was music too: a sort of dissonant, biological ballad, the sound our bodies make inside out, like being inside the thorax when the surgeon performs the complicated bypass. Mom combined the clinical with the club scene. She made us not want to leave the house to go dancing because anything outside these beats was lackadaisical.
One day, child services tried to take us away because we were having too much fun. The adults who came to our rescue ended up staying, joining our pilgrimage on the floor, dazed and awash with emotion.
“First time?” I’d ask a custodian who wandered in from outside.
He’d nod, knuckles curling as if he were in the grips of debilitating ecstasy, and I’d take his knuckles and make them straight and hold his hand. We wanted to help them through the pleasure. It’s hard being happy.
Mom often lit a cigarette and watched us, sitting daintily on the kitchen counter. She was always the only steady thing in this roly-poly rollercoaster. She smiled, but could not inhale, and the cigarette burned itself out.
No one ever came to our house and left it sad or wanting. No one ever came to our house and left. For ill or good, we were packed in like sardines. The beats of her unseen heart made us feel, not as if we were alive, but as if we were about to be born. That’s a crucial distinction. No one likes being alive very much. It’s the excitement of almost being birthed, of being on the cusp of light, of getting to choose whether to shove your little head out, or crawl back in that makes all the difference.
Mom was good like that. She understood the distinction. She never forced life on anyone, least of all us. She only played the beat.
I was the only one that got out. I left before I finished high-school, shoved my head out one day when I was taking out the trash and got sucked into a world of silence. I ran fast, just to hear my feet slapping on the ground, but nothing thumps like a mother’s heart. No rhyme, no rhythm. But I ran anyway.
I try not to drive by her neighborhood these days. I know what would happen. She’s still going strong. There’s a whole line of people waiting outside her door. The beat is intoxicating. Sometimes, I can still feel that ocean under my skin. I can hear my siblings too, sandwiched and screaming, calling me home.
But I slide my earbuds in and drive away. The real ocean is out there, somewhere.
Florina Nastase (she/her) is a lecturer at 'Alexandru Ioan Cuza' University in Iasi, Romania. She spends copious amounts of time writing online, and has been lucky enough to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize and get published in places like Hobart, Gasher Journal, The Decadent Review, Pangyrus, The Maine Review, Prometheus Dreaming and others. Twitter: @FlorinaN9