Yellow Like Mom
by Nicole Ortiz
My mother is yellow.
I mean this literally. When you look at my mother, you see the color yellow, and it’s always been that way.
In summertime, my mother’s hair reflected the sun’s rays as if they were hers to flaunt. She wore a black one piece, perched on the edge of a towel with a book in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. The curling flowers imprinted on her bathing suit melded into her tanned skin, her sunglasses glinting on the bridge of her nose. I could smell the sunscreen radiating off her. My father dozed on a towel beside her, crisping.
The beach was where I spent alone time with my mother, where we felt a palpable comfort and calm that wasn’t present in our daily lives. Since we lived nearby, it became our routine to spend at least one full day at the beach every week. It was our escape. No walls around us and no looming arguments with my father. I told her the stresses of my preteen summer, how hard it was to navigate new and old friendships, how nervous I was about entering the eighth grade. I told her funny stories, like when a student tripped in the cafeteria and threw his entire tray of food in the air. When she laughed, her blonde ringlets bounced. The Atlantic Ocean in front of us, full of coarse seaweed and dark blue mysteries, served as a reminder that freedom existed; we could even touch it if we wanted to.
My dad rarely accompanied us on our beach days, but today he did—perhaps in an effort to mask that we were a family on the brink of dismantling. I can’t remember a time when my parents got along, but my father’s anger intensified after he lost his job as a mechanic. For the past few months, he would erupt into outbursts at the slightest provocation, and it seemed my mother was almost always the cause of them. Sometimes it felt as though we weren’t family at all, but bad actors in a movie.
In the afternoon, my dad woke up. I was further down the beach building a sandcastle, but I could hear his voice relaying either a complaint or a demand. I boiled inside; an otherwise relaxing day was now tainted by his storm cloud.
When I approached our set of towels and stood beside my mother, she stared unblinking into my father’s eyes.
“Let’s take a walk,” she said to me. “Your father is going to the boardwalk.”
She kicked water while I walked behind her searching for uncracked seashells. The sun glistened along the water’s unbroken surface and highlighted my mother’s perfect figure, making her look like a goddess. We didn’t talk much. At times, her lips seemed caught between a smile and a frown, her eyes unreadable behind sunglasses. She was contemplative and distracted, entrancing yet guarded. I worried that one day she might decide to walk across the ocean, never to be seen again. I wanted to reach up and touch her perfect skin to see if she might crack and tell me her secrets.
For my mother’s birthday, which fell right at the end of summer, I bought her a gold bangle. It wasn’t fancy, but a $50 bracelet was what I could afford from saved allowances and birthday presents as a 13-year-old. It was a thin band with etched feathery leaves. While it appeared delicate, it was actually solid gold and quite resilient. I found it in a nearby shop I knew she liked, hidden amongst the more expensive jewelry.
We didn’t celebrate my mother’s birthday that year, but she almost seemed relieved. My father said he couldn’t afford to get her a present. Around dinnertime, he mumbled about having a promising meeting with a potential client and left the house, which I later learned was an excuse for him to go to a bar. Wearing sweatpants with her curly haired tied back, my mother picked up the phone and asked me what toppings I wanted on a pizza.
I had her present wrapped in sparkly gold and white wrapping paper. When she opened the box, her face lit up.
“This is exactly what I needed,” she said. It decorated her wrist every day after that.
My mother had a warm yellow sweater that she wore throughout autumn. I watched her scrub the kitchen floors one day, her sleeves rolled up, exposing the bangle on her wrist. The two shining surfaces reflected back at one another, as if locked in a competition to outshine each other. Each time she ran the sponge along the floor, the bangle made a slight ding that you wouldn’t hear if you didn’t know to listen for it. My father often commented on how much he valued a clean home, and my mother made sure to appease this request, even though he usually wasn’t home to see her efforts as he spent more and more days out at “client meetings.” My mother was constantly cleaning and my father constantly disappointed, as if it wasn’t the cleanliness of the home he wanted to fix but those who occupied it.
A few weeks into fall, the leaves floated down from the trees and surrounded my home. My mother went outside in her yellow camouflage, blending in with the fall foliage. We sat together on the porch, shielded from the twirling leaves that dipped and dived around our house, sipping ginger tea and talking. Which teachers I did and didn’t like, which classes I was most excited for. My mother nodded and commented at all the right moments, looking longingly at the leaves and spinning the bangle on her wrist.
Winter was my least favorite time of the year. My mother thrived in the other seasons, but in winter, her hair lost its highlights and turned almost gray. Her curls became stringy and brittle. Her body looked frailer, and more yellow, than at any other time of the year.
Sometimes I’d catch a glimmer of her summery self. She’d stand in front of the floor-to-ceiling living room window, surrounded by the setting sun. Dust particles twinkled and disappeared around her like stars burning out in the night sky. She’d stand that way, garnering energy from the sun until it set behind the neighbor’s house. When she finally left the window, I could see her fading fingerprints imprinted on the glass.
I associate the season’s chill with the worst aspects of my father.
One evening, he went out for another promising “meeting” and returned home drunk. From the stairwell landing, I saw him grip my mother’s arm, his large fingers wrapped entirely around her wrist, the bangle completely obscured. She stared at him, her fear unmasked, while his drunken eyes struggled to stay open. My father’s drinking had always upset my mother in a quiet, unforgiving way. I assumed he did it because he was sad that he didn’t have a job. This time the situation had escalated.
Shadows enveloped my parents in the hallway. It seemed like they were frozen in a black and white photo until something snapped in my father. He threw my mother to the ground and kicked her side. Her yellow glow, her confidence, her poise—everything I admired about her—was tarnished.
I was imprisoned behind the banister. As my father stumbled into the kitchen and slammed the back door, I watched my mother sit up, clutching her side, and peer directly at me. I thought about how she sometimes wore a long-sleeved shirt in warm weather.
My mother showed me how to shave my legs for the first time on a Saturday afternoon, a lesson that marked my ascent into womanhood. All my friends had learned how to shave months before, but my mother asked me to wait .
The day was either dark or the curtains absorbed all the sunshine. I sat on the edge of the bathtub while she showed me how to drag the razor up my legs to avoid razor burns and cuts. I was more focused on the fading marks her sleeves failed to hide while she mimicked shaving her own legs over her jeans.
My father’s fingers had made indentations on her wrist so clear that I was certain I could see each fingerprint. The bruises were outlined in a heavy, buttery yellow that melted into her skin color, surrounding the blue-purple of the middle in an almost perfect oval. She now wore her yellow on her skin. Her cheeks were covered in thick makeup, and when she caught me staring, she offered a gaze that was apologetic. I reached out and twirled the bangle on her wrist, a golden blur spinning over the discolored skin.
My mother went to the hospital after Christmas. In my memory, everything in that room was yellow—the bed covers, the walls, her nightshirt—but in actuality everything was probably the sterilized white that you always see in hospitals. The yellow radiated from my mother, who was jaundiced with bruises and pain.
My father didn’t expect me to tell the hospital attendants the truth: that my mother didn’t fall, but was thrown down the stairs. I didn’t have to watch that fight to know what happened; I heard it all from my bedroom where I had been reading—the loaded silence after an argument, the heavy-handed slap, my mom’s body cracking against the railing and thudding into the wall on its way down. My father left the hospital, claiming that he was going home to get my mom some extra clothes. Neither of us ever saw him again.
My father left so quickly that no one had a chance to confront him. It seemed like he had been waiting for this excuse to start his life over, an opportunity to be forgotten. Or maybe he was just sick of the routine he had created.
As my mother slept, I watched her from a chair across the room. The bangle cast its sparkling light across my lap. We didn’t know at that point that my father wasn’t coming back, but her body exuded relief as she slept. Machines clinked and hummed as the sun rejuvenated her. I fell asleep in my chair, dreaming of fighting off a shadowy beast with rays of sunlight.
Spring brought a lifestyle change. Raising a teenage daughter as a single mother wasn’t the plan, but my mother flourished. Her yellowing bruises faded back into tanned skin, her hair regained its vivacious golden charm. She blossomed into an entirely new version of herself.
For the first few weeks, I feared that my father would return, even more damaged from failing at a new life and more willing to find a familiar target for his rage. I sat next to her at the dinner table, on the couch, on the porch watching the neighborhood, mostly at ease but still protective. I put myself in a position where I could easily spring to action and fight her demons away.
We spoke openly in a way she rarely let herself before. I heard about her childhood, my grandparents who died before I could meet them, her passion for photography that she put on the back burner when she married my father. We avoided speaking about the hospital stay, which felt too recent. I wanted my mother to come to me with those stories rather than pushing her to share them. My timid, guarded mother from the past year was gradually melting away with the remaining snow, but I knew it’d take many years to clear the panic that sometimes clouded her eyes.
In May, my mother told me to invite some friends over for a party. I sported my latest birthday present, a shiny gold bangle that was similar to the one I had bought her, on my left wrist, and posed for photos on the porch. By now, my mother had told me more.
“The abuse wasn’t constant, but the fear was,” she told me. “No matter how unbearable it seemed, I survived for you,” she said. “Because of you.”
While I was glad to watch my mother break out of her shell, I worried for her future, and for my own. If she got married again, would she find herself in another dangerous situation? Was I destined to be in an abusive relationship because I witnessed my mother in one?
In the same nervous way that she startled at a loud noise or sometimes watched the front door late at night when she thought I’d already gone to bed, I couldn’t help but have these thoughts. Before drifting off to sleep, I’d find myself wrapped up in hours of hypotheticals—in some I’d prevail, in others I followed a path that was all too familiar. Maybe I would avoid dating for as long as possible and try to keep my mother distracted from it as well. Maybe with just each other we’d be safe.
As highly as I thought of my mother, I secretly hoped I hadn’t inherited her vulnerability.
At my party, my mother snapped pictures of me as I struck dramatic poses, her amber eyes sparkling as she attempted to give me direction without laughing. When she looked through the lens, her untamed curls framed the camera and then sprang into action when she moved to capture different angles.
I was wearing a new dress she bought me, a yellow and white checkered one. I had my eye on it while we were shopping at the mall; it was one of those items that I kept coming back to but wasn’t sure if it’d be a good fit. Yellow still felt too bold for me. She sensed my hesitancy and grabbed it off the rack for me to try on before I could protest.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Is yellow a color I could pull off?”
“Absolutely,” she said.
Published December 17th, 2017
Nicole Ortiz is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She works as the managing editor with Best Lawyers magazine and has copyedited with publishing houses such as Scholastic, Hippocrene Books, and others. She has published personal essays with xoJane, Greatist, and other sites, but this is her first (and not last!) published fiction piece. She also volunteers her time with local animal shelters and as an English second language teacher. In her downtime, she can usually be found either exploring on her bicycle or cuddling with her Maine Coon cat, Ava. You can find her portfolio at nicoleelizabethortiz.com and on Twitter at @neco_ornot.