The last time Alice saw her daughter was at her ex-husband’s funeral. Kelly stood at the door of the church and greeted the mourners one by one. She wore a gray dress that reminded Alice of a centuries-ago men’s nightgown, especially with Kelly’s hair cut short, no makeup. It was startling to see her daughter like this, and she wondered whether it was all those months of taking care of her father, when the biggest trauma for a girl her age should have been first love.
Alice promised herself afterward that she would call her daughter every week, maybe even drive up to the Valley, where Kelly had returned to college, but every time, Alice found a reason to defer to the next week and then the next–all the while thinking up excuses for not calling sooner. She couldn’t tell Kelly that she was fighting with her boyfriend Ian, that he had applied for a job in Florida without talking to her first. Her daughter had never met Ian or any of her boyfriends after she divorced her father. But when Kelly’s twenty-first birthday arrived, Alice couldn’t put off calling her any longer.
She finally decided reaching her by Skype would be more personal, so Alice carried her laptop to the kitchen, where the foggy autumn light streaming in from the window could give her a softer look on camera. She had already applied a matte foundation so her face wouldn’t appear shiny onscreen. A few weeks ago, when Ian had Skyped her from a hotel room after his job interview, the camera made her look like she’d broken out into a sweat. Alice pressed her ribs against the white-tiled counter where she’d set down her computer and clicked the Call button.
“Happy birthday,” Alice said when Kelly picked up, but she had to lean in closer to the screen to make sure the shadowy figure looking back was her daughter.
She was going to tell her to move to a spot with more light, but then a sports announcer bellowed out from the living room, Welcome back to a beautiful Saturday morning. Alice turned her head. Ian was slumped on the couch, decked out in a shiny white and purple jersey, in front of the TV.
“I can’t believe my little girl is twenty-one today, I remember holding you in my arms, and now, we…anyway, do you have plans? Are your friends taking you out?”
“Not really,” Kelly said.
“All right, I’ll take you out today,” Alice said, before thrashing synthesizer beats rang out from the living room to mark a commercial.
She should have known Ian would sneak up behind her, but still, she let a squeak escape her throat when his clawed fingers clamped down on her shoulders. Alice waved her palm over the camera in her laptop, but when she looked at the screen, the small box of her image in the bottom right-hand corner had gone dark. Ian wandered off to grab a beer from the refrigerator.
“Kelly,” she said, not sure what to say.
“I’m buying a mattress today in Van Nuys,” Kelly said. “We can have lunch around there if you want.”
Alice noticed only then that her daughter’s gaze was lowered and off-center, like she was clicking and reading something on the screen. She had probably minimized her Skype window to a tiny blip of an icon during this whole conversation.
“Sure, let’s go shopping,” Alice said, though she wondered why Kelly’s dorm didn’t provide beds. And where were her friends on her birthday? Perhaps she could suggest a nicer meal for the occasion, some place that served alcohol on the Westside, maybe Santa Monica or Venice. But Kelly was already giving her an address in the Valley, and just as Alice finished scribbling it down on the back of a receipt, the screen went blank.
“I don’t know why you had to make a scene,” Alice said when she turned to Ian. She watched him chug the contents of a silver can of beer; his Adam’s apple bobbled up, then down, surfacing from the stretched-out skin of his neck where faint lines were starting to deepen.
“Does your daughter even know I exist?” he asked.
Alice looked off to the side of his face, at the sparse white hair on his head, the thinned out eyebrows and sideburns.
“Before you go meet Kelly, I need to tell you something,” he said.
Alice sensed what he was about to say, so she looked down at the No. 5 stitched on his jersey, the bottom of the number sloping slightly outward from his mid-section, which she had been staring at for months now, hoping he would get the hint and go with her to the gym.
“I got that job in Orlando.”
Instead, he was going to Florida.
“I can’t go,” Alice said, standing straighter so Ian, in contrast, could get a good view of her toned arms and flat stomach. “Kelly’s father passed three months ago. I can’t just leave her.”
“You haven’t talked to her until today,” he said.
Alice couldn’t speak. She looked into his blue eyes, but they did not soften, did not seek forgiveness, just two stabs of color embedded in pale, weathered flesh.
“That’s not true, I have been there,” she said when she couldn’t think of what else to say.
“I’m not asking you to leave your daughter,” Ian said and turned his back to her in the guise of rinsing out the aluminum can in the sink. “You can take over the lease here, it’s rent-controlled.”
“I can’t pay for this place myself,” Alice said, though they both knew renting out the second room would cover nearly the entire rent. But she would give him a chance to agree, to reconsider. He turned off the water and dropped the can into the recycling bin under the sink.
“Get Kelly to move in with you,” Ian said, and as if on cue, the NFL or whatever sports theme started up again and called him back to the couch.
On the drive over, Alice realized the gift that Ian had given her. She scanned the parking lot to see if Kelly had arrived early too, her heart beating sickeningly fast at the idea of the two of them picking out furniture for their apartment, making dinner, even just watching TV together. But Alice only saw late-model cars and parallel white lines fading from the black asphalt of the lot, surrounded by ethnic bakeries, discount stores and other small businesses in the half-vacant strip mall, most with thick bars nailed over the windows. If cheap housing in Santa Monica couldn’t convince Kelly to move, she would make a case for safety.
Alice peeled off her thin sweater minutes after stepping out of her car, pleased she had worn a melon orange sundress that could bare her arms. She hadn’t really expected the Valley to get this warm, unlike the Westside, where the temperature was constantly adjusting and readjusting itself to perfect. The weather–that was another thing she could bring up.
Only the Mexican market in this strip mall looked busy, its glass doors sliding open and shut as mothers and children drifted in and out of the store, accompanied by metal grocery carts rattling with every step. Next to it, Mattress Warehouse looked abandoned, with black windows painted over by giant bubbly letters. She pushed the door, and it opened to an air-conditioned showroom, a maze of soft white slabs, dozens of them under beams of fluorescent lights. Only a couple of senior citizens were there when she walked in.
Alice sat on one of the mattresses next to a wall. She took out a compact from her purse, flipped it open and held the square mirror close to her face. Thankfully, her foundation and eyeliner didn’t look like it was melting, but the skin under her eyes had darkened, making her look tired, hollowed out. She could blame the unforgiving lights, but this was how Kelly would see her, and she wanted to look cheerful when she asked her to move in. She caked the moist powder onto a tiny white sponge and applied the concealer. Alice felt someone standing behind her, perhaps a salesman, but she kept smoothing out the color with her right index finger.
“Hey, Mom,” the voice said behind her.
Alice whipped her head back to see her daughter looking at her. She snapped the compact shut.
“I didn’t see you, how … how long were you standing there?”
“Not long,” Kelly said, and though her face was no longer in shadow, her demeanor seemed the same, slightly distracted even as she looked straight at her mother.
Alice noticed that Kelly’s hair didn’t appear to have grown out at all in the three months since the funeral. In fact, it looked shorter and choppier, as if someone had cut it over a sink. Again, she wore no makeup and this time hid her figure under a dark teal polo shirt over shapeless blue jeans. Alice saw clearly for the first time just how much she looked like Philip. It wasn’t the hair, but the eyes. Alice had always felt it was a shame her daughter didn’t inherit the natural crease of her eyelids but rather Philip’s single-lidded eyelids, and now that, along with his weak chin and pale skin, was imprinted on her daughter’s face.
Alice wanted to give Kelly a hug, but she had already walked off into the maze, stopping only to ask a woman with dyed orange hair piled up on her head about a certain mattress in a twin size. A tag that read “The Proof is in Our Padding” was pinned to the saleswoman’s black tank top just left of her cleavage. She said she would check, and when she turned to walk toward the back of the store, she revealed a pair of small angel wings tattooed on her back between her shoulder blades. Alice looked at Kelly to see if she had noticed the tattoo, if it conjured up any memories of her father, but she was sitting on the edge of a mattress, examining her nails.
“Happy birthday,” Alice said and Kelly mouthed thanks without looking up.
“Let me buy you the mattress for your birthday.”
To her relief, Kelly nodded and this time her thanks was audible. She started to dig out the dirt beneath the fingernails of her left hand with the nail of her right thumb. A nasty habit, Alice wanted to say, but she just stared.
Kelly’s posture was also terrible. That had not changed over the years, despite her nagging. Philip would never say anything, if he even noticed. Alice recalled that when her daughter was in high school, she offered to pay for a surgical procedure that would have added that missing crease to her eyelids, which some of the other Asian girls at her school were getting done overseas. Alice was living with another man by then, and Philip tracked her down to yell at her. He had never raised his voice before, not even when Alice said she was leaving him. But she had yelled back, “You think you’re the good parent to push her into these college math and science classes. Get good grades. Go to the best school. But you’re not the only one preparing her for the real world.”
Alice looked around the mattress store and noticed more people coming in–families with young children, like the ones she saw earlier at the market. Then there were the young couples, out of college, perhaps a few years into their professional careers, possibly getting serious, getting married.
“So your dorm ran out of beds?” Alice asked.
“I had to give up my dorm room when I took last semester off,” Kelly said. “My classmate’s family is letting me rent a room in their house.”
Alice couldn’t have asked for a better opening to make her offer, but that Skype image of her daughter sitting in a room by herself with no windows and no light, not to mention no movement, no music, no one else in the background, could have brought her to tears. She had imagined hungover roommates sensitive to noise and sun, perhaps even planning a birthday surprise out of earshot.
“My friend has a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica,” Alice began. “It’s rent-controlled and only twelve hundred a month. I’m sure he can let you take it over if you want.”
Her daughter looked at her with an expression Alice had not seen in a long time, that could be mistaken for surprised, even pleased, happy.
“That’s insanely cheap.”
“Yeah, he’s moving to Florida,” Alice said. She meant to tell Kelly that she came with the deal, but wanted to see her excited for a little longer.
“It’s only five blocks from the beach and walking distance to the Promenade. You can inhale the salt air from the ocean day and night.”
“Why don’t you take it?” Kelly asked just as the saleswoman returned.
“I’m sorry, we don’t carry that model anymore, but we have this new line,” she said, pointing to her tag like she was pointing to herself. “We have a test bed that you can choose from twenty-five comfort levels for your perfect night’s sleep. Come and let me show you.”
Kelly got up and followed the angel wings to a giant king-sized mattress as thick as two mattresses, one stacked on top of another. A remote control appeared in the saleswoman’s hand and she asked Kelly to lie down. She hesitated, but eventually took off her navy Converse sneakers, crawled across the bed on all fours and lay down on her stomach.
“So just tell me if you want it softer or firmer,” the saleswoman said as Alice stood at the foot of the bed near her daughter’s socked feet.
Alice could see the faintest outline of Kelly’s waist under the polo shirt abruptly spreading out into her hips. Was she even wearing a bra? And now Kelly was pressing her cheek and mouth to a mattress that hundreds of people had rubbed up against, though most of them would have lain on their backs.
“It’s too soft right now, make it firmer,” Kelly said, her voice muffled.
“You’re lying on your stomach,” Alice said. “Wouldn’t you gauge it better if you were lying on your back?”
The saleswoman motioned to Alice.
“Do you want to lay on it and test it too? There’s plenty of room,” she said.
“Sure,” Alice said and slipped out of her strappy metallic sandals. She saw Kelly lifting her head slightly toward the saleswoman.
“Ready?” the saleswoman asked, after Alice had painstakingly inched her body toward the right-hand side of the mattress while trying to keep her dress from riding up.
She eyed Kelly who was motionless, as if she were playing dead. Once Alice was lying still on the bed, the top layer of the mattress seemed to instantly form a molded cushion around her body, especially her sore arms and legs from all those hours at the gym. She nodded at the saleswoman.
“Ready,” she said.
That was when Kelly said “firmer” and then repeated the word, almost like a chant. The bed began to harden, so much so that Alice thought she could feel every sharp edge of her body, the bones of her ankles, the points of her elbows and shoulder blades grating against the surface. Yet Kelly kept asking for the bed to get even harder, and Alice’s heart beat faster, as if in panic, as if she was being submerged.
“Stop it,” Alice said, trying to catch her breath. “It’s like a piece of wood now. Go back to what it was, make it softer.”
“That’s the firmest level,” the saleswoman said.
Kelly still didn’t stir so Alice couldn’t catch her eye. What had happened to her daughter that she didn’t think she deserved a nice soft bed? She wondered if this was her doing.
“I want to order a twin at this level of firmness,” Kelly said. Then she sprung up into a sitting position, out of Alice’s reach, and sat on the edge of the bed facing the saleswoman.
“You can’t have a bed like this,” Alice said, but the saleswoman jumped in.
“For two hundred dollars more, you can get a full size,” she said, “and for three hundred more, you can get a queen.”
“That’s a great idea,” Alice said, trying to sound upbeat, though she felt heavy now looking over at the empty white space next to her. Just beyond it was Kelly’s shag of black hair, the slight hunch of her back.
“I’m paying for it, so don’t worry about the cost,” Alice said.
“I want a twin, nothing else,” Kelly said, raising her voice slightly. The change was subtle, but it was clear she had made up her mind, and it scared Alice.
“Think of it as an investment for when your relationship status changes,” the saleswoman said.
“Exactly,” Alice said, grateful for the backup once again. “We’ll take the queen, but please can we go down a few levels, otherwise no one else can sleep on it.”
The saleswoman nodded and started to press the remote control again, her smile wavering for the first time. A couple had been loitering nearby, waiting to ask a question, and they too looked at her daughter with the expressions of mourners. They were both handsome, in their late twenties or early thirties. Alice noticed the man’s right arm slung across the waist of the woman with long curly hair and intense red lips.
“Softer, please,” Alice asked and even though she said it almost to herself, the couple glanced her way, before the saleswoman turned and asked if they needed help.
“I’ll be right back,” the saleswoman said and ushered the couple away.
Kelly was still sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Forget about the mattress, let me take you out to lunch,” Alice said, but she didn’t move. “There’s this great crab place in K-town, or we could go shopping at the Grove. We could buy new accessories and decorate our place.”
“Our place?” Kelly asked and Alice stiffened. “So you live there?”
“I do, and I can tell you it’s a wonderful apartment,” she said, her heart racing again. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was impersonating the saleswoman, but she couldn’t stop.
“It has the cutest coffee shop down the street that’s great for studying, and there’s a gym downstairs. They have yoga and pilates classes and a trainer who comes in every week.”
“Of course it does,” Kelly said and her voice was small.
“I feel energized after every session. Maybe we can go together, you and me.”
“Live with you,” Kelly said, but it wasn’t a question. Her shoulders trembled slightly like she was laughing but trying to suppress it in polite company, and then she bent her head down as if in prayer and buried her face in her open hands. Alice sat up now, but she didn’t know whether Kelly was laughing or crying. She wanted to pry her daughter’s hands from her face, as if she could glimpse the woman she would become, but all she could see was a little girl, her feet a millimeter away from dangling from the bed.
Alice had a feeling they would not be having lunch that day. And soon she would have to post an ad for the room in Ian’s apartment, meet with the types of people still looking for a roommate at their age, so settled in their ways they would certainly be impossible to live with. Maybe then, Alice could invite Kelly over and show her what could happen if she wasn’t careful.