map My Mother

by Alexandria Carolan

Published in Issue No. 280 ~ September, 2020

Do you know how much I look at bodies? I say.

What? My mother says.

We are at the kitchen table again, sitting across from one another the same as every night, drinking black tea she squeezes lemon into. We build a puzzle we’ve been working on for days: pastel iguanas. She organizes pieces into piles based on their shape.

She wears a white T-shirt that flits about an inch out from her arms. The ones she and my aunt say are flabby. They get it from their own mother, a gruff woman with high cheekbones who once asked me if a black striped bathing suit made her look 10 pounds smaller.

It’s not normal, I say.

Well then don’t do it.

For breakfast, she had one peach, enough blueberries to pinch between five of her fingers, her hands hard from time spent under the UV light at the nail salon, and lime seltzer. For lunch, a plain yogurt. She packs carrots when she goes to work, in the lunch box that could hold a meatloaf plus a hefty book.

She lives at the beach, and I go there with her sometimes.

They are everywhere, I say. I see teenagers in the sand with stomachs in line with the rest of them. Mothers with just-muscular-enough legs carrying infants. Their stomachs, I tell her, are so flat already. They go to the Pilates studio, to Tandem Cycling. They split pork roll sandwiches with one another at breakfast while I nearly taste the grease.


My mother’s skin is soft with small baby hairs sticking out from her cheeks, and I know they will feel so good if I touch.

They are lovely, I say.

You are lovely, she says. 

The teenagers, the mothers, the yoga instructors, the grandmothers, the beachgoers from out of town—they share kale salads at lunch. The chubby friend goes to the taco place. I watch them. They choose their dragon fruit or acai or pineapple bowls with coconut milk, which aren’t even that low in calorie, by the way. They wear sheer tops over their bathing suits, and they don’t have a lot of ass. Sometimes in the mirror, I squeeze my thighs until my fingers are numb, until they are thin again.

I remember skipping lunch in high school or buying one cookie to split. I remember coming home to my mother eating half of an apple, and that’s it.

You are skinny, my mother says. You are beautiful.

Sometimes I count my bites, I say. Do you? I did this when I was 15. I did this when I was 10. I do it now. In Disney World, at the hotel pool, I watched the grown women float in rafts, their skin protruding, rolling off of their bodies. I felt mine then too. That was the year my mother refused to go into the water; her swimsuits didn’t fit.

We always had such a nice time at Disney, she says.

I want to hold her. I want to sit down after dinner and share mango sorbet with her. I want to go to the mall and feed her cinnamon buns with a spoon. She sips a gin and tonic. She switched over recently from wine, though I know she’ll go back.

Look at me, I say, and she does. I stand and remember she is four inches shorter than me. Maybe she always has been.

I begin by bringing my collar up past my neck, pulling it out from my skin just barely. I hear the ice in her glass. As I stretch the shirt tent-like, I slip out of one sock, holding onto the bottom with my toes and pointing it hard, the way I have since the ballet class in high school that I sometimes begged to skip.

She sips, looks, then turns toward the window. Outside, a woman walks her dog, leggings slick, stuck to her body.

I stand in front of my mother now wearing nothing but a bra, shorts too baggy for my body, a bathing suit bottom from when we went to the water yesterday. Sometimes I eat avocados out of Tupperware with low sodium soy sauce. Once, after she fed me a fruit salad for lunch, I baked hash browns in the oven. Eat them with me, I told her. Please.

The woman at the souvenir shop has taught calves. The neck of the cashier at the bike shop does not droop the way mine will when I grow old. I sometimes see a woman walking heel-toe only near the ocean—duck-walking, I used to call it, a piece of her always on the ground.

I pull down the shorts, is that even what they are? My skin sags, the heaviest part of me that somehow expands the same way my aunt’s had—I was told—when she turned twenty-five. I stretch my fingers across my belly. It is soft, and I press.

Is this what you see? I ask. The gin rumbles in response. Is this what I am supposed to look like?

The tile is wet, and my feet nearly slide. I hold onto the table, leaning closer to my mother, breathing as softly as I have been. But she is gone—her soft skin is missing more than ever before.

account_box More About

Alex Carolan is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work can be found in the 2019 winter edition of menacing hedge, and the 2017 and 2018 editions of Stylus: a Journal of Literature and Art. She is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland and its selective creative writing program, the Jiménez-Porter Writers' House.