Trade rooms?

Today went wrong before breakfast, when I knocked on Mom’s door at 7AM. She opened the door with a big smile and announced, “I’ve decided we’re going to trade rooms!” 

“Trade rooms?” 

“Yes! I don’t know why I should have a better room than yours. Your room is just one room, but my room is really two rooms, plus a bathroom. You don't have a bathroom. And your room overlooks the dumpster in the alley, but my room has a nice view. So let’s trade rooms! It's my way to say thank you for inviting me to visit.”

She said all this so cheerfully, I’m still trying to believe that she was trying to be nice, but we’re not trading rooms. I’m not letting my mom into my room, period. 

And also, just to clarify: I did not invite her to visit. I accepted her invitation to visit me, which is not quite the same.

Trade rooms? The walls were swirling like in that scene from Vertigo, and this couldn't be happening, but it was happening. And I remembered how Mom knows my window has a view of the dumpster — she’s seen my room in this hotel. When she visited last month, she stayed in Walnut Creek, but one day we arranged to meet at my rez hotel, and when she got here she insisted on seeing my room. She said, “I want the grand tour!” 

Well, that day, I sighed heavily and asked her to wait in the lobby while I tidied things up — meaning, while I hid my marijuana, dirty magazines, wild political buttons, some folders full of Pathetic Lifes, and naked photos from Maggie’s visit a few months ago, along with the condoms and KY jelly. With all evidence of Doug safely stashed away, I reluctantly brought Mom up to my room, and very quickly showed it to her — four walls with a window, a sink, and a communal toilet down the hall. Happy now? End of the grand tour. 

For this week’s visit, I (stupidly) got her a room in the hotel where I live — a much better room than mine, with a private toilet and everything — but she still wants into my room? 

And suddenly, I knew that getting into my room has been on Mom's agenda since she got here.

① On Tuesday night, she had asked if we could talk in my room. I suggested her room instead, and that’s where we talked.  

On Wednesday night, she'd made a minor fuss that, “We should talk in your room tonight, since we talked in my room last night.” And I smiled and said, nah, my room is off limits, bachelor’s mess, etc. 

And now, not even 12 hours after my “off limits” remark, she wants into my room again? And not just into my room, she wants to trade rooms? She wants to sleep in my room, and have me sleep in her room?

“Uh, thanks, Mom, but no thanks.” I said it nice, or tried to, but her eyes turned down like a puppy that’s been scolded.  

“Why not?” she asked, repeating again that her room is nicer than mine. 

"Maybe you misunderstand what this building is. It says 'hotel' on the sign, and you're hotelling here, staying for a few nights. I'm not. I. Live. Here. That room is my whole home, and you don't get to take over my home, and make me live out of a suitcase or a box."

"Just for one night, though?"

“It’s — it’s my room,” I said. Doesn’t that say it all? I was sputtering, shuddering, like a 38 Geary bus climbing the hills, and hoping some better answer would come out of my mouth. The need for privacy is so basic to my psyche, I’ve never put it into words before, and no words came. My mind and soul collapsed in on themselves like a black hole, as Mom repeated that we should trade rooms. 

“Mom,” I said when she’d finished. “It’s. My. Room. You're not invited there. Capeesh?” 

She did not capeesh, and again said how very much she wanted to trade rooms — as a special treat — for me!

I started keeping count, and interrupted, “Hey? Hello? Mom? Six times you’ve asked, and six times I’ve said no. I appreciate the offer, but the answer is no.” 

“But why not?” 

Why not? Fucking A, because I’ve said no, that’s why not. “Because my room is full of things that will make you cry, much more than you cried yesterday.” 

“I wouldn’t snoop,” she lied. “I’d just sleep in your bed, but I wouldn’t snoop at all.” With another big, fake smile, she said, “Just look at how much bigger my room is! I want you to be nicer to yourself, and this room is bigger and better …”

Still not raising my voice, but definitely raising my blood pressure, I said, “No, no, no. Hear me saying no.”

She began to cry, but when I didn’t say anything she dried up, smiled again, and changed the subject at last. “I’d like to have dinner with Pastor Alvarez tomorrow night. I’ll call him, and if it’s all right with him, can you get us to his house on the bus?” 

I was still reeling from her insistence on trading rooms, but as her words rattled around in my head, I caught the subtle shift in pronouns, from ”I’d like to have dinner” to “get us to his house.” 

“Who is Pastor Alvarez?” I asked. 

“He used to be the pastor at our church,” she said, still smiling, “and now he’s a pastor here in San Francisco.” 

“I know the buses pretty well, Mom. If you give me this guy’s address, I’ll tell you which bus to take.” 

“But,” she said, sad-eyed again, “I want you to come, too.” 

“Mom, he’s your friend. If you want to visit him, visit him. I’ll tell you which bus to take. I’ll escort you on the bus, and make sure you get off at the right intersection. But I’m not having dinner with a man I’ve never met, who used to be your pastor. No.” 

“But he’s a really interesting man, with a great sense of humor. I think you’d like him.” 


“I was hoping you’d do this, for me.” 

“No.” She looked at me with those dratted Mom eyes, but there was no chance in Hell or Heaven that I’d relent. 

“Mom, you know I’m pretty much a hermit. You know I’m not interested in church, or God. I don’t want to have dinner with a preacher, and I double-don’t want to trade rooms.” 

She began to cry, of course. What was I supposed to do when she cried? Should I have given her a hug and said comforting things? I would have— if she’d been crying about Dad again, but she was crying to guilt me into changing my mind, and that just pissed me off. 

“It’s time for me to go to work,” I said, and “Goodbye,” while she was still crying. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

I stewed about all the above at the office, and worried that Mom would con the landlord into letting her into my room, to accomplish the switch without me. When I came home for lunch, I stopped at the front desk and instructed Mr Patel that under no circumstances should he let my mother into my room.  

Mr Patel is a good guy for a landlord, and I could see some understanding in his eyes — like it sounded familiar, like maybe he’s had some mom-issues of his own. 

At lunch, Mom only mentioned trading rooms twice, and she didn’t mention Pastor Alvarez at all. Which means, trading rooms is her priority, and that’s where I’ll have to play defense. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

At dinner, as she brought up switching rooms for the umpteenth time, I said no again. She began crying, and I made my most caustic remark of the week so far: “I’m becoming immune to your tears of guilt. You use them far too often.” 

Through the blubbering she said, “I feel like going home tomorrow,” which would be a day early and a blessing from God. 

I said, “Go home tomorrow if you want.” Was that too much?

From experience I can tell you, it never helps to raise your voice with Mother, so all day I didn’t say much in an angry tone. In fact, I’m proud of my restraint in mostly remaining calm and quiet like Kwai Chang Caine on Kung Fu

She asked again about trading rooms, and I said, “Momma, I’ve said no enough. When you keep asking anyway, over and over, no matter how many times I say no, it’s not nice any more. It’s not nice at all.”

“I won’t snoop, and you’ll get to sleep in a bigger bed,” and her voice trailed off, and she started crying again.  

“This hotel is my house. The room I rent is my bedroom. The room you rent is the guest room, and that’s where guests stay. I want my privacy in my own bedroom, OK?” 

In her eyes I could see that it wasn’t OK, and that this conversation wasn’t over yet. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

After we’d eaten and argued, we went to a phone booth, because Mom wanted to call home and check her messages.

My brother Clay had recited a poem into Mom’s answering machine, and she smiled as she listened, then held the phone to my ear and played it again for me. It wasn’t a Hallmark card, but through a crackling long-distance connection it sounded sweet and full of love, like a perfect example of a good son — a better son than me. Clay would probably let Mom sleep in his bedroom if she asked, and she wouldn’t have to ask twenty times. 

I expected a heaping helping of guilt from Mom after that call, but instead she just said, “That was nice,” and clicked a button to erase the message.

I couldn’t believe it. The poem my brother had maybe written, or maybe just recited for my mother was gone. When I heard the mechanical voice say “Message deleted,” I asked if she’d hit the wrong button. 

“No,” she said. “He’ll probably have a copy if I want it. 

If she wants it? 

I’ve known this woman for my entire life, because I came out of this woman, but sometimes I don't understand anything about her. I move a thousand miles away, basically ignore her for years, and she flies down to Frisco — twice — on a mission to destroy my teetering mental health. My brother lives near her, goes to church with her, treats her royally, eats dinner with her twice weekly, and has poetry for her when it’s not even Mother’s Day, yet she seems only slightly interested. 

Later on Mom asked if we could trade rooms. I said no.

From Pathetic Life #3
Thursday, August 18, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


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  1. Captain HampocketsJune 1, 2021 at 5:56 AM

    Oyster fork. Right to the eye.

  2. Jesus I hope this is fiction.

  3. Your mum sounds way too much like my mum, until she deleted that message. That reminded me of my gran,out of seven living children 6 visited her weekly. Out of those 6, one twice a week & one daily in later years to care for her. The other lived 15 minutes away, in the next town. I lived in that town for 6 months which meant any visits, my youngest uncle out of earshot would ask how I escaped. As that son visited rarely once for Mother's Day & once between her birthday & Christmas to cover both. Occasionally he made an extra visit, like when one of his children got engaged, was expecting or had a baby. She saw those three grandchildren once in her last 20 years, only saw the eldest grandchild. However, his visits were mentioned more, his absence was more noticeable than the rest of us all being there. We knew it hurt & never knew why, even his sons don't know why their dad stopped coming. They didn't know how much they'd be welcomed. However, that's where the similarities end, as she would not hage deleted something from any of us. She used to rotate the photos so we all were in the best spots at some point.

    Mum's can be strange

  4. Families can be a wonderful thing, but yeah, of course and obviously, I sympathize with that guy who didn't want to visit. Remember, much as it hurt the grandma wondering where he was, it hurt the missing man too. Hurts to visit. Hurts to not visit. Yeah, I definitely sympathize with that.


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