Don’t Let Anyone Know Mom Ran Away
An excerpt from "American Delirium" by Betina González, recommended by Heather Cleary
Introduction by Heather Cleary
Deer. Running rampant through an unnamed city somewhere in the United States. Waves of people abandoning the grim repetitions of daily life and heading to the woods to live off the grid, leaving their young children behind in an act of protest against a society that does not provide adequate resources for raising them. A woman who abandons the grim repetitions of daily life to serially occupy other people’s closets. The powerful hallucinogen that connects them all.
One of the things I’ve come to appreciate most about American Delirium, over the months (years) I’ve spent with this book, is the way Betina González treats these outlandish elements with absolute narrative restraint, so the novel’s emotional and philosophical force becomes a disconcerting hum emanating from somewhere just beneath the surface. I mean, there’s so much more that I adore about this book: I’m in awe of its structure, the way González manages to keep three storylines moving alongside one another, sometimes touching and then drifting apart again. I also cringed, nodded, and laughed along with her exploration of the contradictions, challenges, and moments of connection characteristic of life in the United States, where she lived for nearly a decade. The novel’s protagonists—Vik, Beryl, and Berenice—came to feel like family, in all their flawed and luminous humanity.
Each chapter of American Delirium is divided into three sections. The first of these follows Vik, a misanthropic taxidermist and refugee of an island known as the “Pompeii of the Caribbean” whose game of cat and mouse with the “dropout” squatting in his home takes one unexpected turn after another. The second section of each chapter is told by Beryl, a former hippie who longs for the days of “endless drinks, dicks, and dancing” but instead ends up training the other regulars of her local senior center to hunt the deer—both a practical solution to the problem, and a way to “show the rest of the world we’ve still got a light on upstairs.”
The following excerpt is from Berenice’s section at the end of the novel’s first chapter. Her mother, Emma Lynn, has just run off to join the dropouts, and Berenice realizes immediately that she’ll need someone to claim her as a relative if she doesn’t want to end up on a work farm. As the sharp edges of her situation grow clearer, we’re given a glimpse into the rust-belt disillusions and glimmers of hope that González weaves into this engrossing novel, which is at once a social critique, a meditation on memory and belonging, and a dystopian fairy tale.
– Heather Cleary
Translator, American Delirium
Don’t Let Anyone Know Mom Ran Away
An excerpt from American Delirium by Betina González
Her first night alone in the apartment on Edmond Street, she made sure to turn on the television and one of the lights. She fell asleep on the couch. Morning came, and her mother still wasn’t back.
The second night was the same.
So was the third.
For three days, she ate leftover chicken and slept on the couch, not wanting to upset the delicate balance of a life Emma Lynn might return to at any moment. She went to school, trying to act normal and not think. Whenever her doubts crept up on her in the middle of class or a conversation with her classmates, she’d cage them inside a battle cry, a sharp twist of her neck, a tug on her hair. Some of the kids probably saw her bite her arm or mutter a few words into the wind, but she was sure none of them suspected she’d become a left-behind.
The dropouts abandoned their children in public places, sometimes without warning; sometimes they planned it out. It was part of the call. It was happening less and less, but it still happened. They left the children in front of churches or schools. Or, more often, in front of city hall. They never considered leaving their children with relatives; that would undermine the gesture. Part of the idea was that they were rejecting the duty of parenthood and returning the children to their rightful guardians. Mothers and fathers were going on strike. They cursed the day they had agreed to participate in this crumbling society by bringing more people into it, and hoped that their withdrawal would overwhelm its institutions, speeding its collapse.
But that day never came. The government found ways to deal with the left-behinds. At first, they sent them to orphanages, but people started to complain that the regular orphans were being mixed in with the children of those maniacs. A special shelter was set up for them. Farms and factories, too, so the older ones could be used for manual labor. This may have taken a toll on the opposition; it showed them that the system had a thousand and one strategies for turning their protests into production. Their numbers dwindled and they kept to the margins. They began to celebrate social invisibility as a form of resistance, though they sometimes intervened in the urban landscape with art designed to wake the city from its “deadly capitalist dream.” Rumor had it that only the original group remained, ten or twelve people at most. It was easy for them to avoid the police, who were busy dealing with the everyday crimes of a city where unemployment was on the rise and one in every three homes stood empty.
Government statistics showed a decline in the number of left-behinds, but a few sensational cases still made it into the papers, mostly because the dropouts had lost their revolutionary sheen and everyone now saw them as a misguided sect led by a Finnish mystic and a graffiti artist who refused to give up the lies of the sixties. One especially famous case was a boy left in a little wooden boat with a sign that said: “History does not repeat itself.” The child—not a baby at all, but a chubby kid around seven years old—was ceremoniously adopted by the mayor’s family in an attempt to usher in a time of reconciliation between society and those who had gone on strike.
At least her mother hadn’t done anything as dramatic as that, or left her in a public place like Jimmy B.’s father, who tied him to the statue of Förster. Berenice knew all too well what would happen if anyone figured out she was a left-behind. The image of Jimmy B. standing in a corner of the gym with paint all over his face, glue and colorful tempera paint running down his shirtless back, was enough to convince her that she needed a plan.
At noon on the fourth day, she managed to find one last hope that had survived her earlier fears: her mother must have gone to visit Dorotea, that friend she talked about all the time. Dorotea lived in Guatemala and was very, very rich. Berenice imagined her sitting on stacks of money in the shade of a palm tree. She and Emma Lynn had gone to school together a long time ago. It was hard to visit her, though, because she was always traveling. It was more likely that her mother had gone to visit the man with the carnation. Berenice could have called him “the man from the museum,” since that’s where she first saw him, but then he showed up at the auction not long after that and bought the Gloria artificialis, so she associated him more with the flower. He was tall and thin with white hair. He’d been calling the store nonstop ever since. And her mother had gotten at least two postcards beginning “Dear Celeste,” followed by one or two lines of “please” and “still holding on to hope.” Maybe she’d decided to go see him after all. But if she had, why wasn’t she back yet? No, she’d probably gone to visit one of her friends.
But when Berenice reached the top of the stairs, she remembered that all of her mother’s clothing—even her yellow dress—was still in the closet by the front door. As hard as it was to admit, deep down she knew Emma Lynn Brown would never have gone on vacation without her lucky dress, or abandon the plants in her shop. She wasn’t there, either; Berenice had checked on the first day. She’d gone over that first afternoon, certain that her mother was just working late on some experiment. But all she’d found was the dark order of the flowers.
The wrinkle creams were all still lined up on the bathroom shelf, too. Emma had spent nearly half of what she’d made off a commission from city hall on those little magic jars. She’d lined them up according to use: first, the under-eye serum, a must for every woman who didn’t want to hit forty looking like a used dishrag, and then the day cream, which worked best in the morning but left Emma’s face sticky and shiny for a while, like she’d rubbed it with lard. Last came the night cream, the strongest of the three, which women who were too old to have children needed to apply with special care because they’d gone to a place of no return, a zone some people called the golden years and others just old age, and which Emma called the land of the walking dead.
The first thing Berenice did when she got back to the apartment that Thursday was lower the blinds: she had to take inventory and didn’t want the neighbors to know. Especially not Mr. Müller, who could show up at any moment asking about her mother. She stood on a chair and started pulling the cans and jars from the cupboards and setting them on the kitchen counter. According to her calculations, she had enough food to last her several months. At least through the winter. She found some money under the mattress of the pullout couch where her mother slept, along with a gold ring she’d never seen before. Emma kept her jewelry in a heart-shaped box, and Berenice had always helped her pick what looked best with the dress she was wearing. She was sure her mother had never worn that ring, a thin gold band with a sad little diamond straining up from it. She sat there for a long time, turning it over between her fingers. This, she could live on for a while.
As quick as the thought, her hand closed in shame around the ring and made it disappear behind her back. Hysterical laughter bubbled up from deep in her belly and Berenice cackled, with closed fists and dry eyes, rolling from side to side on sheets that smelled of hair spray.
Another important part of the plan was to keep talking. No one would believe that an apartment like theirs, where the banging of pots and pans normally competed with shouting matches and running feet, would suddenly fall silent. Berenice stopped laughing; she wrapped the ring in a red handkerchief and put it back under the mattress. She stood there with her hands on her hips and her eyes on the place her body had just occupied, and began to scold herself in a deep, angry voice. She made sure to call herself a “degenerate” and a “little whore,” “degenerate” and “whore” being two words she’d needed to look up in the dictionary that afternoon Emma caught her playing her water game.
If it had been the summer, she could have gone outside right then to play it. No one was there to stop her. She could have let the hose tangle around her like a boa constrictor, and soaked herself from head to toe in the sweeping cascade that watered the little yard behind their apartment. She’d recently discovered how good the spray felt between her legs and had started aiming it there, holding it so close the water would hit her like a hard, sweet hand, and Berenice would fill that hollow with laughter and twistings that almost managed to propel her out of her body, out of her story, out of the world. Until Emma told her she wasn’t allowed.
Berenice believed in water. Her idea of heaven was a tumble of waves and foam. But instead of dreaming of a lake or a house by the sea, she dreamt of a flood that would transform the city into an aquatic labyrinth that people would have to navigate in canoes and steamboats. Or, better yet, a city where everyone lived on boats. A houseboat was definitely her ideal home. It didn’t even have to be big: the sumptuous movement of the waves would be enough to make it seem like a palace. The rain, bath time, and the water game were substitutes that held her over until that magnificent moment arrived, and whenever things didn’t turn out the way she wanted, she opted for one of those forms of happiness. But it was already fall—a cold one, at that; she didn’t feel like a bath, and Celeste had been missing for four days.
Her mother hated it when Berenice called her Celeste. She said no one was allowed to use that name. Not even the man with the carnation.
“Dear Celeste!” Berenice shouted in the empty apartment, “Dear Celeste!” as she ran toward the closet, where she buried her face in her mother’s dresses and coats. “Dear Celeste!” Gloves and shoes, balled-up socks and shawls went flying, even the old fur coat with its mothball smell. She even tossed a few silk scarves high in the air, where they writhed briefly, like melancholy streamers. “Celesssssste!” she yelled with the little bit of breath she had left, and raced across the room. She reached the safety of a nook behind the chest of drawers just moments before the imaginary hand closed around one of her braids.
The laughter returned with her triumphant escape. And in that dark corner, hugging her drool-damp knees, Berenice fell asleep.
She woke up almost immediately. A shaft of afternoon sunlight was coming in through the window. She’d only been asleep for a few minutes, but she had trouble returning to the present of her plan. If it had been up to her, she would have turned on the TV and forgotten about the whole thing. But there was no time to waste if she didn’t want to end up like Jimmy B. Anyway, there was nothing good on at that hour.
She left the apartment, careful not to be seen. She decided not to try the cemetery. She didn’t want to use up her limited resources in one day. The cemetery wasn’t as easy as the survival game, where you had to go a whole week without spending the five-dollar bill you had in your pocket. She had to overcome all sorts of tests and temptations (the bakery, the ice cream shop, the candy store) before the bill met its destiny in something new, not those old crutches of chocolate and sugar. The cemetery was like the water game: you had to save it for when things got really bad. And with the sun falling soft between the treetops as she walked along the avenue, wrapped up in her green coat, things didn’t seem so bad.
The only thing Berenice really needed was a relative who would show up at the apartment every so often and say they were taking care of her while her mother visited her dear friend Dorotea.
A relative was easier to find than a father.
Than a mother.
Than a five-dollar bill.
And the street was full of possibilities.