Lindy Biller

My mother says her mouth tastes like salt. Her lips, her tongue, her teeth. It started the day my boyfriend and I moved in together, though, according to her, the timing was purely coincidental. She likes my boyfriend, she insists. He seems very supportive.

As she says it, her lips pucker. She rinses with Listerine, with orange juice. She takes small sips of sugar water, like a hummingbird.

My boyfriend is an oncology nurse. Unlike me, he doesn’t seem too concerned.

“Weird symptoms don’t always mean something bad,” he says gently as I scour WebMD for information about brain tumors and sensory changes. “My dad’s feet have been numb for fifteen years, and no one can figure out why. My sister gets headaches when it snows.”

“Maybe,” I say, not believing him.

“Has your mom talked to anyone?”

“Her doctor. He said she should wait a few weeks, see if it goes away on its own.”

“Okay. I don’t think we need to worry yet.”

Our apartment is in Ann Arbor, nearly an hour away from my parents, but my boyfriend and I still visit every Friday for dinner. Week by week, I see the shift in her. My mother loses weight, her soft middle falling away, her arms shrinking to bird bones. She prefers dessert over all other meals, because they pair well with a salty aftertaste—fancy caramels, lava cakes, squares of dark chocolate.

My father has never cooked for himself—the only things he knows how to make are cheese omelets and grilled meats in the summer—but he doesn’t complain. He is supportive, too.

Like a down-alternative pillow, my mother says. Like an extra-firm mattress.

She is making dinner, the apron tied loosely around her narrow waist.

“Try this,” my father says, giving my mother a caramel latte he picked up on the way home from work. “I hear salted caramel is all the rage these days.”

“For me?”

“I had a coupon for a free one. You know I don’t like sugary drinks. Don’t you want it?”

“Thank you.” She takes a few sips, then sets it on the counter. He drinks his decaf black coffee, sighs with contentment, then swishes with water to clean the residue off his teeth.

My father is a dentist, and as he reminds us over and over, he knows a thing or two about mouths. He helped his receptionist with a similar problem—her tongue was growing tiny roses. At least, that was his best guess. A floral taste, the prick of thorns. All it took was a few days without sun. Indoors, away from all the windows. Without light, without warmth, the garden couldn’t survive. That’s why she sent him flowers the other week, he explains. She had to do something with the garden, once the blooms had all been pulled up.

My mother slams the masher into a pot of boiled, peeled potatoes. “How nice of her,” she says. “What a lovely thing to do.”

She scoops some of the mashed potatoes into a separate bowl for herself, and then adds salt for the rest of us, stirring until all the lumps are gone. My boyfriend glances at me, eyebrows raised, and I make a mental note to explain later. It looks bad, but my father isn’t the romantic type, the secret-affair type, the gives-a-shit-about-flowers type. When the roses showed up on the doorstep, he gave them to my mom, asked her to find a vase. They died within a few days—he kept forgetting to add water.

“Can I help?” my boyfriend offers, and my mother nods.

“That’s sweet of you. Why don’t you set the table?”

My boyfriend lays out the plates, the forks and spoons and knives. My father keeps talking, oblivious to the fact that Mom isn’t listening. It could be a bacterial imbalance, he says, or a side effect of acid reflux. She could’ve damaged her gums with a hard-bristled toothbrush.

“Let’s eat,” my mother says, sliding into her chair.

She has made apple-glazed pork chops and green beans, along with the mashed potatoes. She has added salt for our benefit. While we eat, she pushes the green beans and pork chops around on her plate. My father tells her it’s the best meal she’s made in months.

After he goes upstairs, my mother brings out dessert—cheesecake on scalloped plates. Smooth and creamy, with a graham cracker crust. She sprinkles the cheesecake with dried rose petals, drizzles it with unsalted caramel. She tries one bite, then another.

“You know,” she says, pushing her plate away, “I think I’ll finish mine later.”

The next week, finally, my mother finally agrees to go back to her doctor. I drive her, because I’m afraid that otherwise she won’t go. They do bloodwork, take her vitals, slide her into the long, featureless tube of an MRI machine. Afterward, we stop for milkshakes, so Mom can get some calories in. She twirls her straw, stirring the ice cream as it melts.

“Do you think anything is going on with that receptionist of his?” she asks.

“No. I don’t think so, Mom.”

She nods, takes another small sip. “I didn’t think so, either.”

The test results come back the next day. Her MRI is normal, except for slight enlargement in the part of her brain that regulates desire. Her blood pressure is the lowest it’s ever been. A month later, while my father is brushing and flossing and gargling in front of the bathroom mirror, she’ll tell him she has an errand to run. She’ll get in the car and drive, and keep driving, her whole life snagging behind her like a broken thread, until it finally tears loose. She’ll drive through cornfields and cities and forests of redwoods, and she won’t look back. She’ll breathe the salt-sea air.

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