WHEN YOU REALLY LOSE SOMEONE by Connie GuoI lost my mother the other day. The experience was not unlike how you might lose a child in a supermarket. Some time passed before I registered her absence. At first, I was deceptively calm about her disappearance, of her slipping inexplicably (though, perhaps, ineluctably) out of existence as though she were the object of some subpar magic trick. It was denial, I think. No different from that tenuously held belief that your child might wander back from the snack aisle on their own or that a voice, tinged with annoyance, might soon buzz over the intercom announcing the discovery of a stray toddler. But when my mother failed to reappear, panic flared up like an irritable rash pebbling my skin. The backs of my eyes burned, and heat bloomed in my cheeks as I scoured my apartment looking for her. I inspected the dusty nooks and shelves of my pantry closet and kitchen cupboards, overturning cans of beans, half-eaten boxes of cereal, and bags of white rice. I rummaged through the fridge to track down some trace of her but only managed to crack eggs and spill skim milk across the tiled floor. I sought out her scent in the laundry room amidst the chemical fumes of detergents and fabric softeners and peered into the gaping metal maws of the washer and dryer. I looked under the bed, my knees knocking on the wooden floorboards, neck craned sideways, half-expecting to catch her flattened against the floor with her limbs splayed like a spider, peering back at me. I searched for her in the bathtub and the toilet, at the bottom of pill bottles and behind photo frames, in the clay pots of parched plants and past the glossy veneer of old magazines — until her absence began to feel like an indelible presence of its own, reverberating in the empty spaces of my apartment.

Finally, I gave in and video-called her. But my mother looked alien and unfamiliar mediated through the pixels on my phone. Her black bobbed hair featured new coarse grey streaks. Sunspots — darker than I remembered and more numerous, too — dotted the loose skin of her face like flecks of paint flung off the tip of a brush. There was a queer flatness to her face and an uncharacteristic twitchiness that flickered along the wilted corners of her mouth. Her lips had grown thin and dry, and I couldn’t stop watching them as she spoke, interjecting and cutting me off as my mother was wont to do, snagging the conversation on offhanded comments that she spun into lectures laced with biting critiques and indirect slights. I can’t remember how I responded to her or what the precise contours of our conversation were, but I remember her eyes and the odd bulbous quality of them (perhaps a product of the camera angle), the way they wandered absently to the side when I spoke as though they were rolling marbles.

As I stared at her, the liquid rush of panic from earlier began to cool and congeal like plaque in my veins. I knew my mother was gone, but I couldn’t tell anymore which one of us was the child at the supermarket — who had wandered off, who had gotten abandoned, who was the one who never came back.

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