Heather Matarazzo is a critically acclaimed and Independent Spirit Award-winning actor, whose career has spanned over two decades. Having recently transitioned behind the camera as a writer, director and producer, her debut as a filmmaker, The Avant Gardener – a visual album based around the music of Lindsay Katt to which she and four other filmmakers each contributed two shorts films – which just premiered at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, where it won Best Experimental Short. She is also the host of the podcast Shut Up and Listen, and you can help support her work at her Patreon page here. (Picture by Kristen Wright.)
I am sitting on the plane, waiting to get off. I look out the window, unsure of how I feel – excited, scared, both? The only indicator that I’m feeling anything is my stomach, which gives off such an intense heat it feels as though I’m pregnant with the sun. I watch as row upon row of passengers make their way toward the exit, each one more anxious than the next to get off this cramped plane. Normally I would join them in this deboarding ritual, quietly grumbling to myself as I jockey for a place in line. Today, though, is different; today I am grateful for this procession, as it buys me time. A kindly stranger catches my eye, insisting I get up and cut ahead of him. In this moment, I am not thankful for his courtesy, just bothered by it, as though he knows I am too scared to move and is telling me to buck the fuck up and get on with it. I clumsily pick up my belongings, giving a begrudging nod of thanks as I make my way toward the exit.
The hot, humid air of the Carolina terminal engulfs me in a unwanted embrace, exacerbating my uneasiness and already sweaty palms. I walk at a slower rate than normal, as if walking slower will delay what I’m about to face. My mind races back and forth, lost in a vortex of contradicting arguments. I do not know if I can do this. Why did I do this? It will be fine, you’ll have a great time. I tell myself this as if I am a loving mother encouraging her ugly child out the door to her first school dance, knowing full well she doesn’t stand a chance. This thought is replaced by the sudden awareness of my quickened pulse and lead-filled chest, which are silently screaming at me to run back home. I do not run, however, but continue my slow, unsteady trudge to baggage claim.
Cigarette pants, coupled with black high-heeled shoes and oversized sunglasses cover a clearly doctored face. A tight black shirt that shows off cleavage and a tattoo whose design I can no longer bring to mind. This is the woman who gave birth to me. This is my birth mother.
She is with a man who wears very thick glasses, paired with dull, lifeless clothing. At first glance, his clothes seem to match his personality (I am later proven correct). His demeanor makes him seem like a cross between a backwoods pedophile and John Wayne Gacy, but I dismiss this impression, reprimanding myself for being so judgmental. They are in the middle of a conversation, which seems like a good excuse for me to hang back, perhaps forever. But I know I cannot; I’m already here, it’s done. Be brave, I tell myself. Mooooove. As I approach, she turns around dramatically, as if she’d been studying Lifetime reunion movies for months in anticipation of this moment. I can tell from just the turn, this is not about me. This is her personal fantasy, and I am playing the role of “long-lost daughter.” She immediately puts her arms out in greeting, silently demanding a hug. I do not want to hug her, but feel it’s the appropriate thing to do when you meet your birth mother for the first time. She lets out some sort of strange yelp, burying her face in my hair, saying something to me which I cannot hear because her words are being muffled into my neck. She releases her embrace, looking at me the way one surveys a monster they’ve made over into a person, a regular Victor Frankenstein. We continue to stand there. She does not move, just keeps staring. I pull out my cigarettes, hoping this will let her know I want to escape from this place, this moment, her gaze. She notices the pack and admonishes me for smoking as she pulls out her own.
When I was a child, I had fantasies of meeting my birth mother. In each of them, I would imagine myself pulling up to a beautiful Victorian home complete with a wraparound porch. A Christmas tree would be on prominent display in the front room. I’d see her through the window, putting the last strands of silver tinsel on the tree. Exiting the car, I would climb the steps, ring the bell, filled with bated breath. She’d answer, her eyes reflecting the same colored blue as mine. “Hello, may I help you?” she’d ask, her voice comforting and curious. I’d reply, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I think I may be your birth daughter.” She’d step back, reeling from what I’d just said. Her eyes would well with tears as she gestured for me to come in. We would sit down and have tea in proper cups with matching saucers. She’d ask me about my life, if I was married, etc. I would tell her about my work, and that no, I wasn’t married. We’d sit in silence for a moment before she’d gather my hands in hers, saying, “I am so sorry. I loved you so much. I was so young when it happened, and I didn’t know how to properly take care of you. Please forgive me.” Tears would cascade down my face, as I offered her forgiveness and my love. We’d hug. End Scene.
We are sitting at the kitchen table, both chain-smoking. A green portable oxygen tank sits behind her. I silently note the irony as I extinguish one cigarette and light another. I am across from the keeper of my past. I do not know where to start, how to begin a conversation such as this. All I can muster is a weak-voiced “What happened?”
I immediately regret having asked. What comes next repulses and fascinates me. She tells me such a tale that even to this day, I can’t believe it was told, let alone that she could possibly believe it.
As she told it, we were in her kitchen in the Bronx, I was two years old. She was making me hot dogs for lunch (“your favorite,” she says), when all of a sudden, BOOM!! My father comes in the house with a Mexican man and takes me. Her voice gets louder as she continues to tell me this insane tale of how she tried to fight them off with a frying pan, begging them to tell her where they were taking me, but was ultimately unsuccessful. A Mexican man? A frying pan? This can’t be right, I think to myself. “A Mexican man came and took me?” I ask, as if I’m a reporter verifying facts. “Yes,” she hisses, challenging my mistrustful intonation. She doubles down on her version of events, but then adds a new piece of information. “There was a nosy neighbor who constantly got into everyone else’s business, and that she might’ve called social services.” She lays out this last tidbit with such bitterness, it makes me internally wince. She sighs, looking at me, as if to ask “ Are you satisfied? Is this what you wanted?”
She rises abruptly, cheerfully asking if I’d like chicken parmigiana for dinner. This sudden change in topic and mood makes it clear to me that this conversation is over. I smile weakly, saying that chicken parmigiana sounds great, hoping my voice doesn’t betray the queasiness that is starting to set in.
She suggests we go the video store to rent a movie while the chicken is cooking. I want to say, “I most certainly do not want to get a movie. I’m not even certain that I desire to be here, and more importantly, isn’t it dangerous to leave the stove on unattended?”, but all that comes out is, “Sure.” I do not like this part of myself, the part that is too afraid to voice disagreement, or make waves. In this way, I am a coward, becoming small and agreeable, rather than facing potential backlash, emotional or otherwise. I rationalize my cowardice with the thought that if I go along with her cheerfully, she will feel at ease, let her guard down, and be honest about my first years of life.
We don’t stay in the video store for long. She chooses Monster-in-Law, saying it’s because she heard that Jane Fonda plays a real bitch, which to her equals a rave review. Returning to the house, which hasn’t burned down, she suggests we sit down and have dinner. The chicken smells surprisingly good, but my throat is not cooperating, as if it’s engaging in a silent protest or protecting me from potential poisoning. The more I will it to relax, the tighter it becomes. I can feel her watching me cut my food, waiting for me to take a bite, exclaiming how delicious it is, which only makes me feel more anxious. Why can’t you just eat the fucking chicken? I ask myself. Just eat it, eat the fucking chicken. Instead, I move the sauce-soaked bird around my plate, picking out the tiniest piece, hoping this will satisfy her. It does not. She seizes upon my tiny bite like a cat on a mouse. She laments that she’s made this dinner just for me, and can’t understand why I’m not going to eat it. Before I can respond, she exasperatedly exclaims that maybe this is too much for me, that maybe I shouldn’t have come. I sit there, like a scolded puppy who just peed on the floor, simply pathetic. I want to cry, but I’ve detached from my body, the way a lone balloon escapes into the sky. I know I need to say something, however, my mind refuses to put together a sentence or a thought. She grabs the plate that’s in front of me, and puts it on the counter with such force, it causes me to jump. I blurt something about baby photos, as if these past few minutes had never occurred. I’m surprised by my own question, and more still by it’s assuredness. She seems surprised as well, almost pleased, as if I had passed a test that she laid out to see if I was worthy of the truth. She tells me she doesn’t, but to follow her, saying she has something to show me.
The first thing I notice are the photos. They are arranged on the table like a shrine. I see a child’s face, no older than three. I am looking at a version of myself. Same blue eyes, dark hair, smile. My heart pangs. How does one miss someone one’s never met? Kathryn tells me the pictures are of my dead brother, Joe. She had briefly told me about him before, relating that he had been murdered when he was 15, though the body was never found. I had tried at the time to gently press her on this, wondering how could she know her son was murdered if the body was never recovered? She had said she’d seen it in a vision. She tearfully relayed that it hurt her too much to talk about. I knew she was lying, but chose to ignore this big red flag waving in front of me. An inner voice screamed, “STOP, SHE’S CRAZY!!! SHE’S A LIAR!!” but I didn’t want to believe that my birth mother was a crazy woman who was capable of lying about one of her children. If I admitted she was a liar, it meant that all of the questions I had would go unanswered and I would never know the truth about the first two years of my existence.
She tells me she’d like me to have a photo of him, as though it’s some sort of birth family reunion consolation prize. I look over the photos carefully, as if I was being given permission to pick out a piece of fine jewelry. I settle on one of him as an infant. He’s sitting in a baby walker, wearing a Jets jersey, holding a piece of Italian bread. I imagine that who I’m looking at is me, but the sad reality is that it’s not. I thank her for the photo, grateful I have something.
The gratitude is slowly replaced by a creeping fear that I cannot place. My mind races faster than my heart can keep up. I need to leave this place. I need to get out of here. I can’t be here anymore. I excuse myself to call a friend. She asks me how it’s going. I relay to her my day so far, including the shrine to my dead brother, Kathryn’s seeming inability to give me any sort of straight answer, and the overall uneasiness I have about being there. She suggests that I be honest, change my flight, and fly home in the morning. This suggestion hits me with force, and I feel a sudden wave of nausea. I tell her I don’t know if I can do that, and she responds, simply and directly, “Pray.” I tell her I will, and I do. Standing in an empty backfield in the middle of North Carolina, I pray to a Spirit I didn’t really know, nor understand or believe in. I pray for courage to be honest, and to release the tremendous fear that I had within me. In that moment of surrender, a thought fills my mind. You are first and foremost a child of the Universe. You are a part of the Sunlight of the Spirit. It was the first time I had ever truly felt the comfort of the divine. Those words hugged my soul, bringing tears to my eyes. In that second, I felt loved, and brave enough to leave.
Kathryn is in the blue room, looking through papers. All of the love and courage I felt in that field mere moments ago is again replaced by terror. I breathe, silently repeating, I am a Child of God. Where God is, there is no fear. This seems to work, because out of my mouth comes, “Kathryn, I think I need to go home.” She turns abruptly, her eyes going dark. “Whaddya mean, you need to go home?” She says it in such a way that it reminds me of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, when she tells her paralyzed sister that she’s never going to let her leave the house. I start to panic, wondering if I’ll be able to leave, or if she’s going to knock me unconscious, tie me up, before slowly torturing me to death. “I’m just having a lot of feelings right now, and I feel it would be better for me to go home,” I stammer, hoping that will be enough. “Well, you’re gonna have to do better than that, kid.” Her tone is malicious, reminding me of those sadistic kidnappers that cruelly mimic their victims who are crying meekly for help. She is looking at me, challenging me for a response. “Feelings that I’ve had since I was five years old are coming up. They are big and powerful and I need the safety of my home to process them.” These words cause my body to shake, the result of emotional tectonic plates that are now shifting. I try to hold back my sobs, not wanting to expose myself to her in that way. She tells me she knew this was too much for me, that I shouldn’t have come. As she says this, she starts to cry. Her tears seem genuine, as if she is finally allowing herself to be in the reality of me, of us, of this. She reaches her arms out for comfort. I allow myself to hug her, to lose myself for a moment in her embrace. She apologizes to me through tears, gripping me tightly, saying that she has always loved me. I tell her I love her and forgive her, and that I’m grateful that I came.
I book my plane ticket for the next morning, reassuring myself that I’ve made the right decision. I find her and her boyfriend in the living room watching TV. She’s wearing a red nightgown, complete with a red silk robe, red feather boa and red slippers. She enthusiastically greets me while patting the seat next to her violently, as if she’s shutting up a talkative seat cushion who is saying much too much. She tells her boyfriend to get the camera, saying she wants a photo of us which she’s going to get blown up and framed for her wall. She puts her arm around me, drawing me into her, acting like we’re best friends. It’s as though she’s determined to reimagine the day’s events, and this picture will be her proof.
I wake up early the next morning to find Kathryn in the kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking. She greets me with a smile, telling me to get some coffee and join her. I can’t tell if her cheeriness is genuine, or if she’s pasting a smile on for my benefit. I seize upon this moment of affection to ask her about my birth father, hoping I’ll at least walk away knowing something. Her face darkens, as if I’ve just uttered “Voldemort” aloud. She dismisses my question, saying that I don’t need to know about him, that he was a drunk and he’s dead, as if that information would keep me from asking her anything else. My heart drops, as a slow and steady rise of anger fills my chest, my pulse pushes through my skin, like a baby trying to make its way out of the womb.
I remind myself to keep my voice calm and steady, knowing that I’m at boiling point. I let her know how important it is to find out who I am and where I’ve come from. I feel like I’m a child again, begging my adoptive mother for crumbs of information. Kathryn looks at me and sighs, as if she has finally put down the heaviest of bags. She tells me that my father built tunnels for the New York City subways, that he was from Ireland. I ask for his name. I can see her hesitation, wondering how much power she’ll lose if she gives this away. She says, “Pat. His name was Patrick Corley.” She smiles when she says his name. “When you were little, he would take you out back and you two would search for fairies. He’d take you to the bar with him, showing you off to all his friends, but he couldn’t stop drinking. He was never at home.” I ask her if she remembers anything else. “I remember after they took you, I tried to find you. They had put you with some family, and the last time I saw you, you were being put on the railroad. After that, they wouldn’t give me any more information.” A clear pattern is emerging. For every truth, a lie. I decide not to press further. This is enough. I have a name, the name of my father.
I let her know that I need to catch my flight soon. She tells me that she can’t give me a ride to the airport, but she’ll call me a cab. I am relieved to hear this. She informs me that she’d like to give me a reading before I go. I oblige. While shuffling the cards, she tells me that her work as a psychic is important, but the call center manager is dirty. “He doesn’t care about these people. He’s just in it for the money. You’ve got to be careful around people like that, especially you. You’re very sensitive and highly psychic.” I say nothing, just silently nod. A horn honks outside, breaking this flow of information. She stops shuffling, and goes to the door. My cab is here. While I’m grabbing my bags, she opens the front door, chatting cheerfully with the cab driver, a portly lady with slightly greasy hair. “Take good care of my baby,” she says. She tells me to wait, that she has something for me. She returns with a gold ring. “ This was your father’s. It was his wedding band. I want you to have it.” I slide it onto my finger; it fits. I’m surprised. I thank her, genuinely grateful for this small piece of him.
Two months later, I come home from a birthday dinner, tired and happy. Before I turn on the lights to my apartment, I can see the blinking light. Fear grips me. I know it’s a message from Kathryn. I don’t want to check my voicemail, afraid of what I’ll hear. Since my visit with her, she has become increasingly belligerent, obsessively calling, leaving angry messages when I don’t answer. I cautiously hit play, bracing for the worst. “Happppy beeerthhday to you, happy beeerthday to you, happy beeerthday …” She sounds like a drunk lounge singer who’s been on the stage too long. She stops midsong, her tone changing. “I’m not drunk, I just have low blood sugar, you hear me?! I’m not!” Click. This was the last time I heard her voice.