I pour the tea carefully, with a good grip on the handle, my other hand barely touching the bottom of the pot with a hotpad. I couldn’t spill it. I couldn’t. Yet I do.
She isn’t a large woman. Her hair soft curls of yellowed white unless it’s just after the monthly hairdressing appointment when it’s cut and rinsed in blue. Her haircolor affects her mood. She mellows as it fades. Blue is her strength, her demanding self emboldened by confidence. When blue, she is mean.
“Watch out!” She screams it loud, much louder than necessary. It’s obviously not necessary at all because I’ve seen it too. The small puddle at the side of her cup on the table. I fill the cup and rush to put the pot back on the stove, clanging it on the grill in an alarm to call more attention to my ineptness.
“Wipe it up!” she says. She is vigorously brushing at her lap as if she’s been hit with steaming hot tea. “Hurry! Before it damages the table.” The table is not wood, it is metal. It will not be harmed by the spill but I swipe it quickly dry.
“Don’t use the dish towel,” she says. “That’s stupid. Now it’s stained.”
She is seventy-three years old and has always been this way. It has worsened since she cannot get around by herself. Her body, she says, has let her down. Otherwise she’d be the out on the town, she says, having a good time with people who appreciate her. Like she used to before her knees gave out from her own weight and I had to come back here to live with her. She is my mother and I hate her.
“You going to work today?” she asks.
“Of course. I have to,” I say.
“Don’t forget to leave me lunch.”
“I won’t.” I’ve already fixed her lunch and left it on the middle shelf of the fridge, where she can easily get to it. A special lunch today; last night’s soup in a separate bowl she can microwave to heat up and spiced up, as she likes it.
“Once,” I say, “once in all this time. I was running late.”
“Because you were out carousing the night before.”
“I was not. I had the flu, remember? And nobody says ‘carousing’ anymore.”
“And drink on top of it.”
My mouth shuts and locks. I never win these arguments. I cannot let it ruin my day. I will escape into the world of cubicled offices and focus on insurance policies and statistics and take delight in balanced accounts. Until worry slips in that she’s fallen and dying at home.
And I smile.
“What’re you grinning about?” she demands. “Like a dumb monkey,” she says. Only she’s not here. She badgers me in my own head.
Around four-thirty my chest compresses. I take short shallow breaths to accommodate the changed smaller size of my lungs. It doesn’t matter because they’ll work fine. By the time I get home and walk in the door, I’ll be several inches shorter too. But the house is strangely quiet. No television blasting out the wisdom of TV-land judges or self-appointed talk show hosts that she takes as gospel reality to live by. To help her understand and explain why she has such a terrible life. A dead husband. A lazy fat stupid daughter.
“Ma?” Nothing. She’s eaten, I can see that. I leave the empty bowl and spoon on the table as she’s left them. I check each room, calling her. Half-expecting to see her sprawled on the floor. The bathroom door is closed. “Ma, are you in there?” I knock. My fingers, unsteady, slow as if they don’t yet want to know, close around the doorknob. It’s locked.
Quieter now, less insistent because fear and joy are a strange combination. Conflicting it would seem and yet oddly compatible in physical response. I imagine my brain sending electrical impulses down my arms. My jelly legs buzzing with trepidation (anticipation?). I hold in the brief breath I’m allowed and once more call softly, “Ma?”
published 28 September 2011
Every day the front door closes, and every day I wish I’d said goodbye.
I talk to my plants, telling them how she was always the prettiest girl, the one the boys caught and kissed, the one meant to leave this dead end town and Do Something.
But she never did.
I sit and count the commercials on TV from my chair by the veiled window. Three dead flies lie on the windowsill, legs clutched to shiny black chests as if in prayer. I’ll have to speak to her about that. No-one will visit if they look in the window and spy that.
Perhaps the mailman will call. The TV announcer changes shift, marking time for my mid-morning coffee, and I guess we’re not getting any mail today, so the mailman won’t call. He’ll be on Peach Avenue by now, blocks past our house, into the streets named after fruit trees and out of the avenues of Founding Fathers. We’re on Adams Avenue, and not for the first time I think how much our street sounds like the punch line to the kind of bawdy joke Len’s friends used to tell before they caught me looking.
The phone rings and I mute the TV, answer, voice bright:
But she isn’t checking on me. She never does.
It’s a survey, and I want to talk to her, she sounds a nice young thing, but she asks me how many toilet rolls we use in a week and I hang up. Nice girls don’t talk about that.
Nine more commercial breaks then it’s time for lunch. My stomach isn’t grumbling, but this is when Len and I used to stop whatever we were doing and enjoy lunch – and each other if we had the house to ourselves. I miss that. Not just the company, but everything.
The fridge beeps at me as I take too long taking the bowl out. Everything takes too long, now. Into the microwave, and I can already smell that she’s skimped on the spices. Second day soup can be unforgiving to its creator; I root through the cupboard for seasoning as the machine burrs and my knees ache from standing. I used to walk miles.
She must have used up the last of the ‘Happy Hoi Sin’ mix, I can only find a new tin, unopened, with a stupid red circle on the front shouting ‘New Recipe!!!’ at me as if one exclamation mark wasn’t enough.
I need to sit down. I wonder what she’s having for lunch, and who with.
Her father bought me this table. It was when we were courting; I opened the front door one spring morning and there he was, sitting there with the smile he passed to his daughter - not that I ever see it now - and breakfast laid out for me under the old cherry tree. Pancakes, maple syrup, and the sweetest orange juice I’d ever tasted. We sat there in the shade as blossom fell softly in the breeze, floating in my juice till he fished the petals out. I wanted to lick his fingers and I knew then that he was the one for me.
She doesn’t know it, but when she’s away I move his portrait to the table. It’s good to have eyes to gaze into as you eat. She told me I didn’t need to check her dusting, that she does it right, she always does it right, and I know she does. I can see. But somehow, it doesn’t come out that way.
She shouldn’t have to work. There should be grandkids and a son-in-law for me to tease. She comes home so stressed, I can see it when she chews her lip, she’s just like her father. I hoped maybe by me buying insurance, upping her figures, she’d get a raise or something. Maybe a nicer desk. Near a window. But no.
Ding! The light in the microwave goes out. Soup’s ready. It takes a while to get it to the table, and I try to keep my hands steady, but I still spill some, and I click my tongue at this, curse my ailing body under my breath, then feel guilty. I’ll no doubt spill more, my hand shakes when I eat, but I wipe it off our table anyway. She stained the dishcloth this morning, so I use that. I might as well.
I open the lid of the seasoning mix and sniff the brown powder within. It smells the same, I don’t see what’s so new about it, what warrants the fuss of three exclamation marks when one would do. I shake some over the soup in front of me, stir slowly as I read the ingredients. Then pause as I read four fatal letters, nestled in amongst the new recipe’s pepper, cloves, and MSG.
I’m allergic to fish. Not in that namby pamby way where celebrities bloat and children grow red-speckle rashes. Properly live-or-die allergic.
And she knows it. She just doesn’t care enough to check.
I look at my husband. Leave the spoon in the bowl, go and turn off the TV.
That’s better. I’ll hear him now.
I wait a while, a long long while. It’s cool enough to eat, if I choose.
And I do. Before I can’t.
I think of how he messed as he lay dying in my arms, of the aromas and the embarrassment. Portrait in one hand, ‘Happy Hoi Sin’ mixture in the other, I make it to the bathroom down the hall. Lock the door, because I always do. It feels wrong not to, even when I’m just doing my teeth. Hold the rim of the bathtub and lower myself carefully as I grow dizzy and sway, sinking onto the fluffy cream bathmat with relief. Lie down and hold him on the floor.
My lips are tingling as from our first kiss.
I hold on till I hear her calling “Ma?”
Then again, almost tenderly,
published 28 September 2011