The kids are at school, the dishes done, and the laundry started. She has no more excuses. She must sit down on the floor, now, in front of the TV, now, turn on the XBox, now, and learn to play.
She hates video games. She’s hated them all her life. From the moment her parents gifted her brothers their first Atari console, she’s thought of video games as the worst waste of time. There were so many more interesting things to do. As a kid she was always outside, running and playing and riding bikes. On rainy days, she liked to play house and school or games like trivia pursuit or do crossword puzzles.
It never mattered, before now, that she never got into gaming the way her brothers did. No one minded, before now, that she didn’t know the difference between a side-scroller, a first-person shooter or a role-playing game.
It mattered now.
Now she had kids, and her kids were gamers.
In her mind, in her world, a good parent was an involved parent. A good parent went to every soccer game, attended every recital. A good parent knew what was in the books her children read, because she’d read them. She knew the TV shows they liked because she watched with them. She knew how to play the games they liked, because she’d played them.
This month, the favorite game is on the Xbox, and it is a side-scroller. The kids finished level three last night before bed, and when they get home from school they will start level four. When they get stuck, they must turn to her for help, not the internet, not a friend, her.
She sits in front of the TV, turns on the XBox and logs into the game. With her laptop beside her, open to a cheat website, she takes the controller in her hands and learns how to complete level four.
Oh how they stare. They know I don’t belong here, but they know why I’ve come.
A once in a lifetime trip. I’ve spent all of my savings and borrowed a fortune to get here. All for this one experience. This one event. This one meal.
The maître d’ leads me to a table and a waiter produces a chair from somewhere. I would have been fine standing but I am not surprised a galaxy-renowned establishment such as this can handle tourists.
The menu is extensive but I can’t read it. I don’t know any of the words. I look up at the waiter, helpless confusion on my face. He nods, takes the menu, and floats away.
I sit there and try to ignore the looks of the other patrons. They lounge on their hover chairs and mumble to each other. A family of three surround a table nearby. I know what they are saying, although I can not hear the words.
“Why bother?” asks the son, “She’ll only eat two mouthfuls and then she’ll be full.”
“That poor skinny thing,” says the mother, “She looks like she’s starving. Don’t they have any food on her planet?”
“All they do is swallow nutro-pills, I wonder if she even knows how to chew,” the father responds.
Finally the waiter returns with a huge platter of food. The smells are overwhelming. I take the utensil, the one called a spoon, and hold it like I practiced. The waiter is floating at my elbow and I look up at him. He suggests I try the one he calls ‘spinachsouffle.’ I scoop a small amount onto my spoon and bring it to my mouth.
The combination of texture and flavor explodes on my tongue. It is, simply, orgasmic.
In that moment I know that all the expense, all the time, all the disdainful stares, all of it was worth it. And I would suffer through it again for the pleasure of that one bite.
He calls from a payphone. “I’m going to the woods,” he says.
I try, “Oh? Um. Yeah?” Then, because I can’t stop myself, “Why?”
“Goddammit!” He explodes at me, “Because it’s all I can f-ing do right now! Ok?”
Quickly, “Yes! Yes, OK.” I take a deep breath. “But just think, you could come here?” He needs to be reminded of choices.
“Yeah, your husband would love that.”
The two men in my life, my engineer husband, with his checklists and fail safes and backups for the backup plan, verses my brother, the artist.
My husband: “If he’s an artist, show me his work. Show me one thing he’s created. Just one.”
I respond with my brother’s words: “Art isn’t quantifiable.”
“Do you have food?” I ask my little brother, “Water, a tent, matches? A shovel? Pliers?”
“Pliers? Really?” He laughs, a low chuckle that flows down my spine like warm water. He knows the joke was contrived, but he laughs anyway. Things aren’t as bad as they seem.
“I’ve got it covered,” He says. This isn’t the first time he’s pulled a Thoreau.
I want to cry. But instead I say, “It’s already fall.” My voice sounds choked. “I wish you’d get a cell phone.”
“You know those things radiate cancer.”
I hold in my sigh. I don’t want to end on an argument. “I love you, Please be careful.”
I hear the clunk of the heavy old handset hitting something, but the connection doesn’t end. Perhaps the bygone pay phone is broken after all. I hear the squeal of the phone booth door and then the sounds of shoes hitting pavement, a brisk walk that quickly fades away.
Long minutes later, I still have the phone to my ear, absorbing the sounds of the occasional passing car and what might be an hooting owl, when my husband enters the kitchen. “Who is it?” he mouths silently. Then he points to the stove. The pasta water is boiling over.
I touch the end call button. “Nothing. Silence,” I say, turning down the flames.
The Old Man insisted on calling her Marcy. Marissa wasn’t in a position to argue with him.
“I’m just reminding you, again sir, that in order to arrive at the signing on time, we need to leave in,” She glanced at the cell phone in her hand, “three minutes.”
He just kept on smiling and forked another pancake onto his plate.
“Marcy, relax. Have a pancake. They’re delicious.” He winked at the cook who blushed.
The Old Man sat at the kitchen table in the tiny B&B he’d spontaneously chosen – instead of the fancy hotel the publishing house paid for. The cook/owner bent over backwards for the famous author, but Marissa had never seen her boss so angry.
You can’t just give in to the Old Man’s every whim! You’re his handler, Handle him!
“We don’t have time, sir.”
“Marcy, sit!” The old man barked, “You’re hovering like a mother hen.”
The commanding tone took her by surprise and she sat without thinking. He took her empty plate, put a pancake on it, and put it in front of her.
“Eat!” he said.
“I don’t eat carbs,” she said, cringing at the whine she heard in her own voice. The Old Man made her feel like a teenager despite her twenty years of experience in the book selling industry.
The Old Man snorted. “Marcy, you are an idiot.”
She’d been called an idiot and worse before. But for some reason, this client got to her.
No, I’m not, sir,” she snapped. “You are a rich old man used to getting your own way and you don’t care that your actions, or rather lack of action, will make me suffer.”
“How will my enjoyment of these fine pancakes make you suffer, exactly?” He said, still smiling.
She glanced at her phone where the messages from her boss were already piling up. “If we are late, again, I will get into trouble, again, with my boss, with the signing planners, and with your fans.”
He laughed and said, “I will tell them it was my fault.” He waved his fork in the air, a benevolent wizard with a magic wand.
Marissa shook her head. “I will still be blamed. Because you cannot be blamed.”
The old man sighed around his smile and looked down at his plate, “I am sorry for your suffering.” He punctured another piece of pancake, “But I am going to enjoy these pancakes.”
He looked back up at her, a hard glint in his watery blue eyes. “I am very old. These might be the last pancakes I ever have. We will leave when I feel it is time to leave. They will wait. The world will not end if I am late. In fact, I might, if I feel like it, take a stroll through that lovely garden down there,” he gestured through the window behind Marissa, “and skip the signing altogether.”
He put the forkful of pancake in his mouth.
Marissa turned to look out the window. She hadn’t noticed the garden. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Like a picture from a fairy tale, with flowers, miniature trees, and a winding path of white gravel. She felt relaxation seeping into her bones just by looking down at it.
It would be nice to take a stroll, to skip the signing. He was right, the world wouldn’t end. She could picture herself sitting there, enjoying the sun. But she knew what came after that. Boredom. She didn’t like to vacation on the beach. She didn’t like to wander.
The stress of work made her feel alive, needed, and useful. She lived alone, her job was her life, and she liked her life.
She stood and left the kitchen. While she waited, she called her boss and let the other woman vent her frustration with the Old Man on a patient ear.
Eventually the Old Man appeared, hat in hand, ready to go. Marissa took his arm and helped him to the waiting limo, but before closing the door on his smile, she said, “We are real. We do exist. We think and feel and breathe in and out.”
He looked at her, his smile questioning now.
“Just in case you forgot.”
The smile faltered.
“I enjoy schedules and plans,” she said. “I like planning things out ahead of time. I get tremendous satisfaction out of checking items off a list. This does not mean that I am living my life wrong.”
The words came out quickly – she knew the driver was anxious to depart, and she respected his anxiety.
“There is no wrong or right way to live a life.”
She started to close the door, then stopped and said, “And at your age, you really ought to know better.”
Daily Prompt: Comfort Zone – What are you more comfortable with — routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?
The question comes from behind me, an unexpected place.
“What do you want?” she asks again.
The question hits my right shoulder, and bounces off my head. I have been waiting for this question my entire life, but the pain of it shocks me into silence.
I turn to see a woman there, asking a child to make a decision. She is surprisingly calm, patent, waiting for her son to answer.
The boy shakes his head, looking up at the sign, “I don’t know.” His mother nods, and takes him by the hand, “let’s wait over here until you are ready.” She waves at the people behind her to go ahead.
But she and her son are not the cause of the delay, and I cannot step out of line, I’ve already started my order. I go back to the basics. I breathe in and out. I listen to my heart beating. After a century of seconds, I am calm. I finish reciting my order to the pimply boy with the paper hat and move away. Nobody yells at me.
The airport is quiet today, not like last week or the week before, when more obnoxious children and mothers, finishing their summer holidays, yelled and screamed about wants and needs. “Just make a decision!” Screeches echoing off vaulted ceilings decorated with model planes that never fly away from home and never crash.
The boy decides. The mother’s kindness infects those around her, who gladly let her and her child back in line. The mother asked, the boy answered, the mother provided.
The question still hurts and I rub at the sore spot, trying to smooth it away.
“It’s different this time,” she says to me, out of nowhere. We’ve been talking about movies we’ve missed over the summer.
“What’s different,” I ask, although I know what she’s going to say.
“I don’t think I’ll make it out this time.”
A dozen glib comments come to mind, but I don’t say them, because I think she’s right. Even though I’ve seen her this way before. The long slide into nothingness, into a sleep that she never quite wakes from. She has a hard time hearing, a deafness caused by the pressure of unreleased thoughts. The slide is longer this time. Deeper. Usually by now there are tears, rages against the unfairness of living because other people say to do otherwise is selfish.
There’s none of the anger this time, just the sadness, growing. Her eyes are empty. It’s even in the way she talks, flat, with an economy of breath, like she knows she’s running out of air.
She’s leaving. She’ll save her breath for the good-bye.
I lean away from her. I have to leave now. I can’t let her drag me down into that abyss with her. I can’t go there again. I have too much to do. I have a house to maintain. I have a man to love. I have a job. My life is good now, dammit. It is good. There is nothing to be depressed about. Not anymore. I’ve made all the changes. I have the mantras. I know the signs to look for. Deep breaths and exercise and plenty of sun.
They’ll keep her here for a while. But not forever. Eventually she will go home, and this time she’ll do it for real, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop her.
She’s already gone.
Not me. Not me. I pick up my purse from the tiled floor. I stand up, my thighs peel away from the plastic chair. She stands too and misinterprets my pulling away from the chair as a lean towards her. She puts out her arms for a hug, limply, a habit of motion only.
I don’t want to touch her, but I also respond to the habit of the hug. My arms go around her and suddenly we are both hugging tight, too tight. We are each others lifelines but we are both drowning.
I can’t save you, I scream at her, at myself.
At home, he asks me how it went. I shrug. I won’t say my thoughts aloud. It might make them come true.
He kisses the top of my head and tells me he loves me. “I know,“ I say. Our little joke. Because sometimes I can’t say those words.
“I’m proud of you,” he says.
I feel sick to my stomach. “Why?”
“I know how hard it is for you to go there.”
“I’m not going back.”
“I know,” he says.
Our little joke. Because that is what I said yesterday.
Daily Prompt: Proud – When was the last time someone told you they were proud of you?
Patrick gave his mother’s unresponsive hand another squeeze before letting go. He stood up and walked over to the window. The view of the park was something even he could admire and he thought again what a shame it was that his mother couldn’t see it. She’d worked hard for a long time to save up the money to pay for this place, it was unfair that she went into a coma before being able to appreciate what her hard work paid for.
With his back to her, he started his carefully rehearsed speech. “Mom, I have something to tell you.”
He turned back to glance at her face and to the machines that monitored her heart and lungs. No change. “You have a grand-daughter, her name is Lilly and she is 36 years old and she has two kids and she lives in the city.” The words came out in a rush, as if now that he’d finally decided to tell her, after almost four decades of keeping the secret, he had to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Was that a change in her heart rhythm? The doctor said there was no reason to assume she wasn’t aware of what was going on around her. He watched the monitors for a moment longer. No, nothing had changed.
He turned back to the window.
“Do you remember that time I called home from school and said I crashed into a professor’s car and needed to get it fixed? You and Dad sent me two thousand dollars? Well…”
Patrick cleared his throat and realized telling his mother about an unknown grand-daughter wasn’t as hard as telling her about the lie.
“Well, there wasn’t any car accident. I gave the money to this girl I was seeing. She was a really sweet girl, mom, smart and funny. We were friends for a long time before… The point is she ended up pregnant. And I gave her the money to pay for an abortion. She said she’d take care of it.”
Many years later – a little older and wiser, he’d realized that two thousand dollars was too much for an abortion, but the girl hadn’t come back to school the next semester. In fact, he’d never heard from her again.
“I guess she lied to me like I lied to you.”
He watched through the window as a breeze picked up some early fall leaves, swirled them in a mini tornado then disappeared.
“Anyway, she took the money and moved to the city. She raised Lilly all by herself for a few years but eventually she got married. Lilly grew up calling that guy ‘dad.’ She says he was a good dad, but a little while ago she decided to find me.”
Lilly tracked him down to the law firm in the city where he’d worked since graduating. She didn’t call ahead, she just showed up one day. He’d known almost immediately who she was. She looked just like her mother. But it was his own lopsided grin he saw on her face that clinched it for him.
“She didn’t ask me for anything, she just wanted to meet me and to see what kind of guy I was.”
Patrick paused for a moment. The park was almost empty this early on a weekday morning, but he could now see a woman walking along the path towards the front door of the nursing home. The woman led two kids, a boy and a girl, by the hands. The girl had red hair like his. Her name was Patty.
“She wanted to know if I could handle being a grandfather, since I missed out on being a dad.”
He’d never married. His college sweetheart left without saying goodbye and took his heart with her.
A joyful sound came from the heart monitor. As he turned back towards the bed, he watched his mother move her hand on her own for the first time in weeks.
“Doctor!” Patrick yelled.
The attendant burst into the room. He scanned the equipment then pulled out a stethoscope and listened to the old woman’s chest.
“What’s happening?” Patrick asked.
The man took off the stethoscope and pulled out a flashlight.
“Well, I think… maybe,” he said, flashing the light across his patients eyes. Patrick’s mother blinked slowly, once, twice. “Yes. Good. It looks like your mother is waking up.”
A few months ago, Robbie’s 2nd grade class had added a class photo and a picture of the last Space Shuttle to his school’s time capsule. Today, as he stood near his grandfather’s grave, watching the people throwing mementos on the coffin, Robbie thought it was just the same. Except no one was going to dig it up in fifty years and ooh and ahh over all the old stuff.
Robbie thought long and hard about what to throw in for his grandfather. Mom said it should be something special that would remind Grandpa of Robbie. Just like the teacher had said, the picture of the last Space Shuttle was something that made this year special.
Grandpa liked playing cards, usually War because there was no way to cheat. He liked puzzles, the ones with millions of pieces. But throwing a deck of cards or a box of puzzle pieces didn’t seem right. They weren’t special enough.
The thing Grandpa loved most was his trains. In the basement of his old house, Grandpa had a huge oval table with a hole cut in the middle to stand in. A model town covered the table with a train track running through it. There were tiny trees and fake grass and little houses and stores and even streets with cars that could get stuck at the railroad crossings.
Every Sunday they went over to Grandpa’s house for eggs and bacon after church. As soon as he was excused, Robbie ran downstairs to see if he could find the new thing Grandpa had added to the table. Mom always warned him not to break anything but he knew it was ok because Grandpa liked fixing things.
The basement smelled funny and the lights that hung from the ceiling made a funny sound. Sometimes one of the long bulbs would start flashing on and off. Grandpa would just tap it softly with his finger to ‘calm it down,’ and it would stop. When he was little, Robbie asked Mom if Grandpa had magic in his hands, because they could fix anything. Mom just laughed and said that Grandpa was Clever and that was better than magic.
Sometimes the new thing on the train table would be easy to find. A new house or a new train car. But sometimes the new thing was really hard to find. Once it had been a tiny gray cat walking along the sidewalk. Grandpa, amazed at how fast Robbie spotted the cat, had told Mom that she should be proud to have such a Clever boy.
At the grave, it was Robbie’s turn. In his hand he held the most special thing in the world. It was a tiny model school-house, Robbie’s first addition to the train table. It wasn’t finished. Grandpa went into the hospital right after the Sunday that they started working on it. This morning, when they were all at Grandpa’s house before the funeral, Robbie sneaked downstairs to see if he could add the white paint for the windows and doors, but the paint had dried up.
Robbie uncurled his fingers and looked down at the little half-painted structure laying in the palm of his hand. This really wasn’t like the school’s time capsule, he thought, because Grandpa was the only one who would ever see the things they put in the grave. And even though the model was the most special thing in the world, it seemed wrong to throw it in like this.
He looked up at Mom and whispered, “I want to finish it.” Mom nodded and wrapped her hand around his, closing both around the unfinished memory.
Jen marches into the seemingly empty kitchen and eyes the house plant. It hangs neglected, yellowed, wilted, from a hook in the ceiling. Jen crosses the room, snatches the shears from the knife block then turns to attack the plant.
“A house full of people, and no one takes care of the plants.” She says to herself.
She starts cutting, removing dead leaves and stiff vines.
“Ten people in this house,” she says, her voice rising with every snip of the shears. “Six adults and four children, and not a single person remembers to water the damn plants.”
Brown and yellow leaves flutter to the floor.
“OK, you can’t expect the shit-storm to handle watering duties, but there is no excuse for anyone else.”
“Shit-storm” she says again, enjoying the sound of her new nickname for her sister’s baby.
“Shit-storm!” She yells.
The denuded houseplant hangs quietly. The cuttings form a pile at her feet.
She steps back, away from her work, slapping the shears onto the kitchen table.
She hears a gasp.
Bending down, she sees her nephew, her brother’s middle child, crouching under the table, a toy car clutched in his little hand. He looks up at her through wide eyes under a tangle of too-long hair.
“You need a hair cut, kid.” She tells him.
He scoots away from her, eyes growing even wider.
She laughs, “No, no, not now, not by me. Don’t worry, kiddo.”
Smiling, she puts the shears away, gathers up the cuttings and takes them out the back door.
I see her. She sits at the kitchen table, the laptop is open and her hand is on the mouse, but she is looking out the window. She looks bored. Her eyes follow the movements of her four-year-old daughter. She looks back at the laptop. She clicks to refresh the screen. No new emails. She turns back to the window.
I know what is going through her mind, she is wondering what her son is doing right at this moment. She knows he is fine, but she can’t stop wondering. He’s been her constant companion for six years. But now, three weeks into kindergarten and it’s like he’s been going to school all his life.
This morning she walked him into the school as usual, but instead of holding her hand, he ran ahead, into the surging mob of children. She could only watch as he found his own way to his classmates, as he started a conversation with his teacher. She waited for him to remember that he hadn’t given her a kiss goodbye. She waited and waited, her younger child’s hand forgotten in her fist. He never turned around. The teacher marched the children in a sloppy line into the classroom. She watched her son. He smiled and laughed and talked and completely forgot to look, to turn, to see her standing there. Waiting.
I watch her wander around the house while he is gone. She takes good care of her other child. She straightens and washes, she picks up and puts away.
She watches the clock and I can hear her say, “he is having snack time now. Now he’s at lunch. Today is Wednesday, so now he is at the library.”
She watches her daughter playing by herself.
I see a little girl, a second child, just like her mother. She will grow up content within her own thoughts. She won’t seek validation from others, she will grow up confident and strong. She will never be dependent on anyone. Until she has a child. A child so completely a part of her that she will depend on his moods to know her own.
Until the day he forgets to turn back: on that day he will release her. She will return to her own thoughts, recognize her own moods. She will take a breath and look around, and say, “Now what?”