A Short Story
“It’s another woman,” says my mother. She blows out a stream of cigarette smoke and taps her acrylic nails against the table. “He’s such a bastard.”
The outdoor cafe where we’re having lunch pretends to be a garden. It also pretends to be French. I hate the food here, but Mother always insists on eating “someplace decent.”
“Are you sure it’s another woman?” I ask because I know that it’s not. I’ve spoken to the bastard and I know the reasons why he’s leaving Mother.
“Of course it is.”
The waiter brings our salads, prompting Mother to extinguish her cigarette. He fills up her empty wine glass and glares at my still full water glass.
“You agree with me, don’t you, Madison? He’s being unfair.”
“It’s your fourth divorce. Aren’t you used to this yet?”
Mother’s jaw drops as her fork clatters to the table. “Maddie!”
I’m tired. Out of sorts. Definitely not in the mood to play the adoring and understanding daughter. But Mother’s green eyes cloud with hurt and her lower lip trembles. She drains half her wine and reaches for the pack of cigarettes on the table.
“I’m sorry.” Not really. I poke at my salad with my fork so I don’t have to look at her. Mother doesn’t draw out another cigarette. Instead she finishes the wine and stares down at the empty glass as if the answers to her life were etched in it.
“You always take — took his side. You never take my side. Where’s my support? I’m your mother, for God’s sake.”
I should be used to her selfishness. The I-am-queen-of-my-world-and-yours approach she takes with her life — often forgetting the three children she brought into the world. I’ve always felt like an afterthought — a toy Mother would only play with when she couldn’t find anything else to do. I don’t feel like coddling her today, so I say nothing.
“Where the hell is the waiter? My glass is empty.”
“You’ve had three already.”
“You sound like him.”
I know better than to say anything else about her drinking. Or her smoking. Or those pill bottles rattling around in her purse. If I could paint my mother or put her inside a poem, the title would be Wasted Potential. Everything she could have been — the things she could still accomplish — are always lost in her choices. She’d rather have a man or a drink or a pill than to find herself. She hides from happiness like a little child ducking under the bed covers to hide from the boogie man. She doesn’t like contentment. It scares her. God forbid she discover her own soul.
The waiter doesn’t appear. Mother opens her purse and takes out a brown bottle. She pops two little white pills — swallows them without water, a real pro. I can’t help but ask, “What are those?”
“Prescription, dear. My nerves.”
I put down my fork. I don’t want the damned salad anyway. Mother hasn’t touched her food, either. She opts for another cigarette.
I told her once that I would probably die from secondhand smoke. She told me to shut up and leave her one vice. That was before she started drinking again. And pill popping.
I don’t want to be here anymore.
I swallow my sudden nervousness. “Mom — ”
“Thank God!” Mother exclaims as the waiter appears. He fills the glass and Mother tells him to leave the bottle.
I can’t wait anymore. I have to tell her. “I’m moving to Seattle.”
Mother sloshes the wine she’s pouring. A red stain spreads across the white tablecloth, but she doesn’t bother to dab at it. Instead she puts the wine bottle on the table and stares at me.
Because I don’t want to watch you destroy yourself. “I took a new job.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“I bet your sister knew, didn’t she? You and Grace were always close. And Tom. You always tell your brother everything, too. But not me. None of you kids ever appreciated me.”
Oh God. Not this again. “Can’t you be happy for me? It’s a good job. More money. A better apartment.”
“You’ll be so far away. Tom and Grace…they aren’t like you, Maddie. They say mean things to me.”
“They’re — we’re worried about you.”
“What for? There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Right, Mom. Everything’s great. You’re getting another divorce, you drink yourself into blackouts, and your body is so pumped with drugs, your corpse will be a chemist’s wet dream.”
Mother’s face reveals confused hurt. She’s perfected that look over the years and I’ve never been immune to it. My anger subsides, leaving weary acceptance in its wake.
Her gaze shifts from me to the half-empty bottle. She studies it as if she’s debating whether to be polite and pour its contents into the glass or if she should just chuck etiquette and guzzle it all.
“Don’t you love me, Maddie?” she asks.
A sigh billows out of me, disturbing the drooping lettuce on my plate. “Of course.”
“Then why are you leaving me?” Tears glitter in her eyes. They won’t fall, those tears. She knows how to make her gaze shine with diamond sorrow. Then, when she’s assured her target feels guilty, her eyes will dry without so much as smudging her mascara.
She doesn’t see me or my siblings all that much. In fact, I’m the only one who agrees to what we call these occasional lunches with our birth giver: Swallow and Wallow. My siblings have created their boundaries. It’s time for me to create mine. “I’ll visit,” I lie. “You won’t even know I’m gone.”
She nods. “I suppose I can visit you, too. LA isn’t that far from Seattle.”
It’s a lifetime away. A second chance away. A geographical sanctuary away.
She will never visit.
And I will not miss her.