Fourteen Years Ago
She was wearing the same floral robe that she wore every morning. It was an objectively ugly terrycloth getup––but it was his mother, so he never said anything nor did it bother him. Her hands shook as she passed the paper plate (also coated with a floral pattern reminiscent of a 1986 retirement home tablecloth) to him. A piece of toast. Burnt. Strawberry jam. An opaque, muted red color, like the color of the whites of her eyes––it was obvious she had been crying.
Today was his birthday. Fourteen years ago she gave birth to her only child, her only son. Chris often thought that his “family situation,” as the therapist called it, was similar to the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Joseph was just a meaningless placeholder for Jesus’ real father, the big God with a capital G, but at the same time, wasn’t Jesus just supposed to be the earthly incarnation of God the Father, with a capital F? His reluctance towards his Catholic education might have been to blame, which is what the nuns at school agreed was his problem, in their attempt to invigorate his own personal excitement for the Lord and quell his constant questioning. Maybe his understanding was just compromised. He was certain, however, that he did not want to be an incarnation of his real father––he did not want to be a man that left his wife, floral robe and all.
“Happy Birthday,” she said. Her skin had a seemingly waxy coat to it; she hadn’t washed her face yet. Her freckles looked greyer this morning, like tar coating sand particulates at the beach. Her hair was thinning and had fallen out in chunks but Chris didn’t know that. Her blue eyes were dimmer, a bit older, but maybe that was because she had been crying––but aren’t eyes not supposed to age? A single candle, with a solemn pinstripe swirling down the cheap white wax, had been shoved into the middle of the piece of toast. The shallow divot barely supported the candle, and the wick barely the flame.
She walked towards the counter to grab her coffee cup, her slippers sticking and re-sticking to the linoleum with every step.
“Thanks Mom,” he said. He checked the clock. 7:46am. The bus was going to be here soon.
“See you after school, Mom. I love you!”
There was still frost on the grass when he walked outside. He slumbered on down the aggregate pathway that had a crack running from the front door down to the concrete sidewalk. His mother had always said that it appeared after he was born and that she never remembered a time without it, it had just always been there––which is why there was no point in getting it fixed. He sat on the curb, feeling the crack on the sidewalk touch his leg through his navy school uniform.
Pierrot 1996. It was written in the concrete––his father’s last name. He drew his eyes away from it. Blowing the flame out, he laid the candle on its side and dropped the paper plate so it covered up the name, leaving only his birth year, 1996. It wouldn’t be a permanent fix but it would hold, until the wind carried it away. He promised to etch it out himself one day.
The bus came. He took a window seat and finished the piece of toast he carried with him. He watched his mother clean her coffee cup through the kitchen window and sit down. Her hands moved up to cover her face, as if she was attempting to cover up the physical toll of fourteen years with her hands, but it wasn’t working. Her hands were much older now, too.
I hope she knows that I will always take the bus back home, he thought.
In front of his seat was the first-aid kit. Little packets of antiseptic and band aids of all sizes protruded from the different holes made by the broken zipper. He grabbed an antiseptic packet and ripped it open. It smelled to him like alcohol, or bleach, something similar to the surface-cleaning solution his mother was probably using now to wipe down the kitchen counters.
No cake, no sweets, but maybe dinner––grilled cheese sandwiches. Just how she used to make them, before she remembered that life is not as easy or as simple as waking up with a smile on your face and cooking grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner.
She remembered when Chris was just little Chris and he would sit in the kitchen, on the same wooden chair she sat in now, and his toes could not touch the ground. His nonfunctional little fingers would grip the bread too tightly and butter and cheese would end up all over the table and all over his chin. Mary tried to smile. She wanted to, she knew this memory was darling, or cute, or adorable, like the other mothers had always called Chris.
They didn’t understand the instability of a life––her own life––propagated by the constant sensation of feeling stuck in the midst of a thick grey fog at an unclean beach, the looming possibility of a sneaking wave or a sneaking man coming from any angle and taking her away. Chris was the only thing she had. She couldn’t keep her husband around but she didn’t want him around with his groping hands that were dry and cracked and often found their way into clenched fists before Mary could ever say “no.”
She used to think that a man’s hands were supposed to be rough. Manly hands are supposed to be rough, right? Callused. It shows that they have done something before, have exerted their power, have shown their strength––whether that strength was asked for or not always seems up for consideration.
Mary was exhausted from trying to repair the hands of her ex-husband––not ex-lover. Ex-lover is a repugnant term when both parties are filled with deep regret for a relationship that was believed to have constituted love. She tried to heal his cracks. To get to the root of the problem underneath the skin. But no kind of lotion, or cream, or ointment, can soothe hate. Maybe that is why she is glued to their kitchen table, to the same wooden chair that little Chris used to sit at before she realized that grilled cheese sandwiches could not bring joy, and cooking in their kitchen could not make a home.
She had completed a marathon––her marriage––that she never trained for, one that she might have signed up for with hope, but like a bad dream, she just kept running and running and made it to the finish line without an inebriated feeling of infatuation. Mary was going to be perpetually tired until something––or someone, maybe herself––laid her to rest. It was a tempting fantasy. But she knew she had to do something special for her son today, so it would have to wait.
Pan, butter, bread, cheese, wait. Her eyes stared off into the soul of the blue flame making the butter crackle.
At least it can do something, she thought, as she watched the blue flame work. Mary was comparing herself to the flame––it could cook, physically cook, it provided a service, it had a proper job, it did something for other people. She felt as though she could not check those boxes off for herself. She believed that she floated like a speck of soot or dangled like a piece of film on her air conditioning grate that Coleridge would have found magnificent but Mary had never liked her literature classes much and saw herself rather as a byproduct of something that had previous potential but sadly burnt out.
Every other parent is effortless, she thought to herself, but it seemed to echo inside of her skull like she was being yelled directly in the ear––she remembers how that used to feel. She thought of Jason’s mom, always seeming to come from hot Pilates whenever Mary saw her in the store. Do you think she can tell I just took my robe off? Mary thought of Emily’s two dads that went everywhere together and were co-presidents of the Parent-Teacher Organization. Max’s mother, the ER surgeon, still had time to make it to each of her four daughters’ separate piano recitals last year.
The cheese was starting to bubble. Mary’s hand missed the side of the pan as she slid down the cheap, wax-coated cabinets that had been installed much longer than fourteen years ago. Her ex-husband used to say he would get rid of them eventually. She sat on the linoleum floor in her floral robe, recognizing the fact that the floor was cold but simultaneously recognizing that she did not care. She knew that she needed to put another piece of bread on top of the half-made sandwich, but there was no motivation in any of her worn muscles to lift her up. The receptors that connected her brain activity to her bodily functions had been cut. Severed. She could no longer stand, nor could she stand up to the annihilation of her own livelihood by her own thoughts.
Mary had always felt this way. For fourteen years it had just been getting worse.
Chris can never see me like this. She laid her head down on the floor, the dirty sleeve of her robe protecting her prematurely wrinkled face. It was not his fault she felt this way––she knew that and wanted him to know everything was alright, which is why the grilled cheese sandwiches were being made––she knew that how she felt was beyond her control. There was to be no assistance or doctor’s visits or therapy (that money was spent on Chris’ appointments, she needed to make sure he was going to grow up relatively unscathed despite the mistakes of his mother). Besides, why try to repair something that has just always been there?
Mary heard a hydraulic squeal. It was the bus. She had twenty seconds to stand up. She had been in this position before and was trying to remember how she stood on her own two feet. But she had continually done it for the past fourteen years, so today was going to be no different.
She pushed herself up. The half-made grilled cheese had burnt a long time ago. Maybe Chris could make his own sandwich now. It is, in fact, his fourteenth birthday, and fourteen-year-olds are relatively self-sufficient. For a split-second Mary was envious of his youth, but soon anxiously realized that once Chris could make his own grilled cheese, she provided very little service to his life. Plus, without his life to watch over, there was really no point in hers. The sandwich was unfinished––and burnt––but she had tried. It had taken determination and teamwork from the innermost workings of her body to do so.
It was a special day for her too, an anniversary. She had turned 35 earlier this year, and was concerned that anyone who knew of that would round herself up to 40. But she was still not that far from 30. Fourteen years ago she gave birth to her one and only son. Seven years before that, she was just Chris’ age. She was now entering into another stage of her life, defined by multiples of seven.
In the third trimester of her pregnancy she felt invincible while her ex-husband was confused. He was not ready to be a father and when he realized he could not fight his pent-up rage and perturbation regarding the conception he didn’t flee either––he slowly backed away while visitors came to Mary to give her gifts and offer support for her growing body and ask how she was to bring her one and only son into this world. He was not enough to admit defeat but had enough of a belief that his manhood relied on less of what he was a part of (a family) and more on what was going to be taken away from him––his free range, with his only burden being Mary.
She saw Chris out of the kitchen window, walking up the aggregate pathway. Five seconds left. She found it odd that he had picked up a piece of trash outside––it looked like the paper plate she gave him in the morning. Did he keep it with him all day or did he leave it outside this morning? Mary found it strange and improbable that he would bring the flimsy Dixie plate to school. Why didn’t he throw it away? And if he didn’t throw it away, why did it not blow away from their yard?
Chris picked the candle up from the plate and placed it in his right hand. It had not been lit for very long in the morning, so it remained relatively intact. He walked up to the front of the house holding the cheap, Safeway-brand green pinstripe candle as if he was lighting an offering at mass. They only did that at school––he couldn’t remember the last time he had gone to church with his mother. He had heard that when they were all together (they being his mother, father, and himself) it was intended that they were to be a churchgoing family. Maybe that was his father’s only intention.
Mary knew she had a good son. Despite the fact that they did not go to church, Chris was being raised like a nice Catholic boy. He picked up trash. Their house was far from holy, but how holy can a church itself be when a mother, who intended to be a consistent patron, only wants to lay herself to rest––with no intention of deliverance to a higher place? Does relief come from lighting a candle and eating a wafer and quickly submerging fingers in a shared bowl of holy water? God created the world in seven days, and Mary was very familiar with the number seven and its restrictive qualities. It could be a multiple but it was a prime number, meaning two smaller numbers could not multiply to make seven. Nothing can fulfill the number seven, except for the passing of time, like reaching another milestone later on down the line, seven days or months or years later. Mary did not have seven more of anything. An unidentifiable, omniscient male figure was never going to provide her with such a gift as reversing creation; God had already exerted his strength by creating the world in seven whole days and he was not going to take that back––he had already backed away when his job was done. She was left to fight with what had been made. Mary realized long ago that most men on Earth already believed themselves to be close to omniscient, and after her ex-husband left, she decided that Chris would still go to Catholic school, but they would not show up under a steeple once every seven days. She couldn’t have faith in a doctrine that might lead Chris to believe that those who kill themselves are not worthy of a proper burial.
Her slippers continually stuck and re-stuck to the linoleum as she walked towards the door to let her one and only son come inside.