Off to War
Who was she? Had she ever seemed so vulnerable and pathetic? I couldn’t know the answer because the possibility had never before occurred to me.
We faced each other across the dining room table, a schoolbook open before me, she writing a letter to my father, her husband, whose chair had been empty for three months and would be for another nine. Behind us in the Florida room my younger brother was lost in the television’s flickering world. As she wrote, she wore an expression of suffering supported by a weak smile. It was meant for me, that I should see the loneliness born of an absent husband and an oldest son whose love for her had taken a new direction, and that through them both she would sacrifice and endure because it was the right thing to do. She wanted me to see this, but I was not touched by it.
“Woman,” I wanted to say, “drop the act because it only disgusts me,” for she was now more and less than mother, but I could only see the weakness of it. She paused thoughtfully every so often, pen to her lips. Her reading glasses sat forward on her nose, her brown hair pulled tightly back. She might have looked like a secretary or a schoolteacher, but I knew better.
I looked at my father’s empty chair. He was off to war. It was something taken as necessary rather than questioned. At that time it was the only way. I hadn’t sufficient mind or initiative to think otherwise. My greatest faith lay in the certainty that my father always seemed to know what he was doing. About his leaving I was more excited than concerned. I never asked if he had to go.
I had watched him pack the day before he left. He moved smoothly between the dresser and the bed on which two suitcases lay open. He wore a light blue sport shirt, and as he laid one of his uniforms in the suitcase, I watched his hands. I had observed them all my life, but was struck now as ever I had been by the seeming paradox that both strength and gentleness could inhabit the one instrument in so fine a balance. The arm that had once wielded the belt in punishment could, in the same day, place on my neck a forgiving hand. The thought disturbed me now for some reason and I asked, “What are your chances of being shot?”
He didn’t flinch. “Not very good,” he grinned. “I’m ordnance, not infantry, remember? Probably a lot of desk work.”
He put the Bell & Howell into the suitcase, and a few months later sent home a roll of film taken from the bay door of a helicopter, the lens looking over the machine gunner’s shoulder and down the barrel of his weapon to the jungle below. But the lie hadn’t been necessary; I never doubted his return. Still watching his hands, I was assailed by a sudden urge to be close and retrieve the smell of him remembered from childhood, to touch him and feel the mystery of his strength. I burned with the need of having it revealed, for the next day I would begin a new life. As if sensing my expectation, he changed the subject.
“How’s the football going?”
I shrugged. “The same. Second team.”
“Are you good enough to be first?”
“Yessir.” I believed this, but what else could I say? I’d have said it whether I believed it or not.
He stopped and looked at me. Such moments made me uneasy, for a demand would be made. “Then why aren’t you?”
I mumbled something about the coaches being against me, about not being given a chance. It was feeble and I hated myself for it.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Maybe you don’t want it bad enough.”
He laid his fatigues in the suitcase. Those are the ones, I thought, the war clothes. But it didn’t bring the war any closer. Even if the country lost, which was impossible, my father never would.
“I’ll have it before you get back.”
He did not look up, but the lines in his face relaxed. Did he believe me? His smile seemed faintly indulgent, as though my aspirations, and the games boys played, were not really so important after all.
“A year’s a long time,” I said.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
Leaning against the dresser, I caught myself in the full length mirror. I was sure I had grown since the day before, and became bold.
“How do you want things run?”
His abrupt look startled me. He stood up from the suitcase and locked me in a gaze of stern appraisal. I wanted to wither beneath it, but held.
“The same,” he said. “Things will be the same when I get back. I want you to give your mother all the help she needs.”
I couldn’t believe this was final, but that night at dinner he reaffirmed it. Because of his leaving, we sat at the table in embarrassed silence, waiting for him to speak. Even my brother felt it: his questioning eyes darted from face to face. Fat steaks steamed before us, their charred odor rising to our pleasure. “Dear Lord,” he began, “make us humbly and truly thankful for these and all other blessings, we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.” A moment later my breath caught as his gaze suddenly fell on me, but he said again to lend her my help. I was the oldest - she would need me. Where he was going there’d be trouble enough. He didn’t need news of it from the home front, and his arm swept the air emphatically. Nothing would please him more than that it looked the same upon his return.
He picked up a bottle of wine and poured it around, even a swallow for my brother. Then we raised our glasses to his safety, the well-being of his family, and to our nation’s victory. My brother and I dove into the steaks with our usual zeal for excess, and on this night even my father set aside some of his accustomed reserve. My mother said, “This isn’t your last meal, boys,” and we laughed. There was more laughter, some of it forced, and much nostalgia the rest of the night, and again he amazed me: stern, hearty, strong, gentle—what was the truth of him? When a silence did fall, I’d look up to see him staring at his wife, and she returning it, as though a secret were being exchanged. He smiled, but she was able to offer only the first traces of that suffering smile, which could not completely know how she would handle the coming year.
Later, watching her across the same table as she wrote her letter, the suffering seemed etched there forever, but it won no sympathy. Her glasses were especially irritating, as though she wore them to enhance her vulnerability.
At first his memory had bridged the nine thousand miles. But didn’t she see that his force was fading, that she needed more than just my help? If she’d only allow what my father forbade. I had tried again at the airport, staying close to him the whole time. When it was time to go he turned and, seeing my expectance still there, frowned briefly. He was in uniform now.
“Who’s that girl you’re seeing?” he asked.
“She’s a nice girl,” he said. “Try to treat her like one.” Then he winked, but I didn’t know what it meant. I was taken again by the need to be close. He embraced my little brother, stroking the back of his head. To me he extended his hand, and I took it, but its touch revealed nothing. He pulled me in for a brief hug and a pat on the back, then turned to my mother and all was lost. They embraced, their bodies meeting in a sudden, lingering fierceness I had never witnessed.
She cried as soon as he disappeared into the plane. Out of a sense of duty, I put my arm around her and led her to the car, which she allowed, seemed even grateful for.
At home, I lent my help by taking over my father’s work. Tasks formerly despised I performed with enthusiasm as part of my new position. The house ran smoothly as he wished, and my mother was grateful. She stopped me once as I was taking out the garbage with a hand on my shoulder. The day’s housework was done, her hair freshly brushed, and she wore a dress with a bright green print that bared her shoulders but slightly. I’d always been proud of her beauty. She chose her words carefully.
“You’ve been a big help,” she said. “I thought your brother might be difficult, but you’ve set a good example.”
It was a responsibility with which I was long familiar. My father set it for me, I for my brother, and one day he for his children, a chain without end. I was vaguely aware of the garbage bag’s stench.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “he knows the old man’s got to come back.” I realized—as a look of surprise, touched by fright, came over her, a look I’d see many times after—that I’d never called my father that in front of her; she hated its disrespect, so I smiled to show it was harmless.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” and her eyes lowered. As I had grown older, closeness had become restrained, yet more was demanded of me.
Our neighborhood was fairly quiet, a suburb of modest two and three bedroom single-level homes, where very little ever happened other than fights between children. On one occasion it was discovered that the nine year old daughter of our next door neighbor had been talked out of her clothes by the twelve year old boy, a friend of my brother, who lived across the street. The girl’s parents were outraged, naturally, and there was talk of calling the police. But it appeared that the boy had not touched her, his apology forthcoming, his parents prostrate with shame, and the whole thing eventually put down to the incorrigible curiosity of childhood. My mother was grateful that her younger son had not been in the other boy’s company that day.
“You know what to do, don’t you, if he tries something like that when you’re around?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, with the irresolution typical of his age.
“Good,” she said, “because if it happens again he won’t be your friend anymore, will he?”
She wasn’t really asking, so he shook his head.
“Good,” she repeated, and that was the end of it.
But a couple of months after my father’s departure, something new disturbed our quiet. One weekend afternoon I was out front hosing down the driveway after washing the car when I heard the screech of tires and looked up to see two cars blocking the intersection in front of our house, one car, a convertible, having stopped at a funny angle that cut the other off. A burly man jumped out of the convertible and then a skinny man in a white shirt or jacket of some kind jumped out of the other and the two rushed, without running, toward each other before the larger fellow suddenly turned and ran back to his car, jumping in and throwing it into gear as the skinny man lashed out with his arm. It was an odd motion, not as though he were trying to hit the man, but somehow more sinister, and as the tires squealed again the convertible sped away, the driver steering with one hand as he clutched awkwardly the arm attached to it. The man in the white shirt-jacket returned to his car and it was then that I saw the barber’s razor in his right hand, which he calmly folded away, as to me he offered a smile and a nod. I recognized him as the man who’d cut my hair down on Corrine Drive not a week before. I watched him turn the corner and pull into a driveway five or six houses down. The frozen hose in my hand had created a good sized puddle in the grass.
My mother had caught a glimpse of the action from the kitchen window, and now emerged through the carport door.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t like it,” she said, “right there in the street where any child could see.” And in her eyes was trepidation of a kind I hadn’t seen before. I told her not to worry, that the men’s anger was clearly, and only, for each other.
“Still,” she said, and returned to the house.
I was no stranger to confrontation, but I had never seen two grown men, as old as my father, completely possessed by a lust for violence. About a week later I got home from football practice to find out that the barber had shot his wife, right there in the house down the street, and that she was dead. Police cars had gathered out front for several hours, and for several days there was a great deal of visiting and excited conjecture among neighbors until finally, savored to its fullest, the event simply faded away. I felt fortunate that it had nothing to do with me. I tried to imagine my father behaving as I’d seen the two men, but could not. I hadn’t known the barber or his wife or the burly lover (of whom we heard no more), and concluded that they were not of our world - in it but not of it.
Two months went by before our own smooth-running house showed its first rough edges. My brother’s grades took a dive. I decided to speak to him at dinner. He didn’t seem to be aware of what was coming, but my mother’s uneasy glances in his direction told me she was about to say something. I moved quickly.
“You better get to work. We got a note from your teacher.”
My brother looked at me with an open mouth full of food, as though unsure he’d heard right. “You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Somebody’s got to. You’d better listen.”
“Shutup. You can’t tell me anything.”
“Well, I can knock that smart mouth off your face…”
“Quiet!” she broke in. “Don’t talk to each other like that.” She looked at me. “I’ll handle this,” and took it all away. She quietly informed him of what would happen to the rest of his life if he didn’t bring his grades up. Did he understand? He nodded, but with no restrictions applied to the present moment, his face was not shadowed by certain obedience, let alone capitulation, and the sly look he gave me was shadowed by something else altogether—defiance. She could not see that the threat of a strong hand was all he could understand. But she had made the decision, and her word was final.
My resentment bordered on anger, but I kept it inside, even as it ignited the rest of my life. I found out that year that I liked hitting people. At practice I played with a new fierceness that won praise from the backfield coach. He held me up as an example of a boy who’d finally gained heart and desire, as though healed by a laying on of hands. Through sheer ferocity I began to share playing time with the boy in front of me, from which position I more fervently uttered the Lord’s Prayer in the team huddle before each game, after the first of which my mother gave me a celebratory hug. “We got to see you play! That’s great!” At home after practice I went to my room and lifted weights and watched myself grow in the mirror. After dinner I lifted again, pushing against some unknown limit, as though one more set would render me invincible. The mirror became more than glass: it was a friend offering reassurance and telling me what I needed to hear.
Though proud of my playing time, my mother watched with a gentle disdain that made light of it, and several times I caught her looking at me with something like fear, which for some reason pleased me. Women were the gentler side of life, part of the reward for taking on the burden of strength. Yet still she did not allow me my rightful place and still I did not defy her.
All my life I had carried an image of her that seemed ordained by something greater than mere kinship, and which guided my every thought and action. She was such a part of me that all my fatuous rebellions had died in its shelter. A distinct fixture against a vague panorama, one incident in particular rose often without being summoned. I was in my mother’s bedroom one morning watching her brush her hair. I was no more than six years old, and my father was gone, off to his first war. As she stroked her hair, it shone in the overhead light and crackled beneath the brush. Sitting on the bed, I watched her reflection in the vanity mirror and asked questions in order to see her speak.
“When’s Daddy coming home?”
“Pretty soon,” she said.
“Is he dead yet?” It was a new word for me and I had a lot of fun with it. But she looked startled for a moment and stopped brushing. I was uneasy and pleased at the same time. Then she smiled. No harm done.
“Of course not,” she said.
I got up from the bed and moved toward her, still watching the mirror. As though caught in a light breeze, her hair fluffed out with each pull of the brush. I didn’t realize she was beautiful: she couldn’t have been otherwise.
“Well when will he be dead?” I asked.
“Will you please stop?” Her smile wavered again.
Die, death, dead; all alike yet different, and so much fun to play with. What was it that troubled her?
“Won’t he ever die?”
She lowered her arms and set the brush down carefully. Then she turned abruptly, reaching out with both arms to gather me in, and I was trapped in warmth, my face buried in her long brown hair.
“No,” she said, “not as long as you’re a good boy.”
I was familiar with that. If that was all there was to it, everything would be easy. Resting comfortably in the world of her arms, I wished never to escape. I carried the feeling intact through all the years, all the way to my father’s second war, so that when she intervened between my brother and me, I was deterred by the idea that if I defied her, the world held in store some grave retribution. And then knowledge I never wanted was thrust upon me.
It seemed that all of a sudden she was staying up late. Several times I got up in the middle of the night and saw a light under her door. I asked about it and she said she was just reading. Since she did like to read, this sounded right, but the hours she was keeping did not. One day, while she was out on some errand, I went into her room. Nothing was in plain sight, so I started poking around and found the reading material in a drawer of the nightstand by the bed. I removed the book, a paperback, and set it next to a picture of my father in full dress uniform, his chest ablaze with colorful ribbons and a medal from the previous war. Eternal Fire, the book was called. I picked it up and began thumbing through, and the fire, page after page, was of the flesh. A grown man was doing something with his hands to a young woman he’d just met on a public bus. They were traveling through the countryside, and the young woman was confused but in the end delighted by his ministrations, and realizing it had drawn me in I suddenly dropped the thing back onto the nightstand, where it lay, devoid of meaning. As awareness took hold, like a hand to my throat, I sat on the bed feeling dizzy. Damn. What the hell was going on? It seemed I could feel my mother’s rude warmth on the bed beside me. But why should I be shocked that she needed this? My face reddened in anger at the limits of my own perception, and all I could think was woman, woman.
In the days following I watched her, and the knowledge I held became unbearable. She might be fixing dinner, watering the lawn, reading a magazine: in any attitude I observed, ‘woman’ rose to my lips unspoken. My mouth shaped its sound like a child with a new and mysterious word, at once fearful and fascinated. Neither could I bear the strange new gaze of familiar objects in my world. The chair that had held my father as he ate and spoke was no longer just that. It was less than that. It was just a thing someone had made, a mere object independent of my needs. Pondering its history, just how little and how much it had to do with me, I found more in a chair than I had courage to face. Now and then I secretly retreated to my parents’ bedroom to examine my father’s picture, and sometimes it worked, but too frequently he appeared suddenly absurd in his costume. So then I retreated still further and took comfort in remembrance of days when there were no ambiguities. If my mother asked me to do something my irritation bordered on fury, and still I said nothing. She could sense it. She watched me and I saw her attitude alter in an effort to hold me where I was, as though afraid I’d change, perhaps already had, into something else before her eyes. Her attitude was this one of “oh see how I suffer.”
That was how we found each other at the dining room table that night, she writing the letter, I with the schoolbook, and between us the chair that had once called out to me, and I wondered whether, if I sat in it, my desire would be quenched through simple transference and the matter settled.
She looked up from the letter. A strand of brown hair fell loose and dangled over the rim of her glasses, rendering her impetuous. She lifted it behind her ear.
“Is there anything you want me to tell him?”
“Tell him I was moved up to first team.”
Her smile was still suffering, but now also condescending, making light again. Damn that smile, woman.
“Tell him I got into Jane Palmer’s pants.”
“I heard you. Why do you talk to me like that?” The edges of her eyes grew red and her lower lip trembled. “Your grades are falling, it takes you an hour to do something when I ask you, and you spend all night in there lifting those weights as though nothing else were important. And now this. What’s going on?”
Her eyes brimmed. Instinct told me it was wrong, but I just smiled with what I hoped was the curl of contempt.
“Nothing’s going on,” I mimicked, my gaze saying what remained unspoken, that I would say and do what I wanted, when I wanted to do it.
She stood up and stalked toward the hallway, turning round at the entrance. Bright trails ran down her cheeks from her red, pathetic eyes. “I wish your father were here.”
She watched for the effect, but I was ready. I sneered, and knew without seeing that it was ugly, that she saw nothing could touch me and nothing could be done. She went to her room and slammed the door. I heard her crying and it only disgusted me further. There was no relief from her weakness. I moved to my father’s chair and eased into it, filled, against all hope, with nothing but its strangeness.
The next day I made noises in class, grabbed Jane Palmer’s ass in the halls, and looked forward to losing myself in the contact at football practice. But it didn’t work. Some of my disgust turned inward so that I couldn’t stand myself. Part of me held her sacred, the other despised her. I felt need of forgiveness, but could not cast myself in so humble a role. Besides, it was I who had been betrayed, not she.
This was November, in the year the President got shot, and I remember feeling wonder and amazement at the hugeness of the thing, but in seeking grief could find none. That afternoon in English class, the last of the day, the intercom’s fuzzy echo suddenly erupted from its speaker on the wall overhead. We heard the principal’s voice and then came another, hurried, almost desperate and short of breath and very far away. He’d seen it with his own eyes so he had to believe it. It was not known if the wounds were fatal. The principal returned, sorry to have to bring us this news and promising to keep us posted.
The intercom fell silent, the whole school still with waiting—you could feel it in the walls—and when the news finally came I heard a thousand gasps of disbelief rise as one, and the girl next to me burst into tears. The sounds of collective grief began pouring from open classroom doors up and down the hall, and a moment later the bell rang and it all spilled out into the corridor now filled with stunned faces reeling in random motion. They reminded me of blind people searching for a door in the dark. It was like a dream in which I was a privileged witness but not a participant.
I made my way to the locker room where I expected to hear, along with the rest of the team, that practice had been called off. It was not. It was a tragic day, the head coach informed us, a day of great sorrow. But, he intoned, life must go on. He was the kind of man who used phrases like “intestinal fortitude” and who now reminded us, in all seriousness, that when the going got tough…The boy next to me whispered, “He didn’t just say that, did he?” I nodded. Even the assistant coaches shifted uncomfortably. It was an ugly day, gray and drizzly, and we slogged through a muddy, listless practice, which was fine with everyone until the head coach wandered by and started yelling at us. I got singled out for not hitting someone when I had the chance, or, having hit, for not having hit hard enough. Then he turned on his assistant. “You got to motivate these boys, Coach. They’re playing patty-cake. What’re they going to do Friday night? Give the other side a big kiss?”
When I got home dinner was already on the table, and one look at my mother’s face brought the events of the night before fresh to mind. Only then did I realize that for a while they had been forgotten, overshadowed by something larger.
“I guess you’ve heard,” she said.
“Yeah, they played it over the P.A.”
My brother and I ate greedily, but she only picked at her food. We were silent for a long time.
“It’s terrible,” she murmured. “I never thought it could happen.”
“It’s happened before,” I said through a mouthful. “Several times.”
“That’s cynical,” she said. “You’re too young to be so cynical. I only meant I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. For some reason I thought we were beyond that.” She paused and then added, “It only makes things that much worse.”
I saw what she was doing. She was not talking about “things” in general. She was using the day’s events to augment her own pain. It was a play for sympathy.
“He might not come back,” I said.
“What?” she asked. “Who? What are you talking about?”
“Dad. He might not come back. Same thing could happen to him.”
Since I didn’t believe it myself, it seemed not nearly so cruel as it actually was. A look of horror invaded her features, distorting them. As expected, tears sprang to her eyes.
“Why do you do this?” she asked weakly, almost begging. Then her face turned red with rage and she screamed, “Get out of here! Get out of my sight!”
My brother went rigid in his chair, staring open-mouthed at his mother, then at me.
I stood up. “Sure,” I said, placing one more mouthful of pork on my tongue. “I’m finished anyway.”
That night after lifting weights, I was lying on my bed studying when she came to the door. As she stood in its frame, I was startled to see that she not only suffered, but grieved. I went back to my book.
“Look at me,” she commanded.
She held at arm’s length, between thumb and forefinger, a magazine. On the cover, draped nude across a giant bed, a beautiful young woman smiled at the world in childish glee.
“I found this under your mattress. I don’t want this kind of thing in the house. It may not matter to you anymore, but I don’t want your brother to see it.”
I looked at the floor, not completely devoid of embarrassment, but nevertheless satisfied that I’d left it where I knew she’d find it. In a moment she would take it to the kitchen and cut it to pieces over the trashcan.
“But my brother doesn’t go fishing around beneath my mattress. Does he?”
“I can’t believe this,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ve lost all respect. You have no consideration or understanding for anyone or—“
“I found something in your room, too,” I said, and there it was. I hadn’t planned on saying it, for the idea of discussing it with her sickened me.
She stood mute, and puzzled. “Oh,” she managed, and came and sat next to me on the bed, placing a hand on my shoulder. I shrugged it off.
“So now I can’t even touch you. I’m your mother. Doesn’t that mean anything anymore?”
Unable to summon feeling, I could not be affected by the rightness or wrongness of her words. “I don’t know,” I mumbled. For a moment she looked both confused and amazed, as though realizing something she should have known long before.
“Well,” she said, “you’re old enough to start figuring things out for yourself.”
In the moment of silence, I nearly prayed to be saved from her weakness.
“Don’t let your brother see this.” She handed me the magazine and left the room.
My father’s absence was suddenly excruciating. If he were here he could turn things around. Or could he? What might I make of him when he returned and was subject to my new scrutiny? If he only knew how gravely he’d upset the order of things, he’d come back in a minute.
In bed that night, I tried to fall asleep by conjuring a vision of this life I loved, as it used to be, when it all made sense and people were who they appeared to be, but languished instead in that half-waking state where dreams begin in beauty before turning squalid in the swamp of imagination. Another vision came in its place and, though not yet fully asleep, I could not dispel it. It came as though having lain patiently in the back of my mind all my life, to appear, by necessity, at this moment. I found myself in front of the full length mirror in my mother’s bedroom. I was clothed, yet felt somehow naked. I looked in the mirror, but could see only her. She stood behind me in a blue robe brushing her hair, which hung full and loose. She smiled. It was a familiar, comforting smile, and I was grateful. She parted the robe, revealing a long white thigh, and examined a blemish with her fingernail. I tried to avert my eyes, but her flesh held them fastened. “It’s all right,” she said, “everything will be all right.” But I couldn’t see her downturned face. Just inside the bathroom doorway beside the mirror was a man’s shadow, in silhouette. It was not my father’s. I’d have known if it were. She looked toward the man, letting the robe fall open. “I have to go now,” I thought. “I’ll go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Her eyes shot up and caught me in the mirror, and her hands fell warmly on my shoulders. “It’s all right,” she said again, “really.” Release me, I whispered, and woke up in a sweat, bolt upright in bed, hating her imagined wickedness and as frightened as a child. I remembered, and yearned for, a familiar hand, soft and cool on my forehead. A moment later it all seemed less terrifying and I lay back staring into the darkness, which seemed at that moment to cover the earth. It was daylight where my father was, off where he’d rather not be, laboring in a strange land for what he thought was right, in a world of people at war. I let it sink in and take root until sleep finally came, and as it did my own significance dwindled away, a strange sadness gripping my heart.
At breakfast my brother shoveled his food obliviously. She forced a weak smile, still suffering: she had nowhere else to go. Neither did I, but neither had I any notion of where to begin again, pride and anger still paralyzing my tongue. As I took my seat at the table, a man on a motorcycle pulled into our driveway and lowered the kickstand. I watched him through the window behind my mother. I stood up again and she rose with me, following my eyes. I watched his progress across our yard to the front door. He was a large man wearing boots, jeans, and a leather jacket with a fur collar, like a World War II flyboy’s.
I opened the door before he could ring the bell, as though I might frighten Fate by surprising it. I noticed for the first time that he also wore glasses, giving him a gentle appearance that muted his size. He extended a long arm, envelope in hand.
This is how it’s done, I thought distantly.
My mother was suddenly beside me. “I’ll take it,” she said.
“I’ve got it, Mom,” thinking to protect her.
“I’ll take it,” she snapped.
The messenger watched us over his shoulder as he walked away; then the engine fired up and he was gone.
My mother fumbled with the envelope. She was shaking all over, almost gasping as she swallowed deep breaths. She leaned against the wall for support, her very foundation at risk of crumbling, and something inside me stood poised on the edge of a great chasm. She was disappearing before my eyes. She couldn’t get the letter out.
“Come on, Mom,” I said. “Stop it.” I took hold of her hands to steady them, and she extracted the letter.
“Oh,” she cried. She brought one hand to her mouth and shook her head in disbelief, before handing me the paper:
My thoughts are with you in this time of tragedy and national mourning.
It was from my aunt, my mother’s sister, the editor of a women’s magazine in New York, the sort who’s always looking for the appropriately grand gesture.
My mother still swallowed those deep breaths, trying to stifle what she didn’t want my brother to hear. She was thinking beyond herself, and for the most part always had, but only now did I see it. I led her back to the table. My brother looked up.
“Did you make her cry again?”
She stroked his head in answer, then lifted her eyes to my own, and for an instant I imagined that I saw her as my father must have back when she was just a girl, when she first gave her heart away, when the whole world was nothing more than the love between them.
The thought pressed itself upon me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She reached across to put her hand on mine. I’d have let it remain, but rather than force the matter, she withdrew. Her forgiveness was in her smile, and real, as a mother’s must be, but I wondered how long it would take truly to run its course, because she looked at me now from deeper behind that smile where her eyes tried to shield something lost and broken, and I despised the flesh I walk in.