Reunion

They saw her tottering from blocks away. She was wearing black. When she got closer, they waved, and she seemed to see them through the window. She flapped a hand in their direction and walked purposefully over to the door. They watched her wrestle with it, leaning back with her hands wrapped around the handle as if she would try to pull it off the building. A passing busboy yanked open the door for her, and Ella thought she might stagger and blow away.

She got to their table, pressing a hand on its corner to ease herself into her seat. Ella stood, fidgeting. She waited until everyone was still and then she swooped to peck the wrinkled cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Aunt Eleanor,” said Ella. The old woman smiled up at her with thin puckered lips. It was a familiar smile, one Ella remembered from her childhood summers. When Ella was younger, Aunt Eleanor had seemed like a comforting beacon in her small fragile life. She had been a bit plump, always smiling, and her hugs were warm and firm. When Ella’s father died, her mother stopped taking them anywhere in the summer. They stayed at home, under the angry sun, and Ella sent a few halfhearted letters. They visited for the first time two weeks ago, going to see Aunt Eleanor in her creaky house, ostensibly so that she could meet Ella’s fiancé.

The woman across the table from them seemed out of her element in the crowded restaurant. In the dim living room at her home, she was still familiar. Here she was a withered wraith of the woman Ella remembered.

Ella sat back beside Jared, leaning against him a bit in the booth. They both looked at Aunt Eleanor as her hands quivered through the air, plucking up the menu and opening it. The pages shook. Her eyes were brown but the edges of her irises were clouded a pale blue, and her lipstick was a shiny red. Her face was a shade lighter than her neck, a smooth clean foundation that didn’t hide the creases in her skin or the spots of brown and pink that stained her nose and the circles around her eyes. The rouge on her cheeks was spread under her cheekbones and back toward her jaw. Ella could still taste it, a bitter creamy film on her lips.

They sat a while at the table, picking at their plates. Ella and Jared both seemed to hold their breath as Aunt Eleanor cut into her chicken, the knife sawing against the plate with a screech and the fork trembling on the broken skin. They finished without incident, though. When their waiter brought over the bill, Aunt Eleanor paid it without comment, waving her fingers at Ella when she protested.

As they left the restaurant, Jared’s hand folded around Ella’s. She laced her fingers with his, and then slipped an arm through her aunt’s. They stood there at the crosswalk, staring across at the blinking red stick figure that warned them not to move. A car whizzed by. Aunt Eleanor bent forward, looking around the two of them at the empty street. “I think we’re okay,” she said. They both leaned forward too, as if waiting for the cars that weren’t coming, and then they stepped off the curb all at once.

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Familiar Shifts

Kate was uncomfortable as she walked over to meet her father. Her new shoes were rubbing blisters around her heels and she could see the skin already reddening. He was waiting when she got to the cafe, his coffee already half empty.

He looked up, and gave her a flat grim smile. “Hello, sweetheart.”

“Hi Dad,” she said, sliding herself into the seat opposite him. “Joey’s all unpacked.”

He scowled at once. “I was hoping we could have some nice conversation before we started fighting about this, Kate.”

She pushed out her lower lip. “Well, we can’t,” she said, using her best firm-but-clear voice. “I’m not going to change my mind, so you just have to get used to it. You should just talk to him already, this is dumb.”

“No,” her father said. He leaned onto the table, folding his arms over each other and looking straight at her. “He comes to his senses, or we don’t talk to him. You know that’s how that is, and I’m surprised at you that you’d go against us like this.”

“Really?” She felt suddenly upset, heat flushing up her face. “You’re surprised I’m doing something that you didn’t tell me to do first? God, Dad, he is my brother and he is your son whether you’re mad at him or not. And you’re mad at him, I’m not.”

“We’re not angry with him, Kate, but he needs to change before we’re willing to talk to him again.”

Kate folded her arms back at him. The anger built in her chest, boiling and overflowing until she spit it out at him. “You can stop talking to me too then. I’m done with you.” She said it and watched his face drop into sadness, and then she left.

She started home earlier than she’d expected. She had to help her brother settle in, after all.

Perfect and Falling

Everyone told them that they had such a good marriage. Emma was thinking about this as she stirred, her hand drawing empty circles in the air, dragging the wooden spoon through the bowl. Her thoughts were wandering as Jared talked, though her eyes were fixed. She was staring at the picture of the two of them that sat on the table near the door. In it, they were clasping one another close and beaming at the camera, bright against the dappled grey background. That felt like so long ago, even though it was only a year. It was a lovely picture, though.

“Are you even listening to me?” Jared’s voice snapped her back to him.

She shook her head as if to loosen it. “Sorry, honey, what was that?”

His mouth tightened. “Nothing. I was just telling you about my day, was all. Nothing important.”

“No,” Emma protested. “I’m sorry, I was drifting. Tell me, darling.”

He folded his arms across his chest, dark eyes smoldering. “I went to work. I came home.”

She bit back a sigh, holding the breath locked in her chest so she wouldn’t puff into his irritation and blow it bigger. He hated when she did that. “Sweetheart, please. I really want to know, I didn’t mean to get distracted.”

Jared crooked his eyebrows at her, almost appeased. “You got distracted from me by a cake?”

Berry soufflé.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

She frowned at him. “It’s a soufflé.” His shoulders sagged and she cursed at herself. Now he was annoyed again.

“Whatever. Soufflé.”

Emma stirred in silence, listening to the sound of her breath rustle in and out. She mixed, poured, and moved while Jared leaned against the wall, watching wordlessly.

They ate quietly. Jared told her about his day again, and she heard most of it. They would just have time – she had calculated the baking time so that it would be done ten minutes before they had to leave. They were going to Janet’s, and she’d promised to bring dessert. It was going to be a wonderful evening, she was sure. Their conversation meandered around the party, loitering at the subject of the guest list and skipping over Janet’s mother’s new illness.

Emma got up twice to check on the soufflé. It looked gorgeous, she thought. It was puffing up ever so gently, just peeking over the rim of the pan. The smell of it, delicate and sweet, spread through the kitchen. When she and Jared were more or less finished eating she swept the plates up and into the sink, sliding the food into the trash and leaving all the dishes in a neat stack. Jared came up behind her.

“I wasn’t done with dinner.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry, dear, I thought you were. It looked like you were just picking at what was left – ”

“Emma, you always do that.” His voice rose and bellowed at her, and she flinched. “You always just decide what you want to be true and then pretend it is. I wasn’t done eating!”

She shrank away. “Sweetie, it’s just dinner. There’s some left in the pot, I’ll get you more. It’s not such a big deal.”

“Of course not.” His voice was flat now, controlled. “It’s never a big deal when it’s something I’m upset about.”

“Really,” she persisted. “It’s just food. It actually doesn’t matter much.”

“No,” he said. “But if it were the other way around you’d glare at me like I’d betrayed you.”

She pounced on that. “I wouldn’t yell and make a fuss though.”

“You wouldn’t,” he agreed. “You wouldn’t make a scene, but you’d make me feel awful. As though I’d done something unforgivable. It’s always like that, like you have to have things exactly as you think they ought to be and if they’re not it’s my fault either way. You have this picture in your head of what I am and what you are and what this goddamn marriage is and you can’t stand anything that smudges the picture.”

She stared at him. “Jared. It’s just dinner. I just threw out your leftovers that I wasn’t supposed to. Goodness.”

“Stop it!” He was shouting again. “Stop acting like nothing is wrong. The dinner isn’t the problem. The problem is that you always do this and it’s driving me nuts. We have to eat dinner over polite conversation and be done when you say and arrive all stylish at Janet’s with a beautiful goddamn cake. You don’t even pay attention to me.”

She shook her head against his words, clinging to her, but they wouldn’t shake off. “No.” She looked at him, fuming, his face close to hers. She said, “soufflé.”

“What?”

“Soufflé. Not cake.” Her voice was level, sensible.

Jared’s hands sprung up and quivered in the air in front of him, and then he spun. He snatched his coat from the hook and turned to the oven, where the screen was counting down seconds; 39, 38, 37. He shot a vindictive look at the fuzzy shape inside and stamped his foot down, hard. Emma felt it send a quake through the whole house, a soft dull crash, but she stood frozen and still. As the door slammed behind Jared, she buried her face in her hands and cried.

Together

Every time a fork clinks on the edge of a plate, Evelyn tenses to keep from shivering. She can tell that Michael’s keeping an eye on her, and she can almost feel the weight of his disapproving stare when she hunches forward. His parents are oblivious, chattering away about the last time they were at this restaurant, and hasn’t Joan just gotten so tacky with all that big jewelry. She smiles as politely as she can, feeling her lips stretch all strained and aching over clenched teeth.

Michael’s mother is a heavy, overbearing sort of woman. They’ve never really liked one another, though they get on well enough. At least, Evelyn doesn’t think they like each other. It’s too warm in this restaurant, and the buzz of conversation keeps building to a suffocating pitch. Michael’s looking away from her now, he’s talking about Joan’s recent illness. Evelyn relaxes a bit, easing her shoulders down and laying her hands on the tablecloth. She’s done with her salad.

By the time dessert comes, she’s biting her lip so hard that she’s surprised it’s not bloody. His parents are at the end of a twenty-minute tirade about the state of things in this country, and Evelyn’s lungs seemed filed with a syrupy dread. When she met Michael’s parents, back when they were first dating, she had been struck with an uneasy sort of premonition. He was so unlike his mother and father, she’d thought, but Jesus save her from a marriage like that. It had made her glad for the easy, graceful relationship they had. After leaving she’d reconsidered, and thought that perhaps she’d been too harsh. His parents seemed nice enough, all told.

Every time they saw his parents, though, the feeling came back. Being around them made her heart pound in a ragged staccato beat and her lips curl in, skin catching on her teeth. She looks at Michael and he’s watching her, his eyes wells of gleaming dark in the dim lighting. He mouths, “Are you okay?” and she shrugs.

When they get home, she slips her coat and dress off at once. He smiles and pulls her toward him, but she ducks away. She sees the hurt on his face and thinks how ridiculous it is that he looks wounded over something so small, and she says, “That was an odd meal, sweetie. You know I don’t have the best time with your parents.”

He frowns and reaches for the remote where he tossed it on the bed earlier. The television flickers on, and his voice jumps to be heard over the end of a crime show, where the body’s being wrapped up and the detectives pat each others’ shoulders. Her eyes are drawn to it as she half-listens to him tell her about being disrespectful and understanding, which she apparently does in the wrong order. She nods, tries to smile at him, and says, “Okay, yes, I’m sorry. Could we avoid a fight right now? I’m just really tired.”

The frown eases, and he nods. The television is spewing noise into the air, someone advertising the next show over the music of the credits. They both slide onto the mattress from opposite sides and sit to watch for a while, slumped against the headboard, barely touching.

There’s silence except for the noise of the next show and the occasional shout from the street below the window. After a few more minutes they go to bed pressed up against one another, as usual. It feels like something they’ve done forever, except that she’s restless under the pressing covers. She shrinks from him ever so slightly, curls forward around the empty air in front of her, and he lays a wrist lightly over her waist, where it grates against the bone of her hip.

An ad for an online matchmaking service bounces onto the television, hearts wafting about the smiling faces of the spokescouple. They lean into one another and look boldly into the camera. “I’m so glad,” says the woman sitting on the left, “because without it I never would have found the love of my life. We’ve been married two years now, and I’m looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together.” They both flash bright grins and the screen fades to text. The words repeat in Evelyn’s head, taking on a queer bumping rhythm.

“For the rest of our lives together,” she repeats softly, her fingers over her mouth, feeling the words escape warm and soft on her skin. “The rest of our lives, then.”

 

Garden

The garden was overgrown now. It had used to be so neat, all the flowers lined up and the herbs huddling in little circles in the middle. Once, Liz remembered, she had accidentally ripped up a flower – something like a rose – when she was helping her mother weed. She’d stared, horrified, and her mother had looked over to see why she was so still. As she held up the plant mutely, her mother sighed. It was a long, gusty breath that said more than her mother ever would. Her mother’s sighs were very expressive. They said things like, “I just don’t know what to do with you” or “I’m so disappointed. I expected more of you.” Sometimes they said, “I can’t believe you just did that,” or, more likely, “I can’t believe I have to deal with you.” Her mother had exhaled disappointment and plucked the dangling plant from her hand. Liz sat with tears blurring her eyes and thorn-marks blushing red on her hand as her mother turned to walk back inside.

Nobody had been weeding here for a while, it seemed. Liz was standing looking at it, remembering how hard her mother had worked grooming that garden into perfect rows. It must have been twenty years ago, that memory of pulling up a flower. Looking at the garden made her almost feel again the burn in her throat and the sting in her hand.

It looked like there were still a few flowers in there. She couldn’t tell. There were patches of color but they were hard to see through the forest of weeds that shot up around them. It looked like a garden of bushy green fronds, except that they were scattered carelessly and weeds weren’t nearly as pleasing to look at as the pansies and marigolds she remembered. Her mother would probably be disappointed in the scrambled decline of her garden. For a moment, Liz reached for her phone, spitefully wishing to take a picture. She let go, feeling ashamed. Her mother probably didn’t remember that she’d once helped to weed in the garden. Tried to help, anyway. Her mother wasn’t so old – turning, what, 60 this year? But she often didn’t remember the things that had clung to Liz. She remembered the things she griped about, accurately enough, but Liz didn’t try anymore to explain her own complaints. Sometimes, when she tried, her mother had sighed. Her sighs were still expressive. They said the same things, but now they also said, “Why must you accuse me of being a bad mother?” and “You’re just never happy with anything I do, are you.” Liz thought it was almost funny sometimes, how her mother took what she was trying to say and echoed it back at her. The sighs that said, “Well, I’m just sorry I’m not good enough for you” were usually the only response she got when she tried to say that it seemed her mother thought she was inadequate somehow.

The garden was overgrown now. Liz realized she’d been staring at it for minutes, frozen on the sidewalk. Her purse was heavy and her car was still two blocks away. With one last glance at the tangle of weeds, Liz sighed and began to walk away.

I usually don’t write stories of my own life

There was a summer afternoon. Sun was falling full on the trees and their scattered light of leaves, on the curve of grey asphalt as it rose and fell. I was looking out of the window from the dim inside of my parents’ car. We were going to a graduation party – for Rachel, the daughter of a family friend. I had played with her when I was small, dressed in princess clothes and singing to the full width of small lungs. I hadn’t seen her since, and I wasn’t thinking at all about any of it as we drove to her house. I was fighting with my sister.

My mind was murky in an afternoon that cast long shadows, and I had to be with my family. I bickered, and she bickered back, and at this point I’m really too old to fight with my fifteen-year-old sister but that’s hard to remember in a bitter mood.

So we bickered. I was only half paying attention, even, and then my sister said something that struck me hard and stung tears into my eyes. I protested, blistered. Then I watched as my sister became indignant and my mother leapt to her defense and my father sighed and tried to ignore us all. I sank into silence against the cold hard window, forehead leaning against the separation from the sun. I watched the bright-lit leaves wash by, and closed my eyes against the hurt.

Finally we were there, parked tilted on the hill that led to their house. We trooped out of the car and headed into the house of these people I barely knew. My parents made introductions and I offered a smile and pleasantries to match. I griped behind the lilt of the pleased new conversation.

Once everyone had arrived, people went one way and another to get food and beer and seats in the grass or on the porch in the heat of the fading afternoon. I picked myself a plate and carried it to the table under the shade of the tent, away from the porch and far from my parents. There were four people at the table already. They were all wearing yellow polo shirts.
I sat, and scooped up a bite. After a minute, I said, “You’re all very yellow.”

Three of them – two greying men and a middle-aged woman with a bob – laughed to agree. They were the brothers and sister of Rachel’s mother, I gathered, and they had all worn yellow purely by coincidence. The fourth seated at the table was their mother, a wrinkled and bent woman who did not laugh at the coincidence. She looked too pinched to open her mouth at a moment’s notice for such triviality, but her eyes gleamed dark and merry at me from within their nest of wrinkles.

With several forkfuls of rice gulped down and an entire yellow family for distraction, I began to talk to the brothers. I might as well. The bearded stocky one inquired as to my school and interests, told me of his house in Chicago and about his job (all of which I’ve quite forgotten now). The other, a beaky drawn man with thinning hair, joked about the desserts and the amount of fat and sugar surely hidden treacherously within them. This was his means of a transition, whereupon he launched into querulous complaint about his diabetes. The sister, a plump-faced woman with lines curving around her mouth, gave the occasional kind comment or question. She wanted to know if I enjoyed college, and how lovely that was really that I did.
The consensus among the siblings was their mother. She was silent until apparently she found something interesting or entertaining. Then she would start up in her plastic chair and emit a cracked sound entirely incomprehensible to the table at large, though sometimes one of the siblings would attempt a translation.

She was very consistent about her movement, if not her contribution to the discussion. She sat hunched in her folding chair, sunk into herself, and as we talked and watched her, she slid slowly and inexorably to her right. Her shoulders would sag as if she were trying to lie prone on the ground, suddenly but gracefully slip to the grass straight from the height of her seat. Every time she slid down to the level of the table, her daughter would grasp her shoulders and right her, firmly and gently.

Her three children watched her slip slowly toward the ground. They rolled their eyes, or shrugged, or puffed sighs of exasperation. They tossed forth the occasional mention of her state and their voices were worried. But when she didn’t need setting straight again and they weren’t immediately preoccupied with looking to see her start sliding again, they talked in animated voices and ignored what she tried to say.

Halfway through the stolid party, one of the brothers – the bearded one – announced his intention to get more food, as it was reasonably good. The old mother burst into a cackle of laughter, and lifted her heavy grey head. She looked up and said, “Isn’t that funny?” and her mouth gaped smiling and pleased.

The siblings shrugged. I shrugged. The old lady sighed with laughter and drooped into place, shoulders bent and dragging slow through the air again, downward. She understood something secret and faraway, and simply couldn’t find the means to tell us. We went on. The son stood to get the food he had promised himself.

When he came back, we spoke a bit more quietly. We talked about cars and other countries and old books. A half hour passed that way. My mother came over to tap me on the shoulder to say they were gathering to go soon, and left again. I talked for a minute about literature and loving stories.

The old lady slid in her chair and rocked with laughter again for a moment. “That’s funny, now, it is,” she said. She nodded vaguely at me from her place curled against the plastic tablecloth. I shrugged again, somewhat helplessly. Her daughter lifted her, pushing her back upright to sit again. She tried vainly and briefly to adjust her mother, to pull her shoulders against the back of the chair, and she plucked for a moment at her mother’s limbs before settling into her own seat again.

The old lady looked up at me once more, chin lifted and black eyes focusing on mine for a hard moment. She looked at me, and then her voice was cracked but clear. She said, “Take the bitter with the better.” Then her voice swung in a sob of laughter once more, and she bent back down into the shade against the spreading sunlight of summer.