I focused my dread for the evening on the imminent knock at the door. For a whole hour, as my rosemary chicken smoldered in the oven, I listened to the sounds of the sidewalk, my stomach jumping at every thump. But the front door remained untouched. Mother was late.
I wish I hadn’t picked up the call this afternoon. But the number was withheld and I was hoping it was Todd. Mother insisted we meet for dinner, and no, it couldn’t wait. I said I wasn’t in the mood for going to the city, and somehow that became an invitation to my place. The rest of the day had to be wasted on grocery shopping, grooming and cleaning the apartment.
The chicken was done – a shade too brown. I popped it out, poured myself a glass of Chardonnay, and said to myself, it’s a matter of two hours – wine, dinner and dessert – then it would be over. I took a sip, and a pungent bitter tasted filled my throat, making me wince. I’ve never liked expensive wine.
I walked back to the living room, glass in hand, and did one final survey. Everything looked spotless. In front of the far wall was a black leather couch and by the adjacent wall, to my left, was a matching love seat. Right after I moved in, I made Todd throw away the glass coffee table. I hated those things – always in my way. And without it, the white fluffy carpet spread across the floor uninterrupted.
On the far wall, above the couch hung the goddamn “still life” painting that wouldn’t come off. The antique oak frame was hammered to the wall. Right out of the bath, wrapped in my ink blue towel, I had tugged at the nails for half-hour, only to get my fingers bruised and my best kitchen knife bent.
Brooklyn Art Council had a still life painting contest in association with a gallery in Madrid. The winner would be showcased in that gallery. I was hoping it would be Todd, he was doing well with shows in Chelsea and Williamsburg, but some international exposure couldn’t hurt. Besides I wanted to go to Madrid, really bad.
The day of judging, Todd came home early, with a canvas tucked under his large arm and a big smile that made his little eyes disappear.
“What’s amusing?” I said standing on my toes to kiss him.
“I was disqualified,” he said, unfurling the scroll.
“Fuck,” I said, shocked and aroused at the sight – it was an oil painting of me lying on the floor comatose and nude. The first criteria for a still life painting was – no humans. Todd knew that. But I couldn’t get myself angry.
“You know, how you always wanted me to draw you,” he said.
For a picture I didn’t pose for, it was quite accurate.
Two knocks jolted me out of my thoughts. They were mild taps – thick ring on wood. Mother was here. After dreading this moment for hours, it was a relief to get it over with. I lifted up the thin silver cross on my necklace from under my dress and kissed it. I wasn’t religious but my grandmother put it on me, when I was twelve, and I hadn’t had the heart to take it off. Besides, I had got used to its feel on my skin.
I walked down the half flight of stairs to the front door, scrapping my bare foot on the theater-red carpet. I swung the door open and there was Mother clutching her brown leather handbag as if someone would grab it any minute and run. Her hair was cut short and she wore an expensive purple dress I hadn’t seen before.
“No comments,” I said reaching to hug her and smelled lilacs.
“On what dear?” Mother slid an arm around me, the other still holding her bag tight. When she pulled back, her eyes rested on the cross and she gave a slight nod.
“You will see.” I turned around and climbed up, tapping my knuckles against the wood panel on the side, echoing deep raspy knocks, as if to show how it was done.
Mother and I had played the little approval games since my elementary school. Me frowning at her new curly hairstyle, she pouting her lips over my crimson nail polish. We did it without words, through mere gestures. And we always put our opinions behind us and moved on.
When I dropped out of college my junior year, six months ago, and moved in with Todd, a painter twice my age, Mother couldn’t let go of her disapproval. Like spoiled milk, an uneasy smell lingered between us.
“You burnt the food,” Mother said sniffing the air in front of her.
“Just a little,” I waved my hand.
And then she saw it. The behemoth painting, in its dark oak frame. My nude. She gave out nothing, as her eyes glossed over the far wall, not even a gulp on the throat. Sometimes, she could be impressive that way. I followed Mother’s silent gaze, reading her judgments, as her eyes flicked across the room. She liked the soft cream on the walls and the black leather on the couch. The maroon curtains didn’t work for her, and she thought I could keep the place cleaner.
“Wish you had visited earlier,” I said.
Mother sat on the couch. Slipping the green wide-heeled sandal off her right foot, she crossed her right leg over the left. Her sandals looked new, and her toenails were pedicured. I sat down to her right, at the far end of the love seat, tucking my legs under me. Feeling a chill, I pulled the thin sleeves of my shirt over my fingers. We sipped our wine in silence, and I flipped my eyes from my mother to the painting behind her.
In the picture, I was laying on my back, naked, on a white mosaic floor in front of a black leather couch. My legs, bent at the knee and turned to an angle, rested on the couch. I was framed diagonally across the picture, my head at the bottom left corner. Like a tight focused photograph, the painting blurred as it moved down my body. My face was turned to the viewer – eyes were half closed and unfocused, the lower lip flushed. Was I passed out or dead?
“Where is Todd?” Mother asked smoothing nonexistent wrinkles on her skirt.
“In the studio,” I said staring at the lone green sandal that lay forsaken on the carpet. “He works late.”
But I didn’t know where he was. He had been gone for a whole week now. Todd was very disciplined with his work and wouldn’t even touch a beer when he was painting. But between projects and during his “artist blocks” he would spend hours with his bohemian friends, smoking pot and listening to The Flaming Lips. The smell of pot made me nauseous, and I stayed away. Sometimes, Todd wouldn’t come home for two days. Probably, too stoned to move. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was in the arms of an ex-lover (He wasn’t the kind who could do a one-night-stand or have a fling). Before apprehension could turn into fear, Todd would show up, his shoulder-long graying hair a tangled mess, and smelling as if he had passed out in a skunk hole. Laughing, I would imitate his stagger as he walked into the shower in a grump.
But a whole week? This was something new and I couldn’t make sense of it. Where was he, I wondered. This was his house, he couldn’t just leave.
“I am doing yoga,” Mother said. “My knees are much better now.”
“Yoga,” I said.
“You should try. It’s good for the back.”
“The one time I did, I couldn’t stop farting. So embarrassing.”
“Stop it, you.” Mother smiled, the skin on the sides of her eyes creasing.
As Mother leaned back, her head was almost touching the head of my inverted portrait. I compared the two faces. Mother’s was small, round and made-up. While mine in Todd’s odd perspective was enormous and looked slept in. Yet the features – big brown eyes and strong cheekbones – were identical.
My hair in the picture was alive. Today, its black strands seemed ruffled. I wanted to reach out to the fabric, stroke the hair with my fingers and soothe it, the way I had done many many times.
“Let’s eat,” I said hopping off the love seat.
Mother’s eyes weren’t pleased with the kitchen. Two frying pans, a cutting board and a few bowls were abandoned in the sink. Breadcrumbs and onion peels were noticeable on the counter-top. I just cooked, damn it.
Just dinner and dessert left, I said to myself.
I was proud of my dining set-up – the square table was placed like a diamond in the small area. The walls blocked off two sides of the table and when we had guests, Todd and I wiggled under the table to get to those chairs. Today we sat on the two free sides, with sliced grilled chicken, roasted potatoes and Ciabatta bread laid out on the dark Maplewood. The chocolate pudding I made for dessert was cooling in the refrigerator.
“This chicken is lovely,” Mother said swallowing her first bite.
The chicken wasn’t lovely, it was barely good – too spicy and burnt. It was an offer of truce and I took it.
“Thank you,” I said, stripping away the sarcasm I always put on the moment I met Mother.
Picking up the small loaf of bread, I held it in front of Mother. First she gave me a puzzled look and then with a laugh, took it in her hands. The green veins on the back of her hands bulged for a moment as she broke the loaf into two. We ate in silence digging into the potatoes topped with sour cream and bacon bits.
“I am having an affair,” Mother said, her eyes fixed on her plate.
“Dad’s been dead for five years,” I said. “It’s not an affair.”
“He –” Mother paused. “The man is married.”
“Fuck.” I shut my mouth and muted the word. In the five years since dad’s death, Mother went out on no more than two dates. She was incapable of moving on.
“Who is he?” A bit of hostility edged into my voice.
Mother was so Catholic about dating, during freshman year of high school, I felt guilty if I as much as kissed a boy. Now, without a care, in a new dress and sandals, she was sleeping with someone – a married man. At least, I never stole another girl’s guy.
Mother bit her lip. “His wife is in my yoga class.”
A friend’s husband? I glared at her, and unable to meet my stare, Mother looked down at the peach dinner towel, folded in three, on her lap. Why was she telling me all this, I wondered. Was this some form of confession?
Mother’s forehead creased into four ridges and her shoulders dropped.
“I feel terrible,” she said her lower lip quivering. “But I was so lonely.”
Seeing this change in her, my throat went dry. As a kid, many times, I would overcome my disappointment over a torn skirt or bad grade, and walk home with a calm face. But under the towering stance of my mother and her probing brown eyes, I would break down and cry.
Now, Mother buried her head between her hands, and I was scared she was crying.
I did what she always did.
“It’s ok,” I said.
Mother looked up, her eyes dry and mascara intact. “I know it’s wrong –”
“Mother,” I interrupted her. “There is no right or wrong. Things happen. Just make sure he treats you right.”
She leaned toward me, pinched my forearm and smiled. I felt the relief of putting down something I had clenched tight in my fists all day long. Once again, Mother and I were confiding in each other. I wanted to tell her everything – that Todd had disappeared, that my period was two weeks late and I didn’t have the guts to tell Todd or take the test. I wanted to let it all out and feel free, if only for a moment.
Two distinct beeps echoed through the room. I turned my head to see if I had left the oven on.
“What was that?” I said.
“I think I got a text message,” Mother said reaching down to the handbag by her side.
Text message? Mother was the last one on her block to get rid of the rotary phone. And less than a year ago, she refused to own a cell phone. Now, she was text messaging? Something even I felt too old for.
“Sorry, dear,” Mother said without taking her eyes off the phone, “I have to go.”
“But the pudding –”
“I am sure it’s delicious but I have to run.” And meeting my eyes, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“We will get dessert another time,” I said, “Maybe at Andre’s Café.”
“That would be lovely.”
Closing the door behind my mother, I walked up to the living room and stood before the painting, which was an outline of dark shapes in the illumination seeping from the dining area. In the picture, the cross on my necklace lay on the side of my right breast. One of the two black chords, that took the cross around my neck, pressed down my skin just under the nipple.
I took off my clothes and lay on the white carpet in front of the black couch. I bent my legs and placed my ankles on the couch, matching the posture of my portrait step-by-step. I lay there is semi-darkness, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Todd, the untouched chocolate pudding, and the not-so-still-life in my belly.