“YES!” SHE SAID, SETTING THE RECEIVER back down firmly in its cradle, “Thank god it’s over.” Eyes closed. The brown gleam of wood and brass slowly rolled into the earth once more, into its narrow slot of eternity, and she saw Ted’s pale dead face sifted over with clumps of soil. Her own face materialized in the dark mirror above the phone. Shuddering slightly, shifting weight to the right hip, she passed her hands down over the uncomfortably warm skirt clinging to her thighs, as though removing the wrinkles would make it cooler.
The last time they’d had dinner with Ted, as usual, he seemed to charm her sons and their young woman friend, telling them all about the time he met Maria Callas at the Met, smiling, so different from Anton sitting at the head of the table with a furrow in his brow, mouth opening petulantly to note that after all, business was going poorly, what with politics and all, and to start elsewhere, he was just too old, too old, the petulance more pronounced, a whine hovering in his voice while Ted smiled sympathetically, drawing his brother into conversation with the young people…
The doorbell rang sharply, once. She stood up with a start, paused, heard “Time to leave, Mum,” and bent to take her purse and the bag of extra food. “Thank god it’s over,” she said to the mirror and walked to the front door.
“It’s starting to rain a bit,” said a voice as she opened the door and saw dripping grass, windshield-wipers splashing on an idling car, and her son, jacket spattered with faint wet stains. He reached out for the grocery bag adding, “It looks like it might pour all the way to the Townships.”
She turned automatically to take an umbrella, then laughed, “I’ll survive it,” as she locked the house. “It’s good to be going away now. Such miserable weather, the funeral, everything…” she murmured.
“We should be in Ayer’s Cliff by one,” he called over his shoulder, halfway to the car before she had even turned the key. She quickly followed him down the path to the already open door. Had he heard? she wondered, looking at him briefly as she wrapped the skirt around her thighs and slid into the seat, settled her hips and made certain the skirt was not folded underneath. Shoes looked splashed, and she felt her hair was a damp halo. She leaned forward to take her sweater off. The pungent smell of plastic upholstery, new and untouched by the scent of a human, filled her nostrils suddenly.
“How long have you had the car now, a year?” she asked him abruptly, uneasy at the lack of his presence.
“Not quite, about nine months. These little Accords work like a charm. Why do you ask?”
“No real reason. It’s just, it still smells so new…”
As the car sped over the Champlain Bridge, the words hovered inconsequently in the air between them. What a silly thing to say, she thought, so trite. Yet the thought that her son had not made an imprint in the nine months he’d driven the car simply shocked her. As though he were no more than a ghost, a non-entity. Like Ted. Not there. A muscle contracted somewhere in her abdomen and again Ted’s face, sallow skin and cold lips, lay before her and the suffocating odour of flowery wreaths returned.
Peter’s face looked cold and still too, as he manoeuvred through the humid air and lukewarm traffic. Then it transformed, by the magic of an impish grin as he turned and caught her stare. “What’s up?”
She was startled by the warmth he triggered in her, as though a cloud had drawn away from the sun; and she smiled back.
“That’s better,” he added. “You were looking quite sad there.”
“I was thinking how pale you look, and so serious when you’re driving …ahm, I haven’t seen much of you lately, Peter.” More triteness, motherly schmaltz, as though she were leaning, not over a desolate precipice, but over two bowls of soup sitting between them. The misty air mocked her as she rolled down the window a crack, its coldness sucking away the warmth like a vacuum…
Like the look on Ted’s face, dark eyes swollen and ragged, looking for shelter, when she took his hand and said ‘I’m so sorry, Ted, I would never have expected Marcia to do this. She seemed such a, proper (the word had stuck) wife…’ and tears had glazed over his eyes, the thin hand trembling against the relentless pink of the hospital blanket. She heard how hollow she sounded next to his pain, next to her own anguish at seeing him half-paralysed and unable to speak after the stroke while Marcia mobilised swiftly, cutting away everything that was no longer useful, anything that might require her to suffer and sacrifice. And this time it was Ted. What could she herself have offered, to even begin to fill the void?
It seemed to her, at that moment, that she had gone through her entire life carefully camouflaging her innermost feelings, keeping herself far from those who touched her so deeply. What was left for her now? she wondered, but the thoughts swam slowly through her mind, words floating past again and again without moving on to an answer…
* * *
The rainy mist monotoned the landscape in underwater green, and the car passed through it swiftly, a freakishly smooth-swimming brown fish. Drops of water clung oppressively to their skins, and the wind from the vents felt heavy rather than fresh. The wipers had ceased swishing back and forth, leaving a muggy silence inside. Peter’s hand reached out and music began to fill the space. Something of Vivaldi’s, something familiar…she could see it, yes, Elvira Madigan on runaway horse, speeding through a similarly hazy green countryside.
“I wish it would really storm and clear up this humid mess – anything to liven things up and be able to breathe again,” she muttered, half to herself.
“The last few days have been pretty rough, haven’t they.” Peter’s voice touched her gently, soothingly, as if reaching for a timid but well-loved cat. “Ted was something special, wasn’t he–?”
“Special…oh…he, ah, yes, he was quite different from your father.” Dangerous territory. “Ahm, he’s been so much a part of the family, and even more so since the stroke.” Memories drifted up. “Your father and I honeymooned with Ted and Marcia. Thirty-two years ago…well, you saw how much he meant to us…”
She listened to herself babble, to the various phrases strolling out of her mouth in tidy little lines, the way she once formed part of a neatly uniformed group of convent girls strolling up and down an arid avenue at recess. They would chatter about their boyfriends endlessly, about how cute this one was and the quality of that one’s kisses and the general success of the previous weekend; and she would listen eagerly, looking for the key that made the sun rise, flowers bloom, and love-forever-without-a-doubt. But as the exchange of excitements continued with only minor variations, month after month, speculation weaving fairy-tale tableaux, she began to understand that they were not telling the truth. That whatever it was that came alive between two people, it was not theirs to share. And she had felt incredibly alone, as though she were standing behind one-way glass, watching, unseen…
She sensed that Peter was trying to understand something about her, that perhaps he already understood the feeling of loneness that cramped her lungs. But she only reached inside her purse, unravelled a sweet mint and allowed its tang to distract her for the moment.
“It’s to be expected, I guess,” she finally said. “Funerals do tend to make you regret the past and imagine all the lost opportunities to appreciate the one who has died.” To love them openly. The thought stopped her. A loud silence filled the car. She whispered, “There’s no point, though.”
Peter concentrated on the road, frowning. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”
She did not reply, and he looked at her briefly, still frowning. She shifted in her seat restlessly, not knowing where to begin, how to acknowledge any of it: her dissembling, her un-ease, her awareness of the closeness and of the gap, the misery of losing Ted. Forever. The mint cloyed on her tongue and the dampness in her hair began to penetrate. She closed her eyes. Outside, a low layer of fog had settled in, obscuring almost entirely the feeble noonday sun.
* * *
He glanced sideways to see that his mother was asleep, head bent at that painful angle of sore neck and strained back that could not be avoided in small cars. She looked tired, depressed. His eyes dropped briefly to where her hands lay, curled upward on her lap, fingers sheltering the lines of a lifetime that carved into her palms.
He jerked his head back to face the roadway, thankful there was no traffic. His hands gripped the wheel angrily, savouring its hardness. Now that Ted was gone, everyone was on edge, it seemed. Mother had never looked so shook-up, but worse, so remote, before. His right hand clenched even harder, as though to prevent its willful fingers from leaping off and grabbing her sleeping hand in supplication, to make the contact that he – DAMMIT, what was Ted to her, anyway? Maybe there was more to that honeymoon than she let on – hell, why think things like that about his mother? his mother, for God’s sake!
The car charged through the air, like a speeding bullet killing space, Peter thought, grimacing at the faded landscape before him. When he didn’t want to travel, space seemed an endless obstacle against which his car made no visible progress.
The mist had settled in for a long while, patches of it drifting across the road, wafted by the damp wind that was cooling the air off. He suddenly felt the chill draft aimed directly at his throat, and out of the corner of his eye saw wisps of hair stir restlessly at his mother’s forehead. He shut down the vents and opened his window a fraction. Maybe sleep would give her a measure of peace, he thought.
God, funerals were a drag! Mark and he had gone together in a conscious conspiracy to impress the family. Why not? There was nothing but impressions among the relatives, anyway: impressions of successful business, suitable acquaintances and respectable offspring…Since childhood camps, there had been no real contact with any of the cousins except at ‘occasions’– like the funeral – so why not put on one more act? Why not? He ground his teeth together. What was he doing? ‘Wonderful son’ who showed up with his ‘beloved twin brother’, at the funeral of their uncle, her brother-in-law. He sighed. What was Ted to her? Not likely that they’d ever been lovers, but his death had shaken her to the core. Peter had a sudden image of some modest meadow flower beaten by heavy rain, petals askew and revealing here and there its secret heart…
All these things go on, he thought, and I still feel like a god damned kid; left in the dark; not knowing the half of it while the ‘grown-ups’ cover up, act as though everything is OK, Dick-and-Jane simple and clean. So they honeymooned together… well, Ted and his dad were pretty close all along, to judge by appearances (there it was again. APPEARANCES. So were he and Mark, in the eyes of some people). Yet they were different enough to get on each other’s nerves without even trying. Ted-the-charming, easy to get on with, and Anton, harbouring secret burdens and vague complaints. Ted could make anyone feel good, though God knew he’d had reason enough to be sour. Especially after Marcia left.
What a bitch, to dump her mate when he was down on death’s door – and Ted had made it through, for a while, never lost that cheerful, gentle way of his. Maybe that was what Mum saw in him…maybe that was what made Dad such a grouch, who knew? When you didn’t know, it was so hard to get inside some? one’s space, to know what feelings they might have, to get really close. He didn’t doubt that his mother wanted to talk about Ted but she couldn’t seem to broach it at all. What could he possibly say that would open it up for her?
He stole another look at his mother’s tranquil face. The nap seemed to be doing her good, relieving the tiny frown of tension between her brows and the downward droop of her mouth. Fifty-two she was. What did fifty-two-year-old women do with their days? What did she do with her days? Though she did translating for the university, and probably knew some people that way, her circle of friends seemed narrow. And how close did anyone get to business acquaintances? Maybe women that age really had no one but their hairdressers to confide in. He had a sudden image of rows of middle-aged women whispering in unison to cowled and collared priests with scissors in their hands, all nodding ‘Bless you, dear’. Peter snorted. No, she wasn’t the hairdresser type! However little he knew of her routines, let alone her innermost thoughts, he knew that much!
What about those wives of Dad’s associates, who showed up at the occasional dinner at their house? With their phoney make-up and dyed hair, their lips collapsed under the weight of several decades’ worth of poisonous gossip and vainly revived with endless coats of garish red lipstick…a perfect match for the claws they never pretended to hide. His mother had nothing, absolutely nothing in common with those yentas.
For the first time a deep feeling of empathy swept over him, as he began to understand the narrowness such a life could represent to someone sensitive and clever, but completely reserved, like his mother. The more he thought about it, the clearer it seemed that Dad was hardly the ideal mate for her, either, with his hassly business ventures and selfish personality. Amazingly, Peter could not now remember her ever having criticized him or put him down. She was a lot like Ted that way: she simply focused elsewhere. No wonder she loved him. And he felt quite positive, now, that she did.
Peter wriggled in the seat, settling his back a bit more roundly into the cushion. He was glad that his father and Mark weren’t with them today. He almost never got to be with her alone, though he could hardly call their conversation so far intimate or profound. Intense. He suddenly recalled the last time Ted had come by for dinner. Peter and Mark had brought Sara home that same evening, and the dinner had gone really well. Ted, good old Ted, had told them all about the time he got to go backstage at the Met, in ‘56 or something. All Dad could think of was the PQ and money, money. And here was Ted giving us the scoop about Callas. He and Sara really got off on each other…he knew how to make someone feel at home even in another’s home. It was the first time Peter had realized how attractive Sara was.
Sara. How had everything turned out such a mess, after all? Mum liked her, thought she was bright and honest. Dad didn’t like the fact that she’d gone out with Mark first, then switched to Peter. God that was freaky, Peter shoved his legs out abruptly, causing the engine to rev high for a second, but it must happen every day. It didn’t help that Mark was so crazy about her, wanting to live with her and do research together. Those were his words, Peter thought incredulously, as if Sara’s chief feature was an ability to collect information on file cards. Peter shook his head in amazement. No wonder she left him. But–
He fully understood why Mark was so smitten with her, her warmth, her incredible way of embracing everything, people and ideas both, and transforming them into something unique. And she could be very sharp when she wanted, not one to be a mere helpmeet in some man’s career, that was clear. In a way it was wonderful to give in to the whirlwind of emotion he and she had experienced together, tempting to give it a go, not just ‘consider the possibilities’ in a vacuum, the way he and his friends sometimes did, over coffee and cigarettes in the small hours of the night: cynical on the surface but secretly dreaming of that perfect woman.
Peter heard himself upset on the phone last time. She was so straightforward and certain about what she said and what she wanted…Peter’s hands felt sticky and he released one from the wheel to roll the window down somewhat. Cool air tickled his ear.
Mark was always the one with at least two or three women available to stoke his ego, be they friends or lovers. And Sara had left him. It had blown his mind to realize she was as attracted to him as he was to her…so why had he cut her off? to show Mark that he didn’t steal her, to chalk up a few points in some distant battle of egos the two of them had been waging since childhood? Peter swallowed hard, mouth dry and head pounding with the aggravation of analysing. It was too good to be true, he mocked himself, and here he was playing the noble sap, too afraid to own to what he wanted!
An icy shiver cracked down his spine and across his back. Was it really irreversible? Oh god, that must be exactly how his mother was feeling about Ted. From the looks of it, she’d never even got out what she felt about him, and never would, now. It was all lying buried, not too far beneath the surface…yet, nothing to be done once someone had died. He glared at the black asphalt as though it were daring him.
The mist lifted briefly and a shaft of sunlight broke through. Peter glanced into the rear-view mirror, but the sunlight had shifted again and the road merely stretched out for miles into the hills behind them. He peered ahead at the grey pavement once more.
* * *
The car swung a narrow curve, pulling her into the door, and she started from a vaguely familiar dream. She blinked her eyes, sandy with sleep, and passed her hands, fingers spread comblike through her limp hair, rubbing the scalp lightly as though to rouse the mind that lay under the thin stretch of skin. Peter noticed her head come up.
“Sorry to startle you. You’ve been having a good sleep for almost an hour now.”
She smiled at him slowly, still only half-awake, then looked puzzled as something struck her consciousness. She felt like a long-distance swimmer coming to surface, not in the expected pool but in the wild waters of an open channel.
Peter quickly reached out his hand and touched her sleepcurled palm. “What is it?”
She looked at him hesitantly. “I must have been dreaming when the car woke me up.” Peter waited, holding his breath and focusing totally on the broken yellow ribbon guiding them mutely down the highway. Would she – “It was quite strange, Peter…” her voice quivered.
Peter thought his lungs would burst in the silence as she waited, staring straight ahead too, as though reading an iridescent sign.
“It was quite, quite strange, you know. You and Ted were sitting beside me. And I was in a hospital bed. You were, was it Ted? no, it was you. You tried to tell me something, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying. So I called the nurse to turn up the volume.” Peter’s breath hissed out slowly. “But when she came, she spoke to you, saying that you would have to leave because I was dead. I kept asking her to please turn up the volume, but she didn’t even look at me!” Her cheeks grew flushed and she felt a freezing cold wave crash inside her. “What a terrible feeling!”
“Christ, Mum, it’s right there in that crazy dream!” Peter felt a pressure building behind his eyes and leaned back in his seat, pushing on the wheel with his outstretched arms. “Damn, you must be hurting!” He wanted to cry, for her pain, and for his own joy. “I’ve got to call Sara as soon as we get in.”
Her eyes turned to him as if to draw him into focus, and her warmed hand wrapped around the slender fingers that still touched her. She smiled but said nothing as she watched the last bit of haze slowly drift away and leave them the eye-squinting green of late summer in the sun.