the mother as a woman
excerpt from upcoming novella woman | ize
My mother greets me at the airport.
We have coffee, almost immediately.
In this city, it is served in tiny, almost miniscule porcelain cups. Espresso or cappuccino. The plates are rimmed with gold, every table has fresh flowers. There is nothing cheap, everything is seamless, simple, elegant.
She watches me over yellow roses.
“You’re gaining weight.”
I’m pregnant, I want to tell her. I don’t say this. It’s not true. But I feel like saying it anyway. I resist the temptation to go into the bathroom.
My mother’s nails are clean and manicured. Her eyes are large, a glowing green. A small, sharp face, precise and immediate. Dark glossy hair furling around the sides. Her tiny tiny body: bones and muscle. Years of running marathons, of sugarless, milkless espresso. Neutral colors; thin, elegant gold accessories. She looks at me. And then:
“Stop drinking,” she says.
“I hardly ever drink.”
I’m cheap. But I don’t say this.
“My osteoporosis is getting worse.” She says this abruptly.
I instinctively grab her hand. Goddamn her.
“Are you drinking enough milk?”
“Tons.” She doesn’t add that it is skim.
Leaning closer, I can smell sunscreen and expensive anti-wrinkle lotion. She is silent. I love her, I hate her.
Briefly, the whole fuzzy golden restaurant comes to a standstill. The shadows and the swaying movement, the blurring clutter of the background, freezing into a delicate landscape.
The camera swings forward, all these shapes melt into one: my kitchen, my mother's kitchen, the tan walls.
Not yellow, but warm beige walls. My mother’s favorite color, not in name but in practice: that cream brown that enfolds us in all her rooms- the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom.
She is laughing.
Mam appears like a doll in the corner of the kitchen, her eyes squinted up into bundles, her mouth richly open. Rising her round round cheekbones higher are all her white teeth, nothing huge, everything of modest but stretched proportion.
The gasps of her laughter are shrill.
Otherwise: she is in a baggy white T-shirt. Tiny. Holding a carton of half-melted ice cream.
Papa appears on the stairs, angular and long and slow. He is parallel to the thin, upright spokes of the banister. He bends over in a pressed blue shirt.
“I caught you!” I shriek, pointing a finger --rudely, I was taught never to point-- at mam: “Look! Look!” I am triumphant, delirious with joy at catching her with the toxic treat. I forget what I’m wearing, forget what time it is, forget everything.
Mama cowers against herself, center-screen. She tucks herself around the carton. Chocolate ice cream. The wooden chair she had sat in, turned toward the corner where the oven met the window, is abandoned. She acts in a reconstruction of this pointed alcove, hiding the ice cream and her secret ritual.
“I caught you!”
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I say this over and over again.
It is night, and mam is doubled over in laughter, laughing so hard she can’t breathe, her hair fluttering over her face, and her thin fingers over her mouth, struggling to keep herself in one place. But also letting herself fall, helplessly against the wall.
I am grinning so hard my cheeks hurt.
“Save some for me.” Papa materializes next to his wife, scooping her into his chest. He is so much taller. She shudders with laughter against him, wiping away tears. “You monkey,” he says affectionately, kissing the top of her hair.
This is it, and it dulls and melts into itself, a murk out of which the restaurant again regains focus, the shapes at first still and then the background music swelling into clarity, the conversations whirling around us, the figures regaining simultaneous rhythms, as though nothing has happened.
“Hey mama,” I say.
She lifts a brow. Holds the saucer in two hands.
She should have modeled. Been French. She wasn’t, but she could have been.
“Ik hou van je,” I say.
“I love you too.” A warm pause.
“But please,” the regal woman in front of me adds, “Don’t drink so much. Try not to have pasta. Are you joining a gym?”
I’m nodding, staring into the black wood of the table. Other memories surface, coalesce: various bathrooms, the monotonous routine of weighing myself daily. “No bread at dinner, liefje, please.” Discovering many articles of clothing from my closet thrown out. Practicing in front of a mirror with a quivering tube of lipstick. “Lentils Evie, they’re healthier protein.” Mam watching abstractly from the doorway. Rapidly changing cloths on the train. Rachel’s amused glance from the couch. “Who you dressing up for?” Scanning so many menus, already knowing what to ask for.
My mother orders in a clipped and precise way from the waiter. He nods. She studies his complexion without blinking.
I order quietly.
“Speak confidently,” my mother tells me. She puts the porcelain cup to her lips. Sofia would have been a better daughter. We sip, demure to the strangers filtering by. Watch the sun glint off the silverware against the tablecloth, the textures of the passing fabrics, skimming the brands scripted on glasses, noting perfumes.
“Thank you for coming,” she says, softly. She has been speaking English the whole time for me. Here she smiles, gentle.
The waiter dips a forearm in front of me, a plate sliding off the white cloth draped over his arm. My mother thanks him, looks at me and winks.
With his other hand, the waiter moves opens his wrist and places my plate down in front of her. He nods to us both, wishes us a good meal.
She picks up a fork, the wedding ring on her finger glittering. The only breach of modesty. She catches me looking.
“I’m sorry it’s been so long.”
The green of her eyes like a wall. So clear they could be water, light. Her pointed chin. A beat. “You have your own life now,” she says quietly.
The plates of leaves, bright and shiny in front of us.
“Bon appetite,” my mother says, nodding, cheersing me with a fork crowned in arugula.
I smile, nod. Bite. Chew carefully. I notice what she is wearing. A pencil skirt. An elegant, form fitting black turtleneck. A simple chain. Her legs crossed.
Sometimes I wonder who is the mother, who is the child. She is so small. What would strangers say, looking at the two women quietly eating their salads, in fitted black shirts?
For the next week I will sit with her at tables like this, eating from painted plates. We will walk in the early, mist soaked mornings, the sun perfuming the air. It will be quiet, almost still. I feel it now, our silver knives slicing, ringing sharply over porcelain.
We will walk for days among the pink spattered country side, with tiny tiny, delicate flowers flouncing up like shards of bright ice. We will brew tea and serve it in dark blue ceramic cups, lacy gold twirled around rims. She will read and I will watch, we will sort photographs, the silence parsed out by the ticking of the old, magnificent grandfather clock. The evenings will wind down into ginger sharp salads, steaming bread for guests. 300 calories plus 80. Sparkling water, immaculately folded napkins. Wine is a whopping 120. We never drink it.
In Oslo, picking the fine from the fine in high, enormous stores. The elegant € of the euro sign, on carefully tucked, small, glossy tags. Large floor length windows overlooking cobblestone streets. Politely smiling from under our sunglasses, men who smell of good cologne.
I will try and draw it, capture the old stone and the buttered, flaking pastries in well-lit cafes. I will forget to call Robby, forget the States, forget everything. Focus on the gorgeous colored scarves, the twinkling jewelry. The warm feel of lipstick sliding over lips. Mam’s strained breathing in the mornings, precise daily exercise regimens in the other room.
In the restaurant my mother’s critical eyes rest on the river, over the many small plates of tapas and restaurant chatter, her draped shawl unsettling. Her critical glance towards the struggling kayakers in the water. She leaves some greens on the plate, the fork angled to the side like an arrow. Her own fridge is full of carrots, wasabi. Does she see the afternoon sliming down to a whisper before her, like I do?
Round, dark sunglasses, sharp heels, pointed ballet flats. 200 €, 500 €, 190 €. The shock of life insurance and how long it lasts for a woman, clicking from street to street, wood to tile to marble, an endless flow-- graceful, curt gestures. Adorned fingers.
We will weigh ourselves in the mornings in the city she has returned to. Pad across the Persian carpets in the hall inherited from her own mother. The silk Japanese scrolls that Papa bought her running down the foyers, the freshly cut roses, skillfully arranged by us before breakfast, snipped from her small garden. Twinkling in water on the table. One hardened woman’s existence in this beautiful city, unspooling like thin gold thread. An offering, stretched out to her daughter.