Never Came Back: Chapter 11
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The night consumed me with restless sleep and shifting, murky dreams.
I spun in and out of wild imaginings, picturing Mom and me in the kitchen together, eating everything we could fit into our mouths. Then Dad stepped into the picture in a red cloud and a booming voice. Mom shrank away, like a minion to their taskmaster. I woke up in the middle of the night, shaking.
By the time the sun crept into the night sky, I was wide awake, staring at the textured shadows on my ceiling. Why didn't Mom say anything? Why can't she just try?
But then I thought of before I met Janine, and I realized that maybe Mom was trying. Hadn't I put off things I didn't like in the past? Maybe, but not with such blatant disregard. She'd blared the television to drown me out.
The red numbers on my clock glowed a bright 5:45 when I finally realized I wouldn't be falling back asleep. With a violent shove, I threw the covers off me, swung my legs around, and grabbed the closest pair of pants I could find. Then I grabbed my car keys, jogged down the stairs, and headed out to my car.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled to a stop in front of her house. A lone light in the back—the kitchen—fell on the shadows of the dead grass in the backyard. Of course. Mom was up this early eating breakfast because she didn't know any other way to cope.
My fingers itched to call Lexie, but I stuffed that away.
Although I understood Mom's utter dependence on food for every breath she took—even empathized—I couldn't work myself out of the frustration. You almost died, I kept thinking, recalling the pale skin of her face when she had her heart attack. You were so ready to change.
When I stepped inside the house, only the kitchen light and the flickering TV illuminated our tired house. The shadows the light cast grew long and gray, highlighting the spots of chipped paint and worn furniture. Envelopes and paper stacked high under the cupboard. Cups with change. Piles of unfolded laundry. The clutter, in the darkness, seemed pervasive. Why did the darkness show more truth than the light? Was it easier to ignore reality when it was right in front of me, bright and shining? The darkness seemed like the only way to really understand.
"Hey, Mom?" I called, clearing my throat. When I advanced into the house, the smell of maple sausage greeted me. I rounded out of the hallway and into the dining area to find her standing at the stove.
At first, she didn't respond, just stared at a pan of browning sausage that filled the air with a sweet smell that reminded me of early mornings in my childhood. Several cracked eggs rested near a bowl by a carton of milk. Of course. Her favorite sausage omelets with mango salsa. My stomach rumbled just thinking about it. Then I saw a pile of buttered toast she was carefully working her way down—5 slices left, and who knows how many already passed through—and wondered.
"Can we talk about last night?" I asked, sliding onto a bar stool, attempting to infuse something into my voice except my frustration. "It, ah . . . didn't quite go the way I imagined."
An edge of defensiveness filled my tone. Had I been sixteen, I would have been yelling already. Frustrated with her. Wanting her to yell back. To show some spark, some sign of life. The fact that Janine rang through my head, reminding me to give compassion and mercy, was a step in the right direction. Looking back on that angry teenager made me realize that the yelling didn't actually make me feel better either.
Mom's shoulders slumped. She swallowed heavily. The long folds of her robe—her mussed, greasy hair puffed out on one side—meant she hadn't changed. Had she even gone to bed last night? The low drone of the Matlock played from the background, the lights flickering like dull, vapid ghosts.
"Yes," she said. "I was surprised."
I jumped, startled by the sound of her voice. She still didn't face me, an eggy spatula in her hand, but hearing her voice jolted me out the stupor of rage that had been building. It slid free, loosening it's strangling hold.
"Oh," I said, stammering over the word. "Right, uh . . ."
"I don't want to see your father, Rachelle. I'll sign the papers, but I don't want to talk to him or see him."
Mom didn't seem surprised—nor mention—the fact that she hadn't signed the divorce papers in the past. I couldn't help but wonder if she'd kept them married as a way of punishing Dad. Maybe she had known he wouldn't push it too far, but she could still get some kind of hold on him.
Or maybe she just hadn't signed them. There aren't ulterior motives in everything she does, Rachelle, I thought. Sometimes, people just do things.
"I don't know how you want to work it out but I don't want to be the middle guy. This is between you and Dad, okay?"
Hearing Dad made her wince.
She tensed. My shoulders stiffened. Her limp hair, streaked with gray, sent a ripple of sadness through me. This old house, creaky and falling apart one piece at a time. Her sheltered life that rarely—if ever—went without noise. She never had sunshine. She never had freedom. She never had interaction with real people outside the television characters. Tears filled my eyes as I thought about the things that I'd learned brought me joy. Lexie. Bitsy. Exercise. Eating well. My thriving business. Making cupcakes—not necessarily eating. They were small, my handful of things that I enjoyed. But they were mighty. And there was more out there for me to find and enjoy. One of those things could be Dad. But even that could be small. Incremental. With time to allow things to test, possibly heal.
But Mom lived in her television bubble. She never left. Never felt the sunshine on her face. Never stepped into a store and smelled the fresh vegetables. Never ate at a restaurant and had new tastes on her tongue. She lived in a prison without bars.
Oh, Mom, I wanted to say. There's so much more than this small, distracted world you've created for yourself.
The smell of burning sausage crept into my nose. Mom hadn't moved, just stood there, seemingly lost in it.
Compassion, Janine had said, Opens the doors to healing.
In the end, it wasn't yelling, sex, sleep, boys, or cosplay that truly made me feel better. Maybe it wasn't even talking to Janine or running my own business that healed my aching soul. It was something more. Something like recognizing that parents, mom's and dad's, were human. Imperfect. For the most part, mine did the best they could, and that meant something.
Even though I wanted to vent my frustration, rage, and confusion in a storm of epic proportions, the way I used to, I turned those thoughts. Right now, none of them would make me feel better. What did I really need to give her for both of us to come out of this better?
I knew it the moment I felt it.
"Mom." I leaned forward. "Listen, I just . . . I just want you to know that I love you."
A slight tremor shook her shoulders. The sound of a half-hiccup came from throat. I slipped off the stool and went over to her side. When I wrapped an arm around her shoulders, a line of tears stained down both of her ruddy cheeks. She turned into me, clinging with her arms and hands, and cried. I reached over and flipped off the stovetop.
Five minutes later, her tears slowed. The sizzling sausage bubbled into a low simmer with the occasional pop. She wiped the moisture off her cheeks with the back of her hand, moving back a step. Her averted eyes still brimmed with tears, but her expression didn't hang so low anymore.
"Thank you," she said. "I . . . I haven't . . . thank you."
She set her jaw, swallowing back another wave of emotion, and picked up her spatula. Seeming resolute—if not resigned—Mom went back to cooking the sausage with a little sniffle.
"Tell your dad he can drop the papers off this evening and pick them up in the morning. Leave them in the flower box. I'll sign them tonight."
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