A few weeks ago, my oldest friend Amy encouraged me to enter NPR's three-minute fiction contest. Back in the day, when I wrote more frequently and more than blog posts, I was more of a poet(ess?) than a fiction writer. But I gave it a shot anyway. Today I saw that All Adither had posted her entry, so I decided to make like a blogger and steal her idea, and then I encouraged BD and SAM to do the same. The story had to be somehow based on this photograph:
I can’t make myself see, anymore, the way her eyes turned slightly downward at the corners or hear the hidden music I know that her voice contained. I can’t smell her clean cotton smell or feel the tangles of her hair as they felt to my grasping hands. A world of memory, the million moments of my life’s small years, vanished. Impossible that it could be so, undeniable that it is.
Clearest are the last times that I saw her. In her kitchen, seeming suddenly shrunken and breakable, reaching up to a high shelf. At my apartment, carefully keeping a neutral expression, her eyes taking in the fact that it was no bigger or nicer than the last three places I’d lived, that it contained no husband or expectant cradle, but refusing to send out any sign of disappointment. And her birthday, the one that maybe she knew would be her last, when I took her to lunch.
Who can say that everything I did that day was the wrong thing? What perfect daughter dares to judge me? I was the spoiled youngest child, the only girl. That day, her birthday, I took her to a small sandwich shop near my apartment where I ate three times a week.
“Let’s sit here,” I said, settling her at the orange postage stamp of a table. I went up to the counter in search of a menu and came back to find her with her coat still on, purse perched on her knees, staring with determination out the big plate glass window beside her. A familiar splinter of irritation shot through me.
“Mom, why don’t you take off your coat? Here, I’ll put it on the back of your chair. Let me have your purse, we’ll hang it right there under the coat. It’s fine.” I bustled around her, resenting for the thousandth time her age, her discomfort in my world, her utter inability to be like the younger mothers of my friends. I pushed the menu in front of her and waited. She stared at it, her expression growing increasingly bewildered.
“I’m not sure I…” she began and then laughed nervously. “What is…what do you like here?” she asked finally. Always composed but never at ease. I sighed and said I’d order for us. I got falafel for myself and a gyro for her, thick slices of spiced lamb wrapped in pita and foil, dripping tzatziki. While we waited for the sandwiches I looked for distractions, flipped through a magazine left on an empty table, checked my phone, looked around at the other patrons. Each time my eyes flitted over her face, they found her watching me.
“Little hummingbird,” she said softly. I rolled my eyes and shifted in my seat; she shook her head, almost imperceptibly. The man at the counter called our number and I couldn’t jump up fast enough to get our sandwiches. When I sat her gyro down she stared at it for a full minute, then looked up at me, brows lifted in amusement. The sandwich was almost as big as her head. I went back to the counter for a plastic knife and fork and she managed about a fourth of it that way before insisting that I take the rest home to eat later.
We were there for less than an hour. I gathered her up, bundled her out with her coat and lunch, so eager to move on that this reversal of our roles was lost on me. But she understood my hurry. It was too much her own not to recognize.