This is a bit longer than the stories I usually post. However, if you have the time, please tell me your thoughts. I would very much appreciate it. Many, many thanks, Sascha. (ps. I am happy to read your longer piece as well, just let me know…except if it’s novel length (sorry).
The Gray Area
I’ve been over twenty hours on this highway, watching the pavement slide under the tires, passing through rain that glosses the road over like ice and nighttime in which reality becomes the repetition of a white dotted line against black. My headlights show the tawny sleekness of deer at the edge of the highway, the fat waddle of groundhogs, and, for hours, a plentitude of nothing except images like a succession of stills from a movie many years old.
This is a fine path to travel after you learn of your mother’s death. There’s a catharsis that thumps in your brain in tandem with the windshield wipers. With each sliding movement, emotions blend with logic, each twisting in and out, rising to the top then sinking. And, my voice sounds hollow, narrow, though less accusatory as I address my dead mother.
You take on anonymity as you drive half-way across country, passing through towns where no one knows you or cares much about you beyond the fact that you provide money for the gasoline you pump or the meal you eat. Each mile spent removes splinters embedded in skin that you only knew existed upon casual contact.
The last words my mother said to me were: “You don’t know how sorry I am about everything. Can’t you forgive me? Can’t you make it home for Thanksgiving?”
My answer had been a meandering of indecipherable words, the evasiveness of eyes, even though we were on the phone, and a mumbled “maybe” before Nick snatched the receiver from my hand with a laugh, told my mother we had to leave for a gig and hung up the phone. I glared at him. He’d had no right interfering. Oblivious, he swept me into an embrace, his unshaven chin prickled against my forehead.
“You had no right to do that.”
“Chill. She’s nothing but a deceiver.”
“She’s my mother.”
“No special rights with that, Abby.”
Nick left after our gig, complaining about me being “fucked up and anal.” I still haven’t heard from him. That was two months ago. I keep thinking he’ll call. Sometimes it occurs to me that I could too.
According to my sister, Letty, mother knew about the cancer then. She just hadn’t said anything. She didn’t want to worry her “baby girl.” The censuring in Letty’s voice was clear: Little sister had let them all down. Again.
The family home blazes with lights. It’s ironic. Everyone knows mother would have run from room to room turning off the lights while muttering about bills. Did we think money grew on trees? Who did we keep all those lights on for: Yehudi? Yehudi, something she said that I never understood.
My older brother, Robbie throws open the door and hugs me. “It’s about time. We were really getting worried,” he says and then adds: “Why did you drive?”
I rub my fingers together. “No money. And,” I say, pressing my index finger against his chest. “Don’t say a thing.”
People used to say that Robbie and I looked like our father—the same color hair, the same brandy-colored eyes. It was two days before I fled for California that I discovered just how impossible that was.
Robbie takes my shoulder bag strap and places it on his own shoulder. His eyes appraise me. “Jeez, what do you eat? Catsup-flavored water? It’s a good thing Mom can’t see you.”
His words die in the softness of the evening, her ghost hovering.
We both know that she would have darted to the kitchen and prepared something outrageous like pork tenderloin with thick gravy, fresh-baked bread slathered in salty butter, green beans with ham before I’d even have had a chance to settle in. She’d have kept my glass filled with cold, sweet tea, which I hated but never said. And, if I’d mumbled anything about weight or cholesterol, she’d have rolled her eyes, swished her hand over my hair, and laughed. Just the memory brings on the tears. Robbie squeezes my hand, which make the tears come quicker.
Sometimes we only comprehend the expansiveness of forgiveness when it’s too late.
Letty emerges from the kitchen with a plaid dishtowel in her hand. Her blue eyes are like frost despite their red edge. “I didn’t think you’d have the nerve to come.”
“Chill,” Robbie says. “Mom’s dead. What’s done is done.”
“Stop playing peacemaker, Robbie,” she says. “Abby needs to understand how much she hurt Mama, especially after everything Mama did for her.” She sweeps the back of her hand across her cheeks to wipe away tears.
She has so much venom stored up inside that I see it coloring her eyes. “You of all people should resent this more than a little,” she says to Robbie. “Abby got everything. You and me were like the ugly step-sisters to her Cinderella.”
“What an appropriate analogy,” Robbie mutters. He is the only one I ever told what happened that night.
“We know why you had a tantrum and left.” Letty turns to me. Her chin trembles and then so do her shoulders. She seems to fall in upon herself. Once we would have held each other, as when we were little and fears loomed thick in darkened rooms and the old house that we moved into creaked with the unimaginable. Now, I realize, Letty was as hurt as anyone else.
“Letty, please, don’t–” I begin.
“All summer it was Danny this and Danny that. You were so horny for him. He was the only thing that mattered to you. You pitched a fit because Mama said you were too young to be with him.”
“No. I left because Mother and Mr. Peterson found Danny and me that night at Dover Point. They said we couldn’t be together because–”
“What?” Letty demands when I don’t continue.
Robbie shakes his head and places a hand on her arm. “You don’t want to know. Leave it alone.”
“Dammit, we aren’t kids anymore. It’s about time we get things out in the open,” Letty says.
The gnawing in my stomach, which took two years to erase, returns. It was the night of the equinox and, as if cooperating with the changing scenes of summer to autumn, the wind acquired a chill that forced Danny and me to cuddle together beneath an itchy wool blanket so that we could watch the stars overhead. It was always a game to see who would view the first meteorite. We sat, enfolded in each others arms, and felt as if we were surrounded by the stars and the beat of the ocean’s waves like an embryonic dance, in the darkness, the sand cool and damp beneath us. Then, as Mother and Mr. Peterson, Danny’s father, confronted us, embarrassment warmed me.
Tears ran down my mother’s face as she explained. At first I couldn’t understand why Mr. Peterson had his arm around her shoulders and then it all became too clear and I could only back away, first from Danny and then from my mother as if they had suddenly become multi-headed monsters—and, in some ways, they had.
Now, as Letty’s face contorts, I wonder exactly what do we owe the dead? The past two years have done nothing if not dispense wisdom in limited quantities. For every mile I traveled, I have absorbed grief and distaste. And, as well, I have experienced a vast accumulation of sadness for the man I thought was my father who died too young and whose passing I mourned every minute. And every day I miss his goodness and wisdom and joy in me, even if I was not his.
“You’re right, Letty. I just wanted to be with Danny for the rest of my life.” This is true. That night we’d decided as much. Until facts became meteorites that hailed down upon us.
Perhaps Letty expects something else: denial, confrontation. When it doesn’t occur, she places her long slender fingers over her lips and cries. As I move to hug her, she doesn’t pull away. We are again, just sisters.
I listen to her cry and soothe her. In my heart, I cry as I had cried a few days ago and as I would probably cry a few hours from now when I consider losses. One day I will tell Letty the truth, when she is stronger. When black and white muddies.
Letty and Robbie’s father used to bounce me on his knee and tell me that the world was not black and white. I remember hugging him as a tiny girl and breathing in his citrusy smell and feeling his whiskers on my forehead as he hugged me as if I were his own. I can still hear his voice saying, “It’s the grays, Abby. Wherever you go and whatever you do, make every effort to see the grays because that’s where the truth is.”