Suddenly, Yes

My divorce from Grant had finally come through.  Just this week in fact.  I was feeling tired, restless, jubilant.  We'd fought over everything – the house, the furniture, the boat, the dog, the pictures on the wall, the silverware.  But it was finally, finally, finally over.  I'd sold the house (he got the boat) and moved into an apartment close to where I worked.  My daughter, Neesa, had gone off to college, thrilled to get away from what she'd jokingly called (more than once) the scene of the crime.  She was back now, for Thanksgiving, and we'd driven down to the old homestead (my parent's house) to spend the day with family.  My first holiday with them post-divorce.  I was looking forward to it, nervously:  this divorce had not been my first.

Mother was busy in the kitchen, preparing way too much food, as always.  I asked if there was anything I could do to help, but of course there wasn't.  She thanked me politely, kissed Neesa on the cheek, and directed us into the living room to say hello to the rest of the family.  She had become more distant, more commanding – or more demanding, perhaps – but in a formulaic way, these last few years since my father's death.  She was still sad, I think, or perhaps lonely, the way you might be lonely for a lost limb  This she attempted to camouflage with a kind of endless, anxious, cheeriness.  As camouflage it wasn't all that successful.  Her cheeriness was a white flag, fearful of its own demise.  She worried.  I knew she worried; we all knew she worried.  Mainly she worried about the family.  She worried that, after she was gone, there would be no more family.  And why should there be?  We weren't close, any of us.  So, on those occasions when we did get together, she worked very hard at trying to coerce us, loop us, lasso us into a kind of happy togetherness she hoped would last beyond the boundaries of any single holiday meal.

So I went into the living room.  Neesa trailed behind me.  Sylvester was there, sitting on the couch beside his wife, Diana, their two kids sprawled out on the floor.  Sylvester had been my father's child:  home, family and work, work, work, that's what he believed in.  Diana too.  And here was George, flopped back in a chair that was clearly his, feet propped up.  Thirty now (I'd sent him a card, with a lottery ticket in it), he still lived at home.  George was somber.  George was moody – no, prickly.  You had to watch what you said to George.  He could be quite critical sometimes.  Too intelligent for his own good, maybe.  George was lost.  We were all lost.  Even Sylvester, with his work, work, work.  It was easy to lose your way if all you looked at was your own feet.  These were my two brothers.  I knew their biographies, and little else.  And when Mother was gone, I would probably not know them at all.  There wasn't much of the personal between us.  I was indifferent to them; they were indifferent to me, and to each other.  It wasn't sad.  You can't be both sad and indifferent.  For my part, I liked not being sad – probably because it allowed me to be lazy.  That's what Father would have said.  Because what he believed in was work, work, work.

We all said hello.  I took a seat.  We all chit-chatted, and in between times stared, glittery eyed, at the tv.  I glanced over at Neesa, sitting in a huge, overstuffed chair, arms folded across her chest.  She'd told me, on the drive down, that she didn't really like these family get-togethers.  Everybody seems so silly, she said.

Nobody mentioned my divorce.  George, of course, would already have been told.  Sylvester must have been briefed about it; there would have been time before I arrived.  He didn't say anything, and I couldn't tell for sure if there was a certain something in his tone or not.  Anyway, he was just beginning to describe to me the new house he and Diana were preeety sure they were going to buy when Mother came in with a tray of vegetable slices and dip and set it down on the coffee table.

So! she said, perching herself on a small, fold-up chair brought out especially for the occasion.  How is everybody?

Fine, we said, one and all, and shared a laugh.  We'd said Fine, like that when we were kids, and with just that same slight groan in our intonation.  I saw Neesa roll her eyes.

Mother laughed too, her eyes very bright.  Good! she said.  Syl, did you tell your sister about that house you were thinking of buying?  She turned to me.  He brought pictures, she said.  And George!  Don't sit there like a lump.  Tell them about your new job!

I'm a cashier at a Minny-Marty, grumbled George, staring gloomily at the tv.

He thinks he might be made assistant manager, said Mother.

Umph, said George.  If that burger-face Ken ever leaves.  If not . . . He shrugged.

Oh!  The potatoes, cried Mother, jumping up from her chair.  And Sylvester – don't forget the pictures!

She left, and Sylvester showed me his pictures.  They were fascinating; unfortunately, I can't remember anything about them.  Mother stuck her head back through the door.  Oh, Judith, she said, before I forget – I finally got around to going through all that stuff stored in the back room.  Or at least, I got around to getting started on sorting through it.  Anyhow, I found a box with some old stuff in it of yours.  I left it in the hall.  Could you go through it before you leave?  In other words, I thought, could I do it now?  Please.  After the big holiday meal we'd all sit around for awhile too heavy-bellied to move, and then it would be time to go.

I fetched the box and plunked it and me down on the floor in the living room.  It was full of stuff I'd mostly classify as junk – stuff from my high school years mainly, it appeared.  Here was a yearbook – the one I'd thought had gone lost.  I flipped through it quickly, then set it aside to save.  Here was an old rhinestone tiara, done up in frosty blues and silvers, now tarnished and faded with age.  I put that in a pile to throw away.  Neesa picked it up, looking first at it, then at me, curiously.

I was elected Snow Queen my junior year, I explained.  That was my crown.

Wow, she said, then grinned.  I didn't know I came from royalty.  She tried the tiara on for size.

I'd also been a cheerleader – and here in the box I found two ankle weights, used to build up the calf muscles.  Cheerleading was a strenuous activity.  I weighed them in my hands; I placed them in the discard pile.  I didn't want any of these things, really.  Here were some old love letters from a high school boyfriend.  We'd actually been engaged, secretly, for three whole months until my parents found out.  Then I was forbidden to see him.  Discard letters.  Here were some old photos, including one of Bronson, my first husband.  Bronson was his last name, but it's what he always went by.  I studied the picture a long while.  He looked very young, handsome, small, compact, muscular – the body of a wrestler, which is what he'd been in college.  It was his body I'd fallen in love with, the way kids do.  The marriage had lasted four terrible, wonderful years.  And then it was done.  I handed the picture to Neesa.

Dad! she said, her voice small and surprised; then she too looked at the picture a long time before silently handing it back to me.  I placed it with the yearbook in the Save pile.

Looking down into the box again, I saw it was nearly empty.  But pressed against one side of it I discovered a large sheet of heavy paper, folded in half.  This I opened, looked at; turned it right-side up.  It was an watercolor painting of a young woman, little more than a girl really, who nevertheless was holding an infant on her lap.  Behind them stood a thick clump of heavy, darkly green trees, their trunks defining the picture's far side.  Above, the sky was black with night; though somewhere, ostensibly, there was a moon, for the two figures in the foreground were brightly lit.  I frowned; I remembered this picture, I knew it, but I couldn't quite place it in my memory, nor recall why I would have saved it.  I found I didn't really like it; both mother and child had wide, staring eyes – the child in fact looked more like a doll than a living thing.  I placed it among the Discards.  I let it drop from my fingers.

Can I see that?  George startled me by rousing himself from his chair and holding out his hand.

Sure.  I guess so.  I don't know what it is though.  Or who did it.

George's eyes ran over the painting swiftly.

Ohh . . . I said.

Len painted this, said George.

Yes . . . I think you're right.  The memory had begun to come back to me, hazy and indistinct.  Leonard:  that tall boy, rather ugly, living in the small back room with his books and his smell and his paints.

Sure he did, said George.  See how her head's a little too big for her body?  The kid's too.  And the artificial stiffness of their poses?  That was Len's style.  He always painted people like that.

Yes, I remembered.  Len had been a strange boy, a strange sort of guest who'd lived in our house for about a year during my teenaged years.  At the time I just thought of him as a pain, someone who was in the way.  We didn't know him; he didn't know us and didn't really seem to want to.  In retrospect, his attitude was a little easier to understand:  his parents had been going through a particularly nasty breakup, and had asked their friends, my parents, if they would provide him with a sort of safe haven until they'd decided which one would murder the other.  They'd probably both made plans.  Len had a bit of a nasty streak in him, what with telling George, who must've only been nine or ten at the time, monster stories and ghost tales just before he went to bed, and jumping out at me sometimes from an empty room to give me a scare that he, from his jubilant laughter, apparently enjoyed and thought I should too, but which I only found annoying, childish, and a little weird.  He must have had some talent at painting though, whatever I thought of him – I had the vague memory of his having won some kind of prize or honorable mention at least at some local art competition.

I took the picture back from George.  I remember, I said, looked at the picture again, shrugged, and let it drop lightly onto the Discard pile.

Don't you want it? asked George.  I shook my head.  Can I have it then?  I think it's kind of interesting.

Certainly, I said.  Sure, take it.  I don't know what it's supposed to be though, or why it ended up in this box.

George picked up the painting and held it on his lap.  I think, he said slowly, that it's supposed to be you.

I stood and looked over his shoulder.  The young girl had her head tipped to one side, as if the better to see me around George's body.  And he was right – her head was a little too large for her body, as were the hands – or fingers, actually; and it was hard to tell if this lack of proportional integrity was intentional or not – that cupped the waist of the child she held on her lap.  Her lips were thin and pink and curled at the edges as if they had just tasted something sweet.  Long brown hair, held back from her face by a mauve colored headband, fell softly over her shoulders.  Her neck was long and graceful, her breasts modestly small.  The dress she wore was a delicately tinted shade of blue; the child's garb by contrast was a dusky white.  Was the young girl mother of this child?  Her cheeks, her brow, were smooth; they bore no trace of strife or guilt or pleasure or any strongly felt emotion so far as I could tell.  There was no sign of experience having left its mark; her face, her eyes, held nothing but a sort of suspended, blank rapture.  Whether the girl was pure or purified I couldn't say:  though the intent towards a certain effect was apparent, its causality was left a mystery.

It doesn't look like me, I commented.

Well, no, not exactly.  It's not really a portrait.  Still, I think it's supposed to be you, or based on you . . .

I couldn't quite believe him somehow.  Is that what people had thought I'd been?  Some romantic half-virgin, a self-dreaming dream?  I was somehow appalled to have been turned into someone else's vacant symbol.  I knew that girl.  I knew her, and I knew that underneath that smooth and pristine exterior she was turbulent and wild, capable of heights and depths of idea and emotion, and full of a desire to explore what impurity was all about.  None of that had been captured here.  Where did they think the child had come from?  I squinted at the picture and had a thought.  Maybe the child really was a doll.  Maybe this was a picture of a girl and her doll.  But under that dark sky, that hidden moon, those heavy trees?

No, I realized – it didn't really matter.  Mother and child, girl and doll, it didn't seem to really matter.  It made no essential difference.  It was a foul thing, that picture.  A foul thing.  I detested it.  Suddenly, yes, I detested it.

George was gazing up at me, trying to read my face.  Sure you don't want it? he asked, and it was as if, having revealed the picture to me, he now felt he could make me an offering of it.

No, I said, keeping my voice light.  You have it.

Thanks.  Don't quite know what I'll do with it though.  Tack it up somewhere, I suppose.

Whatever, I said.  I was a little surprised he wanted it at all.  It was true then, that we did not know each other.  And never had, apparently.  Still, it was funny how he had remembered Len, and the watercolor.  I wished he hadn't.  I felt a sudden urge to unleash some caustic, bruising remark, to give him a verbal slap.  But that would only have been awkward.  I dropped back to the box on the floor.  It felt as if I'd been dispossessed somehow, and I wasn't sure what I thought about that.  I glanced over at Sylvester and Diana, hunkered down together side by side on the couch; turned to look at Neesa, who had by now started playing some board game on the floor with her two young cousins.  I thought, And do I –

Mother burst back into the room.  Everybody come! she cried.  Dinner's 'bout ready to serve!

We sat at a table laden with food and soon began passing dishes around.  Neesa was sitting beside me, and each time a bowl or a platter was handed between us I turned to catch another glimpse of her face.  Who are you? I kept thinking, and looked at her hard.  Who are you, really?

Finally she gave me a roll of the eyes and an impatient smile.  Take the potatoes, Mom, she said.

~ END ~