Suddenly, Yes

My divorce from Grant had finally come through.  Just last week in fact.  I was feeling tired, restless and jubilant.  Grant and I had fought over everything – the house, the furniture, the boat, the dog, the pictures on the wall, the silverware.  But it was over.  Finally, finally over.  I'd sold the house (he'd 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, and 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.  No, I wasn't.  I was nervous about it.  This divorce had not been my first.

Mother was busy in the kitchen, preparing way too much food, as always.  As soon as I came in 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.  Mother, I noticed, had become both more distant and more commanding – or, perhaps, more demanding, if in a somewhat formulaic way – these last few years since my father's death.  She was still sad, I think, or maybe 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 always that what it signaled was its bearer's potential demise.  She worried.  I knew she worried; we all knew she worried.  Mainly she worried about the family.  More specifically, 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, to loop us, lasso us into the kind of happy togetherness she hoped would stretch at least beyond the parameters of a single holiday meal, if not beyond her death.

I went into the living room.  Neesa trailed behind me.  Sylvester was there, sitting on the couch beside his wife Diana; their two kids lay sprawled out on the floor.  Sylvester had been my father's child:  home and family, family and work, work and more work, that's what they both believed in.  Diana too.  And there was George, in so many ways their opposite, flopped back as always in his chair, feet propped up on the matching ottoman.  Thirty now (I'd sent him a card, with a lottery ticket tucked inside), he still lived at home.  George was somber.  George was moody – no, prickly.  Like a porcupine.  You had to watch what you said to George.  George could be quite critical sometimes.  George could have a sharp tongue sometimes.  He could also be oddly intelligent – sometimes.  But it never came to anything.  George was lost.  Our whole family was lost.  Even Sylvester, with his work, work, and work.  It was easy to lose your way if all you looked at was your own feet.  These were my two brothers.  I knew the outlines of their biographies, but little detail.  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, I assumed, 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, and work.  But I wasn't lazy.  I was just drifting – for the moment.

I nodded to my borthers, said hello; they said hello back to me.  I chose a seat and sat down neatly.  We chit-chatted some, 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 acts so strange, she said.

That's because we're strangers, I'd told her.

Nobody mentioned my divorce.  I kept waiting for them to, but they didn't.  George, of course, would already have been told about its being finalized by Mother.  Sylvester would probably also have been briefed; there'd have been time before I arrived.  He didn't bring it up though; in fact, the only time he engaged me in a conversation of any length was when he regaled me with a fulsome description of the new house he and Diana were preeety sure they were going to buy . . .  It had a verandah, you see.  And a roof made of some new kind of especially repellent material (to rain, that is).  And a yard.  With a fence.  Yes, I said, it all sounded just wonderful.  Then Mother came in with a tray of vegetable slices and dip and set it down on the coffee table with a clatter which, though small, somehow brought us all to attention.

So! she said, perching herself on a small, fold-up chair brought out specially for the occasion.  We all looked at her.  She looked at us.  So how is everybody? she queried.

Fine, we replied in unison, and shared a tired chuckle.  We'd been saying Fine, like that since we were kids, and with just that same monotonous groan in our intonation.  I saw Neesa roll her eyes from the corner of mine.

Mother laughed too; her eyes were very bright.  Good! she said.  Syl, did you tell your sister about that new 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, Mother explained.

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

After that, we all sat silently awhile.

Oh! Mother cried.  The potatoes, and jumped up from her chair.  And, Sylvester! she called, Don't forget the pictures!

She left, and Sylvester first dutifully, then boastfully, showed me his pictures.  They were really fascinating; unfortunately, I can't remember a thing 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 I had 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 things of yours in it.  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 flop down in our chairs, too heavy-bellied to move, and then not too long after that it would be time to go.

I fetched the box and plunked it and me down on the floor in front of the chair I'd been sitting in.  It was full of stuff I'd mostly classify as junk – leftovers from my high school years mainly it appeared.  Here was a yearbook – the one I'd thought had gone missing.  I flipped through it quickly, then set it aside to save.  Here was an old rhinestone tiara, done up in frosty blues and silver, now chipped 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, then 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 ever to see him again.  Save?  No – 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, very handsome, with a small, compact, muscular body – 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 . . . what, old concert ticket stubs, a stuffed animal some boy had once won for me at the fair, the top of some old costume which brought back no memories with it whatsoever . . .  Junk, junk, junk.  Ten minutes later and the box was nearly empty.  Then I saw, pressed against one side of it, a large sheet of heavy paper, folded in half.  This I opened, looked at; turned it right-side up.  Yes, I remembered this.  It was a watercolor painting of a young woman, little more than a girl really, who nevertheless was shown holding an infant in 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 knew this picture, but couldn't quite place where or how it had come into my possession, 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 looking more like a doll than a living being.  I placed it in the Discard pile.  Let it drop from my fingers and settle there on top, like a dead leaf.

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.

Ye-es . . . I think you're right.  The memory had begun coming back to me, hazy and indistinct.  Leonard:  that tall boy, rather ugly, living in the small back room with his books and his smells 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 in our house who'd lived with us for a year or so during my teenaged years.  At the time I just thought of him as a pain, someone unwelcome, someone 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 divorce, and consequently had asked their friends, my parents, if they could provide him with a sort of temporary safe haven until they'd decided which one of them was going to murder the other.  Len had 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 once more onto the Discard pile.

Don't you want it? George asked me.  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 with my other things.

George picked up the painting and held it on his lap, studying it.  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 look around George's body at me.  And he was right – her head was a little too large for her body, as were her hands – or fingers, actually; and it was hard to tell if this lack of proportional integrity was intentional or not.  Overly long, tapering fingers cupped the waist of the child that half stood 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 (I too had had long brown hair), held back from her face by a mauve colored headband (I too had worn headbands), fell softly over her shoulders.  Her neck was likewise 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, never mind the physical struggle of childbirth, 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.  Much, I commented.

Well, no, it doesn't exactly, said George.  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 think I might have been turned into someone's vacant vehicle.  I knew that girl.  I knew her, and I knew that underneath that smooth and pristine exterior she was turbulent and wild, eager to tackle the heights and depths of intellect and emotion, and full of a desire to explore what this impurity thing was all about.  None of that had been captured here.  Where did they think that 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 – either way, it didn't matter.  Mother and child, girl and doll, it didn't really matter.  It made no essential difference.  None at all.  None at all, none at alll – the words sang in my head.  Mother and child, girl and doll, it made no difference.  None at all.

Suddenly I found that I was shaking.  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, determinedly keeping my voice light.  You have it.

Okay – thanks.  Don't quite know what I'll do with it though.  Tack it up somewhere, I suppose . . .  Maybe in the hall.

Whatever, I said, indifferently.  I was a little surprised nonetheless that 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 the sudden urge to unleash some caustic, bruising remark upon him, 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 slipped off her chair and was playing some board game on the carpet 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 be served!

We sat at a table laden with too much food and after a thoughtful moment of silence during which we were meant to give thanks, began passing steaming dishes around.  Neesa was sitting beside me, and each time a bowl or a platter was handed between us I turned to look at her, to catch another glimpse of her face.  Each time it seemed new.  Do I know you? I kept thinking, then rested my hands upon the table and stared at her a long moment – stared at her hard.  Who are you? I thought.  Who are you, really?

Finally she gave me a roll of the eyes and an impatient smile.  I saw she was holding a dish out to me.  Take the potatoes, Mom, she said.

~ END ~