When she first arrived, the older woman took off her shoes before stepping over the threshold. Unusually considerate, light in her step, she made her daughter nervous.
There had been superstitions, back in her mother’s country, about thresholds, doorways, windows. Table tops and chairs. And they were treated like traditions by the women in her family, as non-negotiable as laws of gravity and just as final. To never kiss over a threshold. To never sit upon a tabletop. To never let an unmarried woman be positioned at a corner seat, while dining. And with the slew of superstitions came antidotes, just as important to take notice of; so that when things did NOT work out — the victim could be still the one to blame: You shoulda knocked three times on wood, spit over the left shoulder, and hidden a fig hand in your pocket. These things would grow on one unconsciousness like barnacles of paranoid behavior. And in a nation of world-renowned courage, it puzzled her to see so many doubtful people.
And was her mother brave at all, to just pack-up like that and leave? To move herself with a child to the furthest removed continent, after the death of her husband? His — was a death by drinking. She didn’t want to die — by mourning.
And now, both women — tired but not tired enough to not be cautious of each other — seemed to be waiting for something. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, albeit both of them standing barefoot in the empty kitchen. In this new country, where everyone was in love with fun and smiley faces, they each would arrive to their shared home and try to force a lightness to descend. It would be mostly out of habit, and not desire. Her mother functioned better in these new rules: “Have fun!” “God bless!” “I love you!” She had no difficulty throwing these around, without taking any time to match their implications to the worth of the recipient.
The younger woman now waited by the sink full of dishes. After enough silence, while stealing glances at her mother, who floated from one room to another like a trapped moth, the hostess began to rummage through the dirty dishes.
Had mother always colored her hair with that unnatural shade of black, when last she’d seen her, in New York? The snow white roots came in aggressively, all over mother’s head, opposing the other color with no mercy. When did she age this much? When did this fear and sorrow find time to settle on her face?
A paw of pity stroked across the young woman’s tightly wound nerves:
“Mom. Why don’t you sit down?” She caught herself: All furniture was made of boxes, uncouth for a woman with a living husband, according to her mother’s generation. Before the older woman managed to react, the daughter hid her gaze in forming mounds of soapsuds and hurriedly amended her first offer: “Mom. Wouldn’t you like a drink?”
“Yes, please,” the older woman turned on her heels, seemingly delighted. “White zinfandel?”
“Well. Um. I don’t have alcohol. But would you like some juice?”
“Oh. Right.” An eyebrow went up and froze. “No, thanks.”
She turned and walked away again — floating, balancing, looming — stopped by the sliding doors of the balcony, at the edge of the living-room. The palm trees slowly swayed outside like metronomes to one’s slower heartbeat. West, West, West.
She’d gone out West, with nothing but the ghosts checked-in as her luggage. The letters from her best friend on the East Coast would hit the bottom of the mailbox on a weekly basis, for the first two months. She praised her for the courage. She mentioned pride, and dignity, and all the other things they’d mutually gotten high on, back in college.
It never happened in any of the books she’d read, but in her life, what others titled “courage” — was merely an act of following through. Besides, she swore, he thought of the idea first. What else was she suppose to do?
The best friend wrote her with gel pens, whose color was always given careful consideration.
She wrote in pink: “It’s better to let it all go to the wind.”
In purple: “Let justice work itself out.”
At least, unlike the others, the best friend never judged. She wasn’t in a habit of taking sides. She never called the husband names. But then again, they’d never really found men to be the leading topic of their friendship. Men merely existed. Some men were good. And back in college, the two of them hadn’t loved enough men to speak of the other gender with that scornful nostalgia of the other women. Men merely existed. And then: There was the whole of the magnificent world outside.
Out here — out West — she could just start from scratch. She only needed to remember how to breathe the even breath: if not that of her calmer youth — then of her wiser self. With time, she knew she’d see the point of it, the purpose, the lessons of her little losses. She had too vivid of an imagination to not weave her life into a story.
“One’s life had meaning. It couldn’t be for forsaken.” (Oh, how she missed those wonderful convictions of her youth!)
So, while she waited to mature into that wiser self, she set aside some time and space in which the hurting self could flail, abandon graces, wag its finger, then call people back with tearful apologies. But she would not have to confront her past out here, at least; except for when she opened the envelopes of her phone bills.
“So,” mother started speaking to the window, again. “Natasha? Are you looking for a job?”
“I have been looking, yes, mom.”
“Okay,” mom turned around. Change of subject: “I hear Mike got a promotion for doing the work on that new bridge, in Brooklyn.”
When rinsing a knife after all pungent foods, one absolutely must use soap. Because if not, the taste will resonate on every meal for further weeks to come.
“Oh yeah? That’s good.”
“Yeah! He’s a smart boy! I’ve always liked Mike. For you.”
It’s better if the handle of the knife is anything but wooden. Wood stays a living thing forever. It takes on other substances, breeds them, doesn’t let them go.
Here comes the second round. Ding, ding, ding:
“I wrote Mike a letter.” Mom searched for the effects of her intentions on her daughter’s face. “I know! I know! It sounds silly! We live a borough away. But I have always relished his opinion.”
She felt exhausted. “Mom.”
Out West, she’d found herself relearning how to use each thing with an appropriate instrument. The sense of wonderment! The love of unexpected beauty! The curiosity she was resuscitating in herself, like a paralysis patient learning how to walk again. Her days weren’t daunting, at all times; and they were full of curiosity.
And now: Mom, barefoot yet armed! In one woman’s kitchen. So fearful, she could not release either of them from their pasts. They stood, displeased with being a reflection of each other. Another eyebrow arch. A scoff. One turned away, demonstratively disappointed. The other looked down onto her pruned fingers submerged into a sink of cruddy water.
Mom faced the window with no curtains, yet again. Those horrid, flapping, plastic blinds had been the first thing that Natasha’d taken down. For the first weeks, she let the wind roam through the apartment, while she, sleepless and exhausted, observed the palm trees wave against the never pitch-black night of her new city: You are alright. Remember breathing?
West, West, West.
You still have time. In your defense.