A BREAK FROM HER ROUTINE
Copyright © 2002 All Rights
The smell of freshly mown grass rumbled into the living room as Jean-Marie finally managed to pry open its gummy old window. It was a humid, earthy smell. No matter how often she caught it, took her back to her girlhood and the first days of the harvest. She got a lump in her throat. She smiled, and she flushed at about the same time, and then her forehead furrowed in on itself as she realized she was holding her breath. So many familiar stimuli were complicated like that for her anymore. Every little thing reminded her of something else. She couldn't relax and leave herself out of the picture for a second. She didn't ever live in the present, and it had been a while since she had. The littlest details got to her anymore. Certain songs on the radio, of course, would bring her to tears. All kinds of different smells, even those, like vanilla extract, which recalled her youth, made her well up inside. She was vulnerable to being moved by legions of other harmless minutiae as well. Most of the time, anger and sadness contaminated her feelings.
She didn't linger at the window. She still had a few items on her itinerary, and she wanted to take her time with them. Jean-Marie loped into the kitchenette. The water was boiling and the sauce was bubbling, so she slid a few ounces of number 9 spaghetti into the great tin pot on the stove and pushed it down by degrees with the back of an old, gray wooden spoon. When it was all pliable and entirely submerged, she used the same spoon to stir the sauce once around just so, dipped the spoon into the boiling water to clean it, and returned it to its proper place, a stained paper towel on the counter. A few things came to mind, but she didn't dwell on any of them. She remembered threatening Tyler many times in his first few years with the same wooden spoon. She remembered his terror-stricken defiance. Tyler and Brent seemed to come to mind all the time. That was to be expected, since they had been together as a family for so long, and since she had devoted herself to the two of them. Sometimes she wondered whether they had any idea how often she thought about them. Not Brent, anymore. She didn't want him to know she still thought about him. But Tyler, yes.
Tyler had gone to Wildwood that morning for senior week, a tradition among local high school graduates from time immemorial. He kept a shrine to the rock and roll group Led Zeppelin in his room, and on a table beneath a black velvet poster with the words "Led Zeppelin" painted in fluorescent colors stood a wallet-sized wooden box. Tyler had left a small stash and some rolling papers inside the box. Jean-Marie hoped he wouldn't mind her lifting a little of it off him. They had never talked about drugs, and she hadn't smoked any weed in at least ten years, but she had the idea from the time Tyler turned sixteen or so that he had tried it a few times. Lately she figured he was a regular user. He was moody and indolent. He stayed out late and he rarely seemed to pay any attention to her. She couldn't blame him. She remembered her senior year of high school, what a trial it had been, and her own parents had stayed together until her father's death only two summers ago. But she and Brent had separated, just that past Christmas. Tyler took it hard. He barely spoke to her anymore. At times she felt like Tyler was just a boarder, not a son at all. She had felt almost the same way about Brent towards the end, and as much as for any other reason, she knew that was why she left him, why she left his house and why she left their marriage. At some point she had grown to resent him. She resented his silences as much as she resented his pontificating and his periodic insults and complaints. No, she resented his silences more. Brent felt at liberty, as the man of the house, to let out any thought that occupied his attention. Jean-Marie interpreted his silences as the concealment of unutterable harm he must have wished on her. Now that she and Tyler had moved out on their own, she imagined her son was harboring the same ill will toward her that his father had.
Tyler had left his room neat and tidy and he had made hospital corners in his bed linens. The shag rug was vacuumed in exact rows, and every surface dusted. A mother couldn't complain. Jean-Marie sat on his bed and opened the box, withdrawing a sheet of rolling paper, which she crumpled between her thumb and her first two fingers, and then flattened in her palm and folded over in thirds. Then she pinched a generous measure of the sticky marijuana out of the box. She noticed that he had taken the time to separate the stems from the buds, all of which had been cleaned for seeds, so that the little stash consisted of clumps of uniform strands perfect for rolling. Tyler had always been particular, just like she was herself. She tucked the weed into center of the paper and twisted it up with one hand. Just like riding a bicycle, she thought. She licked the joint and sealed it, then set it down on the bed to rest while she put the remaining papers back into the box and returned it to the table where she had found it. She took her list out of her pocket and crossed off one more item before returning to the living room, joint in hand.
Originally, she had planned on listening to Time, Love & Tenderness, but she didn't want to hear the duet "We're Not Makin' Love Anymore," so she switched to Soul Provider, the first of his albums she had bought for herself. Jean-Marie began to feel sleepy as she put the CD in the player. Sleepy, vague and a little nauseated. She skipped ahead to "Georgia On My Mind," crossed "Michael Bolton CD" off of her list, and, sitting Indian-style on the floor, lighted up her joint. A cloud of pungent smoke formed all around her, like a shroud. Lucky for her that Tyler had left a stash behind: it would help to settle her stomach. She took a toke and held it as long as she could, pushing her diaphragm down. It was harsh and sweet. At length she exhaled. Her throat was irritated from the back of her tongue down to her collarbone. It reminded her of the sensation she got sometimes after swimming all day. Her eyes burned the same way, too. She wondered whether pot-smoking was harmful, like cigarette-smoking, not that it mattered. She persisted for a few hits, listening to Michael Bolton and trying not to think. When her ears started burning, she snubbed out the roach in a crystal candy-dish, and sat for a moment in a comfortable sort of stupor.
"Red wine" was the next item on her list. She had a jug of it in the refrigerator, half-empty. She had to bend over in order to reach it. Her robe came partly undone and her knees cracked. Everything cracked these days. As she got the wine out, the green glint of a can of grated Parmesan cheese caught her eye. She snatched it off of the refrigerator door with her free hand, turned around, and closed the refrigerator by throwing her backside against it. Setting the wine and cheese on the counter, she took out her pad and crossed off one more item. Reading "6:52," she looked at the clock. The little wing was already pointing to eleven, and it took her a second to understand why it mattered.
She turned off the stove and drained the pot into the colander in her tiny sink. She chastised herself for overcooking the spaghetti. She had wanted to cook it al dente, but somehow, it seemed she couldn't get anything right these days. Water filled the sink with a sloshing sound, derailing her train of thought. Steam billowed up to the ceiling, scalding her a bit and condensing on her face and in her hair. Feeling high and drowsy, she knew that this scene, too, reminded her of some unpleasantness, but she couldn't concentrate on what it was. Within a short time she discovered that she had set the table and fixed her plate without thinking. She had even poured herself a glass of red wine on ice. She ate quickly although she had planned to take her time and savor her meal. The sauce had come straight out of a jar and the spaghetti was gluey, but it gratified her nonetheless. By the time the last chords of "How Can We Be Lovers" had played, she was nearly finished her meal. Now it was difficult to concentrate. She had to consult her list in order to know for certain what came next.
There wasn't much left for her to do, it turned out. Three more items remained.
She had cleaned it earlier. Now she let a deluge of hot, hot water flow out of the spigot, and she watched as it surged to the back of the tub and ebbed slowly back toward the drain. She poured a carton of Epsom salts in the water and chased them with a few capfuls of bubble bath.
She sang along to "When I'm Back On My Feet Again" while she scrubbed the pots, the colander, plate, glass and flatware. For once Jean-Marie didn't mind doing the dishes at all. She thought about Tyler again, her baby, her little man, the boarder in her apartment. All grown up and on his own. It wasn't any of his business. He wouldn't understand. He might not even notice.
" She almost never looked at the full-length mirror in her living room. Even now, she avoided looking at it on her way to turn off the water in the bathroom. She sat on the edge of the tub staring at the soap bubbles. A single drop of water dripped from the faucet, echoing through the room as though it were a deep, hot, misty cavern. She heard a man laughing in the apartment downstairs, and the outline of a female voice. After the mirror, her list would be completely crossed out. There would be nothing left on her agenda. It didn't matter. None of it meant anything. Lists like hers were only were made of words, and Jean-Marie had learned from bitter experience that words only said so much, no more, and seldom anything significant. The really important parts of the evening didn't make it on to her list. They couldn't have.
Her bloodshot eyes squinted at the glass. Close up, she looked old and jowly. She should have gone to the hairdresser. She should have gotten a tan. When had her skin become so blotched? Where did the crows-feet come from? How did her blonde hair turn so gray, so suddenly? It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. She had taken special care of herself for almost the past two months in anticipation of Tyler's graduation and this, her special night. She had gotten plenty of sleep and she had paid close attention to her diet. She wanted to look good. She wanted to look young and pretty, to shame them, to shame them all at what a terrible waste it was. Tonight she would make her protest against everyone and everything. She wanted them to feel it, the way she felt it, the way she felt all of it all of the time. She protested the unkindness and the injustice, the petty wrongs and thoughtless cruelties, all of the hunger and longing, rage, fear and misunderstanding, the weakness, spitefulness, greed and pride. Her beautiful face, her young, beautiful face would have symbolized it all, would have spoken for her the sentiment she could not put into words. But when she looked in the mirror she saw a stranger's face. She saw her awful mother. She saw on old, fat, defeated hag with a neck like a Thanksgiving turkey. She didn't see herself at all; she could only see what had been done to her.
Jean-Marie had intended to let her robe drop gracefully and seductively to the floor, like a starlet in a Hollywood movie might have done. Instead she flung it off her body and nearly tripped over it backing away from the mirror. She almost couldn't look at herself. Her hips ballooned outward from her belly and sagged into her thighs, marred by stretchmarks, Brent and Tyler's fault. Her knees looked like sponges made of skin. Her breasts drooped over her ribcage, nipples pointed almost straight down. Flaps of skin hung from her upper arms. None of her delicate beauty had survived. The last time she had looked at herself, she remembered thinking that she didn't look so bad for a woman of forty. This time she realized she had been lying to herself. She looked like hell. And finally, there was nothing to be done about it. It made her want to scream.
Again she sat on the edge of the tub, this time lowering herself sideways, like an invalid, into the sudsy water. Water flowed up against the sides of the tub as she settled in. The suds, like whitecaps, peaked and fell, peaked and fell. She lay back and let the water rush into her ears, sending a shiver down her spine despite the heat. The room began to spin a little, so she closed her eyes and gripped the sides of the tub, and lay perfectly still, listening to the sound of the water. She heard the bass line from a Michael Bolton song, whatever song was playing, she couldn't tell and she didn't care anymore. She heard the voices downstairs. Little by little, the water stilled. Eventually the Michael Bolton song ended, too. For a few seconds, Jean-Marie lay still in her tub in absolute silence. Then she faded off to sleep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After graduating De Sales University with a degree in scene design, Ernie worked seven years in foreign exchange derivatives and corporate finance for Lehman Brothers and later as a financial consultant for Murex, a software company. Last year he fled the industry to begin working on a novel, excerpts of which are available. He is also a contributing editor for Taint magazine
. He is putting out a weekly animated cartoon
on geocities. Ernie lives in Pennsylvania with his fiancée, Trudy.