by Alizée Chesnoy
The four-hour drive down turns into six somewhere around the fourth coffee stop, at which point I give up and switch to decaf, hands like leaves, twitchy and flailing. I drink it outside, all heavy heat of summer asphalt and exhaust fumes, as slowly as I can manage, thighs sticking to the bench.
The woman behind the counter smiles easy. What brings you around these parts, Querida, she asks, and I blame it on the amount of triple espressos I’ve downed since five when I tell her, my mother. Her eyes soften, smile stretching, teeth so very white, and I don’t know why but I add, she died three weeks ago.
It’s fine, I clumsily tell her crumpling face. I didn’t know her very well anyways, and then I shut up because she starts looking at me weird.
It’s a while before Robin arrives, and I sit on the steps of the front porch, legs stretched out, drinking in the first of the sunset. He steps out of his car all long limbs and dark skin, large shoulders, and I haven’t seen him in so long I can’t help but cling to him a little, and he clings back. You shaved your head, I say, add Dad’s coming later, and his arm rests around my shoulder, and he looks up at the house, smile guarded. So, he says. This is where she lived.
It still looks lived-in; a half-folded throw strewn across the couch, the light dancing on the cool tile, a book laid open, face down, interrupted. We’re awkward in the living room, strangers, careful, polite, the way guests are; only not really, because guests are invited, and wanted, aren’t they.
I don’t know where to start. Robin looks at me, shrugs and scratches at his neck, asks, kitchen, and I nod, because, yeah, that sounds like a safe enough space to begin with.
We bang around the cabinets; keep enough cutlery for the three of us over the next handful of days and put away the rest into the cardboard boxes Robin’s unloaded from the back of his car, the ones labelled to donate.
There’s wine bottles with intricate, beautiful labels, and three opened jars of peanut butter; didn’t she use to make us peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwiches, Robin asks, and I tell him, yes. Because grape jelly –
– Is an aberration, he finishes. I remember. And we smile, rueful, because the rare memories of her feel sharp, always.
“Most of her life is packed up in boxes now, except for Robin and I, and here we are, after all this time, still kicking.”
The evening is warm, the lazy smell of lavender, the red stone, and so we eat dinner outside, open one of the fancy bottles and cobble together a salad with the food Dad brought with him. It’s alright, for the most part, until Dad opens his mouth and the words your mother crumble out of it, half-swallowed, and I can feel my hands tighten around my glass when he tries again, your mother, and Robin cuts in, Dad, don’t, on the verge of dangerous, and so Dad doesn’t, and we go back to eating.
I lay on the couch, later, arms crossed under my head, stare at the ceiling in the darkness, listen to Robin pretending to be asleep.
We work quietly, mostly, put a playlist on – bossa nova – and leave the windows open, let the honey sunlight warm the white-washed walls, and by mid-morning the hair on the back of my neck curls with sweat.
It is a beautiful place, the kind of home that might be easy to love if it weren’t so strange to find ourselves standing amongst the remnants of a life she’d long removed us from; it’s like intruding on a secret we weren’t supposed to unfold, and it dredges up itching feelings, phantom pains I thought I’d made peace with.
Most of the books go into the donation boxes, too; the art on the walls unhung and carefully wrapped up, the medication on the corner of the bathroom sink thrown away.
I find Robin in her room, looking out of the window, loosely holding one the picture frames that scatter her nightstand, and he doesn’t turn. Did you notice, he very carefully says, how there is no mention of us anywhere?
I did. I drop my hand to the nape of his neck, empty comfort. Do you think she talked about us sometimes? he asks, and his voice is small, and I don’t think I can forgive her for this, for the way his shoulders slump.
I cannot bear to think that she kept us quiet, uncomfortable truths swept under the rug. What about us was wrong? I want to ask her. What about us wasn’t enough?
We keep picking up the puzzle pieces of herself she left behind, scattered across the rooms, come upon a record collection that shows truly terrible taste in music, fold away her cashmeres, and there are sex toys in one of her drawers. Dad finds us laughing so hard we’re crying, because it doesn’t get more ridiculous than that, really, having to decide whether the proof of your estranged mother’s sex life should go into the to throw away or the to keep boxes.
Look what I found, Robin says, and dumps a box of photographs on the porch next to me, steals the beer from my hands. We sift through them, and most of them are old, light leaks and faded colours. There’s one of her with us, Blake and Robin’s first Christmas written on the back of it in Dad’s handwriting. We’re half-naked and I’m covered in chocolate and Robin has wrapping paper clenched in his tiny, round fists, and she is kneeling, holding on to the both of us, eyes looking straight at the camera, wide and a little empty, like she knows something we don’t know, like she knows already.
Look at this one, Robin says, and hands me one where she is laughing, her head thrown back, and she looks so young. She’s standing on the side of a dust road, legs endless in her faded denim shorts, wild hair wrapped in a tumbling head scarf. Eve, Summer ’79, the back reads. Twenty-four years old, then; younger than Robin and I are now. You look like her, Robin says.
What, because of the head wrap? I ask. That, and the shorts. And the smile, he adds, and if I squint I can see it, sort of. I don’t mind it as much as I’d think.
When Robin and I were kids we used to play a game called What do you think Mum is like and we find ourselves playing it now, piecing together the portrait of someone who doesn’t exist based on the clues left behind by a woman none of us really knew. It used to be Mum is a secret agent who is never here because she needs to save James Bond’s sorry arse; now it’s Mum knew nothing about wine, only bought some because she thought the labels were nice, but she liked to pretend she did.
It rains one evening, and it’s soothing – warm summer showers that paint the air with cool, purplish hues. Most of her life is packed up in boxes now, except for Robin and I, and here we are, after all this time, still kicking.
We keep her studio for last, mostly because that part isn’t up to us; her agent will come by later, figure out what to do with the unfinished sculptures, the stories half told, the twisted barbed wire, the dried clay. There’s a small reproduction of one of her earlier works, from when we first started reading about her in the arts sections of Dad’s Sunday paper when we were eight and she’d already left us; a lump of humanoid shapes called the two ghosts, and Robin decides to keep it.
I hug Dad, promise to call him more often; I threaten Robin into visiting later in the Summer. I leave my bag on the passenger seat and she peeks out of it, the twenty-four-year-old Eve, carefree and beautiful and a little creased and crumpled.
The drive back isn’t nearly as long.
Alizée is a poet in Canada. When she isn’t writing, you’ll probably find her photographing street art, practicing sarcasm, and drinking unhealthy amounts of tea.