Jo Varnish moved from her native England at age 24, and spends her time raising her three children and her two dogs, writing, and traveling as much as possible.
You saw me just as you were about to unlock your car. You had perched your coffee cup and a paper bag containing a pastry or a donut from Ray’s Diner on the roof, and you looked up, right at me, as I made my way towards you. You’ve changed, of course, over the past few years. Your hair more salt than pepper, the open pores on your face so wide it’s a wonder that yesterday’s stubble doesn’t just fall out. Broken veins punctuate your cheeks and nose. Your lips, dry and cracked with small white pasty deposits at the corners, are pursed. The deep lines that frame your features couple with the yellows of your eyes to give an impression of tiredness, of stress, of unease. That made me smile.
You didn’t expect to see me, did you? After standing completely still for several seconds, you gasped, and if fear had a sound, that’s what you made. I stopped and I looked at you, took in the full view from your thinning hair to your flaccid belly overhanging where presumably you have a belt line, and down to your ancient boots. I remember those boots. I remember they smelled of musk and leather and plastic all at once. Their dark brown skin was smooth and the metal lace hole surrounds gleamed with pride. Now they are dappled with small abrasions, a triangular shaped stain blackens the front of the left, and the laces are stretched and exhausted.
When I pulled my eyes up to yours, you threw yourself at your car door, counter productively, as you clamored to get inside. Driving off, you left your coffee and bag on the roof, and I watched them trying to maintain balance while you pulled forward, but failing as you swerved inconsiderately. The bag landed first, silently, and lay there innocently, as if protesting, but I didn’t know… The coffee landed with a satisfying whump; the lid popped off and its contents emerged quickly, pooling on the cool tarmac like blood.
I was ten when mom and I moved into the small, lightly furnished apartment next to yours. “I used to be a cop, till I got shot,” you told us with a grin on the day we arrived. You were in the hallway, black baseball cap on backwards, and sporting a wide cowboy style belt buckle, helping us to carry in the few boxes of belongings we had. Mom had her dark red hair tied back in a tight ponytail. She wore jeans, drug store flip flops and a white and navy horizontally striped fitted t shirt that she called her “boating” shirt, although I never knew her to go on a boat. I remember thinking you were trying to impress her, but that you had no chance. Mom said my last two dads were more trouble than whooping cough, and she was done looking for another. I never met my original dad. My favorite was Jeff, the last one of the four. He was kind to me, he bought me red cherry candies and let me choose the music when we drove out to the store in his big wooden sided car. But they started to fight, and when they fought, I wished for peace, and I guess the only way that was going to happen was for Jeff to leave. And one day he did.
One of those first few nights, mom lay down beside me on my bed. “Sweetie, this is a good move for us,” she said. “I spoke to Bill next door and when I’m at the hospital working nights, he’ll watch you, and I’ll do a bit of cleaning for him. Who better to babysit than an ex policeman?” I was used to Jeff being home with me while mom had to work, and we would make a pile of pasta, and play Monopoly or The Game of Life, and he always let me have two scoops of ice cream. Mom and I lay there brim full of plans for our apartment. “Please can I have purple blinds?” I asked. “Yes, and I’ll get paint, we’ll find a rug for your floor… Your room will be top priority. I’m going to get on track, and save some money. Things are going to get better.” Mom’s bare arm was wrapped under my neck and she was turned towards me. I breathed in the faint aura of her rose scent, and I watched the subtle flashes of expression leaping across her face as she succumbed to the dream that drew her in. The apartment was new to me, but mom was here. I was home.
I would lie on the sofa, my body stolen, and I would look at any stray lint or maybe a thread, forever lost from its original form. I would focus so intently at those tiny hexagons that made up the pattern of the dark green sofa, that soon enough they would blur into one and I would get away, away from the sofa and the noises and your sour breath, and away from you. I would be in the field I once saw on a commercial. I forget what it was trying to sell, because it was irrelevant; it sold me a lifeline. There was a girl with long straight platinum hair, parted in the middle. Her skin was creamy gold and her eyes were blue. She twirled and swayed in a white summer dress, its spaghetti straps draping over her smooth shoulders and accentuating her light tan. The field was vast, with rows of waist high soft grasses to play between. I called her Katherine, and when I was there, I was Clare. “Run with me, Clare, let’s run the whole length of the field!” I had a dress just like hers and the sunshine poured on our faces as we tipped our heads back to laugh, the laugh that girls make when it’s summer, and they’re beautiful, and all they have to do is play and dance and chase their shadows.
“Get and take your bath now,” you would say gruffly afterwards. And I would move wordlessly, clutching my clothes to my body as if they offered some protection. I would run a bath as scalding hot as I could take it, even though I knew Mom preferred we keep the bills down. I would lower myself in, willing myself not to recoil at the heat, and let the water coat me, cover me, but I knew it couldn’t cleanse me. I would sit there, with the light off, the yellow streetlamp decanting through the rippled window pane, providing an eerie glow in the room. I would count the pale blue tiles that lined the tub, joined by old yellowing grout that was flecked with mildew splatters. And eventually, when my knees were pulled up to my chest and my body was trembling from the cold, I would quietly get out, and slide on my pajamas and into my bed, timing each step with your ugly guttural snores from the living room.
Lying in bed, I would search for ideas, praying for a god to make you stop. You had built a solid roadblock. “I know people,” you told me. “I know lots of cops. If you were to say nasty things about me, well, they could very easily put your mom in jail.” My face asked the question that my voice could not. “Oh she doesn’t need to have done anything at all! They got plenty of crimes they call ‘open’, where they just need someone to pin it on. Worst thing is, she’d know it was all your fault. And she would be in jail a very, very long time. God knows where you’d end up.”
She told you how I suggested she change her shifts, didn’t she? I sat after school, my knees pressing together under the table as I waited for the right amount of courage to give me words. Mom gave me a tepid bowl of Campbell’s mushroom soup and she sat opposite me, flicking through a Macy’s catalogue. “Would you look at that dress, Sweetie? So beautiful.” I moved the spoon through the thick soup, making wake trails in a figure eight. “Mom, the hospital cafe, it’s open all the time so why don’t you work there during the day instead?” Mom’s tongue was licking the edge of her lip and her focus remained fixed on the catalogue. “I mean, then you wouldn’t be tired at the wrong times.” She leaned forward and turned the corner of the page down, running her press-on fake nail along it twice to make a perfect, crisp fold. “Hmm?” she asked.
“I said, maybe you could work day shifts now, at the hospital?”
She looked at me. Her hair a little less dark, and a little less red than when we had moved in. It was now auburn, and wavy. Her face was drawn, she looked tired, but she was attractive. Her skin was smooth and light, and her hazel eyes sloped upwards at the edges, giving her an exotic look. She leant her chin on her fist and gave me all of her attention. “Why’s that Honey Bunch?”
I looked at the ceiling fan, slowly whirring. There was no need for it to be on, but sometimes when I flicked the light switch, I turned both and by the time it started moving, I was too far from the switch to want to make it right. I spoke slowly. “Just because… it’s hard, working nights.”
Mom smiled generously. “Oh you don’t need to worry about that!” she sang. “Aren’t you adorable? I get 75 cents more per hour working nights, and I get to be around after school for you. And I can always take a few cleaning hours during the day. I get to come to your school things…” She gestured for me to eat, and I obliged. “If I had to work days, I’d have missed your shows, missed you as a pilgrim, as the ballerina, and, who was it now, the civil rights lady.” I looked at my spoon and loaded it up again, slurping quietly as I sucked the soup into my mouth. “Honestly though, it isn’t just that. Those girls, you know I tell you all about my girls?” I nodded. “They keep me sane. Thin Barb, Sue, Barb T. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the whole Jeff thing without my girls. We’re a gang, you know?” I nodded again, but I didn’t know. I realized she had told you that conversation. Your smug face set in a toad smile, you said to me the next evening, “there’ll be no changes around here, no one wants anything to change, so there’s no need to be selfish.”
One evening in early fall, before I stepped into the scalding hot bath, I opened the silver mirrored medicine cabinet. I emptied the mustard brown glass medicine bottles. Mom’s painkillers from her carpal tunnel syndrome. Her sleep aids she has but doesn’t often use. “My hours are all over the place, but I’m always tired so I don’t really need them,” I once heard her tell you. Her anti anxiety drugs for after Tucker, my dad before Jeff, took off. That bottle had cotton wool lodged in its neck. I took it out and used it to wipe the steam from the mirror. I looked at myself. Thirteen months had passed since we moved in. I ran my hands down the sides of my face, feeling the sharp dip under each cheekbone. “You’re growing up, my love,” Mom had said a while back. “Your puppy fat has disappeared!” My mousy hair was thin and fell limply in strings. I tried to fake a smile. My collar bones jutted forward from the flat of my chest and the bumps of my pre teen breasts sat apologetically as my shoulders rolled forward to keep them close to me. I watched myself swallow every pill. Three, four at a time, cupping water in my hand from the sink faucet to help ease the slide down my throat.
I stepped into the bath and I lay back, looking up. I let my eyes travel the swirl of the plastered pattern on the ceiling until I was in the field. I saw Katherine ahead of me and I called out, “Katherine, wait, I’m here!” She turned and put her hand above her eyes to shield her line of vision from the bright light. “Clare!” She ran to me and we joined hands, swinging each other around and round until we toppled over, dizzy and laughing.
You wouldn’t know how Mom is. She moved again, soon after the funeral. She joined a bereavement group, meeting twice a week initially. And there, she met Hal, whose wife had passed away from skin cancer that spread to her brain. He’s a few years older than her, and while not classically handsome, he has a kind face, a gentleness that I can see is appealing. Mom loves like she grieves, a quiet glide rather than a disruptive splash, and Hal was patient and steady. A tax return accountant for a few local businesses, Hal arranged an interview for Mom at Edgar’s Ladies’ Fashions, and Edgar hired her on the spot. Mom moved into Hal’s duplex and while he tends to his vegetable garden wearing shiny red plastic gloves, Mom has taken an interest in cooking. When they stopped going to the bereavement group, they replaced it with volunteering at a youth program, helping disadvantaged children with arts and crafts each week. Hal suggested they look into fostering a child, and Mom said, “maybe one day, but not now, not yet…” and as her voice trailed off, Hal wrapped his arms around her and let her cry into his shirt. He held her for a long time. Every single night, Mom reaches out and traces her fingers over a framed photograph of me. She is silent for a moment, and at those times, I whisper that I love her, and she often touches her heart.
And now I see you, sitting, smoking, in your armchair, the tan fabric on the arms frayed and worn, the light white-blue from a cheap bulb overhead illuminating the rings that hover above you like a sarcastic halo. Your hands are shaking, and you haven’t touched the sausage and hash browns TV dinner you took out of the microwave forty minutes ago. You are ashen. Scared. And just when you relax and begin to think your mind was playing some cruel joke on you, I will appear to you again.