A Thing I Could Not Recognize
In order to see the doctor, I had to provide an emergency contact. This seemed excessive, so I put down my husband’s name and rewrote my number. Then, as a joke, I wrote my son’s name, his actual number, and I called it to see if it worked. The phone rang for a minute, and someone picked up.
“Hello?” is how my son answered the phone.
“Daniel,” I paused for a moment. “How would you feel about coming for dinner?”
“I work lunch this week,” he said. “So I could do that.”
He said that he’d gotten a new job at a restaurant in the South End, one with rich clientele. He said he would bus tables for a month and then work up to serving.
“I’m doing really well,” he said next. “You?”
“By the way,” he said. “I ran out of your jam. I could have sworn there was another jar in the back of my cabinet. You got any more of it laying around?”
In the waiting room, a child knocked over his blocks and cried. I thought for a moment.
“I’ve got some in the basement,” I lied. “But you have to bring back my jars this time.”
He was going to visit.
I saw the doctor for thirty minutes, and he prescribed me a new regimen of antibiotic eye drops. We made another appointment. I had a terrible feeling about everything.
It was true, I guess. My eye was getting better. Still, it didn’t work completely. It could blink. It could tell when it was daytime and when it was night. People asked me if it hurt, and I lied, probing the gunk on my bottom lash and keeping my face neutral, when really it felt as though someone had jammed a wick in my pupil and lit it. Always, it leaked, drooled, and burned. I spent most of my time dabbing it with tissues and waiting.
My eyedrops were temperature sensitive, so I kept them in the fridge. Every thirty minutes, I applied these clear ones that smelled like isopropyl alcohol. They stung. Every hour, I applied the opaque milky drops. They blocked out the light and pooled on my eye like pudding. Every other hour, I applied the brown drops. They smelled like ammonia, and their fumes made my working eye water. I was not being overly cautious with this routine. These were the doctor’s instructions. I arranged a series of alarms on my phone, and, for weeks now, I’d been sleeping in half hour bursts on the living room sofa while my husband slept in our bed upstairs. Sometimes, I asked him to put in the drops while I held the eye open. To him, my struggle was further proof that I would never learn to age gracefully.
“I apologize for not wanting my husband to be married to a cyclops,” I told him that night. I was bent over the fridge, stuffing hard boiled eggs into a sandwich bag.
“I’d love you even with no eyes,” he said from the sofa. “We’ll get you a nice eye patch. You’ll look like a villain from James Bond.”
I slammed the fridge door.
He asked if I would be joining him in bed that night. He didn’t mind the alarms, he said. He didn’t mind me interrupting his sleep because he didn’t have anything to do tomorrow. Retired, he spent his days shirtless on the recliner, watching old episodes of Green Acres and The $10,000 Pyramid. At 10 a.m. he’d grab the newspaper from our driveway. At 2 p.m. he’d switch from coffee to beer. At 6 p.m. he’d pour a glass of blended scotch, flick on a lamp, and ask me if I wanted to order takeout. He was happy with this lifestyle. Even worse, he was hellbent on getting me to join him. Each time I passed through the den — between work, or the church, or the shelter — he’d call to me, arms outstretched, ready to pull me into his round, hard gut and waste my day watching reruns from the seventies.
“I’m sleeping down here again,” I told him. “I’m not walking up and down stairs all night.”
“What if I join you on the sofa?”
“Eddie, I’ve got a busy day tomorrow. Daniel is coming on Wednesday, and we’re out of jam.”
“Does he know about the eye?”
The closest strawberry farm was in Sharon, one of those nice towns that was mostly Jewish and didn’t sell alcohol on Sundays. I drove through the center. Rainbow flags hung from the Unitarian Church. A flock of geese milled about the common. Someone threw them bread, and they dispersed. There was a gazebo, a fire station, a little girl selling lemonade from a stand. A woman with a stroller crossed the street in front of my car. She was holding a cigarette. I rolled up my windows.
I pulled into the farm and parked in a dirt lot. On a sandwich board was a list: Petting Zoo, Rhubarb, Raspberries, Strawberries. I got in line, and a little boy stood in front of me, holding his mother’s hand.
“Can we please pet the donkey” he asked. “And the sheep? And the goats?”
I wanted to warn the mother. I knew a thing or two about well-behaved little boys. They grew up to disappoint. I reached into my cooler and applied some drops.
After some minutes, a tractor stopped in front of us. Hitched to it was a trailer stacked with hay. We got on, and the driver took off. He pointed out the different fields, the different seasons and crops for each. The mother and son sat across from me. He was restless, head on a swivel, no doubt at the age where any stimuli can somehow satisfy. She, on the other hand, looked tired. Dainty red lines spoked out through her corneas, and her eyebrows were overgrown. Most women have no idea how to take care of themselves and a child at the same time. From the white speckled stain on her fleece, I could tell she had baked for him that morning, maybe pancakes or blueberry muffins. The trailer bucked, and coffee spilled out of her foam cup, dripping down her hands. I handed her a napkin from my purse.
“Is that a real eye?”
The little boy was looking at me, pointing. His mother pulled down his arm.
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Yes, honey. This is my real eye, but I can’t see out of it right now.”
“Oh.” He seemed unimpressed.
“Make sure you eat plenty of carrots,” I added for some reason.
Handy as I was in the kitchen, I had once feared that no one would ever marry me. I had a plain face, like a bar of Ivory soap — but with hair. Nobody wants to marry a woman like that. At some point as a teenager, though, I lost a bit of baby fat and began to wear makeup. My eyes appeared rounder. For the first time, people noticed their slate blue. They were the first thing Eddie remembered about me.
“You know,” Eddie said to me later that day. “The store has jam.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “But this batch needs to be special.”
He looked back at the TV and let his head sink into the cushion.
I fished two empty jars from the closet, placed them in a pot of water, and set it to boil. I pulled out the cookbook. A while back, I’d made it as a gift for my mother. Spent a whole summer racking my brain for the recipes she’d committed to memory. She passed shortly after, and I found better versions of most of its dishes, but the strawberry jam was unparalleled. On a bagel with cream cheese or glazed on a shortcake — it brought everything together so nicely.
My alarm went off.
“Give me a minute,” Eddie said. He clicked pause on the remote. He loved that TV, the way he could stop, rewind, and fast-forward through programs. It was the kind of television that became a member of the family. When it froze, he would scold it, unplug it, and smack it. When it recorded a show that he liked without asking, he would thank it. Initially, it bothered me that these conversations would make up the meat of his final years. I would drag him along to the food pantry, to blood drives, to antique malls in old, refitted factories. Not much interested him. He used to play softball but stopped when his knees went. He used to trim the shrubs and lawn, but now we paid a landscaper. Eventually, it dawned on me that this was the end of the road. Life was hard work, and some people needed to rest before they clocked out.
“Just the brown ones,” I said, tilting back my head. He squeezed out a drop, and I winced.
In the fuzz of my vision, I saw his bare gut sagging over his hips. He used to have abdominal muscle, but, for some reason, now — with the third trimester swell of his stomach — he had decided to no longer wear shirts in the house. I knew this as a universal male tendency. My father, his father. They had done the same. To men, it came easily. They grew old, and the body became a formality. They let their hair erode piecemeal from their heads. Their chests went slack, nipples concaved, chin became the memory of a chin. And somehow, they could joke about it.
He grabbed my hand and placed it on his gut.
“So tell me,” he said as I pulled it back. “What’s the plan this time?”
“No plan,” I said, blinking the burn from my eye. “I like to see him whenever I can.”
“You always have a plan, Mona.”
I mashed the berries, and he returned to the couch, resuming his show. It was a new one that took place in the fifties. The actors kept decanters of bourbon on their desks, wore pants at the waist, smoked in the office. Eddie got up and poured out the last of his coffee. He sat back down with scotch, and I took the jars off the stove. They were clean. My hands were stained red. Another alarm went off, and I brought the drops over to him.
“Looks like blood on your hands,” he laughed.
I sat beside him, held the eye open, and winced.
“I can’t keep doing this.”
“How about a mudslide?” he said. “For the pain.”
“What’s in those again?”
“Vanilla vodka, chocolate syrup, coffee liqueur, whipped cream.”
He went into the kitchen and took out the blender.
I was never a drinker. Beer made me fat. Wine was expensive, and liquor tasted like something not meant for consumption. The few times I had been drunk, I did not enjoy myself. I wasn’t loose. I was tired. Listless and useless.
Eddie came back to the couch with two glasses, whipped cream towering over each rim. He pressed the remote, and I drank the mudslide. After that, I made the jam, first with a headache, then in a daze.
Usually, Daniel came to visit twice a year, on Christmas Eve and the day before his birthday. Rarely did anything interesting happen. He’d arrive an hour late. The three of us would eat. I’d ask about his life until his responses shrank to one or two words and eventually groans. He’d offer to wash the dishes, and I’d tell him they could soak. I’d write a check, put it in a card, and tell him to call me when he cashed it. I’d fill a bag with food and cosmetics. Ground coffee, anti-perspirant deodorant, raw almonds, moisturizer for his elbows, acne cream, breakfast bars, any jars of jam I had yet to give away. Eddie would hug him and remind him to shower. I would hug him, walk him to the door, and hug him again, resting my chin on the crook of his shoulder, breathing deeply through my nose. Be careful, I’d tell him. He’d wave, walk away, get in his car, and drive. Eddie would turn on the TV and assume the position. I’d wash the dishes and dry them.
One time, Daniel brought this girl with him. That was how he’d explained her to me on the phone — this girl, Cherry. She was pretty, but she was always sucking in her cheeks, as though something was on her mind, and she coughed without covering her mouth.
“I’m not one of those judgmental mothers,” I assured her when Eddie and Daniel went outside to fetch some wood. “I just want my son to be happy.”
I took her into the hallway and showed her Daniel’s artwork. At some point, I’d told him to save his money. We didn’t need gifts, so on holidays, he made us paintings. There was one of our old dog. One of our first house. A portrait of my parents on their fiftieth anniversary. I lied and told her that he’d gotten a full ride to art school. He went with other options, I explained. Cherry did not know Daniel painted. She, too, had a passion for art, she told me, noting how she’d once made a marijuana pipe in her tenth grade ceramics class.
Only once did Daniel visit while high. His pupils were large and quivering, as though ready to leap from his face. He sat with us at the table, prodding his short rib with a fork. He drank glasses and glasses of water, excusing himself each time he needed the bathroom. He spoke in clipped, rushed sentences, the words racing out of his mouth all at once, and I could hardly say a word without angering him.
“Stop picking your face,” I told him from across the table. “You’re too handsome.”
“Just let me,” he said. “It’s my face.”
“We made that face, and you’re going to ruin it.”
“I’m popping pimples.”
“Why aren’t you using the cleanser?”
He looked down at his plate and cut his meat into smaller pieces, pushing them from one side of his plate to the other.
“Eat!” I told him, trying to lighten the mood. “You’re too thin.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You love short rib.”
“I’m not hungry.” He said it slower this time and looked me dead in the eyes.
It was too much to see him like that, restless and irate, spit curdling in the corner of his mouth. Teeth grinding. I grabbed mine and Eddie’s plates. Reached for Daniel’s and smelled his breath, laced with something metallic. I washed the dishes.
He never said thank you for anything. For his skin, for his hair, for his eyes. For the jam I had placed in a bag on the countertop. Over the sound of the sink and my scrubbing, I could hear Eddie discussing some numbers with him, a check being scribbled and torn from the book. The front door opened and closed.
“You forgot your jam,” I shouted over the sink.
On Wednesday, I had another appointment. The gunk on the eye had congealed into what looked and felt like a scab. I could hardly open it, and when I did, pain tore through my eyelid. I covered the good eye and read the lines of letters the doctor was holding.
“You’re going to need surgery,” he said.
“But it’s getting so much better!”
He looked at me. The antibiotics were not working fast enough, he explained, and I nodded.
“We’ll need a donor,” he said. “One with young corneal tissue.”
The idea made my stomach sink: a surgeon scooping a piece of an eye and grafting it onto my own. It felt so backwards, the elderly plundering younger bodies, prolonging the inevitable. I dug my nails into the exam bed.
I found Eddie in the waiting room and handed him the lunchbox of drops. We drove home without a word. He always knew how I was feeling. At home, I poured out a bag of tomatoes. Frantically, I sliced one. Halves, quarters, eighths, and so on, scraping it into a bowl and repeating. My phone alarm sounded, and I nicked my finger with the knife. Blood seeped onto the cutting board. Jesus Christ, I said under my breath. Eddie didn’t hear me. He had turned up the volume to drown out the chopping. He was watching a show about house flipping. Two men were taking sledge hammers to a wall. If I ever have my own television show, I thought, it will be about parenting. I’ll explain how to live with yourself after you’ve failed as a mother.
Wear a good sunscreen every day, even if it’s cloudy. Apply it to your neck as well. Purchase an assortment of lightweight scarves. Drink tea instead of coffee, eat multigrain pasta instead of white. Cover up what can’t be fixed. Go as long as you can every day without eating. Park far away from the supermarket and count your steps. Keep a straight posture. Unearth photos of your mother. Take note of what she lost first, the joints in her ankles, the valves in her heart, the smoothness of her hair. Plan accordingly. Mix ginger in your water. Wrap wounds in diced white onion. Put extra virgin olive oil on your scalp and your stretch marks. Take up scrapbooking. Reupholster furniture. Join a harlequin book club. Volunteer at a shelter for cats. Attend mass every week, and share crockpot recipes with the ladies. Cook something new every night. Never go to bed without doing the dishes. Never go to bed with contacts still on. Commit this phrase to memory: I don’t understand. Say it slowly, confused, like you really believe it. Say it over the phone when the principal — the police, the parole officer — call you with allegations. Say it when girls you’ve never seen show up on your doorstep, wondering if you’ve seen him. Say it when you call him and his phone that you pay for is dead.
For a while, to keep myself from crying, I wrote letters to an imaginary Daniel. I congratulated him on his new office job, asked if his art had an upcoming show, lightly reminded him to eat and that girls love a man with some meat on the bone. I read these letters aloud and then tossed them into the fireplace. The actual letters I wrote him were brief and nestled between jam jars, disposable razors, packages of socks. Good luck. I love you. I hope all is well. At some point, this became all I could offer.
“Everything alright?” Eddie leaned on the counter, hit snooze on my phone.
“Fine,” I said. “Can you grab me a band-aid?” I held up my hands, dripping with tomato juice. The bleeding had slowed.
“That depends,” he said. “Are you making spinach pies?”
“There’s no time,” I said. “I’m doing pasta caprese.”
“What if I give Il Capriccio a call? They have good spinach pies.”
“Go shower,” I said.
He bandaged my finger and left for the bathroom. I cleared off the counter and opened our folder of takeout menus.
As the moment approached, I caught myself growing hopeful about Daniel. Maybe, I thought, he would finally have it together. I pictured him in front of me, unblurry and beautiful, like a painting I had finally learned how to look at. I pictured his eyes, like my eyes, and I pictured him smiling, offering to set the table, folding the napkins into little tents, speaking in full and coherent sentences. He would tell me how they promoted him to a server position, how he had saved enough tips to rent his own studio space, how his life was moving along. Maybe he would even stay for a mudslide or two. As a child, he used to drool when I ordered them at Applebee’s, and I always told him he could have one when he grew up.
“He’s getting in soon,” I shouted from the passenger seat.
Eddie hobbled back to the car with our bag of takeout. He placed it on my lap and pulled out of the lot. It was dark outside, and the streetlights had yet to come on.
“Where is it?” he said.
“You passed it. Turn around here.”
We were in front of the old elementary school. Eddie pulled through the bus loop and paused as we passed the entryway.
“What’s that say?” he pointed.
On the double doors, there was black spray paint. BOOB, it said.
“Think that was Daniel?”
“Edward!” I covered my mouth and laughed. “Daniel would never deface public property.”
“Remember that principal?” he said. “And her car?”
“Can I do my drops.”
He parked and exhaled. “I’m getting too old to still have a child,” he said. “We’re getting too old.”
“It keeps us young,” I said, leaning back in the car seat, blinking the fluid in place, fanning the fumes with my hand. From the corner of my eye, I saw him staring at me. It was the same stare of my doctor, ambivalent pity, as though my case were one most peculiar. When I turned my head, he looked back at the road and drove.
At the station, I couldn’t stop thinking about the jam. When I’d set it to cool, it had looked a bit off. There were pockets of air in both jars, the contents of which seemed runny and slimy, more like a jelly. It was possible I had mismeasured the pectin, the lemon juice, or the sugar. The boiling time may have been off as well, but the thought was what counted, I tried to remind myself.
I got out of the car and waited on the platform. The train pulled in with a long, musky breeze. I saw him in the doorway and waved. He stepped out and walked towards me, greeting me with a hug. I kissed his cheek and clutched the hair on the back of his head. I missed you, I tried to say, but the air had escaped from my lungs as the train rode off, chugging and screeching.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I said to Daniel across the dinner table.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“It’s nothing.” I waved my hand. “Eat.”
He slouched in his chair and seemed to be thinking of something to say. His shirt was missing a button. His neck was dry and chapped. He’d been scratching it. I came up with a reason for this. The starched shirts at his restaurant didn’t agree with his skin, which had always been so sensitive. I glanced at his face. His lips were dry. His cheekbones jutted over his jaw, which was dotted with ingrown hairs, and his eyes were dull, like old, weathered glass. I wondered if he would want some of my brightening cream or if the suggestion would annoy him. This was always the battle. Either I bothered him by showing how much I cared, or I left him to die of malnourishment.
“Are you hungry?” I asked carefully.
He was grinding his teeth, and I looked at Eddie.
“We’ve also got caprese,” I said.
The spinach pie sat on his plate, steaming like flesh in the cold. Slowly, he stuck his fork in the middle, cut it in half. Spinach, black olives and pepperoni spilled out. He looked at it, took a forkful and put it in his mouth, chewed slowly and swallowed. Maybe, I told myself, he had just come from work and had snacked on the train. The food at his restaurant was divine, at least that was how the local paper had put it. We had talked about taking a trip up there.
“So can you drive like that?” he asked. He took another bite and set down his fork. He shifted in his chair, coughed into his elbow.
“Not really,” I said, digging into my own pie.
“Does it need surgery?” he asked.
“I’m waiting for a donor,” I said without thinking.
I closed the good eye and looked with the other. I could make out the gist of things, his thin frame slouched in a chair, Eddie finishing his first pie and reaching for another. I asked Daniel if he’d brought the jars, and he told me he could not find them.
We ate with our heads down, periodically pausing to drink water, to burp. Always, this was how it happened. I was the only one under some other impression. I tried not to look at him, at least not when he might notice. He hated when I stared at him, no matter how much I told him that I was his mother, that he was my child, that I wasn’t doing my job if I wasn’t watching him. That was how everything got off track. I let my guard down, my eyes wander. He came home smelling of cigarettes, and I looked the other way. He came home from school with forms, and I trusted his excuses, signing off on them blindly. No one understood him, I insisted, and it turned out I was right. No one did, not even me. What I wanted was to lift him from his chair and hold him. Rest his chin on my shoulder and tell him that he was good, tell him that he had to be good, that I knew he had it in him.
“It’ll work itself out,” Daniel finally said.
“It always does,” Eddie added, as though life’s struggles, like a case of the cold, resolved themselves with mere time and air. To this day, I cannot understand the complacency of their optimism.
“It was great seeing you guys,” Daniel said. “My friend is coming to pick me up in a couple of minutes.”
“Anyone we know?” Eddie asked.
My alarm went off, and I silenced it, hoping we would keep talking, but then I looked down at my plate. I had finished, and so had Eddie. Daniel stood over the trash, clearing the bit he had left. Eddie walked to the fridge and returned with my drops. I put them in while Daniel watched.
Afterwards, I fixed Daniel his bags. There was the jam, some nuts, that cream. I handed them to him, and he thanked me. He knelt down to his backpack and fished out a bent piece of paper. On it, he had painted two empty jars. They sat on a windowsill in blue morning light. I thanked him and showed it to Eddie who pointed to a spot in the hall where we could hang it. He hugged Daniel. I walked to the door and hugged him as well.
“I’ll call you to plan a visit, okay?”
“Please do,” he said.
I stood in the doorway, watching him walk down the steps, wind down the path, and hop in the front of a car I’d never seen, with a person whom I did not recognize, to go somewhere I did not want to think about.
Later, Eddie asked me what I wanted to watch. I pretended not to hear him as I transferred the half-done pasta to tupperware and began washing dishes.
“Mona,” he called from the couch. The TV clicked on, and again, he called.
“Would it kill you to help me?” I shut off the water, pumped soap on my sponge, and squeezed.
“Mona, come here.”
Since the morning I woke with my eye sealed shut, bloody discharge dripping from my waterline, he had acted as though I should give up. I was a geriatric. I was pacing in circles, refusing a truth right in front of my face. He could not let me be.
I walked into the living room. The $10,000 Pyramid was on, and he sat upright on the couch, shirt off and arms open.
“No,” he said. “Here.”
I sat beside him, and he put his arm around my back. His armpit smelled, but I knew the smell, a shower with Ivory soap, followed by the sweats that came when he ate cured meat. His other arm drew around me, pulling me in, my face upon his chest. He stroked my back, and I began to shake.
“I love him so much,” I cried.
“I know,” he said. “I know, I know.”
I stayed there for a moment, almost falling asleep, in the pale flicker of the television. Then my alarm sounded, and I got up.
“Eddie,” I whined from the kitchen, but he was out cold, snoring.
I pulled out my drops and applied them. They were almost out. I grabbed a pen and paper.
Call doctor, I wrote.
Buy frame, I wrote next.
Call Daniel; thank him for painting.
I reached across the counter and grabbed the painting. The more I looked at it, the more it bothered me. It was a watercolor, and the whole thing looked foggy and gray, as though the room were filled with smoke. The windowsill — with its tacky yellow curtains and mosaic backsplash — I recognized from our old kitchen. It occurred to me that Daniel often painted things that were no longer there. Our sink, which we’d redone. The jars, which he had lost. His grandparents, who had passed away some time ago. I wondered, not without a tear, if Daniel would ever make a painting of me, and, if he were able to give it to me, would I even be able to see it?
I went back to washing. In the living room, another episode played of The $10,000 Pyramid. It felt sick, hearing a stranger fumble and stutter, trying to guess the words written plain as day for everyone watching. On the sofa, Eddie coughed and adjusted himself, his body and arms still curled around the space where I had sat. As much it enraged me, his stillness; every now and then, it convinced me: the world is a puzzle, and you’re missing some pieces, but Jesus H. Christ, Mona aren’t you tired enough? These moments were fleeting. Most often, they came as I stared at him from another room, scrubbing a pan that was already clean.
I turned off the water and squeezed out my sponge. Dried my hands, folded the painting and closed it in a drawer, heading over to Eddie. I lay my head on his stomach and tried to sleep but got caught up trying to remember where I’d put the coupon for the art store. Of course, I was still going to hang the painting, and of course I would brag about it to everyone who saw it. I just hoped that one day, I would look at it and not think so much.
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