SSM – Day Ten

Short Story MonthThe tenth edition of Short Story Month is served early, because I am a dutiful daughter that way. After all, what child would dare blog on Mother’s Day? Well, I’m sorely tempted – but I think my father will whack me on the side of the head if ever I so much as crack open my laptop tomorrow. Well. So we get around this by jumping the gun, so to speak – I never really know when to use “so to speak” correctly. For that matter, “jumping the gun” too. Hm. Anyway. The short stories we feature today are all about mothers. No, wait, I lie. They’re somewhat about mothers – not even good mothers – and here they are:

#30 – “Sleepwalking” by Amy Bloom. In the aftermath of her husband’s marriage, what does a woman do? Get freaky with her stepson, that’s what! Okay, so I just gave away one of the story’s surprising joys (joyful surprises?). The narrative’s one of those leading-to-nowhere kinds. And then it actually leads somewhere. And that somewhere is a doozy, so matter-of-fact doozy, that you just have to put the book down and say, “Oh wow.”

#31 – “Mahogany Water” by Socorro Villanueva, a strange little story. I say “strange” because it had me trying to pin it down as something easily categorizable (so I made up a word, fuck off), but it just refused to. And I like it that way. It had these quirky little digressions in what was pretty much a light, simple storyline. The characters are memorable, the actions credible and believable – one almost thinks this is a chronicle of someone’s vacation, a record of some person’s child’s heartaches. I love it. And yes, that surprised me too. (And I pay a little tribute to this story in my own – as pointed out by my thesis advisor when I refused to rename the goldfish. Guh.)

And I share with you one of my own stories, “Understanding Fish,” which was published in the March 16, 2009 issue of Philippines Graphic. The story is a part of a series of interconnected stories that, so far, seem to know no end. Yet. When it does get finished though, it’ll all be neatly packaged under the title of The Catherine Theory – an opus that will spend its days rotting on the bottom drawer of my bookshelf. And in one of my mother’s old totes, because she is supportive that way.

Yes, something like this happened in real life, but not quite like it. And no, no, no, the mother in the story is not my mother. Okay?

*

Understanding Fish

by Sasha Martinez

Kathy Paterno has picked up the phone, and the man on the other end of the line is telling her that her nineteen-year-old daughter Annie has disappeared. She tries to remember when she last saw her daughter, or how she looked like then, but nothing comes to mind—nothing, that is, except Annie at ten, grinning into the bowl that held her new pet, the goldfish, whose name Kathy even forgets now. It’s been six months since she last saw Annie, give or take a few weeks. Does that fact count in her inability to remember? Does this make her a bad mother, that she cannot even recall what her daughter looks like anymore? Ron, her estranged husband, would probably agree. He’s called her a bad mother quite a few times, actually, and usually right before he insisted that Annie stay with her, because, after all, there would be less to adjust to—Ron, right after the separation, lived with Fiona, tall, leggy Fiona whom Ron wanted to protect from the rigors of having to deal with a growing daughter.

Annie has been living away from home since she started college three years ago, and made it clear that she preferred it that way. Kathy admits that she does not check up on Annie as much as she should, but then again, her daughter never likes it when she calls. If she put her mind to it, Kathy can probably recall how many times she’s had to think of an alibi, practicing it over and over, before she would pick up the phone to call her daughter. “How are you, Annie, talk to me?” has never been something said so easily, if at all.

And now, Kathy has to be called by her daughter’s home department in the university, they have to tell her that no one has seen Annie in five weeks, that everyone has been wondering whether Annie has taken a vacation without telling anyone, if her daughter was at home with her.

All she could tell them is that she hasn’t talked to Annie in—and even here she has to pause—well, who knew how long? The man at the other end of the line is silent after this, and Kathy could feel the admonition, the disdain coursing through the wires, with each of his slightly raspy exhales of breath. She finds herself forming in her mind the beginnings of an apology, for the fact that she and Annie have never been close, and that, although they never really fought, they never really talk to each other that much to arrive at heated debates. She pauses for a moment, before she says, “Are you sure she’s really missing? What if she’s just out of town with some of her friends?”

“She hasn’t been in school for more than a month, ma’am. Her roommates were the ones who notified us.” Kathy can hear a sigh and a mutter of Christ, so poorly disguised. “They tried to contact you, but no one knew how, until they approached us. Everyone is concerned, Mrs. Gonzalez.”

“Oh,” Annie’s mother says. And then, softly, she adds, “It’s back to ‘Paterno’ for quite a long time now, sir.”

“So, you haven’t seen her lately?”

Kathy thinks about this, again.

No, she was sure now, it’s been more than five weeks since she last saw her daughter. (Five weeks, comparatively, wasn’t that long—one time, Annie never went home for an entire semester, then the semestral break, then another semester, all the way until Christmas, when Ron demanded she spend the holidays away from school.) About two months ago, though, Kathy found a note taped to the front door, written on the back of a photocopy of a page from a book by Derrida (Annie was majoring in Philosophy, to Kathy’s confusion, and Ron’s pride). Her daughter’s spidery handwriting told her, “Mom. Left some stuff in my room. I took the spare key for the front door with me.” Kathy went upstairs then, with the note, but Annie’s bedroom door had been locked. It always is, anyway, always has been, whether Annie is in the house or not. Kathy, of course, has a key, but she does not dare venture inside Annie’s bedroom, she never has.

“No,” Kathy tells the man, “I haven’t seen her lately.”

“You haven’t seen your daughter, you don’t even know she’s missing?”

Kathy thinks, I do not owe you anything. And then Kathy says, “I’m sorry. I don’t keep in touch with my daughter. She prefers it that way.” She takes a deep breath, plunges on: “Six months without hearing from her is normal in this household.”

“But she’s always had a more or less perfect attendance before this. Her roommates tell us that this is the first time that this happened.”

“I don’t—” Kathy sighs, transfers the receiver from one hand to another. “Who is this again?”

“Ramos,” the man bit off. It was easy for Kathy to imagine him pacing around his cubicle, wearing a shirt that had seen too many washings, his hair rumpled. The man could be wearing glasses. “Ma’am, her roommates have asked around, and in the end, they had to come to us.” A pause. “They don’t even know how to reach you.”

“I don’t know who Annie lives with.” Kathy kept her eyes pinned to the wall, traced a pattern of the wallpaper with her gaze. “But, really, thank you for telling me this.”

There was silence at the other end of the line. Kathy, at first, thinks that the man—Ramos—has hung up on her. But, pressing the receiver closer to her ear, to her cheek, she hears beyond the silence: raised voices, laughter, a telephone ringing, a door swinging open, then closing with a thud, and even the honk of a passing car. Closer still, Ramos’ breathing, at first ragged, choppy, then calming down, in a mechanic rhythm. Ramos clears his throat. “Annie was a student of mine.” And then, another sigh; Kathy stopped herself from joining him. It would’ve been a conversation of indrawn breaths, and the grave, or fluttering exhalations.

“Annie was a student of mine,” Ramos repeats, his voice sterner. “I suppose you must leave it up to us to call in the authorities. Annie, after all, was living in school grounds.” Ramos sounds like he has just stumbled upon this last convenient fact. “Would you like us to call the police, Mrs. Gonzalez?”

“Paterno,” she murmurs.

And then Kathy says, “Yes, that would be nice.”

When Kathy replaces the receiver, she immediately wonders if she should have asked the man if he is a father, berated him for judging her, her—what word could she have used?—calmness, her all-too-placid acceptance of her daughter’s disappearance, when, after all, she could be in shock, one never knew, she could have accepted that blow silently, but now, now, she could be in hysterics, couldn’t she? What did that man know? What gave him the right?

She considers calling the man back, if only to tell him all that, and more, but then she realizes she does not know the number of Annie’s home department. If Kathy takes out the phonebook, what would she say once she is connected? Something like, “Hello, yes, can I talk to the man who told me my daughter is missing, I’d like to tell him off for implying that I am a bad mother,” but then, maybe, she wouldn’t be able to stop there: “I don’t really think I’m a bad mother, you know. Ron—that’s my husband, but he’s got this Fiona whom he likes to call his wife—Ron says I am—a bad mother, I mean—and that’s one of the reasons why he had to leave. You know, I’ve always thought why he’d say I was a bad mother, then leave Annie in my care. Anyway, yes, can I talk to that man? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, not really. He doesn’t know about me, I’m not even sure if he knows my Annie.”

In the end, she picks up the receiver, and tries to call Ron, but the maid that answers the telephone in his house tells her that he and the señora are on holiday with the children.

“This is Kathy.” She wonders if she should introduce herself as the señor’s first wife, his real wife. “Would you tell him I called?” she says, speaking slowly, though unaware of it. “It’s sort of important. Wait. Yes, it’s very important. He has to know I actually called him, please? He has to know.”

* * *

Kathy and Ron were married when he was twenty-nine, and she a few months shy of nineteen. He was as much of a child as she had been, really. Earlier on, Kathy always told friends that it was his wide, dark eyes that drew her to his side one summer afternoon, when the sun was so unrelenting in the startlingly blue sky that steam rose off the back of their necks when they kissed. He was a boy who then asked her to marry him when he learned she was pregnant. In Kathy’s more derisive moments during the separation that was to follow later, she always thought that Ron was jumping at the chance to become a man, now that he would become a father, and that didn’t he know one never came with the other? Ron, a boy, a man, who turned—with every screech and giggle of a young girl slowly taking over the household—into a person Kathy only vaguely knew. Not unlike a man you cross paths with everyday but never say hello to.

It was no sudden death for the Gonzalez marriage, no night punctuated with lightning as background for the realization, that Oh, our marriage is over – none of that. It didn’t take too long for both of them to realize that they made mistakes, and would continue to make them if they stayed married. (Even having Annie had been a mistake, perhaps the first big mistake of all, the cause of every other error that was to follow—but of course, this thought, they never voiced out.) The separation was simply an acknowledgement of all this. If ever they fought, it was during the negotiations, the splitting of property: who would have the car, who would get the house, how they were to split the bank account.

Annie was nine when Ron moved out, taking the car, and his mother’s unused silverware. On Annie’s eleventh birthday, Ron went to the party with a woman in tow, a plain-looking woman with a pleasant laugh, only about a year or two younger than him. Tall, leggy, plain-looking Fiona. He introduced her as his girlfriend.

At the height of the party, Kathy watched as Ron, with Fiona, took Annie aside, and all three of them marched toward the driveway. Kathy watched as Fiona reached into the new car Ron drove, watched as Ron, with his arm around Annie, gazed at Fiona’s calves tautening with her movements. And then Kathy drew back from the window. Anyone could have seen her like that.

When Annie came back, she was carrying a bowl of water, and there was a tiny orange fish swimming in it, its minute scales glinting and glimmering with every lazy spin and somersault. Kathy looked at Annie as the girl slid into the chair beside her, and Kathy noticed how the sunlight hitting the swilling water cast beams of weak light on her daughter’s face, then shadows, then more light.

“Can I keep him?” Annie asked, but she was already securing the bowl between her thighs, her hands as a makeshift lid.

“Eat your cake, please. Where did you get that?”

“Fiona gave it to me. Cool, right? Like, it’s Fiona’s birthday too, did you know that? But she gave me a present. Dad also told me it was Fiona who picked this dress out.” Annie wriggled in her seat, the chiffon of the lilac dress rustling against the seat. Then her head swiveled around, her gaze bouncing on cabinets, walls, tables. “Do we have anything we can give Fiona? She deserves a present, too, you know.”

“Annie. Um.” She stopped herself from putting a hand on Annie’s head to keep her still. “Where’s your dad and, um—where are they?”

“Still outside. So, do you have anything for Fiona?”

Kathy smiled at that. She went to the storage room attached to the kitchen, where she’d kept everything that was Ron’s that he didn’t take with him. She surfaced, half an hour later, with a jewelry case, in ornate silver. As she walked back to the party, her fingers running over the velvet padding inside the case, listening to the near-inaudible tinkles of a slow waltz, she saw Annie. Annie who was excusing herself to go to her room, her long, flouncy skirt hiding her feet from view, as they took the stair steps two at a time. (Kathy thought of how unflattering the glossy lilac looked on her daughter.)

Their daughter has always been close with Ron, though Annie abhors it when she’s called a daddy’s girl. Well, at least, she has always hated it when Kathy calls her that, even jokingly. “Look, Mom,” Annie would say over the years, the speech varying only with a rise or dip in her vocabulary, “I love you, and Dad, but please, don’t be so patronizing, all right?”

Kathy admits she used to be jealous. Especially when Ron moved out, and Annie told her mother, in her young, clear voice, that her father probably wouldn’t mind it if Annie went to live with him. Kathy merely told her that she was staying at home. It would be better for everyone concerned, she said, and she said all that to the word. And Annie did stay at home, at least until she went to college.

Kathy once asked Ron, years after the separation, whether they made the right decision, asking, of course, if a divorce was the right move for a couple with a child so attached to the parent who moved out. And Ron asked her, “Why are you asking this now?” She wanted to ask him to clarify: was he referring to now, the moment, since he told her he was quite busy, and whatever this was better be important—or did he mean now, as in, Why now, when I’m more or less married to Fiona, and have a child on the way? Why now when we both know Annie doesn’t care one way or another, she never actually had?

Instead, Kathy just said, “I just want to know your opinion on this.”

“Is Annie acting up?”

“No, Ron. I just want to know, really.”

Ron didn’t even sigh, or take a deep breath, or pause to consider the original question. When he spoke, his voice was normal, as gruff as it always was, not a tinge of reluctance, no smallest note of regret. Ron told her, his estranged wife, his first wife, “That marriage never should have happened, both of us know that, and we better consider ourselves lucky that our kid knows that too.”

To which Kathy replied, “Thank you.”

* * *

It has been an hour since the man from Annie’s school called, and Kathy is reconsidering calling him back, if only to say, “It’s not like I don’t love Annie. She’s a good kid, and we get along most of the time. And I’m worried, I really am. I just don’t know, see, and I really didn’t know.”

And she hasn’t heard from Ron yet, which probably means he hasn’t called his house to check for any important phone calls, on the chance that she, Kathy, the bad-mother/first-wife lost their child. She doesn’t blame Ron for that.

Kathy, instead, looks for that note Annie left taped to the front door some two months ago. It doesn’t take her long to find it in one of the kitchen drawers. She smoothens the note with her palms, notices how the ink has bled, how the photocopied text at the back is slowly fading. Mom, says the note, Left some stuff in my room. I took the spare key for the front door with me. Kathy tries to remember the last time Annie called her Mommy, and when she can’t, she concedes that if a mother cannot even remember the last time she saw her daughter, what did a little debate of Mom-Mommy stand a chance?

She looks at the note for a long time, until all the words—every little curlicue of the letters, every slant, every smudged dot—reveal themselves to her permanently, even when she closes her eyes. She stays that way for a long time: a woman of thirty-eight standing in the middle of her kitchen, her eyes closed, holding a once-crumpled note from her missing daughter.

She knows what to do when she opens her eyes: Kathy makes a beeline for another kitchen drawer, where she has always kept odd knickknacks like coins that are long out of circulation, some ugly keychains, a couple of brochures and fliers, and the last toothbrush Ron used when he still lived there. She rummages in the clutter, sets aside one piece junk, and then another, until she finds what she is looking for. She puts it in her palm, and closes her fingers around it, and then she goes from the kitchen, and up the stairs.

Kathy stands in front of Annie’s bedroom door. She opens her palm, and a key lies there, with a twine of purple thread tied around the hole at its head (That head is called a bow, Annie would probably correct her, and Kathy would probably pretend this was something new to her). She slides the key into the locked doorknob, imagines the ridges and grooves fitting into each other with little clicks. A moment later, she has the door to her daughter’s bedroom open, and Kathy does not pause to take in the sight of a room she has not seen fully in so long—she steps in, closes the door behind her, and walks into the middle of the room.

She manages to ignore the austere, Spartan interior of her daughter’s bedroom (which she had originally planned to be a frilly girl’s room, pink and swathed in lace), and it is the fishbowl she focuses on. Nestled on a study table amid books of different sizes, some photographs of people Kathy does not know, and a few CDs, the fishbowl sits—the water has turned murky, a little green, and she notices, only now, the scent that has infused the room, heavy and potent: something not quite like the aftermath of a thunderstorm, or a gutter, perhaps, located in a street you never want to return to.

Kathy moves closer to the table, bends over the bowl. In it, she sees the goldfish, and she immediately looks away. It has long died, of course, and Kathy murmurs an apology for that. The thing has not been fed for about two months, it hasn’t even been seen during that time. Annie’s mother tells the remains of the fish, “I didn’t know,” for she hadn’t, had no idea that it was there, in a locked room, left by a young woman who would disappear, leaving her roommates scrambling for explanation, leaving a professor wanting for answers, leaving a mother to clutch a telephone receiver to her numbing cheek. “I’m sorry,” Kathy tells the fish, “I didn’t know.”

Kathy tries to remember what Annie named the fish—something that starts with a B, maybe? Or was it a D? Kathy settles, instead, for Buddy, although she is aware that Annie would never have chosen a name like that, for anything.

“Buddy,” she says, and she peers into the bowl again, tries to discern the rotting Buddy from the mulch of everything else around him. Kathy can see his tiny bones, so delicate, not yet white. Some of his flesh is still there, though, undoubtedly, parts of him are swimming where he used to.

When Kathy uses a trembling finger to move the bowl a few centimeters off, the water shakes, threatens to spill, and she can see how what remained of Buddy’s scales still glimmer, under what weak light there is available in the room.

“Sorry, Buddy,” Kathy says, “Annie didn’t tell me.”

And Kathy uses both hands to lift the bowl, bringing it with her as she sits on Annie’s long-undisturbed bed. She sits there, placing the bowl between her thighs to steady it. She watches the water swill and sway inside the bowl, all those alien greens and browns revealing a dead, floating fish she has just christened as Buddy.

Downstairs, the telephone rings. □

*

*** WHAT THE HELL IS SHORT STORY MONTH?

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About Sasha Martinez

Her sins were scarlet, but her books were read.

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