Post Road Magazine #28

Swapped

Kate McMahon

My mom calls and invites me for sushi.

"Have you ever even had sushi?" I ask, glancing at the clock on the microwave. My son's nap will be over soon.

"No, but the new place by the train station has a lunch special. And Linda from my women's group says a Japanese diet does wonders for your figure." She's been going to this women's group. I think I hear my son stirring on the baby monitor.

"Alright. I just have to wait for Jack to get back."

Jack is at the grocery store because it's Saturday and he wants to make omelets for us to eat on the porch. He gets home twenty minutes later with eggs and mimosa fixings, but I have that look on my face and I tell him I'm going to meet my mom. My dad left her five months ago, and I have been running out like this a lot. The rustling on the monitor turns into a full-on wail.

I grab the keys from Jack and get in the car. It's a station wagon, and the sour smell of breast milk and spit-up hangs subtly in the interior. This isn't the car I thought we'd have when I imagined moving out of the city, just as I hadn't expected I'd one day buy a house in the town where I grew up. But this is how things are now, and when I arrive in the restaurant parking lot I sit there for a few minutes just listening to the end of a song that reminds me of another one I like better. Then I join my mom out front.

The restaurant has a neon-green sign and grand-opening raceway flags. There is a massive fish tank in the window, which our hostess seats us right next to even though there are a lot of open tables. The giant goldfish look prehistoric. There are too many of them in one tank, and they keep bumping into the glass.

"Teriyaki! Is that like frajitas?" She always says frajitas, and I don't bother correcting her anymore. Her face is rosy, her hair darker than usual. She's got a big bauble necklace on over her linen shirt, like she's on vacation. Lately she goes one of two ways, and the necklace is a good sign.

"You look good, Mom. I like the necklace."

"Thanks. Linda made it." She thumbs animatedly through the laminated menu. "I think I'm going to get the number forty-three."

The Japanese waitress comes over and smiles blithely. I order number seventeen with brown rice because my body is just not what it used to be since pregnancy. Mom enunciates her order loudly and with arms, like she is training a dolphin. She asks me at the last minute if I want a bowl of wasabi. I realize she means edamame, and we get some for the table.

When the waitress walks away, we are silent for a second, and I'm afraid she is going to ask me about Dad. He is living on the other side of town now and stops by my house once a week to leave gifts for the baby, usually when I'm not around. There's another woman. I haven't met her, but Jack saw them last month walking out of the movie theater.

"So. I'm thinking about taking a trip," Mom says breathlessly, laying her hands flat on the table for effect. "To Costa Rica!"

"Wow, that's fantastic," I say, with effort. It is fantastic. I'm just tired. "By yourself?"

She smoothes her napkin unconsciously. "No, with the group. They are plugging into a yoga retreat, right on the beach. Some of the girls went last year to the one in Mexico, and they just couldn't stop raving about it."

"But you don't do yoga," I say reflexively, as the waitress drops the bowl of edamame onto our table.

I immediately regret saying this because Mom visibly stiffens and her face breaks a little.

"Well, I know that. But I want to start." She splits a shell with her hands and carefully places the soybeans into her mouth.

"Well then, I think it's a great idea," I offer, with more effort this time. "Really." It's not working. I reach into the bowl, deftly pop the soybean shell with my teeth and suck off the rock salt. One of the goldfish is not swimming; it's motionless, glaring right at me. The mood has shifted.

"Anyway, it was just an idea. Nothing set in stone."

We don't talk about much more before the waitress brings the food. Mom hasn't ordered sushi after all, and her chicken lunch comes on a steaming cast-iron platter that is still spitting hot oil. It actually looks just like fajitas.

I dig into my plate of flavorless steamed vegetables as Mom waits for her meal to cool down. I wonder if Jack is feeding the baby cheese, or chopped-up mushrooms. He's always pushing it with the solid foods, and it makes me nervous.

"Did you know I was engaged before?" Mom says, out of nowhere. I put my fork down because it seems like the right thing to do. "Before I knew Dad. I don't know why I would have ever told you that."

"No," I reply blandly, at a loss. I am instinctively queasy, as I am whenever I am caught off-guard. The goldfish is still fixed on me, its black eyes unblinking like fossil coins, and I shudder. "To who?"

"He was a widower. Louis. I was in my early twenties, and he was my doctor." Her untouched food still sizzles beneath her on the table.

I grab onto the first thing I can think to say. "So, he was old?"

"Not really. Early thirties. He was married for a year and a half when his wife wrapped their car around a tree. He was very young at the time."

She picks up her knife and stabs at the chicken. Still too hot.

"What happened?"

She sighs, largely. "We met a few years after that and eventually decided to get married. We even planned this big wedding in South Carolina, where his family was from. Grandma wanted a big to-do, me being the first daughter and all. Grandma loved him. He was very smart, very handsome. Very kind. Would you believe it-she didn't even mind that we started living together when we got engaged!"

This last bit is considerable. Before my Catholic grandmother died, we couldn't even tell her that Jack is half-Jewish.

"He was a good man. And I was so in love with him." There's a bittersweet wistfulness in her voice that sends a knot to my throat. She is not looking at me anymore, but at a spot in space just to the left of my head.

Mom goes quiet, and I'm flashing to an old photograph of her at her wedding to my dad that used to be on their mantel. Her hair is done up in baby's breath, and he is grinning in a wide-lapel brown suit. The wedding was small and simple, on a boat off of Jersey City, and the Statue of Liberty's torch is visible behind them in this picture. I've been angry at my dad for five months, but my anger at him in this moment is overwhelming.

"Why did he break it off?" I ask, unable to stop myself.

She unhooks her gaze from the spot next to my head and looks right at me. "He didn't. I did."

She takes a half-hearted bite of her chicken and frowns; I knew she wouldn't like Japanese food. She goes on:

"His first wife was named April. He told me about her right away, and I didn't mind. I swear I didn't. I saw how sensitive he was. I think I actually liked him even more because of it. But then, once we decided to marry and moved in together, she was everywhere . . . Every song on the radio, I'd think, was this their song? Every old friend of his I'd meet, I'd think, how well did they know her? Did they like her better? I pushed it away for months and planned the wedding, with this panic building up little by little. I remember hiding the kitchen calendar in March so I wouldn't have to read her name every day for the next month. Can you imagine?"

"No," I say, dutifully. I can't imagine any of it.

"But I never said a word to him. Just went on like everything was fine. Grandma had a shower for me that summer, two months before the wedding. I remember I wore a yellow dress, with a white belt, and ironed my hair straight. Just two of Louis's family made the trip up from South Carolina, his mother and one of his sisters. We were opening gifts and then, all of a sudden, I couldn't breathe. I remember just where his mother was sitting, in the corner by a pair of bay windows. The whole time I'm opening gifts, I just remember thinking, Christ! She's watching me, and all she's thinking is I'm not April."

She shakes her head now, re-smoothes her napkin.

"It's foolish to me now, but I couldn't get this image out of my head. The three of us-April, Louis, and me-in some cemetery someday, all in a row."

I don't know what to make of it, my mom having her own whole past out of my view. For all its obviousness, this realization strikes me with an unsettling force; just this morning, half-asleep while nursing the baby, I myself glanced at the clock and marveled that in my former life I might have stumbled home at such an hour. "What happened to him?"

"I saw him once, years later in an airport. But he didn't see me. You were there. We were on our way to Aunt Jean's right after she had the twins. He was looking at magazines at the news stand with three young boys that looked just like him."

I remember that trip. We had a layover, and I threw up in the bathroom.

"I've thought about this a lot. Looking back, I realize it wasn't enough for me that he loved me. I think all I ever wanted to hear was that he loved me the most." She pauses here, gravely, then indulges a sad smile. "What did I know?"

I don't know what to say. I pick up my fork again and push the vegetables around, buying time. I have never given any thought to how or where I might be buried. Next to Jack, I assume. And what about the baby? Will his body one day be laid out in soil somewhere far from Jack's and mine? It occurs to me for the first time that my mom won't be buried next to my dad, let alone next to Louis and April. Suddenly, her bauble necklace is breaking my heart. I want to rip it right off.

The waitress arrives to save us, and I push my plate to the middle of the table and ask for a to-go box. Mom does the same, though I know she is just being polite. She will offer me her full container as soon as we walk into the parking lot.

I give the waitress my credit card, and when she returns, I scratch Jack's last name quickly across the receipt. After three years, it still somehow feels like a small betrayal, asserting my new last name in front of my parents. My mom fidgets with the top of the take-out container, and all I can think is how hopelessly stuck she is to my Dad's name like a regrettable tattoo. I swapped it out, and now she is alone with it.

"Have you ever had a mimosa?" The question lands awkwardly, because there are no other words to match anything I mean-that I'm sad, and I'm sorry, and I'd rather be anywhere else.

She shakes her head no. Mom drinks after-dinner liqueur around Christmastime and Sam Adams beer during her yearly vacation to Hyannis, and that's about it. "Linda loves them, though."

I stand up and grab her purse from the back of her chair. "Jack's making omelets," I announce, leading her towards the door and away from the leftovers we have abandoned on the table.


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