Crashing through, under, cold wet wispy arms of the willow, coughs crimp me over, collapsing me head-and-shoulder against bark. Clawing its body, I hang on for shaky moments, before finally composed enough to lean doubled over on my knees. I take deep breathes as I wipe my palms against my thighs, but decide instead to slide my body down the trunk of the willow, indifferent about damp grass wetting the seat of my pants.
Great. I can’t believe now I have hiccups. Sky’s scary comments probably incited them.
Did he really mean to harm Seneca?
Sky—what a fake name. That name was so promising. What happened to my hero? Did he mean to harm me too?
What he said definitely put a different spin on that night. Maybe Sky wasn’t helping me get away.
Sitting here underneath the dangling limbs with a full moon lighting the night, the river adds a chill to the night air, freezing my flesh in penance for stupidity; though definitely relieved that I don’t have to worry about HIV.
After a while, I still sit, even with the cold evening wind blowing off the river. I guess I wait wishing for someone to reassure me, to come strolling over and wrap me in his arms, or even to just squat in front of me in an effort to convince me that I’m important. But the cold is the only company I keep. Tiresome company, sending me in chilled and apprehensive.
Coming through the back porch into the kitchen, I’m hit with a very strong odor, one not smelled since my old rounds of the jazz circuit—cigarette smoke.
Who’s smoking? I wonder, hanging my coat on the kitchen wall hook.
When I turn around, there’s my answer, Mom leaning against the door jam with a lit cigarette between her fingers and a shot glass in her hand, both hands trembling like a junkie’s.
“Don’t look so surprised. It’s just . . . you know, every once in a while I need it; and today I need,” she says, finishing her words with her lip caught between her teeth. Her puffy bloodshot eyes testifying to her claim.
I almost ask, what’s the matter? Almost feel sorry for her if it weren’t for the beating she gave my emotions yesterday. I’m not ready for anyone’s drama.
The mental thought is braver than my real emotions. About to squeeze by Mom still in the doorway, she says, “I thought I saw you out there in the dark. What made you come in?”
“It’s cold,” I say, waiting patiently to get by.
“Yeah, I felt it when you opened the door.”
Between drags, her eyes keep darting nervously to the kitchen window towards the backyard; but she finally makes room to let me by.
“Why don’t you sit down in at the dining room table; I’ll make you some tea to warm you up,” she says.
“That’s okay Mom. I’ll be alright,” wanting to go upstairs to pack. “I’m really tired, okay?” I say. Goodness knows I’ve heard those words often enough from her.
“No, no. Sit down. It won’t take long.”
Laying the shot glass and cigarette on a saucer on the kitchen counter she puts on the kettle.
The curl of smoke coming off the edge of the cigarette spurs a coughing spell. “Mom, do you really need that?” second hand smoke killing me faster than her.
“Yes, Diamond. Today I do. Why don’t you get your cough syrup,” she says with a sudden edge to her voice, again looking out the back window, making me wonder; What’s out there?
As the teakettle starts to whistle, she grabs the dishes from the cabinet.
Getting up to help her, she says, “No, sit down; I’ve got it.”
Another cigarette now hanging from her lips, she hands me the cup and saucer, saying, “Here, hold the cup while I pour.”
As I watch the ash hanging off the end of her cigarette growing, speculating about where it will land, I suddenly drop the cup and saucer, the searing pain on my thumb, causing me to bite my lip and my eyes to water, as glass shatters on the dining room tile, skidding across the room. The chair overturned as I jumped up to run and hold my hand under the cold water tab, screaming; “You burned me!” tasting blood; while, “Stupid girl! I told you hold it. Now look what you’ve done,” trails me.
She finally smashes the burning end of her cancer log into a broken fragment of the saucer.
I again say, softer, in shock, “Mom you burned me,” but she’s not interested. She rushes to the front door leaving me to tend to myself.
Breathing difficult, I think; I’m not cleaning that up, as a car door slams, and she continues to peer out between the blinds.
Curiosity and hand burning equally, I refuse to ask, “Who is that?” though dying to know who or what has Mom’s undivided attention. Instead I hold it in, figuring, if it’s someone coming here, I’ll find out in a minute anyway, hoping I moved to the sink fast enough not to scar.
But instead of someone arriving, I hear an engine turning over and a car driving off.
Still watching her, I wonder, a neighbor leaving demands that much attention? letting the water continue running over my hand; buying time to see if she would come to me realizing her lack of compassion. Or at least her destination the broken glass.
But instead she oversteps pieces of glass that flew into the dining room. She returns to lean again against the door jamb of the kitchen, this time her nervousness gone and an angry bend to her posture—her arms folded across her chest. Her eyes harden just the tiniest bit.
What’s with her? I wonder, getting a bit worried. I turn off the water and go to pick up the pieces, but she says, “Leave it.”
“Have a seat,” she commands, “at the table” referring to the breakfast table.
“I’ll pour another cup of tea. You may also need your cough medicine,” she says. “I think I have another bottle in the medicine cabinet if you need more? That cough sounds disgusting.”
I didn’t even notice I had started.
“You always did get sore throats easily,” she says, that surprising statement practically bringing me to tears, amazed that she recalled anything of me personally. I wanted to believe that she could care.
Why did she remember that, was she ever concerned?
Suppressing the coughs I say, “Thanks, Mom, but I don’t need it any more.” I do want it, badly; however, I’ve decided I don’t need it. Yesterday made me realize I need to be totally aware of everything that’s going on around me, because lately the line blurs between reality and nightmares.
“It’ll help; are you sure you don’t want it?” she says, the question along with her stare macabre.
Or is it because I’m already on edge?
“I’m sure. Thanks anyway,” I say.
“Okay,” she concedes, pouring my tea at the stove, the cheeriness of the room in direct conflict with the overall status of my spirits. “But we need to talk.”
Like I haven’t tried, I think, my body slack and my throbbing hand limp in my lap as I wait for her to begin.
Mom changes positions; now seated she leans back against her chair, her arms still folded across her chest.
“Diamond, what I really want to know is … did you know about Seneca, that he’s not your father?”
My cup begins to rattle against the saucer. Setting it down on the table, I answer slowly; “Ah … Yes, yes I knew,” not looking up.
Oh boy, here it comes, accountability; the numb hollowness vanquished. I’m not prepared for this, I realize, guilt threatening to drown me in its sudden downpour.
Where did it come from—the question? I wonder, sweat rolling down my sides. Why now? Where is this going?
I get up from the table, taking both cup and saucer to the sink, determined to walk steady, inwardly pleading; please don’t ask when did I find out?
Completing my task, I turn around to her staring at me; then suddenly she gets up and goes back into the living room.
Watching from the kitchen, I see Mom grab a packet of envelopes from behind a picture on the mantel; she returns.
“These came for you today,” she says setting them down on the dining room table before me—the batch of letters! held together by brown string. I knew them without touching them. I sent them regularly to Seneca years ago.
Stepping through the broken glass I sit down on the piano bench, my legs too spongy to hold me.
Afraid to pick them up, but craving to and wanting to ask, did he bring them? Was he here? I sit silent.
I glance up at Mom waiting for her explanation.
“No, Diamond. Seneca wasn’t here.”
My heart drops, while I struggle to hide my disappointment, repress tears; Mom’s smug expression making it possible.
I felt my face question, then who? while my heart stayed with my previous hope.
“Some young man, a handsome young man, maybe someone you dreamed about,” she says again taking a seat, this time right next to me on the piano bench.
The man in the taxicab? The one I supposedly dreamed? He brought the letters?
I lean to pick up the stack, thumbing through.
Who had Seneca’s letters? And what’s he doing with them? … Was it Sky?
Angry, but more nervous with Mom beside me, I decide, I’d better start talking. If I don’t soon things may get messier.
But I don’t want to say too much.
“Mom, when I wrote those letters I didn’t know who Seneca was for sure. And anyway, I was fourteen. I didn’t think it would do any harm to keep in touch? … Mom, did the man say who he was and why he had my letters?” I ask hoping to divert the issue.
“He said he sublet the loft from Seneca and Seneca left those behind,” she adds still smirking. “Did Madame put you up to writing him, Diamond? Or did you think to do this on your own?”
Debating quickly, knowing she already hates Madame, I think: I could just say yes, but that won’t help unite them. Yet, if I say I did it on my own she’ll hate me too. And actually it was a little of both. Madame did suggest I write; but at the time I also wanted to.
Say something, Diamond!
“Mom, Madame had nothing to do with it. My god, Mom, isn’t it natural for a girl to want to know her father? That’s all I was doing, trying to get to know him,” I say speaking fast. If she read the letters she would know that much.
“So now that you know he isn’t,” she says standing over me, “How do you feel?”
Now we’re treading on dangerous grounds.
“I was devastated,” I answer, hoping that’s enough.
“You know what I think,” she says, walking into the kitchen. I can tell she’s lighting another cigarette at the stove, but she keeps talking. “I think Madame had, has plans for you. Matter-of-fact, I know it. The question is whether or not you will go along with those plans.”
She comes back to lean against the doorframe, her jitters of earlier seemingly stabilized by smugness. However, I’ve caught her previous jitters, wishing this conversation to die.
Actually, Madame didn’t tell me about Seneca until last year, although I already knew. I knew since I was four. I overheard them talking about it.
But, just because he’s not my stepfather didn’t mean I couldn’t contact him, right? since he was like a father to me at one time. And how was I to know that Mom would reappear ten years later? She never wanted me around.
What’s with all these questions? And why is she just standing there? Waiting? For what?
I wait too for the answer to: Who really was the guy that dropped off the letters? . . . Why won’t she say? It couldn’t have been Sky.
But I’ll save those questions for after she finishes with hers.
“Mom, I’m really tired. Is there anything else you want to talk about?” the second hand smoke a fog.
“No, not right now,” she says blowing the smoke in my face. “We’ll talk again later.”
With that dismissal I slide along the bench; off; then proceed upstairs, feeling relieved, guilty, and exhausted, hoping that everything will work itself out. But how?
I feel the walls caving in.