Painting by Loren Dann
by Samantha Bell
Her mom had worn the wrong shoes.
Two nights ago, sitting in her mom’s cramped kitchen, Sarah had taken a sip of merlot from the long-stemmed glassware and sighed. Her mom sat, head tipped down, at the end of the table. Behind her were spots of mold on the refrigerator door. She moved her mom’s mostly-empty wine glass from the table and let her mother sleep the sleep of the sad.
Before her mom got tanked, they had eaten a nice dinner. It was their last night at her mom’s. Sarah’s boyfriend Jay made jerk chicken; her uncle had shown up with fresh corn and funny stories about dating. In one, her uncle’s date asked if he was into seeing naked pictures of herself, because she didn’t know him very well and was nervous. Sarah, usually a quiet person, doubled over laughing. The table shook, and only then had she realized that Jay was outside on his cell.
Issue #49 soundtrack: Flo Morrissey "Show Me"
She stared at him from the table. He was busy with someone, his dark hair brushing his eyebrows, curling in the New England summer humidity that Sarah loved so much. She poked her fork into her chicken, same as her mom did, and she watched her mom take tiny pieces of the white meat to her teeth, then set them down again, almost untouched. Her mom listened to her brother’s stories with a glazed look. That’s when Sarah knew she would be down soon.
When her uncle left, and Jay got off the fucking phone, Sarah told her mother she wanted to see the house.
“What? Why?” her mother asked. Jay rolled his eyes.
“Mom,” Sarah said, tentatively at first, sipping her wine, “because I’m only in town on Saturday, and because it’s for research, and it’s healing for me, too, I think.”
Her mom pitched her upper body forward to see Sarah’s face up close, and she squinted her eyes. “But why? I don’t understand.”
The night before, with less wine, Sarah and her mom had had a quieter conversation about returning to the house where Sarah grew up. She was headed from her mother’s house in Vermont to Pittsford, New York, for a wedding. Her high school friend was getting married. The next town over held the house that Sarah had last seen when her father was living on the wooden floors in winter, without heat. This was years ago, and when he was finally evicted, he became temporarily homeless, plopping himself in his large SUV and driving West to his mother’s before rehab.
Sarah wanted to see the house. She wanted to write about it, and mostly she wanted to see it without the curtains and the chairs and the sofas stuffed in her mother’s U-Haul that sat in the driveway.
“Mom, we talked about this,” Sarah said. “I want to see the house whole. You don’t have to come. It’s a long way.”
The plan was for Jay and Sarah to drive separately, check into their hotel, go to the rehearsal dinner, and eke out time on Saturday before the wedding to see her hometown, her house, the canal path she had walked nearly every day. Sarah and Jay lived in Colorado, where Jay pretended to work, cashing checks his father sent before Sarah even knew they existed. Her mom would drive up with her new boyfriend Paul; she would show him where she had lived for 35 long years before the divorce, when Sarah was in college and cheered the split on with vigor.
“Sarah, it’s a long way. I don’t know what to do. Do you think Paul really even likes me? Do you think he even wants to go? I don’t think I want to be with him.” As she said this, she searched the counter tops for her wine.
They had this conversation the night before. Sarah hated Paul the way most people hated Jay. He was arrogant, smug, and thought it was funny to make fun of poor people, black people, and people who had thoughts.
“Mom, he said he did. He said he’d drive. It’s up to you. You certainly don’t have to come,” Sarah said, her voice lowering. She wanted her mom to come with her on this trip less than anything.
Her mom turned to Jay, put her pearly fingers on his arm and said, “Jay, Sarah asked me to go, so what can I do about it now?”
“No, Mom, that’s not true. You said you wanted to go. You and Paul can have a night out by yourselves, and we can meet you for breakfast and see the house, take a walk on the path maybe. How about that?”
Her mom’s head listed and nodded. “Okay,” she said, “but Sarah, I don’t understand. Why would you want to go back?”
In the morning, Sarah woke up to the sound of her mom coughing. She was always coughing. Sarah padded to the upstairs bathroom, opened the window wide, and peed.
Her mom came up the stairs as she washed her hands. “Sarah!”
Sarah ignored her.
“Sarah! Look!” Her mother pushed open the old door and held out her arm. “Isn’t this weird? I have a rash on my arm. What do you think?”
It was a rash, like every other rash her mother had, because she was anxious or drunk or tired or cold. “Yeah, huh,” she said and moved past her, back into the guest room where Jay snored lightly.
“Sarah! What do you think this is?” She asked through the door.
When Paul arrived, Jay had already smoked a joint in the upstairs bathroom, so his eyes were red and his head fuzzy. Sarah’s mom gave him a steely glare and downed her coffee.
“You ready to go?” he asked Sarah’s mom. She nodded, unmoving.
“Paul, look! Look! Look at my arm! I have a rash. Isn’t that the weirdest thing?” Paul gave it a look and pulled back. Jay was trying not to laugh, which was a lot like watching a buoy in a lake on a windy day. Paul sighed, “Yep, wow, that’s something, lady. Let’s go.”
In the car, Sarah said, “Thank god we’re taking two cars. I would have fucking killed her.”
“I know,” Jay said. “I have a rash. I have a rash!”
His jokes were always terrible, and he didn’t understand people. When Sarah met him, in grad school, she thought he was different. He was: in looks, in personality, in upbringing. In every way, his dysfunction bordered on dangerous. For some reason, she couldn’t shake him, and she thought now, as she watched Paul pull off the highway, that her female role model might have something to do with it.
“Where the fuck are they going?” Sarah asked, clicking her blinker.
Her cell phone rang.
“Sarah?” It was her mom.
“Yeah?” Sarah said.
“Oh, well, Paul wanted to take me to breakfast, and so we’ll meet you tomorrow at Rikki’s for waffles at nine. How’s that?”
“Great,” Sarah said. She could hear her mom laughing at something Paul said. “Bye.”
The hotel was fancy. Sarah put on her highest black heels and they walked to the hotel bar before the rehearsal dinner. Amy had been her most competitive friend in high school and in college. They starved together; they ran together; they slept with the same men. It was gross. And then Amy met an actual nice guy, someone she worked with. His name was Devon, and he wasn’t exactly handsome, but Sarah was jealous anyway, because she knew she had to get away from Jay before he took all her money. Soon.
Jay hated socializing, so he stood outside the restaurant, which was two long blocks from the hotel, smoking god knew what, letting Sarah walk into a room of her old friends alone. Amy rushed to her, looking thinner and better than usual.
“Sar! It’s really you! How are you?”
Amy listened to Sarah talk about how she really was. The hotel wine had done a number on her, and quick. Amy’s eyes wandered over Sarah’s head to court the arriving guests as Sarah droned on about her terrible jobs (adjuncting at three schools, and driving in Colorado was a nightmare!), and her family (mom’s got a new boyfriend, haven’t heard from dad).
Sarah walked to the bar and Jay slid his arm around her from behind. He looked stoned, uneasy. Not the right time to ask if he wanted a beer, but she did anyway, not wanting to drink alone.
In the morning, Sarah peeled back the covers and saw Jay on the ledge, window open, joint in his mouth, a beer in his hand. Before she could say much, he slurred, “If I have to deal with your mom one more goddamned day, on the day of a fucking wedding, yes, I will be drinking through it.”
His tone was edgy enough for her to pull the covers back where they had been.
In the car, driving from the hotel into the suburbs, Sarah’s stomach knotted. She had left for grad school and hadn’t seen these neighborhoods since. The streets looked the same: bright, green, florid. She just felt differently. In high school, she had driven too fast down these streets to get to parties, a wide smile on her round face. She tugged now at her dullish blonde ponytail and peered at herself: tight jeans, tight shirt, maybe ten pounds heavier. Not too bad, she thought, for nine years later. Her cell phone rang. It was her mom.
“Hey, Sar. We’re just finishing up at Rikki’s and we’ll meet you in the parking lot, okay? How far out are you?”
“What?” Sarah asked. “I thought we were having breakfast together? We’re about ten minutes away,” she said, her stomach sinking.
“Okay, see you then,” her mom said, dropping the phone.
“Bitch,” Jay said as the manicured lawns popped by, one square at a time; Sarah wondered who he was talking about.
In the parking lot, there was hemming and hawing about who would drive. Paul ended up driving because Sarah’s mom insisted it was “too hard for me.” Sarah shook her head.
“Sarah! Who is that? Look at how he’s looking at you,” Sarah’s mom pointed straight at a man in the lot. He wasn’t looking her way. “Well, he was,” she said. “How weird. Sarah, do you know him?” Sarah shook her head. I can’t do this, she thought, staring at her mother in her perfect red V-neck and jeans.
“Okay, so, where to?” Paul asked, putting his hands on his large belly under the steering wheel of his car.
Sarah’s mom turned around to Sarah from the front seat and shrugged.
“I don’t know. This is Sarah’s trip.”
Sarah blinked rapidly, a way to calm her nerves. “Well, Mom,” she spoke, slowly, “I want to see the house. Let’s go there.”
Her mom nodded.
En route, Sarah’s mom said, “Oh Paul! Let’s stop by Dawn’s house, huh? See if she’s home? She said she might be.” She turned around again, “We saw Dawn last night. She looks good. I think she’s lost a little weight,” she said.
She directed Paul to a new neighborhood. In Dawn’s driveway, Sarah said, “Okay, so aren’t you going to knock now? See if she’s home?”
Sarah’s mom turned, “Oh no. I wouldn’t want to impose. I’ll call her.”
Jay snorted and said, “Jesus Christ.”
Dawn picked up the call, but she wasn’t home. Sarah’s mom kept saying, “Isn’t this so funny? But we’re in your driveway!”
Back on the road, Sarah directed Paul to the house. They neared the cul-de-sac, the spare parking lot leading to the trail in the woods, the bridge that spanned the canal.
Sarah’s heart leapt a little, remembering too much all at once. The time she lost her teeth falling forward on her bike. The bus stop at the stop sign. The walks she took with her boyfriend in those woods, the first time he kissed her. Her father, walking the dog between the trees, his hands behind his back. What had he been thinking about?
And there it was. A white house with grey shutters on a small incline.
“Oh, Sarah, I don’t know. I don’t know,” her mother said, over and over.
Paul parked the car but left it running, something which Sarah took to be inconsiderate, since she told them she wanted to knock on the door and see if she could see the house.
Jay stood behind, uninterested. Sarah walked to the front. On the side yard, where there was once an above-ground pool there was now a trampoline of the same size. Kids’ toys littered the deck. The deck that her father made, back when he was okay.
Sarah’s mom started whimpering. “Sarah,” she said, “I can’t do this.”
Sarah retraced her steps, remembering the bee hive in the chimney that one summer, the snakes in the wood pile on this side of the house that one winter. She stepped up to the concrete front stoop that was led by the walkway her father also made, throwing his back out in the process. They had pictures of him leaning over, in pain, with a gin and tonic sweating in his hand.
She knocked, but no one answered.
“Sarah, isn’t this too weird? I don’t like this,” her mom said.
Sarah thought for a second, and made her way down the drive and toward the canal path. It was then that she noticed her mother’s shoes. Dress shoes: slingback kitten heels. Black. Size eight.
“So,” Sarah said anyway, “do you want to walk the canal path, then?”
Her mom pointed down, “I can’t. I don’t think I have the right shoes for that.”
Sarah turned away. She saw the sloped piece of leftover woods that she and her friends used to climb and hide in. “Sarah,” came her mom’s voice, “I think we should go. This place is bringing back bad memories. Remember when dad fell down those steps in the garage? Remember when you found him in the basement? Remember when I found out about the money Jane lent him? Remember when...” Sarah stopped listening. She turned again toward the circle where Paul’s car was parked. He and Jay sat in the front seats, laughing at something together.
Sarah watched as her mom tottered on her stupid shoes, taking a long pull from her coffee. “Remember that rash I had?” she asked. Sarah nodded, “Well, it’s gone now,” she said, triumphant. Sarah just kept nodding as she climbed into the backseat of the car with Jay. “Yeah, it’s gone,” her mom said again, and then, “It just disappeared, like it was never even there.”
Samantha Bell is an Assistant Professor of English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. Her essays and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications including DIAGRAM, Paradigm, Lake Affect Magazine, Coe Review, Prick of the Spindle, Pure Francis, Under the Sun, Fourth River and many more. Samantha was recently named a semi-finalist in DIAGRAM’s essay contest. Visit her online at samanthabellsomethingelemental.blogspot.com.
Loren Dann is an artist in South Jersey. She is a feminist, a mother, and a painter, and aims to incorporate all of this into her work. Last Fall, she was featured in a solo show at the Abbaye, and now Loren is working on a portrait project, painting strangers' portraits donated via photographs. Visit her blog at lorenldann.blogspot.com.
Flo Morrissey is a 17 year-old singer/songwriter from London. For more, visit her online on Tumblr, SoundCloud, and Vimeo.