By Yash Seyedbagheri
Mother comes back after two years in San Francisco. Nick is fourteen. It is 1969.
She rents an apartment for them, asks Nick to arrange things as they were. But this is a new apartment with white walls and beige stucco outside. The living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms hold the weight of constraint as if it were meant for monks. Besides, Nick can’t recall how she arranged her Yates, Cheever, and Salinger. By title? Emotional mood? And what of her pants, her blouses? Were they arranged by colors? Lavender to light blue? And her Beatles records? His mind does cartwheels, always landing on itself.
Mother says the city moved too fast. After a year, she never knew the shape of things before her. New ideas took over. New ideas became old. Her rights and dignity were drowned by drugs and despair. A man walked on the moon, she says, but Nixon’s walked into consciousness.
She’s missed Nick, wants to pick up again. Now she’s been able to write, create, send her work into the world. She’s taken that away from San Francisco if nothing else. She’s created material labeled not by relationships to men, but by her name. Elizabeth Botkin.
“You think so? How do you know?”
“Do you know what that feels like?” she says. “To have someone pronounce your name. There’s a power to it, Nick.”
She’s been tortured by his absence in the nights, she says, had dreams about leaving even. But she couldn’t be a mother then. She felt as if the world kept loading, loading, loading. Nick wants to believe these words, but he cannot imagine. He thinks she loved him, but not like movie mothers who weep every ten minutes when their children fall off their bikes or run into villains.
Nick’s father left when he was five and he has no memories of him, save for a fleeting baritone laugh, a mustache. But even he’s not certain whether this is true, or an image his mind has conjured. While Mother was gone, he stayed with several friends, moving from one to the next by choice, even though each one assured he was, “Welcome.” There was Christophe Dubois with his petite French mother, Marie (who made the word happiness sound happy, sans the h). There was something too tender in her litany of hugs, the beatific smiles she wore, perhaps a little too beatific. Nick was overwhelmed by the attention she showered upon him, asking if he was hungry, if he was happy, or if he needed to talk. Nick lasted less than three months, trying to conceal a rising hatred for Christophe and a desire for things he couldn’t have, things beyond the grasp of logic.
Then there was Henry O’Toole whose mother drank White Russians copiously, a sort of brutal reminder that perhaps Nick’s own mother was doing likewise. She’d drink and ruminate about Existentialism, socialism, and a litany of other isms. Lastly, there was Tony DiCenzo, whose mother was a pianist and played arias from Puccini on the piano with heartbreaking fervency.
“I know I’ve lost my temper,” Mother says over dinner one night. “But it’s different when you have space. You can look down on yourself, see who you were.”
“Are you happy now?” he asks.
Nick tries not to think of that night, two years ago, a slammed door, Chevy Bel-Air engulfed by moonlight shadows. He remembers the severe, wobbling smile she wore, her once-confident gait a slouch. She used to work at her Corona Zephyr typewriter, moving from kitchen to living room, looking for the right space. She often surveyed Nick as if he were an alien, said he needed too much. He was all about I, I, I. Sometimes she cried, lilting, desperate cries as if she were in the darkest chambers in a war and no one would come.
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“I’d like to think so, Nicky,” she says, slurping her noodles, laughing. “This place is a shithole, but it’s a start.”
“You think so? How do you know?”
Mother inhales. Smiles. She still has that sharp, crooked smile, still wears the same flipped bob. She still smells of sweat and Chesterfields. But there’s something off about all this. Maybe it’s like trying to remake a movie and following the exact same rules.
“I think so, Nicky. It’s hard to really know. But that life was a waystation, a temporary point. I was just swamped. It’s not that I didn’t want to be your mother. I couldn’t, Nick. I couldn’t think, really.”
Nick doesn’t know what he expected to be different. She’d be older and happier? But he doesn’t know what it means to be happier. Mother still loses her temper, although she apologizes more. She comes in late at night, smokes cigarettes, calls him his old nicknames Nicky, Sunbeam, her husky voice echoing across walls with desperation. But there’s still something missing in this arrangement. In his arrangements too.
The typewriter needs to be right under the window. Doesn’t he remember? He can’t combine Yates and Nabokov. That’s like combining grapefruit with an onion. It’s about an arrangement of ideas, Mother says, a logical progression of things.
“I’m sorry,” is all Nick can say.
“It just has to be right,” Mother says. “I had it right in San Francisco. At the start anyway.”
“I don’t know that,” Nick says.
She frowns, inhales.
“You’re right,” she says. “You can’t know how I arrange everything. I was always a perfectionist. In high school, they said I’d be likeliest to be the best housewife and mother. Isn’t that something?”
“They didn’t rate you likeliest to walk away?”
Her face crumples as if another being has consumed her soul.
“Some spaces won’t be filled. “
“I came back,” she says. “Or am I a permanent sinner? I could have stayed. I could have changed my name and disappeared. I know people who did it. But I needed something familiar.”
Mother keeps criticizing the placement of items. She tries to arrange things herself, starts spending more time away, late nights filled with growing emptiness. Some nights, she doesn’t come home at all. This is temporary anyway, she promises. Nick knows it. Maybe this time she’ll leave a note, tell him a week, a month in advance. Maybe she’ll take him this time.
He keeps trying to arrange things. But there are still gaps, the books aren’t pleasant aesthetically. Her wardrobe clashes colorwise and Mother complains she needs something less domestic.
Nick goes into Mother’s bedroom one evening when she’s out. He removes her books from the shelves, the jeans and dresses, and blouses from the closets. He packs them into her suitcases, feels the release of items and their weight, feels the whirl she must have felt, the future. Something is thrilling in this removal of things. Nick imagines that Mother has arrived somewhere new, excited by these arrangements before her. There is a new life, something all her own. So it seems.
But the items will have to be unpacked, rearranged. And just arranged.
Some spaces won’t be filled.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. A native of Idaho, Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in West ward Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.