Mila hadn’t smoked in days but still took cigarette breaks, walking in circles around the elm, kicking sun-bleached butts, half-hoping to find something she could salvage among the filters spilling their stringy insides on the gravel. Her walks had the length of a Winston, even when she wasn’t smoking one. She now smelled the tobacco on her sweaters and the lining of her coat – a scent she didn’t perceive when she could afford to smoke a pack a day.
Her mother was still sitting on the sofa, stroking the left armrest while she talked. She barely looked up when Mila walked into the room – a quick side glance, as if she were driving and had to turn back to the road. She kept staring straight ahead as she spoke.
‘We’re going to try to tuck this worry away. It may not work, but believe me: it’ll smudge the distance that separates us from those who are closest to us. Do you really think this is the way I wanted to define it, to corner it? Well then, you’re wrong. Anger, I told you, is what happens when the little pegs no longer go into the little holes.’
The voice followed Mila into the kitchen. It was never a good sign when her mother stopped talking. There was some rice in a container. There was a bag of Green Giant steamed mixed vegetables in the freezer. There were two eggs in the fridge. She thought she would say ‘here is a nice summer salad’ when she put the bowl down on the table in front of her mother.
The voice followed Mila into her mother’s room. She picked up a nightgown and some underwear in the gloom. The smell of night sweats and confinement hovered over the bed. She turned on the light and saw the Post-it notes covering the walls like scattered scales. Her mother had put them up overnight about a week ago, but Mila couldn’t get used to them. Some were cryptic reminders (‘the envelope is under the thing’), but most looked like snippets of her mother’s never-ending monologue (‘the key is what opens, and what works because it opens’; ‘don’t believe too much in what you can understand’). Mila made the bed.
They hadn’t slept through the night in a while. Sleep came to her mother in spurts. After a restless doze, she would start talking again, her voice issuing from the gray dusk of her room, until she got up to walk around the house, and Mila had to get up as well to keep an eye on her. They had run out of her mother’s sleeping pills. Each evening, Mila gave her a double dose of NyQuil followed by a glass of white wine. Sometimes it helped a little. She kept the wine hidden in the garage. Now she poured herself a glass and drank it, leaning on the car. It had enough gas to get to town but probably not enough to return. Once Mila’s check arrived, she would drive out, cash it, fill her mother’s prescriptions, buy groceries and cigarettes, get gas, and drive back.
‘For there is something else that no one so far, I think, has figured out: the victim always has to be without stain. Now, remember what I told you about the stain: the stain shows what’s hidden behind. To tame God in the snare of desire. And let anxiety rest. I apologize for this detour, because it’s not in this direction that we’ll find the last word on the matter.’
Mila had fallen asleep on the sofa. In her dream, a basketball player slammed a drawer shut with a bang and laughed wildly. She woke up, looked around, and understood that the bang had been her mother falling and the laugh, in fact, her cries of pain. Her mother lay on the floor, bawling, blood gushing from her eyebrow. Her mouth looked darker than usual. She had broken a front tooth.
They watched TV. Her mother spoke a little less, since she had to hold the bag of frozen vegetables to her mouth. Her words seeped through the hole in her teeth with a whistle. The cut on her forehead was small, but she had a big bruise. They drank white wine. Every now and then, her mother made long toasts. Some of the speeches made Mila laugh, and each time this happened, she thought she could glimpse a spark of pride in her mother’s eyes – the pride of having made her daughter happy. They clinked their glasses ceremoniously.
The voice followed Mila into the study. When her father lived in the house, the room was called ‘dad’s office’. He used to spend most of the day in there. Shortly after he left, Mila’s mother started calling it ‘the study’. Mila knew her mother had small amounts of cash hidden throughout the house. When she first moved back to take care of her, Mila had found money rolled up in a sock, buried in a flour canister, and tucked into books. There had to be more, and she was sure it would be in the study. She was going to return it to her mother when she got well. Among her father’s things, she found some photos that made her uncomfortable.
‘There is no love except for a name. We all know this from experience. We can only love a name. And when you say the name of the loved one, you find yourself at a threshold. A door. Something that goes from that little other into history.’
Mila’s cell phone got disconnected. Yet another thing that would have to wait for her check to arrive. She didn’t have anyone in particular to call back home – she lived alone, and her few friends were too busy with family and work to be awaiting news from her – but she missed cycling through her usual websites. She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to call her mother’s psychiatrist. He never had any concrete advice anyway, aside from telling her to create an ‘emotionally safe environment’, and they had enough refills on file. The drugs were always the same, only the dosage increased with each episode. Each time, Mila had left everything and moved in with her mother.
All they had left was some sort of therapeutic shampoo with a tarry reek, which, at first, she thought was the source of the smell. As she rinsed her hair, she noticed that, behind the faint traces of chlorine in the water dripping down her nose, the smell, rather than fading, was growing stronger. She wrapped herself in a towel and rushed out of the bathroom, running through the living room where her mother sat saying ‘just take this belt and open it, give it a half turn, and fasten it again, and you get something on which an ant walking along passes from one of the sides to the other side, without needing to walk across the edge’, and into the kitchen, where, on a lit burner, she found an empty pot, red hot and charred, its plastic handle reduced to a bubbling puddle on the stovetop.
Another walk around the elm. Through the tree top, Mila stared up at the sky, scratched and torn by the bare branches. For the briefest instant, she found it strange that dawn was working in reverse – that it was getting darker with each passing second – but she dismissed it as one of those quirks of nature. Then, of course, she understood that it was dusk’s twilight, not dawn’s. She was surprised and embarrassed at how readily she had accepted, for that fleeting moment, the impossible situation of a blackening sunrise.
She woke up to find her mother pacing around the living room with a notebook in her hand, taking dictation from her own voice, pausing so that the hand could catch up with the mouth. Mila tried to steer her back into the bedroom, but her mother pushed her back and looked up from the page with a quick angry glance. She started walking and dictating again. Mila went back to the sofa and lay down with a pillow over her head to shut out the footfalls and the voice.
‘She holds out very well, even though it’s exhausting, as I told you the last time. Luckily, as I’ve said, there are vacations, and in a way that is surprising for her. And amusing. Surprisingly and amusingly, she sees that after all, all of this, once it has stopped, doesn’t last very long. She gives herself a shake and thinks about something else. Why? Because after all, she knows very well that he’ll realize that there’s nothing to find.’
They hadn’t received any mail in days. Not even junk mail. Worried that there might be a problem with the delivery just when her check was about to arrive, Mila decided to talk to the neighbor. Knives and scissors had been put away a long time ago, but she shut off the gas before leaving, telling her mother she would be back in a minute. Mila locked the door behind her and jogged over to the house across the street. She played with the neighbor’s dog as he told her everything was all right with his mail.
Her mother sat on the sofa, stroking the left armrest, saying ‘remember that it was not today or yesterday that I told you about the glove, the hood, and that dream that Ella had’. Every now and then, Mila told her, as gently as she could, to try to quiet her mind and relax. Her mother always obeyed but only for a few seconds, after which she started talking again. A few times over the last days, Mila had shouted at her, asking her to shut up. Her mother always obeyed but only for a few seconds, after which she started talking again.
‘It’s this cut that’s opened up and allows something to appear, something that you will understand better when I say the unexpected, the visit, the piece of news.’
Mila sat in the study, looking at her father’s things: obsolete computer accessories and cords, framed pictures of himself, a collection of lanyards and IDs from different work events he had attended over the years, some souvenirs from his travels that had once been ironic but now were just ugly things. She was grateful she couldn’t make out her mother’s words.
The general plan – walk around the block, down to the meadow, and then back – found no purchase on her mother’s mind, no matter how many times Mila repeated it. She tried to get her to dress all morning, but she was passively stiff and irritable. ‘The very day they exchanged vows, with a vague cousin, I don’t remember very well, I didn’t look up the biography, let’s say a vague cousin, some person, one of these young handsome men who have, as they say, an assured future, which means they don’t have any.’ Mila tried to explain to her mother that an open vista would do her good after such a long time indoors. ‘For some time, people haven’t been stubborn about it: the important thing is to be together in the same chimney. The question, when you come out, when you come out together from a chimney, is: who is going to wash his face?’ Close to noon, Mila got her mother dressed, but she refused to leave the house. ‘Another baby in the room is enough for it not to happen.’
The voice followed Mila into the bathroom. She examined her face, thinking she ought to look older than she did. A moment later, she found herself plucking her eyebrows, unaware of the moment when she had started. The short, angry plucks were gratifying. The pain building up in her brow was gratifying. Her eyebrows were getting too thin, but they were still uneven. She would have to keep going a little more.
The can opener didn’t work. Mila banged the can on the counter, which made her mother jump. She was quiet for a moment. ‘But both things are true, even if they aren’t connected: it is precisely for this reason that they are confused and that by confusing them, nothing clear is said about this relationship.’ The can turned, but the blade wouldn’t cut into the tin. She made a hole with a knife. The cutting wheel kept skipping out of the groove. Staring at the can and listening to her mother (‘Of course some people have country houses, and they go there to contemplate their collections of, let’s say, beautiful vases’), Mila found herself saying it. It was so sudden it felt out of time. She had often thought about saying it, hoping it would shock her mother into sanity, but never considered it seriously. She would be too scared to tell such a lie. And yet she did. Her body tingled and she felt weightless and not quite real as the words came out. Mila told her mother, with angry compassion, that her husband, whom they both called ‘dad’, was never coming back because he was dead.
In the daytime, the monologues became intermittent, separated by long silences. Mila thought this was an improvement. Her mother sometimes even spoke to her directly – rather than into space – with sensible questions and practical remarks. She was eating less, though. And refusing to wash. The topic of Mila’s father never came up again. At night, however, the monologues grew longer until they became a continuum interrupted only by sunrise.
‘Let’s move along this path, the path I chose today. And let’s forget how the couple was defined at the beginning. That’s the way it should be: we should take things up along the way, and even maybe at the arrival. But we cannot take them up at the start.’
Mila brought out a knitting basket she had found deep in a closet. The mechanical precision and purpose of her mother’s hands; the all-too-human slackness of her jaw and mumbling lips. It was during one of these knitting sessions that her mother, without ever looking up, asked Mila how he had died. Mila had a story ready: pancreatic cancer; so fast he never had a chance; she hadn’t said anything because she didn’t want to upset her; she was so sorry for having blurted it out like that. Her mother never stopped knitting during their short talk. Her bones had become more visible over the last few days. Mila was horrified to find herself thinking that she might not need to discuss her lie with her father after all.
‘When all is said and done, there is nothing except what is current. I sometimes try to see if somewhere some little question mark is not appearing somewhere. I’m rarely rewarded. That’s why people ask me serious questions. Well then, you can’t blame me for taking advantage of it.’
The doorbell. The voice followed Mila out of the living room and to the front door. It was the neighbor with the dog. After asking about her mother’s health, he told Mila her father had just called him. He had been trying to reach Mila over the last few days, but her phone seemed to be dead. The neighbor looked down at this point and patted the dog’s head. Anyway, Mila’s father had asked him to tell her he was in town, at his friend’s place. He would come by the house after lunch. He wanted to make sure Mila would be in. Throughout this short conversation, the voice never stopped flowing from the living room.
Mila shut off the gas, hid all the sharp objects she could find, left some food in plain sight, and explained to her mother she would have to leave for the day. She thought she detected traces of concern on her mother’s face, which she took as a good sign – any kind of response was positive. Mila kissed her on the cheek and went over to the neighbor’s to ask him for $20 for gas. She rang the bell several times. Inside, the dog barked and scratched the door.
A flock of birds had been flying alongside her car for about a mile. Her foot off the gas pedal, Mila tried to coast as much as possible. The fuel warning dash light turned on about halfway there, but she had driven over thirty miles on empty a few times and was confident she would make it to her father’s friend by noon. The birds were now behind her, speckling the unpopulated horizon in the rearview mirror. She would have to tell him the truth – that she had said he was dead. It had been for her mother’s own good. If he really wanted to help, he would have to stay away. This would give him the chance to feel important without doing anything. After that, he would be happy to give her money for gas. The engine let out a huff. Mila looked around wildly, as if she could reach for something that would help her. The engine gasped. She started hitting the steering wheel (a small portion of her, untouched by despair, thought that she was imitating someone in some film). A hollow silence filled the car. As she drifted toward the shoulder, the flock of birds overtook her and flew out of sight.
Photograph © Hamed Masoumi