Erin’s mother knew about the Midwesterner.
Erin had told her mother about the incident a few weeks after she had come home.
‘So?’ her mother had said.
Erin had of course not explained the feeling of coercion, the feeling of being dragged into the sway of something that had already taken place, long ago, and that was, nevertheless, dumbly demanding her participation. She might not, at the time, have been able to name the feeling, its insistence notwithstanding.
Erin had asked, by way of answer, and a lovely set of verbal tennis it was, too, ‘Should I tell Ben?’ She was clarifying, for her mother’s benefit, the reason for the conversation.
‘Should you tell Ben?’ Her mother snorted. ‘Not if you want your marriage to continue!’
Although this turn in the conversation had been eminently foreseeable, Erin was still surprised. She would not have been able to say this to her mother in the moment, but another version of Erin, participating in a dialogue that occurred only in Erin’s imagination, wanted to say that it did seem like marriage should be a relationship of deep and abiding trust. For this reason, it might be sensible to loop Ben in.
And, of course, Erin had never said anything to her mother about what had happened in Australia.
What Erin understood now was that the relationship with Ben had been a relationship in which trust had been an entirely one-sided affair. Or, rather, that Ben trusted, and trusted strongly, that Erin had no idea what sorts of things he got up to outside the house. He trusted that even if she intuited, all but unconsciously, that he was unfaithful to her, she was too frightened of the vagaries of single life, combined with society’s rampant misogyny, to ever, ever leave him. Erin, meanwhile, trusted that Ben had her best interests at heart. But this, Erin now saw, was a relationship to a concept. It was not trust and never had been.
In this sense, Erin’s mother had been entirely correct. If Erin had told Ben what had happened in Paris, he would have called her all sorts of names. He would have told her that she was a faithless woman. He would have said that he could no longer trust her. He would have forbidden solo travel, probably forced her to drop out of school. All the while, he would have continued his own activities, attempting to establish the reality of some liaison or other, such that he could, in a final burst of rage and glory, leave Erin, heaping the blame for the devolution of their love on her head. She could then walk on through life with that mark.
Now let him wear the mark, Erin thought.
Erin’s mother, whom Erin also loved, was a covetous person, treacherous and clever. She liked to read expensive gardening catalogues and kill houseplants. Her home, which she shared with Erin’s father, contained a quantity of sofas.
Erin’s mother did not exactly have Erin’s best interests ‘at heart’, either, but as she was of the opinion that Erin was an animal who belonged to her, there were limits to her violence. Erin’s mother needed Erin alive.
So Erin hadn’t. She had lived on with Ben and attempted to love and honor her mother and tried to tell herself that many things were unreal or, failing this, only slightly real.
Erin walked up a hill toward the building where her parents lived.
She made plans with herself about what she would and would not say. She told herself not to drink too much, to eat as little as possible, not to become enthusiastic or disordered, not to be beguiled into arguments, not to become uncontrollably enraged, not to shout or stammer or say things that made no sense. Her heart beat and she compulsively checked her email, along with Facebook (‘Cold-ridden and in-transit in NY, but really looking forward to ‘Sublimities’ at CU later this week. In the way of shameless acts of self-promotion, I’m speaking on this panel:’), several times before going indoors.
Erin’s mother was a stockbroker and believed in bourgeois systems. She did not give a shit about Freud or Marx or Nietzsche or anyone else who had attempted to dismantle this way of life during or after the nineteenth century; she had not read them and never would. Erin’s mother did not as a rule read much, although Erin could remember a period of years when Erin was in high school during which her mother had labored over Anna Karenina. Erin’s mother liked to display the book at beaches and on terraced evenings, when she moved en famille among various other families whose acquaintance Erin’s mother dryly tolerated in acquiescence to social norms. Although Erin’s mother had no friends, she was unconfused enough to see that people who had no friends were generally looked down upon. Erin’s mother therefore maintained carefully manicured proximities that no one, even the most discerning sociologist, Erin’s mother felt, would be able to distinguish from genuine affiliation and affection.
The building where Erin’s parents lived had doormen. It had been erected in 1921, the same year in which, coincidentally perhaps, Erin’s paternal grandfather had arrived, in April, in the United States by boat. The building was thick, brick and granite, with an echoing lobby full of blackish-yellow light. Erin entered alone, as she usually did these days, and experienced the sensation she always felt upon such entrances, as of feeding a coin into the earth, a toll she was helpless not to accord to certain powers that she did not understand but that seemed to live beneath the building’s threshold, sealed in in the course of construction.
The man on duty nodded. He had fled ‘political revisions’ undertaken by Albania’s Communist regime in 1991, when he was in his midtwenties, if Erin was guessing correctly. He was tall and handsome in a conventional way: long eyebrows, straight nose. His name was Armend. Erin had known him for more than half her life.
‘Hello, Erin,’ Armend said.
‘Hi,’ said Erin. ‘How are you?’
‘Very well,’ Armend said. ‘Good,’ he reiterated, looking down at his podium and seeking out the correct switch to permit Erin access to the floor on which her parents’ apartment was located. He indicated a preference not to expand the conversation.
Erin speed-walked to the elevator, mashed the plastic call button.
There was a whir of cables and a woman with violet lips emerged with a small brown dog. ‘Here we are,’ the woman breathlessly informed the animal, averting her eyes.
‘Hello,’ Erin said pointlessly.
She let the duo pass. The elevator smelled of synthetic pine and various canine emanations. The mirror in it was bad, and Erin knew not to seek confirmation of her humanity in it as the box gingerly elevated itself.
There were three apartments on the floor where her parents lived: a very big one and then two others, which had been created through the division of a formerly very big apartment. Erin’s parents lived in one half of the reapportioned former palace. Erin’s mother had mysteriously assumed responsibility for decoration of the hallway that gave onto the three front doors, perhaps during the time when the very big apartment and one of the divided apartments (the smaller of the two, not the one belonging to Erin’s parents) were in between owners and she had been able to convince the building’s board that she was in possession of an all-important aesthetic authority. The walls were now papered in the classic colonial banana leaf (as seen in the world-famous Beverly Hills Hotel, Golden Girls TV Show, Niki Hilton’s Pad, Friends TV Show, and many celebrities’ and dignitaries’ homes. Designed by Don Loper, 1907–1972; clients included Lucille Ball and Ella Fitzgerald . . .), and a slender black table supported a glass jug of artificial eucalyptus.
Erin knocked on her parents’ front door. She wasn’t sure what she could possibly be interrupting, but she always knocked before opening this door, which was (also always) left unlocked. Erin did not ring the bell. She had never done this. She eased the door open, saying, ‘Hello?’
‘Hello?’ came a reply from another room.
A small tortoiseshell cat with a two-tone face and bulging, unblinking eyes arrived to stare at Erin before it retreated behind the feet of a decorative wood and brass elephant.
‘Is Ben there?’ the same voice called.
Erin looked down at the cat. ‘Pss pss pss,’ she told it.
‘Meroawr,’ remarked the cat, departing for alternate zones.
‘Hello?’ went the voice.
‘Hi!’ Erin shouted. She pivoted to the kitchen.
‘Where’s Ben?’ Erin’s mother wore the jacketless remains of her day’s pantsuit and a lime-green apron embroidered with blue salamanders. She was in the process of inserting a large piece of fish into the black jaw of the oven, where it was first to be warmed and then, as per Erin’s mother’s personal specialty, aggressively desiccated.
‘Hi,’ Erin repeated.
‘Hi yourself. Where’s your husband?’
The oven door groaned.
‘He can’t make it. He’s really sorry. There was a work thing. They’re raising money for that,’ Erin rummaged, ‘digitization project.’
‘Hmm,’ remarked Erin’s mother. She was conveying a bowl of broccoli into the microwave.
‘I thought I told you,’ Erin lied.
‘I thought I told you,’ Erin’s mother trilled. ‘He can’t make it,’ she muttered.
Erin was looking around for something to eat. She saw a peeled clove of garlic sitting on the counter and put it in her mouth.
‘What’s a digitization thing?’ This was Erin’s father. He had crept up behind Erin.
‘Oh hi, Dad,’ said Erin’s mother.
‘Where’s Ben?’ asked Erin’s father. He was wearing a flannel shirt tucked into matching flannel pants and was freshly showered, powdered, gleaming.
‘Ben’s not here, Dad,’ said Erin’s mother. ‘Can I get you a glass of wine?’
‘I don’t know, can you?’
‘Is that what’s open?’
‘It is what I have.’
‘OK, then.’ Erin’s father received his glass of wine. ‘Where’s Ben?’
‘He’s working,’ Erin’s mother whispered.
‘Why’s he working?’ Erin’s father persisted, languidly consuming wine.
‘He’s working on a thing that involves money!’ Erin’s mother seemed at once enraged and pleased.
‘Oh really?’ Erin’s father observed. He was about to withdraw into the living room, Erin could tell. Now Erin’s father withdrew. ‘He’s working on a thing that involves money,’ Erin’s father repeated as he went, limping slightly.
‘Mom, may I have some wine?’ Erin asked, spitting the garlic clove quietly into her hand and setting it back on the counter where she had found it.
‘We’re drinking now?’
‘Since when have I not drunk?’
‘Suit yourself,’ said Erin’s mother. She turned back to her mixing bowl.
Erin dumped what remained of the white wine into a juice glass so as not to have to get any closer to her mother by interacting with the cabinet in which her parents’ wine glasses were stowed. She went into the living room and sat on a couch.
Erin’s father was in his chair. The particolored cat was crouched under the coffee table, its eyes closed. It looked like its bones were bothering it.
‘So,’ said Erin’s father, ‘no Ben tonight.’
‘No,’ said Erin, ‘no Ben.’ She began to drink her wine. It tasted floral – curly and wispy and paisley. There was a hint of garlic on her tongue and hanging from the insides of her cheeks, and the wine slid over this taste, turning peculiar and vile. Erin put the wine down.
‘Well,’ said Erin’s father, ‘I guess we will have to make do.’
Erin nodded. She touched the surface of the couch. It was upholstered in an apparently hard-wearing patrician fabric that nominally resembled velvet but possessed no luster or give. Erin brushed the couch, feeling its prickle.
‘Testing out the furniture?’ Erin’s father asked.
Erin’s mother appeared. ‘Let’s start with salad,’ she announced, ‘since Ben is not here.’
Image by Oscar Keys
This is an excerpt from Life Is Everywhere by Lucy Ives, published by Graywolf Press in the US and Peninsula Press in the UK.