Round two came after I was properly dressed–by rock musician standards, I mean–and the scent of coffee from downstairs became too strong to resist. It was chilly, so I put my leather jacket on over my flannel shirt.
“I’ll go first,” Ziggy suggested.
“No, no, I should go first,” I said, as if we were trying to approach a saber-toothed tiger and not the woman who birthed me. Come to think of it, I probably would have been less cautious around a saber-toothed tiger. After all, one of them had never savaged me. “Unless you think we should wait until my sister gets home.”
“Do you know when that will be?”
Ziggy ran his fingers over his lightly gelled tips. He was wearing only a hint of eyeliner and a brown shirt that looked vaguely Asian in its style. It buttoned up the front and had pockets and wide sleeve cuffs. “Then it’s probably best to deal with them one at a time.”
“Yeah.” I went down the stairs before I could dawdle any more. I know the thought of talking to my mother shouldn’t have been anything like that time I stood at the top of the high dive at the Y pool trying to get up my nerve, and feeling like I couldn’t make myself go through with it but I couldn’t make myself give up either. A line of people were waiting behind me and I couldn’t bear to climb back down and slink past them in shame. Which do you fear more? Shame and judgment from your peers or whatever might happen when you leap?
I leapt. I splashed. I didn’t drown. I felt pretty keen about the whole thing, actually, until Digger made a comment. Something like, “Good thing you didn’t chicken out or I’d have left you here until you did it,” or some shit like that. Maybe it was just “good thing you didn’t chicken out.” He probably didn’t even specify what would happen to me if I failed. That would have taken balls on his part, and I was coming to realize in my twenties that the reason Digger couldn’t stand cowards is because Digger himself was one.
But we were talking about my mother, not him. I went down the stairs, trying not to tiptoe but also trying not to rush.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, with the pot of coffee, a cup, and a newspaper folded outward to the crossword puzzle on the table in front of her. She would have looked casual except for the way her spine was ramrod straight.
Then I realized there was an empty cup and a saucer at the seat across from her. She was waiting for me.
I also realized, at pretty much the same moment, as I paused in the doorway where the living room shag switched to kitchen linoleum, that I had no idea what I was going to say to her. I hadn’t been practicing something in my mind. Hi, sorry you have cancer…?
“There’s coffee,” she chirped in that saccharine perfect voice.
“Thank god for that,” I said, before I could filter myself. “Is this…for me?”
She poured coffee into the cup–which I took to mean yes and I sat. I glanced back. Ziggy was nowhere to be seen.
I lifted the cup to my lips and sipped carefully. It was not very hot, which meant she’d been sitting there waiting for me for a while. “I didn’t realize you were, um, staying here.”
“Obviously.” She sniffed. “Likewise.”
I guess that was as close to an apology for yelling at each other as we were going to get. I certainly couldn’t bring myself to say I was sorry. The conversation stalled there, as I realized the usual next line in the script was how are you and that was too loaded a question to ask right now. I took another sip of coffee instead.
“Do you take cream and sugar?”
“Um, yeah, usually.”
“Oh, good, I wouldn’t want to think that black, bitter look on your face is because of me.” She started to get up.
“No no, I’ll get–”
She waved me back into my chair and stood up. “You don’t know where anything is here. I’ll get it.”
I stood, too. “No, really, Claire, I’m an adult–”
She hurried to the fridge and pulled out a carton of half and half. “I said, I’ll get it,” she said sharply. She put it down on the table and then brought over the sugar bowl and a spoon. The spoon made a snapping sound against the Formica tabletop as she smacked it down emphatically.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I asked, dumping sugar into my cup and stirring. “It’s too late to start trying to take care of me now, you know.”
She burst into sudden tears. “You won’t even let me try!”
Whoa, waitasecond, had I hit a nerve? I was just talking shit. I hadn’t even realized I was saying something real. She covered her face with her hands and I stood there trying to figure out what I was supposed to do then. When a woman–a person–cries in front of you, you’re supposed to console them, right? What about when you’re the reason they’re crying?
Right. You’re supposed to say, “Oh god, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
She gave a very wet, loud snort. “Yes, you did.”
“No, I mean…” I had no idea what I meant. I sat down. “Um, thank you. The coffee is very good.”
“You haven’t even put the cream in yet.” She looked at me through red-rimmed eyes.
“I’m about to.” I poured a little cream in, and took a sip. “We, uh, we got in really late last night.”
She stood there, breathing, maybe waiting to be sure of her voice, or maybe just deciding whether to play along with my attempt at a normal conversation. She sat down again.
She played along. “How was your flight?”
“Okay. No turbulence.” I felt like a hypocrite. I always despised when she could put on a false front, but here I was doing it myself and pretty much insisting she go along with it. My spoon clinked against the cup as I tried to dissolve more of the sugar in the lukewarm coffee. “Remo picked us up.”
Her antennae went up at the word “us,” but she didn’t ask. “Is he the one who told you?”
“Yeah. Did you… not want him to?”
She poured some more coffee into her own cup. “Doesn’t matter. He never would do what I told him no matter what.”
Which was completely beside the point. I was trying to ask, I guess, whether she wanted me there or not. Not that I would force the issue, of course.
We sipped our coffees for a while. Then she said, her voice quavering a little. “How about breakfast? Would you like some breakfast?”
“I think there’s enough sugar and cream in my cup to count as breakfast,” I started, but quickly went on to, “But I wouldn’t mind a piece of toast.”
She shot to her feet. “Raisin toast?”
“I… don’t think I’ve ever had raisin toast–”
“Here, try it, it’s delicious,” she said, as she took the twist-tie off a bag and popped a slice into the toaster oven. She stood there at the counter with her back to me, breathing heavily. I wasn’t sure if that was because of cancer or because she was emotional.
I sat there in silence, looking at her back, listening to the slight hum of the toaster and the buzz of the dial as it counted down. The ding of the bell startled us both.
“If Remo were here,” I said, “he’d say we were both as skittish as cats in a roomful of mousetraps.”
She let out a rather congested-sounding laugh. “Rocking chairs. I think the expression is–oh, well, but you’re right. Remo always has to do it his own way.”
She put the toast on a saucer and set it in front of me, then brought me the butter and a knife. I concentrated for a little while on buttering the toast without knocking all the raisins out of it and thinking about Remo (and wondering when he was going to get there). Would this conversation have gone any differently if I had been properly caffeinated first? We’ll never know.
Claire’s eyes lit on the ring on my finger as I worked the butter knife. She cleared her throat as I bit into the toast. “So. Who’s the lucky girl?”