Twilight and wind: changing weather, autumn moving in, leaves dropping, Andrea’s throat hurting when she swallowed, cold and feverish. She shivered. She sipped at the water. She should have put a lemon in it and honey, but she didn’t have either.
She should’ve asked Jeff to buy lemons and honey on his way home from work. Her friend Caroline believed that Echinacea worked; her friend Paula said there was no evidence that it helped at all.
Andrea’s chest hurt when she breathed: hot, cutting, ripping. The twilight flowed down on her, heavy and metallic. It was hard to raise her head against the clanging light. When she was little and sick, her mother would hug her, cover her in quilts, bring her hot chicken soup, let her watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and cowboy movies until she fell asleep to the television. She wanted to float away on those good feelings now, but her mother had died four years ago.
“Here are my smiles to wrap you in,” her mother would say.
Andrea swallowed; her throat hurt. She wrapped her fleece bathrobe more tightly around herself. She shivered. She got one of her mother’s afghans to drape on herself. She wound a scarf around her neck. She was sure she looked like a grotesque character out of a Dickens novel.
She called her sister, but she wasn’t home. Dear, darling Ellen, who moved to Seattle and fell in love with Sam and then got a divorce a couple years ago. Andrea had never approved of Sam, because of his pompous pronouncements about health and nutrition. And then he left Ellen for an older woman. “I’m fine,” Ellen said, an edge in her voice, when they talked on the telephone last week. Andrea pictured her as biting the inside of her lip. “I’m trying these dating services. You’d think it was the nineteenth century.” She barked a laugh. “Only they didn’t live so long back then.”
“Some did.” Andrea knew she was being oppositional, but her finger hurt. What kind of stupid excuse was that?
“You’re an expert on demographics now?”
“More than you.” Andrea immediately regretted it.
Ellen clicked the phone off. When Andrea, self-chastened, tried to call her and explain her day and swollen finger, the line was busy because they both were trying to call each other. When they did talk, they both behaved better and forgave one another. Today, when Andrea called Ellen for sympathy about her cold, Ellen wasn’t home. She was probably at the office.
On the radio the news was about the death of a ninety-year-old Congressman due to complications from pneumonia. Andrea allowed herself a book to read, a mystery, and a glass of Merlot. Poor baby, she was sick. The wind blew around the leaves outside. They shivered too.
Her father had been dead six years.
Her mother used to speak to Andrea: Stand up straight, Eat your vegetables, Play in the sun. Love is what you need. Love will get you through.
They both believed in love. Her mother remained a romantic even into her fifties after the divorce. Stories about Cinderella, about Jackie Kennedy and the disappointment when she married Onassis. Well, everybody had to survive, continue, move forward. Even princesses.
The very leaves outside believed in love. They crackled stories to each other about leaf-love, leaf-salvation. Never leaf-mold and leaf-death but leaf-health and leaf-happiness and leaf-eternal. Andrea coughed and shook her head at her own foolish whimsy. She was leaf-mad, leaf-crazy, leaf-sick, she knew that, maybe leaf-dying. No, it was just a cold. She should quit being melodramatic. A miserable, aching, fevered cold. Not her father’s heart attack, not her mother’s cancer. She had those things to look forward to, she supposed, but not yet.
Neither of her parents remarried, and at the end they tolerated one another, were polite. After he died, her mother’s life went on, separately, with books and a few friends and occasional outbursts and judgments. She said she was glad to avoid Alzheimer’s–that at least was a blessing of cancer, and she laughed wryly. “You’re taking care of yourself, aren’t you? Getting your exercise? Your mammograms?” Andrea put her book on the end table.
If she could summon her mother, how would Andrea imagine her? Her mother, strong and young, would materialize in front of her. “How are you, baby? Are you taking care of yourself? I see you’re sick. I wish I could hug you, but I’m a spirit and you would feel only a breeze. I’m going to do it anyway. Oh, your warmth feels good.”
“I have a fever.”
“That’s not what I meant. Me holding your body, that’s good. You smell like earth. Robert Frost said, ‘Earth’s the right place for love.’ I still read poetry in the beyond, you know. Funny to call it the beyond. It’s really in your mind.” She tapped the side of her forehead.
“So you’re not really here?”
“I’m in your mind. What’s more real than your mind?” Her mother laughed, and it sounded like water boiling and spilling over. Then the laughter stopped. “Something’s troubling you, Andrea?”
“I’m afraid of every little thing. I have a cut on my finger and an infection, My finger is swollen.” She raised the offending digit, which was pink and puffy.
“Go to the doctor. What’s the real problem?”
“I don’t like the world–that it’s not perfect, that it will end.”
“Well, if it’s not perfect, don’t you want it to end?” Her mother raised a logical finger. “So it can start something better?”
“There is nothing better.”
“There you go! Lesson learned!”
“I don’t want any lessons.”
“You always were self-tutored. Quite a handful. Your sister was easier.”
“You loved her more!”
“No, dear. I loved both of you,” her mother said, her voice even and knowing. “I counted myself lucky to have both of you in my life.”
“I’m afraid of your cancer.”
“Aren’t you going to say something? Dismiss my fears?”
“Fears are real.” Her mother pushed her fingers together helplessly and looked around the room anxiously.
When Andrea was little and got a bruise, she was frightened at what was happening to her. Her mother kissed the owie, applied an antibiotic and a bandage. “All better,” she said. Once, Andrea was afraid that she would grow a mustache and hair on her chest. Only boys did that, her mother said. Now Andrea wheezed and coughed and gurgled. Things were happening inside of her. The last light flowed across the carpet toward the couch as if to submerge her. She pulled the afghan higher, to her chin.
Her friend Paula lived alone, preferred that. What did she do when she got sick, had a chest cold and an infected finger? Who gave her sympathy? Who brought her warm blankets and hot tea? Who cared that her finger throbbed? That she couldn’t lift the full coffee cup with three fingers, that she didn’t want to type emails because her finger hurt, that signing her name was hard?
“It won’t happen to you, dear,” her mother said. “You and Jeff are fine.”
“How do you know?”
“The prefrontal cortex knows things.” Her mother tapped her forehead and laughed. “Your father used to call me ‘Sweet smart Baby Louise’ when we were young and dating. There was a time when he loved me extravagantly.” She stretched her hands in front of her, fluttered her fingers and made them into a book. “He said I had beautiful hands. Those were good times.” Then her eyes filmed over, she wavered in the dimness, and she was old again.
There was nobody else for either of her parents. They had their lives, their family, their work, and then they ceased. They dispersed into the cosmos, their shreds and dust never to come together in the same way. The first coming together was a wonder: it resulted in an engineer who enjoyed Shakespeare and in her mother who had beautiful hands and taught poetry to tenth graders. Louise and Eric would not laugh again.
“But we did once,” her mother said and floated to the door and came back. “So many mistakes,” her mother said. “I’m sorry.” She shook her head regretfully. “I should have let you go to the private college. But we couldn’t afford it. I thought we couldn’t afford it. I should’ve tried harder, worked summers, you wanted it so much.”
“I wanted it because Paula was going to that school.”
“She loved the school.”
“I would not have met Jeff, not have married him. It worked out fine, better than fine, perfect.”
“Next week is Thanksgiving. We had some happy holidays.” Her mother sighed. “I wish we’d had more, but that would be greedy. Do you miss me on the holidays?”
“That will suffice for me.” She was next to the door. She put her fingers to her lips and blew her a kiss. She shimmered, became grainy, and dissolved into the shadows. Then she stepped out of the shadows. “I forgot to say, I love you.”
“And our fights, do you miss those?” Her mother turned and disappeared into the shadows.
“Even those.” Andrea looked down, squeezed and released the fabric of the afghan. She patted it until her swollen finger caught on a thread. She remembered a time when she shouted at her father that he didn’t know anything because he wouldn’t lend her the car, that he specialized in designing one kind of gear nobody cared about. Her mother walked up to her, eyes furious, and raised her hand but did not slap Andrea.
Prospero trotted in, tail perpendicular, alert and happy. He fixed her with his eyes and meowed. Then he sneezed. Probably it was some dust in the air, not a cold. She pulled off her afghan, went into the kitchen, and opened a can of cat food. “Happy pre-Thanksgiving to you,” she said. He relished it. She went back into the living room and burrowed under her afghan. Her father had rescued Prospero, who wandered up to their porch, skinny and emphatically meowing. Now Prospero probably did not remember his hungry days. Her father continued to rescue strays until the year he died.
Andrea closed her eyes and remembered her young, handsome father bringing her hot cocoa, with melting marshmallows oozing on top. Wisps of air floated by her, containing children’s happy shrieks from decades ago and smells of crisp leaves that she kicked through on her way to first grade.
There had been an older boy at school, several grades ahead of them, Denny, who wore a brace on his leg because he’d had polio.
She’d been going to her best friend Taffy’s house, when the car tires shrieked around the corner and hit a tricycle. Denny was not on it. It had rolled out of the driveway. In that instant, Andrea imagined that Denny was on it and was flipped up into the air.
She was now married and feared what it would be like when she was old and widowed. To be flipped up in the air without Jeff. She shivered. She was morbid. Or would it be Jeff who was flipped up and she who was on the ground standing, watching, horrified, with her hands on her cheeks, eyes round, mouth round, emitting a silent scream.
Jeff was late. Was he in a car accident? Had he been hurt? He had forgotten his cell phone on the table; she couldn’t call him.
She heard steps outside the apartment, a key in the lock, the door creaking open, a bag crinkling. It was Jeff. “Hey, baby,” he shouted. “I stopped by the deli to get you some chicken soup.” He walked into the living room, leaned over, and kissed her forehead. “How’re you feeling?”
Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, r.kv.r.y., Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/
A wonderfully nuanced tale of family, fear, regret, and uplift. Color me impressed.
Thank you, Mr. Ramey, for the kind words!
What a beautiful story.
Ms. Dana, thank you for reading this! It was a long time in writing and revising.
Another satisfying story. When do I get to read your novel?
Thank you, Ms. Gail. What a compliment! It’s gratifying after all the hard work of writing.