Every couple months, I visit Mom at her new apartment. It’s only three miles from home, but it’s only on weekends, when she decides she could use some company or she says she really, really misses me. The buildings are beige and green colored with rustic pediments, reminding me of a fusion of someone’s puke and imitation Greek architecture. She keeps me in the guest room at the very end of a narrow hall. Every time I come, the bed’s always covered in stacks of graded papers, blue jeans, and lavender and white tank tops, things she never wore around us. Boxes surround the bed. The floors are also covered with her novels in progress, piled like a cathedral. On top of that, there are stacks of CDs she took when she left. Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Chopin. Good music for stress and sorrow, she says.
She apologizes for the mess.
“You’ll survive two nights,” she laughs. It’s a Friday afternoon and my twelfth visit. “I’m still renovating after all these months. It’s so hard to fit the pieces of the new life together. At least not guests have complained yet.”
I just look down and smile. But that word pops like a needle, deflating me. Guest. Guest. Someone who comes and leaves. A name and body you might know, but not much else.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “It’s just fun to be able to arrange and rearrange without expectation. You can understand that, can’t you, Nick?”
“Not really. I’ve slept in the same room for, oh, let’s see. Years. Except for infancy.”
“You’re old enough,” she says. “You’re fifteen. Please try. For me. Don’t be like your father. I know you’re better than that.”
“Can you try a little harder?” she says, still smiling, but it’s cracked. “I’m truly happy, Nick. Aren’t you happy for me?”
Words hang on my tongue, waiting to slide off. Your old place at the dinner table’s gotten dusty. Dad won’t let me dust it off. He’s tucked away every picture of you. Nan’s been the one going to all my parent-teacher conferences. Bullies call me the kid with the runaway mom. They say you don’t love me, and I defend you over and over until my knuckles are bloody. But the last time I said them, she said counseling and more friends might be just what I needed. I’d get used to the scheme of things soon. Very soon. Another time, I even made up stories about Dad. He said I should have been aborted, that I was too loud, too sensitive, and he almost hit me. She just sighed and said I might have a future in creative writing.
“Yes,” I say now. “Of course, I’m happy.”
That earns me a brief little hug. A fleeting scent of sweat and mint shampoo. But no lavender perfume. I loved that. It gave her the air of someone from a distant, more beautiful world.
“Well, let’s have some fun,” she says. “Nicky.”
We go out to dinner. Burgers and fries at Edgar’s Burger Kingdom with its fake crenellated towers and purple and gold flags flying proud. We talk of high school, college plans, the weather, politics. At least it’s a respite, a chance to absorb her, my flame-haired, forty-two year old mother. We’re in the whirl of the world. There’s something normal in all this, a mother and son eating among other families who reek of grease and cigarettes and gas, gesturing, laughing even. But large Cokes and fries evaporate all too soon and we end up going back home.
“It’s not good to linger when you’ve finished,” she says. “Bad form, you know.”
Mom cleans things up a bit further, sweeping, arranging, and rearranging with a kind of frenetic, effective energy that scares me. Her motions give the room even more visibility, clarity. The walls are too neat, too white. Like sterile white and not Oreo white. And they’re nowhere like the soothing blue she painted my room, at home, when there was such a thing. When we formed a family. A square. Until last year. Mom, Dad, older sister Nan, and me. And now it smells like excess furniture polish and not lavender air freshener tinged with the hint of Mom’s Marlboros.
On top of that, there are no model trains or Goosebumps which she bought when I was a kid. No Night of The Living Dummy or Piano Lessons Can Be Murder which made us both laugh with their images of psychotic dummies and severed hands hunched over pianos. Back when Mom had a sick sense of humor, which made even Dad laugh. Now there’s just copies of Yates, Nabokov, Richard Ford, and Joyce Carol Oates, all staring from a small oak bookshelf beneath the window.
There’s only one little window and it looks out onto a corroded turd-colored dumpster between units, although at least there’s something fascinating about the seas of Bud Lite, Miller, Coors, Michelina’s dinners, and TV boxes. Maybe it’s the fact that things can be tossed away with such ease, that things can land and settle too. I think of those first motions, the motions of striking the dumpster, the motion of someone walking away. The motion of someone not looking back or looking back, but still walking away.
Mom and I watch a little Netflix before bed, but it’s hard to watch The Ranch with its family and their own issues, even if Sam Elliott’s mustache drops f-bombs to give said issues comedic value. So we switch to The Big Lebowski, and for a moment, we find unison in quoting the Dude, Walter, pissed-on rugs, Chinamen not being the preferred nomenclature, hating the Eagles, and abiding. Abide, what a beautiful word, especially when Mom says it. Abide, abide.
But all too soon, bedtime comes. She bids me good night. Now she wears shorts and a blue T-shirt, emblazoned with I’m A Writer. I Dream While Awake. Gone is the old lavender nightgown.
“Do you need anything else?” she says.
“No,” I say.
“Please tell me you’re happy,” she says.
I just stand there, then Mom shakes her head. Stares as if she wants to say something, but somehow can’t. As if a part of her knows I’m right to feel the way I do. Then she pats me on the shoulder, offers a small smile and disappears into her room. The door closes, opens again, and closes with a tender click.
Cue the sounds of shifting feet, a toothbrush whirring, a toilet flushing, then silence. Only a nightlight breaks through the dark hallways and dust dances like demented ballerinas. A light flickers from her room, but that goes off too and the air conditioner kicks on a moment later with its monstrous whoosh.
I slink into the guest room. Toss and turn beneath too-thin blue sheets, the mattress sagging a little, the walls watching a stranger. I keep waiting for her to hear, to come in and ask if I’m all right. To murmur nicknames through the expanse of dark. To tell me to relax. Just stay, stay. Don’t worry. Then I remember that was home, now she’s at the other end of the hall, a gaping expanse. I just try to absorb the shadows, the train horns outside, the whir of cars. I let each sound sink into me, mixing them, until I slip into a half-slumber, everything just fading into a grayness.
Then I arise with the first signs of morning. I go and sit in the small living room on the beige couch and feel the sun shining upon me. Mom comes out about nine, yawning. She pours herself a cup of coffee, the glug filling the room with desperation.
When she asks how I slept, I say fine, even if I have circles under my eyes. The words are halting, tentative. She nods and smiles, exhaling, almost with a sort of relief.
“That’s good, Nicky,” she says. “I want your visits to be the most pleasant.”
I open my mouth again, shake my head, and shut it. She frowns. I don’t like her frown. It’s something precise, arresting, something that lingers.
“It’s been very pleasant,” I say. “Thank you.”
“You’re always welcome,” she says and I smile a little.
I’ll take this visit. Store these days within me, the pleasantries, the time between us, sifting, arranging, and rearranging until they resemble something pleasant. Maybe I’ll pretend. Maybe I’ll turn the guest room into a space of my own, anyway. Insist upon it. Paint the walls some color, any color, some color of my choosing. Blue? Lavender? I might even bring back the Goosebumps and the trains, even if I’m transporting them back and forth.
Anyways, I have another twenty-four hours left. I’m a guest. No time for that. As Mom told me once, guests never, never complain.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. His stories, “Soon,” “How To Be A Good Episcopalian,” and “Tales From A Communion Line” were nominated for Pushcarts. Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine, and Ariel Chart, among others.
© 2021, Yash Seyedbagheri