by Em Platt
Today, it is fall. The first freeze means the sidewalks have been drowned in pink salt that slushes into the river when the kids walk by, shuffling their feet and kicking at the piles of it. Sometimes I think about yelling at the municipal workers that dump it everywhere, but I never do. We all have jobs to do.
My mother is coming over. She’ll be late, no doubt, because she refuses to get her car fixed, so it coughs and rumbles until it comes to a start and shakes down the road if it goes above 20. It’s near fifteen years old, and she has the money to replace it, but decides not to. I never understood why.
For her, I put up two of the paintings she’s brought me, the ones with the least cracked frames, least browning varnish. One hangs above my sink in the kitchen, the other next to my TV in the living room. Two still-lives: fruit and trees. Maybe they were vibrant once, but now they’re just dull shades of green and orange and brown.
She shows up with a two boxes of old dishes and a few chairs in her hatchback. I put my shoes on and go to help her bring them up to the house.
“This is a lot of stuff,” I tell her as I’m setting the boxes on the counter. I don’t want this, I would have said a month ago, before therapy, before I’d started to try.
“But it’s all so nice,” she says, and when I look her in her face, she doesn’t meet my eye.
The dishes are cracked, but not broken, and caked with dust from sitting in an attic for so long. The first faux-gold-lined plate is free of any rodent poop, but when I peer into the box it’s all littered in the bottom. The chairs are fine, but I have too many. I used to have an office space, and now I have a room full of chairs, stacked arm to arm, sometimes piled haphazardly depending on how much willpower I have to organize them when I have free time.
We sit down at the couch, my mom crossing her legs and touching as little of it as possible. It’s clean, but the brown knit blanket that covers the back is homemade, and I’ve had it for a long time, careful not to wash it too often or too roughly. I can see every piece of lint and stray hair that hasn’t been cleaned up yet. I know she can see it, too.
I make us tea in a pair of teacups she brought me earlier this year. They have matching saucers that I had to scrub at to get some kind of sticky stain out of. She doesn’t touch the cup. I hold mine delicately, not sure how to grip the tiny handle on it. I sip the mild tea and set the cup and saucer down on coffee table.
For a while, we sit in silence, my mom’s downturned eyes scanning the room. I cross my legs at the knee, squeezing them tightly with both hands as she takes in the painting I put up.
She hums. Looks outside. Says, “The yard looks nice.” But she doesn’t look me in the eyes, looks over my shoulder to the kitchen instead, where the fruit still-life is hanging. I know the yard doesn’t look nice. It’s been flooding all year from the rain, and the skinny tree that’s valiantly stood out there since I moved in two years ago has started to rot.
“Thank you,” I say. When she finally picks her teacup up, I copy her, sip mine once while she just holds hers. “So, Mom, I liked the art you brought me. I’m starting to figure out where it looks best.”
She purses her lips. My mom’s life is full of arguments with underpaid cashiers and overworked waitresses—not for lower prices or comped meals. Principles she says. A place has to live up to her standards: a restaurant with an under par bathroom or a smudge on the tablecloths or menus with frayed edges is enough for her to get a manager. Now she wants something to argue with me about.
“It’s interesting you chose to put the fruit bowl there,” she says, and finally sips her tea.
A few months ago I would have snapped the minute I saw the junk in her car. But I breathe. Sip my tea. “Thank you,” I say, trying to keep any sarcasm out of my voice.
The best thing you can do is take any of her passive aggression sincerely, my therapist told me. It’s difficult to break habits, but do your best not to fall into reacting passive aggressively yourself.
“Have you found a place for the chairs?” she says. She’s looking at me now, making eye contact, and I want to look away.
“Not yet,” I say. “There were a few dining chairs I thought would look nice with the table.”
“That table?” she says. “But the chairs are so nice.”
I smile, feel my throat working around a retort. If they’re so nice why did you get rid of them? “Yes, they are.” I sip the tea again. The light floral taste annoys me as it washes down my throat. I don’t usually drink tea. “Where do you think they would look best?” I ask.
She doesn’t scoff, exactly, but makes a small sound in the back of her throat. “I can’t do everything for you, Melissa.”
“Can’t do—” I cut myself off, bring the teacup up to my mouth to hide my angry flush. If I’m not supposed to act passive aggressively, I don’t think I’m supposed to react aggressively either. She stares at me, and if she weren’t my mother, I wouldn’t see the tension around her eyes, the only part of her flat face that shows she’s waiting for me to snap at her.
“Do you have the chairs, still?” she says. “I don’t see them anywhere.”
I breathe. “Yes. They’re stored in my office.”
“Why don’t you put them out?”
“Well, Mom, there’s a lot of them.”
“If you put them out, you might get more work done,” she says.
I put my teacup down, let it clatter against the table. She flinches, but it’s a second too late for me to believe it—her farce of being delicate. I don’t know what to say that isn’t mean, so I keep my mouth shut. The tree painting lurks next to my TV. It should be stark against the beige walls, but it seems to blend right in. I was only ever allowed to draw in my room, on my desk when I was growing up. Never in the living room, on the plush, bleach white carpet or at the kitchen island with its pristine marble tabletop. The habit rolled over into my adult life, I guess. It’s hard for me to work at the dining table or on the couch, even with my tablet—all I can hear is my mother asking me to go to my room to draw or put it away and help her with supper. Or her hand gripping my wrist as she tore my markers away from me.
I cross my arms over my chest, stare at her. “I’ve been getting work done,” I say.
“Really?” she says. “I saw Marianne yesterday and she said her husband is still waiting for a logo design.”
“If Marianne’s husband has an issue with our contract, he can reach out to me,” I say, my face hot, both from anger and embarrassment of what I just said.
“That is incredibly rude Melissa,” she says.
I take a deep breath, exhale, close my eyes.
If it gets to be too much, you can always ask her to leave. However you need to, my therapist told me.
“Please leave,” I say.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“I don’t want to argue with you. Please leave,” I say again.
“We aren’t arguing, are we?” she says, her voice soft. I open my eyes as she reaches out to me, places the pads of her fingers on my knee. I don’t move away. I stay perfectly still.
“Melissa, please. I’m worried about you, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry, Mom, but I need space.” I pick up my teacup and walk it to the sink. I turn the water on, washing away the mild tea until the water is bubbling out of the cup and into the sink.
“I’m your mother,” she says, her voice the same saccharine taste.
I listen to the water washing down the drain, grip the edge of the counter.
“I. Am. Your. Mother.”
When I turn to face her, she has stood up, her eyebrows scrunched together, her cheeks red like a pulled rubber band.
“And this is my house,” I say.
She takes a step forward, but stops when I flinch. She sighs, grabs her purse and walks toward the door. Before she leaves, she says, “You’ve never appreciated anything I’ve done for you, Melissa. I brought you into this world, I raised you, I loved you. And this is what I get.”
“Thank you for coming,” I say through my teeth.
When I hear her car hit the dip at the bottom of my driveway, I turn back to the sink, turn the water back on so hot the steam makes me cough when I heave a breath. I tried, didn’t I? I put up the pictures, I used the teacups. It wasn’t enough for her.
There is always something I’ve done wrong. My table, my art, my job.
I turn off the water and stomp to the office that I haven’t been able to use in a month. One of the chairs falls down in front of me, and I almost expect it to break into all its little parts, but it doesn’t. The room is stacked with chairs, small chairs and big chairs, wood chairs and metal chairs, chairs shoved into the corners and on top of my empty desk. I pull one out, then jump away when a few more come tumbling down. One of them scratches my hardwood floor.
I’m shaking. She can take everything from me, and yet nothing from me. She is my mother, and yet my worst enemy. When I breathe, I expect it to hurt, but the air slides through my throat like silk. My body is shaking, but my mind is set.
I take out the chair with a torn rush caned seat first, one that has tumbled out of the room. It’s light, the finishing nails rusting, making the wood an orange red. I take it downstairs into the garage and shove it into the backseat of my car. It catches on some already torn fabric in the car, so I push harder until it won’t fall out.
The yellow foam sticks out against the dark fabric of the seat. My therapist says I can’t control my mom’s behavior. She suggested I move away from her—cut her off, essentially, but she didn’t say it like that. I can’t do that. I would have to physically move, but this is my home, even if it is filled of things my mother didn’t want. Instead, my therapist suggested that I take small steps. Don’t react to her passive aggression. Don’t accept gifts from her. I deserve a C, I think.
I go back upstairs, take down the fruit bowl and the tree paintings, stick them under my arm so the frames scrape against the soft skin of my armpit, then grab a few more that I’ve stuffed into my office, ones with cracked frames that threaten to give me long, nasty splinters. I shove them into the car, too, into the trunk. I go back upstairs and dig around for the rest of them, hidden under chairs, in my linen closet, under the stairs that lead to the garage. The trunk crunches shut by the time I get them all in, and the latch only clicks when I put my full weight on it. Sweat slips behind my ears, pools at my neck, clams up my armpits.
More chairs into the car, whatever will fit. And the dishes, those goddamn dishes, the box covered in mouse shit, dust, and grime. I drop the box into the passenger seat, the plates cracking against each other. I buckle them in so it doesn’t fall into the wheel well.
My car coughs to a start.
I back out of the driveway in one motion, cutting off an oncoming car who lays on the horn. I drive too fast down the crumbling rural road, feel every pothole and crack. The trees loom over the road, a kaleidoscope of shadows that makes me squint through them. The chairs rattle and the dishes clank. All of it is breaking more when I take the sharp right to the transfer station.
I want to burn it, but instead I back up to the dumpster and pull everything out, a piece at a time and fling it into the gaping trash bin. Everything hits with an echo. Nobody comes to help me, even though I can see a man in a bright orange vest near one of the backhoes. I must look insane with sweat drenching my back and my chest, and I’m grunting with each throw, the best I can do instead of scream.
I feel insane. I feel manic. I start throwing the art farther and farther into the bin, frisbeeing so it clangs against the other side, then slam the chairs in, and crash each dish individually into the bottom, so I can see the shards decorating the bottom. The last one crashes and I tear up the cardboard boxes, my arms aching as I pull against the grain.
It’s hot out. I’m panting. My plaid shirt is sticking to both sides of me. Two other cars are parked near the recycling. When I make eye contact with one of the drivers, he quickly looks away, adjusts his rearview mirror. I’m standing in shreds of cardboard. I take a deep breath, fresh with the ripe smell of the dump.
I pick up the cardboard and bring it to the recycling.
I want to call my mother. I want to show her all the shit she gave me sitting in a dumpster that smells like last week’s take out and diapers. I don’t. I take my phone out, consider throwing it into the dumpster. I turn it off, the bitten apple glaring up at me.
I drive back home. It’s started to rain again, the stream already rushing with water. I step out of the car and stand in it, letting my hair drip into my face, my eyes become fuzzy with water. My sweat mingles with the rain, until even my bra is soaked, on the verge of itchy against my soft skin. I breathe in the rain.
When I go upstairs, my house is a mess. I didn’t have room for all the chairs, so they sit or lay outside the office, along the hallway. I step through them, over rungs and around backs, dripping water on the hardwood as I go, numb to the way they bump against my shins and toes. I sit down on the couch, still wet, and pull the brown knit blanket around my shoulders. I pull my knees up and stare at the TV, my reflection muddled by the matte finish of it. Peeking out from behind it is the side of a canvas painted red.
I meant to hang it up. It’s one of my paintings, of two hands touching at the index finger, like The Creation of Adam but closer, redder. Why red, my AP art teacher asked in high school. Maybe I said something about violence. About passion. About the intersection of those things. But the truth is it was my favorite color.
Now, my favorite color is green—garish, crossing guard green, neon and bright. My mother would hate it if I painted the house green. If I took every piece of decaying art she gave me and painted it with glowsticks, threw it at her house.
It’s a comforting thought, that I could do something to her.
Instead, I do something for myself. I ignore the chairs and pick up my drawing tablet from the dining room table and go into my office. I force the last chairs out of the room and close the door behind me. I sit down in the office chair I bought for myself and start to work.
Em Platt is studying creative writing and environmental science and hopes to graduate in the spring semester. They have been previously published in the feminist zine, Ripple, and they continue to write all the time when not working. Their writing does not reflect the relationships they have with their parents. For the most part.