His last contact with the woman was three years ago at the girl’s holiday recital. It was accidental. He arrived late, squeezing and weaving between camera wielding parents – all leaning awkwardly to get the perfect shot of little Johnny or Susie – and stood with his back against the cushioned wall beneath the basketball hoop. He found the girl almost immediately. She sat a couple chairs in from the end, violin squawking painfully but oddly satisfying.
“No, it’s called a viola! They’re totally different!” the girl would whine. Her anger over his ignorance always pulled a chuckle from his throat.
The recital was rolling into its final notes. He maneuvered back through the crowd and up the sidelines to surprise her when a familiar profile appeared in the front row, face partially obscured by an enormously boxy point-and-shoot disposable camera. The hair was grayer, the face more round, but the angle of her nose and chin were unmistakable.
He instinctively took a few steps backward, using an overweight woman in a gaudy seasonal sweater as cover. The laughing reindeer in the heavy yarn sneered at him as his stomach rolled once, twice, and he suppressed his gag reflex. It had been almost three years since he had last seen the woman, and his physical reaction was always the same.
The recital ended amid a roar of applause and parents clambered to praise their children. The girl rushed to the woman, she hadn’t seen him yet, and hugged her. He stood frozen in place, wanting to move, needing to move, somewhere, anywhere, but his legs refused to obey. He was a helpless rabbit awaiting slaughter.
The girl saw him over the woman’s shoulder, broke away, and charged headlong into him. He struggled briefly to stay standing and pulled her close, his eyes never leaving the woman as she slowly turned and rose to her feet. A smile as fake as the fat lady’s reindeer spread across her face like a sword slash.
“Somehow I just knew you were going to be in town! I thought to myself, I should’ve put a note on the door to let you know I’d be here.” The woman was so just damn good at making everyone believe her sincerity, her kindness and caring. She was a premier con.
The girl was trying to sputter three years of her life to him, as bubbly and excited as any child the morning of their birthday, but her words drowned in the blood pumping in his ears. His focus was elsewhere.
“I don’t even know where you live,” he said dryly, and clenched his jaw.
“Oh stop!” She said playfully and slapped him on the arm. “Let’s get a picture!” She turned to the girl. “Take my camera and get a picture of us.” The girl eagerly agreed and fumbled the camera into her tiny hands, turning it over and over, methodically identifying each button, dial, and lever and commenting on the function of each. The woman slipped swiftly to his side – he didn’t know she could move that fast – and pulled him into her shoulder. He shuffled a couple rigid steps, his paralysis broken, and tensed when their bodies touched.
His eyes darted around the gymnasium, searching for something, anything, to distract the woman long enough to expel him from her steely grasp. This was not the place he wanted to be. Even Iraq, with its bullets flying, bombs exploding, and heat sweltering, was more inviting than this. He tried to relax but couldn’t.
“How long are you here?” she spat through her practiced, photographic pose. “You should come by and I’ll make you dinner.” Her breath blistered his skin. Her nails carved furrows across his arm. His body heaved in stabbing pain. He was in the arms of a demon.
“I already said I don’t know where you live. And you never cooked when we were kids, so why would you do it now?” His voice echoed in the spiraling black hole surrounding them. Outside the hole, time had stopped. The girl was caught in an inquisitive stare, finger poking at a button she had yet to identify, as if in a photo of her own.
“Oh hush! I’ll make chocolate chips cookies!” The woman beside him was unfamiliar. There were no hugs or wiped tears or words of support. She would leave he and his sister, 11 and 12 years old at the time, an eternity ago, to cook the meals for their 2 year old brother. They cleaned the house and shopped for groceries with the book of food stamps left on the kitchen table next to the dirty ashtray, because sometimes the woman would leave for days on end. An evening meal, a happy, family meal around the dining room table, was imaginary. The woman expressed only anger, hate, and disinterest. Her escape was whatever prescription bottle was closest to her nightstand, tuning out the world and her youngest, ungrateful children.
He wasn’t fooled.ShareThis