She didn’t belong here with these people.
But it must be that if you wait long enough even the worst wounds scar over because here she was at her grandson’s engagement party in a part of New York they used to call Hells Kitchen but had now been renamed Clinton.
With an off-hand e-mail from a realtor’s blackberry generations of squalor erased, she thought. The Girls would like that turn of phrase and she reminded herself to use it when she told them about the weekend at next Thursday’s Mah Jong game.
“You could be Parisian, Sasha,” the woman next to her said.
“Parisienne.” The woman’s daughter pursed her lips and fake kissed the air.
Who were these women? She didn’t recognize anyone at her table. Not that she would. It’d been what? Thirty years since she’d left? Packed her stuff in a slim black case while Isaac was at work and Susan at school. She’d boarded the train at Penn Station mid-afternoon and traveled south until she hit the hometown she’d once been so desperate to leave. God what a homecoming that had been.
The restaurant’s dining area was divided into two camps: Susan and her people along the north wall and the fiancée’s family huddled in the side corner behind Stella and whoever this mother-daughter duo were next to her. Only a few members of the French bride’s family could afford to fly in from Marseille for both the engagement party and the wedding at the end of the summer. Still, Susan was making as much of an effort as she could to make them feel welcome.
Which was the right thing to do. Susan was good about things like that. The niceties. Where she’d gotten that, Stella had no idea. Not from her.
That was Isaac’s baby sister over at the table by the window. Jesus H. Christ she’d gotten fat. Last time Stella saw her, in ’88 or ’89, she’d been on an aerobics kick even though she’d been pushing 50. Headbands and wristbands and candy-colored leotards. Just goes to show you some people just don’t age all that well.
She should probably go over and say how-do but just the thought of it sent her stomach into spasms. Who knew what they’d all said about her over the years?
Stella scanned the room for other familiar faces, but other than a 70-something bottle-blonde by the door who might have been Isaac’s second or third wife she was coming up with a blank.
That’s right, two wives since she’d left. Which didn’t surprise her all that much. Isaac was a looker and smart as hell but Christ. What an ass.
Not like Stan. Now Stan sure wasn’t anything like Isaac but Stella had known by then that kind of passion just wasn’t her thing. Too much drama. Stan was more stable. Plus, he brought her coffee and oatmeal every morning. Granted he invariably left coffee grounds scattered across the counter and the pot of oatmeal simmering on the stove so she always had to soak it a good hour or two before scraping the brown scabs off the bottom, but it was the gesture that counted. His bleary-eyed cranky face morning after morning, carrying that tray across their bedroom, coffee sloshing over the edge of the mugs onto the napkins. Every goddamn morning for the past—what was it now? Ten, fifteen years? That was something.
But Isaac? He’d made a mess of things, that’s for sure. Even more than she herself had.
“You’re not going to eat that, are you?” the woman (who Stella had just remembered was named Cici) asked.
“No,” her daughter replied and dropped the fried calamari onto her plate.
“Those are at least 100 calories each, Sasha.” Cici reached over to wipe grease from her fingers.
That poor girl—woman, actually—couldn’t be more than 100 pounds so what the hell was her mother on her back like that?
Why had she come to this thing again?
Oh, yes. Susan.
When Susan called and said she was throwing an engagement party for her son and would Stella please come she hadn’t hesitated even though Stella hadn’t been to a single event in her daughter’s life since she’d left. Not the high school graduation nor the college graduation nor the wedding, or even the baby shower or first birthdays. She’d made it to Isaac’s funeral, though. She wouldn’t have missed that.
Stella agreeing to come this time had surprised them both.
For a long time, you see, whenever she talked to her daughter she’d get that same sinking feeling she’d felt when she lived up here. That suffocating sadness. Somehow she couldn’t ever be warm enough, loving enough, for any of them. A cold fish, Isaac had called her.
Except how could she be a cold fish and still feel so much all the time?
“Mommy’s going to buy me a dress for the wedding,” Sasha cooed to Stella.
“You want to fit into something nice, don’t you?” Cici asked. “Eat that.” She gestured to a plate of celery.
Her friends had insisted she go. You’ll regret it, they’d pointed out when Stella had been on the verge of calling Susan up and saying she couldn’t make it after all.
Stella tucked a lock of frizzy curls behind her ear and smoothed her slacks over her belly.
The way these women looked. So thin and just about all of them with a full face of makeup and their nails done. Not that her friends down south didn’t make themselves nice for parties like this, but. Well. Old women were supposed to have a little to grab onto and these woman were so stick straight you’d think they all gave each other liposuction for Christmas instead of good old bath salts and lotion.
“We’re going to Saks, right Mommy?”
“Whatever you want, baby.”
She was staying with Susan and her husband in their Brooklyn Heights condo. Three bedrooms but it still felt so cramped Stella was already antsy to get out of there after only two days. Somehow Susan had inherited Isaac’s mother’s obsessive cleaning habit. Yesterday afternoon Stella had gone into the bathroom to blow her nose and dropped the used tissue into the empty trashcan only to find, fifteen minutes later when she’d gone back in to get some hand cream, that it had already been removed. Just to test her out she’d dropped another tissue, and then another an hour after that, and sure enough they were both removed just as quickly as the first. Now that was weird.
Stella gazed across the room at the ornate floor-length mirror propped against the wall.
The thing was angled in such a way that she couldn’t see anything right in front of her but rather slivers of action on the other side of the room. Amid the gangling of limbs she saw her daughter’s chin jut into view. She’d recognize it anywhere: it was her own jaw, the way it had looked before that waddle had crept up on her.
The longer the moment drew out, the more seconds that ticked by as she stared at that sliver of her daughter’s face the more she thought of something she hadn’t thought of in 43 years—how, in the stunned brightness of the hospital room she had looked down at the bloody squalling infant lying on her chest and realized with a horrifying thud that it wasn’t going to work, that this girl could never drown out the silence left by the dead son, that she would never be able to love her, not really.
“Grandma Stella, its so wonderful that you came up from Virginia for this.”
Cici smiled expectedly at her.
There was no getting around the fact that Stella had left. Not only that: she’d never, not once, wanted to come back.
She’d liked her life just the way it was. Her job as a teacher at Free Union Elementary; her friends; her crafts projects. It wasn’t as lonely as you’d think. She had television, after all. And Stan.
“Oh I wouldn’t have missed it,” Stella finally said. “Not for the world.”
And nothing to remind her of Ben anywhere.
She’d been standing at the top of the stoop, fumbling with the mail and the stroller and trying, at the same time, to wrench that front door open. The landlord had never fixed it even though it’d been sticky for months now. Isaac had finally threatened to get it fixed himself and just deduct the cost from next month’s rent. A lot of good that had done. Three weeks later and he hasn’t done that either.
It was a warm day and Ben was wearing his favorite green corduroy pants. Three little girls, sisters, who lived down on the corner were playing with a bunch of dirty Raggedy Ann dolls on the sidewalk and Ben was peering through the railing at them, reaching one grubby fist out to grab at the blonde’s hair.
“Stop it!” the girl had wailed.
“Leave them alone, Benny,” Stella had said distractedly. She glanced over her shoulder at the group. The bossy redhead was trying to get her sisters to place the dolls in a circle around a pile of sticks.
Red and yellow and orange leaves sifted over the sidewalk. Maybe she’d make warm cider when they got back from the library later that afternoon.
“I want I want I want,” Ben had squealed and lunged forward, his shoes scuffling against the point where the railing and top step met.
Stella jiggled the door again and leaned into it. This time it gave. She un-strapped Ben from the stroller and hauled him and the bag of Red Delicious apples she’d just purchased up the three flights of stairs to their apartment. The far window was open and the lime-green curtains she’d sewn the first year of their marriage billowed in and out with the wind. She dropped Ben in the center of the bed where he rolled onto his back and reached out his chubby hands to grasp at the fabric.
Her purse. She’d left her purse down on the stoop. She rushed to the window and called down to the girls playing on the sidewalk. All the cash they had left for the week was in that wallet. How could she be so careless?
“I’ll be right down,” she’d shouted. Her hand rested on a loose bar in the window rail and reminded herself to tell Isaac to bill the landlord for that repair, too, when the time came.
She looked back at the bed one more time. Ben’s eyes were closed and he was breathing softly. His left leg tucked under his right and one of the little socks had bunched down around his ankle. It’d been a hard day. Three of his favorite little boys had been at Carroll Park and they’d played in the sandbox for over an hour before the oldest mother had headed home to begin preparing lunch.
So she closed the door behind her and ran down the stairs.
She’d done that dozens of times during the two and a half years of Ben’s life: to get the mail; to open the door for visitors; to grab a few daffodils from the small patch of green out front. This day was no different.
Except it was.
She was standing on the stoop, talking to the red-headed sister.
Tell your mother there’s going to be a party in the park on Halloween, she’d said. If she wants, we can make candy apples together.
There was a scraping sound from above and she’d looked to see Ben’s plump arms flailing against a cloudless sky. She heard her own soft exhalation then a whooomp and a thwack that echoed up and down the block.
Silence. For what Stella now remembered as a sickening eternity but in reality had been just a few seconds. A heartbeat. Maybe two.
And then she’d opened her eyes and looked down at him lying there on the ground.
The loose railing.
“He’s bleeding,” one of the girls had said in the softest voice possible.
But he’d been asleep on the bed. She was sure of that. Even now, after 53 years of turning the scene over and over again in her mind, she was still sure of that one glaring fact: “He’d been sleeping, ” she’d whimpered to the gathering neighbors. “Sleeping, ” she sighed as she moved blindly among them, holding her son’s limp body in her arms.
Stella had worn a black dress to the funeral. She’d bought it months earlier for Isaac’s upcoming office Christmas party and for some reason the memory of the afternoon Ben died and the day she’d bought the dress were forever linked. She never thought of one without thinking of the other and so those twinned recollections played over and over in her conscious life like some sort of montage horror film every day since.
She’d seen the dress on the rack from the store’s aisle and she’d removed her gloves to touch the fabric. Other shoppers flowing around her and Ben strapped into his stroller. It was too expensive, she’d told herself, but she’d rolled the child into the fitting room all the same. She was only going to try it on. Just to see.
But then after she’d stepped into the dress and seen the way that satin fitted so nicely across her waist and chest and that little flare in the hem… Well. She never indulged, especially since Ben had been born. She conserved even dish soap: a trick her mother-in-law had taught her—cutting the Palmolive with water.
She looked at herself in the mirror and realized that she really was beautiful, in her own way. Despite what her own mother had said. And behind her image there had been Ben’s serious little face reflected in the glass. She’d watched the boy flick at the end of his nose with just the tip of his finger, staring up into space…. Thinking.
Susan was doing it now, here in the restaurant: that quick flicking coupled with a spacey stare.
Are gestures genetic, too then?
Stella gripped the edge of the table.
Ben lying on the sidewalk, one tiny leg angled to the left. It looked like he was playing.
“Get up, Benny, get up,” she’d pleaded. “Get up.”
In the present, Sasha and Cici whispered heatedly among themselves for a few seconds and then Cici called the waitress over with an irritated wave.
“Ma’am? My daughter would like a glass of water.”
At the other end of the room Susan and her son and the fiancée were opening presents.
God they’re young, she thought. But then Susan’d been too.
“I don’t know where they’re going to put all this stuff,” Sasha said. “They live in a studio.”
What was it that Ben had said that afternoon before they’d left the apartment?
They’d been talking about his upcoming birthday party and she’d asked what he wanted. Ah. “I need some guys, Mama, I need some guys.” Only later did she realize he’d meant those plastic action figures he’d seen advertised in the Sears catalogue.
Stifled guffaws billowed behind her.
“Stella. ” Cici poked at her upper arm and pointed to the front of the room where Susan was waiting.
“Don’t you want to help with the presents?” Susan called over the rows of perfectly coiffed heads and balding pates.
And there it was, again, in her very glance: Stella had failed her daughter, failed the lot of them, not only in the glaringly obvious ways but also in infinite subtle failures she wasn’t even fully aware of. Like not hearing her calling just then.
“No,” Stella said, more sharply than she’d intended. “I’m–. I’m. My feet are hurting.”
Susan flinched but recovered her composure so quickly Stella was sure she’d been the only one to notice.
Until one late June day, a week after her period was late, the doctor told her she was due at the end of February. For a brief time she and Isaac had been happy again. But then the worst morning sickness she could have imaged set in, her ankles swelled, she gained over fifty pounds and the birth, with its 33-hour labor, sapped any sort of excitement she’d mustered. Susan had looked so much like Ben even in those first few days. The same large blue eyes and deep dimpled chin it broke her heart. Except Susan wasn’t Ben and how could Stella forgive her for that?
Stella had breastfed Ben for a full year. He’d latched on right away and it had been easy–but Susan! She’d screamed and squirmed from that first morning and this in the days before enriched formula. She’d had to keep trying no matter what, both of them frustrated and sleepless and the baby’s face so godamn red, her body stiffening like she was having seizures except it was all just fussiness. Or willfulness.
And so when Stella had developed a sore on her right nipple after only three months and the doctor told her to wean right away she’d been relieved. It wouldn’t heal if she kept nursing. Susan’s mouth would have prevented that.
In the restaurant, the happy couple opened their presents one by one. Susan held each object up to the crowd for a few minutes so everyone could oooh and ahhhh before handing it to one of the bridesmaids to pack into waiting shopping bags. The bride’s mother catalogued names and gifts in a spiral notebook for Thank You notes.
After about half an hour Sasha went to the bathroom. Then for a cigarette.
“I can’t stand sitting still like this,” she said under her breath when she returned, reeking of nicotine and sweat.
She sat between Stella and her mother, fidgeting.
Fifteen minutes later: another bathroom break.
The last time she discreetly ran her hand under her nose when she returned and wiped it along a discarded napkin.
“You got a cold, sweetie?” her mother asks.
“Yeah. I’m having digestive problems, too,” the girl smirked and patted her abdomen. “Can I have more Champagne?” She grinned at the beleaguered waitress.
“I love your lunettes, ” a French woman at an adjacent table crooned.
Sasha fingered the bubble sunglasses perched on the top of her head
“Thank you.” She smiled softly. “They’re Dior.”
“Ohhh,” Susan cried and thrust a quilted white wedding album above her head for all to see. “How precious!”
All those years ago, that last weekend before Stella had packed her clothes and left she’d come into the back bedroom with a basket of laundry. Susan was perched on her twin bed, her hair in giant curlers and a shoebox filled with the family’s photos scattered across the bedspread. A black-paged photo book and paste lay beside it.
Ben as an infant in his crib.
Ben as a toddler in a red snowsuit.
Ben grinning in a highchair.
Ben in Isaac’s father’s arms and Susan was carefully trimming the white frame from a shot of Ben in the tub.
“Who said you could touch these?” she’d hissed at the girl, snatching the scissors from her hand so quickly the blade cut a swath across her palm.
At the table Cici told her daughter, “I’m going to wear that Dolce & Gabbana dress.”
“Oh, you’ll be so sexy! Wear your hair down, though.”
How close they were, these two.
“I still need something, though, Mommy.”
“Well, we’ll see what’s at Saks. If they don’t have anything we can go to that boutique out on Jericho Turnpike. She’ll give me a deal. The amount of business I gave her back in the late 90s? Makes me sick.”
Stella and Susan had never gone shopping like that together. Used to be she’d take Susan over to Sears and they’d pick out whatever she needed. But Susan’d never even shown an interest in Stella’s appearance, even as a child. Her father was the one she’d adored, right from the beginning.
“Someplace in The City. Something special,” Sasha said.
For a few seconds Stella allowed herself to imagine it: herself in a new red dress, twirling before a seated Susan and a trio of mirrors. Stella putting a black skirt back on a hangar while Susan slipped into a blue version of the same item. The two of them snacking on a chicken salad at the Food Court afterwards, shopping bags by their sides. She glanced at the front of the restaurant at Susan, who was carefully folding a sage green tablecloth.
“We’ll find something, baby.”
This distance between them was her fault. And she didn’t have the faintest idea how to breach it. Did she even have the energy to try?
“Did you buy a dress yet Stella?” Cici asked politely.
“I bought a dress 53 years ago.” And in that instant she realized that that was precisely what she would wear. The black dress she and Ben had bought. She’d probably need to have it let out, though. “I bought it for a Christmas Party before Susan was born.” God her voice sounded so stilted. She almost didn’t recognize it as her own.
How was it that she could detect an emotion in this sudden silence? But she could–the current of tension snaked through the cold air as it shushed past the air conditioner vent behind their table.
Funny, how much the statement shocked these women.
“Stella,” Cici said in a voice people normally reserved for puppies and babies. “You can afford something new—it’s your grandson’s wedding!”
But how could she tell her that a thing’s newness was relative. That each time she’d worn that dress she’d felt the same thing. The same adrenaline rush and once more she’d feel young and strong. A whole lifetime stretched out before her. So much possibility and promise woven right into the fabric. Even the day of Ben’s funeral. Even then.
But you couldn’t explain that to someone if they didn’t already, deep down, just know. Sometimes the truest things sounded the craziest when spoken. Which was only part of the whole tragedy of life, as far as she was concerned. You could never tell anyone the things that really mattered. Each time they had to find out on their own. Over and over.
Stella’s feet ached. The shoes that had seemed to fit so perfectly when she’d bought them at the Belk sale last Sunday were tightening around her ankles like a leather band. She slipped them off and rubbed her bare feet against the tile floor.
Waiters moved quietly among the tables, removing plates and resetting for the night crowd.
“Mama,” Susan said. “You’re tired.”
Stella wasn’t sure but it sounded like an accusation.
“We can drop her off. She’s staying with you guys, right?” Cici asked.
“Oh no,” Susan protested. “That’s too far?”
“Give me a break, it’s right off the BQE.”
“Mama,” Susan said, “you want to hang around for me? I’m going to be here for a while….”
If Stella went now, she’d have a few hours to herself in the apartment. She could make tea and sit at the kitchen table by herself. Whenever Susan or her husband were home they invariably put on the TV or the radio. Silence unnerved them.
“I’d like that,” she said to CiCi. “You’re very kind.”
In the back of the restaurant there were two doors marked Toilette. The door on the left gave a little then caught and so she pushed again and this time it swung open with a thud.
Sasha sat fully clothed on the toilet seat, bent over the tank. She held a rolled up dollar bill in one hand and pulled her sleek black bangs away from her face with the other. There was a small compact open and three tiny lines of powder on its mirror.
“Oh, I—“ she gasped.
My god. Well, that explained the thinness.
“Grandma Stella!” Sasha scolded, “I’m almost done.”
Flashing that megawatt magazine grin at her as if Stella were retarded.
Standing there in the doorway, Stella thought about Susan and herself in an imaginary department store dressing room and poor Ben crumpled at the bottom of the stairs. All it rushing over her, the generations cresting like waves: mothers broken against daughters and daughters twisted into their mothers’ shortcomings. All of it an ancient and unending knot she couldn’t figure out what to do with.
So she took a step into the bathroom and locked the door behind herself.
Sasha looked up. “Please don’t tell Mommy,” she whispered even though they both knew she would.