CHAPTER 20: SEPARATING
On the night of Mom’s family dinner, I arrived at the Big House late, as usual, but I still got there before Michael or Edward. As if she had sensed my arrival, Mom opened the front door while I was still climbing the steps, saving me from the dilemma of deciding whether to knock or to just walk in.
“Don’t be smart,” Mom said. She stepped aside to let me pass, but her eyes flickered over my shoulders to scan the street. “I want you on your best behavior tonight. This is important.”
“What’s this all about, anyway?”
“You will see.” Mom deposited me in the front room where Evelyn sat with Dearie. The two of them looked up when I came in. Mom disappeared into the kitchen.
“Damen!” Evelyn jumped up as if she hadn’t seen me in years and wrapped her arms around my neck in a hug. I staggered back in surprise. “I haven’t seen you in months.” She glanced in Dearie’s direction with pleading eyes that said don’t fuck this up for me.
“Oh, hey, what’s new?”
“Evelyn was telling me about the wedding planning,” Dearie said. “Will you join us?”
“That sounds like Hell on Earth.” I went to the piano and slid onto the bench. Safe.
“You’re not wrong,” Evelyn muttered, sinking back onto the couch beside Dearie.
“You pick a date?”
“June sixteenth. We’re having it at the Gardens—of course.”
“How lovely,” Dearie murmured. “Don’t register for china. I’ll be giving you mine. Both the Wedgewood and the Limoges—”
“Dearie! That’s too much!”
“Please, I insist. I don’t use it. What good is heirloom china if it’s not passed on?”
China patterns and wedding plans: my brain was going numb by the second. “Where’s Edward?” I asked to change the subject.
“On his way with Dad,” Evelyn said. “He got a job at Metron—did you hear?”
“Some kind of engineering?”
“In other words, a janitor.”
“Don’t be unkind,” Dearie scolded.
“Excuse me, custodian.”
“Yeah, don’t be a Blue-Meanie,” Evelyn sided with Dearie. “They put him in charge of maintaining all their worksites. Apparently, he’s really good at it. But I mean, it’s Edward, so…”
“It’s Edward what?” Edward appeared in the doorway at the sound of his name. He was wearing a work jacket with the Metron logo stitched on the breast pocket over his heart and an ID tag pinned to the lapel. Somehow, he even made a janitor’s uniform look good.
“You made it!” Dearie turned in her seat without standing up. “Is your father with you?”
Edward bobbed his head in a nod. “He’s finishing a phone call. He’ll be in in a minute.”
“Mom’s pissed,” Evelyn told him.
“Well, you’re forty minutes late, for starters.”
“We are?” He took out his phone and stared at it in consternation, struggling to read the time, which was written in large numbers on a digital display. I could read it from across the room, but to Edward it might as well have been Sanskrit. He gave up and tapped a button:
“Six Forty-Two Pee Em.”
“Dangit.” He looked embarrassed. “We were looking at the new site down south. Something about zoning?” His eyes went distant and his head tilted slightly, angling toward the back of the house. “Ahh—he’s coming.”
We all listened. Nothing.
“I don’t hear—”
Edward held up a finger. Wait. He pointed toward the back of the house. Now. From the depths of the house came the sound of a door opening and Michael’s heavy, even footsteps on a wooden floor—punctuated by the loud poc of his cane.
“I’m here,” he announced. The door closed behind him. The house suddenly felt a lot smaller now with Michael in it. I forced myself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Would you help me to the table?” Grandma Dearie held out a hand to me from where she sat. I looked at her, surprised.
“I can—” Edward started to cross to her. Dearie waved him away.
“Don’t trouble yourself: Damen will help me.”
I felt a vicious surge of satisfaction as Edward stepped back with blatant confusion showing on his face. Getting to my feet, I helped Dearie up. She hooked her hand in my elbow and patted my arm and together we walked to the dining room at a measured pace. Mom was already there, bringing in a basket of bread rolls and a pitcher of water.
“Do you want wine?” she asked Dearie.
“Water is fine, thank you.”
Mom poured water into Dearie’s glass and then filled mine without asking. Her sharp look said everything: Keep your wits about you. Keep your mouth shut.
I pulled out Dearie’s chair for her and helped her to settle in at the head of the table as everybody else filtered in. Edward sat by her right hand and I took the chair by her left. Evelyn and Mom sat on either side of Michael, who seemed distracted.
“Do you know what this is about?” Evelyn murmured to me in an undertone.
I shrugged. “Mom’s got something to say.”
I felt Dearie take my hand on one side and Evelyn held out her hand to me on the other: family prayer. I’d forgotten about this. Squirming in my seat, I glanced at Mom and then at Michael and saw his face darken. Evelyn made the decision for me. She took my hand and closed the circle, giving my fingers a squeeze: just sit tight.
Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored…
The family chorused the words in unison. I stayed silent. Across from me, Edward had his eyes closed. He said every word like he meant it. Evelyn’s eyes were downcast. Mom’s eyes were on me.
“Amen,” Michael said, The Final Word.
“Amen,” everyone else responded.
Dearie and Evelyn released my hands and there was a general clatter of utensils as napkins were extracted and serving dishes passed around the table. I shoved a dinner roll in my mouth—the only way I could think to keep silent.
“So, uh, what’s the big…announcement?” Evelyn ventured once everyone had been served and small talk had danced around the elephant in the room.
Mom glanced at Michael whose face tightened. He put down his fork, wiped his mouth with his napkin and threw it down on the table beside his plate like he’d lost his appetite. Bad news, then. Something I’d done? I felt a twinge of paranoia—he hadn’t spoken to me all evening, but Mom had been pretty damn insistent I come. Her gaze brushed over me and I tensed, but it didn’t settle. She rested a hand on Michael’s wrist, but Michael curled his fingers into a fist and tucked it away in his lap.
“Your father and I,” she said, addressing the room as a whole, “are getting separated.”
Time ground to a halt as the words sank in. I stopped mid-chew as something dark and gleeful woke up inside me.
“Good,” I said, “it’s about damn time.”
“Damen.” Evelyn tried to catch my wrist but I pulled away.
“No—good.” I looked around the table, daring any one of them to stop me. Edward was still in shock, mouth working as he struggled to grind the thought down into Edward-sized pieces. Evelyn looked stricken and was holding back tears. Dearie just looked…disappointed. “They’re not happy. They haven’t been happy in years—at least, Mom hasn’t.”
Mom raised her eyebrow at me. “That’s enough, Damen.”
“No, it’s not enough,” I snapped. “It’s been this one, long play-pretend sham for years: ‘let’s all pretend we’re one big happy fucking family.’”
“Language, please,” Dearie admonished. “We know you’re upset. We’re all upset—”
“I’m not upset,” I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Dad, why?” Edward finally caught up with the conversation.
Michael pressed his lips together and for the tiniest glimmer of a moment his eyes went deep with feeling. I wanted to leap out of my seat and shake him and scream in his face: Say something! Show some real fucking emotion for a change! Don’t let her go! But then his face went smooth again, closing all of us out from any meaningful inner self, and my sympathy evaporated.
“I don’t have a good answer for that.”
A laugh escaped me before I could stop it. I locked my jaws together and held up my hands, not saying anything, as Mom’s glance knifed over me again.
“Have you really not been happy? Is Damen right?” Edward turned to Mom now, still stringing ideas together with excruciating slowness. Next, he would take us all down to our pieces and lay us out on his workbench until he could figure out how to put us together again.
“There comes a time when things just need to change. I recently…gained some perspective I need to consider the implications of.”
“And you have to get separated from Dad to do that?” Evelyn was only barely holding back her anger with tears and a red face: as much of a Daddy’s Girl as I was a Mama’s Boy.
“I need space. I will not be my best self for a while.”
Michael’s phone vibrated in his pocket, interrupting her. I saw Mom’s jaw lock as he took it out and glanced at the caller. He silenced it with a swipe and set it down on the table face down. His eyes flickered back to the conversation, glancing furtively at the portrait of Grandpa Enoch hanging over Dearie’s shoulder.
“I think it’s safe to say we have…different priorities at the moment,” Mom said, her tone struggling to disguise bitter annoyance.
The phone rang again. The tension in the room hardened into concrete. Michael looked at the phone without moving and Mom’s glower dared him to answer it: to just try it. We all sat in silence, waiting to see what he’d do. At last, he stood and picked it up.
Mom sprang to her feet, teeth bared. “Michael, don’t you dare!”
But Michael was already walking away, answering the call as he crossed out of the room. I saw Mom reach for his plate. The gesture stirred up a half-forgotten memory from my childhood: Mom throwing a dinner plate at the kitchen wall in a fit of anger. I couldn’t remember what had upset her or why, only the explosion of noodles and tomato sauce and Evelyn as a baby, screaming, and Edward as a toddler, crying, and me as a five-year-old picking up my own plate to join in, laughing with glee. Snapping back to reality, I suddenly realized where I got my tendency toward explosive outbursts from. But this explosive outburst was going to involve one of Grandma Dearie’s good plates—one she’d promised to Evelyn. One that couldn’t be replaced.
I leaped to my feet, knocking over my chair.
“Good!” I screamed after Michael. “Fuck you, Michael! Fuck you and the horse you fucking rode in on!”
I felt, more than saw, Mom’s attention turn to me.
“You watch your language,” she hissed. She let go of the plate, letting it drop on the tabletop with a thud and closed her hand around my arm instead. I tried to shake her off, but not too hard—just hard enough to make her hold on.
“I’m fine,” I insisted. If I was going to make a scene, I might as well make it a showstopper.
“Come with me,” she commanded in a low, tight voice, dragging me toward the kitchen. She waited until the dining room door had swung shut behind us before releasing me.
“I thought I told you to be on your best behavior,” she snapped when we were alone. “I’m very disappointed in you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you think the fallout from that little bombshell was going to be pretty?” I paced around the kitchen, incapable of staying still. “What took you so long—we could’ve been free of him years ago.”
Mom crossed her arms, “What makes you think I want to be free of him?” she challenged, catching me up short.
“I love Michael very much.”
“That doesn’t answer the question.”
“I need space to consider my identity,” Mom said. Consider her identity. Not to ‘find herself’.
“Uh-huh. People don’t get separated after thirty years of marriage just because they’re feeling a little existential.”
“Twenty-eight years. And yes, it is actually quite common.”
“Whatever—my whole life.”
Mom absorbed this—her mind going back somewhere in her memory where I couldn’t follow.
“You could be free,” I pressed. “You could be happy again.”
“Who says I’m not happy?”
“Puh-leez. Living this… life under glass? Watching the world go by without touching it? Everything’s straight lines and hard edges here.” I was getting worked up again. All my memories of her laughing were from when I was a kid—soft and yellow. There were the stormy moments of plate throwing, but there had been sun too: not this faceless, overcast gray she’d become. I remembered seeing her after Grandpa Enoch died—numb and flat-faced. I remembered her arms around me at the funeral: she’d been trying to comfort me but her hug was so cold it made me ache. I never saw her laugh after that. It was like she’d transformed into some kind of mechanical animal: relentless and efficient and unfeeling. I’d done everything I could think of to break free until the only thing left to do was to leave or be crushed.
Mom’s eyes were bright—were those tears? A flush rose up on her neck from beneath her collar, and she swallowed hard. The unfamiliar rawness on her face twisted in my guts until it hurt too much to look at her. I pushed through the servant door at the back of the kitchen and fled up the service stairs in search of something familiar in a world turned upside-down.
I took the steps two at a time until I reached the dim, elegant hallway on the second level, but I didn’t stop. The staircase to the third-floor was hidden in a closet. I wrenched the door open and kept climbing. The third-floor hallway was plain—the wooden floor was dull and unpolished. The same threadbare floor runner curled up around my foot, tripping me the way it always had. I kicked it flat. My old room was at the far end, under a sloping eve. The door was still plastered with DO NOT ENTER stickers and police tape and band posters from the nineties: Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins.
Inside, the room was undisturbed except for an accumulation of filing boxes occupying the bed, a bin of Christmas decorations, and a collection of bags earmarked for AmVets: the detritus of ordinary life.
In one corner stood a battered upright piano that had belonged to Mom’s mom, Grandma Rose. Mom had inherited it after she died; an heirloom too broken to play and too sentimental to get rid of. I couldn’t imagine the machinations it had taken to get it up to the third-floor, but now it was there, and that was where it was going to stay; along with all the other broken memories too heavy to carry around.
The lid was furred with dust. I wiped a hand across it, brushing away a handful of linty fluff before lifting the lid and reaching inside. The soundboard was cracked right down middle C, and I felt around for the narrow gap where I stashed the things I wanted to keep secret: a baggie of decrepit weed, now mostly dust, Edward’s favorite collectible baseball card, and a narrow strip of photo booth photographs from Great America. I pulled this out and took it into the light to look at it: me and Mom, smiling and goofing off.
Suddenly I was twelve again, thrown backward in time to middle school. It was the third or fourth day of standardized testing, and I’d already finished bubbling in mind-numbing answers on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. My name was called over the PA system and I went to the principal’s office to find Mom there, signing me out for the rest of the day.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Anywhere that’s not here.”
We drove north to Gurnee and went to Great America for Fright Fest. We rode on the Shockwave and ate hot dogs and junk food. I remembered squeezing into the photo booth with her, waiting for the flash of the camera, trying to think of faces to pull.
Afterwards, as the sun was setting, we got food at a diner called The Phoenix just over the Wisconsin border. Then something happened: Sam appeared like he knew where to find us and Mom went outside to meet him. I watched them talk through the diner’s grimy windows. I couldn’t hear what they said, but I thought they might be talking about me. Sam kept looking in my direction and every time he did Mom got a little quieter and more distant. I realized something wasn’t right.
“Can we go home now?” I asked when she came back inside.
“C’mon, aren’t we having fun?” She ordered a coffee and filled it with liquor—filling it more and more every time the mug started to get empty until I could smell it through her skin.
“We could leave this place,” she’d said. “Would you come with me if I left? I packed a bag for you. We could go right now: to the airport in Milwaukee and then just—fly, fly away…”
“Where would we go?”
“Someplace warm. California maybe?”
“What about Edward and Evie? What about Dad?”
“What about them?!” Mom banged her hand down on the table making the silverware rattle and I jumped. “Damnit! That’s all there is. That’s is all there will ever be. Husband. Kids. Husband. Kids. God-damnit. Fuck.” It was the first and last time I ever heard her curse. She was laughing and crying at the same time. And then she got up to go to the bathroom and I begged the diner owner to let me use their phone.
“Where are you, son?” Michael asked when he answered.
I told him about Great America and about the diner and about Sam. I told him about the airport and California and the liquor.
“Sit tight,” he said.
“Sit tight,” said sheriff who appeared fifteen minutes later like magic. He took away Mom’s keys and locked the two of us up in the back seat of his car but didn’t take us anywhere. Instead, he went inside the diner and ordered a coffee.
Mom was drunk now. She leaned her head against the fogged glass of the window and stared out into the darkness. Her anger sat between us, filling the cabin of the car.
“You called Michael, didn’t you,” she said.
“You don’t know what you’ve done.” Tears rolled down her cheeks but I didn’t know why. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
I never did figure out what she meant. Michael came to pick us up, still dressed in his police uniform. He brought us home and I could hear him and Mom talking late into the night in low urgent voices as their footsteps circled and circled and circled below my bedroom.
Everything changed after that: Mom disappeared for a month and the rest of us went to live at the Big House while she was gone. Then the car accident happened, killing Grandpa Enoch and putting Dearie and Edward in the hospital, and when Mom came back, she was like a ghost haunting her own life.
What had I done?
I snapped back to the present and stowed the photos in my wallet, hiding the memory in my pocket. Casting a final glance around the old room, I slipped out and closed the door behind me. Then I crept down the back stairs and left the house without saying goodbye.
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