He was running a bath when the phone rang, “Tom, it’s Jo”. She never calls so late, Tom thought. “Jo, what’s wrong?”. Silence for a moment, no response to assumption.
“Could you come over?” She paused. “I went to see Mother today”
Twenty minutes by subway from his flat. Desk and bed and electronic baggage. But home is where the heart is, right, Grandma? You always had the answers…packaged solutions priest sourced. Interpret according to thy needs.
Local stations flash by like events barely registered. Nothing permanent but change. Nylon and briefcase across the aisle. A mental image flickers. Laura…attorney...her walk so purposeful. Lithe and free spirited. Confounding him. Dissecting love and seeking answers. How could she be so sure? Nothing is sure.
What does it mean when you don’t remember goodbyes?
Doors grumble open, whistle shut. Christ, I’m tired of thinking. Where in the hell’s my whistle? Grandma, I need your righteous soul. Forget your two sides to every problem. Come with me. Come ride the Moebius line.
* * *
Jo’s face was pale when she opened the door. She’s been crying, Tom sensed...and he felt that old quick surge of anger.
“Tom, I’m so sorry to drag you out so late but who else do I have? Besides, I’ve missed you lately.”
“Sorry, Sis, I was in Baltimore for three weeks researching another perspective on their dock strike. No, skip the drink...maybe later. Let’s sit and tell me what’s up with Mother?”
Together on the sofa, Jo collected her thoughts. To inform without misinforming. Tom thought...both of us too sparing with words...like emotions.
“Tom, it all started yesterday morning when Donna called me. Said she had something to chat about. Chat? Shit, here on the street, chat usually comes with chop. But she only wanted to pass along what my new client had to say. Seems he thinks my ads are intelligent but could I put a little more humanity into them?”
“Humanity! My first reaction was, that pompous bastard wouldn’t know humanity if it sat on his face!”
She hesitated, tensed. “But damn it, Tom, he was right. God, he was so right. Last night I drank myself to bed. Why do I often feel there’s something missing? Is it them?”
When did we begin thinking of our parents as them, Tom wondered? When implies an order of events, a sequence. But the endless au pairs and events click through like station glimpses on a through train. You’ll love who’s coming to dinner tonight, children. Did you see Mother’s book review in the Times? Did you see Father on TV today?
* * *
“So you decided to see Mother? What’s it been, almost a year?”
“Almost. But it didn’t feel like a decision…more like a whim to search for something again. You know you’ve been there but you keep going back.” Jo sounded surer now.
Tom smiled, “It’s lucky you found her. I saw in the Times she’s planning another book so I suspect she'll disappear again for two or three months. How does she put it, off to slum for plots in the wilds of Connecticut?"
Jo shook her head, “I just remember her being gone so often. Anyhow, her agent gave me her emergency number in Westport. And when Mother answered immediately, I was so surprised I only managed to stammer that I’d like to see her soon.
"I was even more stunned by her reply. Not the usual ‘Maybe next week, darling’. Instead, told me to take the eleven-ten and we’d do lunch’.
Mom met me at the station...where I was my usual smart-ass and quipped her surgery was holding up well. Dumb! But I sensed she was almost a bit hesitant.”
Tom smiled, “It’s hard to imagine Mother hesitant.”
“I agree. But she was uber-organized as always and this time with a hamper. Lunch in the park it would be.”
* * *
Mother and daughter in the park, prompting memories of France before his senior year at Cornell. Breakfast on a sidewalk patio in Provence with the scent of jasmine in the air and fresh peach jam on oven-warm croissants. Children running to buses. On Sundays, families and pets and hampers and wine. Paintings in the park come alive.
Tom superimposed faces. Jo’s drawn, Mother’s regal. Doesn’t fit. The vague image grated.
Jo continued, “We chatted updates during lunch and did manage to manipulate our words around the old minefields. And must admit a wee flush when she ventured she’d clipped a newspaper article about me...’Promising artist in the medium of digital persuasion'. And then I wondered what dinner party she graced with that one.”
Tom smiled, “Actually, Jo, I believe Mom is really proud of you.” Assumption not needing an answer. Not expecting an answer. Seeing her lips tremble again, Tom took her hands in his, “Sis, is this about Father?”.
“Tom, that's when the hell happened. And it was kicked off by some little aside on how disappointed Father was in you."
"Now you know my usual cool but this time I lost it…for once, I really lost it! It just poured out. Our bloody paragon of a father...the famous attorney and model parent. God the father who watches but never sees."
Jo went on, “Tom, no question I must have appeared hysterical. I'd even begun to sob with stuff like ‘Your honor, I have no exhibits. No recovered memory crap. Just feelings. But feelings as sure as any bloody eye witness’”.
“Jo, I know, I know. And Mother?”
“Mother was silent, like holding her breath. No escape into planet words this time. No therapists in her hamper today!” Jo hesitated.
Tom sensed her putting the thoughts in order... he knew there was more to come.
“It all spilled out...the man who never seemed to be there when I was little. But when I was maybe thirteen, beginning to tease me about boys...but often it didn't feel like teasing. And later at funding affairs, insisting I dance with him. Feeling at times almost repelled. But a feeling that makes no sense..."
"With some guys I can smell an agenda, I can feel it. But with my own father? He'd never touched me improperly! And Mother always gushing, ‘What a lovely couple you two make. And your father loves you so’. So it must be my imagination...he loves me so!”
Tom remembered, resenting but not really understanding. Yet so often angry himself. Particularly on podiums during the seemingly endless fund drives. ‘Meet my son who helps me source my conscience’. Bullshit...pride on parade used as personal currency. And often adding guilt to resentment by coupling it with support.
Tom waited. They’d been here before sober or stoned, sometimes far into the night. He sensed a difference this time, though...something had changed.
* * *
At the bar in the kitchen, Jo sat back and sipped her wine. “After my dramatics, Mother hesitated...and then came her almost toneless, ‘Joanne, I don't want to hear another word. You know as well as I do your father is a wonderful man. He absolutely dotes on you. Such nonsense!’”
“But I sensed something different from her words this time.”
Tom smiled, "How so?”
“I can’t explain. Anyhow, that was it…there was nothing left...we sat silent. Mother had looked away and then down to her hands. As I did and realized....old hands. When had I really looked at them last?"
Jo continued, “She saw me staring. Neither of us were ready to break the silence. But a child ran by chasing a puppy and the mood was broken. Almost as if on cue she checked her watch, gathered up our scraps, said she must rush. Then gave me a quick peck on the cheek and turned to leave."
"And it happened. She hesitated, then turned again. And reached out and hugged me. For what seemed the longest time. And whispered something".
Jo looked down at her glass, “Mom paused again at the railing beside the car park, then turned and gave a tiny wave. Now it was probably my imagination but even so far away I thought I saw tears".
"And I cried again. Maybe for both of us”
* * *
They had finished their wine so he rinsed the glasses at the sink.
"Would you like me to stay over, Sis?”
She kissed his cheek, “Not unless you want to, sweetie. I just needed someone to listen. Like you've done far too many times. But maybe Mom and I can…who knows…at least I can try.".
Jo smiled, "And on the way back to the city today, I was till thinking about Donna’s chat. That brand manager...of course he likes my work...my ass would have been off the account like a flash if he didn't”
“Tom, I'm going to give him so much humanity he’ll sob in his Gucci’s.”
* * *
The station was deserted. Tom waited with his back to the wall near the turnstiles. When the train arrived, for a moment he couldn’t remember where he was or where he was going.
Hugging Jo goodbye, why did he sense something lost?
In the car, there were only two others...riding the night away. Maybe homeless?
Stations flickered by. Many dark. No faces.
* * *