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 cannot 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’d been crying, Tom sensed, and 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 seeing you lately. But I'll get you a drink, OK?”
“Sis, I was down in Baltimore researching a different perspective on their dock strike. And let's skip the drink...maybe later. Sit and tell me what’s up with Mother?”
Together on the sofa, Jo collected her thoughts...to inform without misinforming. And Tom thought, both of us too sparing with words and emotion.
“Tom, it all started yesterday morning when Donna called me into her office..said she had something to chat about. Chat? Shit, here on the street, chat usually comes just before chop. But turned out she only wanted to pass on a comment from my new client. Seems he thinks my ads are really 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. Why do I often feel there’s something missing? Is it them?”
When did we begin thinking of our parents as them, Tom thought? When implies an order of events, a sequence. Yet the images of au pairs and events simply click through like station glimpses on a through train. You’ll love who’s coming to dinner tonight, children. Did you catch Mother’s book review in the Times? Did you see Father when he was 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 look for something again. You know you’ve been there but keep going back.” Jo sounded surer now.
Tom smiled, “It’s lucky you found her. I saw in the Times she’s starting another book so she'll probably disappear again for two or three months. How did she always put it, going off to slum for plots in the wilds of Connecticut?"
Jo shook her head, “I just remember her being gone so much. Anyhow, her agent gave me her emergency number in Westport, and when Mother answered immediately, I was so surprised I only managed to stammer out that I’d like to see her. I was even more stunned by her reply...not the usual ‘Maybe next week, darling’.
Instead, she said take the eleven-ten and we’ll do lunch’. Then met me at the station... where I was my usual smart-ass self 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, this time with a hamper. Lunch in the park it would be.”
Mother and daughter in the park, prompting Tom's 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. The vague image grated.
Jo continued, “We did our updates during lunch and managed to manipulate our words around all the old minefields. And I admit a wee flush when she showed me a newspaper article she'd clipped...’promising artist in the medium of digital persuasion'. Of course then I wondered what dinner party had been graced with it."
Tom smiled, “Jo, absolutely I know 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, this must be about Father, isn't it?”.
* * *
“Tom, that's when the hell happened...probably kicked off by her little aside on how disappointed Father is with what you're doing. Now you damn well know my usual cool, but this time I really lost it!"
Jo went on, “Tom, I must have seemed hysterical. Sobbed out stuff like, your honor, I've no exhibits. No recovered memory crap. Just feelings. But feelings as sure as any bloody eye witness. Feelings about my bloody paragon of a father. God the father who watches me but never sees me."
“Jo, I know, I know. And Mother?”
“Mother was silent, like holding her breath. No escape into her 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 spilled out...the father who never seemed to be there when I was little. But as a teenager, now teasing me about boys...yet it didn't feel like teasing. Later at funding affairs, insisting I dance with him. Feeling at times almost repelled. But a feeling that makes no sense..."
"With some men you can smell an agenda. But with my own father? He'd never ever touched me improperly! And Mother always gushing, ‘What a lovely couple you two make. Your father loves you so.’ So it must be my imagination...he loves me so!”
Tom remembered, resenting him for her unhappiness but not really understanding. Yet often angry himself, especially on podiums during seemingly endless fund drives. ‘Meet my son who helps me source my conscience’. Bullshit! Just pride on parade used as personal currency. And then adding guilt to resentment by coupling it with unwanted support.
* * *
Tom waited. They’d been here before sober or stoned, sometimes far into the night. He sensed something different this time...something had changed.
At the bar beside the kitchen, Jo sat back and sipped her wine. “After dramatics, Mother hesitated...and then came an 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. But that was it…there was nothing left...and we sat silent. Mother looked away and then down at her hands. As I did then, and realized....old hands. When had I last really looked at them, or her?"
Jo continued, “She saw me staring but neither of us knew how to break the silence. But a child ran by chasing a puppy, and as if on cue she abruptly checked her watch and said she must rush. After gathering our scraps and with a quick peck on the cheek she turned to leave."
"And it happened. Mom stopped, hesitated, then turned toward me again. Then reached out and put her arms around me and hugged me for what seemed the longest time. And then whispered something".
Jo looked down at her glass, then smiled up to Tom, “And at the car park entrance, she turned for a moment and gave a tiny wave. Maybe it was my imagination...but even so far away I thought I saw tears".
* * *
They had finished their wine so he rinsed their 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 talk to and listen. Like you've done, too many times, I admit. But maybe Mom and I can…who knows. At least I can try."
Jo smiled, "And on the way back to the city, I was mulling over Donna’s chat about that brand manager. Of course he likes my work...she would have taken me off the account like a flash if he didn't”
“Tom, I'll give him so much humanity he’ll be sobbing on his Gucci’s.”
* * *
The station was deserted. Tom waited near the turnstiles, his back to the wall. Hugging Jo goodbye, why had he begun to sense something lost? For a moment he couldn’t recall where he was or where he was going.
As the train arrived, in the car there were only two others. Riding the night away?
Homeless? Stations flickered by. Many dark. No faces.
* * *