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A man, his mother, and a Friday night
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Note: I’ve provided audio narration for this week’s story along with some original music. Consider using the Substack mobile app to enjoy a better listening experience.
“The heart wants what the heart wants.”
She delivered this line as if she were an actress in a holiday movie gazing out a picture window that framed a moonlit winter wonderland and not a digital screen crowded with scrolling headlines and throbbing advertisements.
The heart’s a fucking muscle. It doesn’t want anything.
He didn’t say this out loud to his mother. He didn’t have to. She was fluent in the ancient language of his silent disapproval.
They sat in their usual chairs in front of the television. He shouldn’t have told her about what happened that day. He should not have expected her to offer up anything more than some greeting card affirmation. She had a recipe box full of them. It’s always darkest before it’s dawn. A penny saved is a penny earned.
How refreshing it would have been just once for her to respond directly to something he shared. Her desiccated, shrink-wrapped responses had piled up around him over the years like courses of brick, mortared with her neediness. He was entombed. He took another sip of beer and fingered the outline of the phone in his pocket the way he once did a pack of cigarettes in the years before he finally quit.
Shana’s heart along with the rest of her clearly wanted someone, anyone else but him. He didn’t need his mother’s help to decode this. How had he convinced himself that this one would be any different? Maybe the flowers were too much, but they’d had a connection, right? She’d allowed him to buy her lunch during her break last week. She’d laughed at his story. And then, just like that, she’s going on a date with that new delivery guy. He had wondered why she was wearing makeup this afternoon and then as soon as her shift was done, delivery guy was there with his perfect teeth and full head of hair. He probably had a six-pack under his clean white button-down. He probably didn’t live with his 76-year-old mother. Sure, he was younger, but hadn’t she said she was tired of the men her age with their swipe-left attention spans and frail egos?
“Jimmy dear, can you bring me a cola?”
“Sure, Ma. I was going to make that gazpacho tonight with a polenta.”
“Oh, I don’t need that fancy stuff.”
“So, just the mac and cheese. Again.”
She nodded in response, unable to turn her attention from the riveting story of a twelve-foot alligator being discovered in the sewer system of New York City. In the kitchen, Jimmy put a pot of water on to boil and pulled a box of instant macaroni and cheese from the bunker-like stash in the cupboard. He grabbed another can of beer from the fridge and the diet soda for his mother. She mumbled a thank you when he handed it to her. He opened the sliding door and stepped out onto their small balcony. Closing the thick sliding glass door behind him blessedly cut off the sonorous blare of the news anchor on the television and left him alone with the anonymous drone of the city below and the silent conversation of his plants that enclosed the tiny space, their leaves, fronds, and tendrils tickling his bare legs. He knelt and pruned, tested the dampness of the soil, fingered the leaves, and turned the pots. He spoke to them affectionately in the hushed tone of a loving parent. He plucked the last two of the cherry tomatoes before sitting in the second-hand patio chair he’d salvaged from the sidewalk last year.
The bird feeders needed to be filled but he was too tired. He sunk into the chair and took a long drink that brought him only the memory of comfort. His mind turned to Shana to replay the sound of her throaty laughter, the curve of her collarbone, the lemony fragrance of her hair, but it was no good. The sting of her rejection had poisoned this pastime and he cursed himself for ruining it. He always ruined it by trying to make his fantasies real. He finished his beer as the sun disappeared into the jagged teeth of the skyline before rising to go inside and assemble dinner.
Something was off. He knew it the minute he closed the patio door. His mother wasn’t dozing as she was prone to do. The cola can was turned over on the side table. Her mouth hung open. He rushed to her side and cradled her head. She was breathing but shallowly. No, no, no, no, no. Why did he leave her alone? She was dying, he knew, and it was his fault. He had killed her with his resentment. His throat tightened and tears filled his eyes. He was reaching for his phone to dial 911 when he felt a quickening in her body. Her hand clinched his and her eyes fluttered open.
“James. Why are you crying, sweet boy?” she asked.
Her eyes were clear, the piercing blue of them lit with a lifeforce he didn’t recognize.
“Mom? What happened, are you okay?”
“Well yes, dear. I’m fine. It’s time for dinner. I need to make you dinner.”
She moved to get up, but he gently held her in place.
“No, no, I’ll get dinner. I just want to make sure you’re okay first.”
“I’m fine, really. You look so sad. What’s the matter? Did I do something?”
“You… you were just out. Gone for a minute. You scared me.”
“Oh, nonsense. Let’s make dinner. We can do it together.”
“I thought you wanted mac and cheese.”
“Oh gracious no. Let’s make something a bit more exotic. It’s Friday night! Only sad people eat food out of a box on Friday night.”
In the kitchen, she possessed a facility he had not seen since he was a child. She chopped and sauteed and hummed to herself before asking him to shut off the TV and find some music. Something bouncy. While the pasta was boiling, she took his hand and made him dance with her. She shuffled in her pink house slippers as if they were patten leather pumps and made him twirl her around which caused her to bubble over with laughter. He was mystified by the woman in his arms. Julia was not his mother but some beautiful, vivacious, mischievous creature who had possessed her body. When dinner was ready, she insisted he set the small table on the balcony and light a candle.
“So, tell me about this girl who doesn’t deserve you,” Julia asked once they were seated. “This Shana.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” he said, taking a bite of pasta.
“Of course it does, you can’t just paper over a broken heart. You have to talk about these things. What do you like about her?”
“I don’t know. She’s funny but not like haha funny. She’s got a really dark sense of humor.”
“That’s good. What else?”
“She’s beautiful and smart too. The only reason she works at the store is because she lost her teaching job at the college after her divorce. Her ex blackballed her there.”
“Oh, that is tough,” Julia said. “Men can be so cruel. But not you my sweet James. Tell me, how did you court her?”
Jimmy was embarrassed. He’d never spoken to his mom in this way. Not that there was anything to speak about. His romantic life had only ever existed in his head. For the first time ever, he wondered how his mother must see him. He was pathetic. A forty-three-year-old man who’d never kissed a woman. His face flushed. She reached across the small mosaic table he had made a couple of years ago when he had been inspired by such things.
“Jimmy, you’re a handsome man. You just don’t know what to do with it. You never have. Let me help you. Now, tell me your moves.”
He was having trouble making eye contact with her unwavering gaze. Who was this woman and what had she done with his mother?
“I don’t have any moves. I bought her a sandwich on our break last week. I gave her flowers this week, but I think that was a mistake.”
“But what have you said to her? How do you talk with her?”
“I don’t know. We talk about the shop and the people we work with. I told her about my collections, and about the plants and the birds we’ve had visit, and…”
“Yes, yes but this is all about you. What did you ask her about herself?”
“Um, I don’t know. I just assumed she would tell me what she wanted to share.”
“Oh Jimmy, if you want to win the heart of a woman, you must let her know that you see her. You must ask questions. You must show interest.”
They finished their meal and after the dishes, Julia insisted she cut his hair. He argued, but she was unrelenting, so he found himself seated on a chair in their kitchen with a towel around his shoulders. She drank sherry from a tiny crystal glass while she combed, snipped, and fussed with his hair. At one point, she stepped back and made a face as she was appraising him. When she moved back to her task, she was more aggressive, and more locks of his dull brown hair feathered into piles on the floor. He was afraid to stop her. When she was done, she encircled his closely shorn head in her soft, veiny hands and kissed his brow.
“There. Much better,” she said. “You must embrace what you have, and what you don’t. You don’t have much hair, but you have a beautifully shaped head.”
Later, after she had gone to bed, Jimmy stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom. His avoidance of mirrors was not something conscious but an engrained behavior as invisible as blinking. But tonight, he felt different. The haircut was an improvement. He dug into the medicine cabinet and found his razor. He shaved off the patchy scruff revealing the boyish face he’d not seen in more than a decade. He smiled and examined his teeth. He opened his eyes wide. He looked at himself for the first time and somehow, he liked what he saw. In that liking, something shifted and began to move with ease and purpose within him. It was like a drop of oil into the thread of a bolt long seized up from years of rust.
Entering his bedroom, he felt as though he was walking into someone else’s space. The wall-to-wall shelves were choked with figurines, models, DVDs, and books that dealt in other worlds—fantasy worlds. Worlds he had readily inhabited in avoidance of his own. He found it suddenly hard to breathe. He grabbed his pillows and stripped the bedding from his mattress, shut off the light, and retreated to the balcony. There he made a pallet among his plants with a view of the sky. Even here in the middle of the city, there was a cluster of visible stars, a narrow, clouded window into the expanse, but a window, nonetheless. He fell asleep trying to remember if he’d ever slept beneath the stars.
He woke with the sun pressing against his eyelids and the cooing quarrel of a pair of pigeons on the railing. Despite the stiffness in his back, he felt refreshed—clearer somehow. Inside, he made coffee and imagined what he might do with his weekend, and where he might go. He had a strong desire to strike out without a plan, to step into the current that he was now keenly aware of flowing all around him. There was possibility where once there was only inevitability. He wanted to share this new-found feeling with his mother. He prepared her coffee just the way she liked it and went to her door. He knocked lightly. There was no answer.
“Ma? Are you up?”
He cracked the door to her room. It was still and dark, the only illumination a sliver of sunlight slicing through a narrow break in the blackout curtains. He stood in the doorway, afraid to enter the room for fear of breaking the seal between what is and what will be. He knew she was gone before he felt the cold confirmation of her hand.
He opened the curtains and sat on the bed beside her. The vast opposing feelings he had for his mother had been careening toward each other like engines gathering steam for the span of his life. In this moment as they collided, rather than explode, they canceled each other out and he was left in a precariously neutral place. He held the cup of coffee she would never drink and watched the steam evaporate into the sunlight.
He scanned the surface of the bed and the nightstand for something— some journal or note or totem she might have left for him. There was nothing.
When he mustered the courage to reach for her hand, to hold it one last time, he noticed something on the sleeve of her nightgown. He bent closer and discovered that it was a nearly translucent lock of his hair she had clipped only hours before.
He lay his head on her chest and placed her hand upon it to feel the protection and the weight of it one last time.
I’ve been lucky to have my mom staying here with me this past week. It’s a gift to have this slow, quiet time together. The photo for the story is one I took of her hands. While her presence inspired me to write this piece, it’s important to say that it in no way reflects our relationship. We share an enduring connection and I’m blessed to have a mother who has not just loved me, but seen me and encouraged me to unfold rather than try to force me into some idea she had for me.
Fiction has always allowed me a safe place to explore complicated, ambiguous, or emotionally difficult situations in a safe way. Think of it like a flight simulator for the experience of living. I cannot imagine a world without her or my dad, but I know we’ve entered the season of life where this will ultimately come to pass and I’m trying to prepare myself.
Thank you for being here this week and for reading the story. I hope it spoke to you in some way. If it did, please hit the like button, leave a comment, and share it with a friend. This is the extent of my enterprise marketing strategy.