Margaret, whose skin was the color of raw bone, lay on the beach with a dark man. He was all contours and slopes, a sensual landscape. The hair on his chest was like charred prairie grass, his lips the texture of sand. Margaret and the man had been here for hours; waves were touching their feet. It was time to go. If she were only free to be with him, they would name their child Marianao--after the place she went each day to meet him, her Habanero lover.
Awakening in a shadowed room, Margaret wondered where he'd gone. In the morning she was to play jai alai with him, was she not? A clock ticked. She touched her arm. Her skin was baked phyllo. She must be terribly sunburned. She breathed shallowly and called out.
A rustle and a voice she didn't recognize. A door opened and light ruptured night. "Mother? Are you all right?"
Of course, she realized. It was years later. "I don't know where I am, Marianao."
"Marianao?" The daughter sounded like she was stifling a smile.
Margaret sat up in bed, composed now, suspicious. "Well then, who might be addressing me?"
The daughter drew closer, clicked on a lamp, sat on the edge of the bed. "Look, it's Em."
Yes, she thought. Em. My daughter. "I got confused," Margaret told her. "I've been visiting you for how long?" The daughter had no husband anymore, and no real job. Her rental was a mix: painted gourds she'd bought in Cameroon, rusty pipes as candlesticks, Paraguayan lace draped over a futon couch, all existing in stark opposition to heirlooms relinquished by the daughter's ex-husband--an Anatolian rug, a banister-back chair, a grand piano that the careless Em covered with a blanket and used as a worktable. Surely, it was not too soon to go home to Minneapolis, see what had transpired at work while she'd been off.
"Mother, you live here now. In Denver. With Travis and me."
She did no such thing. "Oh," she said. She was getting used to counterfeiting this or that, agreeing to foolishness. It seemed the only one who made sense these days was the grandson Travis, who asked nothing, just played with her as though she were also thirteen, taking her on his computer to a place called the Web where travel was as instantaneous as the leaps in decades and continents she took in her mind.
"It's one in the morning, Mother." Someone must have told this daughter to speak facts succinctly when dealing with a senile parent. "It's Friday night the fifteenth of September," she said, though the tear-off calendar on the wall clearly showed a sixteen. "Actually, since it's after midnight, it's . . ." Em hesitated. One drip of yolk, Margaret used to tell her, one small drip and your meringue will not be perfect. But the girl had always been haphazard. "It's Saturday, now," she continued. "Yes, that would make this the sixteenth."
The daughter left, and Margaret kept the light on. Her things were in this room, and she was an old woman in her seventies with crepey skin. It was true, what her daughter said about where she lived. Yet there was defiance in her. She wanted to unleash it, even though she knew these embarrassments of age were no one's fault. Lucidity came and went like a fluctuation in humidity. It embraced her; it evaporated.
She had lost her mind, surely. There was a name for her condition but it escaped her. Mercifully, she could still dream of the expansive Havana avenues, the grand casinos before the revolution, the kempt plazas where she would linger with her lover. She could summon the spiraling onslaught of Paris, with its stone-tinted skies, or she could journey to the ferned Minnesota woods of her childhood, where walking was like being tangled underwater, and the sun was only a rumor, a glint on a leaf.
There were also moments she wished to revise in the remembering--the delirious years of her husband, for instance, how he had touched her on the inside of her wrist, his fingers moving lightly, randomly, like the fluttering of a moth, beckoning her: come to my flame, dance in my flame, let us expire together. Why had she married this rakish, intemperate man--this man who drank himself to an early demise? They'd drifted brashly, violently together, their life an ocean--possibilities floating out of reach, dangerous siren reefs. What she remembered best were his apologies, always sloppy apologies, while she stood impassive, pretending to be the virtuous one. Though she'd been kept afloat, buoyed by her lover, she'd been an unrowing fool. How little she had known. How stupid she had been. Because, in dying, he'd gotten the best of her at last.
She did not resent it: it was penance she deserved. Widowed with three children, she molded her raw, tinkling energy to studied success. First in ready-to-wear sales. Then buyer. Division head. CEO of a venerable Minneapolis department store. And, hardened mother that she became, she taught her youngest what she herself had never been taught: the importance of the life jacket; caution on an unpredictable sea; how to swim--not to feel the pleasure of lapping water, but to get to land.
This daughter, however, this Em, had not taken the lesson. She splashed from one thing to another, an unruly girl, now a restless, impetuous woman. A woman who'd exchanged her husband for a succession of ill-chosen, though handsome, suitors. A woman who craved travel to destinations unconventional, possibly unsafe. A woman whose startling jewelry was sold in galleries, not gift shops--labeled art, Margaret suspected, because it was not so much decorative as distracting, even animate, as if Em had employed some passionate alchemy to bring it to life. Yesterday in a grocery store, Em had thrown back her head and laughed. Margaret saw her daughter's earrings as liquid, dripping to a river of necklace grazing her collarbone. Em looked so radiant and unrestrained that Margaret quickly moved in front of her, as if to shield this daughter from a dark world greedy to steal her light. She feared sorrow would come as swiftly and inevitably to Em as it had to her.
From the basement of the house, the boy Travis heard every nighttime sound. There were tossings and turnings, muted conversations, sometimes even unconscious mumblings that belonged to the midnight dramas of those asleep. Travis owned the basement. It was one big room and it was all his. He had appropriated the space because, in this house of women, he needed privacy. Yet, from the southwest corner of his room, he could hear his mother place a hairbrush on her dresser. From the opposite end, through a flimsy barrier of water-damaged ceiling tile, he could hear the catch in his grandmother's chest as she breathed.
Travis took a ballpoint pen and wrote, on his blue jeans, the name he'd heard: "Marianao." He took a sip of warm cola, typed the name on his computer, and searched. He scored fifty hits, and scrolled quickly through them. But they were all in Spanish, so he shut down his machine and listened to Margaret's percussive movements in the room above him. A thump and a glide. She was taking her suitcase from under the bed. A creak. She was putting it on the mattress. Drawers opened and shut. A scraping. The suitcase put away. Once he'd walked in when she was packing and unpacking. Her eyes were confused, cloudy with cataracts, bearing the dazed gaze of a carp washed up on a beach.
This was the worst time of the night. Travis lay back on his bed, put on his headphones, and listened to a band called Abstract Truth until he fell asleep.
Once awakened, Em would be up for hours. So resigned, she sheathed the piano in a flannel sheet, pulled up a stool, and spread out a collection of glass beads she'd bought at the friendly Makola Market in Ghana. She was working on a gift, a pair of earrings for her ex-husband's wife. Linda had constructed a happy life for John, and had been a kind stepmother to Travis. She'd freed Em from the guilt of leaving a husband who was too much of a good thing: too earnest, too reliable, too dull.
Em pulled a stalk from a bunch of celery she'd carried in under her arm. She put the root end in her mouth and gnawed it slowly, a habit that had helped her give up cigarettes years ago. Em thought about how names usually fit personalities. Do we grow into them, she mused, or do they shape us? She knew herself to be the exception. Why had her mother christened her with such a plain name: Em, not even Emily? Perhaps she'd hoped her youngest would come to resemble herself: a grim woman, aggressive against the world, inoculated against spontaneity.
By contrast, Margaret had given her other children lyrical monikers. Em's older sister, Aurora, said when she was a child, Margaret would take her onto her lap and say, "You were born to me one night in Minnesota when the northern lights filled the sky with painted music." To the brother, Auden, in the crib she would intone, "And this baby boy, I read to him when he was in the womb, and, naturally, his first screams were filled with the soul of a poet." Aurora recalled a laughing mother who whirled about in party dresses, holding aloft trays of martinis. But Em was born ten years later, after their father was sick. The mother she knew was remote, unsmiling, a tome too obtuse for a child to read. When the young Em would ask the story of her name, her mother gave a prosaic response. "It's short and sensible," she said. "No nonsense. Just what I expect from you when I assign chores. Now, haven't I asked you three times to take out the garbage?"
Sometimes these days, Em wondered what it would be like to be this practical Em, this daughter her mother might have approved of. Would she be coiffed and clad in gray? Would she appreciate what she now did not: icy Russian vodka, a good string of pearls, the value of a dollar?
No, Em didn't fit her name. She wasn't sensible and she wasn't short and she thought nonsense was as fine a preoccupation as any. She was nearly six feet tall, striking, with murky green eyes and cropped dark hair. At over forty, she still had the stamina--as well as the desire--to dance all night. She wore earrings she'd created: complicated kinetic structures of wire, metal, and beads that were continually in motion, as if they possessed a consciousness of their own. To pay the rent she sold her jewelry and sometimes took part-time work, as a proofreader, a waitress, and now a bartender at a downtown club. Her lovers were temporary but her friends permanent, her son distant but not remote, her travels impulsive and filled with the roar of the unknown. Lately, her mother was calling her by a name Em didn't recognize, Marianao, and Em heard in it an intonation of the exotic, of the feverish way she was meant to live.
When she pictured Linda's earlobes, pitifully plain, save the scant punctuation of gold-post earrings, she felt lucky. She'd escaped marriage, career, even her ex-husband's smothering suburbs. She was free--even though for the last six months, the clenched, conservative Margaret had been living with her. When she'd gotten the call from her brother, it seemed impossible that Margaret had lost her way in Paris, a city she knew so well. It was the beginning of Margaret's Alzheimer's.
Em heard her mother rummaging again. She didn't know what to do about this frantic packing and unpacking. But by the time she looked in on her, her mother was in bed, staring at the tear-off wall calendar. "I don't know who put that painting there, Marianao," Margaret said, "but I don't like it."
In the morning, the first thing Margaret saw was the number sixteen, illuminated by a trapezoid of yellow light. Each night, when Em said good night, she tore off a page so Margaret could keep track of the date. The problem was, Margaret couldn't always interpret the meaning of a pad of paper with a number on it. And when she could, the hated thing reminded her that sometimes she could not.
Margaret went to the kitchen. Travis had the rusty-rimmed eyes of a boy who'd been up late. Em was twirling a string of beads that moved like a Calder mobile. The extravagance of the earrings made Margaret catch her breath.
"If one didn't know you better," Margaret said to her, "one could hope you weren't going to wear those flamboyant things to work."
"I'm not," Em told her. "These earrings are for Linda."
Travis looked meaningfully at his grandmother. He'd told her it pained him, the way his stepmother dismissed Em.
Margaret gave her daughter a withering look. "Linda wears dainty gold hearts and such," she said. But Em, still enthusiastic, dropped the earrings into a foil-lined box and wrapped it with twine. It was cruel: Em was not only oblivious to Linda's taste, she was unaware that Linda disliked her.
The solution was simple. Margaret would filch the box of earrings. She would unwrap them and replace the dangling things with a pair of her own. Linda would write a lovely note, and Travis would smile primly, acknowledging his mother's good taste. Everyone would be happy.
Margaret and Travis were alone on Saturdays while Em worked. Last weekend, after Em had confiscated her mother's nicotine stash, they'd walked to the cigar shop, where Margaret had purchased a pack of Gauloises. Then they'd visited forbidden places on the Web: Juanita's Smut Shop and Kombat Alley. Today, Margaret planned to smoke until she was sick. She slipped the box of earrings into her pocket and went to her room.
As she lay back on her bed and lit a cigarette, there was a knock.
"What do you want?" she called.
"A cigarette," Travis answered. He opened the door and peered in.
"When did you pick up this filthy habit?"
"I haven't," he said. "But I need practice. By junior high, you should be able to inhale." He sat on the edge of her bed.
"Well, it's easy," she said, "to convince your fool lungs the sting of death is actually the inspiration of life. But it's difficult to say no to something you know to be unhealthy, smelly, even illegal." The boy rolled his eyes.
"Your body," she told him, "has the sense to reject poison. It's your brain that's misguided. Smoking won't make you a man . . ."
"But you smoke," he said.
"And it hasn't made me one. Besides, it's sublimation. I prefer cigars to cigarettes. And drinking to smoking. And gambling to drinking. But of all the vices, I would choose the illicit love affair as my personal favorite. Don't you agree?"
"I don't know," he said.
She patted his head. "Of course you don't. You're thirteen. But when you are tempted, just remember. The sin of love is the only one you'll recall fondly in your autumn years."
"Then why are you so hard on Mom's boyfriends?"
She waved away the question absently.
"And Mom doesn't like the name you gave her," he said.
"And what might she like to be called?"
Travis looked at the name written on his jeans and shrugged. "She told me you were so conservative when she was growing up that you made Richard Nixon look like Jimi Hendrix."
Margaret laughed and got out of bed. "Ha. Then I've done my job as a mother. And rather well, haven't I?" She dug through her jewelry box, lifting necklaces tangled like strands of spaghetti, then handing Travis a black-and-white photograph, the old-fashioned kind with wavy edges.
It was his mother, but she was younger, wilder. And she was with a tall, dark man, a man who was not his father, though there was something familiar in the set of his chin. His mother was sitting in a restaurant, her eyes partly closed, with a drink in her hand and a thin cigar between her teeth. Her dress was halter style, fitted through the bodice and cut low. She had placed one spidery white hand across the cheek of the dark man, a supplicant in her presence. She was leaning forward as if she would bite the camera. "I never knew Mom looked like this," he said.
Margaret smirked. "She never did. The photo is of me."
"Who's the man?"
"Ah, the man." She took the photograph and ran her hand back and forth across his face as though, like a genie in a lamp, he could be summoned by her touch. "He is someone," she said, "who mastered the art of the love letter." She put the photograph back and retrieved a piece of paper, limp as wilted lettuce. "The courtship of the body, Travis, is a serious, though unsubtle pursuit. The courtship of words, however, is refinement itself." She waved the letter like a handkerchief. "Instead of practicing smoking, you ought to be studying penmanship."
Efficient in all things, before he could question her, his grandmother was on to something else. She held up pearl earrings. "Linda's type?"
"Yes," Travis answered.
Margaret took the gift-wrapped box from her pocket, disassembled it, and took out the earrings Em had made. She put them on and looked in the mirror. They sparkled. "If nothing else, there is certainly a fire to your mother's artistry," she said. When she held the pearl earrings to the light, they reflected it dully. "These earrings, however, are both expensive and ordinary. Linda will be quite happy with them." She rewrapped the box, then tapped a cigarette from her pack and put it in Travis's mouth.
"Just this once," she said. She lit a match. "Don't inhale yet. Puff a little." He got the cigarette started. "Now, breathe deeply. There, you've got it. Good." Before he'd smoked a quarter of an inch, she plucked the cigarette from his lips and stubbed it out. "You're a quick study," she said. "Now promise me never to take this up as a habit." He nodded.
She nodded back and the earrings shimmered. They suited her, he thought. The light they reflected was different from that of the pearls, as though a sparkling ocean had been captured in glass.
"You take this box to Linda and keep our secret," she commanded. "You see, Travis, love is in the little lies. Little lies are the gentleness we give one another."
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