Margaret knew she had somewhere to go, a party, because she could smell it: merriment in the air as thick and sweet as cotton candy at a carnival. She was supposed to be going there, but where was there, and what to pack? A party. Therefore, silk undergarments.
Then she rejoined herself. She was in an unfamiliar room. There was an open suitcase, clothing on a bed. She must have just returned from a trip. She took the silk slip out of her valise, a bag she'd bought in Havana in 1956.
Margaret always liked to unpack slowly, savoring the fragrance of faraway humidities, exotic foods, perfumes she'd worn when she was her other self. She put the slip to her face. It smelled of . . . nothing. Where had she been? Or was she just preparing to depart? Yes, she must be packing for a voyage.
She needed these trips. The flights above oceans that recalled the dizzy altitudes she was capable of feeling. The coasts of demarcation: water from land, husband from lover, responsible Margaret from irresponsible Margaret. That other self, she thought, the one that was wild and worthless, capable of love and mischief, and little else--you could not extinguish her, even if you tried. So you kept her straitjacketed until you were in foreign cities, on other continents. And when you returned home to widowhood, to children and career, you packed her away, and unpacked the grim though blameless saint who'd taken her place. It was a harsh task, Margaret thought, this living as someone else.
A scent of baking embraced her. It must be morning. Possibly Paris. She had that sensation of merriment. There was something about the rain, the skies, the intellectual precision of the Parisians that made her, by contrast, lighthearted.
Margaret took a few puffs from a cigarette in her hand. Yes, probably Paris. The cigarette seemed to be a French brand, not hers. Which meant . . . she might be with him. Could she phone room service, or was discretion called for? She sorted the clothes into neat stacks. She should know where she was supposed to be. She slapped herself in the head.
She went out to a kitchen, a cluttered, unfamiliar room. There she saw a daughter, her own daughter Em, the one who had never been tamed, the one who always had greenery hanging from her lips as if lovage had sprouted in her mouth. Em reminded Margaret of herself, the days when she'd slide a cigar between her front teeth and bite down provocatively, just enough to suggest a thick molasses scent. Margaret thought of the ponytail Em wore as a child. Like the tail of a squirrel, it flopped up and down, not quite in rhythm with the girl's movements. It trailed her, like lies and secrets, undulating with a life of its own.
"Oh," Margaret said. "You're cooking dinner for the boy."
"It's almost midnight, Mother. I'm baking your birthday cake." It was a box mix Em had picked up, along with ten helium balloons, on her way home from work. She'd almost forgotten her mother's birthday. "Tomorrow is Sunday, the seventeenth of September. Your birthday."
"The date seems to have slipped my mind. I was just packing to leave, but I suppose I can spare a day or two."
"You live here with us, Mother."
"Why didn't anyone tell me I was supposed to remain in this house?"
"We told you, Mother."
"If I knew I was supposed to live here, then I would not have been packing my suitcase, would I?"
Em was tired. She smelled her mother's veil of cigarette smoke. "You pack all the time. Every day you ask where you're supposed to be. Every night you forget where you are."
Margaret held her back straight, as if waiting for a refutation, a still-beautiful woman with short gray hair slicked back like the pelt of a seal. "I'm supposed to be here, then," she said.
Em nodded. "You're supposed to be here, Mother."
Margaret turned back to her own room.
In the basement, Travis, the boy who was always listening, went to his desk and reached for the fountain pen his father had given him. "You are supposed to be here," he wrote, in large, cramped, admirable, he thought, script. He would affix the sign to his grandmother's wall, where the words would be a comfort to her late at night, a gentleness, a small untruth, the first love letter he'd written.
Travis carried his sign up the crooked stairs and stood at the threshold of the kitchen where his mother was poised to frost the cake. "You don't have to remind her that she forgets," he said. "You don't have to make it so clear. You could pretend a little."
Em didn't answer. "It's her birthday, after all," Travis went on. "Let's celebrate right now."
"It's the middle of the night," Em responded, irritated.
"So what? She doesn't know if it's day or night."
At two in the morning, Sunday, September seventeenth, according to the wall calendar Em had just thrown in the trash, Travis taped the sign to his grandmother's wall and plugged a nightlight below it. Then he released ten helium balloons, which drifted to the ceiling, glowing translucent and milky like huge colored pearls. Travis suddenly felt shy, an angular boy in a house meant for the flesh of women. He stood in the shadows, in a corner, where he could eavesdrop.
Em gently touched her mother's face, and by habit, Margaret turned to where the calendar had been.
"Surprise," Em said softly.
"`You are supposed to be here,'" Margaret read aloud. "Whatever could it mean? It sounds vaguely Eastern. Perhaps I've become a Buddhist."
"Ha," Em said. "That's a good one."
"It's comforting, isn't it. This phrase," Margaret said. She was trying to place the room and the daughter. It came slowly to her, like a picture on a vacuum-tube television that starts as a pin of light and finally grows into meaning. "Come," she said. "Be comfortable." The daughter lay down next to her.
Margaret looked to the ceiling. "Ah Marianao, how I hate balloons. Such silliness," she said. "I can't imagine who put them there. A jokester. You, I think." She shook a cigarette from her bedside pack and lit it. She took a long drag and the tip of it glowed, the last ember of a fire.
"They remind me of birthdays," Em said. "Getting older. False cheer." Em turned toward Margaret, who could smell her breath, a fresh raw garden. Celery, of course. Unmistakably.
"May I have a cigarette?" the daughter asked, and Margaret handed her one. Em enjoyed being this Marianao, and the request for tobacco would assure the success of her charade, she thought. "Tell me again," she asked, "how I came to be called Marianao."
Margaret sighed. "You come to my room in the middle of the night to ask about your name?" Em nodded. "Very well, then," Margaret continued. "It was Havana, where you were conceived. This is before Castro, of course. I would drive the Malecon, listening to waves wash the shore. I would open the car windows and breathe the sea. I'd be on my way to Marianao, the place I'd sneak off to meet him. You don't know how different it all is, south of the Tropic of Cancer. Coral reefs and mangrove swamps. Hundreds of little inlets. And always the smell of cane before it becomes sugar. An island like that does something to you." She realized she was making it sound like an apology. Margaret could feel how much Em wanted to be Marianao. If she only knew . . . but it was so obvious. How could she not know she was Marianao?
"And Em?" the daughter said. "Is there a story to her name?"
"Ah, Em." Every time Margaret would call this daughter, call out the letter M, she would say it silently to herself: Marianao. Yet this shortened name was fitting--the initial of a place, the echo of a lover, an abbreviation of a person she'd once been. Em for Marianao.
"At first," she lied, "I called her Emerald simply because of the color of her eyes." She gained confidence. "But then, I saw she was a jewel. A version of me, the way I would have been, if I'd allowed myself to be happy."
Em stood up on the bed and reached toward the ceiling. So she'd been an Emerald all along. Of course. She'd known it. Her name had been truncated. Emerald. She turned it round and round, admiring its many facets.
Travis observed the two women. Listening to them both, he felt he had grown up. But this was not the way he'd thought it would be. Now his mother seemed younger, his grandmother older. Travis watched as Em stretched out and grabbed the helium balloons. She began popping them one by one with her lit cigarette. The balloons were bursting, falling around him. He held his hands out to their kaleidoscope. He tried to catch the pieces--all the colors, all the balloons mixed up together like his grandmother's memories--but as he grasped at them, they rode quiet currents of air and drifted just out of reach.
Go To Page: 1 2