It gets to be too much every day. Most days I make it till the afternoon. Once I lasted all the way to the evening, but the next day I could hardly keep it together past the morning coffee. Everything is wrong. Not wrong enough to have a breakdown. Or is it? When is it enough for that? If I don't know, does it mean it isn't? What if I'm having one and I just don't know it? Why can't I do even this right?
I think I should be sadder.
I take walks. I need to get out of the house. I walk the places we walked together. I don't remember you holding my hand, but I know you did. I wonder how that was for you. What did you think about? How did it feel? Who were you back then? I will never know.
There's a pond with ducks. I don't remember feeding them with you, but you've told me we did, so most days I head there. It's far enough for my body to engage. My blood warms up, my fingers aren't so cold anymore, I breathe a little faster. A little easier.
It's been such a warm autumn. Warm like summer, and as much as everyone has enjoyed it, they are also worried about global warming. There's that stab of guilt and concern, always, isn't there? If something is good, it pays to be suspicious, because it surely can't last. Is it the way of the nation, or is it just me? Was it like that for you?
You always liked autumn. Did you like this one? It has been so warm for so long, the first crisp and cold days have arrived just now. Would you rather have wanted it like this? The sky is so blue, the leaves red and gold, fallen ones crunching under my feet as I go. In the mornings, everything is covered in frost. You liked taking walks. Did you walk here as well? Did you remember back to when you were feeding the ducks here with me?
How long does it take for a memory to disappear? Has it disappeared already, when I can't really remember it, I just know I was there? Who's keeping score? Who decides these things?
It was so long ago. So many generations of ducks. The pond is the same, and autumn is as autumns are, and soon the pond will be covered in ice. The ducks will relocate somewhere where the water is flowing and ice doesn't persevere. Is there fish in this pond, or does it freeze solid in the winter? Why am I thinking of that? It doesn't matter.
There's a young man in the park by the pond. I've seen him almost every day now that I've walked here. He has a bag over his shoulder and some kind of a pad in his hands. I think he's drawing in it. I think he's an artist. He's dressed that way, in an elaborate display of seemingly random bohemian clothing. I bet he spends a long time in front of a mirror every morning, to make sure his hair is tousled just like that. He's still so young he thinks it matters. I mainly take stock of him to position myself far enough. Other people just walk by but he's stationary, like me, so I take care to keep my distance. I don't want to engage in casual conversations.
I sit on the bench in the park and watch the ducks. It's almost too cold to sit on the wooden seat, but I have my new coat. I bought it yesterday, when I had to go to town to sign papers. It was right there, in the display window of the small local craftsman shop. It's long, woolly, and deep violet, the color deepening towards the hem. I walked by, and it caught my eye.
I thought it was something you would wear.
I thought I couldn't wear it because of that.
I thought there's now room for me to be that person. To be the one to wear that coat. To be that person in this world. So I bought it.
It's a lovely coat. I still don't know if it fits.
. . . I call them every day. Some days they call me, because I've forgotten to call on time. It makes me feel guilty, even when none of them blame me. Not them, not their father. They wouldn't anyway, they're too small to understand. I'm glad they call.
I think I should be gladder.
They're too small to remember you. They do now, but they will forget soon. It makes me so sad. I would have granted you each other. Just a few more years would've been so valuable. You were so good for each other. There's photos, and I could keep the memories alive by repeating them often enough. I know I'm not going to do that. I feel like I should, and I don't know why I won't, but I know I won't.
I wrap myself tightly in the violet coat, I'm suddenly cold. I should head back but I can't, not just yet.
An old couple walks slowly around the opposite side of the pond. Sun shines on them, making their gray hair glow bright silver. They walk slowly, supporting each other. I'm not close enough to know if they're talking, but I'm guessing they're not. After that many years together they don't need to.
That's what I thought you would have, and Dad. I'm so sorry for him. After over forty years, how can he learn to be alone again? It makes me so sad. I would have granted you each other, all the way to the end.
Sun shifts and leaves my bench in the shadow. Days are so short already, the sun so low. It gets too cold to stall anymore. I have to get up, get going, get back to the house that isn't my home anymore and never will be again. Back to the man who is my father, but whose daughter I don't know how to be without you there, between us. We have to make our relationship grow to cross the void you left. I don't know how we will succeed, and what we will become. I don't know how to comfort him.
I think I should be a better daughter.
. . . I have so much trouble sleeping in this house. It's haunted for me, and I don't know if it will ever not be again. Maybe it's just the grief. Because I am grieving, am I not? I should be.
I think I should be sadder.
There's no one correct way to mourn, but I think I'm doing it wrong. I hate to do anything for the first time. I hate the uncertainty. Was it like that to you? Would you have told me, if it was? Did you try to tell me and I didn't understand, or listen? I remember when your mother died. You didn't cry, neither did your siblings. I understood grandma was old and sick, but I still thought there should've been more grief. Or more visible grief. I understand it better now, but do I understand it correctly? Does it matter? What does matter?
I have no right to be spooked by the house, if Dad isn't. I'm too old to be spooked by a house. I'm too old to be spooked in general. At my age I should be able to keep my shit together.
But I can't sleep here.
. . . I came to see you today. The morgue at the hospital was clinical and peaceful. Boxes of tissues right where I would reach for one. Quiet rooms, silent and respectful personnel. Flowers. They guided me into the room where they had arranged you on display, and left me alone with you.
I couldn't touch you. I couldn't even come near you. I remembered every horror movie I've ever seen, and waited for you to sit up and scare me to death. I got worried I would hallucinate it happening, if it didn't really happen. I looked at the shape of your nostrils and it was exactly like mine. I was resentful I was there alone. Why was I there alone? Why wasn't anyone with me? He's home with the kids, and that is for the best, it would be even more difficult if they were here. But don't I have any friends left?
I do, even back here, in this town. I just haven't called any of them, not even to let them know you died. I don't have the strength to even try and share my loss with anyone.
I think I should be better at sharing things.
I had a panic attack and had to leave the morgue. I walked away from the hospital as slowly as I could, because I knew that if I started hurrying, running, I wouldn't be able to stop. I tried to breathe deeply because I can't fall apart in front of other people. Or at all, really.
There was hardly anyone out on the streets, when I walked down the hill. So steep, the terrain here, it's always up or down. It was such a pain to learn how to ride a bike here. I remember you holding on to the rear of my bike. I was shouting you can't let go, and you promised you wouldn't, and you always did. I rode a long way before I noticed, and then I had to stop to be angry at you.
I hid myself here, in the park with the ducks.
I've got my bag with me. I told Dad I have to get back home, for work. I've told work I'll come back next week. I don't know why I lied to Dad, except that I can't stay here any longer. We took care of all the immediate things. I have to get home, to buy the kids clothes for the funeral and deal with their grief. But I don't want to go home. I don't want to deal with the practicalities of life just now. Maybe I'll just get a hotel room and be all alone.
How long could I get away with it? Telling Dad I've gone home, and home I'm still at Dad's? Did you ever want to escape family life? Did you ever do it? Would I know if you did? Would Dad know if you did? What did you do when you escaped, if you escaped? I will never know.
I came to the pond so early today I was here before the artist boy. Now that I'm the first one present, he comes for me. He's trying to act surreptitious, like he just by chance happens to wander closer to where I sit. He's got a long woolly coat as well, but his is black. Of course it's black. He's got a long, multi-colored, striped scarf around his neck, though, hanging almost all the way to his knees. Maybe he's got a sense of humor, after all. He's got small round glasses, like John Lennon. Maybe he's trying to look like John Lennon. Do kids that age even know about John Lennon? I look at how his hair frames his face and I bet he does.
Who was your favorite Beatle? You told me once, didn't you? It feels so important that I remember. If I don't, it will be lost from the world. I don't know why it's so important for that nugget of information to stay in the world. But it is.
I think it was Ringo Starr. Mine was John Lennon, but now that I know better, I know it should've been George Harrison. There's a lesson in there somewhere. I think I failed that lesson.
The boy sits at the other end of my bench. He's not as young as I thought, but I bet he's not yet twenty-five. He's got that look of someone, who tries to appear adult, and like he's someone to be respected. Just wait, silly kid, you'll get there, and then you'll wish you didn't.
Did you think like this? Is it stupid to think like this? I think it is.
The boy draws at his sketch pad, and angles it so that I know he wants me to ask what he is drawing. He's interested in me, this young man. He would want to hit on me, but don't know how to do that and keep his cool.
He's got long, beautiful fingers. I bet he has a nice touch. He's bristling with that same energy the kids get, when they're trying to keep a secret. I'm sure he doesn't know he's so transparent. Is it being a mother that makes him so transparent, or would it be as obvious to anyone?
I imagine myself at that age or a bit younger.
Yeah, it's not that transparent. I wouldn't have seen it, back then.
I give in. "So, what are you drawing?" I ask.
"Hm?" the boy answers, pretending to be immersed in his art.
"I've seen you around here. Are you drawing the ducks?"
"I'm drawing autumn," he says and shows me the pad.
Of course you are, I think and stifle a laugh. Of course you can't be drawing the pond, or the trees, or the ducks, or even me. Of course you're drawing autumn; the season of decay, the season of endings. The season of death.
I don't feel like laughing anymore.
His drawing's aren't half bad. I flick through the pad, even when he hasn't authorized me to see all of it. I know he hasn't, I notice he's a little uncomfortable. I don't care. There's a few nudes and the boy blushes lightly. He's really quite cute. And his drawings aren't half bad.
I turn the pages back to what is undoubtedly a sketch of me, sitting on a bench right here at the park. I study it closely. He waits, he's a little nervous.
"That's nice," I say politely. "Do you paint as well or is this it?"
"Yes, I paint," he says. "Would you like to see?"
I look at the kid. So, he's gathered his courage and made his proposal. And I think, why not. I feel so far away from everything, so detached from my life that's suddenly derailed and is never going to be the same, and I think, why not. I think what people would think if they knew. What you would think. Well, guess what? You're not here to think anything, anymore. You're not here to have opinions.
Yeah. Fuck you. That'll teach you to leave me like that.
I smile at the kid. "You have something to eat?" I ask. "Maybe we could get some takeaway, and go to your place."
He tries to look cool, and unsurprised, and like he does this every day. I swallow my laughter not to offend him. God, the fragile ego of young men. Young, pretentiously artistic young men in particular.
Okay, that's not fair. If I'm gonna fuck him, I better think of him more nicely.
Then again, he doesn't know what I think. He doesn't need to know. I'd bet anything he can't see through me like I see through him.
I get up, and look at him expectantly. I'm calling your cards, kid. Are you bluffing?
He gets up and packs his drawing supplies away. We start to walk along the gravelly walkway together. He reaches for my hand, hesitantly. I'm surprised at his initiative, but take his hand anyway. I can already tell I was right about his touch, from the way he crosses his long fingers with mine. I've got my ring on my finger and do nothing to disguise it. I feel his fingertips touching it, sliding by, and how his attention focuses for a second. I bet he chooses to ignore it. At least he chooses not to address the issue.
We fetch Indian takeaway and climb the stairs to his place. He's got a small apartment, untidy but not filthy. There's canvases and art supplies all over. He doesn't have anything hung on his walls. We eat, and measure each other with our eyes. He opens a bottle of wine without prompting, and I'm pleased. I was afraid I'd have to make all the decisions.
Were you ever with someone so much younger? Or with someone much older? If you did, you didn't tell me. Am I going to tell someone? Am I going to tell my children? Surely not.
Thinking of my children depresses me. Less than twenty years and it'll be them, in the place this young man is now. I don't even know his name. He is someone's son. I wonder what his mother is like. I sure as hell am not going to ask.
I'm suddenly tired. I would rather be alone, but if I walk away this boy is going to spend the rest of his life wondering what he did wrong, and I'm not going to have that on my conscience.
So I kiss him. He's surprised, but doesn't resist. His lips are very nice, full and sensual. He's not in a hurry, and that's good. He lets me lead, and that's also good. I slide my fingers into his hair, and cradle his head in my hands. His hair is soft and curls a little. I stroke it backwards away from his face, grab it by the handful at the back of his head. He just kisses me.
We undress each other. His body is boyish and slender, nimble, strong. My body is mature and curvy, soft, lived in. He lifts my heavy breasts with his hands and looks astonished and respectful. I wonder if he's ever thought of fucking his mother. I'm sure as hell not going to ask. I sure as hell do not want to know.
He wants to sketch me in the nude. I agree, I'm in no hurry, I've got time. I lay on the bed, the most substantial piece of furniture in his small home, and sip wine while he draws. He looks at me, and I look at him looking at me. I don't bother to try to stay in the same exact position. I don't care if it makes it more difficult for him.
I'm glad he's not as scrawny as I thought. It might've been difficult to get in the mood, if he was very skinny. I try not to compare his build to my children, try not to imagine them at this age, try not to guess which one will grow up to look like this. I remember young men from my youth, the ones with that same body type. How they grew up to be. Not one of them stayed this boyish. Nothing stays the same, nothing. Or maybe everything does. I sip my wine and watch him work. He's so concentrated, his eyes dart between me and the paper.
He stays hard the entire time.
I look at his cock and try to imagine it inside me. I guess I won't have to imagine much longer. I wonder what he imagines, but it doesn't hold my interest for very long.
He doesn't show me his sketch, and I don't ask him to. When he's done he simply puts it away and comes to bed with me.
He touches me. His hands are warm, his fingers slow and respectful. He maps my skin, the borders of me. He traces the line of the scar from my emergency c-section, and the smaller scars, left by my pregnancies. He outlines my sides down to my hips, and I open my legs for him to see. He kneels beside me and touches my vulva, slowly, respectfully. He looks at me, but I close my eyes.
He's got a nice touch. He has some idea what he's doing, and slowly I begin to let go. I move against his hand, I feel myself getting wetter, opening to him.
When he enters me, I really want him to. It's such a sacred moment, to meet someone like this. He is so hard and so hot, and when he slowly slides inside me we both hold our breaths. He's not bad at all. He's eager, and he's very hard, but he doesn't rush. In fact, it's difficult to get him to speed up at all. I get so impatient I push him on his back and do it myself. He holds my hips, tight, and looks at my breasts, mesmerized by how they sway when I ride him. He comes, strongly and with his whole body. I slow down, let him have his moment. He pants, then catches his breath, looking up at me with his big, dark eyes. I wait, and when he doesn't go soft, I smile at him. He seems totally overwhelmed by the smile.
I start to move again, slowly, testing him. I don't know if it should be counted as a new erection, if it never goes away? What does it matter, anyway? Who am I counting them for? Like I'm ever gonna tell anyone about this.
We rock together, slowly at first, and then a little faster. Now that he's come once already he doesn't resist so strongly, when I guide him to go faster. He's so concentrated, there's such devotion in him. I'm embarrassed at first, but eventually let myself get flattered, why the hell not. I let him worship me, and he gets me to forget myself and rise higher, and higher, and higher still.
When I come, he comes with me. It's good, that shared rhythmic pulsing, and I smile at him again. He smiles back, radiantly. He's pleased with himself, and why not, he should be.
We rest a little and then do it again. And again. I had forgotten how young men are, how they can just do it, day in and day out. I remember being like that, myself. How did we ever get anything else done, back then? We had so much energy, and so much time, we thought we had all the time in the world and then some. We thought we had the world.
All this tires the kid out, and when the night comes, he sleeps. God, he looks just like my youngest, doesn't he? That exact position. The way his face wrinkles up and then smooths again, when he falls deeper into his sleep. I wonder what he's dreaming about. Maybe me? No, probably not, not until I'm gone.
I get up carefully, not to wake him, and use the bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror, and tie my hair back. I tilt my head back to see the shape of my nostrils. So similar to yours. Exactly the same as yours. I wonder if I'll look like that, when I'm dead. I wonder what age I'll be, when I die. I always thought you'd live to be older than your mother when she died, and I'd live to be older than you. There ought to be a rule for that. You died so young, I feel much older now myself. So much older than just a week ago.
I go back to the room and look for my clothes. On a whim I start to check out the kid's work, the paintings he has laying around, turned away so that the picture side is facing the wall. He's not a bad painter. I don't know if he's had any success yet, but I'm guessing in time he might, if he perseveres. I guess he might do that. I think he's got enough ambition.
I find a picture of myself. I look at the painting for a long time. There's no doubt it's me, in the park, on my bench. Or one of the benches, I haven't kept a fixed spot. I'm wearing my new violet coat. I look preoccupied and solemn. The line of my shoulders is one I haven't seen on myself, but I have no trouble imagining I look like that now. There's a feeling in the painting, and it's just . . . wrong.
The kid has a crush on me. He's constructed some sort of a fantasy image of me, and whatever it is, it's not me. Oh, fuck.
I stand for a long time, looking at the picture and then at the sleeping boy.
Oh, hell no. I can't deal with this shit. I just can not.
I arrange his paintings the way they were. I dress, quietly, and leave. I feel vaguely guilty. I think of leaving a note, but what am I to say? "It's not you, it's me?" "I love you, but we can never be?" I almost laugh at the flat cliches I'm able to come up with. No, better play the mystery card until the bitter end, and just leave.
I walk the empty streets towards the railway station, keeping well away from the busier streets with all the bars. I pass an open pharmacy, and step in to buy a morning after pill. I hope the kid didn't give me any diseases, that would be most inconvenient. I wonder how I can be so cold. Why am I not a better person? Why didn't you raise me better? Am I too old to blame you for my mistakes? Is it too late to blame you for my mistakes?
Do I have to grow up now?
There's no train until six o'clock in the morning. I consider going to a hotel, but can't be bothered. I sit in an all night service station and drink fourteen cups of black coffee. My stomach gets upset, but it doesn't interest me.
I sit in the train and watch the city fall behind. I imagine the kid waking up in his empty apartment.
Months later, I meet my friend in a cafe. We talk, she's concerned about how I've overcome your death. I say I have, and some days I believe it. She never does. I guess she's imagining losing her own mother. Their relationship is nothing like ours though, right? What do you think? You don't think anything anymore. There's no you left, only this ghost I carry around in my head. I wonder if it's always going to be like that, but it's okay, either way.
My friend shows me a picture on her phone.
"I went to the opening at that gallery," she says. "Remember? I told you about it. And there was this one painting. It's you, isn't it?"
I look at the picture. It is me, on the park bench, in my violet coat. I haven't used the coat since I got home. I have kept it, though. I still don't know if it fits me, if I'm suited to be that person in this world. Even if I am, I'm the last one. My children will grow up to be their father. Nobody will grow up to be me. It's sad, but it's liberating: the ones to go before me have all gone, and nobody will come after me. It's just me, free and loose in this world. And alone, but maybe that's the price I have to pay for that kind of freedom.
"It sure looks like me," I say, in a noncommittal way. My friend looks at me, and I see I can't fool her. She's disappointed I don't confess.
"What was the name of the painting?" I ask and sip my coffee.
"'The grieving muse'," she says. I spit my coffee all over the table.
"God, that's terrible," I say, and laugh so hard my stomach starts to hurt.