My mother broke every plate in the house that day. She had destroyed the plastic plates first, each artificial disk severed before meeting the kitchen floor. She had taken the paper plates too, ripping them with her delicate hands until they had reached the floor, a despondent end to the lively meals that they had hosted. The only thing that remained untouched by her angry hands were the cutlery and china, which sat slightly dusty behind glass doors–a showcase to all the times they hadn’t been used. My sister, Devin, was the one who found our mother kneeling in the kitchen, her sobs the only words to capture her sorrow.
I was traveling in Europe when the news reached me; through a detached digital invitation, I was welcomed to attend my father’s funeral.
A small bag was my only partner for the excruciating flight home. I met Devin at the front of the airport, New York’s cold dryness siphoning off the sweat that had collected under my hair. Her car smelled strongly of something sour–a mark of its age, perhaps–and I climbed into the passenger’s seat holding my breath.
“That’s it?” I wasn’t sure if she was talking about me or my bag.
“I’m only staying for a few days,” I said. She took my bag from my lap and threw it into the backseat. I could tell she was annoyed with me, but I didn’t say anything.
We drove for an hour through city traffic, past buildings I hadn’t seen in years. It was now that Devin told me the story of my mother’s uncharacteristic breakdown and my father’s unexpected accident. Someone ran a red light while my father was crossing the street. My mother was told by the police that it was a comfort to know he died instantly. It seemed she instead found comfort in destroying things she had less care for.
Halfway into our journey, I noticed an empty pack of cigarettes next to my sister’s foot. It was misshapen, out of a hurried disposal, I guessed, but through the turbulence of our drive, it seemed to have been dislodged from its hiding place. I never knew that my sister smoked, but I chose not to put much thought into her personal affairs, as I did with most people.
Devin turned into the driveway I long hoped I would never see again; the virgin white of the house, the crisply tethered red bows to reflect the holiday spirit, and the remnants of stale frost that reached through the dirt created the portrait most expected of my family. We parked next to my mother’s car, which was seemingly untouched by the stiff winter air.
“It looks exactly the same,” I said. Devin handed me my bag and walked ahead of me. When she stopped me on the porch, I felt no surprise.
“Look.” She tilted her head down and hastily tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear, looking at me as if I was a child who needed lecturing. “It would mean a lot to Mom if you at least pretended that you cared about what’s at hand.” Her eyes never left mine, their familiar glare almost overwhelming.
“I do care about what’s at hand.”
“We all know you don’t. Grandma was just saying yesterday-”
“Grandma loves to gossip. You’ve been around her long enough to know that.” I tried to open the door, feeling frustrated with her and, for some reason, with my mother. “Let’s just go inside.”
“No,” Devin said resolutely. “I won’t have you fucking things up like you always do.” I knew she was trying to spite me so perhaps I would remain silent my whole visit, but I cared little. I pushed past her and opened the door. My mother was sitting at the head of the dining room table, an empty glass in her hands.
“Hi, Mom.” There was a curious distrust in her eyes, like I was a stranger who had wandered into her house to dirty the white carpets. She set the glass down, impassive to my greeting. Devin walked over to the table and reached for the glass. Plucking it from the table, she walked into the kitchen. I heard running water hitting the glass. She reemerged a moment later.
“The funeral is tomorrow at noon,” my mother said bluntly. She didn’t take her eyes away from the glass, which Devin had placed back in its original spot.
My mother took the glass in her hands again, drained it, and left the room. Devin folded her arms tightly to her body, replacing our mother in the empty chair.
“I would stay out of her way, if I were you,” Devin said. “She’s finally quitting.”
“Well, that’s good.” I meant it.
“I had to take all the alcohol out of the house. You should have seen her for the first few days; it was absolute hysteria. Her lack of drink surely took part in the plate incident.”
The plate incident. It was as if she was reciting the name of a historical event.
As promised, the funeral began promptly at noon. I had never been to a funeral before so I was unprepared for the endless brazen comforts from distant relatives who swore we had met when I was younger. When I told them I was traveling for work, they all said the same thing:
“Oh my goodness! I’ve always wanted to travel; never had the time, though. Quite unfortunate!” Then they would add in some part about my father–a way to comfort me, I suppose.
My mother detached herself from the bulbous crowd, which swarmed the closed casket like fish to food, their eyes bulging just as similarly. They all exclaimed how terrible, how unfortunate this event was, wishing to give my mother the same condolences they had to me and my sister. She, however, resided in a room off from the main one for the majority of the funeral. I went in at one point, per request of my sister, perhaps to cure her of her weariness. Her eyes followed my uncomfortable entrance into the room.
“Do you need anything?” I asked, politely.
“I’m fine, thanks.” She was a constant reservoir for facades, my mother was, but I was the rain that kept it filled.
She looked away from me and into the small strips of sunlight that decorated the floor by the window, caused by the nearly closed venetian blinds. I wanted to apologize for her sorrow, though the one that bothered her presently was not the one I caused. I sat down next to her on the couch by the large window that donned the farthest wall, my legs causing its plastic lining to squish awkwardly. I observed the faded fabric underneath the plastic; it was growing old, the lining meant to keep it fresh, but to a close observer like myself it was obvious that there was no intention for the couch to be veiled by something artificial. The funeral parlor must have felt it needed to keep something alive.
“I’m sorry,” I said anyway, out of something for her I had suppressed. The same was in her eyes, a feeling once rejected, now the cause for warmth. She was looking at me differently than she had yesterday; soft creases, reflective of the years she had hidden with creams and powders, highlighted by tears. My mother leaned in to me, onto me, rested her head on my shoulder, and allowed herself to become flawed.
In the wake of her tears, she yielded a response: “I know.”
It was then that I felt more had to be said. Years of regret tumbled out of me without my permission, as though my tongue was my brain. She heard my sorrow as I had heard hers, my travels being for more than my work, my wish for penance for the pain I bestowed upon her, my father, Devin.
“I do not deserve the happiness I was given in Europe,” I said, a fit of anguish being the curious finish to my grieving tale. My mother looked at me sullenly. For a moment, I thought I saw agreement in her eyes, but she disagreed with me by voice.
“It is not your fault for wanting to pursue other worldly matters from places other than your desk at home. It was wrong of me to assume you would remain at home for the duration of your living.”
“How could I have left you?” I questioned; my times in Europe had been haunted by this question. “You were struggling, and I knew that. How was I allowed to leave you then?”
Before she answered, however, I noticed a glass beneath the table filled with red wine. I was taken back to the previous day, when instead of feigned understanding, I had been faced with hidden disdain. My shoes were suddenly laden with dirt again. My mother seemed to notice my change; she followed my eyes to the place where the glass was hidden. A series of protests began to spill out of her as the regret had out of me. How had I begun to apologize, the years of anxiety expelled into the air between us, with a lie standing right beside me? How had I not known it was next to my foot?
I kicked the glass, the red liquid staining the carpet as it had my mother’s lips in years previous. Everything suddenly made sense; the bewitching look of my mother’s eye, the foreign tears, the false love–it was the cause of drink. It was at that exact moment that Devin entered.
She too had noticed the red stain on the carpet. There was no marked change but for her eyes; I saw hatred and misery. That was my moment to leave; as if pulled by an invisible force who had fettered me to strings, I felt I was nothing but a puppet to the family that held my shackles.