By Erica Lee Smith
It’s not eavesdropping if other people’s words find their way to you when you’re just minding your own business. At least that’s what she tells herself, as she stands by the open window above the kitchen sink, inhaling the fragrance of day lilies that she had cut earlier that morning and arranged in the Murano glass vase Jason had given her for Christmas last year, the fourth task on her list of many for the day. She worked herself to the bone, truth be told, which is why she had allowed herself to be shepherded to her bedroom after two and a half glasses of Chablis, and why now, many hours later, she finds herself dry mouthed and wide awake, seeking a glass of water but stumbling into a conversation she is at first rather pleased to hear.
“I think we can call today a success.” Her oldest, Jason. Who has proven to be the sort of person, the sort of man, you could be proud of. Even-tempered, guided by a strong sense equity. Equanimous, that’s how she thinks of him.
“I wish Mom had let us help out a little more with getting everything ready,” Lucie says.
Andrea smiles, just a little. The meal consisted of all of Jeffrey’s favorites: steak, swordfish, roasted asparagus, arugula, potato salad with spicy brown mustard. The vanilla cake frosted with melted chocolate chips and sour cream. Jason had brought a bottle of Macallan scotch, Jeffrey’s favorite. They all had a little.
“You know how she is,” Tyler says.
“Hopefully this can now be put to bed.” Though she can’t see him, she can sense Jason’s yawn almost more than she can hear it. “We’ve celebrated the sixtieth birthday Dad is never going to have, and now hopefully we can begin to carry on a little more like he’s dead—which he is. And which of you is doing the Fourth?”
“The Fourth?” Tyler asks. “That’s in like, three weeks.”
“No kidding. And seeing as both Luce and I were here for Easter and Luce was here for Memorial Day, I think it is your turn, Tyler.”
“My turn? Come on, man. If we’re here now and the Fourth is less than a month away, why do any of us need to be here at all? It’s not like there’s so much great shit to be celebrating, anyway.”
“If there’s nothing to celebrate, why is it a problem?”
Much like she could sense Jason’s yawn, she can now sense Tyler’s frown, the petulant look he must have on his face this very moment, the same look he used to get as a toddler. “Because I have plans,” he says finally. “And isn’t Mom a grown-up? She has plenty of friends. I don’t understand why we have to make sure she’s got one of her kids with her for every holiday, I mean, what the—”
“I’ll do it.” Lucie, sounding resigned.
“But you always do it,” Jason says.
Everything stings, even the air is hurting her, but still Andrea cannot move. Should her three children decide to get up and come inside they will find her standing here by the open window above the sink, so obviously eavesdropping.
Is it possible she misheard?
Is it possible she is still asleep and this is just a dream?
“I don’t mind,” Lucie says, in a tone that suggests she does mind, quite a bit.
The conversation shifts as Jason begins interrogating Tyler about his Fourth of July plans, and Andrea finally regains the control of her limbs. She orders herself to retreat, but can’t bear the idea of going into the master bedroom; instead she goes into Lucie’s old room. Jason and Tyler’s bedrooms had long ago been converted into guest rooms, but Lucie’s room Andrea has mostly kept the same. Lucie was thoughtful enough to remove the Ani DiFranco posters and the framed Mary Oliver poetry quotes she had hung up but Andrea has left the bookshelf, overflowing with books by authors she has never heard of before and had never really thought of to ask about. The same tufted wool rug with its collage of colorful intersecting rectangles. She helped Lucie pick out the rug; rather, she can recall steering Lucie in this direction, when Lucie had expressed interest in something else. What was it? Andrea can’t remember now.
The resignation in her daughter’s voice has settled over Andrea like a fine mist. A fine, poisonous mist. Andrea sits on the edge of the bed, trying to slow her thoughts that are careening in all directions.
Her children are arguing over whose turn it is to spend time with her?
The countless minutes, hours, days, adding up to years: raising children. Sacrificing so much of yourself, so much of your own wants, preferences, desires, to shuttle kids to activities, plan birthday parties, never mind the endless laundry, meal prep, dishes. The desire for a few hours of alone time at the end of the day, having to choose between this time or blessed sleep, it didn’t seem fair.
But Andrea had always pushed such thoughts out of her mind, refused to allow them to settle long enough to take root. How fortunate was she? Her now dead husband had ensured their family would be financially comfortable, he had worked hard and was a good provider. First cars, college tuition, all of that, taken care of.
She’s seen Lucie more than the other two, Andrea knows this, and was perhaps aware of it in the back of her mind. While it’s true she finds Jason the easiest to talk to, she has always enjoyed spending time with Lucie, her youngest, adopted, yes, from another country, to boot, but that did nothing to alter the love Andrea has always felt for her. But did Lucie enjoy spending time together—as Andrea has always assumed—or was she doing it because she felt obligated?
Had she wanted to go on that long weekend to Brattleboro?
Would she have preferred to go with friends, or go alone, to the book festival last fall?
Is the Tea Room really her favorite breakfast spot?
Andrea squeezes her eyes shut, grips the edge of the bed, as the onslaught of memories overwhelms her.
Lucie, seven years old. So that means Jason was thirteen, Tyler eleven. She had hung new curtains in the living room but wasn’t sure if they were too sheer, if people might be able to look into their house in the evening when the lights were on, and see them, even with the curtains drawn. “Stand right here, all three of you,” she remembers telling them. “I just want to check one thing.”
She had it in mind that she could be sitting on the couch, reading a book, or drinking a glass of wine with the news, and a passerby might glance over and be able to see them. She stepped outside, walked toward the perimeter of the front lawn. Turned to face the house. All she saw was the suggestion of movement—Lucie was shaking her head, waving her arms, doing a little dance. Not holding still at all. Andrea rushed back in and grabbed her daughter’s arm, hard enough to hurt.
“I said to hold still,” she snapped before letting go.
That’s all there is though, of that memory. Surely there was a reason, or she’s misremembering, and Lucie had done something more to warrant the response. Right? But that memory is over and the next one plays out: yelling at Lucie about a C on her algebra test (that same test that Tyler had failed four years earlier); mocking the feminist folk music Lucie took interest in during high school; forcing her to continue swim team even though she hated it . . . It would seem there is a deluge of awful memories, times when Andrea lost her temper or acted in a way that embarrasses her now to think back on it. There were good times, she knows this, she swears, but recalling them now is impossible—only the shameful, the regrettable, the actions made in anger are available, as if they were the only things that actually transpired. But that simply cannot be, right?
Everything, it seems, is in question now. How can she know that anything is really true? She curls up on her daughter’s bed and closes her eyes. She’ll ask them tomorrow, one at a time, in private. She won’t make it seem like a big deal, and she certainly will not let on that she at all heard even a single word of their conversation last night.
When you think back to your childhood, what do you remember? she’ll ask. She’ll be receptive to whatever they say. Tell me your fondest memory of us together.