“Talk to me, just talk to me,” she pleaded, tears running down her cheeks. “Say Mommy,” she whispered over and over, but just like all the other days he would stare back at her, wide-eyed, confused, sometimes horrified, not saying anything. On those days, she wished she had given birth to a normal child.
She often blamed herself for their circumstances, but sometimes when she came home from work late at night, too tired to even take responsibility for her own life, she blamed her boy for everything. And she hated herself for it. Deep down, she loved him like any other mother would naturally love her child, but life wasn’t supposed to be this hard. She wasn’t ready for this. She wasn’t strong enough.
Turning the key to the small apartment that had been a home to her for almost three years now, Libby still felt the strain after yet another long day of serving strangers at the diner. Her back hurt. She could feel each painfully tense muscle in her neck. Taking a deep breath, she entered what she called home.
“I’m back.” The nonchalant tone of her voice surprised her. Her mother’s face appeared in the door frame of the kitchen. For a moment they stared at each other, until her mother turned away, and the clattering sound of dishes filled the silence between them. Kicking off her shoes, Libby stumbled towards his room and peeked inside. She could make out the profile of his body curled up underneath the blankets. He looked peaceful. Afraid that he might wake up again, she didn’t enter his room but leaned against the door frame, listening to his even breathing.
She closed the door to his room and sank into the kitchen chair a moment later. Her fingers searched the table, finding a box of matches underneath loose papers and bills. She still had to pay last week’s rent. She knew that each drag from the cigarette drained her further of the little energy that she had left, but she needed this. She needed this moment of peace and quiet. Her head was weighing her down, so she held it in her hands.
“You’ve got to show more affection,” her mother said, breaking the peaceful silence. Annabelle Burton was a strong woman, but life hadn’t left her unmarked. Driven by her feelings for a young fellow she had met in high school, she had married too young. He’d left as soon as she’d gotten pregnant. Watching her own daughter go through the same struggle, she remembered her similar fate only too well. The worry lines on her forehead seemed more apparent each day.
Libby looked up, her eyes meeting those of her mother’s with disbelief. “More affection?”
“The boy barely knows his mother!” Annabelle protested, helplessly throwing her hands in the air.
Libby’s mind went blank until anger finally made its way through her tired brain. “What do you want from me? It’s not like I’ve chosen any of this.” She slammed her hand down on the table. “Does it look like I’m enjoying any of this? What do you think I’ve been doing all day?”
Grabbing the dish towel, Annabelle started drying the dishes she had been busy cleaning in the sink when Libby had come home.
“You’ve got a kid. He needs your love. That’s all I’m saying.” She put a pile of plates back into the cupboard. They hadn’t been cleaned in days.
“I’m trying to make this work, okay? I’m trying! What else can I do? I’ve been working my ass off all day to pay these bills.” Libby waved one of the papers from the table at her mother. “You see those? They don’t pay for themselves, alright? So you don’t get to judge me. You don’t get to judge me!”
“He needs you –” Annabelle tried in a softer voice, but Libby wouldn’t listen.
“I’m fucking trying!”
Annabelle put down the towel. “Maybe it’s time for me to go now,” she said, sadness ringing in her voice.
“Yes, maybe it is.” Lighting another cigarette, Libby put her head back in her hands. Silent tears ran down her face. She’d been crying a lot lately. The sound of the closing door told her that her mother had left. She would come back the next morning to look after him once again while Libby was at work, making sure there was enough food on the table. It wasn’t the first time they’d had this argument.
It was a cold Sunday morning in February when everything changed. He had turned eleven years old only two weeks before. One of her friends from work had gotten sick the day before, leaving Libby with a double shift on his birthday. Secretly, she had been grateful. After all, there was no point in celebrating his birthday – he wouldn’t get it anyway. So she had taken off early in the morning while he had still been asleep, leaving a box of watercolours with Annabelle. Running a little late, she hadn’t bothered to wrap them.
Today, two weeks later, was the first morning in what felt like ages that Libby could actually sleep in. She had the day off from work; her mother would stay at home, and for once, they wouldn’t be fighting. It was midday when she got out of bed. Smoking a cigarette in the kitchen, she waited for the coffee to filter. She poured herself a big cup and shuffled towards his room. The door was still closed, and there was no noise coming from inside. She opened the door.
Gasping, she took a step back. She felt the wooden door behind her. There was a lioness in his room. It took all her energy to process the picture he was offering her. Some of the watercolours she had given him for his birthday she spotted on the floor, broken. There was paint everywhere. Still, she couldn’t take her eyes off the animal that was staring back at her in what she expected to be its natural size. Mesmerized, Libby observed the lioness’ muscular, energetic legs and her expressive face, losing herself in the incredible depth of her eyes. The animal radiated strength. There was something about the eyes though that she couldn’t make sense of at first. They were beautiful of course – gold irises framed by dark fur. Standing there in his room, watching those eyes, she felt like she was looking down to the bottom of the deepest lake she could imagine. All the air escaped her lungs. She was drowning. Was it worth the struggle? It didn’t hurt. For a moment, Libby welcomed the thought of it all being over. Then she blinked, and she was back – back in his room. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Libby took in the bigger picture. There was a cub she hadn’t yet noticed, trotting next to its mother. As its eyes followed the lead of the bigger animal, it playfully bit her tail. There was something incredibly sad about it.
An overwhelming wave of emotions broke down on her, hitting her at the very core of her existence and Libby forgot everything around her. She forgot all the pain, the misery and desperation, her fear of the future and the present; she forgot about herself and about him. She had never seen anything this beautiful in her life.
Minutes passed before she regained control over her body and mind. Finally, her eyes found him, standing in the middle of the room with his back to her. For a long time, neither one of them moved. Eventually, she saw his fingers twitch. There was paint all over them. He had sensed her presence all along, but something had told him to give her time. When he slowly turned around to face her, a breathtaking smile spread across his face. She was crying again, but it was different from everything she’d felt until then. When she finally smiled back at him, she was overwhelmed with relief and joy because for what felt like the first time in his life, he had found a way to communicate with her. It was his unique way of answering the prayers she’d sent since he was born. And at that moment, she knew that despite everything they had been through, she would never love anyone as much as she loved him.
I am proud to announce that my story “Coloured Desperation” has been awarded 3rd prize in the Daniil Pashkoff Prize, a creative writing contest for non-native speakers, and that it has been published in this year’s anthology “Cat Eye Canasta”.
© Daria Radler, 2014