We sat in silence across the table from each other. All around us silverware and glasses gently clinked, the sound of sizzling bacon and sausages along with the scents of freshly made coffee and somewhere something sweet, a pie warm out of the oven, filled the air. I toyed with my silverware, unsure of what to say, finally unwrapping my scarf from around my neck and laying it on top of my purple knitted purse on the seat next to me.
I had been here a few times, mostly at two a.m. after a long night of club hopping and downing drinks like they were water or tea. The smell of grease and coffee were familiar to me, although a bit unpleasant at eight at night. The crowd was different too. Besides she and I, there was an elderly man seated at the counter staring into his cup of ice water and in the front of the restaurant, a young couple sat huddled together, occasionally kissing each other softly. Probably a new relationship, I decided.
“I always had all of these ideas of what I would say if this day ever came.”
I glanced at her as she spoke and nodded in agreement, my eyes shifting to a man at the jukebox by the entrance at my left. I wondered where he had come from, I hadn’t noticed him when I first looked around the restaurant. I hadn’t ever really thought about having a conversation with her, only ever had I daydreamed of asking her the question I’m sure all people in my position had thought of asking- “Why?” I was curious as to what she wanted to know, why she had agreed to meet me here at this Pancake House in the first place.
“You look like your father.”
Her laughter made me look her in the eyes. Was she nervous? Her fingers tapped on her water glass, her dark brown eyes trying to search my face without staring. Honestly, it wasn’t what I expected her to say, but what does one expect to hear from their mother, whom they have never previously met, after twenty-eight years?
I nodded nonchalantly again, not being able to come up with a response to her statement and choosing silence instead. She cleared her throat and I wondered if she was uncomfortable, wondered what she expected me to say. Wondered what else she wanted or needed to say.
“So, tell me a little bit about your life.”
Her eyes held a look of such hope and it reverberated in her words. I took a sip of my coffee and inwardly cringed. My Keurig made better coffee and right now I needed something that didn’t look and taste like mud. Alas, I figured she would pay for the coffee so really, could I complain? Free coffee was free coffee.
“Well, I’m a part-time freelance writer, part-time artist. I’m an only child, no relationship, love to read. I love the ocean, I grew up there. I have a fairly decent collection of books, my favorite genre is fiction with memoirs coming in at a close second.”
I realized how trivial everything I had just said sounded but I didn’t know what the woman wanted to hear so I just gave her a tiny nibble before seeing how big of a bite she was looking for.
“And your childhood? Your family?”
Ah, so that’s what she wanted. I chewed gently on the inside of my cheeks while I debated. It seemed my whole life had come down to this moment, this exact moment. I had practiced these next lines in my mind so much without ever knowing why but now it was so clear to me. I suppose I had mentally rehearsed them in case I ever made it big with either my writing or my art. I supposed now would be as good a situation as any to use the speech I had prepared.
“Well I was raised by a man who was in the military, he ordered parts for some company or other, I’m not sure. He also worked part-time cutting grass for a church, for extra money. He was an alcoholic and spent away most of his and his wife’s money on his addiction so sometimes the extra money paid the bills but most times it was just more drinking money.”
“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that. That must have been hard to grow up with an alcoholic parent. But your mother, she was your rock?”
“He’s a good man. He loved me. Loves me. There wasn’t ever anything I wanted for. He used to play eighties rock music for me when I was a kid and carry me in his arms and dance around for hours and hours until I fell asleep, until I was too big to carry. He used to tape together pieces of construction paper for me and we would color scenes together, I don’t remember now what we colored, but we did it together. He collected stamps and would sit for hours with his great big books opened, a stamp in one hand, a magnifying glass in the other, searching for a new home for his newest stamp. He loved it and those stamps will be worth a lot one day.”
I realized that she had asked about my mother but that was a disappointing and short story.
“My mother is like any other woman. She uses men, sucks the life out of them, depletes their resources in order to obtain what she wants and then she moves onto the next. She is narcissistic and a control freak who thinks she’s the queen of her own kingdom. She has a God complex and thinks everything around her should be made to her specifications, especially me. I’ve been a great disappointment to her.”
I told her this description of my mother proudly, I wasn’t ashamed of being a failure in my mother’s eyes, a disappointment. If anything, it made me feel better, stronger. But the pained look in her eyes wasn’t what I had expected. I supposed I had expected her to continue to hold the nervousness while she asked more questions.
“I’m sure she did what she thought was right for you, as a child.”
“I’m sure she did what she thought was right for her and her image as the mother she wanted to portray to everyone. There weren’t many people who knew that I was adopted, you know. She was ashamed of the fact I think. She told everyone I was Vietnamese, same as her, but some people could tell. Some people said I looked more Filipino. Of course, I never really knew what I was made up of, I only knew I didn’t look like anyone in the family.”
“Well, how were the three of you as a family? What kinds of things did you do together? Family traditions?”
“Well my Dad drank a lot, like I mentioned so he spent most of his time in this little tool room in our garage, smoking his Dorals and listening to music, drinking down a case of Busch and having conversations with whoever lived in his head. My mother was a stay at home mother until I was almost a teen, I think, I can’t remember honestly, there’s so much I’ve blocked out about my childhood. She stayed out for days on end, usually she would go to her Vietnamese friends houses and play Vietnamese card games, smoke a thousand cigarettes, sleep there and then come home in time to take me to school in the morning. Sometimes she would drag me with her. I always slept in whatever I wore over there.”
Across from me she squirmed. I knew my words were probably not helping at putting her mind at ease after her life decision all those years ago but she needed to know the truth. I needed her to know the truth. My whole life had been built on lies and I needed a change.
“What were you like as a child?”
“I was quiet, withdrawn, fearful. She made me that way, you know. She always told me that I couldn’t trust anyone in the world but her, that everyone else was only out to get me, to hurt me. With her being gone all the time and my Dad drinking I ended up entertaining myself most of the time. I would sit in my room for hours in front of the television and watch horror movie after horror movie and try the best I could to find something that made me feel fear, made me feel anything. I think Poltergeist was the only movie that came close to it. Although, the sound of dishes and glasses shattering in the kitchen when they used to fight would make me anxious and that’s as good a feeling as any I suppose. Reminds you that you’re alive.”
“Did things ever get better?”
“Yes, of course. When I was eighteen my Dad reconnected with a high school sweetheart and moved out. I was supposed to move to live with him but I had been in a relationship at the time and couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this amazing guy behind, so I stayed. I dealt with that woman for another six years until I met a guy, had a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown and moved across the country. Then, I never spoke to her again. That made it all better.”
I decided to spare her the details of what all happened during the first eight years of my moving cross country. Those years were too depressing even for me.
“You’re obviously a very strong, young woman. Tell me what drives you, what gives you strength?”
I wondered if I had said enough already, there were positive things in my life, things that gave me peace and joy and the greatest sense of love I had ever known but I didn’t want to share these things with a woman who for so many years hadn’t wanted to share anything with me.
“I draw strength from knowing that my every decision, my every action, brings me one step further into my desire to leave behind what I came from, to be better than what I’ve left behind, to be a better wife, a better mother, a better person than what I was dealt in life.”
I searched her face after I said this and the pain in her eyes was unmistakable. Tears shimmered and she smiled softly, eyes dropping to her cup. She swallowed visibly several times before speaking.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you for sharing with me so honestly.”
Standing, she buttoned her coat around her, shouldered her handbag and after putting on her gloves and sliding her hands into her pockets she turned to me, still smiling gently.
“Maybe we can have coffee again next week? Same place? You choose the time.”
“Sure. I’ll text you.”
The cheeriness in my voice didn’t match the heaviness in my heart, the bitterness, the anger. I watched as she nodded at me once again, that damned small smile still on her lips. I had hurt her though and I knew it. The pain I was feeling was unbearable, although I had long since become immune to tears, my ducts long ago had dried up, or so I was convinced.
I sat for a moment before pulling out my cellphone and calling my mother in law.
“Mom? Do you think you could meet me at the Pancake House on Ridgemont and Clack? No, yeah, I’m okay. I just needed someone to talk to and who better to talk to than my mom?”
And I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel something on my cheek and raising my hand, I marveled at the wetness on my fingertips as I tried to remember the last time I had cried.
Written in response to The Daily Post.