The water is bubbling loudly within the walls of the tea kettle. In moments it'll be howling. I sit quietly at the table, my hands folded lightly. The old woman says, "I have no cream here, only a bit of sugar and milk. If that's fine,"
"Of course," I hear the clink of a spoon falling into an empty cup. A little container of stir-in coffee waits with a measuring spoon beside the up. She doesn't look at me when she speaks, casting only glances over her shoulder as she prepares only a single cup. Rain falls in rullets down the window behind the curtains casting snake like shadows onto the table. Some electric lamp post buzzes outside, shining tawny orange light through the window. It makes the kitchen look a hundred years old, the dust catching the light and flickering. Against the window, she's installed security bars that cast thick black shadows on the table as well, and as I notice them criss cross against my hands, I draw them back, into my lap. On the microwave, the time reads in green letters: 12:74. It blinks. And blinks.
I come here every Sunday although each feels like a first, and each ends as awkward, as stiff as the last. Perhaps I think this time it will be different, especially in how she has not offered to take my coat. A single change which ripples through me, hopeful.
But because she has not taken my coat, I never put it on it's hook by the door. The room smells of damp earth and the air is thick. The coat is heavy and sweat gathers at the small of my back. I tuck a strand of short hair behind my ear.
"How is your mother?" She asks me, and I cast her a wry glance.
"I," I open my mouth, shut it, suddenly agitated that she has caught me off guard this way. Slowly, I say, "How are you?"
"Well enough," She says curtly.
"Then," I try a small, innocent smile her way, "My mother is fine,"
"Fine," She repeats, testing out the word, and I cannot reply. Silence falls onto the kitchen table so heavily the vase of browning carnations at its center shudders, it's foggy water rippling. A roach scuttles beneath the stove. I want to adjust how I sit but I don't want to disturb this quiet that has settled over us; I swallow and even that is much too loud.
In the living room she has put a record on. Simon & Garfunkel, sweet and nostalgic, drifts into the room but I cannot hear the words somehow.
A sort of light shines through a crack in the silence. I grasp it, find it solid, say, "I called my brother last week,"
"Oh?" Is all she says, her arms folded over her flat chest. She's finally turned to face me but I do not think it is because she is curious about her son.
"Yes. He's well." I offer a smile once more, and this one fills out my cheeks, "He's in school again, actually taking it seriously, and he-"
"You've cut your hair,"
Stopped short, I blink, my mouth agape. "Yes," I glance up at her again, then go on to offer an explanation she didn't ask for, at least not out loud, "It's too hot for long hair. And I don't think I was taking good enough care of it,"
"Well, it just takes some extra effort," she says, fingering her own silvery hair. She closes her eyes, sighs through her nostrils. "When you were three, your hair reached just above your butt. I'd braid it every Sunday for church. The dresses you wore… I still have your old Mary Janes, though they're a little scuffed… They're in my closet, I believe… Anyway, your hair always looked well in ribbons. Pink, especially." She opens her eyes. "Do you still wear ribbons in your hair?"
"Ah," I shrug, "I haven't… Not recently,"
"I see," she says, clicking her tongue. Her arms remain folded, her gaze towards the window. The curtains flutter as the A/C kicks on.
I touch my hair gingerly, between index finger and thumb. "I like it a lot," I say. I can feel my toe dipping into water but I am not yet sure if it is too cold or too hot. The old woman does not give a reply but she does sigh.
"Have you been to church?" She asks me after a time.
"Um," I look at the window before she can look at me. I have not been to church in a long while, haven't read my bible, or done devotions in years. Since I was fifthteen, actually. But I pray. I pray often. I want to tell her this but I think the silence has been wedged with an answer already; no. I don't. The kettle begins to whistle, with steam blowing up. The old woman makes no move to remove it. I still haven't answered her question. The oven light flickers as a nearby train rumbles by, making the porcelain shake in it's cupboard.
"Mother," I say. The old woman leans against the counter where she has been throughout my nighttime meeting and behind her, beneath the oven light, a little wooden plaque reads, 'GOD LOVES US,' and I shudder. "Mother," I say again, "the water,"
Her eyes have closed once more and she sighs softly, doesn't turn around but walks to the cupboard behind me then stops, puts her hand on my shoulder, whispers, "What have you made yourself into since I saw you last?"
Her breath is on my neck and I forget about the kettle, "What do you mean?"
"Children like you think they mold themselves with their own hands, like some sculptor. Have you even the right clay?"
"No, listen, let me speak. Your father is gone and your brother, too, but you might as well also be. What are you now? What have you done to yourself?"
I think I'm happy now, I want to say, but the truth in those words fizzles out in my throat. Is that true? Would she sniff out my lying? Am I lying? I can't tell. The kettle screams. It trembles on the stove. I move to rise but her hand shoves me back into the chair and the table rattles once more and somewhere the train tumbles on, horn blaring, and the vase tips over. Water rushes toward the end of the table, dribbles down onto the wood panel floor.
"You know, your identity is meant to stay the same throughout your life," the old woman tells me, "that's the horror of it all - we try to change but find we only snap back to our old selves, like rubber bands. Save yourself the effort," Moving to rise again I succeed this time, my chair scraping to fall backward onto the floor with a thump. "Some young people think if they cut their hair, they'll change something,"
"Some people think they can become the sculptor,"
"Exchange intergenerational trauma for something more,"
"My mother taught me the same, and her mother before her,"
"Let me pray for you, daughter,"
I grab the counter and drag myself to my feet, heaving the words, Oh God. The old woman's breath is on the rim of my ear, hot and humid, "Those tangles of dead hair at your feet, has it shown you anything?" Her gnarly hands reach and find the hem of my jacket, tug, "You know," she says, and I fall backwards in slow motion, fingers grasping for the curtains which tear from their rings one by one, "In thirty years time, you'll be as much like me as every other girl is,"
"But mother," I cry, soundless, "that isn't what I am,"
My back strikes the floor and I scramble to my feet, hear my jacket tear in her fist. In the living room I can hear the chords to some guitar, strumming pleasantly but whatever words accompany it are drowned out by the vase falling onto the floor, shattering, the piercing shriek of the kettle and my boots, scraping on the floor as I run for the hallway. In picture frames I see motherly love and a father in a military uniform, a young boy with a baseball bat, sepia colored nostalgia, a smiling child with ribbons in their hair, a church, a graduation, an annuciation, communication, fornification, and I run, hear my mother after me. I trip on the coat hangers knobby feet, break my nose on the door. Both of my hands fall onto the brass door knob, rattle it madly. The front door flies open and I stumble, slamming it behind me, fling myself onto the porch, onto the front lawn, grass in my teeth, smearing blood wherever I hurl myself to. I hear the front door fly open as I scramble down the driveway. The sidewalk is still warm from that days heat and I run. I hear her call after me, accompanied by the horn of the rumbling train.
Running, my lungs burn, the kettle screams on, and foggy water seeps between the floorboards into the rotten foundation. I rush past a hedge, a little girl's abandoned hair ribbon caught in it's branches, fluttering in the night breeze.