by Emily Hunt Kivel
My mother looks just like her father, and I look exactly like my mother, which in turn means I look exactly like my grandfather, who, I’ll point out, had a dowager’s hump and a wart over his eyebrow and a purple vein like a spider spread across the left half of his face for more than a third of his life. My brother looks like my father, which is ironically more, well, a lot more, like a woman. Black eyelashes. Mole on cheek. My grandfather died only at sixty-one, speeding recklessly between one place and another but he had lung disease anyway. My mother keeps a picture of that unholy looking man on her nightstand, and I squint at it in the dark from the two twin mattresses my brother and I have on the floor. I dream of headboards. That face looms above. I suppose that’s what we have to look forward to, my mother and me.
Every class is taught in the same room. We sit in the back and I draw images of hearts and monkeys on my own arm while my mother sits in the front of the room looking hard at the blackboard. She keeps raising her hand and answering the professor’s questions before anyone else can, exploding with things like “Pavlov!” with her arm in the air. I tell her I’d rather just hang around on the playground after school and wait there for her to finish class but she’ll never even consider it. My brother is pouting because he had a finger-sized skateboard that got stepped on in the men’s room, whatever that means.
On the night of my first sleepover at my best friend’s house (where is she now, Jackie, was it? Julia?), my mother decides to go on a date. I am waiting to be picked up and my mother sits at the kitchen table in a tight black dress and heels and she’s studying the contents of a purple spiral notebook that is splayed across the wooden surface. She’s mulling over her notes like she’s doing homework, sounding out the names and dates and esoteric concepts in the melodic, awkward Honduran accent that becomes even stronger when she’s confident, softer when she’s scared. My brother is thirteen and allowed to stay home alone in the evening, “main-manning the fort,” as my mother says and I’m not sure it’s a real idiom. But my friend’s mother, who talks clearly and cleanly, is late in getting me and I’m sitting at the kitchen table eating slices of cheese out of a Ziploc bag when the doorbell rings. I rush to get it, ignoring my mother’s garbled protests. The walls of our apartment are damp and wooden, which my mother keeps saying will “be fixed by the man” who is the building’s superintendent, but I like them. I like the pinks and reds of the pictures that line the hallway, the green of the wood where it’s aged. And the table too, its bedraggled, dark cherry. Brown, red, green. Those are the colors, like Christmas. When I open the door, I see a long, lean white man standing before me on the front step. He’s got a thin nose and a way of standing all bandy-legged that makes me nervous. He looks up at me past this blonde hair he’s got arranged slanted toward the side of his face. It’s the professor. My mother catches up with me and blushes.
My mother and the professor want me to call him Hal, and not “the professor.” Everyone, my mom, my brother, and the professor even turn it into a song one night, turn up the stereo and sing Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” all together, erupting in hysterical fits of laughter, except they substitute “Hal” for “Al” although you can’t really tell the difference. I tell him I’ll try and we agree on “Professor Hal” for the time being.
Apparently our father died three years ago and no one told us. Upon hearing this, my brother rams his head into a wall, which is not something he hasn’t done before in overwhelming situations, and my mother decides she wants to marry the professor, except the professor thinks it’s a little rash (he says rash, I take note) and so they do this ceremony in my grandmother’s living room with all of these candles and dried flowers and my mother looks like some sort of dark, fairy queen with her burgundy lipstick. My grandmother I don’t speak the same language. She spends most of her time in the kitchen wiping tear snot from under her nose. The professor has invited all of his friends, or I suppose they are my mother’s friends now but I’ve never seen them before, and we eat this cake flavored like lavender that has no flour in it which, to me, defeats the purpose of a cake but the sugary floral taste bursts into my mouth with each bite and I am happy. Later I rub some of the purple cake into my brother’s hair and he yells at me. The next week we move in with the professor in his house on the top of the hill next to this new high school that my mother says we have to go to because the professor says it’s a good one, even if we protest.
So my brother and I take a bus to school every day and it’s a long, winding walk to the bus stop at the bottom of the hill with all the hill kids boarding, the type of kids we used to make fun of but now we’re sort of one or I suppose two of them. We’re older now, I’m thirteen and he’s fourteen and it’s December, but we start holding hands when we walk down the hill and drop them when we begin to reach the bus with its fresh, juicy sort of heat that wafts over its vinyl seats and its reflective, black windows. We do this everyday, letting our fingers twine together for the ten or so minutes before we reach the road.
My mother stops going to school because she says “Psychologists in a family, who needs two?” which I really think means there is only room for one. When she says this she spreads her thin lips over her teeth in this crazy sort of smile that I can’t help but imitate when I’m talking to her. The professor helps her find another job though that doesn’t involve working behind a register and instead she’s this sort of intake specialist, which is what she calls herself and that’s how I know, at the clinic attached to the college. Except the college clinic is only open Wednesdays and Thursdays and so on all the Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, my mom is at home at the new kitchen table which is a lighter, colder hue like tan and she’s watching movies or reading magazines and dog-earing the pages or making these tiny finger sandwiches out of beets and chickpeas and mayonnaise and forcing us to eat them when we get home from school. I love sitting at the table watching her make them, the beet red electrifying the entire room which is a different sort of gray, but then she puts the sandwiches down and I have to eat them, which I hate doing but I pretend I like it because she seems so proud. My brother doesn’t sit at the table anymore, just rushes upstairs and listens to music or counts the number of steps.
It isn’t so long until one evening we’re all eating in the kitchen. I am at the table with my mother and my brother is sitting on the counter and the professor is just in the doorway looking distracted, when the professor gets a phone call that makes him shriek with joy like a girl. He takes his funny boot-legged white jeans and flip flops with him onto the porch, and then I hear his squeal and his voice gets very high and there’s an energy in the house that is intoxicating and all I can think to do is put my arms around my brother, an embrace that he tries to shrug off but then resignedly returns, and when we look over at my mother I see she’s got a tear in her eye. She says in this lilting vowel-heavy voice how much she likes us and then the professor comes back in swinging the screen door shut and tells us we are moving to Paris.
My brother’s eyes widen and I scream with delight. The professor is just sort of running around the house erratically putting books on top of other books and dropping things and clicking furiously around the computer screen. My mother looks at me seriously. “You will have to leave your school,” she says, like she’s scared of hurting me but is going to do it anyway. I shrug and tell her I don’t care, and I don’t, because my brother and I eat lunch alone on top of a small hill covered in dirt and occasionally poppies outside the back of the auditorium everyday, which is beautiful but mostly boring, and my brother says the same but inside we are both doing that same jump-for-joy scream because France is France and we barely left our old apartment and now we’re leaving the country. My mother tells me it is a great opportunity for the professor, the best he’ll ever have (she lowers her voice), and kisses my head. When I pass through the hallway to get ready for bed, I see the professor has brought out a suitcase and has begun to neatly pile trousers and shirts inside of it.
We’re supposed to be homeschooled by my mother for the first year in Paris, until the professor can find an English-speaking international school to take us, but mostly it involves her shaking bags of rice around the kitchen and burning whatever is on the stove due to “faulty metrics.” Most afternoons, she takes us to a museum and we all walk together, from statue to painting to light installation at the Musée d’Arte Moderne, silently watching each other out of the corner of our eyes. My brother loves Monet, and I love Picasso, which is a funny inversion if you think about it. On one of these trips, as I stand face to face with an almost-life sized statue of a man by my favorite, Picasso, the dark, gray face splashed with streaks of red and his arms twisted and ornate like chandeliers, I peek to my side only to see my mother crying. Tears stream down her face silently and gently, almost like she doesn’t notice they’re there. I hold her hand, and when we walk home she buys us falafel drenched in tahini and garlic.
My brother and I smoke cigarettes with our Swedish friends outside our international school in the 7th arrondissement and invite them over for parties on the occasion my mother and the professor are out for the evening. They sort through the professor’s books on operant psychology for Université de Paris III and ask intentionally stupid questions in their ridiculously attractive Swedish voices. “Go get it, lady, run,” says a boy with curly golden hair when he’s making this joke about the Skinner box and he’s trying to pretend I’m a rat but, theoretically, any other animal would do and he tosses an almond toward me and I catch it and smile. I think of this boy, with his curly hair like haloes around his head and the way he looks at me differently than any other person I know, when I am studying with a large cardboard-smelling book on my lap at the library or when I am walking home from school or when I am sitting at the bottom of our stairwell with my eyes closed or when I’m on the metro. And so my mind is elsewhere one day when I am shopping for spicy foods and cheap shoes in Château Rouge, and I get on the metro and a woman asks me, in broken French, “Voutes êtes noir ou blanche?” Are you black or white? “Ni,” I say, which makes no sense because what it really means is closer to “nor” but what I’m trying to say is “neither.”
On weeknights we eat dinner together, usually chicken in red wine and potatoes or crêpes my mother makes on a large crêpe pan, which we all know is not really the dinner custom in France but we do it anyway, and we bring milk out to the little kitten that lives in our building’s courtyard. We all take pity on her because she’s alone. We’ve never seen her litter, never asked her for the story of her life’s tragedy or inquired whether she simply needs the solitude. Everything is white in the apartment, and at night the light from the professor’s table lamp casts the world in a crackling yellow-green, and through the black window you see the jagged backbones and downy fur of the little cat in the courtyard.
On Sundays, the four of us make breakfast and eat it on our balcony while my mother reads us poetry in her funny mix of heavily Honduran-accented English and French, where the word chanson sounds like chunsoan, which could be just as pretty if you thought about it, which the professor says is like music to his ears. I look at his ears, and see there is hair growing in them. My mother’s arms as she holds the book have gotten chubbier. I look at the picture of my grandfather that rests quietly on her bed stand and decide, yes, she’s starting to change. I am fifteen. Our favorite music is Debussy.
One night I arrive home and my brother is waiting for me at the door of our apartment. “We’ve got to go,” he says, in English that is sort of starting to sound French. “What?” I ask, pushing past him to grab a handful of chocolate cereal from the box on our small kitchen counter. (I love this kitchen counter. Its chocolate smell and its filmy surface that leaves a dust on my hands no matter how many times my mother cleans it. It is a kitchen counter that will stay with me until I die.) “He’s leaving,” my brother says, and my ears attune to the strangled sound of sobs coming from the low-ceilinged living room. The professor isn’t there but that’s not unusual for a Thursday, and as I exit the hallway I see my mother sitting next to the couch, fat arms and skinny legs spread out on the floor, packing things into a suitcase.
These days are not a time for goodbyes. I hope to have a party where I drink more than two glasses of wine and in which the curly-haired boy kisses my lips and eyelids, but the house is too full of clothing and books and my mother drawing angry, invisible circles in the air with her foot and speaking in mean whispers on the phone, which she seems to do around every corner, on every panel of the stained, old floor. My brother collects his things hurriedly, stuffing them into bags so he can sit on the plaid armchair and stare at the wall or smoke cigarettes on the balcony while my mother pretends not to see, which is ridiculous because we all can see him very clearly because the house is beautiful but still so small, although it feels bigger now when it’s just the three of us, without the professor sitting there on the couch with one slender ankle crossed over his knee.
I never see the professor again. When we leave his apartment, it becomes apparent I never really believed her that we were leaving and I realize that I haven’t packed yet and my mother realizes this at the same time and instead of getting mad at me like I expect, she takes me in her arms and hugs me to her, and it’s clear that I’m taller than her now. Her face is buried in my neck and not the other way around and yet I still feel as if I am the one being cradled. Then she helps me pack it all up, and within an hour my room is empty, and I kiss the pink marbling tile of the fireplace like it’s a curly-haired boy’s eyelids. And as we wait for our neighbor, who I think was a chemist but maybe a baker because he always gave my brother and I warm, knobby hunks of bread when we ran into him coming home from work, to come help us take our things down to the train, I am shocked and angered by how little we own. The five purple suitcases and inefficiently-wrapped guitar and box of books and pictures that are our family’s fortune.
I speak at my mother the entire plane ride home, asking her questions like where will we live and what will we do and what was done. It’s as if I’m forgetting the whole thing, the whole last few moments of stillness in the apartment where my mother was holding me but really I was holding her, but still I continue to move my lips at her from my cumbersome airplane chair, which in the right angle can feel more like an antique throne catapulting through space, and still she continues to shake her head and asks me to stop and orders a wrap full of butternut squash and rice.
We live at my grandmother’s. It is small and cramped and my brother and I share a room, which we both know is inappropriate given that he’s eighteen now and I’m not much farther behind. So he leaves. My brother takes a job two counties away moving paintings in an art gallery. They are heavy, these paintings. I visit him and see for myself: ten feet tall and fifteen feet wide. My mother asks me one day over breakfast if I am glad that my brother is finally gone, so that I can have the room to myself and decorate it in the feminine way I’ve always wanted. I look at my mother and think of the room, of the fact that my grandmother’s pungent soupy smell lingers on its furniture and my grandfather’s frightening smiling face hangs on its walls, and how a room like that could never be feminine in the way I always wanted even if it tried, but I tell her yes. And when I have my friends over it’s just alright and they might not even notice it but now we don’t have the commonly shared activity of fighting my brother for the space, and somehow it makes the whole experience seem somehow less whole. My mother takes days off of work in a pediatrician’s office and we visit my brother in his new home and we walk around the quaint little college town drinking coffees and then I decide I’ll need to leave too. My mother never gets another boyfriend.
Halfway through college I am studying psychology. It means nothing but it was the first thing I could think of when they asked. I study in the same city where my brother works, because there’s really only one city like this in the state and we both don’t want to go any farther. “Don’t go getting sick,” my mother says over the phone, “Do I need to send you any foods packages?” “I’m fine,” I say, but my mother sends them anyway along with an eyelash curler that she says will change my life. She insists on driving to see us three times a week, and I begin to see a harsh, purple vein forming on her cheek as we laugh over baskets of free bread at the Italian restaurant off the school’s main street.
She begins to leave things. I accept the pink cashmere sweater she had when she was a girl because it’s beautiful, and because she’s got the same skin color as me and because it won’t fit her anymore. I accept the decaying green desk lamp and the antique bedside table that she found at a flea market one day when she was wandering around with nothing to do, and I notice that these days are growing more and more numerous, because I need to furnish my dormitory. My classmates balk when I tell them I’m still living in a dorm building and I suppose I am a little old but it’s just that I’m made uneasy by living alone, and the sounds of other people showering and rumbling about on bare feet and sticky carpets mean something more to me than crickets or cars passing in the night. So my mother gives me a collection of books that I can’t understand and about a dozen bags of loose-leaf teas, the prettiness of which I had never stopped to notice before in my life. I press myself on this issue, ask myself when I ever saw my mother drinking the tea with its potpourri shades of green and pink and blue, and feel unsettled when my imagination comes up blank.
One day, my mother stops calling. When I go to our favorite coffee shop to meet her at the time we had, sort of, discussed earlier that week, she stands me up. I call my brother. We call our grandmother, who tries to explain that my mother left in the night. She took her cold-weather clothes. Coats and hats and sweaters. Her shampoos that radiate the warmth of vanilla and cinnamon. “Winter smells” she’d say, which we intrinsically knew to mean holiday smells, which we always confuse with winter. When my brother and I arrive at the house after the long and looping drive, my grandmother uses a cane to guide us past the things that remain: summer shirts and dresses. A few books, some bags of rice, some prints we bought at museums that seem a century ago and a world away, the picture of my grandfather.
My brother and I have not known my mother to be this kind of woman, the kind of woman who leaves. My mother is the kind of woman who is left, her resurging optimism and love tarnishing any chances she’d have of fearing, or quitting, or abandoning a person before they were ready to be abandoned. She is the woman who remembers, the kind of woman who recalls the vulgar curvature of my grandfather’s nose in a photograph and the name of a statue we saw bathed in chalky moonlight and the right kind of sizzle for a crêpe pan in the evening. Even if and, really, when they cannot recall her. So we wait for her to come back.
We wait. My mother does not see me graduate in an ill-fitted cap and gown and amble down a line of my peers in the same, does not see me sit uncertainly in my first class of graduate school. But this, I think, she wouldn’t see anyway. It’s almost as if I can pretend she’s still here, but not quite. I start doing my hours, and on my first day I sit in a plaid chair across from a worn vinyl couch and a woman sits across from me, one leg crossed over the other, and I feel the sweat pooling up on the back of my thighs which could be a symptom of the heat in the summer or a condition on the account of the nervousness I feel when I open my mouth to speak at her and try to make her see something I myself haven’t fully viewed. But then I see another man who sits with his back so straight it looks painful and his knees splayed slightly outward and I notice a lock of curly hair that isn’t exactly golden but more of an auburn like an autumn leaf, a lock that frames his forehead just above a pair of green eyes. When I think about this face, this certain combination of curls and eyes, I am calm. Eventually it becomes second nature, the listening to people speak about their lives and telling them whether or not it will be okay, their lives, that life itself is vague and infinite. And then, every day, I listen to the messages on my phone to see if my mother has called, but she never calls and I am stuck listening to the voice of a person trying to give me a credit card. So we wait, and we trust her to come back. I move out of my student housing and in with my brother, who has grown just slightly pudgy and much more muscular from all the moving at the gallery, and whose beard now stretches across his face, hiding the mole and offsetting the fragile beauty of his eyelashes. We sign a lease. It is a place that is half carpeted and half not, and the half is a sort of rosy red that smells damp and floral and the half not is a beautiful warm brown wood that reminds me of Christmas. Our apartment is empty, and I stand alone in the middle of the space as my brother unloads our things from the car. His car. They all fit in the trunk. I wait. I place one foot along the line—the curiously finite line between carpet and wood, between here and not here, between dampness and Christmas—and at once I am reborn.
Emily Hunt Kivel is a Californian writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Compound Butter, Midnight Breakfast, The Nervous Breakdown, Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. She teaches writing and is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, where she has a Felipe P. De Alba Fellowship.