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MOM RANTED AND HOWLED and screamed about how she just gave and gave and gave and we just took and took and took. Dad ran his hand through his hair and looked out the window into the backyard at our lone, birdless tree. I stared into my mashed potatoes, imagining a mountainous alien world.
“Jesus Christ,” my brother, Chris, whispered.
Mom threw her apron down and stomped out of the room and up the stairs. Dresser drawers were yanked open and slammed closed.
“Just let her cool down,” Dad said.
It was a familiar pattern. Yesterday Mom was all smiles, full of energy, vacuuming, cooking meals, snapping on rubber gloves to scrub the floors, the counters, the walls, whatever needed scrubbing. Then, as if triggered by some random event — a voice on television, a mismatched pair of socks, a freak weather system in another hemisphere — today she was someone else.
I picked up my fork and waited for the urge to eat. With Mom’s seat at the table vacant, I had a clear view of the photo she’d taped to the refrigerator to inspire her to lose weight: taken just after my parents married, it showed her posing in a black swimsuit on the sunburned grass of her mother’s rural-Indiana backyard, a taut smile on her lips. The photo had been there as long as I could remember.
A half-hour later my dad, my brother, and I were in the tv room watching the news at a barely audible volume when Mom came downstairs, walked briskly past us, and placed two pink suitcases by the front door: one medium-sized, the other small, like a cosmetic case. Together the suitcases looked like mother and daughter, waiting.
THE NEXT MORNING the suitcases were still by the front door. Mom was cooking, and my father sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He was usually long gone by now. It was his habit to go to bed at eight in the evening and wake at 4 a.m. to develop photographs in his basement darkroom, then head to work before any of us got up.
“You know what I just thought of?” I said, pulling my chair quietly from the table, making my tone upbeat, as if there weren’t two suitcases sitting in the entryway. “I just thought of how nice that trip we took to the Holidome was.”
“Uh-huh,” Mom said, slamming a plate down on the counter.
My father finished his coffee and started to get up for a refill, but my mother rushed over and took the cup from his hand.
“Sit,” she snapped. “I will get it.”
That afternoon the junior-high school bus dropped Chris and me off in front of our house, and we walked in the front door to see the suitcases still there. Chris pretended not to notice them.
“I wonder what’s for dinner,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t suck.”
At dinner Mom held a pan over the table for us to see: meatloaf. I hated meatloaf. Chris hated meatloaf. Even Dad didn’t like it much. Mom was aware of this.
“Oh, man, meatloaf?” Chris said.
The explosion had been waiting for just the tiniest spark to ignite it. From there on it was the usual: We didn’t give a goddamn about her. We didn’t help her. We didn’t love her. She’d be better off dead. She should just kill herself, but who would miss her? No one! Not a single person! I’d heard all of this so many times that the words themselves had begun to lose their meaning and sounded like some indecipherable code.
I knew what was coming next: the screaming she did when she was too frustrated or angry to make words. Mom’s face contorted, and her voice became anguished, with guttural undertones that sounded animal in nature. My dad pushed back his chair and remained poised. I put my hands on the table, bracing myself. As Mom writhed her way out of her apron, her hand accidentally hit me on the side of my head. A laugh escaped Chris. Astounded, I wanted to tell him to stop, to explain to Mom that he didn’t mean it, but Mom threw her clutched ball of an apron down, and the next thing we heard was the front door slam. She’d taken the suitcases with her.
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