by Abigail Stewart-Webb
Saturday, Joni’s alarm rang at six. It was a mistake; it was the weekend. She stared at her popcorn ceiling until it was clear there would be no more sleep.
She stood and tuned the radio to Classical 95. She undressed slowly, folding each piece of clothing and placing it square on her bed.
Joni moved through the yellow light of her bedroom to the windowless blue of the bathroom, arms at her sides, hands palming the air. It always seemed harder to balance her body when she was naked.
She gave the hot water knob two full turns and the cold water knob one-fourth.
The ritual gave her a pleasure that was so small and so perfect it was almost unbearable.
On the radio, a woman’s voice announced Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
Joni liked music but had never picked up the art of the name-drop. She’d learned everything she knew about composers half-a-century ago, from a book she read as she waited for her piano lessons to begin. Mozart was a naughty child, Beethoven a deaf man listening. Tchaikovsky’s beard frowned at even the prettiest ballerina on the page.
It had been Vivaldi who fascinated her. A red-haired schoolmaster standing a step too near to four lonely girls, his Four Seasons. It seemed a dangerous and beautiful illustration, made more beautiful by the description of his temper, and she had fallen in love. But who was Berlioz?
She lay in the tub, her heels on its edge. Her fingers were clasped between her breasts, palms resting on her nipples, her legs crossed modestly as if she were expecting a visitor.
Joni’s cheeks slipped below the surface and she found her heartbeat in the water. She liked the sound until the thought came that she might be trying to recreate the experience of the womb.
She stood, dripping, and returned to her room. Lying naked in bed while still wet and warm was a sacred private indulgence. On the few occasions that there had been a man in her room, Joni felt compelled to dry off before returning to bed, leaving her ruffled and resentful.
Joni counted up the things that needed to be done: shop for groceries, fix the disposal, apologize to her mother, Louise.
The trouble had begun with Joni’s long memory. No one believed her, least of all Louise, but Joni swore she could remember her babyhood. She could even remember lying awake in her crib, craving her pacifier. She’d been forced to quit cold turkey on her first birthday. Joni remembered lightning ropes of longing crisscrossing her tiny chest, her empty mouth suckling the air.
Her clearest memory, though, was of being placed in a rear-facing car seat. Once laid inside it, she could see nothing but the gray ceiling above her. Her mother’s face would appear as she fastened Joni’s seatbelt. Then, all at once, her mother would disappear. Worse still, the world would begin to move, rushing headlong and out of control. This blind terror lasted impossible lengths of time. Joni screamed all the way.
One sleepless night, a few months back, Joni had seen an infomercial for a mirror that would allow you to see your rear-facing baby, which incidentally allowed your baby to see you. Joni had immediately begun to cry, first in gratitude on behalf of the children who would be comforted by a vision of their mothers’ faces, and then in regret, for the legions of babies whose mothers would never see this particular infomercial.
Joni found herself telling the infomercial story. At times, she felt it explained something important about her. Her emotions often leaped from a weepy relief that she’d escaped much of life’s cruelty to a weepy comprehension that life, all around her, was only getting crueler. Other times, Joni presented the story like a puzzle, hoping someone else would put it together.
Yesterday, she’d called her mother and told her the story.
Louise was old now and fatigue had robbed her of much of her former ferocity, but she was not yet so old that Joni felt she had to baby her. It was in this limbo between fear and pity that Joni had begun to speak her mind. This had deeply unsettled her mother, which unsettled Joni, but it also left her with a queasy glee.
Louise was at the end of her rope. That is what she said at the conclusion of the infomercial story: “Joni, I am at the end of my rope. I am losing patience. I just can’t believe this. Babies have to sit in car seats. It protects their necks. It’s a matter of life or death, no really, I’m not kidding, your life or your death. Not to mention the fact that you’ve fabricated this memory. I looked it up. Childhood amnesia, you go take a look. Nobody can remember that far back, let alone you. You’ve fabricated all this–don’t ask me why–about your mother. Made it up out of whole cloth. I’m the only one who can remember that little girl. You’ve got nothing to cry about. You were safe, Joni, happy and safe and I won’t have you taking a piss on all that now, just to spite me.”
The warmth of Joni’s down comforter around her was heavy and still. She lifted an arm and a cylinder of cool air rushed in under the covers. She dropped her arm, trapping the heat in around her. With another spill of pleasure, Joni decided to stay in bed.
She woke to a ringing phone. It was her mother.
“Good morning,” said Joni.
“Happy Birthday,” answered Louise.
Joni blinked. “I’d forgotten. Why didn’t you say something yesterday?”
“It wasn’t your birthday yesterday. Besides, you were too busy berating me.”
“We’ll go to lunch then?”
“Yes,” said Louise. “Wherever you like.”
Joni waited for her mother to end the call, but she stayed silently on the line.
“Well,” said Joni.
Louise hung up the phone.
For lunch, Joni chose a baby-blue dress and pointed white shoes. She brushed her lips and cheeks pink. Today, she was sixty-two.
It was a hot and heavy day. Joni walked to her mother’s apartment slowly, her shoulders squared. A perfect web of sweat formed beneath the powder of her face.
As she walked, Joni listed things she had done for her mother.
When Joni was in junior high her mother had begun a short-lived period of church-going. In Sunday School a teenage girl named Elna, who was something of a preacher in training, had taught the twelve to fifteen-year-olds about grace.
“You might be good. You might be real good. You might be–” Elna paused and looked around the room “–the best. You can do one million good deeds and stack them all up in a pile at Jesus’s feet. But when he puts that pile next to the pile of what He has done for you, your pile is going to look itty bitty. You’re barely going to be able to see it at all.”
Joni didn’t know what to do with this information, nor was she clear on what all Jesus had done for her, but the image stuck. Everything she’d ever done stood in her mind, pea-sized.
Louise had always loomed large, in her own mind and in everyone else’s. When comparing piles, her mother once might as well have been Jesus. But age had evened things out. By her own count, Joni was stacking up nicely. As soon as her mother needed her Depends changed, Joni figured they’d be even.
Of course, what Louise really wanted was for Joni to acquire a permanent male companion. Joni doubted she could deliver.
She figured that from the perspective of men, there were only five types of straight single women her age. Widows were at the top of the food chain. Made single by an act of God, no fault of their own. Next came the divorcees. They’d lost it, but they’d had it once and that was worth something. Career-focused women followed, spared a good deal of indignity because they could claim they preferred being alone, even if few believed them. Then came the aging whores, using old tricks that no longer fooled anybody. Finally, the virgins, possessing something that had once been so desired, but was now completely spoiled, rotting in their hands like fruit.
Joni was among the ranks of the virgins. She’d had a slow, steady stream of sex throughout her life, but this was irrelevant. She was not widowed or divorced, not particularly ambitious or whoreish. So, here in her sixties, her virginity had been restored to her.
A sixty-year-old virgin. She figured her best bet was to wait until the Viagra side-effects kicked in and hope men quit sex completely.
Louise had never been romantically involved with anyone, at least not in Joni’s memory, and she’d left Joni alone about relationships for most of her adult life. Recently, however, Louise had been fixated on the problem of Joni’s aloneness, gnawing on it like a dog with a bone. She searched her memory, attempting to list all the men who had once been involved with or had at least seemed interested in Joni. She wrote these lists out on legal pads. She thought that Joni should track them down, call them up.
“Don’t underestimate the power of an aging man’s nostalgia,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that you’re not young. When they see you again, you’ll bring it all back, your youth and theirs.”
When Joni arrived at her mother’s apartment, her mother was sitting in the middle of an overstuffed velvet couch. She looked small, a shrimp floating in an ugly purple sea.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” she said.
They walked together, Louise holding Joni’s arm, worrying aloud that this necessary embrace might be misinterpreted as a public display of affection.
“I don’t like women who walk together,” said Louise. “Arm in arm, like they have a secret.”
Joni chose a neighborhood restaurant with spiral-bound menus. They made everything and specialized in nothing, as if they intended themselves to be a compromise, the only restaurant a group of people could agree on in a list of restaurants they liked and hated more.
Louise ordered a garden salad. Joni planned to order soup, but when the waitress looked at her she asked for a grilled cheese sandwich.
“Don’t you ever get sick of garden salads?” Joni asked her mother.
“They’re cheap,” said Louise. “And you can’t screw them up.” She looked at Joni’s grilled cheese and shook her head as if she didn’t know where to begin.
“How have you been?” Joni tried to weight her voice with an obvious sincerity. She tried always to draw herself closer to Louise’s inner world, to be allowed some understanding of what her mother thought of all continuously accumulating hours they spent together.
“You know exactly how I’ve been. I’m old and I’ve got a daughter who I never see, despite the fact that she lives alone. Who exactly are you dividing your time between, Joni?”
“Let’s skip that one today, alright?”
Louise took a long drink of her water, her eyes narrowing over the glass. “Alright then.” She sat back in her chair and smiled. “Happy Birthday.”
Joni took a bite of her sandwich.
Louise looked at her watch. “Would you look at that.”
Joni looked at her mother.
“12:30. Right about now they were bringing you back to me, clean and wrapped up in a blanket.”
Joni had never heard this story before.
“There was no one else there that day,” said Louise. “Just me and you.”
“Where was Grandma?”
“Oh, she was ill or recovering from being ill. Something like that.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Joni.
“Listen,” said Louise. “I’m going to die.
Joni sighed. Louise had been predicting that she’d be dead within the year, every year, for a decade.
“No,” said Louise. “I know, not tomorrow. But I will die. You’ve been plenty for me, and I like to think that I’ve been company enough for you. But you’ve got to find someone else.”
In high school, Joni had studied the Odyssey and had recognized Louise in Penelope. Every day, Joni and Louise wove their time together, creating something that was just beginning to take on shape. Then, every night, Louise unraveled it, greeting her daughter the next morning as if she were a stranger, a barely-known tenant.
Now Louise was revealing a completed tapestry, admitting its existence only to inform Joni that it was, in fact, a burial shroud.
“Also,” said Louise, “you have lipstick on your teeth.”
Joni felt fury and love rise up in her throat. She reached for her water glass and brought it to her lips. It was empty. A single drop of water slid onto her tongue. She swallowed it down.
Only when Louise turned to summon the check did Joni rub a squeaking finger across her front teeth.
On the walk home, Louise hung on Joni’s arm, her feet shuffling on the sidewalk. A block in, Louise hailed a taxi. Joni expected Louise to protest the unnecessary expense, not to mention the implication that she couldn’t manage the walk. Instead, Louise opened the cab door and lay herself down across the back seat.
Joni stared at her mother’s body. Her long skirt was bunched up around her, revealing her legs. Her skin looked as fragile as pastry.
Joni closed the door behind her mother and sat in the front seat of the cab.
The radio played a country song that Joni didn’t know, but the melody was familiar and the rhymes were inevitable. She could hear Louise’s breath. The cab seemed to grow warmer with her every exhalation.
Joni looked into the rearview mirror and saw her mother’s sleeping face.
Abigail Stewart-Webb is an undergraduate student in English and currently in the process of applying to law school. She lives Provo with her husband, Coleman.