I sit at my grandmother’s oblong table, the tablecloth fraying where it hangs over my lap. I touch the thin pieces of thread, the same ones that were held together when I was a little boy, even before, when my father was young.
But eventually things come apart. Tablecloths. Marriages. Entire families.
My mother enters the room then. She touches me on the shoulder before going to the counter, pouring herself a cup of coffee. I don’t look up from my own cup, the liquid dark and still and cold now. My mother is surely adding spoonfuls of cream and sugar to her own, always trying to make things sweeter than they really are.
“It was a beautiful day wasn’t it Pauly?” she says to me.
“Yeah. Beautiful,” I reply.
She sips her coffee.
“I can’t believe how many people came. So many. Your dad was really loved.”
She tries to make things sweeter than they really are. But I don’t.
“I don’t think he was loved,” I tell her. “He was known. There’s a big difference,” I continue. “It’s you they love Mom.”
“Oh honey. No. You and your dad had troubles I know, but he didn’t have that with everyone. Others loved him.”
She tries to make things sweeter than they really are, pouring on as much cream and sugar and fucking lies as she can. But I’m done.
“Troubles? You call what we had troubles? Is that what you call it with Jake and Sara too? Troubles? That’s why they’re not even here, because they had troubles with Dad?”
She can’t do this anymore. I won’t allow it.
“Pauly please don't start this honey. Not today.”
“So that’s how it’s going to be huh? Sara and Jake were right. He’s dead, but you’re still going to defend him. Still.”
“Paul I loved your father. I’m sorry you didn’t.”
And then everything just unravels, like my grandmother’s tablecloth, thin pieces of thread no longer held together.
“Yeah, I’m fucking sorry too Mom,” I yell, standing up too fast and too hard, knocking the table so that coffee from both of our cups spills over and my mother reaches quickly for the napkins, rushes to clean up the mess before anyone sees, before she does.
I’m just like my father I suppose. Just like him.
“Ma, stop cleaning up and look at me. How about you fucking look at me for once.”
“I see you Paul,” she tells me as tears fall from her eyes and hit the table cloth, the one that is coming undone beneath us.
“He’s gone Mom. He’s gone and you’re still going to pretend. Still?”
“I’m not pretending Paul. I was never pretending.”
She’s not looking at me though. She’s cleaning the coffee, soaking it all up with napkins, wiping under her cup and down it’s edges and then reaching for mine, making sure to get every last drop. Making sure it’s all gone.
The noise that had suddenly filled my grandmother’s small kitchen has at once gone still and quiet as I watch my mother wiping and blotting and soaking. She is soaking up the coffee and she is soaking up my anger, just like she always soaked up my dad’s too. All of the yelling and threatening and punishing and hitting. She soaked it all up so that nobody could see and she’s doing that again now.
Only now, like the napkins, I realize that I am heavy and wet, soiled with dark stains.
I turn away from her then. I just turn away.
I get my keys that are sitting on the shelf by the door, the same spot I have put them every time I’ve come home to my grandmother’s for the last twenty-five years. I take my sunglasses off my head and put them over my eyes and then I walk out my grandmother’s door and head toward my car, six hours early for the airport.
I am only a few paces away when I hear my mother calling me from the porch.
“Pauly,” she is saying. “Pauly please come back here. Pauly please.”
I keep waking.
“Pauly,” she cries, grabbing hold of me, turning me around so that she can say, “I wasn’t pretending.”
She is crying and crying and it is new to me because we usually aren’t allowed to cry. Crying makes him more angry and we wouldn’t want him more angry.
But he is finally gone and she doesn’t have to worry about making him more angry, though maybe she has to worry about me. Maybe she has to worry about making me more angry.
I cannot speak. I am too heavy and wet, soiled with dark stains. I am so damaged I almost don’t hear her when she speaks, but I do. I hear.
“I was surviving,” she whispers. “Not pretending. Surviving.”
I take that in. It mixes with the dark stains and the soil and the wet. It mixes and mashes and it hurts me. It hurts like hell, puts more slices in my already frayed life, thin pieces of me hanging in the same spots they’ve always been. Like the table cloth.
But I have no room for her right now. I have no room.
And I need her to know. Before I get in the car and drive away and maybe never come back, I need her to know.
And so I manage to whisper, “Well we weren’t Mom. We weren’t.”