You dream your mother is dead. In the dream, she’s cold and pale and lying down. She looks like your high school maths teacher after he’d had a heart attack. You remember Mr Barker’s body; he’d hit his head on a chair leg, and there was blood down his temple, like in a movie. This time, with your mother, there’s no blood. She’s just there.
The worst thing, though, is that somehow she still has a few more hours; so while everyone knows she’s dead, she just gets up and starts chatting away about how the hibiscus is thriving, and how the guy on the TV news needs a haircut, and how Lorna came in to pick up the laundry, and my, she’s looking fat. The whole time you don’t know whether to say But Mum, you’re dead. Maybe it’s good that you can’t get a word in. You feel like someone has filled you up to the brim with water, and they just keep on filling, and your whole body is about to explode all over the room with all that water and that muesli bar you just ate and all your blood and organs and everything.
So then you’re in the room with your mum, and she’s tapping her fingers on her chair compulsively, like she always has, but now, that thump of skin against the dark green upholstery seems to you to be a movement without a human behind it. It’s like the body’s spasms that occur long after the heart is still.
You wake up and Sophie’s getting out of bed, and her body is creased from the sheets, and you say, god I just had the most horrible dream and she says yeah you were shaking quite a bit, and her nakedness is so white and blazing that all you can think of is how her pale skin resembles your mum’s skin in the dream. You want to shake your head hard to tug those images out of it, but you can’t; they’re stuck there.
She says, I really have to go but I left some coffee for you and I’ll see you later – she says it fast, like either she’s in a real hurry or she’s pissed about something. She doesn’t kiss you but just pulls on her jeans and bra and hoodie real quick almost like she’s trying to stop you looking at her. Her hoodie has a duck on it with an umbrella, and the duck’s beak is wide open and you can see its tongue. You wonder if ducks really do have tongues. She is already out the door.
Your body feels like someone has glued it to the sheets. You haul yourself free of the bed and pull on some dirty pants and a t-shirt as you walk to the kitchen. Last night Sophie nagged at you to buy some new clothes and you said but baby, this is me, this is what I do. You know if you want Sophie to stick around, you’re going to need to find a job. But you shove these thoughts out of your mind and pour some thin filter coffee into a cup. You shoot it back. And again. Then you pull back the kitchen curtain.
Outside it’s snowing, thick and fast, coating the grey body of the street with a safe whiteness. You pour more coffee and take it back to bed, slopping a bit on the sheets, leaving the cup propped up on the pillow beside you.
Sophie used to be so good to you; man, you guys were good together. Back when you were students you’d drink this shitty coffee together, and she’d stay naked beside you and halfway through that first cup you’d just want to fuck her, and she’d roll over to you with sleep still stuck in her big blue eyes and she’d want it too. Then afterwards you’d laugh at how much like animals you were, climbing over one another and shoving your bodies so roughly together.
Sophie’d even go and see your mum with you and she’d make a real effort, not like the other girls you’d had, who’d be so sweet in person and then talk behind your mum’s back. This one girl, Wendy, had an impression of your mother down, like Oh Brisket come and look at these daisies. I dunno what Nurse Bowman did to them but they’re the prettiest daisies you’ll ever see … like your mum was totally boring or a space cadet or something. Wendy thought it was funny, and you’d put up with her because you thought you had to. But Sophie, Sophie was so good. Sophie’s mum had run out on her family when Soph was too young to remember, so she had every reason to resent other mums; but she liked yours, and she was patient with her. And your mum’d say keep a hold a that one, Brisket, don’t let that one go, and you’d roll your eyes and think how old-fashioned she was, telling you to hold onto the first girl you brought home for Christmas. Course it turned out she was right.
You were so freaked when you first got together with Sophie; you were used to watching her and wanting her so goddamn bad that being able to have her was almost too much. It wasn’t like how you’d imagined; she was tougher than you’d thought, her body both rounder and bonier. That first night at your apartment, she said I don’t really know why I’m doing this and let’s not take it too seriously, ok? and you thought, fine, it doesn’t have to be serious. She was so cute but it’s not like she was heartbreakingly cool or anything, and you thought well, I can try a pretty girl for a while, because you’d never really done pretty before. And she wasn’t just pretty either, you learned; she was wild, pushing you down so she could get on top of you and wanting you to fuck her hard from behind. One time she got a mirror so you could both watch yourselves fucking and there was something about looking at her in that glass that meant you let your game down and said god look at you, you’re so, so beautiful and you saw her looking at her own slim body moving back and forth; you saw her turning herself on by looking at her own body banging into yours in the mirror.
You’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. But you and Sophie haven’t fucked in weeks now. You think you’d better ask her for another night alone tonight. You badly want to see her, but you need to keep her wanting.
You drive to see your mum in the hospice. You’ve been dreading it but she’s actually looking better today. The drugs are wearing off a bit and she knows who you are and she smiles and says oh thank you Brisket for coming, I missed you. It’s snowing, did you see? She reaches out for your hands, and it’s funny, she would never usually be so gentle, would never usually reach for you or say I missed you, but you guess stuff has changed lately. She’s never offered you money before, but now she’s stuffing a twenty into your hands and saying take Sophie out for dinner, okay? I can’t cook for you this week but maybe next week? And the lift at the end of this sentence scissors at your whole body. You can’t erase that dream from your head; your mother’s pale skin is still the pale skin of the corpse from the dream, still the pale skin of the snow on the road. You kiss her. You say, yeah, Mum, next week, sounds great, and you want to say I love you but instead you hug her, and she feels skinny and you wish you could force her to stand up so you could see she isn’t dead; you imagine her limbs moving fluidly, like water.
When you get home Sophie is there, and she looks up like a startled animal as soon as she hears the clank of your keys. You had seen her from the window. She has left her set of keys on the table and her little black snowboots are dribbling a pool of water onto your carpet. All she says is, I think maybe we’re not really going anywhere. She has her hair tied back out of her eyes and she’s looking straight ahead and out at the snow. And you think, well of course I’m not going anywhere. You’ve lived here all your life. And you just dropped out of school, and you might still go back, and you’re busy trying to hide it from your mum you ever left. But Sophie is okay, she’s still going to classes, she’ll graduate in spring and then she’ll get a sweet job and soon you’ll get some kind of job too and everything’ll be fine. So you stumble and say, but where do you want to go? and as soon as it’s out of your mouth you feel stupid, like you’ve left your wide mouth open and a massive spider has leapt right into it. You know she thinks your blank stare is retarded. You think you’re not in love with Sophie but you’re so used to having her around, and you do like her so much. You like her body and her skin and her hands and the words that fall out of her mouth like bursts of unpredicted weather. She can’t leave you; she needs you.
You walk across the room to her and she gets up, and more snow slips off her boots and she looks like she might laugh at the trail of water she is leaving. You try to smile but your body is moving towards her like a magnet, without your permission, and before you know it you’ve wrapped yourself around her entirely, encircling her so she’s like a body within another body.
It sounds like she’s struggling to breathe, but then you realize she’s crying, and you run your hands up and down her body fast, like you’re trying to warm her up, quickly and then slower, slower, until she wrenches her neck from your grasp and goes to kiss you, hard, and then you’re pulling off her snowboots and she’s tugging at your jeans and you’re back in the old, familiar territory. The sheets that you throw her down on are coffee-stained and sweaty. But in a bit, you can take her out for dinner, like your mum said. You can fix this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alice Miller studied in Wellington and Iowa, and is spending some of her summer in Antarctica.