Barbara Diggs is writer in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in Spelk Fiction, Reflex Fiction, honey & lime, and Ellipsis Zine, among others. She is also the author of three non-fiction history books for middle-schoolers.
Having just returned from the cemetery, my spirits are still too high to enter the house. I feel like twirling, so I do. Slowly, with my face upturned and my arms outstretched, in the middle of my lawn. Rain freckles my face and throat, the last drops of a summer shower. I’m thinking about how delicious it is to be kissed this way, how intoxicating the scent of damp grass, when my front door bangs open.
Leesa’s standing in the doorway, her face bunched up like a storm cloud. She glares at me for a moment and then slaps a cell phone to her ear.
“Never mind, she’s back now,” she says. A pause. “Twirling in the yard. Yeah. I don’t know.”
She throws me another scorching look.
If I hadn’t birthed Leesa, hadn’t wiped crap from her bottom, hadn’t heard her sing off-key during a school musical, hadn’t dried her tears when that joker Kevin dumped her, I might have quailed at that look. But since I did do all that, I’m not impressed. I just stop twirling and push past her into the house.
Leesa follows me inside, making uh-huh sounds into the phone. I can hear my son’s voice at the other end of the line, his words flying like bombs fragments: “…can’t keep disappearing like… seventy-eight years old...We have to..!”
Yeah, yeah, I think.
“Yeah, yeah,” says my daughter. “I know. Look, she’s soaking wet, I’ve gotta go, all right? I’ll catch you later.” The shrapnel’s still flying when she hangs up.
I don’t say a word to her, don’t even acknowledge her presence as I pass through the living room to head to my bedroom. She calls this “visiting” but I call them spot-checks. What will I fail this time? There’s always some petty crime, some smoldering wisp of a mistake that she’s ready to kindle into an inferno.
As she trails behind me, I know she’s taking in my damp, grass-stained dress and that I’m walking on the eggshell-white carpet with muddy shoes. I know she’s deciding on how to best approach me, as if I were a wild animal. Hah. Like she didn’t learn these tricks from me. She tested the hell out of my patience back in the day.
“Mom?” She’s going for gentle, reasonable. “Mom, why in the world would you…”
I pretend I don’t hear her–I’m sure she’s quite willing to believe I’m going deaf on top of everything else–and hurry through my bedroom to the bathroom. Even though she’s right on my heels, I slam the bathroom door and lock it, feeling a twinge of guilt. She means well. And it’s not her fault that she doesn’t understand. At least, not entirely her fault.
She thumps on the door, reverting to outrage. “Mom, cut it out! What is going on? You’ve been acting so...Where have you been? Why would you go out in a downpour? And with no umbrella? You’re going to catch a cold and–”
As she continues to barrage me with questions, I struggle out of my wet clothes, slip into a silky black kimono-style bathrobe, purchased last week, and plant myself in front of the mirror. Flipping the switch for the lighting, I study my reflection, turning my head this way and that.
Yes, I think. It’s really happening.
My eyes gleam like midnight itself. My skin looks plumper, smoother, less fragile. Even the folds of my neck look firmer. I wink at my reflection, then blow myself a kiss, like I used to when I was just a girl and the caramel voices of The Platters played on repeat. Hello sexy, I mouth at my image. Yes, you.
“Mom! If you don’t open this door–”
Huffing, I whirl around and snatch open the door so fast the knob flies out of my grip and smacks against the wall.
“I’m fine, Leesa. I just went for a walk around the block in the rain. Don’t overreact.”
She stares at me, open-mouthed, with such a concerned expression that I feel ashamed of myself. She is only acting out of love. Maybe I’ve been wrong to keep so much from her.
“Leesa, baby…try to stop worrying about me so much. To tell the truth, I’m better than fine. Actually I–”
But my daughter’s expression has grown from concerned to alarmed. I’ve made a mistake somewhere.
“Mama.” She pins me with her worried gaze. “You didn’t just go for a walk around the block. We were supposed to have lunch here hours ago. And I’m Selena. Not Leesa.”
Leesa. Selena. Name me a parent that hasn’t mixed up their children’s names. And these particular names–all those ee’s and el’s– what were we thinking? Even when they were little, we got them confused. It didn’t help that they looked alike, too, although Selena was a year older. Such pretty girls: my heart-shaped face, dusky brown complexion, and full lips paired with my husband’s reddish curls and freckles made for a striking combination. Everyone always asked if they were twins.
I guess some people would think that they’d be easier to keep separate in my mind now since Leesa is dead. Died with my husband almost twenty-two months ago thanks to some fool who felt the need to photograph his speedometer while going 90 miles an hour on I-66.
Of course, it would be Selena, not Leesa, carrying on like this. She’s always been the one to overreact. Even after I apologized for forgetting our lunch and explained that Leesa was on my mind because I’d been at the cemetery, she still insisted on calling Dr. Seth to discuss my meds.
“The forgetfulness could just be a side effect of one of your pills,” Selena says now, as if to reassure me. We’re in the kitchen. I’m sitting at the table like a good girl and she’s cracking eggs into a bowl to make omelets for lunch. “Maybe it’s the antidepressants or maybe even the sleeping pills. He’s going to try something different.”
I snort at this. Once you reach a certain age, there are no isolated lapses in memory as far as your children are concerned: all memory breeches are symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia. And if you’ve been doing things like not showing up where you said you’d be, taking long walks in the rain without an umbrella, and twirling in the yard, well, for them, that’s about as proof positive of brain degeneration as an MRI. What else could it be?
In my case, it’s Carl. If I told her about him that might clear things up. Or not. The way things are going, she might be ready to chuck me in a nursing home for good if I say I’ve been hanging out with a 69-year old retired grave digger every week at the cemetery. That we hold hands as we crunch through the clipped grass, him pointing out some of the graves he’s dug with the pride of an artist. That he first kissed me–lightly, respectfully–under the massive oak where he’ll lie one day.
Carl knows the most elegant mausoleums, the oldest families, the prettiest spots to watch the sunset–a privilege I only get to enjoy because I’m with him. Once as we were exploring, I made the silly remark that I felt like First Lady of the cemetery. The next week, he took me to an empty stretch of the grounds, full of mini-daisies. And we sat down on the grass, laughing because we weren’t sure how we’d get back up, and made daisy chains, a skill he’d learned from his granddaughters. When we were done, he put the crown on my head and pronounced me First Lady of St. Julian’s.
That was the day I first noticed that I was getting younger.
I am once again swept with an urge to tell all to Selena. She might not approve, but it would help put my so-called forgetfulness in perspective. I decide to test the waters.
“Selena, what if I told you that I was seeing someone?”
Selena’s brow furrows but she doesn’t look at me as she pours the beaten eggs into a sputtering pan.
“I didn’t say I was seeing someone. Just what if I was?”
She sighs, sprinkles grated cheddar over the eggs.
“I don’t know. Depends on who. I mean, you’re an adult, Mom, but there are a lot of crazies out there.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Not if he was a good guy. So…?”
“Carl. A man I met at St. Julian’s.
Her eyes dart my way–sharp, wary. “Carl. Same name as Daddy. That’s... And you met him at church, you say? You’ve been going to church?”
“No,” I say, my heart pounding. “St. Julian, the cemetery. Where your dad and Leesa are.”
Selena carefully flips the omelet in half and lowers the flame beneath the pan. Her face has a frozen, frightened look. I can tell I’ve made another mistake.
“Mom, what are you talking about? St. Julian doesn’t have a cemetery. That’s where you got married. Daddy and Leesa are buried at Maple Hill, you know that.”
I stare at her for a second, then my face grows hot. This is no mistake. They’re buried at St. Julian and she knows it. She’s saying this to spite me. To punish me for calling her Leesa, for telling her about Carl.
“They’re at St. Julian.”
Selena jerks around to face me, knocking the omelet pan askew. It rattles on the stove burner as her fingers fly to her mouth.
“Don’t be like this Selena.”
“You just don’t want me seeing Carl.”
She stands there with shiny dark eyes, looking at me like I smacked her. Always theatrical, that girl.
“Carl, Mama?” she whispers. She turns up her palms. “St. Julian?”
“What? You think–you think–”
I stop. The things she thinks are too big for my throat.
As I push away from the table, she hurries over and tries to put her arms around me.
“It’s the medication, Mama. I’m sure of it. We’ll change it and you’ll be fine.”
I just shrug her off and stalk out of the kitchen. I want to get back to my mirror. Selena can think whatever she wants, but I know I’m already fine.