(Below is James Matthew Wilson's Cellophane. More fiction and poetry from our first issue still available, only $2.00 ppd!)
Cellophaneby James Matthew Wilson
The kitchen counters were clean; my reflected face stared at me. My mother had redone the entire apartment after the divorce. The kitchen -- last stage of the decorative process -- was newly completed. Its counters and cabinets and walls were an ivory white, lined with light brown wood at the base boards and along the bottom of the cabinet doors. She had three red vases lined up along one counter -- they looked like Indian pottery, and were a sharp contrast to the rest of the kitchen.
She had invited me over for lunch. A chance to show me the completed work -- over a year's labor. Now, she sat behind the matching kitchen table, looking at her hands. I walked around the kitchen a couple of times. I opened a cabinet door and looked inside. As the silence continued -- I inspecting and appreciating, she sitting timidly, as if requiring my approval to move -- I realized I had not said a single word in response to her work.
"This is great," I said, exaggerating my feelings. Some excessive praise seemed fair given my lack of response earlier. It was nice. But it was a serious change from the apartment I'd grown up in. Until the last year, everything had remained basically the same as when I lived at home. Now that the rooms were redone it seemed foreign; not mine anymore.
She looked up, her eyes calm, lucid. "Do you think so? It's really what I wanted. I was getting depressed around all that color."
"Well, it was all pretty old," I said, and it was too colorful -- almost tacky. The same furniture, wallpaper, pictures, since I'd been a kid. And now, I was just a guest, my father lived halfway across town, and the kitchen was white. The rest of the house was similar -- sterile, Spartan. None of this was especially hard to deal with. It had been a year and a half since the divorce, and just under a year since the whole redecorative process had begun.
"I can't believe this is the same place though," I said. I was still moving around the kitchen, looking for something even slightly familiar. I heard her stop. My back to her, but I could tell she was staring, like she always did. Her eyes would change from their usual lethargic side-glance and take on a wide, straight stare. The entire veinless white of each eye seemed to reveal itself. This at least was something old, something not lost in redecoration. "It's not the same place" she said, and I turned around. Her eyes were as I'd expected. I looked at her, then around the kitchen -- turning my head, unwilling to hold her stare. "That's the whole point. I wanted something new. You moved out, your father is renting a new place -- it's pretty nice from what I hear. There was no reason I shouldn't have given myself a little something different too." She looked calm now. Her words were there to explain -- not to argue. I stood somewhat uneasily behind the kitchen counter, in silence. I thought, perhaps I should respond, should say I understood -- but I didn't want to give her the impression I felt threatened by this all. Nor did I want to seem argumentative. Not when all I really wanted was to eat and get out of there. I'd have to go back to work before long any way, I saw no reason to go back out of sorts after a fight with my mother.
"That's fine," I said. "It's really dumb of me anyway. It's not unusual though, you understand, to have some sense of nostalgia for the place where you grew up. It just takes a while to realize that some of those sentiments are very trite." I said this, and in a way I believed it. And, I thought, she must believe it as well. I'd been raised not to create false attachments in my life. Both she and my father had always firmly believed that. It was a hippie-thing, as I called it. Both of then had been a part of all that. I'd heard stories, when I was young, of how they met on a "love farm." Of course I didn't know what such a place was until years later. And, of course, I knew what "Puff The Magic Dragon" was really about before any of my friends did -- and made a very serious point of informing them.
Among all those things, those stories I had been told that didn't affect me in the least, I was taught some important things as well. My parents had made a point of passing on their very modern beliefs to me. I wasn't taught to believe in materialism, or imperialism, or really anything. They told me they loved me, and that I should love myself and everything else -- and that was enough.
And for most of my childhood it was enough. Not to say that when I hit some certain age I suddenly felt a gaping hole in my life. That was not the case. I just gradually came not to love quite everybody, and materialism was not as much an evil as it was when I was three.
Now, standing in this kitchen, my mother's kitchen, which was very new -- far more up to date than the one I'd known most of my life, I realized that materialism was probably not as much an evil for my mother as it once had been either.
"There's no reason" I continued, "you shouldn't do something like this for yourself, anyway. It's been a long couple of years, and this might be the type of thing you need." I stood straight again, proud of myself -- I understood, this was easy, nothing drastic -- proud of what I'd just said. Like I'd just done my social work for the week. I smiled a little, holding it back -- I didn't want to look smug, or give her the impression that I was making some reluctant concession. I just wanted her to take what I'd said at face value.
"Exactly," she said. She sounded satisfied. She stood up now, straightening her skirt -- which was a dark floral print -- with her hands, and began to walk around the table.
"Right." I followed her with my eyes. She walked past me. I stepped aside, though it was unnecessary, as she went by. I had a habit of doing that type of thing. Moving over a little, or shifting my chair a bit, when people wanted to get by -- even though it usually was a pointless action. There would almost always be plenty of room for the person, and my action, understandably, would go unnoticed.
She walked to the refrigerator and opened it. She stood, pensively, with her eyes searching the shelves, then lifted a tray covered in cellophane from inside. I couldn't quite tell what was on it, the ceiling light struck the wrapping and made a bright, opaque reflection.
"I hope you don't mind. I just made a cold-cut tray. I thought we'd just make sandwiches."
I waited until she'd set it down on the counter. I didn't think she actually would. In the short time I had been there, I'd come to accept the kitchen as a perfectly sterile, pure environment. It hadn't occurred to me that it would be used for something practical. Its role, in my mind, was as an aesthetically pleasing coping device for my divorced mother. Eating in it, or dropping crumbs on its counters, seemed an out of place and unnecessary blemish.
She peeled back the plastic wrap, revealing small, precisely cut pieces of bread, meat, and cheese. "No, that's fine," I said. "Sandwiches are fine."
She then took out two plates from a cabinet -- a different cabinet than we'd kept them in when I still lived there -- and set them on the counter next to the tray. Then she got two napkins, two forks, from someplace else, and set them on the counter too.
We took turns selecting different combinations of meat and cheese, and made a few small sandwiches each. We were silent while doing this. Then we went to sit down -- but my mother stopped, frozen for a moment, then turned and walked to the refrigerator.
She took out a small bag of lettuce leaves. "I almost forgot. There wasn't any room on the tray. With everything else, I mean."
"Ah." I said, and sat down. She did so right after me. I took a piece of lettuce from the bag, more out of politeness than anything else, and tore it in half -- putting one inside each sandwich.
She took a bite from one of hers, put it down, and stood up again. I watched her, she looked absently disgusted with herself. "What am I thinking?" she mumbled and walked again to the refrigerator and took out a pitcher of water and a smaller pitcher of orange juice. "Any preference?" she asked.
"Either is fine," I said. I took a first bite from my sandwich. She brought both pitchers over, and then went to a cabinet and retrieved two glasses.
She brought them over to the table, set them down, and stood staring at them.
"Forget something else?" I said and took another bite.
"No. No, this is everything." She sighed, and kept looking at the glasses. "There's something else."
"This is fine." I said, almost interrupting her. "I'll be full after this."
"No, I mean, something else I wanted to tell you." I chewed my sandwich. "All this. This whole kitchen, redecorating thing. I made it sound more important than it was." She stopped. "I mean, it is important, I'm very glad I did it all, but I don't want you to think that this is all I've done. I've been changing a lot of things."
I stopped eating. Nothing she was saying made sense to me. But her voice alone -- it was obvious that she considered what she was going to say important.
She sat down and, for the first time in the last few minutes, looked at me. The wide stare was not present this time. Instead she looked restrained, almost timid. "What I'm saying is -- not that this should matter to you, but I just wanted to say -- is that I've started going to church again."
My eyes froze upon hers. This didn't make any sense at all. I knew she'd been raised a Roman Catholic, had gone to Catholic school. I also knew that she had hated it. Both she and my father had sworn off religion. They thought it created nothing but misery and guilt. I'd never even been inside a church until I was in high school, and even then it was just for a wedding. I'd grown up without ever having to go through the hardship my mother had. I'd never felt compelled to think about the possibility of a god, much less to bow down and worship one.
"Jesus," I breathed, "Dad just took up smoking." She almost smiled, mistaking my little comment for a joke. I could handle her urge to redecorate the apartment -- it was her apartment -- but this was different. This was far too drastic.
"I don't understand," I said after she had completely subdued her smile again. "You don't believe in all that." I didn't believe in all that.
"I did as a child. This was how I was raised -- to believe in a God."
I sat there, I knew she was going to continue. "Besides, this isn't the same. It's a Catholic church but the things that drove me away from religion aren't around anymore -- not where I go."
I was starting to feel cheated. Like somebody had taken -- had stolen -- something from me, something I had never had to begin with. Like I'd started with nothing -- and now had even less. "You can't just go back. You didn't go for twenty years. My whole life you didn't go. You and Dad never wanted to go -- I didn't ever want to go."
"You don't understand," she said. I started to interrupt her, to tell her she was wrong; to tell her she couldn't just take this up now. But I didn't, I sat there with my mouth half open, my fingers partially curved around -- gripping -- the sandwich on my plate. "Things change when you get older. I needed to get away from religion then -- I needed a break. But all that time -- I didn't quite know how -- there seemed to be a void, I was missing it all."
"But wait," I said. I couldn't continue. I just sat there. I could feel the hard wooden chair against my legs, buttocks, back. It was uncomfortable, stiff, and I was starting to sweat. My damp pant legs were pressed between me and the chair.
"This is really not such a big deal. I wanted to tell you because it was important to me -- it affects me."
"But you've been hiding this." I was starting to shout now. I could hear myself -- I felt like I was whining.
"I haven't been going that long. Just in the past few months."
"It doesn't matter how long. That fact is, you never even gave me a chance." I always squinted my eyes when I was mad. I was squinting now. "I might've been a priest for Christ's sake. But I'll never know." I didn't expect her to understand what I was saying. Partly because I'd always had a negative opinion of the intellects of religious persons, but mostly because I wasn't completely sure what I meant either. I was just mad, and I was speaking, and I almost wanted to cry.
She looked at me without understanding. My mother was looking at me. "You don't talk to me that way," she said.
"No. I don't," I said. I forgot about lunch. I forgot about this new kitchen around me. None of it mattered anymore. Apparently it was all worthless and untrue, but I had no idea why.
As I was leaving the apartment I ceased to recognize it. It was all new and different. None of it looked even vaguely familiar -- I thought I was someplace else -- a doctor's office, my lawyer's anteroom. I put my coat on in silence -- she stood in the threshold separating the kitchen and front hallway. I closed the door behind me. The click of the lock three seconds later served as a "good bye." The corridor outside her apartment should have been familiar to me -- it hadn't changed in years.
I walked outside, it was three blocks to the subway. I knew the songs on every Beatles album. Straight, it was busy -- everyone was out, on their way to or from lunch. I knew about LSD when I was in fifth grade. It was starting to drizzle -- it had been cloudy all day, I should have expected it. I came from a balanced home, and I thought the girl in my class was crazy when she talked about "Jehovah." I heard the familiar echo as my shoe hit the first step down to the subway. I was cold, and paranoid. I kept feeling like someone was trying to take something from me that I didn't have.
"I'll go back to my own apartment," I thought -- there everything was complete just as it was. I sat in the train, my clothes wet, thinking I should have gone back to work. I looked out the window of the car. In the subterranean darkness all I could see was my reflection off the glass.
Published 1994. Crowright 2000 Osric Publishing. Last updated 07.02.2000