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Excerpt from "Mother" by Jowita Bydlowska

Mother by Jowita Bydlowska


It’s hard with a baby, Yves says, and then he says other predictable things, things I write about that men say before they do something they don’t really regret because they’ve been thinking about doing it all along. I don’t ask him why he picked me, we both know this is just temporary and we’re bored and attracted to each other. Sleeping with a fan girl would be a bad idea — she would write about it on her blog. I’m too old for that. I’m authentic. I authentically give off the vibe of wanting to be laid, I suppose, with my nonthreatening squeaky laughter and self-deprecating lines, and how I’m a little tired. Tired-looking and just tired, like I can’t afford any more bullshit. I don’t worry about wrinkling my forehead at the wrong moment. Some guys like that, younger guys like that.

In the hot tub, Yves slides up closer and I can smell him now and he smells fresh like he just shampooed his hair. We kiss. We are interrupted by the commotion at the door. A small group of drunks walks into the room and tumbles and plops themselves inside the hot tub and we’re scrambling out despite their enthusiastic calls to please, please, the party is just starting, stay, stay, stay,

Sorry, sorry, sorry, we say, and leave. The carpet f ibres feel sharp and unpleasantly plastic against my naked feet; my dress is clinging to my wet bikini. But it’s warm and I don’t shiver even though my body tries on a shiver that disappears instantly, unconvinced.

In his hotel room Yves shows me a sketchbook. This is a diversion from the script; in my stories it is always the woman’s room, the man always leaves. Yves shows his drawings, like he needs to dazzle me extra, like being predictable unfaithful spouses at a retreat is not enough to have a tryst. But I look, I am interested, genuinely interested because I love boys who know how to draw. In school, those were the boys I was friends with, we all sat in the back of the classroom, me and those artsy boys. I was artsy too. I loved being able to compete with them, loved being able to make something as well as a boy could. Yves’s sketches are nice, mostly of people, up-close a mess of crosshatch lines and black ink absent spaces that when looked at from a distance make the blurry features stand out, give three-dimensionality to non-existent noses and make the eyes without the whites look right into you. Their blurry mouths move as if they were caught mid-talking. I love that detail.

I’m really good at reading lips, he says.

As I flip through the sketchbook, he kisses my neck and starts to undress me, one thin strap of my dress off my shoulder, the silk like a wave sliding down my side. I wear silk because I like its suggestion of sleep, of sex; this summer women’s shops are full of sleepwear, appropriately, as the world goes in and out of lockdown and we live in our beds for days as the government mandates our collective depression.

I miss my mother. I don’t talk to my mother anymore and I miss her. She is probably alone and she has no idea where I am. I hope she is at home, her cats like fluffy pillows around her bald head, naked shoulders. The image makes me gasp and the whole thought about her explodes inside me, and muffles the little almost-sounds of silk and sucking and licking and whatever’s happening.

I wish I could tell Yves why I suddenly stiffen under his touch, why I shake my head when his hand snakes up my thigh, why the sketchbook falls out of my hands. I know he is asking what is wrong and then he says that he agrees with me that this is wrong, and what is wrong with him and he should call his wife, this was a mistake — he says all those things that you’d imagine a man in his situation saying as he tries to straighten out, as he lifts the straps of my dress and pulls my dress back over my breasts, the waves of silk rippling and then settling back on my body. I am saying things too, I am apologizing, I am telling him it’s not him, and it’s not me either — I try to make that joke but it falls flat. I say that it’s my mother, despite myself I am telling him the real reason why even though I know it will only make everything more confusing. We will have to go through this week sitting awkwardly in shared spaces and awkwardly making small talk when alone, and there will be all those looks, unanswered beginnings of sentences, and uhsaehmshmms because nothing, almost nothing happened. And it’s worse to have nothing happen in the space of where it was supposed to be happening. It’s worse to have almost nothing rather than something you could feel guilty or excited or confused about. Thank god for this sketchbook, I think, at least that will be a thing we can talk about — art, drawing and how come he didn’t pursue it, or something along those lines. I will probably find out he has an Instagram where he posts his drawings, not too many followers, because it’s nothing special, it’s just a thing he does, seriously.

Before all of that, and now, here in this space with my revelation of “mother” we are sitting beside each other on the edge of his bed.

My mother is sick, I add.

Your mind is preoccupied, he says.

I nod because that’s exactly it.

I’m sorry. I understand. My mother died when —

My mother is not dying, I say, but I am not sure if that’s true because like I said, I no longer talk to her. My sister emailed me in the morning saying I should probably get in touch but that she won’t be a conduit any more, an odd choice of a word.

I’ve always wondered if I was stupid. How would I know? This is not a selfesteem issue; this is a serious concern I have. It is also a question my mother used to ask me; she is not someone whose presence enhanced my life. But it’s pedestrian to hate one’s mother, and it is perhaps stupid. This is the real reason I wonder if I am stupid — because I cannot get over my resentment. It stops me in my tracks. And I don’t mean figuratively — I can be walking somewhere and a memory will pop into my head — my mother’s wild red curls shaking as she screams about one thing or another — and I will stop, my breath suddenly a choke. In the middle of a sidewalk, on an escalator. I have to let it play till the end. It’s my own YouTube of trauma, no ads, no break.

I asked a therapist once: am I incurable? She said as long as there was somebody else in my life who loved me, who showed me real love I would be alright. Even a teacher, a friend, somebody else’s mother. One person only and I could reverse the damage, erase the words or at least mute them, prove them to be the wrong words said about me. The therapist didn’t ask me if there ever was somebody like that, she probably assumed there was because I remember smiling and nodding and her nodding back and smiling encouragingly
as if I did in fact name a person like that.

I didn’t go to therapy because of my mother, it was something else. Not changing clothes for a couple of days in a row; limp, greasy hair, somebody noticed, a supervisor in my dorm. Off to talk to a professional. We talked about my mother but only because you talk about mothers in therapy.

I didn’t go for a long time and I suddenly felt lighter. One day I woke up and my energy was back and I was no longer gasping for breath from unidentified grief or whatever it was that put me in bed. I can’t even remember what the therapist looked like, I just remember those little moments, the smiling and nodding and how the couch felt, too worn out and soft, the brownness of it all. And I remember not being able to come up with my antidote person.

To read the full story order your copy of issue 288 today!

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