Last time I spoke to my mother, a rare occurrence yet rarely a memorable one, it was regarding a certain photo she has of me in her room. “Why mother” I asked, doing my best to sound detached and uncaring, “do you have a photo of me on the verge of tears?”
“Because, dear son, it is one of the few photos we have of you.”
I’ve always disliked my photo being taken, so her curt response made sense. My vampiric tendencies have served me quite well in my life so far. I kept my face behind the shoulders of my classmates during school photos, and behind huge messy clamps of hair for passports and the like. My face is a rather private affair, if you ask me. Which is to say, it would make perfect sense if she had no photo of me in her room at all, but to have a photo of me sulking so viciously? It seemed strange.
“I still don’t get why you have it” I explained.
“Well, you know you” she sighed in return.
I do know me. I know that it makes perfect sense I’d be very much against getting my photo taken, and it makes perfect sense that my mother, the evil hag, would force my eight year old self to undergo the humiliation anyway. “That’s so you” I told her in the present day. “I can’t believe you forced my eight year old self to undergo that humiliation. And you’re proud of it, you evil hag.”
“I’m not an evil hag” she replied. “I didn’t make you get your photo taken. There’s a story behind it you know.”
“Oh really? There’s a story behind it? Well in that case it’s absolutely fine.”
She shook her head at me, then, in that way people do when they’re tired. It made her look like a witch. “Danny, you know what you’re like. It’s not worth talking about.”
“I know what I’m like, do I? Well then, mother dear, tell me what I’m like since you know me so well.”
“You’re… Listen, okay? Do you remember when you were thinking about going on that trip to Amsterdam?” I nodded suspiciously. I remembered it, I remembered it well. It was the most un-me thing in the world, to hop on a plane with a bunch of friends I didn’t know that well and end up in a weed soaked coffee shop. I would sooner play board games in a basement then go out partying. I say that like it was a choice; I never got invited to parties, whereas I got invited to basements all the time. So I was acutely aware of how out of character this trip must seem, how impossibly abnormal. It made sense she’d have something to say about the whole thing.
“Do you remember what you were like before you went?” She sat down as she was talking, tucking her legs into bed covers. She looked like a butterfly, nestled tight in its cocoon, except unfathomably repulsive. “You were stressing out,” she went on. “You didn’t want to go. You were terrified.” I flinched at this, glaring at her.
“I wasn’t,” I snapped. “I was excited. I thought it was going to be amazing.”
“You didn’t want to go.”
“Really? Well why did I go then?”
She almost smiled, then, like she’d won. “Because you’d been invited. You didn’t want to let them down.”
I felt fire in my belly, when she said that. I felt the desperation to defend myself, to bite back, to hurt her in the way only carefully aimed words can. “I wasn’t scared” I said, pushing down the rage. “They were my friends. I wanted to go. I wanted to.”
I glanced towards the photo of the little boy, face all scrunched up with the effort of keeping away his tears. I looked ridiculous, like every tantrum filled kid in all the world. But I wasn’t. Not me.
“Okay, son,” she said. “There’s honestly no point talking about it.”
“You’re right,” I hissed. “You have a photo of me in your room where I’m basically crying, and you think that’s okay. You awful terrible freak.” With that I rushed out of her room, storming towards my own bedroom and wrapping myself in covers. I looked like a much more elegant butterfly than the one I had just seen.
It stung to think about, but I knew she was right. The way she so readily brought up my fear about Amsterdam had put me on the back foot, I wasn’t used to her having any kind of insight about the state of the world. But for once, shockingly, she understood me.
I began scrolling back through time, wading through the paddling pool of my past, noticing all the moments I’d been too scared to say no. The clown at my birthday party, the snake on my gran, the warm cup of berry juice, a dead fly floating gently on the surface. It pained me to even consider the idea that the she-beast might be right, but impossibly it looked like she was.
“Mother,” I said, looking at the floor.
“Hello again,” she replied.
I didn’t say anything to that, I just waited for her to tell the story. She has trouble when she’s not hearing her own voice, even when most of what she says isn’t worth the breath it takes to say it. Needless to say it was, eventually, inevitable.
“The day we took that photo,” she began, moving out from her cocoon a little, “you didn’t want your picture taken. You really didn’t want it taken, more than usual. The photographer didn’t have much time, and we wanted the photo, so you were getting more and more upset until, well, we said fine, don’t get the photo taken. Which is when you froze. We got ready to leave, but you didn’t follow. You were standing there, finally having got what you wanted, but not moving a muscle. We told you it was okay, we didn’t mind about the photo, but you just shook your head. You told us to take the photo, and we said we didn’t have to, but you looked sadder and sadder and sadder… You got yourself so worked up and felt so bad for throwing the tantrum that you wouldn’t leave until she took the photo. So there you go, that’s why we have a photo of you about to cry.”
I glanced up, for just a second, and caught my mother’s eyes. As quickly as I could I turned away, wanting nothing to do with her piercing gaze. She might have stumbled upon a truth, this time, but I wasn’t about to let her know it. She might get ideas if I did that, might start talking to me like she actually had something to say. “You still put the picture up in your room,” I mumbled. “Proudly displaying the unhappiness of your child. Real nice.”
“We don’t have many photos. It’s better than nothing.”
I tried my best to look at her again. It pained me, and my whole body felt somehow wrong, like I was turning into rictus, painful stone. I didn’t like to think that she knew me this intimately. I didn’t like to think about her as anything other than an enemy. But she was right. She was right about me and about how I felt. She knew me more than I had ever realised.
“Mum,” I said, with the fullest of full stops. All noise disappeared with that word, as if the universe was preparing for an uncomfortable truth. “Me and Liz,” I went on. “We’ve. Well. We’re not a thing anymore.”
She looked up at me from the bed.
“Really? Since when?”
“Since a few months ago.”
She shook her head slowly. “A few months ago.”
“Be thankful I told you at all,” I sighed, taking a seat on the end of her bed, making sure to keep a reasonable distance.
I paused. I didn’t want to say it, least of all to her. I didn’t want to talk about it or think about it or even consider that it had ever happened at all. But the more I didn’t think about it, the longer the nights were becoming. I had to talk, just like I always did when things got difficult. Needless to say, the person I would normally talk to at a time like this wasn’t a part of my life anymore, and so mother, the putrid mess of a woman, would just have to do.
“I told her I didn’t love her,” I said through careful breaths. “I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure what was going on and how I felt and… I was just so used to talking to her, and being honest, and I didn’t want to be a bad person.”
“So you told her you didn’t love her?”
“To try and be a good person?”
“Was it true?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
I looked at her, and my body seemed to melt. I felt so much life falling out of me, but I wouldn’t cry, not in front of her. “I didn’t know what to do,” I continued, ignoring my heavy breathing. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have just worked it out on my own. But I wanted to be honest and I wanted to work through it. I should have shut the hell up. I thought we’d just work it all out. I didn’t think it would end.”
“You told your girlfriend you didn’t love her, and you didn’t expect it to end? That’s interesting logic.”
She smiled, a grin fit only for war criminals and dentists. I turned my gaze away, so as to avoid catching the terrible smirk. “It was more complicated than that,” I said, once my mood had suitably dropped. “Things weren’t good. We were arguing.”
“So was it true?” She asked it with a pointed look, and I returned my gaze towards her quizzically. “Was it true?” she asked again. “When you said you didn’t love her?”
I shrugged. I paused. I thought about it, about what it was like all that time ago. “I honestly don’t know. I was sad, about other things. I was frustrated with her, but that’s not the same as not loving someone. I don’t know what I felt. I don’t know if I’m just forgetting the bad things, but I feel like I still love her.”
“But that’s now.”
“Back then it might have been different.”
She paused, and so did I. Silence wasn’t uncommon between us, in fact it was preferable to her chalkboard voice, most of the time at least. Not this time though. This time the silence felt awful.
“Listen,” she said, eventually. “I know what you’re like. As much as you might not want to admit it, I do. You’ve always made things more difficult than they need to be. You want to let everyone know when you’re not happy with something, but you want everyone to keep on doing it so you don’t seem like the bad guy. Maybe that’s what happened with her. Maybe you didn’t love her, and you’re telling yourself now that you did so you’re somehow less horrible. Or maybe not. Maybe you really weren’t sure. Maybe you made a very stupid mistake. I don’t know what happened, and I’m not going to give you some magic answer that makes everything better. But you’re talking about it. That’s important. To be honest, just hearing you talk at all is pretty amazing.” She let her eyes rest on me for a few seconds longer. “I feel like all we ever do is fight these days. I miss you, y’know. I miss you talking to me.”
I sighed, and got up off her bed. It was more effort than I expected, but I wasn’t going to be able to hold myself together much longer. “There you go again,” I hissed as I headed for the door, “making it about yourself. We couldn’t possibly go a whole conversation without you talking about yourself now, could we?”
I left her room, swinging the door shut behind me. In my own room the bedcovers became the softest, safest cave in all the world, and the dim glow of my laptop screen illuminated the darkness. The endless dribble of TV dialogue grew loud, and the sounds of my stupid little brain started to fade, just a little.
I didn’t feel any better, but I felt a little lighter. That would be enough. That would be enough to keep me on my feet.
[This is true in the way that the movie Fargo is true. As in, it’s not. Mostly, anyway.]