Sarah Thankam Mathews
Vic wants to make brownies but first needs a smoke. You stare up at the bright cliffs of books lining her walls. The ones she’s written aren’t displayed prominently; they’re shoved off into corners or placed upside down. On one of the shelves is a gilt-framed photograph of her in dark robes accepting a diploma from an old man with mutton chops.
Vic at your age has wild beautiful hair and a small tender face. Ask her if it feels so wonderful and full-circle to come back to teach, to be celebrated, at the same university where she was an undergrad.
“Maybe. Always something tragic, you know, about wish fulfillment.”
She asks if you have applied to internships yet. When she smokes, Vic becomes dispassionate, her usual hungers appeased. She would call you cheesecake, cookie. These endearments, the kind a mother would offer up to her little girl like confectionery, filled you with unease, all things considered. You explained before you asked her to cut it out. She’s better about it now.
You do not smoke. It is generational, Vic declares. Dylan doesn’t touch cigarettes, either, she says, and then adds,
“As far as I know, I mean. I kept a lot of things to myself, at seventeen.”
Plumes curl from her nostrils around her dark head, a war bonnet.
“I am not the same damn generation as Dylan.”
Arrange the books to have something to do with your hands, make sure they are all the same distance from the wall, their upright spines in line like soldiers. Morning light angles acute over your nakedness.
Dylan is Vic’s son. He grew up in Ottawa with his father but as of a week ago he is in Madison visiting Vic.
“Those Surgeon General’s warnings proliferated and they did their work. That is really all I’m saying, Marin. I should preheat the oven.”
“I can preheat the oven.”
She smiles, sudden and sharp-toothed. What follows next is abbreviated by Dylan calling, “Hey, where’s your laundry detergent?” from downstairs. Vic curses, flings on a robe, and disappears. Seconds pass before you raise your knees from the floor, wipe your mouth on the bed sheets, and begin dressing.
Thoughts diffuse as you pull on wool socks. You are nine, kneeling on wood again. The church smells like cured oak and old carpet and on good days, incense. Maman is holding your slippery paw with her right hand, muffling a dark cough with her left. Your father is up front on his knees while a robed man places a wafer on his offered tongue. His face is wet when he comes back up, and he wipes it hurriedly on his shirtsleeves.
Walking downstairs, you wonder what Dylan must think of you, young woman barely older than him, hanging out with his estranged mom. Perhaps nothing at all. Likely nothing at all. You remind yourself of the self-absorption of teenagers. Dylan seems polite, affectionate, profoundly uncurious about Vic. He has a sweet face and Jimmy Neutron hair, wears buttoned-up oxfords and carries around Marcus Aurelius. His skin is lighter than hers.
To her, he is a dense text, transliterated, annotated. No line of questioning can be thorough enough. Are you reading Chaucer yet for school. No, well what do they have you reading. Does your English teacher have a master’s degree. From where. Do you need supplemental book recommendations. Did you like Vardaman in As I Lay Dying. Do you think Faulkner portrays adolescence respectfully.
You pass Dylan carrying an empty hamper at the foot of the stairs. He has a cold, his nose red and chapped. His smile is a well-pressed shirt.
Take out flour, sugar, butter, a carton of eggs, a tin of cocoa powder. Arrange them into a rough square. It is part of who you are to be an orderer, an enforcer of mundane patterns. Music thuds from Dylan’s room, unrecognizable to you. So much for being part of the same generation.
Vic is pottering around, watering plants, poking around in cabinets and drawers. Ask her what she’s looking for. Did she hear you?
Vic appears in the doorway, her robe falling slightly open. She is carrying a round stainless steel grinder in one hand, waves a ziplock of weed at you with the other.
Vic takes out a box of brownie mix from a cabinet.
“Where my damn eggs at?”
She drops pats of butter in a skillet, douses them in canola oil, turns the heat on high. Puts on Thelonious Monk, kisses your ear, pours red wine in stemless tumblers. Ordinarily this would be bourbon, but Dylan, you’ve learned, dislikes drugs and drinking high-octane things and Vic yearns for his approval.
Jazz pours over both of you like chocolate melted. You watch Vic’s beautiful shoulders sway slightly in the slanting light. This toffee-coloured woman twice your age, you realize, is more hip than you’ll ever be. You stare at the Malbec, already tasting the grape pinging your tongue, staining you like yearning. Saliva pools in your mouth. Bite your lip, look at her and shake your head. Quicker than a jazz crush, she replaces it with Welch’s. Gracious, no reproach or sneering.
The ground weed looks, for all the world, like oregano steeping in the sizzling oil. For a hot second, see this scene as it might appear from the outside, Vic, immigrant mom making a delicious sauce. Her disaffected son padding around upstairs, doing chores. And you, his girlfriend, or the neighbor’s daughter, or the student trying to earn extra credit; the list of more likely, more savoury possibilities is long.
◊ ◊ ◊
You and Vic met in AA. She stopped after three or four meetings. You still try to make them. You worry about running into people you know, having them see you at meetings, getting picked up by a professor at your school. One who never taught you, but it’s not like scandal has any time for nuance ever. And Madison, despite its city pretensions, is bucolic and gossipy as any small town.
Vic says she likes booze and not praying too much to deal with AA’s puritan bullshit, that she stayed mostly to get someone’s number. She got yours.
“Y’all were some good-looking addicts,” she says sometimes, smiling wicked and toothy.
Maman never drank. She ate rabbit food and cooked in cast-iron pans. They were good for you, she said. She died anyway. You and Vic are going to make pot brownies and go camping. That is the plan. You have never been camping before and Vic has, which surprises you, because when you have walked in the woods you have felt close to whole, close to full of light. You like animals, the slow repetitive sink of mud.
Vic had sat on her haunches in wedge sandals, espadrilles she called them, the whole time you planned the picnic, because you’d forgotten a blanket, and she’d worn a crisp white skirt.
You don’t feel anything when you eat the brownies. Only a quarter—an inch by a half. You’re not sure you want to be out of control around Vic. You do want her to think you can get out of control, that you can be wild and fun and free, just like her.
Mash the other quarter—you’d said you only wanted half—in your fist, wrap it in TP, and flush it away. It doesn’t disappear at first. Pump the handle, beads of sweat popping out on your nose.
The bathroom is dark and gray, slate tiles and white trim. A real seashell as soap dish. You see, as you walk out, Dylan’s heights marked in light pencil by the doorframe, moving up through the years.
You help Vic pile things into her car, walk upstairs to get a sweater just in case. She is waiting downstairs, rifling through the mail. Her back is to the kitchen, to you. You walk up to her and put your hands on her hips. You adore this woman’s hips, her sharp handles of bone. Cradling her softness, her sex, these things you love. She purrs. Leans back into a kiss.
You feel it then. A ballooning inside of you. Light and warm. Your mind taut and liable to pop. Feels funny. Feels hilarious. Helium feelings. You’re both on the ceiling. You’re not but what if you were. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.
The stairs creak. Dylan. You both jump apart. Look busy. Look busy. Say something about the mail. No, saying “oh, I could use these Victoria’s Secret coupons” is stupid. You’ve said it anyway. Oopsie doopsie. What is Victoria’s big secret, anyway? Ha ha.
Dylan says, what’s up. Not a question. You answer it regardless. The ceiling, you say. He walks over to the baking tray, pops a brownie into his mouth.
You and Vic stare at each other, then him.
“What you guys up to?” Dylan asks thickly, mouth full. He is wearing a vest and a bowtie.
“Going camping,” Vic says, her voice sounding so far away.
“Have fun,” Dylan says. “Be good.”
“We will, Pops,” she says, light and easy, putting her keys in the door.
◊ ◊ ◊
When you both head back, you are sated, if a bit grubby. You loved camping. How it took you both away from other people for thirty-two sweet hours. Fucking in the woods, smelling of bodies unshowered but for not too long. Fruity, only slightly rank. Stray hairs starting to pop out like gophers from your skins.
On the ride back, you drive, remembering your mouth on Vic’s cunt, so soft and fragrant, bearded by crisp dark hair, secreting its brine in helpless, bucking pleasure. Fingers from that faraway thing, the rest of her body, gripping your hair in clutching handfuls.
Pull into the driveway, the sense of an ending. Classes tomorrow, your Tuesday shift at Los Gemelos. For now, you can make dinner together. Showered, you cook mussels in garlic and white wine under Vic’s tutelage, cut potatoes into matchsticks. Vic shows you how to whip up homemade mayonnaise: oil and vinegar and yolk and garlic folding together to make a beautiful, creamy emulsion.
In the way of teenage boys, Dylan shows up at the end, accepting that food appears on the table for him. He sits down and starts eating without preamble.
He asks how camping was. Tell him. Leave some parts out.
Wine-drunk, Vic tells you both about camping on the beaches of Sur and Salalah, in Oman, where she traveled with a wealthy Jordanian lover after college. You are hazy as to Oman’s whereabouts. You think it’s somewhere near Israel. She says you could see the whole Milky Way stretch over you, reflected in glittering black water.
“Wish I had been high for that trip,” she says, all dreamy.
You glance at Dylan, who looks unfazed, if harder of jaw.
“Did you smoke in your tent?” he asks, scooping out mussels and dunking them in mayo. That’s not how you do it, you want to tell him.
“No,” Vic says, “I heed your lectures on lung cancer most of the time. We ate the brownies, remember?”
“The brownies,” Dylan says. “They had weed in them?”
“Yes! Did you not get high? You had one.”
“I had five.”
“Are you serious? Could you not taste it? Or smell it?”
“I was so hungry. I’ve never—and I had a cold. I didn’t know. How could I?”
His eyes glitter, narrow. The two of them stare at each other as if you never existed.
“You watched me eat one and didn’t say a damn thing?”
“I was impaired. It was irresponsible of me, I concede that, of course.”
“Mom. I thought I was dying.”
Vic bursts out laughing. Chortling. She clutches her misbehaving, out-of-control mouth, eyes so wide. Dylan begins to cry, face twisting in apparent rage.
She tries to choke out words.
“—you probably had an anxiety attack. I’m so sorry. Sweetie—”
“You”—he hesitates momentarily, and then pitches hard—“are a thoughtless—bitch.”
He walks fast from the room, shoulders shaking. Vic slowly wanders to the porch, seeming shell-shocked. You can see smoke curl around her silhouette, through the window. You could comfort her. You walk upstairs instead.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Go away, Marin.”
An acceder at your core, you do. You wander the second floor for a long time, pacing back and forth. The shower turns on, then off. The bathroom door does not open. Walk towards it.
“Let me in. Dylan.”
He’s wearing a towel. His body looks thin and weedy, apart from gym-bought arms. He is damp and red-eyed.
Hug him. For some minutes he does not resist. You say some platitude, like it’ll be okay, she wasn’t thinking, and he does not dignify it with a reply.
You both sit down on the bathroom floor, silent. Ask him if he wants to talk. He shakes his head no. After minutes and minutes, you lie on the floor, your head on the bathmat. He curls into the nook of your armpit. You stroke his Jimmy Neutron hair. You watch the shower steam curl and tumble away from the mirror. More minutes pass. The silence is holding both of you in its nook, rocking you to its heartbeat.
From where you lie, you see a pile of Scotch Brite pads, yellow and dull green, in the corner where the cleaning supplies are piled untidy in a clear basket.
The bathroom floor is beginning to hurt your back. Untangle yourself from Dylan, sit upright. You look at the doorframe, eyes level with Dylan’s toddler height marks. Dylan, 1994. D. 1996.
And then you notice, so very faint, and only low down, another name. Hannah, 1991. Hannah, 1993.
He stares at you. Poker face.
“You can ask Vic.”
“Uh, okay. You can’t just tell me? Please?”
“I don’t know what I expected, Marin, and the hell does it matter, but you clearly don’t know her. At all.”
He sails out of the bathroom. You stare at the seashell with its small, brandless sliver of soap for a long time, your mind alternately whirring and weighted by dread.
When you were small, you were forever putting things in your mouth. Maman found toddler you sitting in the corner of the bathroom, sucking on a dirty Scotch Brite sponge with apparent delight. She’d run to you, squeezed your fat cheeks, roughly forced a finger in your mouth to yank it out.
She told you this when you were older. “You dirty little girl,” she said, and you laughed and laughed.
When you were a little bit older, around four, you and a friend played a game he called Bakery. You made mud pies. Once he dared you to eat them. You had only been chewing, choking slightly on the dark wet soil, for seconds when your mother, who had been weeding nearby, made you spit it out. She asked you what was wrong with you. She smacked you hard, then held you to her heart while you cried.
It’s late. You still haven’t heard Vic come up the stairs. Put your coat on and head to the living room and you see her facedown. Her pale feet hanging off the edge of the couch, bottle of whiskey two-thirds done next to her. She is snoring loudly.
You walk out of the darkened house, not bothering to lock the door behind you. Wait for the 64 at the bus stop, shoulders hunched. All you can think is, Hannah. You think of how you could bring it up with Vic, want to ask if she ever planned to tell you.
Back home, you rove through kitchen cupboards, hardly knowing what you’re looking for. A plastic-wrapped packet of the roommate’s Swiss rolls appears, and you sit on the floor and tear into it like a dog. All you want is to feel full, to feel like a house with the lights on and the family gathered around a table of food. A fructifying love that could nourish or protect. You settle for the white electricity of sucrose buzzing in you, biting again and again into the soft spiral of cream filling, barely stopping to chew before you swallow.
Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between India, Oman, Canada, and the US. Her work has been published in outlets including AGNI, Buzzfeed Reader, Emerge, and Interrobang?! magazine. She’s a Pushcart nominee and the winner of the Academy of American Poets’ Jens Bjerregaard Poetry Prize.