She stomped down the stairs, and took a long, hissing breath. The kind that made Jessie’s skin crawl. Her mother was up.
She normally didn’t hear her in the morning. That was the silent agreement between the two - Jessie does her best not to wake her sleeping mother at night, while she returns the favor in the morning. A while back, she read in a literary magazine that the hardest thing to do in life is to learn German. Whoever said that never had to go back to live with their mother.
“Good morning.” Shannon’s favorite mug immediately pattered its way to the kitchen counter, only to be filled with fresh coffee. “You’re up early.”
Was that a question?
“Good morning. I have a zoom meeting in an hour. I need to prepare.”
She finally turned around and faced the kitchen table where Jessie had set up her laptop, earphones, and her notepad. She was on her second cup of coffee, and as she was going through her notes on her computer and scribbling down reminders for the meeting, Jessie felt an encroaching attack of anxiety eating its way through her belly.
Or maybe she should stop skipping breakfast.
“Good lord, what have you done to your hair?”
Jessie tucked a falling strand of frizzy hair behind her ear, and shrugged her shoulders.
“I washed it last night.”
“You slept with wet hair again, didn’t you?” Shannon asked. Except that it wasn’t a question. Thirty-two years of age, and Jessie still hadn’t learned to recognize her mother’s sarcasm from an actual question. “I told you not to do that. It damages your hair, plus it hurts your neck.”
“It’s okay, mom, my neck is fine.” She took a large gulp of coffee, and counted to five. “I didn’t have time to blow dry it, and I had to take a shower before bed.”
Shannon never skips breakfast. She opened the fridge twice before deciding to toast two pieces of bread and spread butter and strawberry jam over. When Jessie used to eat that nearly every morning before school, her mother bickered about the amount of fat from the butter and sugar from the jam that would ultimately grow into cellulite on her thighs and clog her arteries. Bringing that up only forty-seven minutes before her meeting was even more hurtful than sleeping with wet hair.
“If you came back home last night earlier, you would’ve had time to shower and blow dry, you know,” she said. “Where did you two go, anyway?”
“To that new restaurant that opened last month, the– the blue something.”
“Blue Monday? Jesus, god almighty, is that place expensive.” Her mother sat at the table opposite her. She hugged the mug with her palms, and turned all of her attention towards Jessie. She could feel the burning eyes of curiosity branding her skin.
“It’s not that bad,” Jessie responded, shrugging her shoulders again. The smell of crisp toast spread through the kitchen. “I think I paid only twenty something bucks for the meal. Either way, nothing’s as expensive here as it is in the city.”
“That’s one thing I’m happy about that you’re back home,” her mother said. The sound of bread jumping out of the toaster made her jump to her feet.
Home. That’s a place where you grew up, where you went to school. Where you used to chug vodka and beer with your girlfriends every Friday night, and try to come up with the best way to hide your hangover from your parents every Saturday.
It’s not a place you move to after the divorce. Especially not with your mother.
The sound of buttery knife scraping against the toast distracted her from writing down the correct phrase. Her mom came back at the table with her plate. She was about to have a one-sided staring contest with her wanton daughter, the one that failed in everything, as she chows down on her breakfast.
“So, have you heard from him?”
“He didn’t call?”
“And you didn’t call him?”
“Why would I call him?”
“You used to talk every day, that’s all.”
“Not on the phone, mom.”
“It doesn’t matter, Jessica, whether it was phone, or computer, or frigging telegrams. You two were very close and had nice communication going on. I still can’t believe you two are over.”
That was an invitation for Jessie to join the bashing of her failed marriage, and more importantly, of her soon-to-be ex-husband. She imagined that this one time would be the only time her mother would side with Hunter.
“Not nice enough, evidently,” she said, wanting to present herself busier than she actually was.
“I really thought you could make it work,” pieces of buttered toast swirled in her open mouth. For the first time since her mother sat to eat her cellulite-accumulating breakfast that morning, Jessie lifted her eyes from the screen.
“I thought you were happy that we’re not together anymore.” Jessie’s mouth blurted the words out before her mind gave out the green light. A thin layer of jam stuck to her mother’s upper lip. After she’d finished chewing, Shannon pouted her lips. She always did that when she was disappointed, or annoyed. Sometimes, Jessie didn’t know which of the two was worse.
“Well, I am happy, that’s no secret,” she admitted. “I’m not happy that your marriage is ruined after only five years of marriage, but I am happy that you’re not with that man anymore.”
Jessie’s eyebrows were as confused as she was.
“I honestly have no idea why you never liked him. Dad would.”
“Of course I never liked him! He is a deadbeat parasite, and a drunk, and your father would most certainly not like him, not one bit, Jessica. He detested men like those.”
He detested men like those because he was just like them, she wanted to say, but this time her tongue was prevented, and a disaster possibly averted.
“Either way, he’s out of our lives now, and that’s that.”
Shannon’s breakfast was ruined yet she continued chewing on her toast, as if her life depended on it. She continued to give her daughter a lesson in failed relationships unasked for, her being the expert, naturally.
“You deserve so much better than him. You two are the polar opposites, for Chirst’s sake, and after how he treated you, I’m in awe that you’re still defending him like that.”
“What do you mean, after how he treated me?” Jessie’s eyes lifted from the screen again. Her pen has started to swing between her fingers, and her knee was shaking under the table.
“You know exactly what I mean, missy. You gave that man everything, you supported him through his alcoholism and addiction…”
“He wasn’t an addict, mom. He was severely depressed.”
“Oh, yes, I forgot. Now it’s called depression, back in my day it was plain ol’ lazy. And since we’re at it, I have no idea how you ever thought you could have a decent matrimony with such a man. Ungrateful sorry-ass, that’s what he is.”
Whatever Shannon Sullivan’s standards for a decent matrimony was - Jessie was not going to ask - what Hunter and Jessie shared for five exuberant yet ultimately disappointing years was more decent than her mother could even begin to fathom.
But why was she now pretending like Jessie wasn’t the one that messed it all up?
“Mom, I have to finish this now,” she lowered her voice to an absolute whisper. Her eyes dampened; if she spoke any louder her plastic composure would burst. “I really need to focus on this before the meeting, okay?”
She adjusted her eyeglasses on her nose, and scratched the back of her head.
Ever since she came back to her mother’s house her head itched. The spots behind her ears, the forehead where baby hair had started to grow. The back of her neck, and the line under her bra straps. Yet nothing itched more than her wishhful thinking her mother would make a fine roommate.
After a long moment of silence - Jessie actually thought she had won this round - Shannon spoke again.
“Who do you have that meeting with, again?”
She swallowed the last of her breakfast, and cleaned her throat with a long sip of coffee.
“What kind of client is it? I thought you were writing for a newspaper, or something.” The plate clinked in the sink against her favorite mug.
Jessie looked up again, over the screen of her laptop.
“You’re telling me that after all these years, you still don’t know what I do for a living?”
“No, of course I know. You’re writing. Something. I’m just not sure what. I could have sworn you were a journalist or something like that.”
“No, mom, I’m not a journalist. I’m a copywriter.”
Shannon took a long, contemplative pause. The two women looked at each other as if unsure whose turn was it to speak next. Bits of sticky toast stuck to the back of her teeth.
“Isn’t that the same? And what happened to giving lessons? I thought your online teaching career was blooming.”
Jessie brought both of her palms to her face and wiped the lines where the rim of her glasses touched her skin. There was still some alcohol left in her system - some sugary deliciousness in the form of margaritas - and was now slowly rising from her stomach to her mouth.
“I stopped teaching years ago.” Her tears of sadness turned into crystals of exasperation. “You know this, you know everything about my job. I told you a thousand times.”
Now Shannon scratched her head. It looked like she didn’t know what to do with her hands, so she fixed her hair and scratched here and there, as to kill time.
“I think you did just fine teaching, honey, I really do. You were so good at it.” Her tone of voice switched to a caring mom and an involved parent. “You always wanted to be a teacher.”
“I was. I was a teacher for a few years, then I decided I wanted to be something else.”
“You can’t just decide you want to be something else, Jessica.” The carping know-it-all voice of her childhood was back. “We invested in your education, we invested time and money for you to be what you wanted to be. And now you’re telling me you don’t want to be a teacher anymore. Well, isn’t that just dandy? Let’s all be something we’re not, for a change.”
“Mom, the education you kindly provided me with has served me since I left school, and will continue to. Don’t worry, it’s not wasted, I promise.”
“Well, either way, I just think a career of a teacher is respectable and opens a lot of doors,” Shannon concluded.
“And, dear, you really ought to do something with that hair of yours. You’re gonna show up on that meeting like that?”
She scratched an urgent itch behind her left ear, only for it to reappear on her right thigh. Shannon couldn’t see her scratching like a maniac behind the laptop.
“It’s fine, it’s a casual meeting. They don’t really care how I look.”
As soon as she heard her mother’s footsteps approaching the kitchen tiles that morning, Jessie knew she had made a terrible choice setting up her temporary office there. She had counted on Shannon’s leaving early for the farmer’s market, as she normally did every Wednesday. Yet her mother woke up that day, and decided to contradict the living crap our of her even more than usual.
“Well, if you put a tad more effort in the way you look, maybe your husband wouldn’t have kicked you out.”
“What did you just say?”
“I mean, you should not appear in a meeting like that, child. It’s a business meeting, right? What’s so casual about a business meeting? You’re not properly dressed, either.”
“No, what did you say about my husband kicking me out?”
“Oh, come now, dear, let’s not talk about this now, you have that meeting to prepare for,” her mother said, keeping her distance behind the kitchen island where she thought Jessie’s wrath could not reach.
“Hunter did not kick me out. I left.”
“Is that why called me that night two months ago, bawling? Because you left him?”
“Yes,” which I now admit was an utter mistake. Who would have thought that your own mother could not be the solace you need when your marriage is being shattered.
“Oh, Jessica,” Shannon put both of her palms at the counter and gave her a sad puppy eye. “You are a brave soul, my darling. The bravest.”
“Mom, what are you talking about? You know how everything went down, you know everything.”
“I know, I know, and it’s horrible that he did that to you, but you have to continue to be brave, my sweet Jess. I am here for you, always.”
“What is so horrible that he did to me?”
“You don’t have to defend him anymore,” Shannon said in a tone was demanding, as if uttering one more word of defense for her ex spouse would mean dire betrayal.
But Jessie couldn’t help it. She wanted to explain how she was the one that broke his heart and shattered both of their lives into pieces, thinking she could find the tiniest grain of comfort and release from that god-awful guilt following her affair in her family home.
“I’m not defending him, I’m telling you how it happened,” Jessie found herself screaming at her mother, something she wished she had mustered the strength to do many times before. It was harrowing to think that her devastating affair was the catalyst for bravery to confront her mother. “I… I left him. I… I fucked him up, mom, that’s how it happened. It wasn’t his drinking, or his laziness, it was… me.”
Her mother was unimpressed. She nonetheless approached the tearful beast behind the laptop screen and embraced her shoulders, tucking her chin into her neck.
“It’s okay, darling. I know,” she whispered. A terrorizing chill flashed down Jessie’s spine in realising what her mother could possibly know about why her marriage ended. “I understand it all, marriages are not easy. Don’t blame yourself, love. Never blame yourself. It is us women who always take the greatest sacrifices and never give as much as a thank you note. You did everything you could for that man, and for that he will always carry you in his heart, even though he chose to be without you.”
In thirty-five minutes her meeting begins. Jessie hasn’t properly researched the topic, nor prepared valid notes for her new client. She has thirty-five minutes before she has to put her failed marriage, the reasons for her divorce, and her mother’s attempt at comforting words behind her, comb her hair, maybe change a shirt, and turn her laptop camera on.
Her glasses fogged as she was wiping her cheeks dry with her sleeve. Shannon tapped her on a shoulder before removing herself from the table. Dishes clinked in the back of the kitchen, her busy footsteps shuffled behind the kitchen island, as Jessie started to close her laptop and pack her notes.
“What are you doing? You don’t have to leave, I’ll be off soon, I won’t be in your way. I’ll take care of dinner tonight, by the way. I appreciate you trying to cook for us, dear, but those scalloped potatoes you made the other night… Jesus, they gave me such a heartburn. I told you not to salt the cream so much, you know I can’t stand table salt. Oh, and I got you some avocados last night at the market. They’re still green, so you can… Jessie, where are you going? You don’t have to close the door of your room, I’ll be out the house in a jiffy. Let me know when you finish, I want to take you shopping! You need new clothes, girlie! Jessie?”