A short story by Mackenzie Littledale
word count 1628
“What do you mean, the blue sky is an illusion?” my mother asked, shock writ large on her face, hand poised on the door handle of the passenger side of my car. Her sheer terror scared me for a second. I thought she might get out of my car, so I had to ameliorate the situation.
I was happy to explain, sure she’d grasp my meaning and praise my intellect. “I mean, when you look at earth from space, there is no blue sky. You can see straight through the air to earth’s surface. It’s God’s cleverest illusion.” I tilted my head with my hands out, as if to say ‘voila’. My mother seemed to catch her breath. Had I said something ‘bipolar’ without knowing again? No, I wasn’t having a psychotic episode or going off into la-la-land. She had this mistaken notion that any expression outside the lines was a smoke signal for help. I needed to explain further in hopes of calming her down. “At night time, there is no blue sky. From earth, we can see all the way to outer space. The blue of the day time sky comes from debris and particulates refracting the sun’s rays. The blue isn’t really there.”
“Well, well, well. Aren’t you smart.”
To anyone else unaccustomed to the difference in my mother’s tones of voice, I got the recognition I wanted. But I was no stranger or distant cousin. That tone was nothing short of passive-aggressive sarcasm. ‘Aren’t you smart,’ wasn’t praise. She felt stupid and masked her confusion by degrading my intellect. One day I would have to remember to tell other people besides my mother about my philosophical thoughts. Maybe I’d just grown too used to beating my head against this particular wall, because I had nothing else to talk about and I could bang my head one more time.
Mentally switching gears to reinforce myself, I said, “It’s true about human nature, too, I think. It takes the darkest of night to see the stars and that we’re not alone in the universe. It can also take the darkest depths of despair to find the light within ourselves.”
“Humph.” She shook her head and refreshed her lipstick. “No one wants to feel despair, sweetheart. What would make you think such things?”
I pressed on, though I knew I’d wind up surrendering to the impasse all over again. I couldn’t impress her. I had no deeper thought than this one. “In the daytime, all we have is the blue sky even though it’s not really there. All it does is keep us from seeing beyond to the other planets and stars. People can be like that, too.”
Her lips transformed from faded fuchsia to a full, vibrant fuchsia. She smiled at her reflection in the passenger mirror, snapped it shut and put the visor back up. “Where to next?’
I ignored her question. She knew damn well we were going to the mall for bath and beauty products. “People can act like, if they’re just happy-happy all the time, then they must actually be happy, but they’re not. Inside they’re miserable and desperate. They play pretend, like their mood is only allowed to be cielo azul day in, day out. They’re full of shit. There’s no such thing as being upbeat and positive all the time.”
“What are you talking about now?” my mother asked.
I pulled into a gap in the traffic on the four-lane boulevard, hitting the gas hard. “I’m talking about the blue sky illusion.”
“For heaven’s sake, why can’t you ever not be serious? Why can’t you just enjoy a day?”
Why can’t I have a mother who gets me? “I am enjoying the day. I enjoy the thoughts and insights of my mind. Since I’m your daughter, you might take some pleasure from knowing I can think.”
“You think too much.” She laughed in a chiding sort of way, not full on mocking but encouraging me to slink down to her mental level and cozy up there. Easy, oblivious, naïve.
“Really?” I pulled out my vape and sucked on it hard. “I find most people don’t think enough.” In my mind, I included my mother with that group of unthinking people. We passed two intersections and I turned right into the mall entrance to hunt for a parking space, cognizant of how brilliantly blue the day’s sky was.
While I inched the car forward in search of parking, a man and woman with a child in a stroller and another in a sling made their way toward the JC Penney entrance. I marveled at them. Their clothes were crisp and clean, solidly middle class. I made up stories about their home life based on their Birkenstocks and khakis. I imagined what values they’d impart to those little ones based on their cheery smiles and how close they walked together.
I thought back to my parents’ parties for family; I never sat with the women. Once their conversations inevitably turned to crochet, knitting, recipes, and housecleaning, I lost interest. They weren’t keeping pace with the changing times and the men were always more animated, laughing even as they argued. Their debates had a dynamic balance of fire, intellect, and respect. The balance would ebb and flow: embrace, reject and embrace again. The men let their inner lions circle their prey with rhetoric and unassailable logic, but at the end of the night, they remained on speaking terms. No one got eaten. They’d debate the merits of feminism while the women giggled about eye shadow. I wanted to grow up to be a powerful and knowledgeable woman. I’d choose my eye shadow in the morning in private and never speak a word about it around the dinner table.
“You should take a break from thinking.” My mother pointed down the next aisle. “There’s a good space there.”
I directed the car toward the next aisle and maneuvered to back in to the space.
“Why not just park straight in?”
I let out an inward sigh and appraised my mother. Stubborn in her own way. She’d never talk back in an argument – at least not directly in a straight line. My mother spoke in concentric circles away from a point, whether she was right or wrong. She emulated Jesus facing his crucifixion. Never spoke a word in her own defense, and it incensed my father. I’d grown up to experience the trap myself. She’d doggedly pursue a habit that had no beneficial purpose for anyone and to ask her to change led to begging her to change, which led to blowing a fuse. But her silent response invariably led to feeling guilty for being a bully. The habit in question continued unabated, which led to feeling powerless and unable to cope except to surrender. My mother was water lapping against stone seawalls. One day, the walls would crumble, yielding to the never-ending, senseless lashing. We all crumbled around her, but wasn’t it our strength and worldly wisdom that she relied on to keep her safe? She undermined us, one and all.
We got out of the car and went inside the mall toward Bath & Body Works. With my deeper thoughts exposed for inspection and rejected, I resorted to the lighter side of womanhood – bath products that would smooth and soften, scents that would entrance and delight, sugar scrubs and body butters. I loved giving them a place. For an activity like shopping, my mother was a good companion. The philosophy would have to be shared with a higher mind, or I’d have to validate myself on my own terms. The final option would be to abandon philosophical thoughts altogether. If only Bath & Body Works had products for people like me. Instead of sugar scrubs to exfoliate the skin, they should offer a dictionary to exfoliate the dead from the spirit. Instead of body butters to smooth the skin, a thesaurus of words to smooth bruised egos. If I could pluck the right words to lubricate my spirit, I’d finally learn to master building and sustaining a meaningful relationship with the one woman with whom relationship should be easiest and deepest.
A perky salesclerk separated me from my mother with her intoxicating invitation to sample smell A Thousand Wishes, Coconut Lime, and Black Cherry Merlot. I waved to my mother. “We’ll meet up by the register.” Her back was already turned and she wondered among the shelves as if I wasn’t there anyway.
I reverted immediately to childlike enthusiasm for the wonderland of products and it didn’t take long to rack up a total exceeding a hundred dollars. After my purchases filled two shopping bags, I rejoined my mother with her modest purchase of bath gel and body lotion.
My mother’s eyes landed a sharp look a little too long on my shopping bags. “You sure like to splurge on yourself.”
I sure like to comfort myself and smelling good is a happy byproduct. “These will last me for several months, Mom.” The temptation to resume my philosophical thoughts on the blue sky flashed through my mind ever so fleetingly. “Mom?”
“What is it?” Her smiling face and hands clutching her shopping bag gave me pause. What good would it do to try to resist her water with my stone seawall?
“Don’t you just love this store?” I asked, smiling back with my decision to revel in my commercial femininity. Why should I scare her with my deeper thoughts? We could simply look in the mirror and see ourselves, not each other. In my reflection, I’d validate my own philosophical musings, keep the bipolar managed, and blend into society, if ever I could find a place to belong under the brilliant blue sky.