I should just ask Sue myself. But then what would I say?
Do you remember Mike’s party?
I can hear her voice now, the words slurred, but still strong. You mean the one you had in 2000-whatever? I’m lucky I can remember what I did last week. Why did you call me up out of the blue to ask me about this?
Because my mother is insane, Sue. And I kinda need to know. I think I screwed up and big time. If I did, I need to apologize. After all, it was no way to treat one of my best friends, or the woman who took me in when I needed a place to stay.
But I don’t know if I have anything to apologize for. She never said anything and that’s not like Sue. I don’t need to open that can if it’s been forgotten. The problem is, there’s no one else I can think to ask. My father would say don’t worry about it. My kids are too young to remember. I’m not sure my ex-brother-in-law was there. If he was, he’d lie anyway. Besides, if I were to ask anyone, it ought to be Sue. Whatever did happen affects her.
It was the day after Christmas. My brother and his family had headed home and all I wanted was to go to bed. We had shown up sniffling, and my sister-in-law had made us take Covid tests. I felt bad that I had come, but when one hasn’t seen family in a year sometimes they do crazy things. So, here we were, colds or not. Because we were all pandemic-sick and one of the symptoms is a so be it attitude. And we thought cancelling would be worse.
In the end, we were welcomed, and far as I know, everyone had a good time. Now, I was tired, but Mom needed help with the dishes. She and Dad had redone the kitchen, but never installed a dishwasher. Why do we need one when it's just your dad and I, she had said. I looked around the small kitchen. When I was a kid, the stove was black, and resembled an antique. It had the kind of burners one cleaned under. This one was also black, but it had a glass top. Brass colored back-splash behind the sink. But the ceramic top table was still in the center of the room. We all used it as an island. A big wooden chopping block that might be older than me was in a corner. It was a comfortable, but a small kitchen for two people to be in.
Mom said something about Mike seeming sad.
“He doesn’t feel good,” I said. “This cold. I hope no one else catches it.”
“No,” she said. “He just doesn’t seem like his usual self. Alex too.”
“Well,” I said without thinking. “Today is James birthday. They could be missing him.”
“I see,” my mother said, but I knew I had made a mistake. The kitchen light glinted off her glasses, but I saw the anger in her black eyes all the same. She went back to scrubbing the dishes. “James was lucky they cared,” she said. “How often did he see them? Twice a month?”
“Shush!” I looked nervously at the door to the dining room. But no one was around. I pulled it shut and went back to drying. “Every other weekend. Mom, I moved ninety miles away.” It was the only place I could get a job and afford an apartment. Nevertheless, I had been the one to move. “We did the best we could.” Besides, what do you expect? The man died of a heart attack when Mike was seventeen. Alex was fourteen. That would upset anyone. I didn’t bother to say it. By this time, my mother was scrubbing at a non-existent piece of food on a plate.
“He didn’t make your life easier when y’all were married. How did you ever put up with that place? With living in that town?”
“It was what we could afford,” I answered. “And not all the memories are bad. I tried to dredge up something good. “Remember the party we had for Mike? Sue came to that. So did you and Dad.”
Truthfully, I hated that house, and not without good reason. It was located in a working-class neighborhood in the not-California Hollywood as I called it. A friend of mine once referred to the whole area as the armpit of Florida, and I can’t disagree. I don’t know if buildings can have personalities. If so, that house had a sad deposition. Worse, it refused help. We would work on fixing it up to no avail. It still seemed old, the interior dark, nothing cheerful about it. The window dressings I got from Martha Stewart always looked wrong in the living room. So did the paint I chose. I sanded the wood floors and our puppy peed on bare wood. I tried to clean it. But even when it was finished, there was always that one dark spot. We laid down linoleum and it peeled. I cleaned, and James got closer to hoarding territory. The house bore witness to our babies coming home. To our cat having kittens in our son’s closet. To my tears and prayers. And to our eventual divorce.
I didn’t want to relive that, so I thought of the party. I think it was in 2005. Mike would have been five years old, Alex just over two. I mentioned my favorite memory to Mom.
“Alex helped Dad fill water balloons, remember? He handed them to Dad, he’d fill them, and then Alex put them back in the bucket. And we had water guns and a kiddie pool. Cousin Sarah kept running around topless.” She was only three then so it was all right, I supposed. "I guess she thought if her brother could do it then she should also be allowed."
“That wasn’t a good idea,” Mom said. “You all being on such a busy street and all.”
I ignored that. "And,” I continued, “Sue had to wrap a bag around her hand controls so they wouldn’t get wet. Tell you what. For someone with her disability, she does really well with a water gun.” I remembered Sue, her long blond hair in her face, as she followed me across the carport, trying to nail me. The rest of the family had watched as we played with the kids. I always seemed to be with them. The kids were more interesting than James’ parents and brother-in-law. They sat in chairs and griped about politics or work. No one was going to shoot a water gun at anyone. Sue, on the other hand, always wanted to do things like water guns and balloons. She was even a dancer for a company that employed the physically challenged, incorporated their movements into dance. She had achieved a dream everyone said was impossible. Now we were both soaked. I was just glad her chair cushions were water resistant. Sue had laughed at the kids throwing water balloons at each other and me. When she did, her whole body shook. It had been a good party, I thought. Although to be honest, I can’t remember what James did. I think he sat with his family. I have photos, but not of him. He might've been taking them, like most fathers do.
Mom had a different picture of that day. “I just remember how James and his family treated Sue.”
“How do you mean?”
“No one talked to Sue or her mother.”
Yeah, I thought, because Sue is hard to understand. And people are idiots.
That day, I hadn’t thought about who was talking to who. I was too busy running after my kids. Also, it can make a person nervous talking to someone with that kind of speech impediment. But James' family had met Sue before. And if the listener made an effort, Sue could be understood. All they had to do was ask her to repeat herself, write, use sign language, or have someone translate. She would do any of the above. and everyone should've known. The problem was James didn’t like her. My brother-in-law John was busy with Laura and Tom. The rest of the family wasn’t friendly in general, especially the father. They just about tolerated my parents. I believe the only reason George liked me was that I ate his oxtail stew. No one else enjoyed it before I came along. So, this made me okay in his book. My family and friends were different. Especially someone with severe cerebral palsy. But Sue was one of my best friends and wanted to know my kids. So, she had been invited along with her mother. My house would’ve made an ADA activist shudder. There were three stairs leading inside and no ramp. Sue's electric chair weighed a ton. But we could get around that. “They were busy with Sarah and Tom,” I said. “Those kids wouldn’t listen to their dad one-”
“No.” My mother dropped the sponge. Water splashed around her arms. “They all went inside and left Sue and Carol behind.”
“Say what now?”
“I’m saying everyone went inside. And didn’t care one bit about Sue.”
I thought about this. I vaguely remembered taking the kids inside, because Mike wanted to change into dry clothes. Or maybe they were hot. It was late August after all. And everything in my tiny backyard was concrete or stone, which reflected the sun. The former owners hated grass or something. Perhaps we were going to open presents. Hell, if I knew. My mother went on, saying she sat outside with Sue and Carol until they decided to leave.
I looked at the dish in my hands. It should’ve shone for as long as I’d been drying it. Yet it still remained that faded blue color. I set it aside.
“But wait,” I said. “Where was I?”
“Inside I suppose.” Mom looked at the sink, not at me.
“I would’ve carried her into the house,” I said. Sue weighed nothing, and I had done it before. The last time she came over, I carried her in and put her in my armchair. She could sit fine there, I told Mom. “So, I don’t understand. Why didn’t I go get her? And Sue never said anything to me. That’s not like her.” Sue made sure everyone knew when she felt slighted and why. Her speech didn’t stop her, or maybe she made the effort because of it. She wanted everyone to know how she felt, no matter the outcome.
“Why didn’t James go get her, is the question?” Mom answered. “Probably you were busy and-”
I threw down the bowl I was drying. Mom gasped, and at first, I thought I had cracked it. But it was fine. Well, at least something in this house was. “Jesus, Mom, who cares?”
“I do,” she answered. “No one should’ve left Sue outside like-”
“Yeah, but I don’t give a shit what James did or didn’t do! He’s dead. So are his parents. What I care about is what I did. If I really left her-”
Mom glared at me. “Don’t make excuses for that man.”
“I’m not!” I glared right back at her. “And I don’t think you’re remembering it right.”
When I’m stressed, I grind my teeth. In this case, I might break my damned denture. Thank you, Dad, for passing along your deposition for gum disease. “Mom. Carol would’ve come to the door and said something. Sue would’ve made her. I think...” I racked my remaining brain cells. “I think Sue said they were leaving because her mom didn’t feel good. She had that heart condition. Remember how swollen her ankles always were? So, I said goodbye and went inside. You probably didn't hear me.”
“No. Most likely they didn't feel welcome, so they made up an excuse.”
But Sue had played with me, I thought. And why would I just leave someone I loved outside? Did I really do that? James could’ve watched the kids or their grandma could have. Could I possibly be that thoughtless? “And while we’re on the subject, you need to quit,” I said.
Quit bringing up this shit that’s best forgotten, I thought. Quit reminding me of every goddamned thing that went wrong in a house I hated in a town that could be swallowed up by the rising seas for all I give a crap. Yes, you think James did you wrong. But please stop dragging me back there. If you're angry with me too, just say so.
Except I don't think my mother would. Or maybe it's buried too deep.
“Quit focusing on everything bad that James and his family did.” I squeezed the towel in both hands, but it wouldn’t tear. “I was trying to remember fun things that happened.” And you took that away. “Also,” I stared at the stupid back-splash. “It’s okay for the kids to miss their father. They know his shortcomings without me pointing them out. If they don’t know, they will learn eventually.”
“I guess so,” Mom said. She pushed her dark hair out of her eyes. “But I don’t understand it all the same. James didn't treat your friends well."
My ex-husband wasn’t always an easy man to talk to. If he liked you, then you were fine. But he was critical of everyone. James thought Sue was entitled. On that, he wasn't wrong. My mother had said that herself. But I try to see the good in everyone, until I can't anymore. Either way, he wouldn't have carried her inside.
And you married this guy, why? said a voice inside me.
Because he loved me at a time I needed it. And he wasn't all bad either. Remember when he gave me a Valentine's Day in June, because I said I never had a good one? Or the time he drove to Wendy's because I was taking too long bringing back dinner and he got concerned? He just wasn't comfortable with someone as physically challenged as Sue.
I set down the glass I was drying before I threw it. “It bothers me that you think I would really leave Sue outside.”
Mom started scrubbing another pan. “I said everyone did it.”
“Except you,” I said.
“Yes. Your father and I talked to them until they left.”
I wish I had asked Mom why she hadn’t come to get me. Why she hadn’t said anything on that day, and why she was now. “This can’t be the way this happened.”
“Whether you like it or not,” she said. “It did. So therefore-”
I didn’t wait around to hear the rest. I threw the towel on the counter and shoved the door open. I nearly ran into my father, who was walking through the dining room. I heard him ask Mom, “what was that all about?” I didn't care what she said, as long as they left me alone. I kept walking. Up the stairs, to my old room. I made sure the door was shut and locked. I threw myself on my bed and ground my denture some more.
Damn it, I thought. That woman is holding a grudge, nothing more.
In The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond, the grandfather-or maybe it was the father-goes into mourning because the main character marries a non-Jew. I think the father actually tears his clothing and declares his son dead to him. That was my mother with James minus the ripping. She could be in a room with him if need be. For example, we all sat together for the kid's graduations. At those times, my father would greet James politely. But Mom wouldn't say one word to him. It was like he wasn't present. James just ignored her too. She was like that with anyone who hurt us. They became persona non grata. She probably wished I'd do the same. Except I thought the kids needed their father. And they wanted to see him.
Yeah, I thought, Mom can carry a grudge all right. And judging from how my aunt cut her sisters out over a stupid argument, she learned that from her mother’s knee.
In the morning, no one mentioned anything. I hoped the kids hadn’t heard our argument, and apparently, they didn’t. At least when I mentioned Mom and I might've been loud, they said they didn't hear anything. If they kept something secret, I let them do so.
Now I'm staring at a smartphone, trying to decide what to do.
Sue had supported me through the divorce. But after I moved to Fort Pierce, we drifted apart. The distance was just too far, and she doesn’t drive. She found a man who seems to love her, and I stayed single. I did see her a few times over the years. Once we had Christmas dinner with another friend of mine. And when Carol died, I went to the funeral. We keep in touch on Facebook, but it’s not the same. Now she knows the boys only through photos. The last time she saw them, Mike was seven, and Alex was just learning to talk. Now they’re adults with lives of their own.
Sue never said anything, so I’m not sure if I have something to apologize for. It haunts me, but I don’t know how to ask. Maybe if I have the occasion to see her again, I’ll ask.
I know I wasn't myself those years, Sue. Or maybe that's just an excuse. In any case, I'm sorry.