A delicate atmosphere enveloped the dining area. Each word said sliced through. Like cracks on a frozen lake, they stemmed out little by little. Tiny brittle sounds filled my ears. The silence was like forever, waiting for a random passerby whose step could break the entire frozen lake and drop him into the oblivion of a dark, cold universe. That wasn’t the mood we expected to have for Ma’s 60th birthday celebration.
The table was filled with my favorite food as if I was the birthday celebrant. Ma made spaghetti with sweetened tomato sauce, spring rolls, sweet rice cake, seafood dumplings, and of course, a birthday cake. She prepared much too much for two visitors.
‘I just learned how to make a fondant.’ She was proud of the latest achievement she unlocked. But she was extra chatty that night. And I knew why.
She asked about my job and if I got the promotion already. She knew I didn’t. And she knew it was because of the political game everybody played.
She asked about my best friend Shiela and her newborn baby. She asked about gender. But she knew the baby was a boy. We bought blue overalls and a blanket for the baby and we both visited Shiela as soon as she got home.
She asked about my ex-boyfriend Henry, his whereabouts, and what the reason for our breakup was. This, she didn’t know and I never told. She kept pressing me for answers, until I said, ‘Ma.’
She asked me questions for answers she already knew not because she wanted confirmation but because of Jim. She wanted Jim to know bits and pieces of my life. Because Jim never asked. He wouldn’t. And he was. Never there.
Jim was a silent, permanent fixture in Ma’s bedroom wall. An A1 size frame with a photo of a young newly wedded couple with sparkling eyes and lovely smiles. Ma’s new wave fringe and Jim’s 1980s mustache were the only things that remained to-date.
He was though, a temporary face in our house. One that I saw on late Saturday nights only to leave early morning on Sundays. He crawled from the door to Ma’s room and the house stank of alcohol and cigarette mixed with strong men’s perfume. And that occasional stench soon faded away when he stopped coming home.
Ma was a very chatty person. She made the house cheery all the time with her folk songs and loud voice and her cooking and baking. She talked a lot to fill the silence that I contributed. She talked about everything, except anything about Jim. So I never knew why he left us. I never understood. All I knew was Jim was the reason why I only had Ma and myself to draw on my family tree, and why I only had Ma to put my medals and receive my certificates in school. It was only Ma all along and it should only be her. So why he was there for Ma’s 60th birthday dinner was another huge question mark for me.
‘I need some air Ma,’ I said which meant I wanted to smoke outside. I needed a break from hours of awkwardness, of looking at Jim and catching him look away, and me doing the same.
I coughed after taking a puff as if that was the first time I smoked. I exhaled the smoke upwards and watched it slowly swirl into the air, making up an abstract form, like the one you would draw when your mind is on spirals.
I was deep into my thoughts when I heard a cough. An intentional one. Jim was beside me. ‘How is it going?’ he asked.
I said ‘ok’ and took another puff. For years I wanted to ask him so many things. If he loved Ma and if he loved me. If he had another family and if he did, why didn’t he even reach out to me and introduce me to my siblings if I ever had? Why did he leave us? And why was he back?
‘Did you love Ma?’
‘I did. Always.’ His voice was as thin as the smoke he blew into the air.
‘Why did you leave us?’
‘Her love is…’
He looked at me. ‘A little bit too much.’ At that point, I thought I was looking at myself.
It was only silence that followed and a lot more swirling smoke in the air. The still night was broken by faint dog barks and muffled laughs. The kind of laugh you did when you were young and mischievous yet afraid to get caught.
I lived by myself for almost seven years, two blocks away from Ma’s house. I moved out as soon as I got my first job, but I didn’t move very far away because I still wanted to be close to Ma. Ironic isn't it?
Ma was very caring but she was like an overly sweet chocolate, an overly creamy dessert with over the top cherry toppings; the type that made you cringe, you wouldn't want to eat again after a bite. She made me want to leave her even though she’s someone I couldn’t live without.
I understood why Jim left and I finally, also understood why, except for occasional angst for the inconvenience of his absence, I didn’t have the need to have him around. That’s because Ma was a bit too much, and that too much was enough to cover his absence. She filled me with love that I didn’t need anything or anyone else.
‘Are you here to stay?’
‘Come in you two, I’ve sliced the cake.’
We both followed Ma and praised her beautifully decorated pastel pink fondant cake with edible pearls. At the same time, we teased her for how suitable that cake was for an eighteen-year-old girl and not for a sixty. The cake wasn’t too sweet and wasn’t overly decorated. That night, everything was just right.
After years, the smell of cigarette lingered in Ma’s house again and it was there to stay.