Shrove Wednesday
A Short Story by Geneva Chao
Written using the suggestion "The drunken sailer who waits in her left pulse."
Originally featured on 12-16-2010
As part of our series "The Benefit of Doubt: Stories Written to Explore Domestic Violence and Abuse"

Today is Wednesday. I love Wednesdays. I love them for the German name, Mittwoch, which meaning ‘midweek’ is so delightfully direct. “Wednesday” is such a strange word. Did you know that it comes, supposedly, from the Old High German, through Old English, for Woden’s day? Woden being a pagan god? He was rationalized as an historical king and provided the origin for some of the Santa Claus myth, some scholars think. At any rate, Woden is not part of the American cultural currency, and “Wednesday” is not direct. It is not part of why I love Wednesdays. Part of the reason is midweek, the fact of its middleness, like mittelschmerz, the in-betweenness of the day functioning as a border between the ascent and descent of the sequence, and part of it is that Wednesday is a crest of my own week punctuated by visits to Geraldine.

Geraldine is my therapist. Geraldine Lipschitz. Geraldine is from Canarsie, Brooklyn and speaks some of the most richly textured English on the continent. Her vowels are nasal and prolonged and her consonants are like heavy round stones dropped in a pool. Plunk, plunk. She does not pronounce any Rs except for initial Rs, and those with a lot of ahhhh thrown in. She is a like a boomerang. She calls a spade a spade. She saves me.

After my morning shift at the diner I walk ten blocks to Geraldine’s office, which is in an old brick industrial building above the Twin Screw Company. From the corner, I crane my neck to see Geraldine hunched over her desk making notes. My heart swells in anticipation. Geraldine points out drily that I have transferred to her all the affection I withhold from my mother, and she is correct. This is one reason why Geraldine is infinitely more deserving of my affection; she has no illusions. My mother is almost never correct, and when she is, it is awful.

We don’t always talk about my mother; sometimes we talk about my bad boyfriends or my bad father or my mother’s bad boyfriends. Which is to say that we do always talk about my mother, but the talk is nuanced. Who was it that said that the mother is both the anchor and the frame? My mother is cracked and unmoored. It is the work of my life to constantly recalibrate my perspective so that I can see something other than shards. I am a pattern cut out crooked that has to be pulled straight along one side so that I can avoid repeating her mistakes, and I look at my own crookedness and sigh, because I see it in her.

I climb the iron stairwell, which is dusty and has the slightly acrid smell of exposed brick, two by two. I feel my chest expanding, reaching for more. More air. More possibility. Geraldine has the window open. Geraldine dwells in possibility. Everything about this office, from Geraldine’s tin can full of Bic pens to the stack of composition books in which she takes notes on our sessions, is mysterious, intricate, and beautiful. The chair in which I sit down is a repurposed library chair covered in green faux leather. I run my fingers along the studded sides, feeling the bumps.

“Vi.” Geraldine intones, “what’s new.”

When I started therapy I thought I would have nothing to say. I imagined staring balefully at the therapist, my face blank as a plate, not telling my secrets. Letting them expand on my tongue. And in fact my first therapist, an affable matron given to Christmas sweaters and placid endearments — “Honey,” “Cupcake,” rarely got two sentences running out of me. Going to her was like being baby-talked by an adult when you’re thirteen. Geraldine calls me Vi. Only Vi. She rhymes it with “eye,” and it sounds like a gavel banging down.

And with Geraldine the words shoot forth like horses after the starting gun. Geraldine gets out a pewter ashtray and pushes it toward me. I smoke Luckys. She smokes one Export A for every three of my butts. We are dragons.

Today I have something new to tell. I have incontrovertible proof that my mother is, in fact, still dating Al, something she claims to have stopped doing eight months ago. The proof is sordid, but the truth will out; last Saturday when I dropped her off after an impromptu lunch, I went to use the bathroom and her diaphragm was ajar. That in itself: circumstantial. The new tube of Gynol II and the tiny round foil closure that you peel off after removing the cap: damningly concrete.  I carefully replaced the tissues and eye makeup remover pads atop where it had been at the bottom of the can, but the foil closure itself is in my wallet tucked under my third grade class photo, the last one before I lost my dad and my mom lost her pride. I lay it on the desk in front of Geraldine.

“She’s still seeing him, Geraldine. I’m sure of it. For one, my mother is not the type of woman who has casual sex. She was celibate for three years after my dad died, even though she was only thirty and all the eligible bachelors at her church were sniffing around. For another, I asked her at lunch if she was thinking of seeing anyone, and she said no and blew her nose. It was dry blow; the Kleenex was a blind. She couldn’t look at me and she was hiding. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to push because I’m sick of hearing her dissemble, which is exactly what she does: no outright lies but a positively Austenian intricacy of avoidance.”

“Tell me again what your problem is with Al, Vi.” Geraldine remembers everything. She is asking me as a way to frame the discourse, to allow me to enumerate the many ways I can’t stand that asshole who treats my mother’s fragile self-esteem like a condemned building. He’s poison. He poisons her and she lets him. I used to joke that he must be a fantastic lover to keep her coming back, but the truth is that if he were a fantastic lover my mother would probably leave him because she’s afraid of enjoying sex. My mother is the kind of person who eats liver not because she enjoys liver or needs protein, but because re-enacting the self-flagellation of her childhood is one of the most salient characteristics of her m.o. She’s fantastic at not enjoying things. She’s like those Chinese people that lament when a perfect son is born: “Too bad it’s a girl! Too bad she’s crosseyed!” because they are afraid that jealous gods, seeing their good fortune, would steal it all away.

I tell Geraldine. Geraldine is a superlative listener; it’s not her empathy, which she metes out judiciously. It’s the fact that she never, under any circumstances, encourages me to accept the unacceptable.

“It’s not the hitting her, or the hurting her, that bothers me,” I begin, “and it’s clear to me that whatever physical violence there is between them is mere punctuation. It’s the fact that he depresses her. He depresses her, Geraldine, like a tongue. He pushes her down and she can’t get out from under him. She can’t get out from under the weight of his criticism, which all centers around the fact that he can’t abide the thought of her ever succeeding at anything and showing him up. So he keeps giving her ‘suggestions’ that make a case for why she’s not good enough, not thin enough, not smart enough, not accomplished enough, and not graceful enough, and he does it in front of her coworkers and her children and she just smiles that tight little smile and apologizes, not only to him but for him. You will recall, Geraldine, that when she told me she was breaking up with him she acknowledged that he wasn’t good for her, that he wasn’t nice to her, that she would be appalled if I dated someone who treated me that way, and she couldn’t look me in the eye then either; she kept looking at the insides of her wrists, first the left and then the right, where the faint blue marks of his fingers throbbed slightly above her veins. She looked from left to right to left and saying, yes, she knew that she had allowed him to treat her terribly, and that she knew she should have come to my college graduation, but she really thought, she really believed that he needed her to come on that business trip, that she was indispensable to him, and she looked at her right wrist and said in a tiny whisper ‘I just wanted to be indispensable to somebody like Al, somebody successful like him,’ and then she changed sides and the drunken sailor who waited in her left pulse said to me, ‘Vivian, what was I supposed to do? He needed me. You’ve never needed me,’ and that is when I seriously considered breaking the teapot over her head.”

Geraldine looks at me through a ring of smoke, luminous. The mid-afternoon light illuminates her.

“But I didn’t because it would be unconscionably cruel to kick someone like her when she’s down. Unconscionable. Because she’s a forty-five-year-old woman who has absolutely no sense of self-worth, no sense of agency, who has never gone on a trip without a man, who gave her kids ketchup toast while her husband ate the last ham sandwich and she could hear our stomachs grumbling. She could hear our stomachs grumbling from across the room where she was wiping the foam off the last Milwaukee’s Best. She’s like fucking Medea. If Medea were mousy, spineless, and subservient. And what gets me the most is that’s what she always says. ‘Vivian, what was I supposed to do?’ It’s not even a rhetorical question; it’s a reproach. It’s her way of telling me that the least I can do, in solidarity as a woman, in sympathy for her plight, is bind her wounds and pretend they’re an occupational hazard.”

Geraldine lights her second Export A. There are seven Luckys in various states of collapse in the ashtray. I’m ahead. “You want me to tell you what I think?”

“Desperately.”

“Vi. In your mother’s cosmology, binding her wounds and looking the other way is your role. You fail that role, you fail her. And you continue to fail at that role. She is not unique. She may even be in the majority. Al’s fingerprints on her body are an anchor. She can’t unmoor.”

“But I don’t have an anchor,” I say.

Geraldine exhales. “No. No, you don’t.”

“And I am failing my mother.” I add.

“Yes. Yes, you are.”

“And she can’t love me because of it.” I conclude.

“Constitutionally unable to,” Geraldine confirms. “It would be confirming her own capitulation.”

We are at minute forty-eight. I put both my hands on the table between us, admiring my long fingers, which are my mother’s long fingers, the same ones I used to admire as a child. My wrists are unmarked and milky and lovely. My mother’s barque is sinking quietly and she is asking me to condone it, but Geraldine is my wind.

“Vi.” Geraldine points at me with the Bic she has been using to take notes. The light is fully behind her now; she sits on a cloud. “You realize, Vi, that digging through your mother’s trash is exactly the kind of pathology you deplore in her.”

There is a terrible stillness all around. The cigarettes have gone out, and the air is immobile, smoke dispersed, dust motes suspended in it. Nothing moves at all for the space of a breath. We are like dancers waiting to begin, except that my banners are slack and my stomach an inferno of shame. I see myself scrabbling, hunched like a giant rat, in the trash, gleeful with every shiny bit I find there. Feathering my nest with the trimmings and discards of my mother’s sex life with Al. This is akin to feathering my nest with Al, which makes me blanch. I can feel the shame spreading over my face like a contusion.

Read More By Geneva Chao

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Portland Fiction Project

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