By Shane Plassenthal,
Clifton is going away. Paul is thrilled. He finds every excuse to talk about it to anyone who listen. Just yesterday when we are the Stop and Save getting food for this party we bumped into Shawn and Steve O’Connor, the gay couple Paul worked with when he was at the architectural firm in Cleveland. He didn’t even ask how they were doing or how they were liking their new home that he’d designed for them. No, he went straight for it.
“My son got into Yale. Yale. Can you believe that?”
Steve was ecstatic and clapped his hands widely so that a lady eyeing a can of tuna down the aisle looked up. I rolled my eyes.
“Shawn went to Dartmouth but Yale was his second choice,” he said.
“But both are excellent schools. Congratulations.”
Now there is a word I hate. Congratulations. Something about it seems off putting, I’ve never liked it, not even when someone says it to me. I prefer the shorter congrats. I find it more meaningful somehow. Congratulations always seemed too long, as if by nature it was designed to embellish what already doesn’t need embellishing.
Even worse, in preparation for the party today, I’m stringing up banners with the word plastered in bright red letters against a pine green background. They’re above a series of foldout tables we’ve wedged together in our garage that holds a smorgasbord of midwestern cuisine—pulled pork sandwiches, potato chips, diet soda and beer. I glance down at my watch. The party starts at noon and we’ve got twenty minutes.
The door from the interior of the house opens and Paul comes out carrying two large bags of ice. He hits the switch on the wall and the automatic garage door lifts letting in a blast of sunlight. I had hoped that it would rain today, the forecast gave it a decent chance but of course mother nature also felt the need to shit on me.
“Honey, the banner is crooked, actually, it’s coming down a little on the right side,” Paul says as he glances up at my work. He dumps the two bags of ice in the cooler.
I step down off the chair I was standing on and take a step back to glance up at my effort. Paul is right. The banner is crooked and the side is peeling off the garage wall so that it reads: CONGRATULA.
“Actually, congratula is the Latin term for congratulations so it works,” I say.
Paul looks skeptical.
We’ve been married sixteen years and he has never once understood sarcasm. Give him a complex math equation or a half-finished geometric drawing and he’s fine. Tell him a joke and he’s lost in the woods.
“Never mind,” I say, climbing back up on the chair and smoothing down the banner against the wall once more. This time it sticks but it still slightly crooked.
“Where is Clifton, anyway?” I ask. “Shouldn’t he be helping with this? After all it is his graduation party.”
“He’s up in his room getting ready. I told him not to worry about it. Besides, I asked that he put his cap and gown on, you know, get festive and plus it’d be good for pictures that I can up on Facebook for the folks who couldn’t make it.”
Which would be Clifton’s mother’s side of the family. They live in Michigan but I doubt they’d come if they lived a mile away.
I climb off the chair again and sit down.
“Do you think he’s okay? I mean, do you think he’ll be okay without Andrea here?” Paul asks, closing the cooler lid.
“She’s been gone a year. He’s had time.”
I know that I sound insensitive but I’m not. Really, I could make the case that she was gone much longer than that. The last several years before she died she only called six times. I know because I counted.
“Yes, but it was her suggestion that he apply to Yale. You know she—”
“Graduated from there, yes, I’ve been told many times.”
“Hey, come on, hon. Don’t get like that.”
You might think I’m jaded or bitter because I never finished college but that’s further from the truth. I just don’t want to hear anymore about Andrea. I think of her often. Not that Paul or Clifton would guess but I do. She towers above me, an enigmatic vision that comes on sometimes in the oddest moments—when I’m on the toilet, in the middle of reading a book, when I’m driving home from work. Paul’s first wife, Clifton’s mother, hanged herself last summer.
“Sorry,” I say. “I guess I’m just mad.”
I open my mouth on instinct but then I pause. I sit back in my chair. Just what is it I am so mad about?
Paul sits down across from me and reaches for a beer.
“We’ll never know what goes on in the mind of someone who is depressed like that,” he says. “I just hope that her pain is over.”
Paul is wrong. We do know. Or at least, I do.
The summer before she died I got a letter. Not an email or a text message but a letter, a real post marked letter which I found jarring in the stack of bills and junk ads I pulled out of the mailbox one Saturday morning. I tore it open immediately.
You might find it strange that I’m writing to you but after much thought and consideration I feel that I’ve got no other choice. You’re the only one who I think will understand. Before I go any further, I just want you to know that I want this to be kept private. It would just kill me if you ever told Paul or my son. Now that I have your trust, I need to tell you that I have decided to write to you because I feel guilty. There is no other way of putting it. I walked out on Paul and Clifton the year before you met him. I know he’s told you the story but I have never gotten the chance to tell you, not really. You might wonder why I left. I never wanted it, not marriage, not a child. When I had Clifton there was none of that euphoric joy a mother feels when she’s holding her child for the first time. When the doctors placed him in my arms I only felt as if he were a magnificent weight pushed down on me, a cross that I now had to bear. I was an awful mother. He would cry at night—all babies do—and that was when Paul was in grad school and working thirds so it was just me. Do you know, Carolyn, you have been so much better of a mother than me. I know you would not have left him like that. But I did. He wailed and wailed and sometimes I even left our tiny apartment and went to an all-night laundry mat where I’d sit and watch the cycles spin. When I’d return he’d still be crying so I’d leave again. Sometimes, I wouldn’t come back until dawn.
I’ve thought about this a lot and what it must mean. For some reason, I just know that you’ll understand, that since you already hate me this can’t hurt how you view me, it will only add to your sense of justification. But I couldn’t have my son hate me. Or Paul. Yet, I need to tell someone and so here I am. That’s all that I have for now. Write soon-
I must have reread that letter a thousand times. I know it seems melodramatic but if you know Andrea like I do than it wasn’t. Nor was it out of character. She’d been hospitalized more times than I could count and in and out of therapy so much that it made me believe that most of psychology was pointless babble that didn’t really do any good.
Yet, Andrea had never really taken the time to know me or even talk with me. Sure, I’d seen her over the years, when she decided to show up on Clifton’s birthday or was in town for Christmas but it was always in passing, from afar. I liked it that way. When Clifton was young and Andrea was on meds that seemed to be working Paul would take their son and meet her at a restaurant or for miniature golf. I was never invited.
Now, here was this letter from a woman that I’d held at a distance with its twisted revelations and self-pity. Still, I decided not to tell Paul or Clifton—not because I wanted to honor Andrea but because for the first time since I’d met Paul and Clifton had come to live with us I felt part of them, part of their circle, included. For once, I felt invited.
Another letter came a few weeks later.
I feel that I must write you once more. I’ve taken off again—I’ve left my job at the gallery and decided I’d had enough showcasing other artists work and wanted to focus on my own. I’m working on a series of portraits, one of you and Clifton together. It comes from a picture I found when cleaning out my old purse. I don’t know how it ended up with me, really, you must have sent it or perhaps Paul did. It’s a wallet photo, one of those they used to take at department stores. Clifton is about six or seven and he’s seated on your lap. You both look angelic with your smiles, Clifton’s missing a few baby teeth. What is even more striking is how you two look so much like mother and son that it only serves to convince me that I should never have been a mother in the first place. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? That you couldn’t have any children of your own (Paul told me that once in confidence when I’d asked why you two hadn’t yet) and yet I could have as many as I wanted. I wish we could have been born in each other’s bodies. I know Clifton says you are cold as ice and that he’ll always love me more but I don’t deserve it, not when you have shown him the love that only a real mother could.
Somewhere, deep within me, I know that I must have feelings because that one got me. I read it late at night in the bathroom and sat with the water running so no one would hear me crying. I remember the photo that Andrea has mentioned. I remember that day, Paul was out of town for his first architectural convention and it was a week before Christmas. I had taken Clifton with me to the mall and waltzed him around the shops looking for Paul the best possible gift. A new drill? A grill? A tie? I was a young wife then and had fallen into the marketing trap aimed at women from desperate retailers. I know better now. Last Christmas I didn’t get Paul a damn thing.
We were standing in line at Macys when Clifton tugged on my coat. I was eyeing the jewelry counter wondering if Paul might like a watch when I felt Clifton’s pull.
I looked down to see him pointing and then I looked over and saw the mall Santa seated just ahead of us in the gallery outside of Macys. A child sat on his lap giggling.
“He’s here,” Clifton whispered. “Santa’s here. But how come he’s in all the malls? How does he do it?”
I watched as his face contorted and he tried to figure out this seemingly complex problem without understanding that none of it was real. My heart went out to him and in one of those rare moments when I truly felt something like love for this other women’s child I bent down and cupped my hand around his ear.
“That’s not Santa,” I whispered. “It’s a St. Nick. There are many St. Nicks. Santa uses them as his helpers. You see, the St Nicks goes to all of the malls for Santa while the real Santa stays at the North pole and gets the toys ready with the elves.”
“So, St. Nick tells Santa who is good and who is bad?”
“Am I good?
“Does Mommy think so? I think she thinks I’m bad.”
I stood up.
“Why do you say that?”
Clifton was silent for a moment.
“Because she never calls me anymore,” he said.
“Clifton, your mother loves you very, very much.”
He didn’t say anything, he only kept looking ahead at the fake St. Nick.
“Who loves me more?” he asks finally.
“Who loves me more? You or mommy?”
It was the kind of question only a child can get away with asking in earnest. I blinked.
I opened my mouth to give him an answer but it was just then the cashier called out that she could help me. I don’t think I ever knew what I was going to say. I don’t think I’ve ever really considered whether or not I love Clifton. To be honest, I’m not sure that I even know.
We took the picture at Sears after that. It was for Paul. It was supposed to be his gift, the kind of thing he could put in his wallet or frame on his desk at work. I imagined people stopping by his office and seeing it there and asking about his family. I imagined Paul telling them about Clifton and about me and I hoped that he would simply say that I was the boy’s mother.
More letters arrived. Some were more painful than others, revelations for instance that Paul had once told Andrea that he had been seeing another woman shortly before he proposed to me. Another letter told me that Clifton had once said I was distant. Yet, despite these revelations Andrea was always quick to assure me that somehow, I had risen above it all, I was, as she claimed in one letter the perfect second act in Paul’s never-ending story. Andrea had concluded that letter with I assure you, Carolyn, no one could have played your role better, no one could have been such a better fit.
The last letter I got before she died was a short one. It came just three weeks before her landlord wondering why his rent was ten days late found her hanging from a ceiling rafter in her studio apartment.
That was it. That was all. Of course, when I had read at it the time I didn’t sense the finality behind it. At the time I figured she was thanking me for not revealing that she had been writing to me for nearly a year. Now, I’m not so sure that was it at all. I’ve often thought about what she meant with that one because I don’t feel like she should have thanked me at all. Sometimes, I feel the opposite. If anything, Andrea should have forgiven me. I almost wrote her back telling her that but I didn’t. It wouldn’t have done much good, anyway and when she died I thought I would feel relief, a sense of a chapter closing or something like that. I didn’t feel like that at all. I kept rereading her letters hoping that maybe they would bring some closure but they didn’t. Eventually, I gave up, shoving them in an old shoe box in the back of my closet thinking someday I might burn them.
The guests start arriving and Paul makes his rounds. I check my watch wondering why Clifton hasn’t come down yet. I see Paul talking to his sister and her husband who each have a card in their hands. A row of cars pulls up in the driveway. The party is starting.
“Honey,” Paul says turning to me, “can you go get Clifton now? Tell him people are showing up.”
“I can’t wait to see him,” Paul’s sister says, “I can’t wait to tell him congratulations.”
Inside, I stand at the bottom of the stairs and wait a moment. I can see Clifton’s door at the top. It’s closed. Despite the party outside the house feels oddly quiet as if it is taking a rest of its own. I think of this moment. This will be one of the last times I act in the role of a mother. This party, I realize, is something that I’ve been racing towards all of the years, a climax in in a story that I didn’t mean to write. A feeling swells up inside of me but I don’t know what it is. As I begin to climb the stairs I start to cry. There is something, I realize, that I need to tell Clifton. I grip the banister for support because it will take everything that I’ve got in me to do it. I need to tell him for me and for him. I need to tell him because on some level it might make things right between us. That’s what I want. I want things to be how they should be not how they are.
I reach the top of stairs and knock on the door.
“Clifton, can I come in?”
“Hey, look, the party has started. Clifton open the door. I’ve got to tell you something. Something that I should have said a long time ago.”
I stand back waiting for the door to swing open. I expect to see him standing there, as close as he’ll ever be to my son. My heart wants to leap for joy. This moment will be beautiful.
None of that happens.
The door stays closed and the house stays quiet.
I don’t knock anymore. I turn the knob and push the door open gently. At first all I see are pieces of paper all over the floor and I think what a mess Clifton has made. I realize that something about them looks familiar and the words on one of them stand out.
“Clifton, how did you find those?” I ask, looking up.
He’s seated on the bed facing the other way and looking out the window at the party below. He’s wearing his gown which looks like a giant trash bag but I’m unexpectedly charmed by the sight. His cap is beside him on the pillow and in his hands, he’s clutching one of the letters.
There is so much I want to say but nothing comes out of me. I just stand there holding onto the doorknob.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks. He still doesn’t look my way, only stares at the party below.
“Clifton, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
It sounds insufficient and maybe it is. Maybe I didn’t tell him for other reasons. But he doesn’t need to know that. If you love someone, I think, you sometimes spare them the worst.
“I came up here to tell you congratulations,” I say, coming closer to the bed. There’s that word again, coming out of my mouth with a surprising ease. Suddenly, it doesn’t sound so bad. I can think of nothing that fits this moment better. Now, I think I know why people say it.
I sit down on the bed.
He turns around and I see the red rimmed eyes. I still see the little boy who believed in St. Nick.
“She would have been very proud you,” I say. “She would have wanted me to tell you congratulations.”
He tries to smile but then glances back down at the letter.
“I don’t think she loved me,” he says.
“I do,” I tell him. “Clifton, I think your mother was sick. Very sick. But I know that she loved you.”
He looks up at me and then the tears come again.
“And you know what else?” I ask, picking up his cap from the pillow. I place it on top of his head and lean back admiring him.
“I love you, Clifton. I love you very much. Now, let’s go downstairs. You’ve got a party waiting.”
Clifton is going away. Paul is thrilled. I am, too. I lead him down the stairs, holding his hand the entire way because that’s what a mother would do. There is a special kind of silence between us where for once an understanding forms and I think I get it now. So does Clifton.
We reach the bottom of the stairs and pause a moment before the patio door.
We face each other just like a mother and son would. He’s slightly taller than me and I have to reach up to straighten his cap which has become crooked. He giggles. He looks like he wants to tell me something but I shake my head. I don’t want this moment to be spoiled.
He nods and opens the door.
I watch as Clifton steps out into the party. The little crowd cheers and my heart swells. I think about Andrea and wonder what she would do in this moment. I’m puzzled. The truth is, I don’t know. I only know what I can do. I stand there watching Clifton move in between the parade of relatives, of friends and then I’m crying again because I want to tell Angela, I want her to be here. It just doesn’t seem fair that I get to be and she doesn’t.
It comes to me that I’m not completely powerless.
I close the door and head back upstairs. I close my bedroom door behind me. I sit at the little desk beside the bed and pull a blank sheet of paper out of a drawer. I find a pen with a missing cap buried beneath a stack of coupons shoved in another drawer.
I smooth the paper out and think of our son.
Dear Andrea I begin You should have been there.
Shane Plassenthal is a library clerk living in Ohio. In the past, his fiction has appeared in various online literary journals and magazines. A graduate of Southern New Hampshire University, he holds a B.A. in history. You can follow him @shaneplassenth