– Fierce Fiction by Sara Dobbie –
Maryn stood fussing over her hair in front of the cheval mirror in her bedroom. The long auburn curls needed smoothing, plus she felt unsure about the new part. Instead of the usual one down the middle, she had shifted it severely to the left because it made her feel younger, less dowdy. But also a little ridiculous because it had been a long time since she thought about such things, and who was she trying to impress anyway? Certainly not her son Bennet, she didn’t care what he thought at all. If she was being honest, it was Michael. Increasingly, everything was about Michael.
It was approaching mid-afternoon and Bennet would be arriving soon. “Damn it,” she muttered, tucking a loose strand behind her ear. The grey pencil skirt and white tailored blouse seemed a touch austere now, but there was no more time. She needed to look presentable because Bennet was bringing some friend of his over to meet her for the first time. Visits from Bennet had recently begun to make her nervous, agitated. He dropped in so often to “check up on her” that she felt like she was the child up to no good and he was the concerned parent.
“Don’t worry, Maryn,” Michael said from his place in the bedroom doorway. “You look lovely, everything will be fine.”
“I know, it’s just Bennet’s so nosy lately, it’s like he wants to crawl inside my brain or something.” Maryn turned to face Michael, leaning in to his scent as he smoothed the stubborn hair down gently, his hands coming to rest lightly above her shoulders. She would have loved to skip the visit, ditch her own son, and briefly imagined hiding out somewhere with Michael until the unwanted guests just went away. Not possible, she thought, there is never any escape from Bennet.
“Hopefully he doesn’t stay long.” Maryn said out loud. “I know that’s awful to say about my own kid, but he’s driving me crazy.”
Michael smiled widely and stooped lower so they were at eye level. The tension in Maryn’s body seemed to release with his proximity, she became distracted by the unidentifiable color of his irises.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “I’ll be right by your side. You’ll have a nice visit with Bennet, and then we can go for a walk by the river. Yes?”
As if Maryn could ever disagree with Michael.
“And promise me, Maryn, that you will keep your cool. He means well, he really does.”
“Thank you, Michael.”
“For being so supportive, I don’t know how I lived without you for all those years.”
The tea things were all arranged on the table in the front room, the delicate china cups that Maryn had received as a wedding present twenty five years previous from her ex-mother-in-law, transformed into exquisite little reminders of her old life. “I should get rid of these things, they’re hideous.”
“I don’t know, I kind of like them.” Michael said. “They remind me of when I was a little boy and I used to sit on the floor while my mother drank tea with her lady friends.”
“Really? What was she like, your mother?” Maryn lived for these rare moments when Michael would open up about his past, if only to listen to him talk. Something in his voice could transfix her on the spot, it could calm her when she felt angry, comfort her when she felt upset. The words didn’t even matter so much, it was just the sound of him. Unfortunately the thump of car doors banging shut outside ruined the moment. Michael’s elegant fingers pulled the sheer drapes over just an inch, and she admired his profile as he looked through the window.
“Looks like we’ll have to finish this conversation later,” he said. “Bennet’s here, and his friend is quite the distinguished looking fellow.”
“Ah. A new love interest, maybe?” Bennet had recently split with his partner of four years, and Maryn couldn’t think why else he would insist on bringing a strange man to meet her.
“If so, they’re perfect for each other. Look at their outfits, they’re practically dressed like twins.” Michael said this just as Bennet knocked on the door and Maryn laughed out loud as she opened it. Her son raised his left eyebrow, smiling his pretentious smile. Admonishing herself for thinking mean thoughts, Maryn hugged him tightly and then held him back from herself. She took in his pale complexion, his auburn hair so much like her own. He was so young still, but he went to great lengths to appear older, the goatee, the thick framed glasses. The vest and bowtie. Sometimes she thought that Bennet had been born a grown-up, skipped childhood altogether, just reading and studying until he was really an adult and could participate in the adult world.
“Mom,” Bennet said, and Maryn thought she heard a tinge of condescension in his tone. “You’re in a good mood I see. What’s so funny?”
“Nothing Bennet, I’m just glad to see you.” She forced the muscles of her face to clothe themselves with a serious expression, but couldn’t resist stealing a sidelong glance at Michael who winked conspiratorially; she felt the corner of her mouth twitching again.
“Mom, I want you to meet Simon Gahler, he’s an associate of mine from the university.” Bennet had just graduated and was now pursuing his Masters Degree in child psychology. He was working as a research assistant for some professor or another, maybe this one, Maryn thought. Maybe this wasn’t his new boyfriend, maybe this was Bennet’s boss. Or maybe both, it wouldn’t surprise her knowing Bennet.
Up close Maryn could see that Simon was actually closer to her own age than Bennet’s. Thinning hair receded back from his wide forehead which was creased like a paper fan. Forty, maybe even forty five. Far too old to be dating her son. In spite of this she mustered the appropriate response, shaking the pudgy white hand he offered to her.
“Lovely to meet you, Simon. Come in, please.”
“Bennet has told me so much about you, Mrs. Reid.”
Maryn winced. She hated it when people called her that. It served only to remind her of her ex-husband. The divorce was ancient history, but she hadn’t taken legal action in regards to the surname. She really needed to do something about that, start using her maiden name at the very least.
“Call me Maryn, I insist.”
They followed Maryn through the entryway, Simon complimenting her on the restoration of the house, the gleaming antiques. Bennet sat down in the green wingback chair while Simon chose the love seat. Maryn sat across from both of them in an old captain’s chair she had recently acquired.
“So Mom, how are you doing today? What have you been up to?” Bennet spoke to her as though he hoped she would be able to comprehend what he was saying. Like I’m the village idiot in a Victorian novel, she thought.A sigh rose up in her chest, the breath filled her lungs and then escaped too quickly.
“Darling,” Michael said, and she looked up to where he was standing behind Bennet’s chair. “We talked about this after the last time he came over. It doesn’t matter what he thinks, just stay calm.”
“I know,” she answered, but Michael shook his head and placed his finger against his lips to shush her.
Bennet glanced significantly at Simon.
“What was that, Mom?” he asked her. “To whom were you speaking just now?”
“What do you mean to whom was I speaking? I was speaking to you. I’m sorry Simon, my son has a habit of treating me like I’m one of his case studies. What I was going to say before you interrupted me was… I know I was looking forward to your visit, that’s all. Can I get you anything? Tea, coffee? Something stronger perhaps?”
“Tea please, Mom.”
“For me also, thank you, Maryn.”
“Whiskey for me,” Michael said, “I’m going to need it to get through this afternoon.” Maryn struggled to keep a straight face.
“I’m sorry, my love,” he added, shrinking into a corner. “That’s it from me. I won’t make another peep.”
The only path back to composure seemed to be small talk, which Maryn faithfully pursued.
“So what is it that you do, Simon?”
“I’m a professor.”
Simon and Bennet exchanged another look, and Bennet nodded. “Go ahead Simon, tell her, its ok.”
Simon hesitated, as though choosing his words carefully.
“Huh, that’s great.”
“No really, it must be wonderful to pick apart people’s minds, you know, to really drag out all their deepest issues. Regardless of how painful it is for them, it must be very interesting for you. And the money!”
“Mom, Simon helps people, he’s a doctor for God’s sake. Why are you being so rude?”
Before Maryn could answer, Michael was there in front of her, crouched down with his hands cupped over her knees.
“Honey, look at Bennet, look right into his eyes but listen to me.” Maryn tried to do as she was told but she kept losing focus on her son because it was so much nicer to look at Michael when he was speaking so close to her, and in the low, hushed tone of his that she so loved.
“I think I see what’s going on here. Every time he’s here we slip up, and he’s getting suspicious. He’s brought this guy here to help him figure something out. He thinks you’re hearing voices or something. You really need to play it cool. I’m going to leave.”
She gave a slight nod, perceptible only to Michael, or so she hoped. Her hands fixed themselves together on her lap, fingernails digging into skin. Michael’s hand touched her chin, grazed her cheek.
“I know you want me here with you but I’m just going to stand in the hallway so you don’t look at me or talk to me. Now smile at them. Be nice, and I’ll be right out there, just until they leave.”
“Listen Mom, I’m going to be frank here; I’m worried about you.”
“Well there’s no need for you to be.”
“It just seems like ever since you found out that Dad is engaged again, you’ve been…. out of sorts.”
“You think I give a shit about your father?”
“You’re telling me to watch my mouth, Bennet? This is my fucking house. You show up here with a shrink to observe me like I’m some sort of lunatic and now you’re telling me how to behave? I think you should leave.”
“Mom, don’t be like that, I love you, that’s why I’m doing this, I’m afraid you’re going to hurt yourself.”
“I’m a grown woman, I have a career, I have a life. And contrary to what you may believe I don’t need your help, and I couldn’t care less about your father. Let me tell you something about him, Bennet, I never loved him. Not really. In fact, I mostly hated his guts. I was delighted when he finally left me. Why aren’t you taking notes, Simon? This is pretty good stuff.”
The whisper of Michael’s voice implored at her right ear.
“Maryn, calm down.”
“I can’t calm down this time.”
“Mom, nobody said you had to calm down.” Clearly exasperated, Bennet turned to Simon. “You see what I mean,” he said. “She’s talking to someone.” He turned to Maryn, “Elizabeth next door said she heard you in the garden last week and assumed you were on the phone. When she looked over the gate you were standing near the rosebushes having a conversation with thin air.”
Maryn began to laugh. Maybe the pitch was a little too high, but hell, they clearly thought she was crazy so she may as well give them the show they expected.
“This is ridiculous, I don’t have to explain myself to you.” She stood up, smoothed the skirt she had earlier taken such pains to choose. “I want all of you to leave. I need to be alone. Now. I swear to God I will run outside and scream my head off unless you all get out of here right now.”
And then they left. Maryn watched Simon escort Bennet, who was visibly shaken, back to the rusted Volkswagen in the driveway. She glanced around the room, pouting like a sullen little girl. Usually Michael would lurk in some corner or other until she wanted him, but it appeared that he too, was gone. An overwhelming urge to lie down came over Maryn then, a heaviness so complete it left her prostrate and unmoving, heedless of time or the world outside.
Much later, Maryn opened her eyes slowly. Michael was there, crouched on his haunches beside her bed. The covers were pulled up over her body, though she had no recollection of how she got there. Michael said nothing, just watched her intently.
“Where did you go?” she asked, the words dropping from her mouth like pins in the silence of the house.
Michael tilted his head to the right. “You said you wanted to be alone, so I left you alone for a while.”
“Yes but where did you go?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.” Michael reached forward, his hand moved from her shoulder down over her arm. Maryn concentrated on the feeling of his touch, the cool sensation that passed over her skin. If he was the air then she was a blade of grass.
“Earlier you were going to tell me about your mother. Would you tell me now? Please?”
“It’s funny, I can’t remember now. You know, sometimes I’ll see an image so clearly but then it disappears and I’m left with this strange impression, like when you’re trying to think of a word and it’s on the tip of your tongue. You know it’s there but you just can’t get it.”
“Michael, I have to tell you something.”
“Of course, dear, tell me anything.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Michael sighed and ran his hands through his unkempt hair that was the color of sand.
“Neither do I.”
“What if Bennet is right, and I have totally lost my mind?
What if I’m such a sad and pathetic woman that I’ve fallen in love with a figment of my own imagination out of self-preservation? I mean, no one else can see you. This can’t be real.”
“Maryn, I’m going to ask you a question. When you are with me, do you feel happy?”
“Happy would be an understatement. I feel perfect. You’re everything I’ve ever hoped for. I wasn’t joking earlier when I said I don’t know how I lived without you.”
Michael edged closer to her, inching himself up until he sat on the bed. He lay down beside her, his head against the soft pillow. She could see the indentation in the fabric, could feel the wisp of his breath so near.
“Well then,” he said, the cold sensation that was his touch enveloping her, “If I’m a dream, or a figment, or even a ghost, I don’t see what difference it should make. Now how about we sleep for just a little while, and then we’ll go for that walk by the river, yes?”
“Yes.” Maryn looked at him, the skin over his eyelids taut, pallid, a breeze from the south rustling the curtains at the open window. She decided it didn’t matter, any of it. She knew with absolute certainty that she would always say yes to Michael.
About the Author – Sara Dobbie
Sara Dobbie is a fiction writer from Southern Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared at Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Crab Fat Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, (Mac)ro(Mic), Re-Side, The Spadina Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Mooky Chick, Fiction Kitchen Berlin and Change Seven Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.
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