Keeping Up Appearances
Story by Leah Browning  •  Art by K.R. Copeland
 
 
I have a blood test just to make sure, and then I call my mother and ask her to meet me for lunch.  For some reason, I had thought it would be easier to tell her in a public place, but instead of going inside, I stand across the street from the café, watching the maitre d’ with his crisp white shirt and armful of menus lead her outside.

He seats her out of my line of vision, near the low black wrought-iron fence enclosing the patio.  All along the inside edge of the fence, heavy wooden barrels are overflowing with pale pink flowers, and the tables are obscured by rose-colored umbrellas.     

“Mallory,” Mother says as I am escorted out to the patio, pleasant surprise flooding her voice, as if she hadn’t expected to see me here.  She stands, flawless in tan slacks and a sleeveless white silk blouse, her smooth butter-colored hair twisted into a chignon and her eyes hidden by dark sunglasses.  She removes the sunglasses and lifts her face in anticipation of my kiss.

I brush her cheek with my lips, breathing Chanel, and slide into the chair across from hers.  “I’m sorry I’m late.”

She sits, crossing her legs neatly at the ankle.  “That’s all right.  I asked for two orders of salmon.”

I’ve dressed carefully for this meeting, but my chunky heels and vivid makeup, so pretty in the mirror at home, now seem garish and inappropriate.  It’s too hot for my linen jacket, and I am sitting up stiffly, holding my arms away from my body, imagining heavy yellow rings of perspiration soaking through the cloth.       

Mother strokes the leather of her pocketbook with long, tapered fingers.  She says, “Have you and Jeff decided on a band?”

I smile uneasily and take a sip of water.

She is watching me, eyebrows raised.  

As I set the glass back on the table, I shake my head.

“I can’t believe you waited this long.  June will be here before you know it.”

I feel a swell of nausea.

She turns away.  “The florist is only a few blocks from here.  If you have time, maybe we could stop by after lunch.  Oh, and I almost forgot.  Natalie had a fitting last week, and she said the bridesmaid’s dress was perfect.”  Mother leans toward me confidentially.  “She’s even talking about getting contacts before the wedding.”

Mother sits back, leaving the image of my plump, myopic seventeen-year-old cousin, with her sweet smile and pale, freckled arms, in the air between us.

I take a quick swig of water, crunching down on an ice cube.

“Oh, Mallory,” Mother says.  “That’s so bad for your teeth.”

I shrug.  “I can’t help it.  It’s a habit.”

“Well, break it,” she says briskly.  Gold bracelets chime together on her arm as she lifts a glass to her mouth and takes two quick, delicate sips.  My mother is like a woman with stiff joints: she can always tell when a storm is coming.

During my sophomore year of high school, I was caught shoplifting for the first time.  I had cut gym and social studies to go to the mall with my friend Karen, who had seventh period off and a cream-colored Mercedes convertible.     

Early that evening, I was marched up to our front door by a pair of police officers who pointedly left the lights of the squad car flashing in the drive.  My mother had been in bed with one of the sick headaches she got when Dad was spending too much time at the office, then coming home rumpled and smelling faintly of another woman’s perfume.

Mother answered the door wearing a faded chenille bathrobe, bleary-eyed from weepy sleeplessness and Valium.  Her mouth was pinched, and she listened without saying a word.

“They’re not going to press charges,” said the cop on my left, “but they want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“It won’t,” my mother said in a strained voice.  “I’ll take care of her.”

I stood in the front hall as they backed out of the driveway.  My mother paced around me.  The house was dark and silent, filled with the sharp smell of furniture polish.

“How could you do this to me, Mallory?  I trusted you.”

“I’m sorry.”

Sounding defeated, she said, “Go to your room.  We’ll talk about it later.”

My father got home a little after eleven, and even from upstairs I could hear him bellowing, “Would you just stop it, Pamela!”

Muffled words from Mother, then a teary, tremulous voice.  “I can’t take any more of this.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and wrapped a pillow around my head.  I fell asleep like that, not sure whether they were arguing about him or me.

In the morning, Dad was jovial, frying eggs with a dish towel tucked into the front of his pants.  “Hey, Sugar,” he said.  “What’re you doing this weekend?”

“I’m not sure,” I said tentatively.

He set the spatula down on the stove, took out his wallet, and flipped it open.  “Here’s ten dollars,” he said, winking as he handed me a twenty.  “Have a good time.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“And Mallory,” he added, as I was turning away.  “Keep your hands in your pockets next time you go shopping.  I don’t want you worrying your mother.”

I flushed and looked down at the money in my hand.  “All right.”

He tapped my chin up with the crook of his finger and turned back to the stove.  “Can you call Pamela?  Breakfast is almost ready.”

I found Mother in their bedroom, looking through her photo albums with a tumbler of brandy on the night table.  “Don’t tell Daddy,” she pleaded.  “I’ll pour it out.”

I sank onto the bed next to her, and she pointed to a black and white photograph.  “I was so thin,” she said mournfully, staring down at pages of a young sixties-version of herself in sleeveless Jackie Kennedy-style dresses with strands of pearls and soft plumped-up hats that rose like loaves from the dark bubble of her hair.

“Daddy said to tell you breakfast is ready.”

She patted my back and looked around absentmindedly.  “I guess I should get dressed.  Tell him I’m on my way.”

She swept downstairs half an hour later wearing a gold lamé jumpsuit and too much perfume.  “Good morning,” she trilled, pecking my father on the cheek.  He set aside his newspaper and rose to fix her a plate of food.         

Now, the waiter arrives with our lunch, grilled salmon and vegetables arranged artfully on a bed of romaine lettuce.  “This looks exquisite,” Mother tells him.

As he walks away, she raises her glass, one slender arm banded with gold, and says lightly, “To us.”

The warm, moist air rising up from the stone floor of the patio is suffocating me.  I lay my hand on my glass, feeling the cool beads of moisture dissolve under my skin.  “I need to talk to you.”

Her arm, holding her glass in the air, looks particularly fragile.  “Please don’t.”

“Mother, I’m sorry, but I’m pregnant.”

She freezes.  Then, to my surprise, relief floods her face, and she sets the glass back on the table.  “Oh!  Well, you’re certainly not the first person that’s happened to.”  She laughs a little, clapping her hand over her heart.  “Oh, I’m so glad that’s all it is.  Listen, we’ll take the dress out a little if we have to.  Nobody will be the wiser.”

“No,” I say.  “You don’t understand.  We’re not getting married.”

Her expression changes abruptly.  “Doesn’t Jeff want a baby?”

“He doesn’t know yet.”

“But. . . .”

“It isn’t his.”

Mother stares across the table at me.  

I can’t meet her eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh, Mallory.  How could you do this.”  It isn’t even a question.  I imagine the links forming in her mind, the way a parent might think of every joint and glass of wine when she finds her daughter in the bathroom shooting up.

My sophomore year of college, I was caught with the names of the noble gases inked on my palm.  Two years later, I was almost expelled after falsifying data in a psychology experiment.

Mother spreads her hands out in front of her and studies her meticulously manicured nails, the tasteful diamonds of her wedding ring.  She takes a deep breath.  “Who is he?”

"His name is Carlo.”

She flinches.  “Does he intend to marry you?”

"He’s already married.”

She doesn’t respond.  I look at my hands, clasped together in my lap.  “He’s not quite forty,” I say.  “He has a fourteen-year-old daughter and a German shepherd.  His wife is an architect.  She designed their house.”

“Oh, Mallory.”  Her voice is almost toneless.  She presses her lips into a thin line and looks away.

There is a long silence.  I can hear the murmur of soft voices and forks clinking on china at the tables around us.

Mother looks down at her own lap.  “You’re such a smart girl,” she whispers.  “I don’t know how something like this could happen.”      

“It was an accident.”  There is a faint whine in my voice, as though I am still ten, explaining a stained blouse or broken dinnerware.

The waiter stops by our table and says, “Is everything all right here?  Can I get you anything else?”

“No, we’re fine,” Mother says, twisting her face into a smooth smile.  “Thank you.”

I spear a bite of salmon and force myself to chew it.

Mother moves a fork listlessly through her vegetables while I fantasize about getting up and leaving.  I don’t, of course.  I choke down another bite of my lunch and pat my face with a linen napkin.  Sweat is pouring down my sides.

My mother drains her glass and looks around for the waiter.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I need the bill.”

“You barely touched your lunch.”

“I should get home.”
 
“That’s all you’re going to say to me?  That’s it?”

She sounds weary.  “What do you want me to say?”

“Anything!  Anything would be better than this.”

“What’s the point?” she says.  “You’re twenty-six years old, and you’re systematically destroying your life.  Nothing will ever be the same after this.”

“How can you say that?”

“You don’t even know what you’re doing.”  She shakes her head.  “I can’t believe you cheated on Jeff.”

“What’s done is done.  What do you expect me to do about it now?”

“I have no expectations anymore.  You’re an adult.  You have to take care of your own life.”

“I am, Mother.”

“Obviously.”

“Can’t you ever just tell me something real?  Can’t you ever say, ‘I’m disappointed’?”

She leans forward.  “Is that really what you want from me?  You want me to say that I’m so disappointed I can barely speak?  That I can’t believe my daughter would do something like this to another woman?  That I can’t stand the thought of someone else washing the smell of your body off her husband’s clothes?  Is that it, Mallory?  Is that what you’re trying to get from me?”
 
I pick at the tablecloth so she doesn’t see the tears welling up along my eyelids.  “I didn’t mean to do this,” I whisper.  “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
 
She pulls three ten-dollar bills out of her pocketbook and places them flat on the table, under the cut-glass salt shaker.  “I’ll call you,” she says carefully.  “All right?”
 
I nod.
 
This close, in daylight, I can see the spider-thin lines around my mother’s eyes.  Her mouth is solemn, raw-looking.
 
She stands, putting on her sunglasses.  “I’ll call you,” she repeats.  She searches my face for a moment, then appears to collect herself, arranging her mouth in a stranger’s smile and heading toward the interior of the café and the exit.
 
I don’t follow her to the door.  Instead, I stay at a table surrounded by flowers and watch her go.

 
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