Note: There’s this fan community I recently joined that hosts an annual writing contest called Project Ink. I applied, surprisingly got accepted, and made it to the second-to-the-last round. Each of the bi-weekly rounds had the participants write short stories following prompts. I had the choice to build a new world with each new round, but I didn’t. Instead, I built the Cecilia Canon – a series of stories about this woman named Cecilia, her daughter Claudia, and her unnamed mother who all look like Eva Green.
Project Ink Round 2: Emotion Challenge, a secret revealed. Max 1500 words.
Trigger Warning: Mommy Issues
I hadn’t seen my mother in more than ten years. She had been, for all that time, just a shadow that never seemed to change – a face with a knowing smile and eyes that never really seemed to see me. She haunted me more when she lived and moved and laughed, and to calm myself I would often think of her as being dead. But she would always creep back into the corners of my memory, smiling that irritating smile.
That day, as I sat across Cecilia in her living room with the late afternoon sunlight filtering through the curtained windows around us, she was undeniably alive.
“You said you were starting university this fall,” she prompted, taking a sip of the tea that sat between us. I had told her this over the phone when I had first called to ask if I could visit her – ten years of her disappearing on me, yet I had to be the one to initiate communication. “Which one?”
“Brown,” I replied dully. On the other end of the country – far from my dad, far from her. “I leave next week.”
“Excellent choice,” she smiled, her red painted lips curling up at the corners in that way I wished I didn’t remember so well. “Congratulations.”
I didn’t reply. Instead, I stared at the steam that was softly wafting out of my teacup, knowing I had to carry the weight of the conversation as I had been the one who wanted it to happen. I could have always asked her what she had been doing since she disappeared from the face of the planet, but then, I had done my research well. I knew that after she’d left my dad and me, she’d sent herself to law school. I knew she was now one of the most successful women in San Diego, knew she had never remarried, and really, every little tidbit I wanted to know about her public life, I already knew.
Or I could have always told her how I had been doing, how I’d written for the school paper, how I’d dated once and never again, how I’d gotten the money to go to Brown because Dad’s construction business was doing well. I could have told her all that, except I don’t think she’d have cared.
Instead, I asked her the one question I had always found myself mulling over when I’d had too much to drink. “Why’d you leave dad and me?”
She hadn’t expected it. Her smile froze, and she placed her teacup on the table, her hand not shaking even once. I hated how she could be so calm.
“I wasn’t happy, Claudia,” she said simply, patronizing as though I had asked her about the birds and the bees. “I knew I was never going to be happy. So I left.”
I stared at my open palms and to my horror, found that I was shaking. “You know, the neighborhood gossip goes, you eloped with Mr. Torres from across the street. But I know that isn’t true because I’ve looked into Mr. Torres’ data, and he’s been living with a completely different woman in Portland for almost as long as you two disappeared.”
Maybe I’d stop shaking so much if I balled my fists, I thought, so I curled my fingers into my palm, feeling my nails digging into soft skin, so painfully I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d drawn blood. “And then I thought maybe you and Dad had a toxic relationship, but then I ruled that out, too, because that was just asinine! Dad’s the kindest guy I know, and no matter how much I try to remember the time you lived with us, there just wasn’t enough to support the idea-”
“Your father never abused me,” she agreed, shaking her head. “Nick wasn’t-”
“So I eliminated all the possibilities and – you know what I came up with?” I exhaled, jaw heavy. I suppose I had always known the reason she had left. I had always known, but I had never wanted to accept it, and no matter how much she’d try to tell me that she just wasn’t happy, I knew that wasn’t the entirety of it. “You left because you’re selfish. You’re too selfish to be a mother – you never wanted to have me, and maybe you never wanted to be with dad either.”
Cecilia’s mouth was set in a grim line. Her brown eyes, which I’d only ever seen as full of mischief or a hidden charm, stared back at me defiantly. I hated looking at her. I hated looking at her and knowing that I looked exactly like her, and that right now, quite possibly, I was staring back at her with the same vitriol she was aiming at me. “Claudia, you wouldn’t understand. I was only sixteen-”
“I don’t care!” I insisted, throwing my hands up. “I don’t care because I didn’t come here for that.”
I had come only because I wanted her to know.
Every year following my eighth birthday, I had always wished for the same thing before I blew out the candles on my cake: I had wished that my mother would come back. I had wished that I’d have her arms hold me again, that she’d smile into my hair, and that she’d hold my hand as she always did, when I was young and we’d walk around and relish our neighborhood sunshine. I had wanted her to come back because I missed her, because it was hard not to have her around and because my dad, even though he was wonderful, could not comfort me the same way she did. I had wanted my mother home, but for all the years that I’d been wishing for her, she’d been a memory – hypnotic and fragile like the cold, pale sunshine of my childhood.
This year had been different.
A part of me nagged that I didn’t have to do this, I owed her nothing. I didn’t have to call, didn’t have to go all the way to her house and have tea with the woman whose traces had made my life a numbed sort of nightmare. I could just ignore her the same way she had always ignored me, and then I’d go on with my life as though I didn’t carry the burden of her shadow. But then I’d always retort to that nagging bit of me, that whining voice, that I wasn’t doing this for her. I was doing it for myself, because more than having her back, I wanted this.
Maybe, in a way, I was just as selfish as Cecilia. Maybe I always would be.
My hand had found its way under my chin, and I stayed still, staring at the wood of the coffee table as I struggled to restrain the angry tears that were biting at the corners of my eyes. “I know you tried to abort me. I heard you talking to Aunt Mel. And I know that you’d have succeeded if Dad hadn’t caught you in time. You never wanted me – from the very start, you never did.”
“But I’ve never hated you,” I told her, in as simple a way as I could. “I’ve tried, and I know how badly you want me to, but I can’t. I don’t know how.”
“And-” My voice was breaking, and I knew, if I stayed any longer, I’d be weeping past dignity, “I’m telling you this, because when I leave, you’ll never see me again. I just wanted you to know that I forgive you. For not being there.”
The first drops of tears fell on Cecilia’s cheeks, and her chin trembled even as she struggled to keep still. I couldn’t be too sure though. I couldn’t see through the tears in my own eyes.
I stood, pulling my jacket on. “Thanks for the tea.”
Then I walked out the door.
The streets were glorious in sunset. Children were coming home from school, and I dodged them distractedly as I walked to the bus stop, trying to organize my thoughts. I hadn’t expected her to run after me, hadn’t expected anything really, but that she hadn’t even tried to stop me stung. She had left me an entire decade ago, and even years later she was letting me slip away. My chest felt like it was made of lead, I was suffocating, and I realized that this must be what it’s like to drown. Distrusting my balance, I sank into the curb and cupped my head in clammy hands. Across the street, there was a garden lined with wild roses in a riot of colors.
She had promised me when I was seven that we’d plant a garden of wild roses.
I gripped my knees so tightly I could almost halt the tears, and for the last time I hoped, allowed my heart to break over Cecilia, the woman who was once my mother.