Transference

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“Transference,” by Kate Osana Simonian, appeared in the Fall 2018 – Caregiving Issue of MQR.

Rather than ferry the juice bottles in pairs from the car to the house, Eve saw the verandah in spitting distance and gathered them up. She felt immediate regret. Her shoulders hunched around her freight. Two bottles sweated under one elbow and another cramped her upturned hand. Too far gone. If a bottle slipped, she thought, it might catch and slow in the scoop of her skirt before it shattered, and she bent her knees accordingly. She made a desperate crab walk up the drive.

At the door, Eve clawed the bottles from under her elbow with a pointer finger. They fell onto the mat with a syncopated pock. Her arm now free, she unloaded the rest onto the level center of the planks. She twitched her top from her skin, once-twice.

Eve checked her phone. Yesterday, Olivia had had two double shifts, so they’d only talked for five minutes. If Eve called her daughter now, she might catch Olivia on a break. Olivia moving to Sailor’s Cove hadn’t meant spending as much time together as Eve had hoped, but they were still as thick as thieves. Eve had wanted to talk to her daughter even more than usual since last night, when Nora had told her once again, though more emphatically than usual, that they should call off the wedding. Something about it being unbecoming to do the same thing as one’s husband. Which was ridiculous, Eve had replied. Myron and Olivia were well suited; Olivia liked to talk, and Myron liked to listen. Eve had resisted adding, “And you and Dad got divorced, so who are you to dole out advice?”

The lock clicked open.
“I’m back,” Eve called down the hall. Although Nora couldn’t stop her from coming in, she liked to give her mother the illusion of privacy. Usually, Nora yelled back something like Where do you think I’d go, or Come into the room if you want to speak to me, or just WHAT?, but not this time. The hum of mating crickets ticked up.

“Hello?”

Leaving the juice, Eve went into the living room. The leather armchair in which Nora spent the daylight hours was empty. Its seat was freshly in- dented, and a pink blanket was pulled across the carpet in one bedraggled lump. Nora would never leave a blanket on the floor.

Eve felt a tingle of panic. She busted into Nora’s froufrou boudoir. On the counter were glass perfume bottles, ivory-handled brushes, and ancient curlers. Nora was on the bed, surrounded by what Eve at first thought were glittering fish scales, and then, with a giddy plummet, realized were the shiny backings of her mother’s opiate patches.

“Oh Mum.”

Nora had smeared on some lipstick before doing it and the pink line jutted below her bottom lip. On the dresser’s tray was a message, inked on the back of a card:

To my daughter,

Sorry about the wedding. Everyone will have a better time without me. I know I don’t say this much, but you are a good daughter. You raised your kids right. I am proud of you.

Mum
P.S. I am so sick of juice.

Eve noted the thickness of the card. The cover bore the recessed shape of a wisteria bloom. A letterpress job. Where had her mother gotten this expensive card? Had she saved it for such a purpose? But then, she had written on the back. Was she was saying that Eve wasn’t worth a proper card? Or was she being thrifty, leaving the card usable, provided the recipient didn’t mind that on the back was a suicide note?

Eve reread the jerky letters. Recently, Nora hadn’t been able to hold a pen without shaking, so Eve had taken up the weekly task of soaking off and re-applying her shellac. Her mother was still vain about her nails. Eve didn’t mind: it was the only maintenance that Nora still insisted on, and the drippy smell of ammonia took her back to her childhood. Still, even with her shaky hands, Nora had managed to unstick over a dozen patches and apply them to her chest. One patch was still stuck to her fingertips. She must have passed out mid-application.

How long had Nora been hoarding her patches? When Eve moved in, Nora could still eat food blended in the Vitamix. Then she needed soup. Then she could only keep down juice, but as if to prove that she still had a say in what her body would do, she demanded a certain brand. Eve had ordered a crate, but Nora said that bulk-bought didn’t taste right, so every few days Eve had to go to the supermarket. Sometimes Eve pretended to go out and slipped her mother juice from a bulk bottle. Nora never noticed the difference. This morning, Eve had been good and driven into town. If she’d been asked, Eve would have helped her mother overdose, but now she realized the whole juice rejection saga must have been a ruse to get her out of the house on just this day. Her mother played the long game.

Eve looked at her mother’s body. The legs were so thin that the knee bones bulged below the hem of her nightie. She’d been beautiful, once. There was a framed glamour shot on the wall. When Eve was a girl, Nora snorkeled on the beach near their house most afternoons. Sailor’s Cove ran alongside the Great Barrier Reef, though the actual coral was an hour’s boat ride from the shore. Now Nora’s hair had thinned, but her brows still glow- ered and intrigued. Her nose was smooth and unveined.

Eve took a tissue from her pocket and spat on it. She rubbed the un- dershelf of Nora’s lip, until the pink came off. Was it terrible to feel like something had settled over the room, something like relief?

The crickets throbbed and at first Eve thought that the scraping was an adumbration of their song. But no, it was more like a dry moan with a gurgling end, like water chugging down a pipe.

Her mother was alive.

How was that possible, with so many patches on her like a second, deadly skin? Eve lifted the front of her mother’s nightie. Inside, a patch clung to the nipple of her loose breast. Her chest rose and fell.

Eve tried to think. What would Olivia do? Her daughter was so pragmatic that it made Eve feel, by comparison, like an emotional wind sock. Olivia would tell her to breathe. Step out. Give Nora time to die.

The drive into the neighboring town of Raleigh was long. There was excellent traffic on the highway, and Eve took her time parking. In the deli, she dwelled over every dukkah, pickle, and jam. My mother is dying while I go shopping, she thought. When Eve had told her husband Roy that she was moving in for a while to ease her mother’s dying, he had disapproved.“Your mum is as mean as a cut snake,” he said. “And when people are sick, they don’t get nicer.” For the most part, he’d been right. Still, every day Eve had let the nurses in, showered Nora and pushed her wheelchair over the buckling sidewalks. It was hard to imagine a kind word escaping Nora’s mouth, but maybe that’s what Eve had hoped for. Some recognition of her being the only child who’d stayed in Sailor’s Cove.

Eve milled in front of the security cameras for over an hour, before clos- ing in on the juices full of the acai seeds that her mother hated. She needed to get something, if only to talk to the cashier for an alibi. That she was trying to get an alibi was absurd.

“I’ll have this, thanks.”

The cashier looked at the bottle of juice she’d passed him. He was maybe sixteen.

“This good?”

“It’s basically cold tomato soup,” Eve said. That was not enough—she needed to make an impression. She shook the bottle, as if stirring up the healthy minerals.“I use it for a face soak. It makes your skin glow.”

On the way home, Eve stopped by two other stores. At one, she bought a carrot juice. Another had mango and guava juice, and she spent a long time reading the bottle’s ingredients before making a disgusted face and flinging it back into the fridge as if burned: twenty-four grams of sugar. She checked her watch. It had been two hours. Her bladder was bursting. She wended her way back home, taking time to buy petrol—more cameras—and when she was close to her mother’s house, she lapped the oval twenty times.

Eve opened the boudoir door to see the back window misted with breath. Her mother was still alive.

To continue reading, purchase MQR 57:4 or consider a one-year subscription. This short story appeared in the Fall 2018 – Caregiving Issue of MQR.

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