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I’d begun to feel a profound sadness whenever I spent time with my mother. Whenever, that is, she wasn’t annoying me, which was less and less now that I was in my thirties. I’d moved away and grown into the type of adult who goes to bed early, rises in the dark, and walks several miles alone, in all seasons, in streets empty except for a few delivery trucks. For most of my life, I’d been angry with my mother. I had thought that would change only if she changed. Now, without my intending it, the anger had disappeared, and in its place was this terrible sadness, an enormous, weather-like feeling, worse than the anger in that it seemed to have no acute cause.

Part of what made me sad was her back. She’d had scoliosis since childhood, but it hadn’t been noticeable until recently, in her mid-fifties. She nursed a powerful bitterness toward her own mother for never taking her to have her back fixed. Or her teeth, though her teeth were more or less straight. One of her brothers had worn braces as an adult, and my mother had raged at me once, in the car on the way back from my grandparents’ in Indiana, about how humiliated Jimmy must’ve been to have to walk the offices of his accounting firm with braces on his teeth. Any idiot knew there were a few things you did for your kids, to give them a prayer of becoming normal adults. I defended my grandmother because I was in the habit of taking a contrary position with Mom, and because my grandmother had broken her hip that year and now had frequent pain and dragged her leg when she walked. Nana couldn’t help it, I said. She and Pop-pop hadn’t had much money. You don’t get it, my mother said. It wasn’t the money. The woman was just completely oblivious. Mom thanked God I’d never know how it felt to be raised by someone so oblivious.

She was driving and I was riding in the passenger seat. Many of our conversations happen this way, so that when I try to picture my mother I often see her right profile rather than her whole face. She has exceptional bone structure, sharp clear shadows under each cheek. I look at her nose as she talks and observe that it really isn’t large or misshapen, as she has thought all her life. When I was going through puberty, she told me that if I wanted she’d let me get a nose job. If I thought that would help with my confidence, she said. She has very sparse eyebrows, plucked when she was a teenager with a nervous compulsion she now regrets. As she drives, she uses the rearview mirror to isolate white hairs from her part, pulls them out, opens the sunroof, and releases them into the wind.

But her back. Its lopsided curve began to show a few years ago, along with a heap of compensating muscle under her right shoulder blade. This wasn’t noticeable through her clothes, but I saw it sometimes in the dressing room at the department store where she spent a good part of her Sundays, looking for things to wear to court, to client dinners, to the annual Human Rights Watch fundraiser of which she was co-chair, to her law school reunion at Loyola. She could’ve gone to law school at Northwestern or U of C, she knew now, but hadn’t known it when, at twenty-four and pregnant with me, she sent in just the one application.

“I’m so stupid,” she said today, addressing the words to the fitting-room mirror as I stood behind her trying to zip her into a dress. I was in town for the weekend; this was the last day of my visit.

“Don’t say that,” I said.

“Why?” she said. “I was stupid. I undersold myself.”

“I don’t like it when you call yourself stupid.”

“Oh my God.” She lifted her arms slightly, making an impatient face at me in the mirror. “You’re misunderstanding. I don’t mean I’m stupid.”

“Okay, good,” I said. I anchored my fingers in the freckled flesh of her back and tugged the top corners of the zipper as close as they’d go.

“Stop,” she said. “Don’t tear it. I need to lose weight. I’m fat.”

She pushed her fingertips into her belly, through the wool dress, and drew in a breath, which expanded her back and exaggerated its asymmetry.

“Don’t say that either,” I said.

Through the dressing-room curtain, I knew that Sofie, the brisk, bone-thin, Eastern European saleswoman, who exercised a distinct ownership over my mother, could hear us and was probably annoyed, as I would’ve been in her place, by the psychological theater I’d brought to our shopping. But why should that bother me? Sofie’s whole motivation was money. Emotionally dysregulated rich women were part of her job, as were, today, their scolding, sanctimonious daughters.

As if she’d heard me thinking, Sofie now spoke through the curtain.

“Maureen?” she said. “How we doing in there?”

My mother stepped away from me and opened the curtain. “She can’t get it to zip.”

Sofie didn’t look at me. She reached out, large rings glittering on her long, elegant fingers, and touched the seams that ran crookedly, strainingly, up the sides of my mother’s waist.

“No,” Sofie said, wrapping one arm across her own long, hollow abdomen and raising the other hand to her face. She pursed her mouth, took her hand from her face, plucked at the dress’s left shoulder. “No,” she said again, this time with finality. “You need a forty-two.”

“I can’t be a forty-two, Sofie,” my mother said, half-joking but also genuinely unhappy. “Please tell me I’m not a forty-two.”

“This is Italian, Maureen,” Sofie said. “Italian’s different from French. I’ll show you the chart again.”

“No, I know.” My mother spoke like a chastised little girl. “Bring the forty-two. Do you even have a forty-two?”

My mother wasn’t fat. Her pale, hairless legs were still more or less the ones the 1972 men’s football coach at Cathedral High School had pronounced the best of all the cheerleaders’. Hers, the humble legs of a girl from Saint Agnes and not one of the more exclusive women’s academies. Though she’d been accepted to all of them. All of them. With a partial scholarship, even, at Ladywood, but my grandmother said it was still too expensive. What difference did it make? my grandmother had asked. School is school.

“Don’t stare,” my mother cried when Sofie was gone. She’d taken off the dress and now folded her arms over her bra.

“I’m not,” I said, and then, against a resolution I try to keep, added, “Jesus.”

“I need to lose weight,” she said. Keeping her arms crossed coffin-style, she thrust back her shoulders, raised her chin, and made a cold and critical face at herself. “Remind me to stand up straight.”

It was the scoliosis. There was nothing to be done about it. The closure of her bra lay unevenly at the base of a flesh hill, and where it traversed the hill the strap was stretched so thin it was transparent. It was excruciating to see, not because she was terribly disfigured—she wasn’t—but because this aspect of her shame was so physical, and could not by an adjustment of mind frame be banished.

And I had begun to believe, or at least hope, that the worst things could be banished in this way. I had quit drinking. After a very brief try with AA, I’d decided to do it on my own, using library books and a writing journal. I’d been sober two years, and had come to believe that any idea, even ones I’d once taken for laws, could be let go. Enemies and old lovers and sins let go like balloons by their strings. It was difficult, but also fantastically freeing. It was probably a vanity, but I wanted my mother to believe it too. But there flouting me was her crooked, unchangeable back.

“Maureen, look at me,” Sofie said when she returned with the size forty-two dress. My mother poked her head outside the curtain, wrapping the heavy plush around her body like a toga. “You’ll try this one,” Sofie said. “You don’t like it, you don’t buy it. Simple. But forty-two Italian is like American six. I’m sorry, eight.”

“I know I’m not a six,” my mother said. “I’m not delusional.”

“Nobody’s delusional,” Sofie said. “You try this. I’ll be back.”

The dress fit, but my mother decided to have Sofie put it on hold. To this Sofie agreed with a tinge of hostility. I tried to give Sofie a sympathetic face but she still wouldn’t look at me.

We crossed out of women’s clothing and took the elevator up to the restaurant on the sixth floor. Facing my mother across the table, I couldn’t see her scoliosis anymore. But the heavy sad feeling deepened, as it often did immediately after she’d annoyed me.

“Will you make me a promise?” she asked.

“What is it?”

“Promise first. Will you promise?”

“Sure,” I said. This was a familiar way for her to begin a conversation and I’d learned not to bother objecting.

“Will you not tell your brother what I said about Meg?”

“Of course I won’t.”

“You’re going to tell,” she said. “You have the biggest mouth.”

An urgent little smile took over her face as she said this, and I knew she was trying to be conspiratorial, not accusing. But I’d outgrown my tolerance for this kind of intimacy. I looked down at my bread plate for a moment, then back at her with the most neutral face I could make.

“It hurts my feelings when you say that,” I said.

“Oh, I’m kidding,” she said. “Isn’t that what the kids used to say about you? I’m kidding.” She said the last sentence as if I’d lost consciousness and she were trying to revive me.

“Okay.” I looked at her steadily. “I’m glad to know you were kidding. I wasn’t clear about it. Now I am.”

“Oh my God,” she said, rolling not just her eyes but her whole face toward the ceiling. “Why do you have to be like this?”

Our waiter, a pale, small man in his forties, approached our table.

“Will you tell my daughter she’s being difficult?” my mother asked him.

He laughed timidly, glancing at me, then back at her. “I think I have just what you need,” he said, and from the pocket of his white apron produced a leather-bound wine list.

“Exactly,” my mother said, but he wasn’t attractive enough for her to prolong the joke. Without looking at the list, she ordered her Kim Crawford. “Are you having one?” she asked me. “I never know what phase you’re in.”

“No, thank you,” I said to the waiter, and thought of adding, I’ve been sober two years, but that would be retaliating. There was a difference between protecting oneself and retaliating, a subtle and important one I’d been late in learning.

“Very good,” he said. “I’ll put that in right away.”

His computer station was only a few feet from our table, and as he stood there tapping the touch screen, his free hand resting on his cheek, I vacillated between shame and defiance. Surely we weren’t the worst people he’d waited on. Like Sofie, this man held a job that by description included absorbing a fair amount of his customers’ tedious dysfunction. Still, the hand on his cheek somehow filled me with remorse. It was the gesture of an anxious child. I imagined him nine years old, standing in just that position on his grandmother’s front porch while she ran out to intercept his too-young mother clambering drunkenly up the gravel walk; or standing that way in back of a strip mall church while a brimstone preacher relished describing the particular chambers of Hell furnished for homosexuals; or maybe he’d grown up like I did, with a houseful of kids and a rotating cast of exploited nannies, where televisions blared peacefully until the miserable, exhausted professional parents blazed in after bedtime and released their frustration in long, screaming, sometimes violent fights. I had stood once, perhaps with my hand on my cheek like that, with my ear to my closed bedroom door, my three younger siblings behind me on my twin bed, trying to hear what the police were saying to my stepfather, whether they’d listen to him or my mother.

“You’re staring,” my mother said.

“He must hate working here,” I said.

“I disagree. I’m sure this is a wonderful place to work.”

“Will you do me a favor?” I asked.

“What?”

“Promise first.”

“No,” she said, but her face lightened as she understood my joke. “I’m not a sucker like you.”

The favor I’d planned to ask was that she not, when the waiter returned, ask him how he felt about his job. But a better strategy was just to let the subject change.

“I would never tell Michael what you said about Meg,” I said. “It’d just piss him off.”

“I know you won’t,” she said. “I was kidding.”

I had woken at five that morning and slipped out of my mother’s house while she and her boyfriend and their little white terrier slept, and had walked twelve blocks to the lakefront. Now, as she resumed her verbose judgment of my brother and the moody, immature young mother of his three-year-old daughter, I remembered the colors that had sprawled over the sky just before sunrise. I’d stood on the bridge over Lake Shore Drive at North Avenue and watched the out-of-service buses lumber north to begin their routes, seeming to slip through the vee of my legs in a kind of reverse birth. I’d felt the concrete bridge shudder in their wind.

“…not in control of her temper at all,” my mother was saying. “And I worry how it affects the baby. I do.”

“That sounds hard,” I said.

“That sounds hard?” Her thin eyebrows drew together, deepening the vertical crease between them, which she’d talked for months about having fixed. “When’d you start talking like this?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “When did I start listening to you and responding to your feelings?”

The waiter appeared with her wine and set it silently in front of her. He seemed prepared to dissolve back into the restaurant, but my mother caught him first and ordered for us: two bowls of chicken soup and roasted vegetables to share.

“Healthy,” she added. “We’re watching our weight.”

“Very good,” he said.

“Well, she’s not,” she said. “She makes everyone in the dressing room feel bad. Come on, eat.” She nudged the breadbasket toward me, laughing, looking at the waiter. “I’ve got to fatten you up.”

“I was saying,” she said when he was gone, “it’s not hard on me. It’s not about me. I’ve noticed you seem to take things so personally now. Like everything’s about you.”

I considered this, tried to show with my face that I was considering it. “That’s probably true,” I said. “I’ve been trying to pay attention to my feelings. A lot of alcoholics end up—”

“Don’t call yourself that.”

I didn’t know if it had just started or if I hadn’t noticed until now, but my heartrate had picked up suddenly, so much that it scared me a little. This is your sympathetic nervous system, I reminded myself. This is your body doing what it needs to do in this moment.

“Don’t buy into these labels,” she went on. “You don’t have to go around saying, ‘I’m an alcoholic.’”

I reached for my ice water, though my body felt suddenly cold and sipping the water made it colder.

“What now?” she said after a pause. “You’re not speaking to me?”

The sun this morning had reflected off the north view of the city, the Hancock tower, the Drake Hotel. Taxis poured over the Drive like separate drops in a waterfall.

“Mom,” I said.

“Are you shaking?” She looked incredulous now, furious, horrified, worried.

“I’m fine.” I reached over the bread and touched her hand.

“Don’t get your sleeve in that,” she said. “It’s oily.”

“I’m cold,” I said. “From the water. The water’s making me cold.”

“Here.”

She slid out from her side of the table, the booth side, and pulled off her cardigan sweater. She came to my chair and draped the sweater around my shoulders. Then she took a step back and looked at me expectantly, as if waiting to see me transform. I felt the familiar embarrassment of being treated like a child in public, and because of where we were, the particular shame of being the cowed and spoiled daughter of a wealthy woman. For a moment I sat rigid, her sweater hanging insecurely from my shoulders. The childhood instinct was to fling it off, but instead I pulled the sweater closer around myself, fastened the pearl top button over my collarbones. Then I smiled up at her. One of her hips was higher than the other.

“Is that better?” she asked.

“It is,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I’m going to tell them to turn up the heat.”

She disappeared past my periphery. Though I faced the booth side of the table, where the leather was faintly darkened with the imprint of her back, I could in my head see her behind me, weaving through the tables, determinedly scanning for some inferior from whom she could demand redress of an imagined wrong. Telling them to turn up the heat was for her like having a drink used to be for me: quick false relief of a large and frighteningly abstract pain. “Sir?” she’d be saying—I couldn’t hear over the garble of crowd voices, the vague strains of Mozart from unseen speakers—“Sir?” with lawyerly assertiveness shallowly concealing a frantic need to be heard, deemed important, obeyed. “Sir?” Behind the booth were floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond which steel towers sentried the narrow, human-scale sidewalk.

“They said they’d turn it up,” she said, sitting down in front of me again. The person she’d talked to must’ve flattered her with sympathy and attention, because she looked more than satisfied, looked genuinely happy. She was beautiful when she was happy. For all her fears, still a strikingly beautiful woman.

“It’s ridiculous they’d have it that cold,” she said.

“I love you, Mom,” I said.

She refolded her napkin. Between our table and the bar, a decorative blue fire flickered soundlessly behind glass.

“What was that for?” she asked.

“I just wanted to tell you.”

“Of course I know,” she said. “After lunch we can go look at jeans. Those ones you’re wearing are ancient.”

Our soup and vegetables arrived, ferried not by our waiter but by a tall, slender male subordinate. He produced a gigantic pepper mill, like a phallus in a bawdy Roman comedy, and at our consent manipulated pepper into our bowls. Then he nodded, murmured bon appétit, and was gone.

“He was cute,” I said.

“Not my type,” my mother said. “Isn’t that strange? I know he’s attractive, I can see that, but my—.” She turned over her palm, held it out as if offering something. “Whatever you call it. It doesn’t go off for that type.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.

“Chemistry,” she said. “I get it from these darker types, the ones you can tell right away are going to treat you like shit. I mean come on. Mike Durkin?”

My ex-stepfather. They’d divorced when I was fourteen.

“What was I thinking?” she said. “It was like I knew. Like I scanned for the nastiest, most sadistic man in the room, zeroed in on him, and said to myself, ‘That’s him. That’s the one you want. Maybe before you’re through he’ll break one of your bones. Which bone do you think it’ll be?’”

The waiter, the original one, came by to check on us. Everything was wonderful, my mother told him, and then asked him to thank the manager for turning up the heat.

“Your father wasn’t that much better,” she continued when he was gone. “I know you don’t like hearing that, but it was all the same pattern. These dark, Irish, angry—you could see it in his face all the time. I mean even when he was happy. Just this anger. I’m sorry.”

I shook my head.

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “You’re giving me that face.”

“I’m just listening.”

“I shouldn’t be talking about this with you.”

She picked up her soupspoon and started to eat, hunching to blow on each spoonful, using her free hand to hold back her hair. Between bites she looked off to her left, eyes moving only to blink. I knew she was seeing some scene from the past, some terrible moment I’d witnessed, which she wanted me to affirm, or one I hadn’t witnessed, which she wanted me to understand. Once, at eleven years old, I’d gone downstairs and gotten between my stepfather and her, had screamed at him in my child’s pitch, leave her alone, leave her alone. Once, at twelve, babysitting and nursing a can of Coke laced with bourbon from their sideboard, I had spilled scalding hot soup on my little half-brother’s legs and given him second-degree burns. Now it was twenty years later. We were sitting in the top-floor restaurant of the city’s most expensive department store.

“It’s because of my dad,” she said, turning back to me suddenly. “He was in a bad mood all the time, too. Probably because my mother was such a pain in the ass.”

She took another bite of soup and sniffed out a laugh.

“I’m kidding,” she said. “I know you don’t like it when I talk about her.”

“They’re your feelings,” I said, but as the words came out I was flooded with awareness of my incompetence. I knew a few cheap principles from commercial self-help and with those thought I could heal—what? What did I think?

“It’s stupid,” she said. “She’s a crippled old woman. You can’t spend your life on this stuff.”

“It’s not stupid.” The sadness was spreading up my neck to my jaw. It tinged the air in the restaurant like a faint humidity. I didn’t want a drink but was conscious that a drink would erase this feeling, and I had to believe that if that were the case, other things could erase the feeling also. The sun rising over Lake Michigan. The waves. The separate joggers on the paved path, private in their exertion, stoic or scowling, alone. My mother was right. You couldn’t spend your life on this stuff. Everyone was in pain, most of them much worse pain than mine.

My mother plunged her fork into a quartered Brussels sprout, furrowed as a brain, glistening with oil.

“Do you think I should get that dress?” she asked.

“It looked really good on you,” I said. “You looked really pretty.”

“Oh, stop,” she said, and looked at her plate. She was smiling, but her brow was kinked as if with a muscle spasm. She shook her head. “It’s too expensive.”

“Can I ask you something?” she asked later, when we were in the car again, driving to Union Station to drop me at my train. She’d taken Michigan Avenue, and though I was relieved to be leaving, I regretted seeing the landmarks pass, the old water tower, the Intercontinental Hotel, where a throng of blue satin bridesmaids was being consumed by the slow revolving door. City Front Plaza, where my father used to have a cubicle, though he hardly used it because he traveled so much, and the Tribune Building, and the big cold river engineered to flow backwards, in from, not out to, the lake. I was looking east, through my mother’s side of the windshield. Her blurred profile kept pace with everything I saw.

“Sure,” I said. We’d caught the stoplight at Illinois Street.

“Do you think your brother is like that?” she asked. “Dark, I mean. Angry.”

“I don’t,” I said. “I really don’t.”

“I worry about it.”

I looked farther ahead now, still east, toward the new structures of Millennium Park, none of which had been there when I lived in the city. For some reason, I couldn’t picture what had been there before.

“He was such a sweet kid,” I said. “Remember how sweet he used to be?”

“But now is he?”

There had been a construction site in the park for a long time. This was crazy, that I couldn’t think back farther than that.

“I think he is, Mom,” I said.

I was crying. I had thought I could wait until I was on the train, slipping quietly out of the tunnel, in public private with my face to the window. The stoplight changed, we crossed the river, and the gaudy silver spectacle of the new park rolled out beside us.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

She was crying also. For a minute we both cried, and laughed because we were crying, and then cried a little more.

“Jesus Christ,” she said, wiping her face. “We better stop or I’ll wreck the car.”

We passed under the el tracks, into the loop, in silence. It was dimmer now under the shadows of the buildings. The pedestrians seemed more volatile, darting across the streets against the signals, disappearing up and down staircases built into the sidewalks.

We crossed the river again, this time at the south branch. “You can drop me here,” I said, but she wouldn’t stop the car until we’d gone all the way around the block to the train station’s main entrance on Canal.

“It’s such a beautiful building,” she said.

“It is.”

“Do you miss it? Living here?”

“I do,” I said, because she wasn’t looking for a longer answer.

“When will you be back?”

“I’ll have to see,” I said. “Christmas for sure.”

“Come sooner. I’ll buy your ticket. I don’t mind.”

About Colleen O'Brien

Colleen O'Brien is the author of Spool in the Maze (New Michigan Press, 2015), a poetry chapbook, and her fiction and poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Kenyon Review Online, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, and other magazines. She teaches at Westminster College in Missouri.

Colleen O'Brien is the author of Spool in the Maze (New Michigan Press, 2015), a poetry chapbook, and her fiction and poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Kenyon Review Online, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, and other magazines. She teaches at Westminster College in Missouri.

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