By Nina Pond Bayer
I had been gone from my apartment for eleven days, caring for my widowed mother in a big house on a small lake not too very far away. And when I returned home, my bag in hand, I opened the front door to find that Jason was gone. Again.
I climbed the stairs and stood in the doorway of our bedroom, staring at the emptiness. The bed was unmade, his pillow missing, his pile of old textbooks gone. Our closet looked like an airplane after disembarkment: notebook paper strewn across the floor, a plastic beer mug lying sideways on a shelf, empty wire hangers tangled amongst empty wire hangers. In a corner near the window, Jason’s college sweatshirt – the red one I had given him for his birthday, was tossed with disregard and abandon into a pile. I filled the tub with hot water and took off all my clothes, slid up to my chin in bubbles, and waited for my toes to wrinkle beneath the dripping faucet.
It wasn’t the first time Jason had left, but it was the first time he had left without performing an overly dramatic, somewhat pathetic good-bye. Jason was a senior at State, a Thespian in the drama department. Every time he became frustrated with life – overdue books or forgotten lines or the like – he left, playing his well-rehearsed good-bye scene to his favorite audience, me. Jason could make running away sound like a sacrifice, and me, never grateful enough for the gesture. But the truth is, he simply needed me – for sympathy and moral support and free rent, and everything else that relationships like ours provide. And that’s why he always came back. Every single time.
After my father died, my mother lived alone. She often called on me to help her with things: organize her bills, pick up her groceries, fix the washing machine that didn’t need fixing. Money was tight and she was lonely, and that combination was enough to send her over the edge, to freefall into a state of perpetual helplessness. When I met Jason, he told me I enabled my mother, but the irony was that he was just like her, and I enabled him too, maybe more so. I loaned him tuition money. I gave him a place to live. I drove him to auditions in my car. And well, now, three years in, Jason was gone again, and I was the one alone. I added more hot water to the tub.
Before I returned home from caring for my mother, a woman with blue hair moved into her guest room – an antiquated German with an overbite and breath that smelled like sardines. She mashed together beets and carrots and told my mother “ve need to eat dis,” even though my mother disliked beets and carrots and it was only her left knee that had recently betrayed her. After the phone call (there was a moment when my mother stooped to pet the cat and slid beneath the dinette set), I drove to her house and slept for ten nights in a recliner chair next to her bed, the guest room seeming too far away. But when the blue-haired woman showed up – a volunteer from her church – my mother told me I could leave. Just like that. After eleven days and ten nights. Without so much as a thank you. She was at the height of her martyrdom and I was too exhausted to argue, so I left. Before I did, I flushed the leftover beets and carrots down the toilet and brought my mother a vanilla milkshake. I don’t know why. It wasn’t the blue-haired woman who had disappointed me.
So, there I was in the tub, scrubbing the calluses from my heels and wishing that, just once, Jason and my mother would either learn how to survive on their own, or show some appreciation. And that’s why, I suppose, when the phone on the chair next to the tub rang and I saw that the caller ID said “Jason-cell,” I didn’t answer it. He wasn’t calling because he missed me, although those would be his words; he was calling because he needed me. Like he needed air, water, a stage.
And that’s also why, I suppose, when I heard the doorbell and saw from the bathroom window that the blue-haired German woman was banging her fist on the outer gate, I remained in the tub and didn’t answer the door. My mother hadn’t reconsidered, hadn’t sent her away; she had sent her to fetch me, to bring me back into her service.
I slid deeper into the bubbles and ran the hot water tap until it steamed up the bathroom mirror. I laid my head back against the porcelain and watched the sun set below the windowsill.
And I waited. Until everything around me was silent.
Copyright 20232 Bayer