CW: existential themes, the death of a loved one, a strained mother/daughter relationship
Saturday, June 23rd
The tea kettle whistled, and she shuffled over to her stove, paying no mind to the cat circling her ankles. They knew each other too well for either of them to get tripped up. She turned off the burner and waited until the water was not quite boiling and poured it into her waiting mug, letting the earl grey steep. She took a slice of lemon from the refrigerator and added it to the tea after removing the teabag. The lemon added aroma and a tangy flavor she loved. But secretly, her favorite part was the aesthetic. The yellow slice bobbing in the murky tea brightened most every morning for the past decade.
She wasn’t always a tea snob. In fact, she wouldn’t describe herself that way now. But as she grew older, and tried more things, she refined her taste in a way that she couldn’t in her younger years. Her friends called her “particular” and she agreed. Not because she was a rigid person. Quite the opposite, her entire life had been a series of experiments and failures to figure out exactly how she wanted things. And once she did, that’s how she made them.
She allowed herself to sleep in on weekends—an extra half hour—and now the sun was already shining through the window in her favorite way. The way that makes Jasper stretch out on the sunlit floor, in full view of her morning reading place. Today she was nearing the end of Between the World and Me, given to her by her granddaughter, Clarissa, and was hoping to finish it before their Saturday morning chat. They lived a little too far for anything more than monthly visits. They were all so busy, but they made sure to have time for calls.
She could practically set her watch to her granddaughter’s call, so she didn’t bother to keep the time. She wasn’t reading for long before she heard sirens and looked out the window to see a speeding police car. She continued reading, blocking out the sound, but a little later she heard more. She wondered what all the commotion could be about but she didn’t dwell on it for long. She was determined to read until Clarissa called, so the only allowed distractions were semi-regular peeks at Jasper.
She finished the book, surprised that she was done before Clarissa called. Had she accidentally turned the phone off again? She checked it. 10:35 AM. Clarissa always called within minutes of ten o’clock unless something was previously arranged. But now, no texts. No missed calls. Nothing. A well of worry dug into her stomach.
She found Clarissa in her contacts and hit the call button, but it went straight to voicemail. The stress of the situation did nothing to help her already shaky hands, and it took her a few tries to find her daughter’s number in her phone. She called and mercifully, there was an answer.
“Mom,” Arlie answered in the usual way but Darla noticed the strain there and her heart sank.
“What’s happening? Clarissa didn’t call. Is she okay? What’s the matter with you? You sound upset,” Darla said.
Arlie sighed, “Jeez, Mom. I forget how disconnected you are. Can you sit down?”
Darla sat back down, perched on the edge of her seat. “Okay, what happened to Clare?”
Arlie paused. Then she said, “Nothing, Clarissa’s fine. Well…I was going to call you soon. It’s just… been a lot. I don’t know how to tell you this. There’s…um, well…” Arlie faltered.
“Just say it, dear. You’re sending my blood pressure through the roof.”
“There’s an asteroid. It’s… heading to us. A big one. They found it last night and it’s been all over the news this morning.”
Darla sank back into her seat, “Where’s it supposed to hit?”
“That doesn’t really matter, Mom. But they’re saying it will be North America. It’s going…,” Arlie broke off into a sob. “Mom. We have a week.”
Darla had a million things running through her head, and none of them would settle long enough for her to form a coherent thought. Arlie cried quietly while Darla remained on the line in shock. There had been plenty of times when Arlie was younger where their conversation was paused in this way. A comforting presence on the other line said more than any words either one of them could say, but Darla couldn’t recall the last time that had happened.
Finally, Darla’s mind settled and she said softly, “Have Clare call me when she’s up for it. I finished that book.”
“I—It’s been a bit chaotic here since we found out. I’m not going to push her.”
“I’m not asking you to. Just when she’s ready. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Can you just let us handle this how we need to?” Arlie snapped into the phone, the tension of their relationship seeping into the call.
Darla sighed but only said, “Yes. Well, I’ll leave you alone. Remember I love you.”
Pause. “Love you too,” and Arlie hung up.
Darla sat in her chair for a while. Once the patch of sunlight had moved on, Jasper got up and stretched. He padded over to Darla, lept onto her lap, and pressed his forehead to her jaw demanding love. She stroked his back reflexively, grateful to have him as a constant in her life.
Her hunger surprised her, but looking at her clock, she realized it was well beyond lunchtime. She shifted Jasper to the floor and went to the kitchen to make lunch. She put together a ham sandwich and sat at the table, eating slowly, staring at the wall. She finished her sandwich and moved her plate to the sink. She had some dishes left over from supper the night before that needed to be washed. Does it even pay? She thought to herself. It’d be irrelevant soon. She stood contemplating the full sink before her and then yelled, “Yes! It does!” startling Jasper.
What was she going to do, mope around? She’d decided long ago that moping wasn’t her style. And if what her daughter said was true, now would be a stupid time to adopt such a habit. She filled the sink with soapy water and finished the dishes within fifteen minutes, feeling marginally better.
That was more like it. Why stop there?
She threw on an old Elton John record, drowned her house with the sound, and took her cleaning supplies to task. She cleaned the cupboards, scrubbed the floor, scoured the fridge, and even had the gumption to clean the inside sill of the window where all the dust and bugs collect.
She rotated through her record collection while systematically cleaning every room in her house. She blocked out the sirens, now nearly constant, by turning her record player all the way up, unconcerned with what the neighbors would think. They had enough to think about already.
The sun was setting and the house had never been so clean. She’d finally tackled the piles of decor she’d been meaning to sort through into neat stacks of what she wanted, what she’d donate, and what she’d give to Arlie. She had them boxed and labeled, ready to be dropped off at their respective places.
She got ready for bed, already sore from her overactivity, and then settled down with Jasper climbing on her lap. She set her alarm and laid down. Already used to the steady backdrop of sirens and exhausted from the day, she quickly fell asleep.
Sunday, June 24th
She woke up and got ready for her day. The sirens that were nearly constant yesterday had stopped sometime in the night, making her conversation with Arlie feel like a strange dream. Normally, Sundays were for coffee, waffles, and friends so she headed over to the usual meeting spot, The Tea Spoon, where she and her friends had a standing reservation.
She walked up to the door and pulled, startled by the fact that it was locked. She cupped her hands and peered into the dark cafe thinking there must have been a mistake.
She took out her phone and called Alyssa, who answered almost right away, “Darla? Are you okay? Well, okay considering everything?”
“No. The Tea Spoon is closed! Where are you?” Darla huffed into the phone.
Alyssa replied, “I’m with my family, Darla. Of course they’re closed. Are you kidding?”
“Well, it’s just—There’s no reason for everyone to lose their minds over this,” Darla said, growing frustrated.
“Oh, honey you—,” Alyssa started.
“Don’t ‘oh, honey’ me. I’m going to call the others and find a place to meet. I’m starving.”
“Darla, wait,” Alyssa said before Darla hung up on her.
She was grumpy and hot and hungry. She called her other friends and had similar conversations with the rest of them. Darla cut them all short, annoyed that no one had any sense.
She didn’t feel like going home just yet, so she started walking down the street. It was a nice day even if it was a little humid. It was surreal to see all the unlit shops, empty parking spaces, and deserted sidewalks. Finally, she found an open business and gratefully sidled in.
The shopkeeper greeted her with a grin and a cheerful, “Hello!”
“Good morning,” she called in response, now noticing it was a bookstore she’d wandered into. “Do you have any tea by chance?”
The shopkeeper replied by gesturing to a self-service tea and coffee station that Darla was sure she could make do with. She walked over, doctored up some plain black tea to her liking, and wandered through the shelves looking for another book she and Clarissa could read together.
“Looking for anything in particular?” The shopkeeper asked her, appearing at the end of the aisle. “We’re having a great sale.”
Darla replied with a short, “No, thank you.”
The shopkeeper remained while Darla pointedly ignored them. Then they said, “Oh, come on. Ask me about the sale. It’s a good one.” Darla sighed.
“Am I your only customer today?”
“Only customer this weekend, actually. Business got slow. Because of the… thing. Ya know.” The shopkeeper gestured, mimicking a sphere crashing into another sphere, and laughed uncomfortably. When Darla just stared, they dropped their hands.
Darla went to find another shelf, politely nodding at the shopkeeper as she turned away.
She was reading the back of a new release when she felt the shopkeeper’s presence again.
“The sale is that everything’s free, since you didn’t ask. I just wanted you to know. Whatever you can carry. And uh…Actually, if you have a car, I could load it. Whatever your car can carry, you can have.” She forced a smile while maintaining eye contact, and grabbed three books at random.
She managed to unclench her jaw enough to say, “I’ll take these.”
“Great! They’re yours!” The shopkeeper laughed. “Easiest checkout ever.” Their eyes welled with tears that spilled over and they tried to brush away.
“I guess I better be going then. I have a lot of reading to get to it seems.” Darla tried to get around the tearful shopkeeper and out the door.
“Hang on, do you want to stay for lunch?” They were smiling again, standing too close, eyes rimmed red.
“No, thank you,” Darla said. She pushed passed them, cradling her books, and was grateful to be back on the sidewalk.
She walked down the road and found a bench. She checked her phone, dismissing the emergency alert that started popping up that morning and found nothing else of importance. It wasn’t time to go home yet, she decided. But she didn’t know where to go either.
She had no desire to talk to another person. Any store she could think of was likely closed or in chaos. This narrowed down her options to something outside and by herself.
Which was fine with her.
She left her books on the bench but threw her empty teacup into the trash. One of her favorite parks was only a few blocks away and she meandered over to it, glaring at the few people she passed on her way. She didn’t want to invite any conversation by smiling at them. They all looked too hurried and pained to stop to talk anyway.
She walked through the trees and the flowers, listened to the birds, and noticed the bugs. She walked until she got tired. Then she rested and continued walking again. Her body told her she was hungry, but she had no appetite. So, she kept going. The beauty of the flowers eluded her and the rocks lining the path appeared as only ugly obtrusions. She hated them and couldn’t believe she had ever enjoyed the park. All her life she looked at these stupid, pointless things. They all meant nothing and would continue to mean nothing whether she was around to observe them or not.
Eventually, she went home.
The boxes she’d packed the day before were stacked neatly in the kitchen. She had closed them with floral duct tape she’d gotten a while back thinking it’d make any tasks involving duct tape that much nicer. She kicked the boxes, wishing she was stronger and could pulverize them. Instead, she dragged them outside and into a new pile, something she was strong enough to do.
She grabbed the gasoline next to the lawnmower and found a lighter. She doused the cardboard and let it soak for a moment before introducing the flame. Her possessions went up in seconds, cardboard burning away to reveal the melting contents. She stood too close, forcing herself to withstand the heat, wondering what it would be like to burn.
Monday, June 25th
She woke up with a stuffy nose, feeling like the smoke from last night had somehow taken up residence in her brain. Jasper pawed at her face and then licked, urging her to get out of bed to feed him.
She finally did, and then realized that she hadn’t eaten at all the previous day. She gave Jasper his food and water and he left him to gorge himself. She opened her fridge and her freezer side by side.
She contemplated cooking something, but that seemed too big of a task today. She grabbed a quart of ice cream, a spoon, and the softest blanket she owned before sinking into the couch. She turned on the TV and had no plans to get up unless necessary. Moping was as fine a hobby as any, she decided, and the end of the world was the perfect time to pick it up.
She cranked up the air conditioner since the blanket was warm and logged into her streaming account that she only kept for the rare occasions that she wanted something on in the background or she had a visitor. She randomly picked a season of something that seemed like she wouldn’t have to think too much. Jasper joined her on the couch after he finished his breakfast and she felt a burst of nostalgia.
When was the last time she had ice cream for breakfast? She couldn’t remember and that made her feel bad for some reason. And that made her cry.
The doorbell rang but she pretended it didn’t. She ignored the following knock. When she heard the door open, she ignored that too.
“Darla, are you eating ice cream? It’s nine a.m.” Alyssa grabbed a blanket from the shelf and saw herself into the armchair.
“What are you doing here?” Darla glanced over at her old friend. They’d known each other since they were kids. She was surprised she even bothered knocking in the first place.
“Well, dear, the world is ending. Forgive me for wanting to spend time with a friend. And you didn’t answer your phone. I was worried,” Alyssa answered.
“Oh. I don’t know where it is.”
“What’re you watching?”
“Um, I don’t know that either.” Darla took another bite of ice cream.
“Do you want to talk?” Alyssa asked.
“Not in the slightest,” Darla replied. Alyssa moved over to the couch and lifted the blanket.
“All right, scootch over.” Darla adjusted and made room for Alyssa.
They filled up the day reacting to the show, eating everything they could in Darla’s kitchen with as little prep as possible, and long, comfortable silences.
Tuesday, June 26th
She used to hate getting up early. She was always more of a night owl, perched by the living room window, sketching pictures of the moon and the figures silhouetted by the street lights. Eventually, the days became too exhausting and she went to bed earlier and earlier. She slowly grew into a morning person, something that would shock her mother if she knew.
She rolled over and snapped the light on, awake long before her alarm. She looked at Fiona’s picture on the nightstand, simultaneously wishing her late wife was there to comfort her but also glad Fiona didn’t have to deal with this reality.
What would they have done if this had happened a decade ago? If she had to guess, Fiona would have come up with some crazy scheme to drive across the country, see every sunset, sunrise, and whatever damn thing she could in between. She wasn’t one to let anything slow her down.
Darla went to the kitchen, and once her tea was made, she took out the notebook that she wrote in when missing Fiona hit especially hard. She turned to a fresh page and started her letter.
You wouldn’t believe this. Of all the things that we thought would wipe us out, it’s a damn space rock. All this life and intelligence and we’re going to go out like the dinosaurs. I thought it’d be killer robots, and you bet zombies. Guess we were both wrong.
I’m missing you today, so that’s nothing new at least. It’s never gotten easier, and the people who say it does are liars. Not having anything to look forward to is throwing me even more into the past than usual. The moments I can’t get out of my head all involve you. You were such a blessing in my life and I’m so selfishly angry that you aren’t here to help me through this. I feel like I made it to the finish line but the ribbon is on the edge of a cliff and the prize is the fall.
I went a little crazy the other day. Clarissa would tell me off for using that word—crazy. But that’s how I felt. I haven’t been handling this well. Let’s just say, I did something that would normally require a permit and ate enough sugar to kill a horse. I wish I knew how to talk to the kids. Clarissa is so young and Arlie… Well, she’s too closed off from me now.
While I was standing by the fire—the illegal, unpermitted one—I was wondering if you’d be ashamed of me. This past decade hasn’t been easy. Life never was, but it got darker after you left. You made me better and not only do I miss you, I miss who I was with you. I didn’t want to be that person, damn it. But you were too good for me and we both knew it.
I messed things up with Arlie. She heard the world was ending and calling her mother wasn’t even a priority. I have… well, three days now to make that better in any way. I’m just so worried that there are wounds that just aren’t able to heal. Would she want me to try? Our only bridge has been Clarissa, and I’m thankful. But it hasn’t been enough.
You must be ashamed. If you were here, you wouldn’t admit it. You’d offer suggestions and hold me on the couch until we figured it out.
Remember when we ran away to Moab after my art gallery submission was declined? You decided I needed to get away. Literally run from my problems. And so we spent an unplanned week in the desert. You were right, of course.
What would you suggest I do now? You’d want me to try with Arlie, I know. I know. I will. If she’ll answer.
It’s funny actually. I’ve gotten calls and texts from people I haven’t talked to in years. I haven’t been answering. I’m even less inclined to waste time talking to them than I was before. Most of the voicemails and messages I’ve gotten have been some kind of apology for a thing I haven’t thought about in years or even remembered. Some people feel the need to tell me what I meant to them. My favorite one—you’d get a kick out of this—was Jim Guntherson calling to tell me that he always hated me and the end of the world wouldn’t change that. I guess he’s still pissed I kicked his ass that one time at the bar. Him I did call back. I politely told him I have no memory of who he is but I must mean a lot to him. I hope he’s still fuming.
It’s striking me now that you’ve become my imaginary friend. I hate it, but I hope at least I’m doing you justice. This is the part where you’d say, “Go do something with your life! You aren’t dead yet!” And then you’d shove me out the door and carry me to a wild adventure.
What wild adventure could I have now?
Darla chewed the end of her pen, picturing Fiona at the table spitballing ideas to make her feel alive.
Skinny dipping. God, we haven’t done that since our twenties. Oh, my. I have to call the ladies. You’re right. I’m alive right now and I’m going to make that mean something.
Love you always.
Darla spent the rest of her day making calls and plans, explaining to each of her friends that this was the exact thing they needed to stick it to the end of the world.
Wednesday, June 27th
Darla woke up to the sound of Jasper aggressively cleaning himself. She hadn’t bothered to set an alarm today and was excited to see how late she slept in.
7:43 AM. Damn it. A life of habit will do that to a person.
She didn’t have any assigned way to spend her day so she did whatever random activity felt right at the moment. She threw open the windows and let the fresh air circulate through her house. She did some tidying, some reading, some laying in the sun. She baked a pound cake and ate half of it. She napped and sang and only cried twice.
She wrote poetry and was comforted by the sheer pointlessness of it all.
She was looking forward to her evening activities and was surprised all her friends wanted to participate. Even Eloise, a known stick-in-the-mud. They agreed to meet by the river off of Trapp road with bottles of wine and plenty of towels. Nine o’clock was the agreed-upon meeting time so that they’d arrive just before dark.
Darla headed down to the river at a quarter to, excitement flooding her veins. Skinny dipping. At her age? She never could have guessed that she’d be the one to come up with this plan. She attributed the idea to Fiona but kept that to herself.
She pulled up next to Alyssa’s car and stepped out with her mini bottle of wine, that would be enough, and an armful of towels. Alyssa grinned and waved from the riverbed and Darla carefully made her way down to her.
“Are you ready?” Alyssa asked breathlessly. “God, I haven’t done this in years. I brought water shoes so I don’t slip. That’d be just my luck. Breaking my hip when no one’s working at the hospitals anymore.” Darla laughed at her.
“Well, you wouldn’t have to worry about it for long.” Darla set her towels down and cracked open her wine.
“How comforting,” Alyssa replied dryly. She tapped her bottle against Darla’s, “Cheers!”
The other ladies started to show up, Henrietta over-prepared as usual, bringing extra drinks, extra towels, and a fresh batch of cookies. They munched on their cookies and sipped their wine waiting for the sun to go down.
They gathered in a circle, the energy from the group seeming to electrify the air around them. Nora raised her bottle and called for a toast. “To friendships! To love! To being reckless! To the end of the fucking world!” She yelled into the stars and the ladies all cheered.
They walked to the edge of the bank, modesty unnecessary. It was fairly dark but the moon overhead provided enough light to be sure of their footing. They stripped down and stood at the edge of the water.
“I’m going in!” Henrietta cried, taking the first step of the group. The rest of them followed, squealing the whole way, laughing and giggling until they were submerged to their necks. They bounced around a bit, enjoying the freedom and tranquility of the cool water.
“Tits out for the moon!” Nora yelled, walking far enough to make that statement true. Darla followed suit and repeated her cry. Soon, all five ladies were standing, tits out for the moon, making delighted fools of themselves.
“We should have done this sooner,” Eloise said, floating with her eyes closed.
“And more often,” Nora replied. “Screw coffee and waffles; this is much better.”
The ladies swam until the chill was too much and then went their separate ways, carrying their newly revived youth with them.
Thursday, June 28th
Clarissa arrived right before lunchtime. She called that morning asking to come over to spend the day together. Darla accepted without hesitation. The last thing she wanted to do was pressure Clarissa into spending time with her even if it was the thing she wanted now most of all.
Clarissa arrived cheerfully and Darla followed her lead pretending like everything was normal. They ate lunch, drank tea, and talked about the book they had read, but the conversation was stilted. The elephant in the room was too big for her small kitchen.
Clarissa had always carried herself as if she was responsible for holding up the world. She had an unwavering belief that her life would mean something. Darla could see she was stressed, naturally, and the cracks were starting to show.
“It’s just not fair,” Clarissa finally broke, her lip trembling.
Darla paused, slowly setting her cup down. “No, it’s not, is it?”
“What do I do? I haven’t lived yet. I’ve been spending this week trying to be fine and ‘make the most of it’ but…” She dissolved into sobs, and Darla moved over to comfort her granddaughter.
Darla chose her words carefully, trying to summon the part of her that was voiced by Fiona, “I cannot imagine what you’re going through. To be your age and trying to come to terms with this.”
“They never should have told us,” Clarissa said angrily.
“That would be easier,” Darla admitted. “And sometimes easier is better.” They sat quietly for a bit.
“It was all for nothing,” Clarissa whispered.
“What was?” Darla furrowed her brow.
“Life. Being alive. Pointless.” she pushed her grandma away.
Darla wasn’t sure how to proceed but she decided to face the elephant and address it head-on. “It’s not fair for a million reasons, but it’s mostly not fair that you haven’t had enough time to grapple with the fact that someday you won’t exist anymore. You’ve had to take a crash course of existential crisis instead of getting to experience it in doses throughout your life.” Clarissa was looking at the table so Darla continued.
“The meaning of life is a mythical idea that everyone formulates for themselves. There’s no correct answer and as close as I can tell, our meaning is just to be alive until we aren’t. I’m alive right now and so are you. We’re together. That matters to me. I’m assuming it matters to you?”
Clarissa nodded wordlessly, tears still streaming. Darla handed her a tissue. “You’re missing out on a lot of life, yes. And that is an awful thing. I’m not going to try to rationalize that. It sucks. And yet, it all still mattered. We mattered. I don’t want you to go to sleep tomorrow thinking that it didn’t.”
Darla put her arm around her again and Clarissa leaned in. “We had this amazing gift. To be able to see the world, love each other, see the stars, and imagine great things. Appreciate it for what it is and let the rest go.”
Clarissa began to sob. Darla gave her time to collect herself. She thought about how she handled the last few days and almost chuckled. “I know it’s easier said than done and if you think anyone knows how to handle this; they don’t. Clare, I burned a bunch of things in my yard four days ago. The next day, I had ice cream for breakfast and practically grew into my couch. Last night,” Darla hesitated but Clarissa had stopped crying and was looking at her expectantly, “Last night, I went skinny dipping.”
“Grandma!!” Clarissa exclaimed, forgetting the unsightly elephant for a moment. “Where? With who?”
“Just some old friends out in Trapp river.”
“Is that your advice then? Should I go get naked with my friends?” Clarissa teased.
“If that’s how you want to spend your time, who am I to stop you?” Darla answered, hugging her close. “But don’t tell your mother I told you that.” Clarissa chuckled before her face fell again.
“Really though. What should I do?”
“It might be best not to think about it too hard. You have essentially no obligations so think about what you want to do with each moment. And see if you can do that,” Darla answered. “We were always just passing time anyway.”
Clarissa sat silently for a bit and they drank the rest of their tea. “There’s something else too,” she said, “But it’s so stupid.” She put her head in her hands.
“I’m sure it’s not, dear.”
“There’s this…there’s a boy. A dumb boy that I like. I told you it was stupid.” She threw her hands in the air and let them thump onto the table. Clarissa groaned, exaggerated in a way that reminded her of Arlie. And even more so of herself, though she wouldn’t admit it.
“Honey, that’s not stupid.” Darla laughed and Clarissa glared. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh. Trust me. That’s not stupid. Did you talk to him?”
“Yes. Kind of. But, it’s just. I don’t know…I don’t know! We don’t have to talk about it.” Clarissa fidgeted with the tablecloth.
Darla patted her hand. “Your grandma Fiona was the best thing to happen to me and I wouldn’t have traded her for anything in the world. So liking a boy isn’t stupid. It’s just… more complicated now.”
“What an understatement,” Clarissa snorted. “I know. I know it’s not stupid,” she replied softly. “You’d just think I’d be thinking about anything else instead.”
“The last thing you need to do is feel guilty about your thoughts,” Darla assured her. They spent their next few hours together working on a puzzle and chatting until it was time for Clarissa to drive home. They stood up together and Darla pulled her into an embrace.
“I love you so much, and I am so proud of you,” she spoke into Clarissa’s hair.
Clarissa shook with sobs, unable to answer, but Darla understood. She watched her granddaughter leave then sank into the couch letting her emotions pin her there until dark.
Friday, June 29th
She woke up in a good mood which was surprising, given the circumstances. But she wasn’t going to squander it. Maybe it was relief. This past week had been an awful sort of countdown, with the minutes loudly ticking by, and the last grains of sand slipping through the hourglass. The relief of it, everything, just being over was surprisingly comforting.
She stayed in her warm bed, petting Jasper with solitary focus. She got up and made tea, appreciating how the lemon bobbed in the mug. She knew she needed to call Arlie at some point. There wouldn’t be many chances left and all of them were today.
She sipped her tea slowly, putting off her most necessary task. There was no way to know what to expect. When she couldn’t drain any more tea from her mug, she picked up her phone and called her daughter. The only answer was her voicemail, so she left a message. “Arlie, it’s Mom. Please call me today. I want to talk…please.” She turned the ringer up and decided to distract herself from the waiting.
She took out all of her art supplies that had piled up over the years. She rarely painted anymore or did anything that required too much of her hands. They would be sore the next day and gripping was difficult. But well, the next day wasn’t an issue anymore.
She erased the thought. Today was for her and for art and that was all. She laid out her paints, finding appreciation in the wide array of colors. She thought for a while and then asked Jasper which one he liked. He pawed at a burnt orange and she picked it up. The largest paintbrush seemed fit for the job.
She walked to the living room wall, trying to figure out where she wanted to start. She was stuck and growing frustrated.
“Shall we go a little wild, Jasper?” she directed at her cat. He meowed and she took that as a yes. “Watch out!” she cried before tossing the contents of the jar across the wall, splattering the picture frames, the couch, and a good part of herself. She laughed with delirious joy.
She took more paint and threw it around the room. She started to move it around with her hands, forgoing the brush altogether and humming with the rhythm of her movements. There was no surface left unpainted once she broke for lunch, splattered head to toe in color.
She checked her phone just in case she missed something. She hadn’t and that raised a lump in her throat that made it difficult to finish her toast. She put her phone aside and got back to work.
The kitchen was her next canvas and since it seemed right, she let Jasper pick the first color again. This time he chose a dark gray which was perfect for the early afternoon. Afternoons were great for napping through, and grey happened to be a great napping color.
Shapes dominated her work this time—large circles covering the refrigerator, rectangles across her cupboards, dashes of color across the gray. It was like her own private art gallery, and she kind of regretted not doing it sooner.
The doorbell rang. She jumped and shuffled to answer it. To her shock and relief, Arlie was standing before her along with her husband, Reg, and Clarissa.
“Hi, Mom,” was all Arlie managed before Darla pulled her into a hug. Arlie dropped her bags and returned the hug. When they broke apart Darla hugged Reg and Clarissa before ushering them into the house.
“Holy shit, Ma,” Reg said. They all stopped to examine the paint covering everything.
“Welcome to my gallery,” Darla showcased the burnt orange wall with a flourish. Arlie started laughing.
“Do you remember when I painted on the wall? In what, fourth grade? I got so much shit for that. I wish I could show my ten-year-old self this.” She walked to the living room. “Christ, Mom,” she called, laughing some more.
“We’re staying by the way,” Reg said following Arlie but stopping to kiss Darla on the cheek.
“How are you, sweetie?” Darla asked Clarissa, putting a hand on her cheek.
“I’m okay, I think.”
“Thank you,” Darla said quietly so only Clarissa could hear, “I know this was your doing.”
“This is what mattered to me,” Clarissa replied, smiling at Darla.
They followed Reg and Arlie into the guest room to drop off their things since the living room was still drying.
“Are you hungry? I have… some food yet. I think.” Darla offered. The three of them declined.
Clarissa spoke, “Actually Dad, I think I left something in the car. Will you walk out with me?” She looked pointedly at her father.
“Um, yes. Of course,” and they left the room.
Darla and Arlie stood together in silence, avoiding eye contact.
“I’m glad you came,” Darla said after a bit.
“Yea, well. Clarissa insisted,” Arlie answered, sounding choked up. Darla sighed. How would Fiona expect her to navigate this?
“I’m sorry, Arlie,” Darla started but Arlie cut her off.
“I’m not doing this. I’m not interested. You abandoned me after mom died. You closed yourself off. I understood. I gave you space. But then you let other people back in and not me. How come you can have such a great relationship with Clarissa? I feel like shit because I’m jealous that my daughter has a loving relationship with my mom. We aren’t close, and I have no problem carrying that to my grave.” Arlie rushed out of the room in tears.
“Arlie!” Darla followed her. Arlie locked herself in the bathroom. “Arlie, listen, please.” Darla pressed her forehead against the door. “I was wrong. I was so totally beyond wrong, and I don’t have many regrets but ruining my relationship with you is the biggest one.” Arlie didn’t answer but Darla assumed she was listening. “After I lost your mom, I kept dreaming of your funeral. It was terrible. And instead of leaning into loving you more, spending more time with you, I pulled away. Then you moved away and took my granddaughter with you. I was angry.”
Arlie opened the door. Darla continued, “I was so angry at so many things, and I let that get in the way. By the time I realized how badly I messed up, it was too late. I wasn’t part of your life anymore. You held me at an arm’s length and neither of us could close the space.” Darla was crying now. They stood facing each other, baring their open wounds and seeing each other with a renewed perspective.
Something in Arlie’s face softened and reflexively Darla went to hug her. And Arlie accepted. They held each other, easing the wounds if only slightly. Darla didn’t think any words could mean more to her than that hug. She was wrong.
“I forgive you,” Arlie whispered. “And I’m so sorry.”
Darla let the words sink in and release the weight she had been carrying for so long. When she collected herself enough to speak, she returned the words.
They separated and smiled at each other. “I suppose we should go see if they found what they were looking for,” Arlie joked and Darla laughed. It felt so good to laugh with her daughter again.
They called Reg and Clarissa back in. They seemed relieved to see mother and daughter smiling.
“Can we paint, now?” Clarissa asked eagerly. Darla grinned back, so grateful to have her family spending their time with her.
The rest of the day was filled with joy, of all things. They painted the entirety of the house and each other before they headed outside to cover the siding when nothing else was left. Darla laughed more than she had in the past week; probably more than she had in years. They were carefree, unburdened, and wild. The pressures of the world melted away, and they had each other. And that was enough.
Eventually, the day wound down and they got ready for bed. They made popcorn and got cozy in the living room after opening all the windows to air out the smell of paint. They were going to watch a movie, but then Clarissa surprised them again by pulling photo albums out of her bag.
“Where did you find those?” Reg asked her.
“I was snooping, duh.”
They went through the albums for a while, recounting stories, sharing secrets that they’d never told, laughing, and crying at the memories. Darla had decided that she wanted to sleep through the night. She said goodnight to them with lots of hugs and tears, grateful to be in person and not on the phone. She went to her room, leaving her family piled together on the living room floor.
She turned on the lamp, changed into her nightgown, and settled into bed. She set her alarm for 7:30. Whether it was habit or hope, she didn’t analyze it. Jasper jumped onto her bed and kneaded around for a little bit before curling up into a little fluff-ball on her lap.
She gave Jasper more snuggles and admired Fiona’s picture for a few moments. You’d be proud, I think. She closed her eyes and fell asleep, smiling.