You stare at the phone. There is never any good time to call Mother, but this is the worst of times. Mother always does everything right, and if she does something wrong, she sucks the oxygen from everyone else until she becomes right. Most of all, she hates incompetence. You’re sure that’s why she writes so many Yelp reviews. So how do you call your mother and tell her that New York isn’t what you thought it’d be, that you’re drowning between four piss-stained walls, not the “quaint but chic” loft you made it out to be? That you still hadn’t found a publisher to give even a second look at your sixth book attempt and that the refrigerator is pungent with the smell of half a rotting onion that is beginning to stain the bare shelves?
You exhale and jump up from the sofa for the last pack of swollen cigarettes stuffed away in the junk drawer next to the humming refrigerator. The sharp smell is becoming an actual problem, and you note that you’ll have to clean before you leave. You jangle the drawer until the crumpled papers in the back shuffle enough to allow it to spring open and sag loosely in its place under the weight of dried out pens and discarded notepads, lighters that don’t light, and 15% off pizza promotions from the shitty parlor you live above. Don is nice; sometimes he gives you leftovers from the night if you stall for long with the keys at the door when your fingers, stiff from the frost, make you slow.
Mother is proud of you. The lighter scalds the baby white butt of the cigarette and you inhale. You know she’s bragging about you when she talks over her friends at the Sunday church brunches, the sheer volume of her voice expanding until the room is hers. Well, my daughter lives in New York. She got a full scholarship when she was just a girl, I recommended she apply there. Eh, this danish has cheese. She takes after my side of the family, really it’s not a surprise that all the publishing houses are dying to work with her- I taught her everything she knows after all. This tea is too bland, I’m sure Ida made it- she always under-steeps you know.
You stub out the cigarette and sink into the sofa, arresting the phone.
At least you know no matter what she says she’d never come to you. She’d never enter your world where she’d take one look at the life you live and you’d feel all the weight of her judgment bearing down on your lungs like the sizzling iron she used on your private school uniforms when you were a girl. Thup, wwchhhhh. Spanking white and precisely creased like her effortless world of right and wrong. When you exist there it is only black and white, yes and no, perfection or failure.
She wouldn’t smell the lingering smoke on your scarves or see the condoms in your sock drawer that you know she’d find when you left for work and there’d be time to snoop.
Alexandra? Oh so you finally decided to call. You haven’t called in nearly two months or let me know what is going on. Don’t you forget who put you where you are. You owe me at least a call every week, isn’t that fair? Don’t you care about your own mother? So much has been going on and I’ve been feeling wretched lately- just wretched! It’s so awfully cold here and I barely sleep a wink between the those wimpering church events and keeping this house orderly- you know how Fluffy gets his fur on everything-”
“Mom. I need to tell you something.”
“So that’s why you call. What do you want Alexandra?”
“I need to move back home.”
Your mind is racing. You know how you want to say it in your head, so strong like you rehearsed, mulling over every word in your mind for weeks. Should you be so bold. You feel your confidence crumbling.
“I… I… have been having a hard time lately, and… I…”
“What does that mean Alexandra. What are you saying. Spit it out.”
Sigh. Just rip off the bandaid, Alexandra. You fucked it up already. “I’m out of money and I need to move home as soon as possible. I just got my eviction notice.” Lie, you got it a week ago. “The publisher accepted my book but there was a problem at the publishing house and they’ve been rejecting all the incoming submissions,” Total lie, they just rejected yours. “I don’t eat or sleep much Mom, and it’s so very cold. I’m not happy here and it’s not working out. I just really need to come home.” Triple lie for the pity card- all you do is eat Don’s pizza and lay in a ball on your dusty mattress wondering why to God you just weren’t enough.
“Fergodsake Alexandra, quit the moping. You’re doing excellent. You’re my daughter. You’re always been a high achiever. It’s work, but I refuse to have you give up because life is hard. Look at me, look at all the great things I do and it’s because I never accept mediocore. I only accept the best, weakness is failure. Work hard and play hard, just go out with your friends and get back at it tomorrow-”
“Aren’t you listening to me? Did you hear anything I said? Mom, I’m calling you because I’m depressed and anxious, because I don’t have money to go out with friends I don’t have. I’m not you, Mom. I’m not perfect. I don’t have friends that worship the ground I walk on. I’m not smart like you and I never do anything right. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I didn’t make you proud…”
Mrs. Turpin sank into her vanity chair, the sound of her daughter’s voice a shrill and desperate whine in her ear. The house phone, nestled between the monumental folds of her neck, slipped as she began to perspirate. Our children are a reflection of ourselves. And after all this? This perfect life?
Am I a failure? Of course not. I have a high standard of morals. I go to church every Sunday and I’m personal friends with the Pastor. I talk to Alexandra so frequently compared to those other mothers whose children never even call. I raised her well, I always listen to her, and I care about her. I gave her everything I never had, I did nothing wrong. And I give her such good advice. I raised her to the high bar I carry for myself and always gave her chores when she was a child. Her chances of success in life were foolproof. What kind of idiot would it take to fail despite having all the odds in your favor…
Mrs. Turpin’s eyes wandered up to the mirror of the vanity dresser, her eyes reflecting something she had never seen in herself before. She didn’t approve, and for the first time in her life she couldn’t replace this disapproval with a version that would suffice. There was no better version- this was all this person she had raised amounted to be…
Well, this person wasn’t really hers anymore after all. Alexandra didn’t reflect Mrs. Eugenia Turpin anymore, not like when she was a girl and her righteous mother still had control over her, like all good mothers do. But good mothers also have to let their daughters grow up, and it’s not Eugenia’s fault that this incompetent woman couldn’t handle life.
Mrs. Turpin’s beady black eyes hardened in the mirror. Alexandra’s voice cut through her thoughts, “Aren’t you listening to me, Mom?” But Eugenia Turpin, eyes trained to her relfection, pressed the phone deep into its cradle. Click.