by Alisha Mughal
Anne laughed out loud reading the message from Beatrice, scrawled in her jerky, thin letters in her typical black ink. Of course, she’d bring that up, Anne thought as she put the birthday card with its image of a sexy clown (bare and barrel-chested, wearing nothing but suspenders and the impossibly large yellow pants they held up) smiling jauntily, sent to her from her childhood friend (her best friend, all the way from Seattle) back into its envelope and atop her journal on the coffee table. Her thoughts momentarily savored the jokes she would make in her reply to Beatrice.
She picked up the next envelope, which she knew, from the cursive letters running and looping in lavender ink on the pink card-stock envelope, was from her mother. This, too, she placed on her coffee table, on top of Beatrice’s card; she wanted to save her mother’s letter for the evening. She would curl up in front of the fire with a cup of tea after dinner, and then she would read the pages and pages she knew, from the envelope’s heft and from the past, her mother had written to her on her birthday.
She picked up the final envelope. It was a plain, white banker’s envelope with Anne’s name and address written in the center in a measured, square hand. The return address in the top left-hand corner was printed without an accompanying name. Anne noticed that the address wasn’t too far from her mother’s home. She found herself growing excited. Unexpected and relatively anonymous mail could mean anything, and Anne liked to indulge all the possibilities before she opened it up to be, ultimately, disappointed by the junk within.
It could be from some long-forgotten friend, Anne thought. Or perhaps she’d won something. Maybe it’s money, she thought. Maybe I was mentioned in some millionaire’s will for inadvertently saving their life a long time ago. Anne laughed and carefully peeled open the envelope. Whenever the possibilities got too out of hand, even for possibilities, she had to curb them. The fall back to land was, more often than not, much too painful.
Inside was a single sheet of paper folded in three over top small, typed words huddled together in a single paragraph in the center of the page. Times New Roman, twelve point. Anne’s eyes began a slow jog over the words, but soon began to race. A pain, fine as a pinprick, shot through the back of her eyes and her vision became fuzzy. She looked away from the letter to focus her sight, and then came back to it. She went back to the start and began reading again, slowly, lingering over every word, recalling for each its nuanced meanings, plugging in the appropriate one.
I thought for a long time before finally sitting down to write to you. Do you know who I am? I have a feeling you don’t. I don’t see why or how anyone should have told you. I don’t really have any purpose in mind in writing to you. I just had this feeling, this feeling as though I needed to make myself known to you, to make you think of me. I think of you often, especially on the day the anniversary. The anniversary of when you, as a child—I read in the paper that you were four years old—ran out into the middle of the busy street, Bay Street, chasing your runaway balloon. I read in the paper that it was white, in the shape of an elephant. You ran into the street, and my sister, behind the wheel, panicked and swerved into the oncoming lane, colliding with a pickup truck. I was told that she died instantly. Do you remember? I remember. I never forget, and on, and near, this day I don’t seem to stop remembering. I wasn’t there, but the police told me how it happened. I dream that I am there, sometimes. It hurts. I’m of course not writing this today—I guess I’m writing in the past—but I will mail this off today, and I hope that it reaches you on the day. Today. The 28th of November. But I, of course, can’t be sure. That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say.
Anne’s heart began to pound. She could hear it, could feel her chest jerk forward with every catastrophic drum. She felt as flat as a pancake. She tried to even her breathing—in through the nose, out through the mouth—but to no avail. She felt Lori begin to turn and kick in her belly.
Even though Anne had mentally prepared herself for the icy touch of the transducer probe, the chill crawled down her spine nonetheless and she found herself start at its cool touch. The ultrasound technician smiled. Anne smiled back.
“There she is,” she said, pointing to the display. “Look, there’s her hand. Do you see?”
“Yeah,” Anne whispered. She didn’t want to cry. She had promised herself on her first ever appointment that she would not cry when she saw the baby. But she couldn’t help it. Every time. She smiled and tears pooled in the edges of her eyes, and she felt like giving the technician a hug. She felt as full of love as an animated Santa Claus in a Christmas movie. “Can I get a printout, please?”
“Of course. And from what I can tell right now, everything is absolutely fine. Have you thought of names yet?”
“Lori,” Anne said, her voice wet with the tears she fought mightily against.
“That’s a beautiful name,” the technician said.
“Thank you.” Anne felt so much love that she made herself promise that she would give the technician a hug on her way out. She couldn’t stop smiling, she couldn’t stop gazing at her baby on the display. Just a little bit longer, Anne thought.
An image, stark as lightning, tore suddenly through her mind. A little girl bundled up in a pink coat tugging at a foil balloon, a foil balloon in the shape of an elephant. A little girl laughing and tugging at her white elephant balloon, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother talking heatedly with some other figures whom the image revealed to Anne as hazy, sultry gray silhouettes of stock adulthood, unimportant. The gale—that strong November gale—plucked the balloon’s tether out from the little girl’s pudgy grip, and carried it away as if on a wave, making it dip and bobble in the whipped air. The girl, the little girl in the pink coat, slipped her hand easily out of her mother’s, her mother still distracted, and ran after the balloon. Not noticing, uncaring of the traffic coming from both ways—it didn’t exist for her, her for whom all that existed was that white elephant swimming away from her. Who gave her that balloon? A red car, the wail of its horn a gelid trail behind it blaring, jerking away from its straight path, as if it too was being blown away by the gale, that strong November gale. The little girl dropping to the ground and covering her face with her hands. Metallic screeching and tearing, earth-shattering screaming.
And that was what exploded before Anne. That was all Anne saw in the white-hot vignette that played out before her in quivering, frenetically changing frames, quick and fateful as a thunderclap. She wasn’t a part of it, she didn’t see it through the eyes of the terrified little girl. The white-hot vignette played out before her, as if for her sake, an audience.
Anne broke her promise and didn’t give the technician a hug on her way out. She had forgotten all her warm, sweet as maple syrup feeling that had coaxed happy, embarrassing tears from her. Instead she, her arms wrapped around her belly, her mind mired in that vignette, that little tragic movie, cried silent tears as she walked to her car. She couldn’t breathe—on that windy November morning when there seemed enough air to listen to and reply to every breath taken by every person on the planet, on that windy, clear November day, Anne could not breathe.
She didn’t know if or when she had decided to go to her mother’s. But there she was, crunching her car up her mother’s gravel driveway a half-hour after she’d left the parking lot of the hospital.
Anne inhaled deeply before she ambled out of the car and felt her baby kick. She settled back into the seat and wrapped her arms around herself, feeling there arise from deep within her the urge to say sorry to Lori. Anne didn’t know why, but she felt as though she owed Lori an apology.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered before finally getting out.
Her mother opened the door in her dressing gown and, being smacked in the face by a steely gust of wind, she turned her face to the side and gasped. She wrapped the gown around herself tighter and despite the chill that Anne knew she’d always felt more acutely than others, she smiled a beaming, warm as hot chocolate smile.
“Annie! What a wonderful surprise! Come in, come in,” she said, moving aside and letting Anne through. “You had a checkup today, didn’t you? How’d it go?”
“Yeah, it went well. Here’s a picture,” Anne said, taking the photo out from her handbag and handing it to her mother, who squealed with delight.
“You want some tea? I just put some coffee on,” her mother said, her eyes still on the sonogram photo.
Were it any other day, Anne would make an amiable fuss about the fact that her mother was loath to get up and out of bed before 10 a.m. on a weekday, but she wasn’t in a joking mood. Not today. She agreed to a cup of tea and slipped her parka off.
“Mom, could you sit down for a moment?” Anne asked, picking up an unfolded pile of clean tea towels off a chair in the bright yellow breakfast nook, placing it on the round table, and settling herself down in its place. “I want to ask you about something.”
“Yeah, sure,” her mother replied, the sonogram still in her hands, up close to her face. Then, taking in the anxious look on Anne’s face, her eyebrows furrowed as if untangling a snarled thought, she herself took on a more serious tone. “Annie, is everything okay with the baby?”
“What? Oh, yes. The baby is fine, absolutely healthy, the doctor says. No, what I wanted to ask you about was something that happened maybe a long time ago.”
“Okay, go on,” her mother said, cautiously.
“Do you remember, I mean, well, of course, you’d remember. What I mean is, did I ever run, when I was a kid, into the middle of the road? Kind of chasing after a balloon?”
Her mother sat up straight in her chair, her face devoid of any expression. “Why do you ask me that, Anne?”
Anne. “Mom, please tell me the truth.”
Her mother looked down at the table before her, picking up an edge of a plastic placemat and trying to tear it apart, forgetting its plasticity. “Yes,” she said finally in a small voice. “Yes. You were four years old, it was your birthday. It was a windy day and your aunt had given you this stupid balloon—it got blown out of your hands and you went after it.” She sighed. “I should’ve been paying attention,” she muttered under her breath, bringing her hand up to her forehead, trying unsuccessfully to shield from Anne’s view the tear that fell loose from her lashes and to the plastic placemat, shimmering as quicksilver.
“Mom, did anyone die that day? In a crash because of me?”
She looked up at Anne, her eyes glassy and glinting. “Yes.”
Anne breathed out and the air trembled and tripped out past her lips. She clutched her hands together on the table, to keep them from shaking, to keep her mother from noticing they were shaking.
“How did you find out,” her mother asked, her eyes on the placemat, her fingers taking up again the labor of tearing it apart.
“I got a letter yesterday. From the sister of the girl who died.” Anne told her about Patricia Tardiff and her short, rambling letter.
“She shouldn’t have sent you that, it wasn’t very kind. On your birthday.” She shook her head in dismay and large droplets fell loose from her eyelashes like crystals.
“Mom, look at me,” Anne said, her voice guttural and quivering. Her mother shook her head. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“What could I have said?” she asked, looking up hopelessly into Anne’s eyes after a moment of leaden silence. “What could I have said to you that wouldn’t have made you feel bad? What could I have said that wouldn’t have made you think that I was a bad mother? Yes, I should have been paying closer attention. Not a single day goes by that I don’t wish I could go back in time and hold onto you tighter, keep you from running after that stupid balloon.” She cupped her hands before her face and began to weep.
Anne went over to her side and hugged her. She stayed the evening with her mother, and they each of them tried to dig up nice, happier memories from the past, they each of them labored to make the other happier, to make the other forget if for a while that one sad memory—a tired and tiring refrain for her mother, a white-hot flash for Anne—that like a black hole seemed to, with the force of all the gods in all the heavens, be trying to suck them into itself to live in it forevermore. To become it.
Anne left her mother feeling warm and also heavy, as if under the weight of a sea of tears she hadn’t yet cried. It was a relief of sorts, to talk to her mother. But having had spent the entire evening trying to comfort her, and skirting the memory altogether, she felt her mind was still a muddled, sore mess.
So many feelings, multicolored, ran errant through her mind; multicolored but all a similar shade, that of guilt. Anne could not deny that she was responsible for the death of another person. She who carried life within herself was responsible for someone else’s death. A slimy, hissing voice kept on wondering in her mind what right she thought she had.
What right? What right? What right?
“What should I do?” she asked no one in particular back in her home, sitting motionless in front of the fire, staring at its spear-like fingers licking in their dazed dance the fresh log she’d just placed into the firebox, devouring it. She felt anxious, as though she ought to be doing something. But she didn’t know what. She didn’t know what to do about what she had apparently done. All she knew was that she had effectively killed another person, and that now she didn’t have any right to be bringing another being into the world. She knew this for certain.
She decided to get some work done—she had taken the day off because her doctor’s appointment and was behind in grading her eighth-grade students’ science tests. She got through four tests before that slimy voice again wormed and slithered its way into the foreground of her mind and asked in its nasty hiss: What right do you think you have? The tests slid from her lap to the floor, carrying with them her journal whose edge had been sticking out over the coffee table, making it tumble down fatally like the precipice of a melting iceberg. Her head sunk into her hands. She felt petrified in an amber, in the sullied stuff of the single thought repeating itself in her mind again and again.
From between her fingers and through her wet eyes she saw the envelop that had brought to her Patricia Tardiff’s letter. She looked over Patricia’s address and decided, because it wasn’t too far, that she would go and see her in the morning. She could take another day off, she decided, remembering that she hadn’t taken a sick day since the school year began; that until today she had been pretty diligent about and successful with scheduling her doctor’s appointments for the weekends.
Patricia Tardiff’s house looked much like Anne’s mother’s house, the house she had grown up in. There wasn’t anything unusual about it, nothing too striking. Just a normal house, from which had come the most consequential letter she’d received all her life.
She climbed up the few stone steps to a recently-painted, blemish-free brown door. There was no doorbell, so she banged the golden knocker and felt slightly foolish doing so. From within she heard the faint thunder of feet quickly descending stairs. Anne breathed in deeply, without registering the fact that her hands had tightened their clasp on the strap of her handbag, or that she had begun to bite her lower lip. She was nervous, and that slimy voice had not once ceased to remind her that she had no right. No right to be here, uninvited and unwanted.
The door opened slowly. A gaunt face peered out through the small gap that the unfastened chain lock allowed.
“Patricia Tardiff?” Anne asked.
She nodded yes.
“Ms. Tardiff, my name is Anne Toma. You recently sent me a letter. I am here to talk to you about it.” She didn’t ask. She knew that if she asked to speak with her about the letter, she would be turned away. So she demanded, trying with all her might to muster an even, controlled, authoritative tone, her classroom tone, despite her feelings of fear, which she worked to suppress.
Patricia Tardiff sighed. The door closed and was followed by the clinking of the chain. Finally, it opened wide and she stepped aside. Anne went into the home; the layout, she noticed immediately, was that of her mother’s home, except in reverse. And much tidier, Anne thought, thinking about all the laundry and books and magazines her mother always procrastinated sorting through.
“I knew I shouldn’t have sent that letter,” Anne heard Patricia Tardiff mumble behind her.
“I’m sorry for intruding, Ms. Tardiff, I just felt like I needed to talk to you,” Anne said, conciliatory.
Patricia Tardiff sighed again. “Come into the kitchen. I was making coffee. Do you want some? And please, call me Patricia.”
“Oh, no thanks, I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself,” Patricia said. In the kitchen, she motioned to a small, round, impeccably polished Formica table that looked as though it belonged in a diner somewhere in the ’70s. “Have a seat.”
Anne sat down, without removing her coat. She didn’t intend to stay long. She also didn’t know what to say—she hadn’t, from the time the previous night she had thought up the plan to see Patricia Tardiff, to this exact moment, thought for an instant about what she would say. She had hoped the moment might inspire the right words. It didn’t.
Patricia sat down across from Anne with her cup of coffee and waited.
“Again, I’m so sorry for showing up unannounced,” Anne said slowly. She placed her hands palm down on the Formica top before her, all the while unsure as to why she was doing this. She finally looked up and saw the tears in Patricia’s eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Patricia Tardiff blinked, and the tears were gone. “Listen,” she said. “I shouldn’t have sent you that letter.” Her eyes lingered for a moment on Anne’s belly. “I chose a wrong time to try at being impulsive. I was a bit too emotional, what with it being the thirtieth anniversary and all.” She waved her hand in the air, as if with the gesture she could sweep away all that had happened, all that Anne felt, away and beneath some dusty rug.
“No,” Anne said, narrowing her eyes. “No, it was right what you did. I needed to know.” The pool of tears that had been gradually swelling in her eyes finally surged, the barriers broke and the tears rained down. Patricia Tardiff sat before her as if behind a gauzy veil. “I needed to know what I did,” she said, looking into Patricia’s eyes. “I shouldn’t have… I should have…,” she sighed. “I don’t deserve to be here,” she said finally, more as a question, her shoulders up as if in a shrug. “I shouldn’t be here,” she said again, her palms patting the Formica. “I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t have this. I’m so sorry.”
Patricia’s eyebrows came together in profound sympathy. “Oh dear, you mustn’t think like that. You simply can’t. I have spent a long, long time thinking about what happened, the unfairness of it all. But all my thinking couldn’t undo it—what happened happened. All we can do is go on from it, live, I suppose. You’re living.” She gestured to Anne’s bump. “You have so much life in you. And that is okay. What happened was a long time ago. You were a child, you were living. You didn’t know. I am so, so sorry that I wrote you that letter. I just felt this tremendous urge to tell you the story. It is such an important story to me, and I just wanted to make sure that you knew. I didn’t want to be accusatory. I just wanted to share. And you listened, as today I listened to your feelings. And now, form this moment we must move on to the next. I suppose it won’t do us any good to be stuck in the past.” She brought a wide smile to her thin lips, and finally a solitary tear fell through her own barrier and on to the blue Formica, leaving a dark blue stain like a splash of ink. “No good at all.”
Anne smiled back. She stayed with Patricia for a long while, looking at old pictures of her with her sister that she pulled out carefully form a dust-free bookshelf.
“Klara,” Patricia said, pointing to a little dark-haired girl in a black and white photo, bundled up in a white coat and smiling a wide smile that exposed two missing milk teeth. “Her name was Klara.”
Anne smiled. She didn’t say anything, feeling that Patricia wanted to tell her her story.
“She had gone out to get calamine lotion. For my son. He was five years old at the time and had just gotten the chicken pox from someone at school.” She looked at Anne and shrugged—you know how it is with kids, she seemed to be saying. But Anne didn’t know, at least not yet. She remained silent.
“We were staying with her. I was going through this unpleasant divorce and my son and I were staying with her. Until, that is, I found a place of my own that was near enough to where I worked—as a hygienist at Bay Street Dental, which is still there by the way—and my son’s school.” She stared straight ahead, not seeing anything immediately before her, while her finger traced Klara’s body in the photograph, recreated her image. She had travelled back in time to thirty years ago.
“She had gone to the drug store to pick up some calamine for Dillon. Before she left we had been laughing about how, when we were little girls and I had gotten the chicken pox, she wouldn’t come near me out of fear that she would also get them. She didn’t want to miss school. She was singular in that loved school. So she spent a week and a half avoiding me, and in the end she got them anyway.” She laughed, her eyes twinkling, still staring ahead into the past. “But she never came back, that day when she went to get the calamine lotion.” Tears trailed down from her eyes. As if startled by their wet touch, she jumped slightly in her place on the couch next to Anne, coming back into the present.
“Where’s your son now?” Anne asked as Patricia wiped her face with her sleeve.
“He’s a psychiatrist,” she said with a little laugh, closing the albums she had surrounded herself with, a barricade of beautiful memories. “He recently opened up his own practice.” She looked up at Anne. “He visits every weekend,” she said, beaming and proud. “He and his little girl Ava, and his wife Sherri. They’re a beautiful family, if I do say so myself.” She chuckled, really chuckled, enjoying her joke. Anne couldn’t but laugh along with her, grateful for a respite from her own tears.
“You’re also going to have a beautiful family of your own,” Patricia said, nodding to Anne’s bump.
Anne ran her hand softly in a circular motion over her bump. “Yes,” she said smiling sweetly. She decided to tell Patricia her own story, about how she had woken up one morning a year ago as if with an epiphany. She knew what she wanted most in life: to be a mother. And so she looked into and researched all the options available for single motherhood, had some tests done and decided on a donor.
Patricia smiled all the while Anne spoke, and Anne felt that here was a person truly interested in what she had to say, truly caring about what she had to tell her. They both had some tea, and talked and talked some more, each partaking of and growing and almost healing from the conversation blooming in the warm space between them.
The daylight was just beginning to fade when Anne looked out the living room window fringed with lace drapes, across from where she sat with Patricia. The blossom of a chilly late-fall early evening was just beginning to unfurl in the sky in stark shocks of pinks and purples. It was time to leave.
On her way out, Anne gave Patricia a big hug, prompted by the warm, sweet feeling she was suddenly brimming with. And felt even sweeter when Patricia hugged her back.
Anne didn’t know if she would see Patricia again, she didn’t know if she wanted to see Patricia again or if Patricia wanted to see her again. And Anne felt okay about this. They had had their moment, and from this moment that was theirs they would go on. That, Anne decided, was okay.
Anne went home, started up her fire, and read the long letter from her mother that she had left aside that day her birthday, that day when her world shattered and she forgot about everything but the white elephant balloon. She, having survived but still remembering the shatter, curled up with a cup of tea and read her mother’s letter on the last windy day of November, thinking after each page how she would reply.
Alisha Mughal has had work appear in Noble / Gas Qtrly, The Fem, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. She has a BA from the University of Toronto and currently resides in Ontario, Canada. She was born in Pakistan.