He is forced into farcical attempts to catch her attention. Every other moment of his life has been arranged to this purpose, so why should his son’s birthday be any different?
The balloons have been blown up, the cakes frosted to within an inch of their lives. An inflatable bouncy castle has been erected in a corner of the yard, and napkins and wet wipes have been laid up in their thousands for the inevitable clean-up operation. The boy—the sweet, wondrous, confounding boy with his downy hair and inexplicable sorrows—is the ostensible reason for the gathering. It is his third birthday. But the boy’s father, Miles Warden, has only agreed to host the party because it offers the rare occasion to be in the presence of a celebrity: his own mother, Fenella Warden.
At one point he’d had the bright idea to make everyone wear name tags, had even floated it to Jill. He’d gotten the idea from Fenella, who also suffers from face blindness. She insists everyone wear name tags on set, and because she’s so important and everyone’s livelihoods depend on their continued employment as part of her crew, they all go along with it. The few times he’d visited her somewhere on location as a kindergartener, he remembered feeling comforted by the familiarity of everyone wearing their names on their chests.
His lips touch the skin of her cheek, which is still smooth and unlined, even at age sixty-two. He assumes she’s had work but if so, it’s discreet enough to allow her to engage in the illusion of agelessness. She smells exotic and expensive. Everyone else calls her Fenny, but Miles has always preferred the formal term. He can’t recall ever having called her Mom, but that in itself isn’t unusual among his circle, where the parents all tend to be of the progressive type whose greatest longing is for their children to regard them as chums rather than authority figures.
Miles: Even his name feels like a yearning, her desire to put some distance between herself and home. They are almost the same height. When she wears heels, she towers over him, over everybody. “Where’s my beloved boy?” she asks. For a moment, he might imagine she’s talking about him, her only son. Her bright, dark bird’s eyes dart around the yard, searching. “Ah, there he is!”
Can you ask her if she’ll pack me in her suitcase next time?
Getting paid to travel and eat—where do I sign up?
Man, Fenny is so kickass! You’re so lucky to have a mom like that.
You must be so proud of her.
I want to be her when I grow up!
Could you ask Fenny to sign this book?
They watch Fenella holding and cooing to her grandchild. William is clutching the string of a balloon in his grubby fist. He had chosen the balloon for himself; a lurid, multicolored, marbled one that looks like ribbons of oil floating on water. It had been a mistake to let him get so attached to a specific one, Miles realizes, even before the string loosens in his son’s hand and the balloon lifts and floats into a tree where it is promptly punctured by a branch and bursts. The sound is like gunfire and a few people jump and then laugh when they see it is only a balloon, just a deflated piece of rubber like a crumpled condom. William is, predictably, inconsolable. Miles starts to go to his bereft son, whose wails pierce the shimmering summer air, but then he decides to watch his mother for a moment to see how she’ll handle it.
Fenella jiggles William up and down, puts her lips to his pink ear with its fringe of golden hairs and whispers something into it, strokes his damp hair, but nothing works, and Miles tries not to feel triumphant that in this one area she is as helpless as anyone. Maybe more helpless. Jill hurries over to retrieve William’s writhing body from Fenella’s arms, mouthing apologies as she moves swiftly towards the house, an ambulance for the high-pitched siren of William’s grief. Fenella is already laughing, shrugging it off, making some joke he only hears snatches of, about how her grandson’s tantrum reminds her of working with certain on-air talent. The people in her orbit laugh appreciatively.
Once William’s cries have been absorbed into the depths of the house and the chatter has resumed, Fenella’s assistant lugs a huge cooler over to the gas grill, and Fenella pulls an elaborate array of containers out of it, then proceeds to chop and squeeze and marinate and grill several pounds of fat blue shrimps, all while animatedly talking and taking long sips from a tall-neck bottle of beer. A small audience gathers. There are actual gasps, oohs and ahhs of appreciation, as she wields the tongs with casual mastery, gusts of fragrant smoke billowing as the shrimps turn pink and are flipped to reveal fat dark stripes from the grill. There’s even a smattering of applause. The same mouth Miles uses to scowl also fills with saliva at the incredible aroma emanating from Fenella’s ad-hoc kitchen. He detects garlic and chilies, lemongrass and lime, and something pungent and salty. All the guests have already eaten, but that doesn’t stop anyone from piling their plates with shrimp and the bowls of blackened corn and heirloom tomato salad Fenella’s assistant produces.
“A little something you prepared earlier?” quips Campbell, and everyone laughs, peals of sycophantic sound like the canned laughter over a TV show.
Jill appears at his elbow. “I put Will down for a nap.” She looks battered and disheveled, like she has passed through a hurricane. “He calmed down, eventually.”
“Great,” says Miles, distracted. “Thanks.”
“What’s up?” She follows his gaze, and a smile dawns on her flushed face. “Ah. I see Fenella’s Banquet has arrived. Well, it sure smells delicious. Let’s go get some!” She tugs at his arm like an eager child.
“Don’t you see?” Miles blurts out. “That’s the reaction she wants. She does the praiseworthy part, the cooking, and then leaves the thankless drudgery for other people. Just wait, we’ll be doing all the cleaning.”
“Oh, Miles, honey.” He feels instantly guilty when he hears the exhaustion in her young voice. As if dealing with one impossible, mercurial toddler isn’t labor enough.
Fenella is attending to the last of the shrimp when Miles makes his move. She is alone at last after having fed the masses, humming to herself the same meandering tuneless tune he remembers from childhood. The guests have now dispersed to various patches of the yard to inhale crustaceans and lick fingers greedily. They remind him of savannah animals after a kill.
“Ah, there you are, Miles,” she says, brandishing the greasy tongs in his direction. “I saved you some.”
“Thanks.” He accepts the plate but doesn’t eat anything: it feels as though there’s a large creature crouched on his sternum squeezing the breath out of him.
“It’s all been a great success, I think.”
“Apart from the birthday boy’s little meltdown.” He grins, trying to keep it wry and light, but the creature pressing on his chest pulls his voice to ribbons on the way out.
“Birthdays are high-stress affairs when you’re that age.”
It’s not out of the question that his mother might be about to launch into some humiliating story about his own tantrums at that age, tantrums he can’t remember but are sure to exist.
“Your shrimp was a big hit,” he says quickly.
“Pfft.” She gives a dismissive wave with her tong hand, as uncomfortable with compliments as he has always been. “But you and Jill have done a fabulous job, as always. She’s a remarkable young lady.”
“Yes.” He touches his chest nervously. “So, I wanted to ask you something.” Rushing on before she can react. “I got offered a promotion at work. They want me to move full-time into the marketing position.”
“Ah, mazel tov, darling.” She lifts her wine glass and tilts it towards him. “That’s wonderful.”
“Well, of course it’s not important, like what you do.” He remembers too late that sarcasm is the lingua franca of his wounded generation, not hers. Of course she will think he’s being sincere.
“Important? Ha! Do you really think anyone would die if I went off the air tomorrow?”
He contemplates this for a moment. “I mean, probably?” It’s humiliating how easily he let his grand moment get derailed. “But anyway, that’s not the point. This promotion isn’t a big deal, a bit more money. The important part is I’ll be expected to put in longer hours. And I think I told you Jill is thinking about going back full-time as well next month, so . . . we both wondered whether, um, whether you might be interested in looking after William a couple of days a week.”
His mother removes her sunglasses and stabs a forefinger at the bridge of her nose where the glasses have left a painful divot, and he notices for the first time how tired she looks, a fretwork of tiny sunbeams radiating from the corners of her eyes. “Whatever happened to that lovely nanny of yours, what was her name?”
“Bianca,” Miles says dully. This was what he had dreaded, not even her flat-out refusal but a deflection. “She’s still around. She’ll still be looking after him most days. We just thought you might like the opportunity to spend some more time with your grandson.” He hadn’t meant to sound accusatory, but he feels the sharp look she darts at him in his bones.
“I suppose that’s a no then.”
“You know I adore William. It’s just . . . I’m not really the stay-at-home grandma type, darling. You know that. And besides, I’m contracted to do another season of the Banquet.”
“Fine. Don’t worry about it.”
“Listen. How about this? How about your father and I take him to Mallorca with us next month? We’re doing a shoot there, but I’ll have some time off. Your father could look after him while I’m on set and then we’d have all the time with him once I was free. He’d love it.”
“Sure. Why not?”
The thing is, he can’t think of a reason why not, apart from a general uneasiness about having his son on a different continent. “I was thinking more looking after him here. So I could actually see my son when I came home from work.”
“Oh. I see. Well, it was just an idea.”
He might have suspected she’d orchestrated it, so perfectly timed is the arrival of their neighbors Geoff and Rick to break up this little mother-son moment by announcing their departure. Miles has no trouble identifying them because they’re the only male couple at the party, and this unexpected stroke of fortune on a day of setbacks almost makes him tear up with gratitude. He feels like kissing them. They gush over Fenella for a while, eventually thanking Miles as if in afterthought. Because leaving is a contagious act, the other guests are soon infected with the realization of lives and obligations awaiting them elsewhere. They begin collecting their over-hyped children—wrenching sweaters over the heads of writhing bodies; shoving belongings into bulging baskets and bags; issuing stern warnings of early bedtimes—then calling out cheery or ribald parting comments as they pile into their sensible suburban cars and SUVs and drive away.
Miles stands at the front door of his house with his arm around Jill, feeling as discombobulated as if an alien had taken over his flesh prison but left his brain intact. He feels nothing in the places where his body touches the body of his remarkable young wife, because his whole being is occupied with the titanic struggle to digest what happened. Somehow, in all his reckonings, he hadn’t factored in Fenella saying no to the chance to bond with her grandson. He’d thought he was offering her the chance to make amends, to take another shot at motherhood, but instead of accepting that chance she has graciously rejected it again. He’d thought he was going to a negotiation, but instead he’d walked into a rout. It is unbelievable and yet too believable. It is diabolical.
He’d thought he was offering Fenella the chance to make amends, to take another shot at motherhood, but she has graciously rejected it again.
He’s sure his mother will take this opportunity to leave with the others, reverting to her natural state of always being on deadline, always flying away. So he’s surprised when he walks back through the house (passing his father snoring softly on the couch, neck twisted at a painful angle that makes him look like the victim of a car accident) and into the yard to find Fenella sprawled in a butterfly chair, drinking wine and gazing around her with great contentment, her phone face-down on the grass beside her like a child in time-out. She looks up at his approach with a smile and pats the chair next to her.
Breathing deeply through his nose like a horse—a calming technique his therapist taught him—he reluctantly lowers himself into the chair, the canvas sagging a little under the weight of his body. Fenella sips her wine, and the dappled light from the canopy creates a chess-board of light and shadows on her upturned face. He assumes it is all over, the futile conversation and its aftermath, and he’s thinking in a dull kind of way about whether his son has had his bedtime story yet and trying to recall which one they’re up to, when she speaks.
“You know the hardest thing to come to terms with when I first started shooting the show?”
“I have no idea.”
“It was the ease with which men move through the world. I naively assumed my experiences would be the same as the men, the heroes of mine, who did this kind of food and travel and adventure show. I didn’t realize how many spaces there are in which women are unwelcome.”
He’s not sure exactly what she’s trying to tell him. “You’ve never told me that. It all looks so . . . hospitable . . . on camera.”
“Smoke and mirrors, my love.”
“Well. I’m sorry to hear that.” He feels inadequate to this moment, still smarting from her rejection.
“What I’m trying to say is, it wasn’t so hot on the home front either. Society’s reaction to women who choose non-traditional motherhood is not exactly admiration, believe me.”
“You never seemed to care too much what people thought,” Miles says, not caring in turn how bitter he sounds. “You did your best.”
He realizes he has borrowed these words. They had come out of the mouth of his saintly father a year ago, when Miles had been complaining about how Fenella prioritized her career over the welfare of her family, namely him.
She did her best, Miles.
But that’s just the point, Dad! Her best wasn’t good enough! Like, not even close. Why couldn’t she have been better at it?
His father’s face had shut down then, because as usual he wouldn’t brook any criticism of his wife, the person who had left him to bring up a child single-handedly while she gallivanted around the world, amassing worshipful fans. That his father had done an excellent job didn’t, in Miles’ eyes, mitigate her from the responsibility of having abandoned them.
“Did I?” Fenella says, her dark eyes fixing on his face for a moment. She shifts her wine glass from one hand to the other. “If it was my best, it wasn’t very good, was it? But I’m sure you see, now you’re old enough, that we can’t be good at everything in this life.”
Miles finds it typical that the thing he’s craved for the last five years—for her to admit she hadn’t been a good mother—is, having arrived, distinctly absent the sense of triumph he might have expected. This feels of a piece with the life lessons he has learned over his quarter-century on this earth so far.
“I never felt guilty because your father was such an excellent parent.”
“Oh cool, that’s so nice you didn’t feel guilty. But sometimes I would have liked to have had two parents, you know?”
“I know. And I’m sorry. But was it really so different from all your other friends? Didn’t most of them have a primary caregiver and another parent who just sort of flitted at the sidelines of their childhoods?” Even now, he is impressed by how effortlessly erudite she is. People are often surprised to find out she writes all her own books and her scripts for the show, after which they tend to gush about how “genuine” she is, how “authentic.”
“Well, didn’t they?” she pressed.
“I suppose. But . . .”
“That’s all most people get, darling.” He could tell they were collectively arriving at the end of her patience. He could always hear it in her voice, the way it hardened at the edges. “One full-time parent. The genders were just reversed in our case.”
He is about to snap back with “Well, I wouldn’t have wanted an absent father, either,” when suddenly he is overcome with the hopelessness of his cause, the basic injustice of what they are asking of each other. He clamps his mouth down over the words and presses his feet into the ground, preparing to leave his chair and perhaps the expectation of her devotion, forever.
“I’m sorry I failed your test, Miles.”
He eases himself back down, swiveling his neck slowly to regard her. His skin flushes hot at being caught out. It is as though she has read his mind; as though her face blindness is cover for a deeper, more hidden sight, whereas he’d always worried his own prosopagnosia was a sign of not being attached to the things you’re supposed to be attached to. He worries William has it, too, the way he sometimes looks at people like he’s looking through them. He’s not ready yet to accept that perhaps what his mother is rejecting isn’t him, or her grandson, but the expectation she play handmaiden to their infinite needs.
He’s not ready to accept that perhaps what his mother is rejecting isn’t him, or her grandson, but the expectation she play handmaiden to their infinite needs.
He opens his mouth to deny her charge, to express outrage that she would even suggest he had laid a trap for her, a trap inside of which lay mutually obliging love, but she closes her eyes and breathes deeply for a moment, and it is almost as though she is inviting him into a meditation. He closes his eyes, too, but in his case it feels like the end of something. He has always consoled himself with the idea that one day her beauty and charisma would fade, would no longer fill the screen, and she would finally be ready to come home. Well, goodbye to all that.
He shakes his head with a little laugh and hauls himself out of the chair for real this time, and when he is upright again he turns to look down at her. Her face is tilted expectantly towards him, the only face he has never had any trouble placing in a crowd, and on an impulse, he leans down and places his hand on the crown of her head, feeling the silky weight of her bright hair beneath his palm. It is like he is granting her benediction, before turning away and starting to collect the paper plates, lying skewed at odd angles around the lawn like abandoned spacecraft.
Emma Sloley’s work has appeared in Yemassee journal, the Tishman Review, Lunch Ticket, Structo, and the Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and her debut novel, DISASTER’S CHILDREN, will be published by Little A books on November 5, 2019. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and www.emmasloley.com