Dark Doorways #8
Michael– couldn’t find you at ellen hall. feel sick. went home early. please make new year’s eve plans without me.
The text couldn’t have been more lifeless if I tried.
It was odd how often Mom’s words collided into my daily life so much more now that she was gone. Usually it was Never enter a dark doorway; but for New Year’s it was Trust your gut. Mom decided that Oprah’s wisdom would someday save my life, that if I ever felt uneasy in a situation, then I should get out.
I wasn’t sure what happened between walking arm-in-arm with Michael and drinking hot chocolate with Mr. Pig, but my gut didn’t like it. There was a strange queasiness that morning, rising like indigestion. Perhaps it was that I missed Mom so much, yes, perhaps that is why I cancelled plans with Michael. Or maybe I just felt creepy about how he disappeared on me outside of Swanson’s office.
These were the despondent thoughts keeping me company on New Year’s Eve, alone in my apartment. I had a new boyfriend that unnerved me, a flaky roommate and dead mom that should have been there drinking champagne with me.
Please still come, if you’re free.
The text wasn’t from Michael, though I was kind of hoping it was. The message came from Swanson. Vadim.
Gabriella’s sweet voice commanding me to drink tea with pinkies up brought a smile into the room. “Oh Mom, what should I do?”
506 E. Elm. Wow, two texts.
At the time, playing with his daughter and her toy pig, it didn’t seem so odd to give him my number. Now that he was texting me, it was a peculiar thing, to be getting text messages from my advisor. I should get used to this I guess, if we’ll be working together closely next year.
It was a strong fire I had to light under myself to find the motivation to leave my comfortable couch that night. Actual matches might have been more efficient. Getting dressed– and how does one dress for a party at her boss’s house? casual? alluring?– reminded me of how alone I felt, how that should be reason enough to go out and be around others.
Grace, I decided to go out. Happy New Year! –S
The scribbled note could have been more legible, but it was still far easier to read than what Grace usually left me. Such was the relationship of our opposite personalities. Barely legible. Barely caring.
My brown wool pea coat, my protection from Chicago winters, helped give me a figure. I inherited Mom’s svelte figure, her euphemism for flat-chested. Luckily, the pea coat flared in all the right spots, looking like there were actual curves underneath. Wondering how waterproof my boots actually were, I trudged down to Elm Street, the neighborhood I remembered well from my childhood. Mom would drive me down and point out the expensive houses she would buy if she ever came into money. She would have relished being invited into one of them for New Year’s Eve. Oh Mom.
“Mom. Michael!” The near-collision startled me. I never saw him on the sidewalk, yet there he was, with me in that about-to-fall-flat-on-your-face dance where we both grab for anything to steady us. Once I found the Hoy! newspaper box, I was able to finally ask what he was doing.
“What are you doing is the better question! Aren’t you home, sick?”
“Well… I was.” Lies. Lies on top of cowardice.
“You’re just standing me up?” His face held genuine pain, a reaction I wasn’t prepared to face that night in my matching alpaca scarf and hat. “So where are you going? Some other date?”
“Michael, no. It’s just Swanson’s house. Faculty, grad students. Nothing really.”
It wasn’t nothing though. It was a chance to extract some of Gabriella’s goodness.
“Swanson? Are you kidding me?” He was shrieking, or was it yelling?
“Michael, it’s just–” I let out a heavy sigh, as if my lies would go out with the carbon dioxide. Maybe the truth would come back in with the fresh oxygen. That crisp winter air. “I think it was just too fast for me, okay?” Nope. More lies.
“What was too fast?”
“The boat thing, spending the night together. I think I just need things to move slower. I still feel the pain of losing my mom and I’m kind of stressed about prelims. I should have said all this to you.” The lies were starting to sound good. They sounded better than You creep me out sometimes.
“Well, yeah, you should have. But I can understand. It might be nice to concentrate on our prelims before we do something like that.”
He nodded to himself while staring down at his foot prints. I couldn’t help thinking of Swanson’s words, that he was surprised Michael could keep up with me. Maybe I would be a good influence on Michael, a lightening rod to help keep some of the distractions at bay.
“So can I walk with you?”
It never occurred to me that bringing an uninvited guest to Swanson’s house might be rude. We just walked. We stomped through the Evanston snow, which sparkled just a few blocks from Chicago snow, and we said nothing. I was being escorted.
When 506 E. Elm came into view, I gasped. It was the house. It was Mom’s dream house, the one she always stopped in front of while holding her hand over her heart. There was the widow’s walk, where she wanted to watch the moon rise, the chimney she would have cleaned by a professional, the window planters where she would hang greenery at Christmas. The warmth of the front light spilled over the front door. Mom’s door.
“I’m not going in.” Michael frowned at the place in disgust.
“What are you going to do then? Walk back?”
“Yep. Well, happy New Year I guess.”
My response was lost in the wintery frost as he spun around, heading back through the same footsteps we had just created. Maybe a good girlfriend would have followed him, comforted whatever was troubling him. But I was a better daughter than girlfriend. I owed it to Mom to go inside her dream house.
Taking the steps up the curved sidewalk, I imagined Mom being pleased. My punch of the doorbell could have been her proudest moment as a mother. Any other mother would boast that her daughter was in a doctoral program, about to be on fellowship. But Mom, dear Mom, would have written to the relatives that I was invited into 506 E. Elm.
When Swanson answered, with that unclear expression, the one where you never know if you’re disappointing him or if he’s just distracted, the scent of spiced tea warmed my numb muscles. Yes, numb is what I felt. Even in Mom’s dream house.
“Come in! Gabriella will be so glad to see you.”
“Thanks for inviting me.”
He awkwardly took my coat, the way you would expect a divorcé-cum-bachelor to do. I stood in his entryway, staring like a tourist. The hardwood floors. The little table where Mom would have put a small vase with lilacs. The bay window. Oh Mom.
I followed Swanson into a living room, the exact image I expected to find: aging academics discussing their research, a couple graduate students trying to promote themselves, and enough alcohol to make it all seem enjoyable.
“So Gabriella is here?”
“Oh yes, she wanted you to see her room. Up the stairs, first one on the left.”
The spiral staircase was just what Mom had always imagined. “I bet the staircase bends or curls around in there. You can tell with the big bay window that they wanted to leave extra space for that living room. That’s where I’d put the tree.” Sure enough, it was where Swanson had his Christmas tree.
“Gabriella?” I tapped lightly on the door, only to find her fast asleep on her little toddler bed. Just when I thought she couldn’t look more angelic, her sweet expression lost in a dream caught my breath. Could beds even be made that small? It was Goldilocks, sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed.
I tiptoed away and headed back down the stairs. No one ever things to arrive early to New Year’s parties to see the kids. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, to have missed Gabriella, but even more dejected realizing that I would have to make drab conversation with these other guests.
Swanson looked up at me from his glass of dark red wine. Dark like blood.
“Gabriella was already asleep. I guess I should have come sooner.”
“Oh she’ll be so disappointed. Say, what will you have to drink?”
“The tea would be great.”
I followed Swanson into his kitchen and realized the tea was her tea. “My mom made this same tea. Cardamom and cinnamon, right?”
“Yes! Good nose! You’d be good at a wine tasting!” His words dissipated into the air, evaporated as my tears formed.
It was too much. Mom’s dream house. Mom’s tea. Michael’s weird exit.
“You miss her. What was her name?”
“My mom?” I wiped a tear away, glad I didn’t wear any mascara that night. “Katherine.” My teeth sunk into my lips, as if that would prevent more tears. Saying her name shouldn’t be so hard, not after all these months. “She lived just on the other side of campus.”
“Yeah. She loved this neighborhood.” She lusted after your house.
“I almost forgot. Gabi wanted tell you that she and I just installed a new front light. She was very concerned that you wouldn’t come in if the doorway was dark.”