The Year After

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Anandam Ravi


My mother disappeared on a beautiful day in April. It seems rather strange to talk about the day your mother disappeared as beautiful, but it was. It was a glorious, sunny day; the winter chill had just taken a brief respite. And it was on that day of almost freak sunshine that my mother decided to go for a ‘nice, long drive to the mall’. She never returned.

“She could be in Alabama for all we know,” Dad said darkly. I couldn’t disagree. Her sense of direction or lack of it was notorious and she was known to have taken three hours to locate a store that was three minutes away. Still my cochlea quivered as I detected a tone in Dad’s voice that was not mere annoyance and I could feel a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Because, besides being geographically challenged, my mother was also not exactly what the DMV categorized as ‘a good driver’. She managed to scrape through her driver’s test only on the third try. The first time she sailed blithely through a red light ‘because there was no white line to stop behind’. The second time she cut in front of a red Pontiac that my mother alleged was purely a figment of the instructor’s imagination, caused either by gynophobia or his love for scarlet automobiles or both. Dad had looked at her and asked her, “You know what the real problem is, don’t you?” Mama had just sighed and replied, “Yeah, red just isn’t my lucky color.”

Our peaceful home in Columbus, Ohio was suddenly teeming with policemen, reporters and detectives, clicking photographs and asking endless questions. What was my mother’s name? What was she wearing? My father looked at me for enlightenment. I shrugged. I didn’t know. I hadn’t been home. All I knew was what she had written on the little Post-it on the refrigerator. She had left a note? The police detective pounced on the information as if it explained everything. As a matter of fact, it didn’t explain anything. All it said was, ‘Going for a nice, long drive to the mall. Be back by 7pm.’

The police went about asking everyone we knew about Dad’s relations with Mama and didn’t seem convinced even when they all said they had never heard my parents argue and that they had seemed the happiest couple they had seen.

My mother’s picture came out in the papers, on television and on fliers stuck in every public place we could think of; airports, restaurants, hotels, restrooms, so that people could see it while performing any of life’s necessary functions, sitting, standing or lying down. Rewards were offered and information came flying in.

Some people said they had seen a woman like my mother with another man; though the description of the man varied from short, bald Caucasian to tall, slim African. Others said they had seen her in different states, even across the border. My father thundered around, threatening to sue every last one of them for slander.

It was three agonizing day later that they found my mother’s crumpled body dressed in a garment that I now recognized as having once been red even without the patches of dried blood that were caked on it. She was found half buried still in what remained of the black Camry under some bushes in an obscure little ravine about thirty minutes from home. The police declared it suicide. True, it had been a little dark and a little foggy; the sun had decided that it had bestowed more of its favors on the city than it was worth. Still, it wasn’t pitch dark and besides, the ravine had a warning red tape around it while fences were being erected. No one could have missed all those.

My mother had been right, red certainly wasn’t her lucky color.

She couldn’t have killed herself, I argued. To my father it didn’t seem to make a difference. She was gone and that was all that mattered. But I took pains to convince Detective Greer that it was extremely possible for my mother to have fallen in accidentally. I told him about her driving record, I explained that the mall was in fact in the other direction and that proved that my mother had been disoriented. Detective Greer shook his head sorrowfully in the manner of someone who has just found a loved child desperately performing CPR on a dead hamster. There were no less than six fluorescent warning signs, he said, not to mention the warning tape. Nobody who didn’t want to kill himself could ignore them.

It was bad enough that in one moment I had lost my sweet mother and my father, his adoring wife, but the thought that one of us in some way had caused her to literally go over the edge was one that haunted me day and night. She hadn’t even left a suicide note.

I remembered the hurt on Mama’s face when I talked in front of Dad about the harlequin romances that she had stashed under her bed secretly, because according to Dad only idiots read ‘that mindless stuff’. I now felt that I had betrayed her, though she had never mentioned it. Like badly edited scenes from a maudlin movie I replayed all the times I had seen Mama hurt. When my father made fun of her southern accent in front of company or made jokes about the way she drove to the principal of the school where she used to teach French part-time. Little things, hurtful things but surely nothing that people would kill themselves over. Alas, famous first words of anyone whose friend, spouse, sibling, child or parent has just committed suicide.

The day my mother’s body was discovered was the day I saw Dad break down and cry for the first time. He seemed to collect his massive frame and then heave it out again and again with each new heart-wrenching sob. He looked up from his monstrous grief and gazed at me as if he were seeing me for the first time.

Together we cried for the sweet woman whose curious accents we would never hear again and for the thought that we had to get used to dealing with each other now without her gentle intervention. Mama had acted like a transformer of sorts between her husband and daughter and everybody else for that matter, stepping up teenage whines and stepping down middle-aged rants to the level of mature adult opinions. She had been wasted in the role of a homemaker, and even as a part-time French teacher, though they were roles that she had relished.

Always a little short-tempered my father now seemed more volatile than ever. He seemed unable to express his grief without anger. He yelled at me for little things, for putting the newspaper away before he had read it, for switching on the lights in the evenings a little earlier than usual, for sleeping in on Sundays, for everything. He was angry at fate and he was angry with himself for being so helpless.

He insisted on packing up and removing every last hairpin of my mother’s because it was better, he said, to start afresh. Even talking about her was taboo. But instead of healing him inside, it only seemed to keep the wound fresh and embalmed.

I, on the other hand, tried to stick on to everything I had that even remotely related to my mother, a blouse she had once borrowed from me her perfume still vaguely lingering on it, her glasses that she had left by my computer, a recipe book I had found on my bookshelf full of her little squiggly writing, a lipstick here and a mascara there. I knew it was childish, that hugging them to me wouldn’t bring her back, but I wasn’t ready to let go yet. And so, I hid them in a box deep inside a closet where my father would never think to look, and clutched my secret to myself like a naughty toddler.

I even tried out one of her recipes, a castle cake that she made often. But instead of the well-risen golden structure that emerged when she made it, mine splattered itself all over the oven, filling the kitchen with acrid smoke, setting the alarm screeching, and bringing my furious father down in his dressing gown and slippers.

And then one day nearly a year later, I came home from school and right in the middle of my mother’s azaleas that had refused to die in the winter was a ‘For Sale’ sign. I stomped up the stairs, and burst into my father’s room. I found him sitting on the bed, his head in his hands. I stood over him.

“First it was her stuff, now you’re selling her house.” I don’t know why I said it was my mother’s house. It just came out that way.

My father raised his head slowly, and in the eternity before he spoke, I noticed for the first time, that though his voice, his words had grown so much older in the last year, his head of dyed jet-black hair still seemed the same, his body lean and muscular from the merciless hours at the gym where he often exercised like a maniac hoping to sweat out the pain. But somehow, now, it was not the healthy glow of youth I saw, it was the unnatural repression of growth, of time, like formaldehyde used to embalm a rotting corpse.

It was as if we had both fought time in our own ways, he by refusing to let it touch him, I by refusing to let it go, he by refusing to accept the past, I by clinging to it, he by trying to plunge into the future before it even came, I by trying to ignore it.

He looked up at me, his eyes reflecting the pain of a million years, and patted the bed next to him.

“I’m sorry, Jan, you’re right, it was wrong not to ask you or at least tell you. But I can’t go on, I can pack up her clothes, her contacts, her cosmetics, but I can’t pack her memories out, no matter how hard I try. I can’t go on like this. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

I sat down next to him, a thousand gloomy questions in my mind that I knew were also in his. We sat in silence for hours, my head touching his shoulder. Slowly his arms came around my shoulder, his fingers found my hair and stroked it. Suddenly I stiffened and threw his arm away. He sprang up startled.

“What is it, Jan, are you hurt? Tell me quick, what is it?” His eyes looked stricken, the way they had when my mother’s body had been found.

“Did you say you packed up her clothes, cosmetics and her contacts? Dad, think, are you sure you packed away her contacts too? It’s important Dad, are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I… well, I remember that day all too well,” he said dryly. I didn’t doubt it, despite all his efforts.

“Well, Dad, she didn’t wear her glasses either. They were in my room,” I explained triumphantly, happily.

For a minute we looked at each other. We said nothing, remembering my mother’s astigmatic eyes peering into some obscure French volume late into the night and the many confused strangers that she happily waved to. We would never know why she went out that night without her glasses or her lenses, but one thing we did know, my mother was virtually blind without one or the other of them, especially if it had grown dark suddenly and unexpectedly as it had that evening.

My father sat back down heavily on the bed, his shoulders sagging, his fingers trembling, his lips quivering. It was as if the load that had been there in his mind, had now relocated itself on his body, where he could handle it much better.

We smiled together at the face of Reasonable Doubt that we had just glimpsed with all the relief of a patient who has just had a cancerous growth removed, to whom time was a new gift, to be accepted, to be lived, and looked forward to with health and happiness.
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Originally from India, Anandam Ravi (Ravi_anandam[at]hotmail.com) now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her short stories and articles have appeared in The San Jose Mercury News, Indiawrites.com and Indiaparenting.com. In her spare time she also writes verses for greeting cards.