Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 11


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Perhaps if Mother had not opened the door when Garrett rang the bell, the whole scene could have been avoided. Perhaps not. Perhaps Mother had been spoiling for a fight for a long while, and nothing Jill could have said or done could have prevented it. In any event, it was Mother who happened to be passing by the door and opened it to see Garrett French standing on the porch. 

“Hello, Regina,” said Garrett, shaking the snow from his boots. “Jill invited me over.”

“Did she indeed?” said Regina, unmoving in the doorway. “Is this Jill’s house now, that she invites people over without even consulting me?”

Jill dashed down the stairs, cursing her stupid vanity. All she’d wanted to do was check her hair and makeup, make sure she hit the golden mean between Del’s austerity and Reagan’s excess. She should have told Mother that she’d asked Garrett, but knowing that he was coming was such a nice warm thing to hold to herself that she hadn’t wanted to spoil it with Mother’s disdain. 

“I’m sorry, Mother,” she said, pulling the door wider. “I thought it would be nicer if I didn’t have leave the house. That way I’m still spending time with the family.”

“If you’re talking to Garrett French, you won’t be spending time with the family,” said Regina, turning and walking away.

“You don’t mind?” Jill asked Garrett in a low tone, hanging up his coat. “We could go out somewhere, I guess.”

“In Luxembourg? Everything is closed this time of night. Unless you want to come over to my place.” He looked up and saw the ball of mistletoe overhead. “But I like it here just fine.”

They stood, under the mistletoe, not quite looking at one another. Jill’s thoughts raced from alternative to alternative. Should she take a step closer? Should she lean over and kiss him? Was he waiting for a sign from her? Did this mean anything at all? Slow down, lady — you’ve only known this man for two weeks, if that. 

“If you’re going to kiss, just go ahead and do it,” said Del from behind them. “But could you not block the bathroom door?”

Jill nudged Garrett into the library and shut the door.

“Maybe we can talk in here,” she was saying, when a sleepy head arose over the back of the couch.

“My mom said you two should get a room,” Quennedey mumbled, rubbing her eyes. “Are you getting this room? Are you going to kiss? Can I watch?”

“Go back to sleep,” said Jill, beating a hasty retreat.

Garrett lingered in the doorway of the kitchen as Jill went in to find something for them to drink that wasn’t wine or beer. 

“Ah, the lady of the house herself,” drawled Mother. “Help yourself to anything. No need to ask me.”

“Thank you, Mother,” sighed Jill.

Down a step in the den, everyone was gathered to ignore the dance recital on the screen. Del had rejoined the group and sat with Scott squished to her side, as always. Reagan wanted to be curled up as closely to Mr. Singh, but didn’t dare encroach on his couch cushion. And there was Mother, holding court, a malicious gleam in her eye.

“It’s so nice to have a house to call your own,” she continued. “Big enough to host my daughters and all their guests. Soon enough I’ll be retired, a guest in your homes, and I know you’ll be so gracious as to let me invite friends without consulting you first.”

“I don’t see why you just shouldn’t retire to Florida like you want to,” said Reagan. “You deserve to relax.”

“I do deserve to relax,” agreed Mother. “But Jill doesn’t seem to think so. I’m tired. I’m alone. I have been juggling all your burdens your father left me, and now I want to put them down. But how can I sell the hotel when Jill says it’s worthless?”

“Mother, I don’t say that,” muttered Jill. She would not let Mother goad her into getting angry. Not in front of Garrett, who understood the work she was doing even if no one else did. “Everything Daddy left you is worth more than it looks like on paper. It’s just a matter of sorting out all the expenses and making a more accurate assessment.”

“I should certainly think that everything Daddy left me is worth more than it looks on paper,” Mother said, on her dignity. “Daddy loved me, and he worked hard to show it. He loved you girls, and he wanted to leave you his little empire as your inheritance. And I’ve been trying to maintain his legacy, not for my own benefit, God knows I’m getting little out of it, but for you girls, as a sign of my love. Is that worthless?”

Jill, biting her tongue, willed herself to silence. There was no good that could come out of answering such a  manipulative rhetorical question. It was not so rhetorical to Mother, however. She wheeled on Reagan and demanded, “You speak. Is my love worthless?”

Reagan was taken aback at Mother’s ferocity, but she rallied herself to worm out of Mother’s crosshairs. “Of course not, Mother. Don’t say that. You know Jill has always needed to stir up drama. I hope you’re not lumping me in with her. I love you, I love this house, I love the Inn. I love everything you and Daddy built for us.” She smiled, relaxing into her monologue. “There is nothing that’s ever brought me as much happiness as wandering with Daddy around that old property down by the highway. We used to shoo the cows off the path as we walked down to the creek. It’s like my spiritual home. In fact,” and here Reagan glanced over at Mr. Singh, and Jill could have sworn that he nodded at her, “I wish it was my actual home, my forever home. I’ve been dreaming about building a house on that land. I want his granddaughter to live on the land Daddy loved so much. And I want to make a home for you too, Mother. I want a house big enough for you to live with me when the time comes.”

Jill almost choked on her disgust. Daddy’s interest in that land had been purely mercenary, and the few times Reagan had been there when they were children, she’d been bored and distinctly disrespectful to Daddy. A house for Mother! — What safe generosity, since Mother wanted to retire to Florida. Jill wished Mother would move in with Reagan. They deserved each other. At least Mother’s smackdown of Reagan’s crass flattery would be worth watching.

“Darling, it’s yours,” Mother said, embracing her devoted eldest daughter. “That land should go to someone who loves it. Daddy would be so proud.”

“Oh, Mother,” Reagan sobbed adorably. “Oh, Mother!”

Her arm around Reagan, Mother extended her other arm to Del. “What about you, Del? What is my love worth to you?”

“Mother, you’re full of shit,” said Del, unruffled. “And so’s Reagan. If wandering around dusty scrub land with Daddy was her greatest happiness, how come she got married? What’s Quennedey, chopped liver? I don’t need to kiss up to you for money, and I’m not tied to Ohio — Scott makes good money, and he can move his home office anywhere. Stop fishing for compliments. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t be here.”

Amazingly, Mother took this in her stride. “That’s my Delly,” she murmured, content with this tough love from her baby. “Of course I don’t want to be a burden. I’ll give you what you want: nothing, and may you be happy with it.”

“I am,” said Del.

“Oh my girls,” Mother breathed. “Here we all are, together again, at Christmas time. Can’t we love one another, for Daddy’s sake? Oh darling,” and she turned the force of her tenderness on Jill, who had retreated to the doorway where Garrett was standing, “you’re so clever. Don’t use that against me. Don’t punish me for the past by undervaluing what Daddy left me to live on. I know you can’t hate me that much.”

This last appeal left Jill trembling. She hid her shaking hands behind her back so that no one could see her tight white knuckles all ready to strike something, anything. Mother was always so adept at finding the one unarmored chink and shooting her arrow directly into it. How could she know Jill’s weakness, even after all this time? How could she see the anger beating through Jill’s raw heart, even after all these years? Jill sifted through the motivations jumbled around in her psyche. Was she such a bad daughter? Was it possible that she was assigning a lower worth to Mother’s assets because she wanted to hold power over Mother? She knew all the accounting tricks, and the ways to make a property seem more valuable on paper, as Daddy had made it seem less valuable on paper. Could she not just love her mother the way her mother wanted to be loved?

Her nails were biting into her palms, maybe drawing blood. It would serve her right to bleed. Nothing else could release the hate and pain building up inside her. What if she screamed at Mother, threw something at her, anything to make her shut up? Or what if she took the easy way out, flattered and cringed and bought Mother’s approval? Maybe she could make Mother love her, and that would make up for every time Mother had belittled and manipulated and ignored and humiliated her. 

Violence or submission — wasn’t there any other path? Already her head was throbbing with the pressure of tears unshed, and quick ragged breaths were clawing at her throat. She would collapse in a wailing heap, crying again, the only thing she could do in Ohio, and Mother would win on both fronts.

She felt a hand wrap itself over her fist, gently coaxing her clinched fingers open. Behind her, Garrett worked his fingers between hers and stroked the tension out of her stiff joints. The unexpected relief made Jill feel all the more the grip of anger on her body. She crushed Garrett’s hand until she felt him wince with pain. Let him see what she was really like, and push her away like everyone else did.

She felt him press against her until her back nestled against the warmth of his body. The touch of his hand she had resisted, but with this embrace he was drawing the ache out of her muscles into himself. She closed her eyes and absorbed his support, and with it a peace that blew across her cloudy thoughts, revealing for an instant the vast clarity of the star-lit universe beyond her finite perspective.

“I don’t hate you, Mother,” she said, in a voice steadied by Garrett’s strength. “I love you because you’re my mother, and because that’s what I’m supposed to do. And that’s all I have. Maybe you don’t know how hard you were to live with. Maybe you don’t realize how you tore me apart as I was growing up. Maybe you didn’t know how damaged I was. But I am damaged. I don’t hate you, and it’s a victory for me even to be able to say that much. I can’t give you any more than that. 

In the silent room, Mother rose, white and terrible. 

“Let me give you something,” she said. “My love is of little worth to you, so let me match it with something just as worthless. Since I’m not to be allowed to sell the Inn to support myself, it’s my gift to you. You’re so eager to get back to Los Angeles and leave us all behind to cope with this mess. Now you can cope with it. Now you can have a tie that binds you to your home — a financial tie, since that’s the kind you understand.”

She strode regally through the doorway, but halted by Garrett. 

“There,” she said, in a voice as sharp as ice, “She has what you want. You can lowball her for it now. Or you can take her for her miserable dowry. It’s nothing to me anymore.” 

She turned again at the base of the stairs, this time to Jill. “To think how excited I was before you were born, the second child I longed for, and look how you’ve turned out.”

She withdrew upstairs. Everyone could escape now: Del towing Scott, who had been more stressed about the family scene than she was; Reagan hustling a protesting Quennedey into her jacket; Mr. Singh, who bowed inscrutably to Jill, or Garrett, or them both as one. Jill could hear her sisters discussing Mother in whispers by the door, but she did not move, and neither did Garrett. For this moment, at least, they were still and secure, holding each other’s wounds closed.

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1 comment:

Antoinette Brenion said...

Echoes of King Lear with Mother playing the king asking who loves me and responding in spite.