Don’t Tell Father
—–My mother bought a new dress she didn’t necessarily need but which fit her tall, slim figure perfectly, its creamy colour complimenting her tanned skin. It cost her two hundred francs she was supposed to spend on new garden supplies: a hose, a canister of string trimmer oil, a sprinkler.
—–‘Men, they want everything. A beautiful woman and a beautiful garden,’ she said, as she tried on her dress for me in the bedroom. It did not matter that I, sprawled on my parents’ double bed with my legs wide open in an unlady-like pose, was her only audience – she still put on her heels. ‘The reality is,’ she continued, gesturing for me to zip her up, ‘that you cannot have it all.’
—–‘But you are beautiful,’ I protested to her back. Although my mother has now neared the middle-age mark, she had lost nothing of her casual elegance, her laissez-faire beauty.
—–‘That’s what I’m talking about,’ she sighed, nodding her head towards the window through which our unkempt garden could be marvelled at. At least the butterflies loved the lawn in full bloom.
—–‘A tad too expensive for my liking but as a long-term investment well worth it,’ she concluded, pleased as she observed herself in the mirror, gently running her hands down the flowing skirt reminiscent of a Greek toga. ‘Just don’t breathe a word about it to your father,’ she made me promise.
—–It puzzled me that although she looked stunning, the dress could not to be shown or even mentioned to my father who should have been her main admirer. In the world of women, there always seemed to be something that needed to be hidden away from men. Being a woman was almost like belonging to a secret society, a close- knit sect, an underground network. Our female neighbours certainly resembled spies whenever they were hiding behind their lace kitchen curtains, silently taking note of anything unusual occurring at our street. They always knew who died, who married, who had a baby, who cheated on whom, and, most importantly, who got divorced, the greatest as well as the juiciest catastrophe of them all. When my mother appeared in the garden, often drinking coffee and having a smoke, hardly ever tending to the beds overrun with weeds, our female neighbours gladly exchanged the latest news with her over the mesh wire fence, but when my father mowed the grass on Saturdays, they would just greet him with a polite smile and a nod. It was not that men were not worthy of the information but rather that their knowing would be somehow dangerous.
—–‘He would say I have enough dresses already,’ my mother explained as I unzipped her again. ‘Better not give him another reason to hold a grudge against me.’
—–Although I wasn’t sure what other reasons or which grudge she alluded to, I had enough experience with my mother’s secretiveness. To the things my father couldn’t know belonged not only the new dress my mother bought but also the fortune-teller she went to see any time an important decision needed to be made, her latest fight with grandma, the rejection letter I received from a third university in a row, my sister getting a middle finger tattoo on her left heel. There were always new items on the list of things my father should not know about and my mother was the self-named guardian of such secrets, accumulating them for us all in the infinite storage space she seemed to possess, unburdened by them, never close to bursting.
—–‘I should buy you a dress soon,’ she pointed a finger at me or rather at my grey cotton shorts and the stained white t-shirt I was wearing. Even with her dress open at the back, she looked like an antique statue of a goddess compared to me. My mother often gave me the feeling that some vital part of being a woman still escaped me. ‘If you keep dressing like this, you will never find a man.’
—–I was compelled to retort that, despite my poor fashion choices, I have already found one, but kept quiet, unsure whether to give away such a delicate piece of information. I could already imagine the questions that would follow: How old is he? What does he want to do with his life? Where do his parents work? Do they have a house, a car, a ship, a unicorn?. Then the worst one of them all would eventually drop like an earthquake: You aren’t possibly in love, are you?
—–The concept of love was a mystery to me, and yet I knew that I found myself directly in love. I felt all I had read about in books before: the quickening heartbeat when I saw him, the need to close any physical distance between us, the longing to etch our initials into the bark of an old oak for the whole world to see. I also experienced different, more confusing feelings that came together with or perhaps even were love, things that my secondary school literature class failed to discuss. For one, love made me aware of my own body, of the humanity exposed in nakedness. I was ashamed of being seen naked. I was ashamed of seeing him naked. I was ashamed of being ashamed. Despite that, when he asked ‘is this ok?’ before gently pulling one strap of my bra down my shoulder in the dimness of the school caretaker’s broom closet, I surprised myself by saying ‘hell, yes’ and meaning it, wanting to be seen.
—–In my understanding, love was a contradiction and all its magic depended on its unresolvability, on the binaries pulling into opposing directions far beyond the realms of my control. That being said, I knew I couldn’t justify any of this to my mother who prided herself in being a practical woman when it came to relationships, making no distinctions between love and marriage and financial stability. She thought falling in love only meant letting reason slide – one became less vigilant, more prone to injury. According to her, I already was a naïve romantic, painfully unaware of what the world was really like, and admitting to something as juvenile and irresponsible as being in love would only strengthen this conviction of hers. Yes, she wanted me to have a boyfriend, later even a husband, but she hoped for me to use him, never getting my heart involved.
—–My mother couldn’t make up her mind about men. She both needed and despised them. In a way she was attracted to them because they frightened her; excitement, after all, is just a dressed-up fear. In my early teens I assumed that she was afraid of their power to impregnate us, to fill us with their children as if they were a disease to carry. My mother has always been a woman first and a mother second: whenever a conversation with fellow housewives swayed towards babies, lunchboxes, and playgrounds, her tone would become bitingly ironic and depressingly bleak like a rainy Sunday morning in a church. Her lukewarm attitude towards family life was one of the reasons why I suspected that my conception was an accident. Becoming a mother at the age of twenty left not only a white scar curved along my mother’s belly like a hesitant smile but also the stink of resentment against men for transforming her from a girl to a woman and from a mother to a wife, forcing her into each new role too soon, too fast.
—–Later I realised that she was not as much worried about me or my sister getting pregnant – after all, she encouraged us to go to clubs, proms, and concerts to ‘get a taste of the world out there’, as she put it, her eyes glinting with mischief inappropriate for a mother – as she was about our hearts ending up broken. She feared heartbreak as other girls’ mothers fear STDs. I was not sure where her fear came from but judging from the way she kept men at arm’s length – my father included – never letting them quite close, never being too nice to them, never telling them her most intimate secrets, I knew that the fear was not only there but that it was strong and thriving. She raised us in that fear, fed it to us together with spoonfuls of apple puree.
—–‘Next time I go to the mall you’re coming with me,’ my mother decided, unbothered by my silence or perhaps even pleased by it, pleased by what she thought it must mean – her daughter being in no jeopardy of love, not yet. ‘Just don’t tell father,’ she continued, slipping her dress down her smooth yet firm body, letting it softly drop around her ankles onto the waiting sheepskin rug. ‘He doesn’t always have to know what we’re up to.’
—–I didn’t quite understand what it exactly was we were up to. She might have just meant shopping but maybe she was being more abstract, implying that my father didn’t have to know that being a woman means running around a dreadfully acclimatised department store for hours on end until one finds the right dress, the dress that screams ‘I am a woman without trying too hard’, even though being a woman has always required a lot of trying and improving and hiding. Or maybe my mother meant something else altogether, a secret of her own, something she was up to while none of us had a clue.
—–On the day I was meeting my mother in the mall, she actually forgot all about me. I was standing in front of the perfumery on the first floor at five thirty as agreed but my mother didn’t turn up and wouldn’t answer her phone either. After half an hour of waiting I trudged towards the food court like a kicked puppy, frustrated and hungry, a dangerous combination. As soon as I got myself a chicken wrap from a greasy fast food stand, I made my way to the exit – I hated malls and I also hated my mother for making me come here and then never showing up. It even crossed my mind that it might have all been planned in advance, like some strange educating strategy: lure her into a store so that she is forced to shop by herself for once with no one to help her pick the right colour, the perfect fit, the accurate length. But as I was passing one of the restaurants along the sides of the food court – not the stands but the proper dining places where grownups with jobs and fully developed sense of style met after work to leave lipstick rings around wineglass rims and order prawn cocktails or duck confit – I realised that my mother truly forgot about me and my terrible taste in fashion.
—–I spotted her almost immediately, since she was wearing her secret dress, the one that transformed her into a Greek goddess, dignified and elegant yet somehow also frozen and unreal, like a statue recently brought to life. She was sitting at the front of a Mediterranean restaurant, the one my father often promised to take her to but never did, with her legs crossed, one decently manicured hand on the table and the other in her wavy chestnut hair, brushing an invisible loose strand back into place. My mother was nervous because she was on a date.
—–The man sat with his back to me so I couldn’t say much about him except that he was neither a friend nor an acquaintance, since his big, hairy hand covered my mother’s thin-boned fingers on the table, his thumb stroking her brittle wrist as sensually as a movement of a thumb can be. Even though I haven’t had that much dating experience, I could tell from the intimate gesture that this was not the first time they met; my mother’s visible nervousness probably meant that they had never ventured to public as a couple before. A couple of lovers. I turned on my heel and backed away in blind panic and confusion. My mother, who I thought wouldn’t understand the purpose of falling in love, had an affair.
—–When I came home, I paced in my room, thinking about what to do with this information I couldn’t keep to myself if I tried. I didn’t want to tell my sister who indulged in gossip with decadent pleasure. My best friend Kaia was out of question because our mothers knew each other well and I didn’t want to risk Kaia’s mother finding out. It slowly occurred to me that if I ever needed to talk to anyone I usually went to my mother. Even now I imagined what her advice to me would be: Don’t. tell. father. I sensed that by telling on my mother to my father, a man, I would break some code universally shared by women everywhere, which seemed to me a far worse sin than adultery. It would be like committing matricide.
—–In the end I changed into clean underwear, put on my best dress and hopped on a bus. Forty-five minutes later I stood on my boyfriend’s porch for the first time, ringing the bell with fierce determination. Like my father, Alex was obviously a man; but since he was my man, didn’t it mean that the female-male world distinction wouldn’t apply here, that he was an exception to the code-breaking rule?
—–His mother opened the door. I did not expect that.
—–‘Weeell,’ she said, beaming. ‘You must be Sofia. Sashenka told me all about you.’
—–She was a sturdy woman with wide hips that once could have been erotic but now had a dirty apron tied around them. Her smile, although wide, didn’t seem genuine. I looked for some traces of Alex in her face but saw none.
—–‘Is Alex home?’
—–‘We call him Sasha here,’ his mother still smiled but there was now a clear reproach behind that smile, a warning. I was venturing into foreign territory, making claim of something this woman carried inside her for nine months, then pushed out of her body and fed for eighteen years straight.
—–‘For God’s sake, Anna, stop harassing that girl and let her in,’ Alex’s father shouted from the inside. When I entered the house, he was reading a newspaper in the living room, his face hidden behind the broadsheet he wouldn’t look up from. Having raised three boys, he felt awkward talking to me as if I were some strange species speaking a language he never bothered to learn. ‘Alexander is upstairs in his room, first door on the right.’
—–Alex wasn’t surprised when I knocked on the door and appeared in his room, flushed from the spontaneous meeting with his parents. Like his father, he hardly looked up from the book he was reading.
—–‘My mother has a lover,’ I said bluntly in order to shock him. It didn’t work: Alex just turned a page, making a ‘huh’-sound.
—–‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’ ‘What do you want me to say?’
—–A sense of not exactly helplessness but rather apathy fell over me. Suddenly I saw myself very clearly, standing there in the strange house, my legs white and bare, my arms hanging limply at my sides, vulnerable. I understood that having my heart broken by Alex was inevitable. I loved him but he would crush me, I was sure. I could tell by the way he was wetting the tip of his finger with his tongue each time he turned a page, by his determined frown as he kept reading, his persistent refusal to meet my eyes, to be disturbed, to give in to a woman’s need as if it meant surrender. I could tell by his parents: by his mother, round around the hips and smiling like the Cheshire Cat, and by his father who was too scared to look me in the face, to give me the power of being noticed, being seen.
—–When Alex finally looked at me, it was because he finished his chapter. We huddled on his bed and I told him what I saw at the mall. My mind wandered back to the faceless man sitting with his back to me, stroking my mother’s wrist. Did my mother have an affair as a result of some twisted logic of avoiding heartbreak by distributing her affection over different men as if she were spraying perfume on the dresses hanging in her closet, never laying all her love on just one? Or did she think she could be safe from suffering if she hurt my father before he hurt her?
—–At one point, Alex proposed a theory, or rather a wishful fantasy, that my mother had a secret lost brother who has now come back from Canada where he panned gold on the Fraser River, or perhaps from Australia where he ran a crocodile farm that produced expensive leather handbags. We were laughing at how ridiculous it sounded until I stopped.
—–‘It would be just like my mother. To keep a secret like that. She’s good at secrets. She thinks all women should keep some.’
—–‘What’s your secret then?’ Alex asked. It was difficult to concentrate because he was stroking my cheek with the back of his hand.
—–‘It wouldn’t be a secret anymore if I told you, would it?’
—–‘You can tell me anything,’ he said without completely meaning it. Perhaps, I thought, it wasn’t that secrets were dangerous in the hands of men but that most of them didn’t want them in the first place – they wouldn’t look at them properly, would dismiss them like a new dress. Maybe the man my mother was seeing would look at her toga skirt and nod in appreciation or at least acknowledgement. She might have been tired of being invisible. After all, she was still too young to be complacent with being overlooked.
—–‘I should go,’ I said after a while, both relieved and a little sad when Alex didn’t try to stop me. ‘My mother will be looking for me.’
—–When I came home, my mother was already back, watching TV on her own in the living room. She wasn’t wearing her Greek dress anymore; instead she opted for a simple satin nightdress in powdery blue.
—–‘Your father is already asleep,’ she said, her eyes not leaving the screen. ‘Dinner is on the stove.’ ‘And how are you?’ I exclaimed with fake joviality.
—–‘Doctor Brook is getting a divorce,’ was her answer. She sounded upset. ‘Who’s Doctor Brook?’
—–‘A character on this show I’m watching. Now hush.’ ‘Why though?’
—–She pinched the bridge of her nose.
—–‘Because I cannot hear a word they say.’
—–‘No, I meant why is Doctor Brook getting divorced?’ I asked as casually as I could. ‘Did his wife cheat on him or something?’
—–Finally, my mother looked at me. Her chestnut eyes sized me up as if she saw me for the first time. ‘Doctor Brook is a woman,’ she replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
—–‘So it was her husband then,’ I said carefully, ‘who cheated.’
—–‘Nobody cheated on anyone. She is tired of the marriage, that’s all. It happens.’ ‘I would have expected something more dramatic from a soap.’
—–‘A marital crisis is enough drama, believe me,’ my mother said drily, then returned her attention back to the screen. ‘Where have you been?’
—–‘At a house.’
—–‘Does that house have an owner?’ ‘At a friend’s house, I meant.’
—–‘Must be quite a friend if you dress up for him like that,’ she noted without looking at me again. ‘That’s the dress I bought for your confirmation.’
—–‘Yes, well, I thought I could use it for more than our-fathers.’
—–‘You certainly can,’ my mother snorted. On the screen, the woman I supposed was Doctor Brook broke into tears and a nurse handed her a tissue she angrily refused. I thought the anger suited her more than the wet eyes.
—–‘I was thinking, though,’ I said, ‘that this dress might be a bit too formal.’
—–‘You mean you look like a nun?’ my mother asked. She surely was in good form tonight.
—–‘Well, I wouldn’t mind to show my wrists at least,’ I admitted. ‘I thought maybe you could help me pick a new one soon.’
—–She turned to me again and although I braced myself for an eruption, her reaction was disappointingly anticlimactic.
—–‘Did you forget?’ she frowned. ‘We said we will go to the mall next week.’ I realised that I must have written the dates down wrong.
—–‘Oh. Must have slipped my mind. Good that you’ve told me.’
—–‘Yes, indeed. That dress will be an investment way more important than the private piano lessons your father thinks you’re still taking.’
—–She fell silent then, seemingly sucked into the turmoil of Doctor Brook’s crumbling marriage, but when I slowly turned to go to my room, my mother called me back by name, something she hardly ever did.
—–I looked over my shoulder at her slender form sparsely covered in satin, her profile sharp against the blinking screen. She was beautiful but she was just a silhouette, her features invisible in the darkness of the living room, their softness drowned in shadows.
—–‘I know,’ I said, feeling both incredibly young and old. ‘Don’t tell father.’
Denisa Vitova is a literature and linguistics student (English and Slavonic studies) at the University of Zurich. So far, her work has been published by The Poetry Society UK, The Moth, Acumen and in anthologies by Castello di Duino International Poetry Competition and Daniil Pashkoff Prize.
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