The italicized words in the fourth turn of prose come from Bruce Springsteen's song "The Ties That Bind."
You’re taking the children to Kentucky for the week to visit your mother.
“She’s not doing well,” you tell me, and I nod and rub your shoulders. “This might be their last chance to see her.”
I email their teachers and pack their suitcases. I put together snack bags for the car.
“It’s a 10-hour drive,” our oldest child, eleven now, tells her younger sisters. “So be sure to download enough episodes of SpongeBob to last the whole time.”
I ask her what shows she’ll watch and she shakes her new phone at me.
“I’ll just watch YouTube and text with Lexi,” she says.
“We want phones, too!” her sisters complain.
You hug me.
“Thanks for being a trooper,” you say.
I help the girls pack up the car. I strap our youngest in the middle, her booster seat crowding her sisters, who only grumble a little.
I look deeply into the eyes of each girl. I memorize the shades of blue, map out the tiny red veins. I kiss each lid, then each eyebrow. I whisper promises.
“We wish you could come, too,” the little one says, then quickly looks down when her older sisters shush her. You clear your throat and I back out and shut the car door.
“Love you,” you say, and I lean in for you to kiss me, then wave as you close the window and pull out of the driveway.
I go back inside. I head to the kitchen. I think about making another pot of coffee.
My phone rings as I turn on the faucet. I pull it out of my pocket and it’s your mother. She’s sick, too sick to even speak, according to you. Too sick to remember the things she’s said and done to me, to our children, to her own son.
Not that you remember either. Not even the words you whispered to me late at night back in college. The secrets you’d never told anyone before.
The ringing stops, then starts again.
Should I answer? Call you?
I text our daughter instead.
Miss you already.
The voicemail notification dings. Your mother, who is in the final phase of stage 4 lung cancer, who hasn’t been able to speak in over a month, has left me a message.
Unless something’s happened? Unless they couldn’t reach you and—
I check the message.
“Dear, sweet Julia. Hello, hello.” A strong voice, not a whisper. A full-lung chuckle. “So sorry to miss you, but don’t you worry. I’ll take good care of everyone. I’ll take the very best care of them.”
I grab the kitchen counter. The room spins.
“If you change your mind, I’ve left a key for you. Under the mat.”
You been hurt, and you’re all cried out, you say
You walk down the street pushing people outta your way
I’m losing it. I’m tired. Imagining things. Your mother is a bitch, or was a bitch. She might be dead by now, a ghost leaving messages on my cell phone and fuck her. Fuck her.
I take a deep breath. Fuck her.
You packed your bags and all alone you wanna ride
Remember when we were kids, nineteen or maybe twenty, and we went to that Springsteen concert? I didn’t really know any of the songs. I only went to make you happy, and this song came on and you held my hand so tight that my fingers ached the next morning.
You’ve forgotten what it was like, after years away. After everything with the kids and with us and with work. You’re picturing her shrinking, crumbling, and you’re forgiving her and somehow it’s making you look at me different, too.
The ties that bind
Now you can’t break the ties that bind
“Just be careful,” I tried saying once. “She’s offered you poisoned apples before. She’s witchy like that.”
“Jesus, Julia. She wasn’t that bad.”
How’s the drive? I text you, but then erase it. You’ll be annoyed. You’re annoyed a lot lately. You’re annoyed and I’m annoying and you pretend to consider it when I bring up counseling, but you’re always busy. Plus, I can see it in your eyes—counseling won’t help when the issue isn’t you, but the space between who you want someone to be and who she is.
I think about you rolling your eyes at our oldest daughter. At how much she reminds you of me. I can hear you tell our youngest stories at bedtime about your childhood and they sound so different than the ones you used to tell. I’m questioning what I remember, but no—I’m not crazy. I’m pretty sure?
“I never said that,” you tell me when I ask about the stories from before.
“She never did that. It wasn’t like that,” you say. “Are you trying to start a fight about my dying mother?”
“No,” I say, instead of what fills my mouth: I’m trying to find the man I married. Did you ever exist?
Your mother has called me four times and she left me a voicemail and either I’m crazy or she’s not that sick, I text you. But then erase it, erase it, erase it.
Some days, when the house is empty, I remember who I was before I fell in love. I remember all the things I wanted that weren’t this. I remember reaching for things. I remember not walking on eggshells. I remember doing what I wanted, instead of what has to be done, day after day.
Today, I remember this morning. Last night. Last week.
Today, I remember all the things I want now. What could be, if I—
The phone rings.
How is she, I’ll ask. How are you? How are the girls?
I’m so sorry, I’ll say. If only.
I slide the phone under your pillow, the ring muffled but insistent.
Remember that time, I’ll ask. And that other time?
I reach under the bed, pull out the small suitcase. The one you used to use when you traveled for work. The one that’s moved with us to four different houses. The bottom fraying. “I’ll need a new one, if this pandemic ever ends,” you said just last week.
It’s so good the girls had this time, I’ll say. It’s so good you had it.
Just a few things. My toothbrush. The winter hat our youngest finger-knit for me last Christmas.
I think I’m going a little crazy, I’ll say, but it might just be me missing you.
I call the Uber. I feed the cat. I lock the front door behind me.
Would you check under your mom’s mat, I’ll ask. In case she left something for me? I know that sounds weird.
The sky’s cleared up now, the wisps of clouds all that’s left of last night’s storm. It’s a big sky, a Bruce Springsteen empty sky. The song you would sing as we drove downtown on date nights once upon a time, when you still looked at me like I was someone you could lose.
I think I’m going a little crazy, I’ll say. But it might just be me missing you.
Kelly Belter is a printmaker and illustrator living far from her hometown of Dallas, Texas. In addition to working from a mixed-cultural perspective, her illustrations are also inspired by the texture and feel of handprinted artwork. In her free time, she runs Polite Company Press, a Seoul-based risograph studio.