We’re smoking again when my mother calls. Clothed in the bare minimum on Dean’s balcony, we’ve got on just enough to look decent. Even at night, the stucco behind our backs is still hot from a full day of direct sun. The few stars that manage to penetrate the sky through the lights of the distant Vegas Strip shine faintly above us, but under the balcony lights Dean’s neighbors might see us, might be watching us right now through their blinds. And why wouldn’t they? We’re young and fit, with just enough muscle and just enough cushion in the right places that we’re sure anyone past their prime would stare at us, envious. But we’re not really thinking of his neighbors—our neighbors, he sometimes calls them, and when he does, I don’t correct him—when my mother calls again. We’re thinking about the lights bouncing off our freshly re-filled wine glasses, and how satisfying the post-orgasm breathlessness feels when exacerbated by the smoke we draw deep into our lungs.
On the phone, my mother sounds out of breath, too. “Can I come over?” She asks me this in Hungarian, our shared language that is as natural to me inside our house as seeing my father in his bathrobe on the couch, but in public, our mother tongue is like a neon orange raincoat: it keeps what my parents and I share with each other secret while also making the sounds that leave our mouths painfully visible.
“Come here? Why?” I respond in Hungarian.
“Your father just left to go drinking with his buddies, and I can’t stand to be left at home alone like this anymore,” she says, a plea, a demand, anything but a statement. “I have work in the morning. I’ll be gone by then.”
Dean’s words don’t falter when he tells me my mother can stay the night, but I can see the hesitation in his eyes. He’s only shook hands with my parents, never really spoken to them. We haven’t been together long, just a few months really, and it’s never felt like the right time to bring the four of us together, especially with my dad so often gone. Why should Dean have to host my mother just because I practically live here now? But he takes my chin in his hand and says, “It’s fine, I swear,” and pecks me on the lips. Then we scrub our stains off the couch before my mother sits on it and draw the curtains closed over the sliding glass door, so she won’t have to see the mound of cigarette butts on the plate out there.
My mother’s known I smoke for a few years, but she doesn’t like to see evidence of it. Rather, I don’t like for her to see the evidence, because it provokes her to search my face and tell me that my skin is aging from the nicotine, or that my teeth are yellowing, or that I’ll be infertile if I keep it up. She often emails me articles on the harmful effects of tobacco, but she crowds my inbox less frequently when I don’t leave my cigarettes lying around the house.
My mother calls once more on her way over, and I raise my voice trying to get her to listen to my directions, aware how harsh Hungarian can sound to an American ear at such a volume, while Dean straightens up around me. Eventually, my mother shows at Dean’s front door, which I have a key to that hasn’t made its way onto my keychain yet. Somehow that would make it all too real.
Sweat tracks my mother’s blond hairline. She sports a multicolored backpack that was once mine and has a bottle of ginger kombucha tucked into her arm. She kisses Dean on both of his cheeks like they’re familiar and must register shock on his face because she says, “No worry, my husband don’t know where I am.” Then she laughs. “I joke, he don’t care where I am.”
I don’t dare look to see what Dean makes of this. I wonder where my dad thinks my mother is, whether he has her on his mind at all right now. I suddenly realize how long it’s been since I worried about my parents like this, like how hearing an old song brings back memories you forgot you had. And like how hearing that old song makes you realize that the music you’ve listened to in the past few years is so different now, a stark contrast to your past tastes.
My mother sits on the futon while Dean and I settle on the carpet. We set our wine glasses on the scratched coffee table before us. Dean offers my mother wine, but she declines.
“When did you quit drinking?” I ask.
“When Dad start smoking,” she says. And there it is: she hasn’t even taken off her shoes yet and already she’s told me more than I wanted to know. I push her comment away like you do with the pain of a pulsing ankle after stumbling on the sidewalk. As a smoker myself, she might regard me an accomplice. It’s territory I’d rather steer clear of.
“Did you just come from the gym?” I ask, referencing the sweat.
She shakes her straight bangs across her forehead, curtains swaying in the wind. “I do Zumba on YouTube after he leave. Before I call you.”
Because my mother always speaks Hungarian with me, it’s a constant surprise to hear her English. Her accent is harsher than my father’s. She chops English syllables into angular squares, whereas my father’s English is more garbled. If he speaks too fast, he trips over liquid consonants. My mother never speaks fast in English, weighing each word as it tumbles out her thin lips. Once, when we were at a drive-thru a few years ago, the cashier told her she would have to learn English before she orders at their establishment. She told him, “English is my fifth language. How many language you know? You think you smart? Ask some order in Hungarian. Try.”
My mother rests her elbows on her knees and says, “The class I am taking at The Center, you know, our teacher say sweat clean emotions, chakras, and alcohol clog them, so I don’t drink while I finish this level of class. The kombucha,” she points to the glass bottle on the coffee table, “is okay.”
“What kind of class is this?” Dean asks, and I want to kiss him for entertaining my mother on a night she interrupted our plans. I already sense he’s sniffing down the wrong trail though.
My mother discovered The Center through a friend at the all-you-can-eat buffet where she works. The Center is actually more like an adobe-style house in a residential neighborhood in Spring Valley. The woman who runs it, a retired showgirl named Sherry, is about my mother’s age and lives there alone. I attended some of their by-donation sessions on meditation and positive thinking with my mother before I met Dean.
My mother dragged my father along to a group session once, too, after which he apparently complained about “the stench of those dirty hippies.” The fact that he hasn’t returned to The Center may not be the worst thing, because for the first time since we moved to the States my mother at least gets together with people who aren’t my father’s friends.
“We’re learning much, much things,” my mother says. “Right now, we learn palm reading.”
I glance at Dean, expecting to catch him rolling his eyes at this hippy-dippy stuff, because when I asked him what his horoscope was back when we met in Intro to Psych last semester, he scrunched up his shoulders and said, “Don’t know. Don’t care.” I later found out he’s a Taurus. Now the wine glass is to his mouth, his head tilted back, his eyebrows high on his face. Curious is preferable to haughty. I’ll take what I can get.
My mother retrieves a white textbook from her backpack and deposits it on the coffee table with a thud. The cover bears a hand drawn in black with a series of lines crossing the palms, like a messy intersection of freeways.
“You know basics,” my mother says to me. “Heart line, head line, life line.” She points to each corresponding black line on the book cover.
Dean puts his hand on my knee, like he might want to hold me back from dark forces. Beads of sweat form instantly between our skin.
“But do you know line of marriage?” my mother asks.
I shake my head, certain I can feel the wine sloshing around in my brain. I look to Dean, excited.
“I don’t know about any of this,” he says. Now he sounds more cautious than curious.
“Number of marriage lines is number of marriages,” my mother says. “But not only line is important, also how deep. It show how good.” My mother holds up her hand and points somewhere below the crook of her pinkie and ring fingers. She sits too far away for me to make out the lines. Or else the wine is blurring my vision. She reaches for Dean’s hand, and he leans closer. “See,” she points, “you will do one good marriage.”
I scoot in to see the deep, red line, no longer than a pin, and I’m amazed I never noticed it before. It’s so dark. I’m hesitant to look him in the eye, seeing as how we’ve never talked about marriage, and all this vaguely implies me, but when I look up, he’s wiggling his fingers at me like I’ve just proposed to him. I want to tell him he’s going to make a beautiful bride someday, but before I can, my mother grabs my hand.
She squints, then holds it out far before drawing it close again. “You don’t have.” She looks at me, practically disappointed, the corners of her mouth drooping.
“Thanks,” I say.
Dean pats my arm. “I’m sure that’s not true. May just take a while for it to come in,” he says, and I think he’s taking a jab at me about my age again. We’ve got six years between us. Dean had already lived a whole other life dealing cards at the MGM Grand before he decided to go back to school, where we met. My parents weren’t elated about the age difference until they rationalized that having an older man by my side might mean I’d become financially independent a lot sooner. They swear they’re not trying to push me out of the house, but the air is so still when they’re both home that it’s enough to keep me at Dean’s for weeks on end.
“You don’t believe in this anyway,” I say to Dean, suddenly protective. Of what, I don’t know.
He stares a hole into my cheek, then pours the remaining drops from the bottle into his glass and disappears into the kitchen with it.
“What about you?” I ask my mother.
She holds her palms against each other.
I scoot along the carpet and settle at her knees. “Come on.”
She shows me her right hand. Her line is much lighter than Dean’s and more frayed. It fans out at the edge of her hand into smaller, even less pronounced lines. She shows me her left to compare. It’s got two thick, pronounced lines.
“What does this mean? How come they don’t look the same?”
My mother flips to one of the yellow sticky notes that marks a passage in her book. “According to this,” she says in Hungarian, “the left hand shows the potential while the right hand shows what you’ve done with that potential.”
I sidestep the obvious remark, silently note my awe at how our relationships leave tracks on our bodies, wonder what it might mean for us that Dean hasn’t left a visible impression on me yet. Instead, I ask, “So, who’s the other line on your left?”
“Your father is the only man I’ve ever been with,” my mother says evenly, almost sternly, as if I’ve hinted at infidelity. If I had, it wasn’t intentional. I want to correct myself, tell her that I was insinuating the future, not the past, but I don’t want to dig myself any deeper than I already am.
My mother has often recounted the story of how she’d been one of few girls in town with a suitor from the city. My father would roll in on his shiny motorcycle and whisk her away to various tourist destinations around Hungary, and once, even to Italy. She says that his ride and his pilot’s jacket hooked her, but what got her to marry him was how much farther he could see than any other man she’d met. He was always looking for ways to get beyond the cards he’d been dealt, striking up conversations with the smartest looking men, always amiable and gracious, but always with the latent intent of finding the ticket to achieving more. Once the Iron Curtain fell, he stacked these connections like dominoes to come to America. It happened one day to the next apparently. He showed up unannounced at her parents’ house on his motorcycle and declared she had two days to pack if he wanted to join her in Los Angeles. It took them five years and a series of odd jobs before they settled in Las Vegas.
Dean turns off the lights in the kitchen and strolls out to the living room, hands empty of his wine glass. He grabs bedding and a towel from the linen closet and hands them to my mother. “Make yourself comfortable,” he says. “I’m headed to bed.”
I get up from the carpet, my ass sore. “We don’t have class tomorrow, so we’ll probably be sleeping when you get up.” We tell my mother good night and head into Dean’s bedroom.
I collapse on his bed atop the sheets and blankets carelessly strewn about. I check my phone for notifications from my dad but don’t find any. I can’t articulate why I’m surprised that my mother was right: he’s not looking for her.
Dean closes the door carefully, takes off his shirt, and lays down next to me. A plane flies overhead and rattles the walls, and once again I feel like we’re in a flimsy doll house. Dean positions my head on his chest. I know the move; I used it last week to get him to forgive me for staying out late with friends without answering any of his texts or calls. I’d told him I couldn’t feel it vibrate, but the truth is I just wanted something from my life before him that still felt entirely my own. I felt like I’d gained hours in which to be a formal self.
He strokes my hair. His fingers are soft, but every so often he gets tangled in a knot. By the third time, we’re laughing about it, little bursts of laughter that make us tremble.
I take his hand off my head and place it on the crease where my hip meets my waist. He moves down my back and caresses me in circles, like polishing a crystal ball. I give in to the motion, try to imagine what hazy future scene of my life he might be seeing on my crystal-ball-back. When a clear scene doesn’t come to my head, I lean onto my elbow and slide his basketball shorts down his thighs, take him in. He fills the anxious space inside me. What quivers, he makes still. When I rock on top of him, I picture for a moment that we share the organs where our bodies meet. What blood pumps through me pumps through him too.
When we are done, I notice that there is no light from the living room seeping through the crack under the door. Dean gets up and dresses. While he pulls his shirt over his head, I ponder dates. The last time my father picked up smoking, was it before, after, or during the time he commuted to Phoenix for his newest business venture, the next big thing that’d make us rich: screen printing T-shirts? And when was it, exactly, that my mother and I spent those weeks looking for an apartment for the two of us to move into? Dean’s hand is on the doorknob and he’s just asked me, I think, about whether I’m going to join him for a smoke when I say, “You know, I was a sophomore in high school when my mother tried moving me and her out of the house.”
Dean sits down on the edge of the bed, silent. I’m only aware of the weight being redistributed on the mattress, and the top of the brown hairs on his head, where I’m looking. “I mean, not really move us out. It felt serious when we’d drive around to different apartment complexes. She’d handed me a stack paper with stats about each apartment that she’d found online. We never went inside any of them. Never met with anyone to show us around. It was kind of as if she was in some—”
“—like a fantasy,” Dean says.
“Yeah,” I look into his green eyes finally. What I don’t want to admit, though, is how much I started to revel in the fantasy, too, and not only because living in an apartment just my mother and me would’ve meant not waking up to my parents’ yelling in the middle of the night anymore. There were other, juvenile reasons why I was excited. Like that many of the apartment complexes we were looking at were closer to my friends’ houses. Or that while driving around a neighborhood there’d be a boy on his skateboard who’d catch my eye, and I’d imagine climbing a ladder to his bedroom while my mother was working the graveyard shift.
“That was around the time I started smoking, actually.”
Dean looks at me in surprise. “I didn’t pick it up until I started dealing cards. It made being enveloped in cigarette smoke all day a lot more enjoyable. I actually forced myself to get addicted just to keep the job.”
I laugh at the ludicrousness of that. “I’d steal smokes from the packs my dad would hide in his jacket or in his car on the weekends he’d be home. I don’t think he knew about it, but it kind of felt good to have a secret with him too.”
“To even the scales,” Dean says.
“Something like that. I don’t know what got my mom to stay in the end. I doubt she ever told my dad about her plan to leave. If she left him today, I don’t even know if she would stay in America. But moving back to Hungary alone after being here so long, I have trouble picturing it.” I don’t, actually. I picture her in her hometown, taking care of her aging parents. I picture meeting her in ankle-deep snow for Christmas. I picture myself taking a junior year abroad in Budapest. It’s Dean that I have trouble picturing there with me.
Dean places his hand on my foot over the blanket. He’ll inch closer any minute and hold me without saying anything. What could he say anyway? I’d probably cut him off and just keep blabbering. And I don’t wanna blabber. I want a cigarette.
We tiptoe past the thick comforter on the futon. I lift the latch to unlock the sliding glass door slowly. Then we scoot it open just enough to fit our bodies through it sideways.
Outside, an empty bottle of kombucha rests beside the pack of cigarettes on the end table. I glance to my left, momentarily shocked to see someone sitting in the lawn chair beside the messy ashtray. My mother suddenly looks to me like a teenager at a music festival. By the light of the neighbor’s lamp, her hair looks orange. She rocks her head ever so slightly to a beat only she can hear. I have to remind myself that this is my mother so that I can see the woman sitting on the lawn chair as I’ve known her all my life. And I have to remind myself of her age so that I know how to speak to her and so that this unfamiliar feeling can leave me.
“You smoking, too?” I follow my words with a chuckle.
She chuckles along with me. “I never understand smoking,” she says. And with that, my mother has returned. I brace myself, ready to take whatever she’ll throw at me next while Dean and I light our cigarettes, feeling weightless from the initial hit of nicotine. I’m conscious of her looking at my face as I do.
“You can try it,” Dean says to her, his mouth slanted with a smirk. “Might help you get what it’s all about.”
“I try it in high school at the disco,” my mother says. “I holded it in my hand the whole time because when I put it to my mouth my eyes burning.”
“That happens,” I say, doing my best to sound natural, “but then you just close your eyes.”
She closes her eyes now, and I wonder if she’s misunderstood my English. Then, it almost looks as if she’s reaching for the smokes on the table beside her. Instead, she grabs the handle of the armchair and says, “Okay, I really sleep now,” and goes inside.
I cross the balcony to snag her chair. A white cigarette stands out against the blue canvas of the seat. I can’t know if she grabbed it from the pack or if it fell out before she sat down and she just never noticed it, but I sit down anyway, and take another drag to pacify myself.
“What did she come out here for, I wonder?” Dean says.
“I don’t know.” I stare at the overflowing ashtray beside me. Stacks of white and gray ash rest at its rim, flecks mark the cracking wood below it.
“I imagine she’s having a hard time shutting her brain off.”
“Maybe.” The ashtray smells more stale than smoky. Now that I’ve looked at it, I can’t un-smell it. “I’m surprised she didn’t say anything about us smoking.”
“Well, she must know that she can’t do anything about it. She can’t force you to quit.” He’s got his elbows up and behind him, resting on the handrail, so that he’s facing me.
“You don’t understand,” I say. “She never lets up. If she so much as catches a glimpse of my lighter, she’ll start going on about how she can see the skin around my eyes turning yellow or how my grandfather died of emphysema.”
“So why didn’t she say anything now? Because I’m here?”
“No, that’s not it,” I say.
“Then what is it?”
“That’s what I’m wondering.”
Between the blinds, I spot her feeling her way around the kitchen, looking for the light switch. I almost get up to help her, but then I see her find the handle of the fridge, open it up, and use the light of it to guide her way to the cupboard with the cups. Her movements are quick, almost careless, like she could be drunk. Like she’s finished off the rest of our wine in the time I haven’t been looking. Then I take a deep drag, let it fill my lungs to capacity, tilt my head back so my neck muscles are taut, and blow the smoke high above my head, waiting for the rumble of the next plane.