Mother and Child
Kyle is on her way home for Christmas. Home home, as in, where she grew up. She sits stiff in her bulkhead window seat, chewing on the teat of her water bottle and watching other passengers file in. She’s got her dog with her on the flight, her big retriever, the first time she’s flown with him, and she almost wishes a stranger would complain about it. Just enough for an excuse to get mad back at someone out loud. The only reason she didn’t take Iggy when she flew home last year was because her mom doesn’t like dogs, and this time—well.
A flight attendant presses a coffeepot button and Iggy whines at the beep. The attendant turns, looks maybe admonishing, and Kyle puts a defensive, ready hand on Iggy’s neck. The attendant just winks and says, “He knows the coffee’s bad.”
Kyle sighs. She grips Iggy’s collar’s leather strap. She could ask to have a drink before takeoff. Even at twenty-nine, airplane mini-whiskeys always seem riskily grown-up. She raises two shy fingers, but the attendant is looking away now. He’s smiling at the cabin doors. Another attendant escorts a young girl onboard.
The girl has stringy blond hair, and a backpack, and a plastic pouch of papers on a lanyard around her neck. An unidentified minor—isn’t that what they call it? She could be five or she could be ten. Older than Kyle’s sister’s twins, but by how much? Kyle’s girlfriends would be able to tell, probably. Those trivia games at baby showers these days when everyone else knows, without guessing, about diaper tallies and babies seeing in black and white. Last time she was home, when she’d just broken up with Saul, Kyle’s sister asked over dinner, Was it because he wanted kids? and Kyle couldn’t explain how it didn’t feel that simple.
That night, at that dinner, Kyle’s dad switched the subject on her behalf. He took her out for ice cream after and got her mind off things.
He’s in Reno this year, with his brother’s family through New Year’s.
Kyle prays the attendant will walk this little girl past her row—the airline has open seating—but the girl sees Iggy and her face lights up.
The attendant whispers, “Do you want to sit with the doggie, sweetie?”
The kid takes her seat slow. Her feet don’t touch the plane floor. She says, “Can I pet him?” and she puts her hand out carefully, calmly, settling her fingers on Iggy’s taut forehead. Kyle almost tells her, Be gentle. He’s anxious.
Iggy nuzzles, softening under the girl’s touch.
The girl says, “I’m Pearl.” She points at Kye’s wrist, the Series 6 Kyle bought herself as a holiday present. “I like your fancy watch.”
Kyle shakes her wrist to adjust the band.
Pearl asks for Iggy’s name, and then Kyle’s. “I knew someone named Kyle who’s a boy,” she says, not good or bad, the way Kyle’s nephews say, I am dancing. “Boston’s where my mom is and she had a dog Polka who couldn’t go with her when she moved.”
“What happened to her?”
“She went to live with Roger.”
Kyle nods, like, Okay. But, the mom or the dog?
The sky’s going dark outside the porthole windows. The aisle jams with elbowing passengers. A graying man in a safari shirt stops at the bulkhead row and asks Kyle if the aisle is free. “I like the legroom,” he says. He stows a camera bag in the overhead, leaves the satchel’s strap hanging down without seeming to notice. He’s about Kyle’s dad’s age, with crow’s feet and an easy grin, and a ring, the soft of his finger grown comfortably around it. His arms and legs fall lazy, splaying into Pearl’s seat space, and he registers Iggy with lukewarm surprise, as if, impossibly, obliviously, he hasn’t noticed the dog until now.
The man nods at the lanyard around Pearl’s neck. “You must be a professional flyer.”
Pearl grins. She tells him, “It’s my first time on an airplane.”
The man looks at Kyle, an impressed face. Why didn’t you say so! He assumes they’re together, Kyle can see. She wishes she could just read her book. She wonders about her own first flight, vaguely remembers some long-ago trip where she’s small in a middle seat, her parents on either side playing rummy across her table. The memory hurts.
“Pearl was just talking about going to see her mom in Boston,” Kyle says, to clarify.
“Well, Pearl. I’m Roy.”
When the plane lurches, beginning its taxi, Iggy cants forward unprepared. His nose bumps Pearl’s knee. There’s a rip in the knee of Pearl’s jeans that Kyle hadn’t noticed, a rim of dried blood on the denim hole and a scab on the skin underneath. Pearl sees Kyle looking and says, “It’s OK.” She touches the scab with a careful finger. “I was supposed to fly yesterday, but we missed it. I fell when I was running with my bag.”
And no one put her in a new pair today, Kyle thinks. That’s bad, right?
Pearl points at an old scar on Kyle’s elbow, as if to say, You fall too.
When the attendant asks for Kyle or Roy’s confirmation they’ll assist Pearl—in an emergency, with any big problems—Roy looks at Pearl and smiles and raises his eyebrows. He says, “I don’t know, kid. You can swim, right?”
Pearl frowns. “Like at the Y?”
It’s the same as when Shannon texts teasing, haha videos of the boys doing things they don’t get are funny. Kyle feels bad. She gives the attendant a nod, but he needs to hear her say it. “Yeah,” she answers. “Yes.”
Yes, Kyle’s mom has been seeing someone. That’s the sadness, the great Donne family drama. But the problem is that Kyle knew about Brian years ago, and her mom promised it had stopped.
One night, when she was seventeen, Kyle burned through a computer cord and went to her mom’s office after hours, to pick up a spare. She found her mom and Brian, the receptionist, in an exam room, on a table. Kyle’s mom was beside herself afterward. She apologized, profusely. She called it weakness. Her humanity. Something Kyle would understand when she was older, a frustrating cliché Kyle has kept hoping will come true.
Kyle’s mom said if the rest of the family knew, it would destroy everything, for nothing. And Kyle needed to believe her. She didn’t know how she could tell anyone—like, actually tell them. So, when it came out in June about her mom’s “mistake” with “Brian who she used to work with,” Kyle couldn’t say to her devastated father, her blindsided sister, that she knew more than they did. That she’d known, without knowing it, for twelve years. That it was so much more and worse than they thought.
If you’ve been long holding a bomb that goes off in a crowd, probably no one forgives you if you tell them, I’m hurt too, or, But I believed it was dead.
The plane wobbles going up. Pearl squeals and clasps her hands.
Most people settle apathetic into books or sleep or laptops. Roy puts his headphones in and snags his bag from the overhead—Pearl gasps, pointing at the seatbelt sign—and begins cleaning his camera with a little swab. The kind of leisurely routine you’ve perfected on regular flights to worry-free destinations, Kyle thinks, a little indignant.
Pearl tap-dances her feet across Iggy’s back and says, “Look at the clouds!”
Pearl asks Kyle how cold it is outside the airplane window. Cold enough for snow? Will Kyle do snowy things over Christmas with her family in Massachusetts? Kyle asks has Pearl ever seen snow before, mostly to bumper the talk away from her own family’s activities, and Pearl shakes her head no. “There was snow in Boston last night that Daddy said I missed because I made us late,” she says. “He drove me three hours to the airport twice. Yesterday, and today all over again.” She adds this proudly, like it was nice that he went out of his way.
That’s something Kyle’s dad always says—Need anything from the grocery store, Dad? What do you want for your birthday? Don’t go out of your way, as in, Let’s not worry about me.
Kyle keeps Pearl talking about herself. Pearl likes school. Her best school friends are Lee and Ty. She likes this school better than two others she’s gone to because they hold after-school outside, and her favorite school subject is science, because they did an animal unit last month—“Mammals are all different kinds but they all have fur and the mothers do nursing.” She lives with her dad in Louisiana, and they had to drive so far because Houston is the nearest airport.
When Kyle asks Pearl if she’s always lived in Louisiana, Pearl says yes, and Iggy sits up.
“Mom used to live there too, before she went to live in Boston. I stayed with Sasha and Jax for a while until Daddy found out and I went to live with him.”
Kyle asks slowly, “How long ago was that?”
Pearl is matter of fact. “Two years.”
While Kyle works out the sad math—never been to Boston, Mom’s in Boston two years—Pearl bends and stretches for a book by Kyle’s feet, the one Kyle planned to spend the flight reading. Kyle watches Pearl study the angry cover, a young woman smashing an old clock.
Kyle clears her throat. She tells Pearl, whispering, just the two of them, “My dad’s in Nevada for Christmas.”
Pearl considers this a moment. “Yeah,” she says, nodding. Understanding. “Las Vegas.”
The metal drink cart rouses Roy from his camera screen. He pulls out his headphones and reaches for his wallet, announcing to the attendant, “Ian, let me treat my friends here.” Kyle just wants a water, but her will to pick a fight has faded. When the drinks arrive, they’re chocolate milk for Pearl and cranberry soda for Kyle, with a little airplane vodka for Kyle on the side. Roy winks and says, “I took a guess.” He ordered a tea for himself, and he turns to chat with Ian as he dips the bag in the hot water.
The plane shudders. Iggy sniffs the rippling liquid in Pearl’s cup. Pearl whispers, “Kyle” and leans toward Kyle’s shoulder. “I only like strawberry. I don’t like chocolate.”
Once, in the grocery store, when they were picking out a cake for Shannon’s birthday, Kyle’s mom said kids who don’t like chocolate aren’t kids. She said it like a joke. Kyle’s older than Shannon, and she remembers thinking, If she’s not a kid then what am I?
Roy gets up for the bathroom. Kyle slips the tiny vodka in her purse. She hands Pearl the pink soda and tells her, “We can switch.”
Pearl twirls the soda straw. “Like what Daddy makes for Joy,” she says.
The surprising tastes and smells that evoke old memories are never the ones Kyle thinks they’ll be. She cradles the chocolate drink and takes a slow sip. She’s eight, at the kitchen table after day camp, drinking Nesquik with her pancakes. A nice morning. Simple. Black and white.
The first mouthful of flavor fades away, and she takes another sip to try and get it back.
Kyle has been mostly ignoring her mom’s texts and emails, after a few accusatory phone conversations right when the part-truth broke. So Shannon called, Mom’s envoy, to summon Kyle home for Christmas. She guilted Kyle for acting childish about the separation. “Marriages are long,” she said. “Mistakes happen.” Shannon, who’s twenty months younger than Kyle, and doesn’t know she doesn’t know the full story, and has only been married four years herself.
When Kyle said it wouldn’t feel like Christmas, Shannon said, “There’s more about Christmas than walks with Dad.” Normal Christmases since Kyle moved away for college have meant walks with her father around the old neighborhood, sometimes several loops a day. He gets sentimental over the holidays, calls her Kylie and waxes nostalgic about when she was young enough that he knew her friends. He always points out new construction and says, They must have just put that up! If he does it to make her feel like the place isn’t changing too much without her, or because he actually hasn’t noticed the changes before, Kyle can never tell.
Kyle sat on her couch, on the phone, Iggy nudging her with an orange boomerang toy. Shannon said, “Give me one good reason for staying in Houston by yourself.” Her tactic was, You are alone. You are not a girlfriend or a partner or a wife. You are not a caregiver. This was partly what Kyle was afraid of—face to face with Shannon for the whole Christmas week, Shannon taunting, Give me one good reason, and Kyle unloading what she knew about good reasons, making things worse just to prove Shannon’s insulting theories wrong.
“It’s not as easy as just blaming Mom. You not talking to her is making it worse,” Shannon said. “What am I supposed to tell the boys if you’re not here? They’ll say, Aunt Ky’s not here for Santa, and where am I supposed to tell them that you are? What do you tell kids about something like that?”
Kyle and Pearl share a bag of airplane pretzels and take turns feeding Iggy. One from Kyle, one from Pearl. Happy Iggy takes each bite like its own treat. Roy, watching over a magazine, smiles and says, “Poor thing doesn’t know they’re just pretzels.”
Kyle feeds Iggy a big piece. “I think it’s nice.”
Pearl cocks her head at Kyle’s brusque tone.
They all watch Iggy lick the salt from Pearl’s little palm. The dog’s loved salty food since he was a puppy. The vet said he’d grow out of it and he hasn’t yet.
The plane bumps over a surprise air pocket and Pearl says, “I bet my mom will pick me up from the airport in Boston.”
They’re somewhere above Charleston—the cartoon arc on the TV map says it’s just over halfway. Roy turns his magazine page, and laughs, like Pearl was kidding, but Kyle rummages in the pretzel bag for a few more broken chips. She hands Pearl a piece carefully. “Was there something that had you thinking she wouldn’t?”
“She was supposed to visit over the summer,” Pearl says. She holds her hand out for Iggy’s tongue. “We did the bed on the couch all made up for her. The other sheets because that’s her favorite, purple. And she never came and when we called her she said she had to take care of Mr. Petrezzi, but I know they were the days we planned because Daddy let me put the stickers on those days on my room calendar.”
Roy picks a pretzel piece from up off the floor. He crumbles it absentmindedly into a dust that falls back down. He says, “Your mom will come get you,” and Pearl says “Okay” so easily convinced that Kyle hates to think what will happen if Roy’s simple promise is wrong.
The guy Kyle really dated, Saul, said once toward the end that needing promises and being in love were opposite ideas, and Kyle asked him what promises he resented making. He told her she was proving his point.
Pearl says, “Iggy’s thirsty” and holds out her empty soda cup. Kyle pours it full from what’s left in her Nalgene and Pearl tilts the cup for Iggy like a baby bottle. Pearl tells Iggy, “You’re a mammal.”
Kyle wonders how old Pearl’s mom might be—Kyle’s same age? A Kyle-sized Pearl with Pearl’s stringy hair? Imagine Pearl walking into baggage claim and there’s no one there for her. Kyle hopes it would be true if she said to Pearl, Things shouldn’t be this complicated for you already. But what does she know?
Kyle’s dad’s car waits for her in airport parking. He left it when he flew to Reno and mailed her a key. It will be after midnight by the time Kyle finds the car, and warms it up, and drives it out to the house. She’ll park in her dad’s old spot in the driveway, by the tree her mom once planted.
Everyone will be asleep inside, so Kyle will try to be quiet, keeping the lights off, guiding Iggy upstairs in the dark—muscle memory—and slipping into her old kid bed. Her parents have never changed her room much at all. Still the same ratty stuffies and pre-teen wall posters and striped sheets from high school. The headboard has a worn patch where she used to rub her thumb when she went to sleep nervous, and she’ll try it, to see, but it won’t work like it used to. Iggy will take up the foot space, and Kyle will feel big in a small bed.
In the morning, Christmas Eve, Kyle will get up first. Before even her sister’s little boys. She’ll put on a pot of coffee and wait in the kitchen for people to come down, elbows on the island counter, studying the water as it boils. The twins’ rocket toys have been left out on the floor by the table, and a pot is soaking in the sink. She’ll have expected them to make a bigger deal of her arrival, but maybe this is better. More real. Maybe it’ll help that it almost feels like a regular day in the familiar house.
Over Baltimore, the pilot turns off the cabin lights. Roy pulls his camera out again. He scrolls Pearl through his bright pictures and talks to her about his Hanukkah plans, the gelt and video games he packed for his grandkids’ presents. Pearl squints at the glare of the digital screen in the dark. Before she can ask about one image, Roy is on to the next.
He describes his daughter’s farm in Sherborn where his family is gathering. “It’s like the Cape without the water.”
Pearl asks, “What’s the Cape mean?”
Roy smiles. He picks up his jacket and tosses it over his shoulders like a cape cape.
Pearl touches the jacket fabric.
Kyle says, “She’s actually asking.”
A man across the aisle falls asleep. His head tips back, and he starts to snore. Looking at him, Pearl points one finger at Roy’s camera and another at the overhead compartment and asks, “Am I allowed to get something out?” It’s clear by the way she receives her backpack from the attendant that the bag is light, and she extracts a single plastic folder. She lays the bag down on the floor and says to Iggy, “A pillow.”
Kyle reaches for the seat light so Pearl can see.
Pearl tilts the folder toward Kyle’s seat.
The folder looks empty at first. Pearl pries back the pocket to reveal an assortment of photographs tucked below the flap. They’re softened, worn, but clean. No fingerprints. Handled with great care. Like Kyle’s mom with Kodaks after childhood trips—By the edges! Pearl searches for a specific photo, filing through them individually, and about ten prints in she stops and says, “This one!” She positions it under the spotlight. An image of a man asleep on a couch, a woman behind him doing bunny ears. Pearl whispers, “Cody was sleeping!” and holds the photo up toward the snoring man across the aisle, like, They look similar.
Kyle says, “Can I?”
She accepts the folder as if it’s fragile. The photos are glossy, on professional stock. She can’t think when she last held a developed picture, and it’s unsettling. Time-traveling, almost.
There are school photos of friends, little rectangles with kid signatures on the back. The mismatched rectangle sizes and backdrop colors make what Pearl said about changing several schools feel real.
There are a few candid group shots. One of Pearl at a bonfire in a whole group of children, the rest of them older. Middle or early high school, even. The most teenaged-looking girl with a plastic cup in her hands. One photo in a raggedy waterpark, a young woman dangling a laughing, bathing-suited Pearl off a deep-end diving board.
“At night in the summer,” Pearl says. “Me and Nina at the pool.”
In the photos of Pearl by herself, she looks so eerily unattended. Alone in a field with a water gun, shot from across a busy street. Posing thumbs-up for a New Dawn “All Gave Some” plaque. Cutting her own hair with brown hedge shears. Kyle accidentally presses her thumb on the haircut picture and the oil of her fingerprint sticks to the picture gloss when she pulls it back, leaving a smudge.
Kyle tells Pearl, “I’m sorry.”
Roy reaches for the waterpark picture. “Fun in the sun!”
If Kyle could just shake him and say, You’re blind! You’re blind! Imagine Pearl packing all of these to bring with her, like show and tell. Mom, this is where I live. This is where I go to school. This is when they waved at me across a speeding boulevard. But, at the same time, who looks better—the mom-person who wasn’t there when these were taken, or the one who was?
Kyle says, “Thank you for letting me see.” She hooks a wary finger through Iggy’s leather collar and tugs. It’s not her business. If she disapproves, she can’t tell of who. She has Pearl walk her through each photo one by one until the plane lands in Boston, and still she isn’t sure she’s done Pearl’s unknowing vulnerability justice.
Christmas Eve morning, Shannon will come down first, and then her husband with the boys, and then Kyle’s mom. Kyle will hug her mom because it would look weird not to. Her mom will smell the same, the Baby Soft perfume her dad’s been gifting since forever. She’ll still have her ring on.
Other than asking about the trip, Kyle’s mom will mostly hang back, watching the twins wrestle with Iggy. Kyle will pour Shannon coffee and tell her, “I did the roast half and half.”
Shannon will say, “Two years ago we couldn’t get you up before noon.” She’ll point to their mom in the corner, mouthing, Talk to her.
Kyle’s nephews say Houston like Ooston. “What’s far away as Ooston? Santa’s far as Ooston?” The T-shirts Kyle gave them last year still fit, so she must have guessed their size too big before, which is funny—they seem like babies now, compared to the fresh idea of Pearl on the plane. Kyle will tell them they have to come visit Texas and see it’s not so far, her brother-in-law looking at her like, We’ve heard that before.
When the boys say, “Aunt Ky plays Duplos?” and Kyle’s about to say yes, Shannon will tell them, “Not Aunt Ky, boys. Go easy on Aunt Ky. What did we say?”
There will be a lull in the late morning, the time Kyle and her dad would usually take one of their Christmas walks. Kyle will think about driving his car around the neighborhood instead, but then the idea seems cheesy. Like what she might have done if she was mad in high school. She’ll go from room to room noting the persisting signs of him. She imagined the house scrubbed Dad-clean, cut and dry, but he’s still in the pictures on the wall. His cereal’s still in the pantry. Some of his coats are still in the closet, tucked toward the back.
Shannon will find Kyle in the Florida room, thumbing through an old Guitar World of his, and she’ll ask, “Where’s Mom?” accusingly, like Kyle’s banished her mother somewhere.
Kyle will say, “I’ll go look.”
They’re the first ones to deboard, because of their row. Pearl leads Kyle and Iggy down the jetway, saying, “You get to meet her now!” and Roy trails behind them, on the phone, unconcerned. The more Pearl skips and pulls her along, the more it convinces Kyle that even if Pearl’s mom does show up, she’ll be late or unexcited in a way that will complicate Pearl’s familiarity with disappointment.
They emerge from the passage and Pearl’s mom is there, beside a TSA agent, shifting from one waiting foot to another. She’s just different enough from what Kyle was picturing to be surprising. Despite her hard face, Kyle guesses the woman is a few years younger than her—around Shannon’s age. She has a lanyard around her neck that matches Pearl’s. She has well drawn-on eyebrows that have smeared a bit throughout her day, and a shoulder-bag that saddles her skinny frame. Her clothes are black shoes and black jeans and a white dress shirt that bows open between the buttons, the kind of outfit that is probably a uniform and makes Kyle guilty in her leisurely plane clothes. Pearl’s mom looks tired and nervous. She holds a pink milkshake, in a cup with an orange TSA sticker, like she went through special screening to get it past security.
Pearl sees her and runs forward. They hug, a tight hug, and stay holding each other for several seconds. Pearl’s mom says tenderly, “You’re taller,” and she wipes her cheek. She touches a finger to the knee rip in Pearl’s jeans. She hands Pearl the strawberry drink.
Pearl says, “You remembered.”
Iggy pulls his leash and Kyle holds him back, embarrassed at the choke in her own throat. Roy strolls past waving a contented, told-you-so goodbye.
Pearl calls Kyle over, saying, “Kyle’s from my flight! And her dog!”
Kyle inches forward, trying to keep a respectful distance. She snaps for Iggy to sit. She wraps her right hand around her left wrist to cover the fancy new watch, but then she’s afraid Pearl’s mom saw her do it. Pearl’s mom frowns and puts a protective hand on Pearl’s shoulder.
Kyle says, “She did great,” and it sounds presumptuous out loud. “I mean, the plane didn’t scare her is all I meant.”
Pearl’s mom says, “They assigned you to sit with her?”
“I think they just thought she’d like my dog.” Kyle coils Iggy’s leash tight around her arm. “All she talked about was how excited she is for Boston. For your guys’ Christmas.”
Pearl’s mom says, “I know.” She hoists the heavy purse on her shoulder, ready to leave.
Kyle stands there with them. She knows she should say goodbye, and she doesn’t understand what she’s waiting for.
Kyle will find her mom in bed, on top of the sheets, curled away from the door. Kyle won’t immediately step forward, but she also won’t back away. She’ll hold out her mug and say, “Do you need coffee?”
It will be clear her mom’s been crying by the careening way she says Kyle’s name.
Iggy, who follows Kyle in, will hop onto the end of the bed and sit, glancing between them. Kyle’s mom won’t shoo him off like she might have last year. Kyle will walk around to the other side of the mattress—her dad’s side—and get in. Face to face.
Kyle will scoot forward, reluctantly. Nervously. She’ll budge one hand between her mom’s head and the pillow, wrap it around her mom’s back. She’ll use her other hand to lift her mom’s top arm and drape it across her own shoulders. They’ll lie that way a few moments, each of them holding with one arm and being held with another.
“Iggy’s on my feet,” Kyle’s mom will say. “It’s warm.”
“She’s good at that.”
They’ll both wait for the other to say something more. Downstairs, the boys yelling something and Shannon yelling back. The metronome clock on Kyle’s mom’s dresser ticking. The stiff pillowcase cotton crinkling under the weight of their two heads.
Kyle’s mom will say, “I know you’re mad at me.”
The clock clicks. Her mom does look pretty when she cries. Have men told her that? Kyle will wonder. How many? And who? And where? And when?
“I’m mad at me too,” Kyle’s mom will tell her.
“I can see that.”
One of them squeezing the other one. Hard to tell which, their long, close limbs.
“The last time you climbed in bed with me,” Kyle’s mom will say, “you were small enough to tickle my shins with your socks.” A shaky breath. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.”
Kyle will study her mom’s sad, pretty face. Up this close, it’s hard to tell the parts that have aged and the ones that haven’t. Kyle will say, “I miss him too.” She’ll wish her mom would say she’s sorry. She’ll want her to say it the two ways—I apologize, and also, I know you do sweetie. There, there. Child and mother, mother and child. Both, at the same time.
Kyle’s mom asks, “Will you let me talk to you about it?”
While they linger at the gate, Pearl’s mom says, “—Well.” And Kyle wishes she could apologize to this tired, unknown woman. For interrupting the moment. For having believed she might not come. But Kyle also wishes there was a way she could ask, What kind of mother are you? Half in the shameful, condescending way of still judging for the bits she does know, and half in the way of really wanting—needing—to understand about the give and take. The moving away, and the showing up. The strawberry milkshake remembered. The long road getting here. The full story.
With her head crooked on her arm on the pillow, Kyle’s neck will ache, but she won’t move. She’ll stay, hurt, listening, for longer than she would have thought she’d be willing to.