Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Betraying a weakness

My mother lets out a cry, a sharp intake of breath stifling a pained sob. "My table!" An apparent scratch, a thin line like wood wriggling across white, about an inch long at the very middle of the table. Her face is clenched in an awful vise, part horror, part dismay, part dam against the welling of tears.

I know that face. I've inherited that face.

It turns out not to be a scratch, not in the veneer but on close examination bulging convex on its surface. The faintest whisper of a drizzle of jam tracing the shadow of the spoon path from jar to plate. Or maybe chocolate milk splatter from the flick of Helena's straw. It flakes away under my fingernail. My mother sighs with relief.

The table is near 25 years old. Round, white particle board atop tubular legs. Nothing special.

An extreme, unjustified reaction, I think, on the part of my mother. I wonder was it always this way? Was she always like this? When I was little, too? Or did it start only after I left home?

It's a long week.

Helena is tired after a full day's shopping, and bored. I'm on the phone. Helena bundles up a doll, finds keys, packs a purse with snacks, for their metro journey to some imaginary place. My purse. My purse after our shopping expedition contains a bottle of cranberry juice, about a third full. Helena gives some to her doll and returns it to my purse. I'm on the phone.

I relay hugs and kisses from her Papa. Helena invites me to sit beside her in the metro, asks if I'm thirsty, retrieves the bottle from the purse, offers me a sip of her juice. I grasp the bottle. Not just sticky. Dripping.

I grab my purse and set it on the kitchen table (yes, that kitchen table), stretch open its mouth and begin the extraction with a lump in my throat, as if the removal of contents in the wrong order might release a secondary detonation from the shallow red pool collected at the bottom.

I don't mind about the purse, my carryall, a messenger bag really. Wallet, case for my glasses, comb, powder compact, empty tupperware-type snack container, pens — all wipe clean easily. A package of kleenex, some stray receipts are garbage. The bag itself rinses easily, will be dry well before I leave the house again. It's the books I mind about.

I take a deep breath. Helena has already apologized, is standing by, wanting to help. I say nothing. We take care of our books. She knows this. And you shouldn't play with mommy's purse either. She doesn't often, and when she does I don't mind. This was an accident, I know. I wipe the books down, fan the pages, prop them up to dry. I go hide in the bathroom to cry.

My emergency transit reading, a cheap Dover Thrift Edition, I expected to someday look worn. But I feel sorry for Harold's Circus, purchased just the day before — for $3.99 and it's not even mine.

Weeks later, my transit reading is back in my bag — the dye crept off the page as it dried, leaving a faint pink tinge along the book's bottom edge. Harold also retained barely any colour; the bottom few millimetres of every page are "water" stained and lightly rippled — it looks still wet. It has not diminished Helena's enjoyment of the story.

That night we survey the damage. It's still wet, but that's not going to stop us from reading it. Very seriously Helena tells me, "C'est pas grave, Maman."

Something passed between us that day, a look, when first I yelped and later when my eyes were tired. She knows I overreacted. And she knows I know I overreacted. I think she is both startled and amused by this knowledge, puzzled by what (im/ap)plication it might have. I can't help feeling like I've given her something she may choose to call up many years from now — ammunition.
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