Shades of Regret
Mother traveled to Kyoto one evening. Glided across the Pacific, landed on a red arched bridge illuminated by swinging lanterns, peered down into waters that reflected her image with greater frankness than any mirror. Her feet tingled on a moss-covered path leading to a Confucian temple, mist encircling it like a living creature. Ceremonial bells chimed. The sharp aroma of an ancient camphor tree filled her nostrils.
All in a single night. By daybreak, she’d returned to the indignities of her bedroom-turned-death room, complete with a metal hospital bed and plastic tubes plugged into her body.
I thought at first that these journeys were induced by the morphine injected into her IV by the hospice nurse, but I began to wonder after the day our hospital volunteer came by and they perused the travel section of the paper together. They discussed the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, particularly a pearly-sand beach frequented by bare-chested Rastafarians with hair coiling to their waists, the deep sheen of their skin lovely in the sun. They talked about a spot on the beach where a local boy created sculptures from wet sand, a team of white horses rising from his fingers. About a hiking trail leading into the rainforest, fringed by towering palms that blotted out the sky, and a clearing inhabited by chattering white-faced monkeys so tame they ate right out of her hand, and warm rain that slipped through her lips and cooled her parched mouth.
“Your mother has such great stories about her travels,” said the volunteer when I walked him to the door.
“Oh, Mother hasn’t actually been to any of those places,” I said. “That’s the morphine talking. She’s never set foot outside of the U.S.”
He turned to me, puzzled, unsmiling. “Oh, no, Bella. I lived in Costa Rica for many years. I know that hiking trail–it’s near a town called Puerto Viejo. She couldn’t describe it in such detail without having seen it. Trust me.”
And so I began listening more closely to her morning travel accounts, her words unhurried, precise, half an octave higher than normal, the voice of a small child in deep wonder.
One night she boarded a night train coursing through the drenched English countryside as she warmed her hands on a mug of hot chocolate, whipped cream glistening like a rose in the center of her cup. Later she kneeled on a dirt floor under a thatched roof and spun purple fabric with a Guatemalan woman whose fingers danced across a loom. A calf poked its head through the door and listened to the shifting shuttle.
“Like nothing I’ve ever felt before, these dreams,” she whispered.
* * *
She thought I didn’t remember, but I knew exactly how she felt.
The year I turned five, a family friend who directed civic theater gave me a small part in a summer production. With the passing of time, I could no longer remember my lines, or the name of the play, or any of the cast and crew. But I remembered standing on stage before my performance with a straw wreath on my head, staring into the velvet folds of the stage curtains. When they parted, a sold-out theater stretched before me, the closest rows packed with eager faces, farther rows receding into darkness. The theater fell silent. I sensed the audience’s anticipation as I stood there, alone. Finally, I spoke my few lines. And as I finished and curtseyed, the theater exploded into cheers.
I closed my eyes. The applause swept me upwards into the shadows, left me breathless. I found myself gliding through the night sky on a moonbeam, dancing high above a world flowing with possibilities.
I spent years trying to recapture that moment. It was the almostness that dogged me, the sense that I was forever on the cusp of something extraordinary, right there, ready for the taking. If only I could reach it.
I know what you feel, Mom. Oh, how I wanted to tell her, but she had escaped back into her dreams.
* * *
There was nothing heavenly about Danny Divine, my boss and sole proprietor of Divine Capital Group. The ‘Group’ part of the name embarrassed me. We were a two-person operation occupying a cramped office above a trattoria bursting with the sounds of people imbibing too much midday wine, the aroma of meatballs wafting up a light shaft to my cubicle.
I was Danny Divine’s bean counter and lizard-sitter. When the employment agency first called with contact information, his name reminded me vaguely of porn films, of the narrow door ensconced in a corner of my neighborhood video store with a lopsided “Over 18 Only” sign, its opaque window like a sad, unseeing eye. Though if I ever told Danny that his name sounded like a porn star’s, he’d surely take it as a compliment.
Must love animals, said the job description. With some relief, I learned that this didn’t refer to customers or co-workers but to a two-pound Chinese water dragon named Moe, the discarded pet of Danny’s adolescent son, who’d grown bored with it once girls came on the radar.
Moe lived in a glass reptarium beside my desk. He was jungle green, with an uneven frill that wound down his back and ended in a brown-ringed tail. I replenished his water bowl every day and fed him crickets that he chewed in loud satisfaction. Solitude suited him—he spent hours hiding in the foliage but approached the glass and rubbed his nose against it when he was in the mood to come out. I lifted him to his favorite spot on the hutch above my computer and he watched me with yellow eyes as I tapped numbers into never-ending spreadsheets.
People should be this easy.
Danny came in at midmorning, tanned and unhurried, dressed in sweatpants and flip-flops, ready for another day of wheeling and dealing.
“How ya’ doing?” he asked too loudly as he breezed by my desk without waiting for a response and then left his door half-open as he placed a series of calls on his speaker phone. One to his contractor regarding a renovation project, nailing him with impossible deadlines. Another to his ex-wife for a surly discussion about next weekend’s custodial visit. A concluding call was to Lois, the maintenance woman at an apartment complex he owned on Garin Road.
Lois came in weekly with supply receipts and pastries to share, still warm from the oven and wrapped in foil. She had salt-and-pepper hair, an oddly bent back, and hands covered with paint stains and fresh Band-Aids, but she laughed with ease. She spoke in Midwestern vowels that soothed me, conjuring images of wheat fields and windmills. When Danny wasn’t around, we’d sit and talk about her ups and downs—the wayward son who hoped to make parole this year, the grandson she was raising, in second grade already. She beamed when she talked about him.
Lois and I stood united in our dislike of Danny, though our fondness for a regular paycheck prevented us from saying so to his face. I listened to him on his speaker phone interrogating her over a carpet-cleaning bill.
“How the hell can it cost this much to clean a damn rug?” He leaned back in his swivel chair, receipts scattered across his desk. “You know what I think, Lois? I think you’re f*cking nickel and diming me, that’s what I think.”
I hated the silence at her end of the line.
“But Danny . . .” Her words were slow, like a crawl. “I brought you the receipt. It’s all there—”
I watched him through the door. He wasn’t even listening to her. He picked up a paper menu from the trattoria and browsed it.
“Danny? Are you there?”
He laughed, tossed the menu aside. “Lois, I’m kidding. Don’t you know a bad joke when you hear it?’
Another long pause. I held my breath, hoping this would be the moment, a day of reckoning at Divine Capital.
Finally, she spoke, her voice shaky. “How about I bring over some nice peach cobbler?”
On my shelf, Moe cocked his head, stretched out his tongue, and snacked on a passing spider.
At home that afternoon, I found Mother sitting up in bed with a makeup bag in her lap. She was applying brown eyeliner, striving for just the right look, her tongue peeking out of one side of her mouth. She had been a head-turner in her day, but now at almost sixty, her face was a soft symmetry of crisscrossed skin, the calling card of a hard life. Even so, when she turned toward me, a girlish glee glimmered in her smile.
“How do you like this nail polish?” she asked, holding her hands up, fingers splayed. “Peony Petals.” Her voice was as deep and full as warm brandy.
On days like this, I swore the oncologist had it all wrong. I deferred my fear of the vast void she would leave behind.
Lois came by later, and while Mother slept, we ate tuna sandwiches at the breakfast bar. I talked about her travel dreams and Lois nodded, chewing slowly.
“Your mother’s living her could-have-beens,” she said. “They comfort her.”
As a young woman, before all her bad decisions—choosing the wrong man, marrying too young, having me too soon—my mother wished to be a kind of mercy-traveler, to journey the globe delivering healing with her fingertips. It was what she did best. I remembered the shame of adolescence, my disgust at the acne sprinkled across my face, the swelling of new breasts, episodes of menstrual pain, my bloated teenaged body. She’d massage my back with soft hands until the pain subsided. I almost believed her when she said it would all get better someday.
But Lois’s explanation made no sense to me. I shook my head. “I just don’t see how regret can console anybody.”
“Depends on which kind you’re talking about,” she said. “There are a few, you know. The kind that buries you, for instance. Or the kind that keeps you breathing.”
We finished eating in silence. Shades of regret? I just didn’t see it.
* * *
I called Lucas, my estranged but not-yet-ex-husband, to share some of this. We’d met two years before during a rainy cab ride when my Range Rover was in the shop. I was turning thirty-seven, growing fearful of a constricting future, mortgage papers and morning sickness receding into ever-dimming possibilities. He was younger than I by five years, handsome in a pubescent way, with a self-conscious smile and pale hands. He worked as a cabbie by day, as a writer by night, and said little except when discussing his novel in progress or his fascination with existential literature.
I bulldozed my way into his life. In the year that followed, I convinced him to take a full-time job in the English department at St. Gregory’s Prep School, persuaded both of us that we’d be stronger together than apart. He watched nervously as I moved appliances into his loft, rearranged his furniture, traded his cab for a used BMW. In exchange for all that—a very fair exchange, in my opinion—I agreed to simple nuptials at Dreamweaver Wedding Chapel in Reno, witnesses supplied by a red-faced minister with the voice of a weatherman.
It didn’t take long for Lucas’s writing life to expire. He’d come home from his day of teaching, deposit himself on our futon, and dedicate the rest of his day to sitcoms and late-night talk shows. Months went by. His unhappiness was obvious. I knew I was guilty of flattening a weak but good man to mask my own unhappiness, but I hoped he’d recover.
Finally, he awakened me one night in the early morning hours, glassy-eyed, with a plea.
“I have to find my way back to writing,” he told me. “I need to finish my novel. If you would just give me some space—just for a while—I can focus, clear my head . . .”
So for six months I made weekly phone calls to him from my mother’s house in the hopes that he’d achieved sufficient head-clearing so we could get on with the business of marriage.
One morning I called early, 6:30, before he headed for St. Greg’s. A woman answered the phone. A drowsy-sounding woman. One glance at my cell phone confirmed it was the correct number.
“Hello—is—AH—Lucas there?” I could barely string words together.
“Um, hold on.” A long yawn rose from the receiver. “I think he’s in the shower.”
There was the thud of the telephone. Muffled voices sounded in the background. When he got on the line, he sounded breathless. I pictured him standing there, helpless-looking, the familiar curl dipping into his forehead, a quality I once found endearing.
“Hello?” he said.
I couldn’t answer.
“Hello, hello…Bella, is that you?”
I replaced the receiver, pressing my hands onto the granite countertop, trying to steady myself.
Later, at Mom’s bedside, I watched her sleep, skin jasmine-pale. I straightened the sheets and drew them farther up her chest. Her eyes fluttered open and circled slowly before finding a resting place on my blotchy face. She watched me for a long moment.
“It’s Lucas, isn’t it?” she whispered. Her hand inched across the sheet and touched my fingers, by which she meant—But of course, you knew this was coming, didn’t you?
* * *
I summoned Lucas a few days later and waited for him on the front porch in the shade of stalwart oleander flanking me like watchmen. He up the brick walkway, barely recognizable. The curly ponytail was gone, his hair shaved to a fruity fuzz, erasing his old boyishness. His face abounded in angles now—nose too prominent, lips too thin, outer corners of his eyes sloping downwards. He took a seat on the steps without looking at me and waited a long moment as he rubbed a scuff mark on his loafers.
“How is she?” he asked finally.
“She sleeps a lot. Down to about a hundred pounds.” I didn’t mention her night travels. They belonged to me now.
Lucas’s foot bounced in place on the walkway, reducing him to a grown man in fidgets. A breeze rattled the screen door behind me. It reminded me of the night I brought him up these steps to meet my mother, how he sat at the dinner table expounding on his current fascination with Kierkegaard, dissecting the meal she prepared for him. Her eyes followed every twist of the fork as he removed ingredients not to his liking and parked them at the edge of his plate.
“So who was that on the telephone?” I asked him.
“Oriana,” he said. “She joined the art department just this year.”
I pictured a brunette with meaty legs, stale perfume on sex-stained sheets. “Is she living with you?”
He drew in a long breath. “It’s been…gradual. But, yes, I guess you could say so.”
“Have you talked to an attorney yet?”
His face hardened. “Of course not, Bella. It can wait.”
A burst of wind rushed through the oleander, a sound like wings. In a flash I remembered standing on this spot after that disastrous dinner, watching him walk to his cab. My mother had waved and turned from the sound of the engine gunning down the street. She pulled her sweater tight across her chest.
“His love letters must be out of this world, being a writer and all.”
She’d caught me off-guard. I turned to her, annoyed, searched her face for the sarcasm but found only fatigue. Then my irritation quickly gave way to wonder—where did it come from, this talent of hers for peeling back the layers of a situation and examining the soft underside? How could she know that he’d never written me— never would write me—anything remotely resembling a love letter?
Now I watched Lucas sitting on my porch step, thinking so well of himself as he spared me any divorce-talk for the moment.
“No, it can’t wait,” I said. “I want to you to speak to an attorney today. I want it done right away.”
Finally, he looked me in the eye, his face taut. I stepped inside and did not hear his answer.
* * *
Late summer arrived.
“It’ll be over soon. Maybe a few more days,” the hospice nurse said in a gentle voice. She turned to her file, jotted down some notes.
I knew this already because Mother’s dreams had changed. They burdened her. She returned to me each morning with dull, upturned eyes tracing the air.
A few nights ago she landed on crumbling boulders. Bighorn sheep skipped overhead, and a rattlesnake took shelter from searing sunlight between dusty stones. But it was the wind that lured her, the whoosh past her ears, like a voice bellowing through parched bodies of cactus.
“I need to go back,” she whispered. “I need to hear what the wind had to say.”
Her voice was so weak that I had to bend down close. I smoothed her face, wordlessly giving her permission to go, assuring her of my well-being. I could believe it now. My fear was gone.
A month after she passed, I left a scrawled resignation letter on Danny Divine’s desk. He would also discover that I kidnapped his lizard, tank and all, though I doubted he’d send troopers after me. In my driveway, Lois stood silently as I carried suitcases and cardboard boxes to the Jeep. Worry puckered her forehead. She glanced at the carrier I’d gotten for Mo, with a basking light and canned worms for the road. Her eyes widened in slow bewilderment.
“What is all this, Bella?”
I wrapped my arms around her and told her of my planned journey—of my search for a white beach fringing a rainforest where a boy created horses out of the sand. And a hiking trail surrounded by towering palms that blot out the sky, and a clearing inhabited by chattering white-faced monkeys so tame they’d eat right out of my hand.
Stephanie Bolaños lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches English as a Second Language. She won the runner-up spot in the 2015 San Francisco Writers’ Conference contest for her novel-in-progress, As Snow in Time of Harvest. Her short story, Faces, was selected as a finalist in the 2015 Short Story America contest. Her fiction has appeared in bosque, The 3Elements Review, and Barbaric Yawp.