Love Where You Work by Anna Pulley
Clare knew better than to answer the phone. The only person who ever called her at stupid o’clock was her mother, and even though Carole was thousands and thousands of miles away, her mother’s presence was so strong she may as well have been standing right there in Clare’s tastefully minimalist living room.
Clare hovered over the phone, its singsong chirp like a robotic gnat in her ear. But then something tugged in her—guilt or resignation perhaps, or the singular ache of obligation that comes from being the only child of a widow.
If only she’d act like one, Clare thought unkindly.
Clare answered the video call and her mother’s bright, pixelated face flitted onto the screen.
“My lover and I have taken to the alps, darling,” Carole said. “You would not believe it. You can even drink the water from the tap!”
“Where are you now?”
Carole conferred with her “lover.” That’s what her mother called him. Not by his name, god forbid, (which was Simon). “We’re in Lugano, Switzerland, in a charming little villa overlooking the lake.”
Carole attempted to show Clare the lake, but because she didn’t understand how to flip the phone’s screen, instead showed Clare a blurry, pink image of what might have been her mother’s palm.
“It’s pretty,” Clare pretended.
Though Clare had heard of midlife crises, she wasn’t sure if this could be applied to her mother, who was in her early sixties. A measly 10 months after Clare’s father had died, Carole had taken out a new lease on life. Her mother, who had never left the United States, who had been with one man her entire life, had suddenly, inexplicably, sold her house to “travel the world,” and taken up with “a charming, younger South African man” she met in her senior tour group, Yes We Cane!
“The photos don’t do it justice. You must experience it for yourself, darling.”
“The tap water’s pretty good in Oakland, actually. You’d be surprised.”
“Oh, hush now. You know that’s not what I meant. They’ve been working you to the bone over there. Isn’t it time to take a vacation, darling? You know, live a little?”
“I live!” Clare retorted, scratching a red, scaly patch of skin at her elbow until it bled.
“Don’t do that, darling,” Carole said, “and don’t scrunch your face up like that, it makes you look 50 years old.”
Clare softened her face, then gently dabbed at the small open wound she had just made, attempting to soothe it with spit. Her shoulders tensed with dullness and anti-gravity. “Besides,” she said, “I do things. Lots of things.”
“Oh,” Clare’s mother replied, pity and tenderness soaking up her syllables like the sweet German wine she was surely drinking, no matter what time it was. It’s happy hour somewhere was a quote she was fond of saying. “You aren’t referring to that macrame class, are you? Though I will say, the net you sent was very … nice. It had many … quaint knots.”
“It was an owl, mom.”
“Yes, okay, an owl.”
As her mother gently berated her, Clare scurried about her apartment. Everything in it was beige or white, with occasional touches of gray, and nothing was out of place. The surfaces were stone and vast and smooth, except for one large off-white living room rug, which Clare often walked around and not directly on, to avoid getting it dirty. No personal items were scattered about—no bills or receipts, no postcards from her mother, no silly tchotchke that a coworker bought for her from their travels abroad. Her refrigerator was polished steel that was so shiny it could almost serve as a mirror, which sometimes it did, when Clare wanted to view her body but not too clearly. She kept the small amount of books she owned—mostly personal finance tomes and HR Fundamentals, plus a hardbound copy of The Old Man and the Sea, which she’d never read—in her bedroom closet. The erotica collections she kept under lock and key in her desk drawer, lest any guests swing by and judge her for them. Not that anyone came by lately.
She reached for her flats and purse (beige and eggshell-colored, respectively), glancing at the macrame plant holder she had made that summer that drooped near her bedroom window, looking for all the world like a mop that had hung itself. The plant inside of it was most assuredly dead, though Clare couldn’t bring herself to check, preferring to think of it as a Shroedinger’s cat experiment—it was only dead if she checked. Until then, it might be alive! Besides, she kept meaning to get a new plant—surely it would help offset all the neutral tones in her apartment—but who had the time! It was all too much for Clare to think about.
“I’ve gotta run, mom. I have to make this doctor’s appointment before work.”
“And you’ve been doing the lukewarm showers?”
Clare grabbed her keys and the brown leather bag that housed her work laptop. “Yes, mom,” she lied. “I’ve gotta go.”
“Okay, I’ll call you when we get to Austria. My lover got us tickets to the Freud museum. I wonder if they’ll mention his love of, you know, frosty flakes.”
“You know, the devil’s Flonase, the Ziggy Stardust, the ol’ snow blower.”
“Are you talking about cocaine?”
“Yes! My, some of us are slow this morning.” She tilted her forehead at Clare, to drive the point home further. As she did so, Carole swiveled and Clare finally glimpsed the view behind her mother’s head. Glittering through the villa’s bay windows was a view of the most beautiful lake Clare had ever seen. It was the kind of blue that made one drop things. That made one question one’s life decisions. That made one use the word sublime unironically. In the face of such vividness, Clare felt a nip of exhilaration at her neck, a panoramic shock of pleasure she hadn’t allowed herself to feel in, well, she wasn’t sure how long. Then she blinked, and the melancholy returned.
“I guess some of us haven’t had our ‘powdered sugar’ this morning,” Clare said.
Carole ignored Clare’s attempt at boomer drug slang. “Oh, that reminds me, darling. Remember Katarina, the Oloffs’ daughter?”
“June tells me she’s getting married. You should really call her.”
“I haven’t spoken to Katarina in 20 years, mom. I highly doubt she wants to hear from me.”
“Of course she does! Aren’t you friends on the Facebook?”
“Such a lovely girl, really. And so ambitious! Vera tells me she’s hosting a gala for Ethiopian refugees at the Savon and Bono’s hairdresser is going to be there.”
Hearing this, Clare couldn’t help but put a tiny pinprick in Carole’s rosy-hued fantasy balloon.
“Who’s she marrying?”
“Well, her partner of course, darling.”
“Yes, but which one? Katarina’s poly.”
“She’s double jointed?”
“No, mom. Polyamorous. It means she has relationships with multiple people. She has at least two partners, according to ‘the’ Facebook.”
“Is that so?”
Clare felt as if she could hear the gears in her mother’s head turning and felt the tiniest bit of satisfaction in confessing a truth that she had been deeply aware of since childhood: that all children were a disappointment to their parents. And vice versa.
Then Carole said: “How is it that Katarina has two committed, loving partners and you can’t even find one?”
Clare’s face burned as if she’d been struck.
“Think about what I said, darling,” Carole continued in her usual singsong manner. “The days are long but the years are short. I read that in an ad for psoriasis medication in Oprah’s magazine. You can always come join my lover and I on our travels. Maybe you could even bring a friend or a … special someone.”
“There are no someones, Mom, special or otherwise. There’s only work, which you’re going to make me late to again if you don’t let me off the phone.”
“Work work work. You sound just like your father. Just think about it! Ciao ciao. Or as they say in Austria, auf lederhosen!”