Tequila Mama - A Short Story
I walk into the playground of the nursery, pass by the cypress, the bed of spice-plants and the violet bougainvillea, go down the steps and open the door cautiously. There’s no one in the lobby. Little satchels, pink, blue and red, with Batman, Barbie, Spiderman and Winnie the Pooh, hang on the hooks. Raincoats are densely crowded on the walls. Prams pushed into a corner.
I peer into the big room. Children are sitting on the carpet around the teacher. They are listening to a short story about the “little engine that could”. My little boy turns to me and sees me, but he doesn’t get up, he doesn’t run, he doesn’t jump all over me and doesn’t hug me. He just sits in the circle and looks at me. His eyes are open but the look in them is blank. He seems sad. I move closer to the children and the teacher and pick up my little boy and take him out of the circle, and he leans his head on my shoulder. He is small and light and he presses against me warmly and he smells sweet, like a child of three and a half. He doesn’t speak.
What’s happened, I ask him, and he says nothing. Where are your shoes? He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t rush to fetch them from the pile of shoes, he doesn’t take from the pile shoes that are too big or too pink or just shoes that aren’t his, to tease, to play a game, he doesn’t laugh and jump and doesn’t show me a new toy, he doesn’t hide his shoes behind the hen-coop. He doesn’t move. I sit him down on the bench and go to fetch the shoes and we put them on and I pick him up again and he leans his head on my shoulder. I wait for the teacher to finish reading the story. The other children disperse to their mothers, to nannies and fathers, and I ask the teacher what’s happened, and she says, nothing, why? She adds that he’s been happy and he played nicely all morning, as usual. She smiles. She strokes my little boy’s head. Perhaps he was a bit quiet today, she remembers, but he is quiet sometimes, as you know, she says.
I don’t understand. She doesn’t seem worried.
We walk home. My little boy holds my hand and walks beside me. I try to slow the pace down, so he won’t be dragged along behind me, but this is hard, it isn’t natural, I forget. From time to time I remember and shorten my steps, reducing them to his size, moving at a snail’s pace, it’s tiring but I’m making an effort, walking almost at a standstill, bending, stooping, the muscles in my back strained towards him, I’m making an effort because my little boy’s face has fallen. I try to get him to talk, how was nursery today, who did you play with, did you feed the hen, which stories did you read, do you like the little engine that could? But his head is bowed, his eyes on the pavement. We continue in silence, turning into our street, climbing the steps.
Instead of going to the fridge, helping himself to a chocolate drink and sitting down in front of the television, my little boy goes to his room and lies on the bed. He lies on his stomach. He covers his exposed cheek with his little hand. I lean over him and ask him what the matter is, if he wants chocolate, or coconut milk, or tea with milk, maybe he’d like a slice of halva, I tell him there’s an episode of Balmory starting soon, his favourite, I tickle him and kiss him on the head, but he just flinches and tells me to stop.
I cover my little boy with a blanket and say to him, that’s all right, when you want to talk to me, come to me, or call me, I’ll be in the study. I sit down at the computer and read again the mail that I’ve read ten times already. Or twenty. I want to answer, I want to reply, I want to send the last word, but I don’t know how to start. I want to send an empty mail. I want to send my voice, all of it, screeched and yelled, so it will be sent, like this, all of it, no copies. But I think maybe it’s better not to answer, because what does it matter, it’s always the same thing. I think I don’t care, I think this doesn’t bother me, I don’t want to play this game any more. Finding favour and losing it. Attracting and cutting loose. Blowing hot and cold. I think my little boy had the right idea. He kicked her and told her to go away and said this was his house and he decides. He knew. He doesn’t like it when I shout and he doesn’t like it when people shout back at me.
I reckon it’s all a game, all of it, the perceptive look, the emotion that flares, the laughter that rolls after falling out of bed in the middle of a tempestuous fuck, the tempest itself, the coffee in the morning, the glance veiled by vapours and by love, and by promises, promises especially, we’re here together and we’re all right, come on let’s build something together, it’s all a game, and I’m not even enjoying the game, so what’s the point of playing it anyway. I think I’m tired, the discs of my backbone are slackening and my muscles losing their grip. I can’t remember what I meant to do this morning. When I woke up at midday the pain was hovering above my eyebrows, I was nauseous and my throat was still scorched by smoke. I took a pill. Then I had a shower and drank coffee and the fog in my head began to clear, perhaps I meant to do something to make amends, to restore things the way they were, but I’d only just woken up and already it was time to go to the nursery, and I knew there was something I was supposed to be doing this morning and I was sorry I’d missed it, but I can’t remember what it was, just this fog, and the nausea, the poison of the alcohol still in the blood-stream, stomach constricting – and I went to pick up my little boy from the nursery. I think it’s just as well she’s gone, just as well it’s over, and just as well she wrote what she wrote, no need to pretend. I have a child already; I don’t need another one, spoilt, tyrannical. I remember that my little boy is in his bed in his room. I go into his room to see if he’s okay. He’s asleep. I put a hand on his forehead; maybe he’s running a temperature. Maybe, just a bit. I tuck in the blanket and kiss him on the forehead and go out to make myself some tea.
I try to think what has happened, why my little boy seems so deflated. Perhaps the teacher didn’t see, and just before I arrived one of the children hit him. And perhaps he’s sad, perhaps he’s cross with me, because I didn’t take him to the nursery this morning. He doesn’t like it when the neighbour takes him. Even though he thinks she’s nice, the neighbour, she’s more like a friend than a neighbour, and sometimes they do big jigsaw puzzles together, fifty pieces, and he likes the date-biscuits that she always keeps in a big tin. And he knew she was coming, it wasn’t a surprise, he had nothing to be cross about. I told him last night the neighbour would be coming early to dress him and take him to her house and give him breakfast. He’s used to her. She isn’t just a neighbour, she’s a friend, they spend a lot of time together, this wasn’t a surprise and he has no reason to feel disappointed. I told him Mama wasn’t feeling well, and that’s why she was going to bed early and she wouldn’t be up in time to take him to the nursery, and he should realise this wasn’t personal, it wasn’t because of him. Mama is taking a pill and going to bed and the neighbour is looking after things, she has a key, she’ll be coming to pick him up ever so early. But he said he didn’t want the neighbour to come round in the morning, he wanted his Mama to wake him up in the morning. He cried. He threw his book at the wall. He cried. He turned over and didn’t want to talk until he fell asleep.
I think nothing is personal. That’s the truth, and there’s no point in answering this email, because it isn’t personal, it’s a direct continuation of things, it’s what happens at the end of the line, which is decay. Everything withers, even thorns, you don’t need to be a narcissus or an iris to wither, everything withers. I don’t think I need anything. I just need to remember why I got up this morning. What I wanted to do.
My little boy appears in the doorway of the room. He comes to me and climbs onto my lap. I say to him, have you woken up, sweetheart? I check to make sure he isn’t running a temperature. He isn’t. Maybe just a little bit. I kiss him on the forehead. He asks what I’m doing. I tell him I’m just reading a letter someone sent me on the computer. He says, yesterday you read a letter someone sent you on the computer too. I say, yes, yesterday too. He asks what they have been writing to me on the computer, and I say to him, nothing interesting. Just telling me something’s finished. He asks if she’s coming back, and I tell him no. She isn’t coming back. My little boy tells me he’s thirsty. We go to the kitchen and I pour him a big glass of sweet white coconut-milk. I think it might be a good idea to get out of the house and go for a little walk. We put on our shoes and go out.
My little boy asks me to give me him a ride, and I carry him as far as the small bar-cafeteria at the corner of the street. He weighs heavy on me, and he’s sweet and he’s warm, and I don’t know how long I can go on carrying him. We sit on high bar-stools. There’s hardly anyone here. The waiters on the lunch-time shift are eating at a table in the corner, and the waiters on the evening shift are going over the menu in the kitchen doorway. My little boy is really very little. He drums with his straw on his glass, full of orange juice, and kicks his feet in the air. I drink tequila and suck a slice of lemon. My little boy likes music. He dances on his seat, jiggling his little bum about and drumming with his straw on the bar and on the glass, and hums along to Marvin Gaye singing Mercy, mercy me, and he looks happy. I ask him how was nursery today, and he tells me that one of his friends frightened the hen and it flew away, only it didn’t fly very far, because hens, he says, can’t really fly. They’re tied to the ground, and they can only go as far as the end of the string. I ask him if they’ve tried pulling the string that ties the hen to the ground. He laughs, no it isn’t real string, it’s just pretend. I ask him if he likes the hen, and he goes back to his drumming and doesn’t answer.
I order another tequila. The waitress asks if we want something to eat. I remember that I didn’t give my little boy any supper, and I say, yes, tehina with chips and salad, only without onion, because my little boy doesn’t like onion. The waitress says she knows. She reminds me he doesn’t like carrot either. Right, no carrot. The constriction in my stomach starts to ease, I ask her for a small Guinness. I think we’re doing all right. This is a nice place and my little boy is dancing on his chair. My little boy asks me why I was shouting so much in the night and why I was crying, and I don’t remember shouting. I ask him if he’d like to have a pet at home, and he says, I don’t know. We try to imagine how it would be for us, living with a dog or a cat or a chicken or a parrot, and my little boy says, perhaps an elephant. I tell him that an elephant is a good idea. Yes, we’ll bring an elephant home. The waitress asks my little boy if there’s room in our house for an elephant, and he says yes, we’ve got a very big house and there’s lots of space there, the elephant can have a room to himself, and if he wants he can use the bath, and he asks her if she’d like to come and live with us too, and take her turn in the bathroom, because she can, there’s plenty of space.
Translated by Philip Simpson
For the anthology: Contemporary Israeli Woman Writers, edited by Lisa Domb, Vallentine Mitchell, 2008