By Charlotte Spires
First there is the sound: a hypnotic loop, whirr-stut-whirr, of whispered static and white noise brushing against the back of her head. She is reminded of the phrase “the pounding of blood in the ears,” even though that’s not it at all. It’s not in her ears but further inside, in that back soft part of the skull you clutch protectively when holding a baby. And it’s less a pounding than a sweeping, the motion tidal and wax-like. She is awash in cranial noise, afloat on an undulating and magnetic pulse.
Like a migraine, but pleasant.
Her mother is packing, or unpacking. Sofia’s mother is a reel of items in perpetual movement: clothes migrating from wardrobe to bed to laundry basket, from sink to shelf to floor, accumulating in piles of color, shape and purpose; cosmetic bottles sprawling and leaking, tumbling into one another and leaving glistening oil stains in their places; earrings falling behind the backs of side tables, destined to remain forgotten under dusty lamps. Her mother is the taut, hempen bowstring of anticipation that accompanies these items: the imminent trip out with braced, agitated nerves, or the imminent return home with Sofia’s tip-toes stretching to arch her body up over the window sill, breath bated and waiting.
All day, waiting.
Then there is the smell: freshly polished wood, stale sweat, gathered dust and damp cardboard; the decayed odor of time, space and light merged from the presence of a particular human figure. It is already beginning to disintegrate as the days and months inflate into years, evident in the crumpled covers that hold the records lining the shelves. She thumbs the titled spines fondly and pulls away a graying scrap of corner. What used to be red has mottled to a vague yellow. She tucks it back between the sleeves and tries to ignore the sneeze whispering under her nostrils. A host of memories breaks down into atoms and particles that make up the fresh dust glinting in the air around her.
Why wasn’t he a pipe smoker? She fumbles for the furniture polish and gives it a clumsy spray. The scent is clean and strong and doesn’t contain him.
“Evelyn.” Sofia is murmuring into a mirror. “My name is Evelyn.” The name is soft on her tongue, like swallowing crushed velvet and thick feathers. Her hands cradle a perfume bottle like a prayer. The scent is too powerful for her, but she persists in squirting it into the air, pressing the nozzle down again and again. Soon she feels dizzy and sick, and lies down on the round, pink ottoman, the silk scratching against her cheek like stubble.
The droplets have stained the fabric with small, dark diamond splatters, twin jewels to those in her mother’s travel boxes. She counts sixty-three days.
Of course she can’t forget the chair: permanently wedged in the corner between side-table and window, leather-frayed burgundy with a sad beaten cushion. A pink cushion: grotty with tattered corners and worn edges, but still whole. “For my dad” embroidered in a third grade script with what used to be a musical note in the corner and now exists beyond recognition as anything but a memory.
None of that matters.
What matters is the shape her body takes enclosed within its wide arms. Her back presses into the small indentation eroded from a lifetime of weight, her knees fold up into the worn, elbow-like crook where the armrest meets the body, and her head rests facing out the window. A dark smudge in the leather marks the point where he would fall asleep with his lips parted, hot breath escaping with a slight, uneven rasp against the leather.
Sofia holds up a photograph close against her chubby face, the frame’s cold metal firm and unyielding, breath fogging up the surface so that her mother stares out at her through a frozen mist always on the point of evaporating.
Her mother is an exotic and fantastical dream, a picture woven together from other people’s stories to be examined closely in the evenings after school when all of Sofia’s homework is complete. The game Sofia plays in these secluded hours is to find a time or place where she can name the color in her mother’s irises.
She has to wait longest for the taste, but recently she is waiting longer than usual. Eventually it comes: once the coffee from her pre-ritual hour has curdled at the back of her throat, and her mouth has stuck moistly to the leather skin, a rich tannin creeps up her tongue to touch her teeth. She licks them, and savors his trace of bedtime kisses and morning yawns. This tang of acrid coffee-leather is the tang of shared air from when they stood close enough to breathe in each other’s exhalations; it is a tang made conspicuous by absence, and worth the wait.
Taste is the sour and visceral intimation of knowing someone to their innermost organs, at once unflattering and unembarrassed. When Sofia finds it, there is one final step.
She finds her mother later on in a suitcase, a passport cover, travel bags for shoes and portable toothbrush kits. Sofia finds her mother in all these things, unwittingly tripping over her bodily fragments on a daily basis. She cannot walk outside the front door before spotting some sign that contains her immanence, an immanence built from hours of studied remembering: with every sign Sofia is nine years old and surrounded by her mother’s things, and she is waiting. She used to make the shape of her mother out of the shapes of the space her mother supposedly inhabited. After years of striving Sofia has finally found her, and it is where she had always been.
Closing her eyes, Sofia’s hands once more grip the frame’s strong, sharp edges. They press with a familiar, cold cut into the groove between her fingers and her palm. Her mother’s eyes are lost beneath the halo of hotly breathed condensation. She half-heartedly searches for them until the cotton-candy pink of the ottoman swells up over the glass instead.
A tremor runs through her hands; her concentration slips, and the frame’s edges slip into dead space.
At long last, the rest of the elements aligned, Sofia sees him: she does not need to close her eyes. She looks down at her hands and sees his hands. She looks at her carefully crossed ankles and they are no longer feminine and sanguine, but bold and hairy. Her thighs take on a more solid, meaty aspect, and her shoulders feel wider than she is used to carrying.
The trick is to not look in the window. The trick is to accept: a bubble floats in the mind, and once pierced, disappears.
Charlotte Daisy Spires is a British writer based in the Midwest, where she is pursuing an MA in English. In the UK, her work has appeared in Erudition, Helicon, and on the Bristol Old Vic stage. This is her first work to appear in the United States.