“Ruth,” she said.
I felt her in my marrow in the time it took to speak her name. The measure of a single syllable and everything shut down.
Mom didn’t answer. She waited for me to speak. She knew. The truth about Ruth. Did I really think it was a great secret, this dark underpainting of my life? Maybe only a mother can see the things that haunt the child. Ruined intentions and rusted secrets, all those wounds the flesh conceals.
You learn to stop crying when you’re, let’s say ten. It’s not a plotted decision, but the tears begin to harden behind the eyes. At fifteen, everything is filtered through degrees of denial, of pride and shame. Tears are for cowards, for weaklings, for a goddamn hammer to the thumb. At twenty, you can taste them all the time, and they mix well with scotch and tequilla and a bucket of dry martinis. At thirty, the tears have become dust beneath the layers of disappointment. At forty, fifty, and more, they’re shitty nostalgic poetry. But when her name fell from my mother’s mouth, that simple exhalation of breath, I knew the tears were only hiding.
“Cousin Ruth,” I said.
“Just Ruth,” Mom said. She made the distinction no one else ever had.