“So now what?” asked Connie.
We sat in her kitchen. The boys were in bed, a swatch of moonlight pouring through the window over the sink, a pale, gauzy, haunted light, and the only sound was the hum of the refrigerator. We sat opposite each other at the table, like card players, or ambassadors.
She frowned. “You’re obtuse, you know that?” She ran her finger around the rim of her coffee cup. “Now what? You leave? You stay? We make small talk until you bust yourself out while everyone’s sleeping? If you’re going to leave, I’d rather you did it when I could see you. I want to see the dust behind your car. If you’re going to stay, you know you’re welcome. But I don’t want to slap a band-aid on things and pretend it doesn’t hurt.”
“It hurts. Sure. I saw her face. She looked at you differently than she did me. You were solid, I wasn’t.”
“You’ve been her daydream for fifty years, David. Daydreams aren’t solid. Washing her hair, scrubbing the stink out of her skin, spoon-feeding her with one hand behind her neck and the other… well, never mind, you get the point. You were her illusion, that’s what I’m saying. And then you come back and you’re bored. Even she could see that. Hell, even the boys see that. So you came back here because it’d be cruel not to? You came back to wrap things up?”
“I came back to see my mother.”
“Before she died.”
“But not in those fifty years in between.”
“Connie, I had a life.”
“And so did she. Now it’s gone. So you’re going to leave again? And the next time I see you, it’ll be the same, with one of us doped up, leaking out whatever’s left.”
“No. No. Don’t ‘Connie’ me. I lost a kid, I just lost my mother, and now I lose you again. And again. Until one of us is circling the drain. Good deal. Except you know something, David? I’m not going through that again. I lost you a long time ago and I swore that was it. And then you peek inside the door and I’m supposed to be all loyal and fucking forgiving? No. If you’re going to leave, do it. If you’re going to stay, do it. Don’t be so arbitrary about it.”
“I’m not. I don’t mean to be.”
“No one means to be selfish. They’re too selfish to know what they’re doing. The veins of a narcissist run deep. And that’s all you are, that’s all I remember you ever being. I don’t remember my little brother, I remember the vainglorious man you became.”
“You’re making it easier for me to leave, you know? You don’t want me here.”
“You don’t need my permission, or my validation. I’m not begging you one way or the other. Because you don’t need an excuse. Stay, by all means. I’d love if you did. You hear me, I’d love it. I’ve missed you, you asshole. Like, seriously fucking missed you. But you’re too blinded by your pathology to even get that. So stay, all right? Or leave. But tell me. Let me in on it before you fade out through your own looking-glass.”
I thought about it. Hard. And it didn’t help that Connie was digging into my eyes with her own smeared eyes. She was digging deep, right down to the bedrock.
“I’ll stay,” I said. “For a while. Because all we have is each other.”
She kept staring, looking for the lie. Finally: “Pffft. Spare me the Nicholas Sparks’ crap. Stay because you want to, not because I scare the hell out of you.”
“I will. And you do.”
She nodded. “I scare you because I’m stronger than you. Probably stronger than anyone you ever knew. And you don’t know how to deal with it.”
And of course she was right.