That Thing With Feathers
by Sacha Moore
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Tabitha spent much of her time wishing she were someone else, namely Emily. Emily, with sandy blonde hair that was always neatly combed. Not only pretty and lithe, she was also well-behaved, wholesome, golden.
Emily, like Tabitha, was an only child, except Emily’s parents were married. And her father was both a well-regarded man in their community and a reliable, trustworthy husband who came home Every night to be with Emily and Emily’s mother. Tabitha liked to imagine Emily’s father as a doctor or a business executive, though it didn’t matter really, as long as it was something respected, respectable.
Emily’s mother was sweet and pretty and protected. Maybe she worked, maybe not. It didn’t matter really, because Emily’s family functioned as a whole. Emily’s mother would pick Emily up from school and would take her to soccer, piano and dance. Emily’s mother would know all of Emily’s teachers, friends, crushes. Everyone in the town liked her and liked them. Emily belonged. She felt at ease and, while she might fret about this or that, she never had to worry for real. Not like Tabitha. Not like real life.
Because of real life — her crappy life — Tabitha lived with her mother in a small, cramped, rented downstairs space in a duplex that did not get enough natural sunlight and never felt, for Tabitha, anyway, quite like home. But that was partly because in Tabitha’s seventeen years, she and her mom moved at least seven times, mostly in the same town, Bethel.
Tabitha’s father, Reid, had left early in Tabitha’s life for “a better life somewhere else.” She would receive telephone calls from him occasionally, usually on her birthday in November, and on other random Sundays. Always Sundays. As if he only ever thought of her on Sunday.
Reid was always on the cusp of some big transition and always promised that things were about to become Just Grand. By the time she was about ten, Tabitha realized she was lucky he was able to remember her birthday and that he even managed, some years, to send her a card with money in it, though the amounts from year to year would vary quite drastically. Her mom suspected he had a mental health diagnosis, but she was unwilling to get more specific than that. He rarely visited.
Gloria, Tabitha’s mother, was forever working or dating or some combination thereof. She was a waitress at the Sycamore Inn, which was more or less a glorified pub. Gloria was good at it and would explain to Tabitha that she could earn more in this job than in some rote, say, bank teller/retail/cashier job.
Tabitha wondered if her mother would have wanted a job that was more of a career, but her mother seemed content to be where she was. “I never expected to have to work,” she told Tabitha, even though she had been doing it now for, like, fifteen years. Her mom could have figured out something else she could have done, maybe something with more flexible or at least more normal hours. Secretly, Tabitha supposed her mother liked waitressing because it was easy to flirt and find men to date. Her mother was always looking for a way out through a man. So far, luck did not seem to be on her side.
The men in their nondescript Connecticut town were slim pickings, at least as far as Tabitha was concerned. There was a fellow who wanted her mother to change her last name and convert to Islam after, like, three dates. There was the one who would never call her because it used up too many minutes on his cell plan; and texting was out too, at ten cents a text.
There was the sculptor her mother was into for a while, until he suggested a ménage à trois. There was the fellow who borrowed a thousand dollars — Tabitha was surprised her mother had managed to save that much — and shortly thereafter skipped town.
And the blind veteran who was emotionally distant. Her mom lost a friend over that one, though her mom told her that all’s fair in love and war. In her defense, Gloria was never overwhelmingly devastated when the relationships ended. That next perfect male specimen was always just about to walk into Sycamore Inn. Most evenings before she left for work, Gloria would say, “Tonight could be the night.”
Tabitha wondered why her mother harbored this fantasy that the man of her dreams was going to come to the Sycamore Inn. “I feel like this super great guy you haven’t met yet wouldn’t eat at a place like the Sycamore,” Tabitha said. Gloria said Tabitha was needlessly pessimistic and that her attitude was not going to get her anywhere in life. Tabitha knew better than to argue with her mother; it went nowhere.
Tabitha spent most of her evenings alone. Sometimes she was lonely. Sometimes not. Emily, of course, had a ton of friends and went camping or sailing or horseback riding with them and with her family, too. Emily also volunteered delivering meals-on-wheels to the elderly. Of course Emily was perky and effortlessly friendly and not the least bit self-conscious or shy. When Emily drove into her idyllic weekend-getaway postcard-pretty downtown, she was always bumping into people she knew.
Emily had maybe experienced loneliness once, for maybe an afternoon. Emily was invited to all the cool parties; she was able to be intriguing and interesting and alluring even though she never got super drunk and would never cheat on — or be cheated on — by the boy who would eventually become her rakishly good-looking but totally trustworthy boyfriend.
In real life, Tabitha didn’t talk to her neighbors. She didn’t know most of them and many were fairly transient. There was an older lady who lived upstairs in the duplex they shared who never seemed to be able to apply her lipstick directly onto her lips. Her name was Crystal, and Tabitha would sometimes see her outside conversing with her dog, Rainbow. She talked to Rainbow as if the dog were a person, and Tabitha suspected that this was the true benefit of owning a dog for lonely people: to be able to pretend some sentient being was actually listening and cared about what they had to say.
Once her mom had to call the police in the middle of the night because Crystal was screaming at the top of her lungs about the devil and demonic possession. Tabitha’s mother was concerned someone might be hurting Crystal, but it turned out Crystal was alone. Her mother intimated something about, “Crystal going off her meds.”
Tabitha didn’t have anyone to talk to, not even a pet, when she was by herself. When not dreaming about what Emily was doing or watching film noir, Tabitha would clean the house and rearrange the furniture and wish they could redo the floors, or at least replace the stained linoleum in the kitchen. Gloria wasn’t particularly neat or organized but at least she didn’t care if Tabitha moved things around.
Tabitha attempted various visions, but her mother was not a terribly visual person. Gloria would rather go out on dates than stay at home anyway. Meanwhile Tabitha dreamed of one day owning a glorious apartment space in a more progressive town, maybe even an apartment in New York City. Tabitha’s current aesthetic was shabby chic: dried flowers and Mason jars. Tabitha was aware this was sort of trendy, but she liked it anyway.
“I’ve met him,” Gloria told Tabitha too early one weekend morning. They were seated at the kitchen table that always looked greasy no matter how often Tabitha wiped it.
“Oh, how is he different from the last One?”
Tabitha’s mother gave her a look. “No, I really think this is the One; he’s different,” and a faraway, dreamy look came over her face.
Tabitha sighed. They usually started out like this: they were these wonderful people, with carefully backlit stories and perfectly muted tones.
“Doug,” her mother said and smiled, that faraway, annoyingly dreamy look still apparent.
“Tell me about Doug,” Tabitha said flatly, though she didn’t think her mother even noticed.
“Doug,” her mother said his name again. “He’s handsome, articulate, kind, funny, easy to talk to, intelligent. And he’s rich. He is a top-level manager at one of those fancy banks in Stamford. He was just transferred here from New York City. He’s divorced. He is truly wonderful.”
Gloria didn’t seem to acknowledge Tabitha’s affect, though that was not unusual. The men were always invariably wonderful in some way. When Gloria said the word “wonderful,” she was almost singing it. They were “wonderful” for about five or six dates, and then they would begin to lose their luster. Soon the garish, ghoulish unseemly qualities would appear: their miserliness, their boorishness, their pent-up rage. And while it took her mother a bit of time to acknowledge the underside, once she did, she was generally good about moving on without too much regret or remorse.
Tabitha remembered there was a fellow her mom was really into but then, after a week or two, they both noticed he never seemed to be available on weekends. Eventually it came to light that not only was he cheating on Gloria with another woman, he was also still married. “We were all getting screwed!” Gloria had exclaimed and then laughed heartily. Tabitha wondered if that would deter her mother, make her pause a moment. But no, within a few short weeks she was onto the next one.
When pressed as to why she wasn’t more upset, Tabitha remembered her mother saying, “Ah well, I was never all that attracted to him anyway.” There wasn’t much time to process, but Tabitha noticed “processing” or “contemplating” or “insight” weren’t really big words in her mother’s vocabulary.
Gloria hummed as she was getting ready for her first actual date with Doug. She was giddy with excitement, spending hours in the bathroom while singing various old standards off-key. The thought did occur to Tabitha: At least she doesn’t give up. It was Gloria’s night off and Doug was going to pick her up.
Doug, Tabitha was informed, was going to take her mother out to dinner at The Mallard, a fancy French restaurant that most of the men Tabitha’s mother dated would be too cash-strapped to take her to. Definitely not the usual. Most of the time, Gloria met them for drinks at Teddy’s, a popular bar in downtown Danbury. So maybe Doug was a cut above, at least financially.
Since it was a weekend night, Tabitha decided to try and make a Moroccan tagine and watch Laura. She imagined Emily’s family would approve. She imagined Emily’s family knew all the classic movies, went to all the notable Broadway plays, exposed Emily to opera at the Met and classical music concerts at Lincoln Center. Tabitha put on the Beethoven sonata for cello in G, which she liked pretty well even though it reminded her of a mutual fund ad.
Gloria emerged from the bathroom, steam billowing through the hall. “Honey, I think we need something a little more accessible,” Gloria trilled. “How about some ‘Guns ’n Roses’?” Doug — her mom had showed Tabitha his Facebook profile — had struck her as more of a Bruce Springsteen kind of guy. “Thunder Road.” She put that on instead.
The doorbell rang. “Could you get that?” Tabitha opened the door and was slightly taken aback. There stood a tallish, attractive, middle-aged man with graying hair, wearing what looked to be a well-made herringbone sport jacket holding a large bouquet of flowers. Tabitha could tell they weren’t from the supermarket but from an actual florist. They stared at each other a beat too long.
“You must be Tabitha,” he said. “Your mother has told me so much about you.” Tabitha doubted the veracity of that statement. She knew her mother well enough to know that she, Tabitha, was not a hot topic of conversation with potential suitors. She made her face go blank.
“Don’t think I’m telling the truth?” Tabitha’s eyes widened. “You’re right, that was a platitude. Forgive me. I’ve got two teenagers. I forgot, you have little patience for adult niceties.”
She tried to hide a small smile and stepped aside to let him in.
“Nice tunes,” he said and turned back to smile at her. Then he sniffed. “It smells good in here. What’s your Mom cooking? I thought I was taking her out.” Tabitha told him she was in fact cooking and his eyes widened. “I’m impressed. Here, these are for you,” he handed her the flowers.
Tabitha couldn’t recall the last man who brought her mother flowers. Doug seemed to be a little classier than what she was used to. And he was better-looking and more quietly self-assured, too. His energy was definitely male but, if she thought about it for a minute, it wasn’t actually too annoying or icky. He had a soft command, an almost gentle manner, but he was watching, quietly taking it all in. Who knew what he was actually thinking?
Tabitha could smell his cologne, but only when she was close enough to take the flowers from him. She told him he could make himself comfortable and gestured towards the living room couch. “My mom’ll be out in a minute.” Tabitha started towards the kitchen and noted that Doug took a seat at the kitchen table instead.
“What are you going to do while we go out?” he asked her. She was used to being barely acknowledged, a non-entity in their adult world of dating and drinking and sexual attraction. That he should pretend to care what she was doing on a lonely Saturday night while he and her mom went out was definitely not the norm. Interesting.
“I’m making myself dinner and watching a movie,” she said.
He told her that sounded awfully adult, noting a second time that he was impressed, “I bet you’re a really good cook. I bet you could give our restaurant food a run for its money. My boys usually put something in the microwave if they are at home at all.” He asked her what she was watching and not only had he seen it, he told her he loved film noir too.
He asked if she had seen The Maltese Falcon and told her he really liked Dashiell Hammett. She was surprised by his interest yet didn’t quite know what to make of it. She wondered if he was using her to try and win over her mother. She wanted to tell him not to bother. It fleetingly occurred to her he might be vetting her out for his own sons but then thought that was a little creepy, with him dating her mom and all. Then again given that her mom’s boundaries were a little anemic, she wondered if Doug’s might be, too.
“To Have and Have Not?”
Tabitha only caught the last part of what Doug was saying. “No, I haven’t seen it,” she responded, hoping to have saved herself the potential awkwardness of spacing out while he was talking. She was usually pretty good about covering for it.
He told her she should see it, that it was one of his personal favorites. “You strike me as a smart cookie,” he said to her, “I am curious to hear your impressions.” At which point, Gloria — perhaps slightly overdressed in Tabitha’s opinion in some cacophony of red and orange and scarves and rayon; bristling with eyeliner, lipstick and perfume — emerged from the hall.
“Isn’t she enchanting?” Gloria said to Doug.
He told Gloria she looked lovely, virtually sending her into a tailspin of giddy girlish squeals.
As her mother and Doug started to leave, Tabitha realized their roles had reversed over the years: she was the single, lonely woman in her mid-40s, burned and broken and betrayed by bad lovers, while her mother, young innocent and naïve, was always on the cusp of discovering True Everlasting Love.
As her mother skirted in front of Doug and they walked out the front door, he turned back and said, “See it. I would really like to know what you think.”
Copyright © 2018 by Sacha Moore