Editor’s Note: We ran our first Short Story Contest two years ago, as we were just coming out of the pandemic. Our judges chose this beautiful tale as the winner. The deadline for our second contest is Monday, May 8th. Enter here for your chance to win $500, plus publication in NextTribe, or $100 each for two runners up, who will also be published in NextTribe.
Part One: Daughter
The screenshot of the GPS said she was due at 12:23, but it’s 1:16 now, and there’s still no sign of her. I know what you’re thinking. Call her! See if she had to make a stop or something. Get gas. Food. See if she hit traffic.
This is the obvious thing to do. Instead I sit at the window and watch the ladies in fancy Thinsulate vests walk by with their dogs. Instead I stare at the bare branches of the trees pointing their fingers at God. I decide to get mad, because railing at the universe seems more satisfying than making a phone call.
I haven’t seen my mother in a year. I talk to her on the phone nearly every day.
It’s a funny thing, this separation. Funny in that it’s not so much an actual separation as it is a longer version of normal. I moved away years ago, and we only visit for major events and holidays. Generally speaking, I’m fine here, she’s fine there. On a day-to-day basis, we’re all fine where we are.
But now that we haven’t been permitted to see one another, it’s different.
“I miss you!” she says.
“I miss you, too!” I reply.
I pour some extra kibble into the cat’s dish. I water the aloe plant over the kitchen sink. The house is still, expectant as a soap bubble drifting through the air. I sit at the empty table and run a finger around the lip of a candlestick. Little clouds of dust have collected in the indentations at the wick of the candle.
Just as my heart rate ticks up at the realization that my subpar housekeeping is more obvious than I think it is, I hear a familiar rattle. It’s been a year, and that car still makes a rattling noise. I hear the car door close. A few seconds later someone makes a little “uuh!” sound from the front walk. The doorbell rings.
She is here.
The first few minutes are always a period of adjustment—what gets put down where, let me take that for you, can I get you something to drink, it’s so good to see you, but after a few minutes of shuffling she manages to settle on the couch with the cat and a Diet Coke. I bring in some cheese and Triscuits. She tells me that she has to show me something on her phone. She can’t find it, wait a second.
My overriding sense is that we did this last week. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the intervening year never happened. This is both a heartbreak and a relief.
“Where is Martin?” she wants to know. “I have something for him.”
She likes Martin, probably better than she likes me.
“He’s at work. He’ll be home later.”
“Right!” she says and straightens the stack of books on the coffee table. “So how are you both?”
I remind her that I talk to her every day. We’re fine. Nothing is new. Life is the same. I work from home now and so does Martin for the most part, but he goes in once in a while just to get a change of pace. Sometimes the house feels emptier with both of us here. Lonelier.
“Did you ever paint the bedroom?”
She knows I painted the bedroom. I told her the day I bought the paint, the day we primed, and the day we painted. Painting the bedroom was a weeklong process that occurred almost six months ago now.
I remind her of this and take her to go see it.
She puts a hand over her mouth and says things like, “Oh how beautiful! So much brighter!” She sits on the bed and bounces once, twice, three times. It’s an old bed, the same one as before, and she runs a hand over the spread, smoothing it out. She looks at the walls again. She looks at the long, sheer curtains—the ones that the previous owners left behind and we never changed. She looks at the little desk setup in the corner, my laptop, my headphones, my work binders.
“The room looks very nice,” she says.
She stands up and looks at me. I look at her. It’s perhaps the first time we’ve been face to face since she entered the house.
“I’ve missed you!” she says.
“I’ve missed you, too!” I reply.
We hug, sort of, so that our arms go around each other but our bodies don’t touch.
I take her things to the other bedroom and put them at the foot of the bed. She nods, looks around and says, “This one’s the same.”
“Yes,” I say. “This one’s the same.”
We go downstairs, and she sits at the island while I make dinner, a lasagna, something not terribly complex but keeps my hands and mind semi-occupied. The culinary equivalent of Candy Crush.
My mother takes out her phone and plays Candy Crush.
“I’ve become totally addicted,” she says. “Just something to pass the time. It’s been such a long time that we’ve all been locked away! I’m so glad we don’t have to do that anymore. Are you going to get a vaccine?”
She asks me this question every day. Yes, I’m going to get one. No, I can’t get one yet. Yes, I will get one when I can. No, I don’t know when that will be.
“Can you get one when you’re pregnant? You should get one now while you’re not pregnant.”
I tell her that I don’t have any idea what the status of pregnancy and vaccination protocols might be, although that’s not because I haven’t looked into it. It’s only because I haven’t been able to find any kind of definitive internet answer, which is the only answer I’m willing to seek at the moment.
“Well, Martin should have one! Doesn’t he worry? Being out at work like that?”
“No, there’s no one in his office but him. He’s fine.”
My mother knows this, of course. She protested for some time that he should have had access to a vaccine by now because he’s a healthcare worker, but he’s a psychologist and only sees clients on Zoom. He probably sees fewer people in the course of a day than I do, but he likes the privacy of his office, and we need some hours with a little bit of mileage between us.
I don’t tell her this, of course. She would look at me like I’d been secretly Tindering a new pandemic boyfriend or something. Like this was the clue she’d been waiting for that our marriage was collapsing, which it isn’t. We are fine.
When the lasagna is in the oven, we sit on the couch and I put on Call the Midwife. My mother hates this show. She thinks nuns are mean. I think it’s relentlessly sweet, a respite from the cynicism of modern life.
“Women die all the time in this show,” my mother says. “It’s so depressing. It’s not like modern medicine.”
I let her switch to reruns of Criminal Minds, which for some reason is better. We sit and watch for a while.
The lasagna comes out as Martin pulls in. He’s much better with my mother than I am. They are full of hellos and great to see yous. They catch up on things. Then again, they don’t talk every day, so it’s easier, I think. He was also not birthed by her, which is also easier.
After dinner, the three of us are back on the couch trying to pick a movie. It’s not as though we have a difference of opinion. It’s just that all of us have seen everything.
We scroll around for a while watching previews when my mother says, out of the blue, “Martin, you need to tell her to stop watching that terrible midwife show. It’s just too stressful.”
Martin looks at me. He also is not a big fan of Call the Midwife, but that’s mostly because I don’t ask him to watch it with me. I like to watch it by myself.
“Oh, it’s fine,” he says to my mother. “She says it’s sweet.”
“Well, I think it’s terrifying, particularly for you. How do you think having a baby is going to go well for you if you get it in your head that terrible things will happen!” She pauses and looks at both of us, then adds, “This isn’t the 1800s! Everything is fine for babies now!”
I don’t tell her that the show takes place in the 1950s. I also don’t tell her that we had another miscarriage this year, or that I’m pregnant again now.
Martin suggests we watch some Andy Sandberg movie on Hulu, and I go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet. I have to pee, so I do, although that’s not why I’m there. I can hear their voices. My mother wants us to watch The Good Place, but Martin is protesting that she’s seen it already. We’ve seen it already, too. But sure enough, the next thing I hear is Kristen Bell’s voice, and it’s as pure and distracting as the voice of God. I come out of the bathroom. We watch episode after episode in silence until we all fall asleep on the couch.
Once my mother is settled into her room for the night, Martin turns off the light and curls himself up around me.
“You have to stop letting her get to you.”
I’m offended. I have been the picture of peace. I have not let her get to me and I tell him so.
“She stresses you out. You’re different when she’s here. Also, we have good news! We need to tell her about the baby.”
“The pregnancy, Martin. There’s no baby yet. It’s a pregnancy.”
“But there will be a baby. She will be a grandmother. And she will come visit. She has always come to visit us. You love her. You love when she comes to visit.”
I wondered whether he was telling himself, me, or our future baby, the grandchild that my mother fantasized about. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m going to have to tell her eventually. But the baby that my mother imagines screaming its lungs out in a gleaming white 21st century hospital room isn’t the baby I carry inside me. Not yet. This pregnancy is my pandemic, my beautiful disease that I will protect her from while I can. Perhaps, even, what I will protect myself from for at least a little while longer, until it’s safe enough to wish for joy in the open air again.
Part Two: Mother
I know my daughter will be upset because stopping will make me late, but I’ve been in the car for almost three hours and my palms won’t stop sweating. I can feel the dampness in the armpits of my blouse and on my lower back. I feel like the proverbial frog in a pot of water slowly coming to a boil. At some point the frog does notice, right? The frog panics? Tries to climb out?
I concentrate on my breathing, but as soon as I pay attention the rhythm of my breath, it feels labored and uneven. My fingers feel tingly. I convince myself I’m having a heart attack.
I pull into a rest area, one of those scenic ones that have a dank restroom in a wooden structure designed to look like a rustic cabin. I get out of the car and gulp down fresh air the way I used to drink from the hose as a child, sloppily, greedily, joyously. Immediately I feel better, although my hips and knees are stiff from sitting. I bend forward to stretch my hamstrings, squat to stretch my knees. They sound like Rice Krispies. Snap, crackle, pop.
From where I am standing, I can see across the parking lot to a break in the trees where there is an overlook. Most people have just stopped for the restroom, so the area looks reasonably unoccupied. I put on a mask, lock the car, and walk over, enjoying the break from driving and the chance to stretch my legs.
The parking lot is situated at the top of a steep slope that opens onto a valley still grey with a winter hangover. Nevertheless, the day is clear and bright, and there is a cool spring crispness to the scene. Low mountains elbow across the horizon, and a haphazard assortment of dormant corn and soy fields splay out below. The view is beautiful in the way that looking out the window of an airplane is beautiful—looking down on anything makes it more interesting—but there is no real point of interest. No fanfare to any of it. The overlook doesn’t even have a plaque or informational sign, and it occurs to me that I am not entirely sure what state I am looking at.
I get out my phone and take a photo because it seems like a thing to do. The photo is terrible. Boring. I zoom the focus in and out, trying to find some way to make the scene even a little bit artful, to no avail.
Eventually my attention diverts to a little girl standing a few yards away, far enough that I’m not worried that both she and the man I assume to be her father are unmasked, but close enough to see that there are blotchy red stains on the front of her shirt. The dad has his arms crossed in front of him and is staring at some indeterminate point over the valley. He seems to be in a full-on space out, claiming a bit of “serenity now” after being cooped up in the car with the child at his feet. This would be fine, except the barricade separating us from the vista is a curved piece of solid steel of the same variety used on the side of the side of the highway, and the little girl isn’t quite tall enough to see over it. She is complaining, jumping up and down with her arms raised, wanting to be picked up, wanting to see. The dad, snapping out of his reverie, says we’re leaving, just give me a second. The little girl lets out a howl.
I try not to look at them. I take photos of the valley. There is a barn. With a silo. I take a photo of the silo.
But it is useless to try to think about corn or wheat or grain or whatever might be festering in a giant tin can 20 miles from here because my entire attention is on the little girl, who has gotten down on her belly and is trying to slide under the barricade. The dad yells at the girl, but she is moving fast. I glance over the barricade to try to gauge the steepness of the drop and determine whether this is just another parenting annoyance or a child actually about to plunge to her death. The girl’s body is halfway under the barricade by the time the dad grabs her by the back of her pants and drags her back.
I pivot and take a photo of them. Then another.
Shocked by my own boldness—how rude of me!—I shove my phone into my pocket and hurry back to my car.
By the time I get to my daughter’s house, replaying this scene in my head has both worn me out and invigorated me. I am also sorry that my ridiculous impulse caused me to rush away so fast that I didn’t pause to consider whether I actually needed the restroom, which I did. Just getting into the house and managing some basic biological functions is a huge relief.
But I am here to see my daughter, who I have not seen for a year. In fact, I haven’t really seen anyone in a year. I live alone, so other than the few acquaintances I wave at as I scurry double-masked through the grocery store, I’ve lived the life of a veritable hermit. However, I am vaccinated now, so we agreed it would be safe for me to come. We also agree that it’s okay to be unmasked in her house, but it’s awkward. I feel exposed. I have told myself a million times that it is fine, but habits, even relatively new ones, die hard.
“I saw the funniest thing,” I said, sitting on the couch. My daughter comes in from the kitchen with a plate of cheese and Triscuits. She sits on the edge of an ottoman, leaning over the coffee table to assemble cheese on a Triscuit and get it into her mouth without making crumbs on the floor. Her eyes dart from item to item around the room. I scroll though the vista photos on my phone and stop at the one of the man and his screaming daughter. His mouth is open. She swims out of the gaping funnel of the pants stretching from her father’s fist for the sliver of light under the barricade.
“Is your car okay?” my daughter asks.
I nod. My car is old and there’s a rattle, something to do with the differential something or other. It drives fine. I don’t worry about it.
“If you ask dad, he’ll tell you where to take it.”
I tell her I will, but I won’t. Her father and I have been divorced for seven years. He left to marry his younger girlfriend once the kids were in college. I suppose in a certain light hanging around so long could be considered big of him. He offers to help me with things sometimes, but I prefer to be bitchy and tell him to go play with his new wife.
I close down the photo without showing her, and my daughter asks if I want to settle in, unpack. She and Martin live in a three-bedroom colonial with a fenced backyard. They moved in several years ago. It’s a house that’s smallish for a suburban family, but rather large for a married couple. The whole setup begs a set of questions I know I’m not supposed to ask. I follow her upstairs and stop at the doorway to the first bedroom at the end of the hall, which she’s painted a bright, sunny yellow.
“Oh!” I say, “It’s beautiful!” It’s the perfect color for a child’s room, but it’s clear she’s using it as an office.
She painted this room at the beginning of the pandemic. Or was it before? I can no longer remember. All I remember is that for a moment the activity seemed to have a subtext. I’ll admit that I’ve wondered whether they were having difficulties. Not that it’s any of my business. She wouldn’t want to know what I think about that.
I change out of my sweat-stained blouse in the other bedroom and rejoin my daughter downstairs. She makes dinner. Martin comes home. We watch TV and fall asleep.
The next day is Saturday, and I feel like I should do something nice, maybe make bacon and eggs, but it feels like a pushy thing to do. Also, I’m an early riser and my daughter and Martin are not, so I Google local bakeries and find one a couple of miles away. A nice assortment of baked goods ready for them when they wake up seems like just the ticket, and I remind myself that with my newly vaccinated status, I can feel better about doing these things now. Still not entirely comfortable, of course, but it feels like maybe getting a coffee roll won’t kill me. That’s got to be a good thing.
I leave a note, grab a mask, and head out.
Apparently the bakery I’ve found is the most popular Saturday morning destination on the eastern seaboard, and it’s impossible to find a parking space. My car is rattling away and I’m a bit self-conscious about it, so I drive down a residential street and park in front of a little brick house with green shutters and walk back.
The store has Xs made of masking tape on the sidewalk. I stand on one and wait my turn.
While I’m there, of course I end up looking at the photos of the girl trying to crawl under the barricade. The dad is still yelling. He’s still not wearing a mask. I zoom in on the girl’s face. Her eyes are open, as is her mouth. There is so much determination on her face. She is sure she can get to the other side, that she can be not the passenger but the airplane. Sure she can fly.
I was once that girl. But I was also the girl who got pregnant. Then a man grabbed my pants and didn’t let go for 19 years. I don’t think I was ever as determined to get away as this girl, but it occurs to me that it’s a lot harder to fall over a cliff when you’re in your teens, 20s, hell, in your late 40s. By this point, just looking over the edge gives you vertigo.
An employee comes by, a teenager with acne that the mask covers the bulk of. He asks what I want to order.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve never been here before. What do you have?”
He shrugs. “We have everything.”
Everything seems like too much. There’s no way they have everything.
“People like the Philly Fluff,” he offers.
I look at him. His pen is hovering over his pad in a way that seems almost like he’s already written it down. He’s just waiting for me to release him.
“I don’t know what that is.”
The boy drops his pen and asks what I do want then. I can see his breath moving his mask in and out and I wonder if he’s cursing at me from behind it. All of a sudden, just asking for a random coffee cake and some croissants seems like less than what the occasion warrants.
“Do you have a babka?”
He raises his eyebrows as he nods. “Chocolate or cinnamon?”
“One of each. Oh, and a large coffee, light and sweet.”
I have never eaten a babka. I don’t know what they are any more than I know what a Philly Fluff is. I just like the feel of the word. There’s a belligerence to it that seems to suit the situation.
“You’re 76,” the boy says, tearing off my ticket.
“Great,” I reply, and stand on my X to wait until someone calls my number to go in and pay.
Feeling quite satisfied and repeating “babka, babka, babka” to myself, I take my coffee and my babkas back to my car where I discover a woman with a grey-haired bob and an oversized CORNELL sweatshirt sitting on the front stoop of the little brick house. When it’s clear that I’m getting into the car in front of her house, she stands up and says, “What’s wrong with that thing?”
I tell her it’s something to do with the differential, but it’s fine. She tells me it sounds like shit and I should get it fixed. I tell her I will, eventually. She walks slowly toward me, looking at the bag in my hand.
“Did you get one of those fluff things?” she asks.
“No, I don’t know what those are.”
“They’re not all they’re cracked up to be,” she says. “What did you get?”
“Babka,” I said. “Two kinds.” I lift up the bag and smile.
“Really?” the woman says, sidling down her walk. “I do love a babka.”
We look at each other from some distance away. She’s clearly older, I think, and wonder if she’s crazy. I mean, what kind of woman sits on her front stoop to accost bakery customers? Then again, it occurs to me that she looks exactly like I would if I lay off the hair dye. I kind of like it. I’m kind of jealous of her grey. Hell, I’m a little jealous of her crazy, too.
“It’s for my daughter and her husband,” I say. “It’s our first visit in a year, and she doesn’t want to tell me she’s having a baby.”
I don’t have any idea if this is true, of course, but the moment I said it, I believed it. I wonder if babka have the power of divination.
“Is that a good thing?” the woman asks. She’s smiling, almost laughing, and the bob falls over an eye. I decide that I like her.
“Not if she values her sanity,” I reply.
I’m not sure how to describe what happened next, but this woman and I, after a brief “I’m vaccinated, are you?” exchange, sat down on her front lawn and talked about children and cars and useless ex-husbands until the sun rose so high the trees got tired of casting their shadows, and we had eaten so much of the chocolate babka that I left the rest with her, as my belly was already so filled with joy.
Christina Kapp lives in New Jersey with her husband and two teenage daughters. She teaches at the Writers Circle Workshops, and her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Vestal Review, Passages North, Hobart, The MacGuffin, PANK, Gargoyle, and elsewhere. She welcomes you to follow her on Twitter @ChristinaKapp and visit her website: www.christinakapp.com.