Sweet Viburnum at the Mausoleum
We haven’t talked in a long time, but I wonder if you, also a new mother in middle age, calculate risks like a medieval actuary. It’s not a clinical analysis, but fraught with superstition and a pathogenic pessimism. There is an X (crossed swords) chance of Y (forked tongue) resulting in Z (bones at oblique angles). I hope you have someone to remind you of the probability that a fever is fleeting and a car ride is just a means to a banal end. I’m sorry to be so morbid, and whether you share or disavow this tendency, I’ll be relieved.
I drove by the mausoleum the other day. I envisioned us sitting cross-legged in its shade between shrubbery, the way we used to kill time on summer days. Our mothers would know the names of the plants that still line the paths, but we don’t care to wonder. In my daydream, I take a drag on a cigarette and hold the smoke in my lungs for a count before a calculated expiration, a posture of self-conscious nonchalance unique to teenage girls. We dismiss words the same way, like they’re easy and harmless. Sometimes they are, especially when we’re drunk or high.
But sometimes, our words stumble around the things we’re not supposed to talk about, like how our friend would lock our other friend in a closet with him. We know about sexual harassment because we watched Anita Hill testify, our larval selves absorbing the derision of the gatekeepers. Much ado about nothing, they said. Rape happens at knifepoint. Sexual and assault have yet to couple up in our lexicon. All that to say, we salve our consciences with shades of gray, like maybe she didn’t mind. We’re all friends here.
Sometimes our conversation catches on a half-truth, because my sapling virtues sway easily in the gusts of adolescence. You are forgiving. If a joke lands too heavy, we are quick to reach across and brush it off the other’s shoulder, bony under an unironic oft-washed t-shirt.
Over the rumble of a passing freight train, you say, My regular at the diner tips in Lotto tickets and come-ons, and I ask, Did you hear about the unspeakable act that took place in the Art hallway?, and you say My brother broke up with that girl because she was too nice, and I say My parents are so unfair, which is code for They only know the smallest part of me anymore. I light up again. Blooming lips sincerity is no match for a dangling cigarette.
What we don’t talk about at the mausoleum, what doesn’t even cross our minds, is that we are going to die. Our favored circumstances churn up a daily mash of obligations and boredom and calculated risks and erratic lust and must-see TV. We scribble notes to each other about all of it, our tipsy, ropy handwriting tossed across a shifting divide. We shore up our paltry experiences with movie quotes. We put our favorite songs on repeat and wait for a mechanism to spit us out into our real lives.
We never question our real-lives blank slate, this dazzling monument to privilege and ignorance. Occasionally, a too-soon death in the community punctuates the din. A car crash, a suicide, an accidental drowning. We observe the anguish keenly and then — it’s not that we forget, but these tragedies standstill, and we keep moving.
I envy these two girls who believe they are on the cusp of exhaling sentences that don’t evaporate. They don’t bother to imagine forums for their clever, reverberating words, because the contexts are limitless. A boardroom, a marriage, a gallery, continents. I see my younger self in her cocoon, on the verge of extending and sharpening, and part of me wants to whisper, Hold on, it can wait, while an equal part of me turns away, disgusted by her incompleteness.
Apologies owed and lessons to impart falter in the void of decades. She was supposed to be, just as I am supposed to be. In the end, it’s not her that I want to admonish, but the quiet bottomless fear that adulthood birthed and motherhood raises. Instead, I nurture it. This fear is the instrument that skims tortured, euphoric meaning from an ever-churning mixture, this real-life we made, are making, will make. It is not a good thing, it just is.
The mausoleum stood in the margins of our stories on languid afternoons and even bitter winter nights, an impassive, eternally dignified presence. We acknowledged it only to say, See you at the mausoleum. In all of our youthful narcissism, it didn’t occur to us to contemplate the entombed. We didn’t admire the greening geometry of the art nouveau doors. We didn’t ask ourselves if the vine-entwined, forlorn woman bearing witness from above stood for Judgment or Mercy, Love or Grief. Maybe you, like me, have started to view the past through the future, now that a new life stretches out before us. I wonder who will bear witness to our little ones, our hearts made flesh, and if they will be kind.
Sandra Yauch Benedetto is a Chicago-adjacent mom, sometime teacher of high school students, and perpetual seeker of sunshine. She adheres to science and her dog’s gaze. Her short fiction has been published in the Chicago Reader, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, and The Writing Disorder.