North of the Middle

They are both of them, mother and daughter, inflamed by something minuscule, sneezing in tissues, covert sleeves, a hand.

The mother says, “Bless.”

The daughter says, “God.”

The mother says, “Look.” She says, “Look at yourself.”

The daughter is young. She is darling to look at, the mother says. “If only,” the mother says.

“Stop it,” the daughter says, the timbre dropped, as if some sort of gauntlet. “Mother,” she says.

“All I am saying,” the mother says.

The windows in this hotel will not budge. The daughter thinks mites must live in the air, or maybe the carpet or else in the bedding—dust or other allergens. “Please,” she says. “Pass me…”

The mother gives the daughter the thing that she asks for. “Whose idea, anyway,” the daughter says, “is this?”

Neither she nor the mother lives in this country. “Neither here nor there,” was how the mother had put it. “We’ll meet in the middle, north of the middle.”

“Here is a thought,” the mother says.

“Just a thought,” the mother says. “Listen to me, we could both use some color.”

The daughter has something crumpled in her hand. She says, “Where?” She says, “Where is the trash?”

***

The store smells of lotion, the daughter thinks, or of salve, or of sugar, or of something artificial.

The mother says, “There.”

The signs are in English.

In between floors, riding a step, they are poorly reflected. “I can’t see,” the daughter says, “enough to tell, to really tell.”

“Let’s just look,” the mother says.

“Look at this,” the mother says. She is judging a garment, holding it up.

“For me or for you?”

“You,” the mother says.

“Me,” the daughter says. “I am hungry, is what.”

“Here is the mirror,” the mother says.

The mother looks tired, the daughter thinks. The lipstick the woman, the certified expert, applied to her lips is bleeding into lines about her mouth.

The girl is smudged beneath the eyes from what the woman wanded in.

The mother takes tissue to work on the daughter, licking it.

“This is not us,” the girl says.

***

The mother and the daughter are sitting at a table. “Watch the rotation,” the mother says.

The scene beneath them seems to turn.

“Careful,” the maitre d’ had said. “Watch your step.”

The daughter sips.

“When I am married,” the mother says.

“I said, when I am married,” the mother says.

“Alright,” the daughter says. “We had this discussion, didn’t we?” She is viewing her choices, sniffing in a napkin. “What is a tourtiere?” she says.

“After the wedding,” the mother says.

‘Yes,” the daughter says, “I said alright.”

“What was the question?” the mother says.

The daughter feels bad that the napkin is cloth. She should use something else.

“My new home,” the mother says. “A week, then? A weekend? You’ll come for a weekend.”

“Didn’t I say it?” the daughter says.

“Maybe a long one.”

Here is the server. The dish, he says, is national and comes recommended.

The daughter assents.

“You will, then?” the mother says.

“What are you getting?” the daughter says.

“I worry—you know that I do,” the mother says.

“Enough,” the daughter says.

“It’s just—” the mother says. She is looking in her purse. She is fishing for something, the daughter thinks. “Look at that,” the daughter says. Something is blinking at the edge of their view. They are turning from it.

“There is never enough time,” the mother says.

***

In the night, the daughter listens—she sits up and listens—as the mother sleeps.

***

The blush they have purchased, the daughter says, or rather, the mother has purchased for her, suits her a little.

“It does,” the mother says.

The drapes are shut, the beds undone.

The daughter is standing inspecting her face, which looks, she thinks, like her mother’s in features, if not in expression.

“Do you mind?” the daughter says.

“You’re hovering,” the daughter says.

“Not hovering,” the mother says. “It’s just you’re not used to living with someone.” She opens the drapes. She pulls at the windows, having forgotten, the daughter thinks, or else unwilling to remember.

“Glued,” the daughter says.

“Gezundheit,” the mother says. “What do you want to do today?”

“Don’t know,” the daughter says.

“God bless, I said,” the mother says. She pulls out a guidebook. “Churches, museums…listen,” she says, but the daughter is not listening. She scrunches her cuffs. The daughter has a scar, very slight, at the wrist from where the mother, the mother insisted, saved the daughter’s life, or maybe only a limb. “You were walking in traffic,” the mother had said. The nail left the mark.

“Getting late…” the mother says.

The daughter sees the mother is beautiful in profile.

“What did I say?” the mother says.

“There is plenty of time,” the daughter says.

***

“It is only the season,” the chemist says. Nevertheless, she has something to sell them. “Take it with plenty of fluid,” she says.

***

“Try this on,” the mother says. “I want to buy you something.”

“Not my style,” the daughter says.

“It could be,” the mother says.

“I said, not my style.”

“What is, then?” the mother says.

“Don’t, now.” the daughter says.

“Then talk to me,” the mother says.

“I am,” the daughter says. “I said I would.”

The mother says, “Then, do you promise? Seriously, I am buying you this.”

The daughter is eager to take her dose. “Water,” she says. “You know I won’t wear it.” Later, the daughter will wish she had said something kinder or better, or, at the least, different. Already, she does. “Mom,” she says. She touches the mother on the arm, on bone.

***

The daughter is holding a bag in her hand.

“When you come,” the mother says. She is wearing a faint shade of blue on her lids, which are only the slightest bit swollen today. The concourse is crowded with what, to the daughter, appears to be families, and also with lovers.

The daughter is thinking of killing an hour, all the ways. Announcements are spoken. The floor is clean. The mother’s plane is boarding first. Arms and scent and breast and breath—the mother surrounds her.

“Mother, please,” the daughter says.

The mother is feeling for tissue again, the daughter thinks, inside her purse. But no, it is money.

“I don’t need—” the daughter says.

The mother says, “Take it.”

The mother says, “Call.”

The daughter is jamming a bill in her pocket.

“Such a lovely getaway,” the mother says—and then, as the daughter watches, the mother is going, the mother is gone.

Contributor

Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel's short story collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is just out from Dzanc Books. She is also the author of Carrying the Body, In the Year of Long Division, and The Secret Life of Objects, which is a memoir in vignettes. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Conjunctions, Open City, The Mississippi Review Prize Anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Art & Letters, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies.

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