Not a Thing

It wasn’t a thing. She made that clear.

At seven weeks–well, seven weeks and one day, precisely–(“50 days!” she clarified. “Get it?”) before her 50th birthday, my mother mentioned that Birthday cakeshe wanted a party. Well, she didn’t say that. What she said was that it would be nice if some of her friends would get together that day. “Not for a party. Just, you know, some folks hanging out. It shouldn’t be a thing. But, well, half a century–that’s a milestone, right?”

Of course, she couldn’t give the party. That would be crass, tacky, tasteless. I didn’t respond.

She upped the stakes. Sighed deeply. “Well, maybe one of my friends will suggest a little outing or something. Of course, one can’t expect such things. That’s just not proper.”

I was still silent.

“Cindy, you could maybe put something together. Just a fun gathering. I don’t want it to be a thing. But, well, 50–we should at least have a small celebration, don’t you think?”

“Mother, if you want a party…,”

“Oh, no, no! I don’t want it to be a thing. I just thought, you know, that you might be willing to put something together. I always honored your birthday. You’d think a little reciprocity would be in order.”

I waited.

“You remember the clown? The magician? The time we had the petting zoo? The cowboy? The princess theme?”

I closed my eyes, wincing. Maybe the first couple of parties had been fun, but I don’t recall any joy. There was always some occurrence that made me want to escape, just as the magician’s rabbit did, not only spoiling the trick but causing chaos as a band of rowdy kids gave chase to capture the refugee.

When I got older, it just got worse.

I remembered the Bat Mitzvah celebration when I turned thirteen. (“It doesn’t matter whether we’re Jewish, dear. We won’t do all the religious stuff. It’s just that becoming a teenager is a big thing, and we should celebrate it.”) Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d just called it a “Becoming a Teenager” party. Turns out “that religious stuff” is actually the point of a Bat Mitzvah, and we managed to offend several people in our town. I lost some good friends that day.

She also didn’t think we needed a Hispanic background to celebrate my Quinceañera. At least the “Sweet Sixteen” party made a little more sense.

I never wanted the parties. They were for her, really. I was the excuse for her to get attention. It took me a long time to realize that.

Actually, her request and my eventual acquiescence had become an annual ritual. She always wanted a party. I never wanted to give her one. But I always would. I always did. And 50 was sort of a big deal.

“Well, I suppose I could put something together. You’ll have to tell me who you want to invite.”

After spending most of the next day at more stores than I could keep track of, she finally found invitations that struck the right tone. “I don’t want it to be a thing,” she stressed.

Though I suggested she have the party on Saturday, before or after, or perhaps Friday evening, she wouldn’t hear of it. Her birthday was Tuesday, so her party had to be on Tuesday. Having it on another day would be dishonest. Also, if it’s on another day, the party is the focus, not the event the party is celebrating. I’m not sure I understand the reasoning.

“Some people won’t be able to come,” I told her. “They work. They won’t want to be out on a weekday evening.” But she was adamant. Her birthday should be celebrated on the right date. Her special day was more important than other peoples’ lives. No, she didn’t say it that way. I didn’t even try any more to help her see how incredibly selfish and self-centered she was. She was unable to perceive it.

I had to write the invitation details carefully. “Make sure they don’t feel they need to bring gifts. I just want a casual gathering. It’s not really a thing.”

All these people knew my mother well. They knew that if they showed up without a gift, she would make their discomfort tangible all evening, and perhaps for weeks or months after.

I don’t quite understand why my mother has any friends. Though there weren’t dozens, there were quite a few. Yes, she could seem charming at times–I’d seen it–but she couldn’t hide her true self forever. Why would anyone endure her manipulations who didn’t have to? Perhaps they had some subtle need for abuse. Or perhaps the consequences she would inflict on those who didn’t attend were too great.

My father endured until shortly after I left for college. I’d been accepted out of state. Mother had wanted me to attend nearby, but my father had insisted that I at least apply to a couple of other colleges. I don’t know how he got her to agree that I should go where I did, but somehow, she had relented.

A few weeks into my first semester, he moved out.

He explained to me later that he had put up with her for my sake. He thought a two-parent family was best for a child. Once I was an adult and off to college, he thought it was time for us both to be free.

But he hadn’t taught me how to be free. I’d never seen him stand up to my mother. I’d never seen him protect me. So he moved out and secured his freedom. But I endured multiple calls every day. She cried. She talked of loneliness, depression, despair.

No, no, no, of course she wouldn’t want me to leave college. No, I needed to worry about myself. She’d be fine. Oh, she was an expert manipulator, always had been. But I resisted for awhile. Then she upped the stakes and started talking about suicide.

We’d had a freshman orientation session for the first few weeks, aimed at helping us navigate newfound college freedom. Deciding your major. Handling the homework load. The dangers of binge drinking and the dreaded Freshman Fifteen (weight gain during the first year). And the need to watch for signs of depression in ourselves and others. We were warned that if someone talked about suicide, we should take it seriously.

But everything was a technique with her, wasn’t it? She wouldn’t really do anything.

I actually got brave and called her on it.

“Come on, Mother, stop talking that way. You know you aren’t going to kill yourself.”

“I will. I can’t stand being all alone. Your father left me his gun so I’d have protection. Ha! I’ll show him how he protected me.”

I packed up and moved back home the next day. I had made it six weeks.

Next year, I attended a community college. I completed an associate degree in accounting. In the six years since then, I’ve worked as a bookkeeper or an accounting clerk at several companies. I know my work is accurate and well done. But something always seems to go wrong. I can’t seem to hold a job for more than a few months. Of course, that has made finding work more and more difficult. The short time periods just look like trouble.

Three weeks before the party, my latest boss, Jerry, called me into his office. I’d been on the job for nearly six months at that point. The company was a small heating and air conditioning contractor. There were quite a few employees, but most were out in the field doing installations and repairs. The office staff was just a handful in comparison, enough to handle payroll and administrative tasks. I really enjoyed the work.

I grabbed a notebook and headed into Jerry’s office. I figured he was giving me a new assignment. He’d learned I was rather good at investigating things, tracking down details others overlooked. But I was taken aback when I caught his face. He seemed to be studying me while slowly shaking his head. There was a look I couldn’t quite identify in his eyes.

He smiled at me, but it wasn’t his usual one, and it seemed sad. “Cindy,” he said, “are you all right?”

“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. It was such an odd thing for him to ask.

“Cindy, you’ve been doing a great job. Your probation period is almost over, and I’d been planning on giving you a raise and some new responsibilities. You haven’t demonstrated any issues at all.”

That sounded pretty good to me. He’d consistently given me more feedback than others I had worked for, so I wasn’t too surprised, though the raise sounded wonderful. But something wasn’t adding up. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just waited.

He clasped his hands and leaned forward, still watching me. “Cindy, I really don’t want to lose you. I’d like to help you if you’ll let me.”

“Uh, help me with what? I’m not sure what you are talking about.”

He sighed. “I got a call earlier today. A woman. She wouldn’t identify herself, just said she was someone who knew you well. She said you had a serious drug problem that was escalating, and she thought I should know about it. I told her I hadn’t seen any signs of that, but she said you were skilled at hiding it. She kind of hinted that she was telling me at this time because it was before your probation period ended.”

He waited again, but I was too shocked to say anything.

“I haven’t seen the slightest sign of drug use, and there’s nothing about your performance that concerns me. But if you do have a problem, I won’t be able to keep you. So, what’s going on here? How can I help you?”

I thought about all the jobs I’d lost. My employment was always “at will,” but every employer still had some sort of trial period for some reason. Three months, six months, a year–I always lost my job just before the probation period was up. And I never knew why. Sometimes there were obscure references to performance, but usually it was something vague about how things just weren’t working out or the company decided my position wasn’t necessary. I’d always thought it was peculiar. I figured there was something wrong with me, something no one was willing to tell me directly.

Now I understood.

“Jerry, I’ve never used drugs. Ever. I’ll take any test you want, as often as you want. I think the person who made the call just wants me to lose this job. Please, let me show you that you are not wrong about me. Don’t let me go.”

He smiled. “It didn’t sound like you at all. I don’t see any reason for tests. Unless I see something that gives me pause, I will evaluate you as I always have. You should speak to your friend.”

“Oh, I will.”

Mother denied it. I knew she would. But who else could it be? I had never been able to leave home because I hadn’t been able to keep a job. I’d work, save up a little, and then lose the job and have to live on what I’d saved while I looked for another. My father had left. Mother wasn’t going to let me go too.

I didn’t say anything. I planned to just keep doing my best at work and prove to Jerry that the raise and promotion he gave me the following week was a wise move.

At home, I was focused on the party. I won’t go into all the preparations I had to make, all the things that had to be perfect. Even with every little criticism or heap of guilt, my mother stressed that the party wasn’t really a thing. No, it wasn’t a thing. It was everything.

No guests missed that night, despite it being mid-week. No one came empty-handed. Everyone knew how to behave, and my mother was delighted. She hardly had to lift an eyebrow or give a reverse compliment. She had her friends trained as well as she had me.

I was bringing out another tray of food when I heard my mother mention my name. She was talking to a couple other women and none of them noticed me passing behind them. I’m not sure why, but I stopped to listen.

“Well, I’m really worried about her, that’s all. She seems okay, but I’ve seen some signs. I think she may be doing drugs.”

“Your Cindy? No. I don’t believe it.”

“Well, I haven’t wanted to discuss it, of course. But you know she’s been unable to hold a job.”

What was she doing? Did she have another idea of how to cost me my job? Was she laying some sort of trail so that no one would be surprised if I overdosed some day?

I have no idea. I didn’t think about the other people at the party, or anything else, really. I set the food down on the table, then went into my mother’s bedroom. I knew where she kept the gun.

A few feet away, I called her name. When she looked at me, I shot her.

It really wasn’t a thing.

 

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