Happy days

August 7, 2011
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Her steps creaked on the wooden floor as Joyce quietly stepped into the yellow kitchen. Leaving her sparsely furnished room behind, she sat down at the round table with the metal lining. Her mother sat in her seat, her head high, and her cheeks moist with damp tears. Joyce sat down quietly, making quick eye contact with her little brother Ben. His blue eyes were bright, so similar to his father’s, but his once short blonde hair was long outgrown, and his face had patches of dirt caked on it. Slowly, Joyce raised her fork towards her mouth. She no longer looked at the food on her plate before she ate it. After her dad had died, nothing seemed to matter anymore. She saw the way her mother’s doe-like eyes filled with tears as she cooked eggs in the morning, and Joyce longed to hug her, tell her it would all be fine. But it would not, and she could not, and they all knew it.
Yet they sat here, pretending. Like actors in a bad film, raising their forks to their mouths in the rhythmical patterns of a clock. Sometimes Joyce sat in the room she shared with Ben, her eyes shut, her breath calm, and thoughts filling her head. She remembered Coney Island, and the sweet smells of grilled meat in the salty ocean air, the sounds of delighted screams from the Loop-the-Loop above their heads. She remembered how the family would walk, their arms entwined, feeling their feet sink into sun-warmed golden sand. She’d been so young then, her thoughts so simple. Those had been the good days, where her mother cut her hair short, and Joyce began wearing short dresses with loopy bows. But even as she squeezed her eyes shut, the story always ended, and Joyce could never forget the other days: The day the stock market crashed, the day they had to sell their house, and the day he tied the rope around his neck and left them.
Her mother’s ashen face never moved. Her mouth simply opened and closed, allowing the cold canned beans to enter and exit her mouth until her fork was empty and dry. Her once long and elegant eyelashes were now eaten down by clumps of mascara until they looked chopped and ridged. Her hair that had been so shiny now fell down her back like masses of straw. Joyce used to know love, when she would look into her mother’s eyes. When her mother looked at her father, and when her mother looked at Ben. But when she looked at Joyce, those calm eyes became those of a hawk, and their steely gaze scrutinized Joyce’s every move. But Joyce had her father. Her father, with those big rough hands and that cap he wore over his short hair. And she remembered how much her mother had loved her him. But her mother was too weak now, too weak and too empty to straighten Joyce’s back as she walked and too weak even to ignore her happiness until it faded into the patterns of every other day, the way she used to.
Joyce stared at the formation of beans on her ceramic plate. As she brought the fork to her mouth, she closed her eyes shut, picturing fluffy cotton candy and ketchup-covered hot dogs, almost tasting them on the tip of her tongue. But as the lumpy beans slid down her throat, Joyce dared a look at her mother. Her chalky lips were pursed and her cool gaze was settled on her empty plate. “How was your day?” Joyce asked, feeling her clammy hands grasp the hem of her simple blue dress. Her mother stared, surprised at the words Joyce had uttered. For nobody had spoken in so long, Joyce had quite nearly forgotten the sound of her mother’s voice, and her mother hers. But the surprised smile quickly vanished as her mother stared into Joyce’s eyes. “Fine.” She responded simply. The word fell like a coin into a magician’s hat in the quiet of a theater. It pounded in Joyce’s ear, so short she wondered if she had imagined it. Oh how she somehow wished her mother had screamed, or laughed, or simply felt something. But her mother was an empty doll, and the tears that would stream from her eyes on some days no longer fell with purpose.
And as much as Joyce missed him, she hated her father for what he had done to them. He had been the string that tied them together. And his absence left them alone, with each man for himself. At first Joyce had begged and pleaded for her mother to simply tell her why he had done it, but her mother had turned her back. And slowly, the ends of the string they were all left with began to fray.

Joyce nodded her head slowly in response to her mother, but said no more. She slowly raised her glass of water to her lips, but it did not nourish the dryness in her mouth. She felt empty, clueless, like a toddler on his knees, searching for his parents, but seeing only feet. And she wondered, deep in her heart, how he had left them to fall apart this way. For what had felt like a family was only a played out charade, yet somehow he had made it seem so real.

Something small nudged her foot gently, and Joyce looked up. Ben was smiling, and there was a small shift in the air, a mutual understanding. Joyce was not alone, for she had Ben. She slid her hand under the table and placed it within his. They smiled lightly, for the first time in a long time, and Joyce felt a rush of joy, for finally, she had someone to take care of her, and someone to take care of. Joyce ran her hand through her hair and set her eyes on her brittle mother. Joyce had always loved her, hadn’t she? Surely a family couldn’t be completely acted out. Her mother certainly loved her, didn’t she? Perhaps her father had held her mother all this time, supporting her, holding her strong. But now it was Joyce’s turn.

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