City Strangers

December 4, 2008
By
She was striding down the sidewalk, alongside the park. The sun shone dully on her hair. She wore a jacket although it was a warm day for the winter, and she was hunched down inside the collar. She held a cup of coffee, which calmed her. She also thought drinking coffee made her seem older.
She didn’t look at anybody she passed. Annabelle lived in a city herself and knew the deal. In cities the people are strangers.
The apartment buildings loomed large. Annabelle crossed the street and stood in front of one, her heart pounding. Her eyes searched the windows. Somewhere inside waited Eileen, the woman who was her mother. She wondered if she was watching. It would be so easy, just to walk up to the door. But she kept walking, turning around the corner and taking a trip around the block. When she arrived for the second time in front of the apartment building she threw out her coffee and went inside.
In the lobby she told the man behind the front desk she was visiting Eileen Keese, tasting the name in her mouth, in apartment 4J. She walked past him. The stairs seemed to take forever, and when she reached the third floor her legs were burning. In the hall Annabelle fancied that the scruffy cranberry-colored carpet was sucking up her feet, and she stumbled slightly. The corridor stretched out before her, and although she felt as if she was walking for ages she didn’t mind. It gave her some time to think about what was coming. Finally she reached the door and stood in front of it, motionless.
Finally. After more than a decade, Annabelle would meet her mother. Sometimes Annabelle thought she remembered flashes of her early childhood, her life before her mother had left her with her adoptive family, but when she voiced this aloud her father—the one she had been living with for the past thirteen years—told her it was probably her imagination.
Annabelle had been living with the Doughtys since she was three. Her two older blood siblings had stayed with Eileen. Annabelle’s blood father had died when Annabelle was about two.
Now, Annabelle jerked her mind back to the present. Now she wasn’t moving she could hear the florescent lights buzzing in her ears. She made herself raise her fist and rap on the door. The door was metal and hurt her knuckles. She swallowed and stepped back slightly, smoothing down her blouse.
When the door opened the woman stood behind it, not moving. Annabelle’s first thought was that she was small—she was a few inches shorter than Annabelle and very slight.
“Annabelle!” said Eileen. She looked as if she wanted to move, but she kept her hands clutching the door, as if the door was the only thing supporting her. Then she moved back to let Annabelle in.
Annabelle didn’t know what to say. They exchanged pleasantries, and Eileen exclaimed at how different Annabelle looked, how tall, how mature, and would you like something to eat, the flight must have been grueling. Annabelle told her she liked her apartment, and yes, she was sort of hungry.
While Eileen moved about making tea, Annabelle looked around at the small apartment. It was shabby but comfortable. The fridge was plastered with photographs and drawings done by children, she could tell. Looking closer, Annabelle noticed a photograph of three dark-haired children. The smallest—the youngest, she knew, was her. One picture of Annabelle out of a fridge-full of photographs. She deserved more; she deserved to have her childhood on this fridge. While this woman obviously cared for her oldest children, she did not care about Annabelle.
Eileen had sat down, across from Annabelle. She traced her finger along her mouth, outlining her lips. Her eyes rested on Annabelle’s face.
“I really didn’t recognize you, when I opened the door,” Eileen admitted.
Annabelle felt another rush of anger. She was her daughter. Shouldn’t Eileen be hugging and kissing her, be saying how much she missed her? Maybe Eileen didn’t care for her still. Maybe she only agreed to meet Annabelle because she felt she owed her. And she did—there was no doubt about that, she owed her thirteen years—but that wasn’t good enough.
“I didn’t recognize you, either,” replied Annabelle. It was partly true—her face was the same from the pictures Annabelle had seen of her mother, over the years, but the look on it was something she had never come across before.
“Were the Doughtys nice?” asked Eileen, disregarding Annabelle’s comment. “They were good to you, good parents?”
“Good enough,” said Annabelle. In truth, she loved her foster parents, but did Eileen deserve to know? “They’re always very supportive.”
Annabelle sipped her tea, watching Eileen over the rim of her cup. It was hard, this holding back, these smooth replies she was forcing herself to give, but this woman sitting across from her made her angry. Annabelle had lived all her life with no contact with her mother, and now Eileen—this woman, this stranger—expected her to open up to her?
Annabelle felt the hand holding her tea trembling, her face flushing. She put the cup down with a loud clink.
“Why did you do it?” she demanded suddenly. Eileen blanched, turning her face away from Annabelle, toward the window. Her hands, wrapped around her cup, were white, and her shirt was stained with sweat.
“I didn’t want to, obviously. There’s always something to make you do things, bad things, a stimulant. People don’t do bad things just for the sake of it… when Eric died—you know, my...late husband—“ Eileen looked at Annabelle, straight in the eyes for the first time, and Annabelle cringed back, feeling the force of her stare “—I couldn’t support the family. I had three kids! And me. You don’t know… you have no idea what it was like, to have to give your own child away. It’s like committing murder or something, it was so awful.”
Eileen’s face crumpled.
“But it was the only thing to do, to leave a child with other—better—parents. People who could take care of the child, and someday, maybe, I hoped you would forgive me.”
Eileen glanced at Annabelle out of the corner of her eye, as if she wanted Annabelle to shout out that she had forgiven her, that it was all better. Annabelle looked back at her sourly.
“I didn’t realize...” Annabelle said. “I understand that, now—but why me, huh? Why did you have to choose me?”
“Because you were the youngest,” said Eileen. Annabelle snorted and Eileen looked at her calmly. “You were the youngest, and I hoped you wouldn’t remember anything about us, that you would settle in with your new family the best.”
“I didn’t,” said Annabelle, trying to achieve the smooth calmness that Eileen had. “I always.. remembered… and I always knew you abandoned me.”
“I hate that word, abandoned,” said Eileen, wiping her eyes. “It makes me sound like such a bad guy, doesn’t it? I abandoned my child. But it was the only choice, you don’t understand!”
After that, Eileen cried. Annabelle didn’t know what to say to her. It was ugly crying, and Annabelle felt embarrassed as Eileen sobbed, with her head in her hands.
“You were—so young—and you loved me.”
Slowly Eileen calmed. Her face was calm and her eyes wistful. Eileen saw Annabelle’s hand on the counter.
“May I?” she asked, and held it. Annabelle was surprised by her grip—firm, but there was a softness to it. Her hand was warm.
“Annabelle, I know you’re angry at me,” said Eileen gently. Annabelle looked down at the counter top, tracing the subtle designs of the marks and stains. “But all that—it’s behind us. It’s already happened, and all we can do now is go forward from here.”
Annabelle looked over her mother’s face, seeing the lines and wrinkles and blemishes. Eileen was much older than Annabelle had realized, but now her face seemed proud and resolved. Annabelle felt taken aback. She had assumed Eileen had been crying with guilt or remorse, but now Annabelle could see Eileen believed her choice was the right choice. She saw Eileen had only been crying for those days when she still had all three of her children, and her husband, her family whole.
“Please?”
Annabelle looked into Eileen’s face. After a few minutes, she nodded.
“You have to believe how much I missed you,” said Eileen, and Annabelle nodded again.
They talked for a little longer, about Annabelle mostly—her hobbies, friends, school. Eileen drank in the information. Annabelle asked her mother about what had happened after she was gone—had her siblings been close, had they missed her? Yes, said Eileen. They all missed her. Slowly they had recovered from the loss of two family members, and now her brother and sister were kind and successful people. Eileen smiled, satisfied.
After a while Eileen excused herself to use to bathroom. Annabelle put her cup in the sink. Should she wash it out?
She shrugged and moved to the left, looking at the photograph of her and her two blood siblings on the fridge. She was small then, with a mop of curly hair and a wide grin. Annabelle wondered if her father was already dead when this was taken. She heard Eileen coming down the hall and tugged the photo from under the magnet, closing her hand around it.
When Annabelle left, Eileen squeezed her hand then, slowly, gingerly, leaned in to kiss her cheek. Annabelle leaned away slightly. Eileen’s breath was hot on her cheek. Eileen stepped back.
“I guess I won’t be seeing you anytime soon,” said Eileen sadly, “what with the cost of flying and everything. But it was nice, today.”
“It was nice,” repeated Annabelle. It was easy to say those words. “I’m glad we could do it,” she added.
As Annabelle walked down the sidewalk she glanced up at the window on the third floor, wondering if Eileen was watching her. Probably. It was hard to watch people leave, but Eileen had had experience.
Annabelle bought another coffee and concentrated on drinking it. It was more bitter than her first one that day, and after a few swallows she threw it away.
Annabelle would be staying with some friends nearby for a few days. On the subway she sat by the window. She closed her eyes as the subway rose up, the ground falling back and sunlight streaming through the grimy windows. She unrolled her hand and looked down at the photograph she was still holding. Three children and a satisfied mother, who was supposedly behind the camera. That time was over. But her mother had started over, leaving her past behind her and caring for her remaining children. When it was Annabelle’s stop, she put the photograph away in her backpack. Later she might take it out and look at it more, but now she stood tall as she left the subway, tall and calm like Eileen.





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