By Aimee Parkison
I once dated an anthropologist. He committed suicide three days after my twenty-fifth birthday. He wrote one massive book on the history of humor in parenting practices of early hominids and primates, as well as peoples of post-colonial times, including the use of jokes, especially practical, to teach children to overcome fear of death. His mother, who outlived him by more than thirty years, was the only family he had, the rest having gone to early graves, since suicide ran in his mother’s family and he had never met his father. His mother was a lovely woman, bohemian, and young for her age, the sort of lithe woman people used to call “feisty,” a former professional ballerina who had kept her figure, even after raising her son as a single mother. As much as I loved him, I admired her greatly and wanted to be her friend. Something changed, though, when he asked me to marry him. Somewhat wasn’t quite right between us—she and me.
She didn’t like to wear clothes indoors, especially at her house. This took some getting used to. All fake red hair and beige underwear, she hosted a small birthday party for me when I turned twenty-five. Offering to cook dinner, she invited me and her son to celebrate the evening in a house full of candles and cocktails gleaming. She gifted me a large, high-end bright blue lapis vibrator, realistically sculpted, a phallus to die for. Its impressive meandering veins trailed tip to shaft, heartbreakingly uncut and paradoxically poetic. Beautiful, obviously expensive, custom made, it was deliciously inappropriate to the point of being touchingly passive aggressive. I held the vibrator in my hand, impressed by its massive girth, having all the discretion of sudden nosebleed joshing from a deviated septum. It was the kind of gift that told me the giver both loved me deeply and hated my guts. It was the thought that counted. I felt closer to her in that moment than I ever had to my own mother, because I realized how important I had become to her, more important than she ever wanted me to be.
I was the love of her only son’s life. He was perhaps the love of hers, even though he didn’t know it. The vibrator should have been a clue to how much she loved him, but he didn’t see it that way. I did. Everything that happened that night was because of how much she loved him.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” the anthropologist said to his mother as I caressed the vibrator like a baby kitten in my lap. He stood near me in the living room, beside the iron staircase that went up to his childhood bedroom and playroom. In the silence, I stared at the living room windows, the faded beige curtains bellowing in the breeze so they resembled old wedding dresses worn by pregnant brides. Headless brides, I thought.
She was smiling too much, her exquisitely painted eyebrows black as asphalt as she laughed. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought it was nice, something I would have appreciated at that age.”
“Jesus, Mom,” he said as she lit more candles and then drained her Cosmo, her fiery red curls stiff and gleaming.
I felt uncomfortable, staring at her underwear, her small firm breasts still sitting high as prized peaches stacked on shelves, the muscles working in her slender legs. Her skin, milk-glass, luminous.
“I hope you’re not upset with me, son?”
“Of course, not, Mother,” he said, kissing her rouged cheek.
“Well, I’ll just light a few more candles, then I’ll make us some more cocktails and prepare dinner.”
“Lovely,” I said, still clutching the vibrator, not knowing where to put it. If I put it down too fast, I would seem ungrateful or prudish, so I held it, making sure they both knew I wasn’t squeamish or uncomfortable.
“What are we having?” the anthropologist asked.
“What do you mean?” his mother asked
“I don’t think I like your tone, son.”
“Well, don’t let that spoil Carla’s birthday.”
“I said I was sorry.”
She picked up our glasses and rushed into the kitchen. He wouldn’t even glance my way, as we both sat in the living room, waiting. Soon, a loud, jarring whirring sound came from the kitchen, a grating hum and then the sound of popping. “What the hell?” he asked. His eyes radiated something I had never seen in him: a pronounced sadness, like giving up.
His mother, still in her underwear, waltzed into the dining room with a big bowl of popcorn and then rushed back to the kitchen for cocktails. “Dinner,” she said, “is served.”
Distracted, I laid my lapis vibrator on the table and chose a seat.
I filled my bowl happily and began munching popcorn while sipping my Cosmo.
“What’s wrong, son?” she asked. “This used to be your favorite dinner.”
I thought it wrong for him to refuse the popcorn, so I began eating more and more, stuffing it into my mouth as fast as I could.
“When I was five,” he said.
“Well.” She popped a piece of popcorn into her mouth and chewed pointedly.
“I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve grown out of everything I used to do when I was five.”
“Do you remember Joe and Irish?”
“Stop it, Mother.”
“Irish,” she called loudly, her voice directed at the ceiling, as if calling someone upstairs, where his old bedroom and playroom were. “Joe?”
“Let’s go. Upstairs, son. Come on, let’s go see Irish and Joe.”
“I said stop.”
“So, you remember?”
“No!” he yelled.
“If you don’t remember, what are you afraid of?”
“Then, come on, get your drink, and let’s go upstairs, to your old room.”
He lifted his glass and chugged it, draining the Cosmo before shattering the glass on the table. She laughed and started to run, pausing at the foot of the stairs to glance back at him. He started to run after her, and soon she was running again, so he was chasing her up the old stairs and she was laughing.
More laughter, harder, louder from her, but he was screaming at her, angrier than I’d ever known him to be. Behind his anger, I sensed fear. Maybe that’s why I stopped before reaching the stairs and just stood there, listening to them and looking up. She was still laughing so hard, like a naughty little girl and he was scolding her, fatherly, but his voice was trembling, breaking.
Then, I heard other sounds—a thud, a crash, as if objects were being thrown at the walls, as if there were a physical altercation and she began to howl. I heard her weeping softly as he walked down the stairs, slowly, as if embarrassed, straightening his mussed hair and glasses. I saw her naked legs run past the stairs above as he was putting on his coat to leave, saying to me, “Come on, Carla.”
He gestured to me to hurry, holding the front door open when she began calling, mocking him, saying “Stop it, stop it, Mom!” Then, “See, you never grew out of it.”
The anthropologist drove me home that night without a word, but I knew something had changed between us and would never be the same.
We never married. I never saw or heard from him again.
Three days after the incident, he died.
His mother asked me not to attend his funeral.
When I finally visited his grave, it was covered with white flowers. I didn’t have any flowers, so I removed the blue vibrator from my handbag and nestled it among the petals.
The anthropologist’s grave was sandwiched between two older graves in a family section, one belonging to a man named Irish, one to a man named Joe.
It was just a game, his mother later said, when I called to tell her what I thought of her. Just a game they played, she insisted, since there were only two plots left for her and her son in the family section. They knew the names of the men they would be buried next to, their neighbors for eternity, names they had known since childhood.
Irish and Joe: Take Two
Do you remember a man named Irish, a man named Joe? Velvet, the shelves covered in dust on those days of the storybook Irish was reading with his eyes closed because he did not want to let me be lonely. Now, the tree outside the window, the specter. When we were children, we sometimes let our imaginations get the best of us. We scared each other. On accident. Never on purpose. Don’t tell me it hasn’t haunted you all these years. The shelves, the velvet dust beneath something sparkling like your eyes.
Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize, published in 2017 by FC2/University of Alabama Press. Her other works include Woman with Dark Horses (Starcherone 2004), The Innocent Party, (BOA Editions, Ltd., American Reader Series 2012), and The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc 2014). Parkison has taught creative writing at a number of universities, including Cornell University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she was the coordinator of the creative writing program, and Oklahoma State University, where she is an Associate Professor of Fiction Writing and the Director of the Creative Writing Program. Parkison has taught as a visiting faculty member at the British Council’s International Creative Writing Summer School in Athens, Greece, and as a fiction faculty member at Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.