But she came in only as far as the foyer. She fell back in the hateful, worn velvet armchair. Every time she visited, she felt a crushing weariness, as though her entire life were caving in on her. The air was stifling, stagnant there between the walls like the water in a swimming pool out behind some deserted mansion. There were no open doors or windows. I’ll wait for you down here, she said. What did you say? came the reply. I’ll wait down here, she said again, her eyes wandering over a corner of the drawing room. The walls were peeling from the brackish air in the apartment. The Persian rugs had faded, and the upholstery on her father’s favorite armchair was split at the back. Had anyone felt so inclined, they could have pulled out the goose down with their fingers. The crystals on the chandeliers were cloudy, because it had been ages since anybody had gone at them with vinegar, but all the other furniture was in reasonably good shape, and there were still silver tea and coffee services and valuable decorative objects placed here and there about the tables.
Countless times she had asked her to move to a more modern apartment and hire a proper caretaker. Mother had always been obstinate, like those curved-horned rams the pharaohs had had sculpted for the entrances of their mausoleums as a sign of permanence. But Mother—even then, looking the picture of a movie star, all decked out in her wide-brimmed hats and her dazzling rings—was a mere mortal, and time was ravaging her unsteady movements, her thinning hair, her mournful gaze, her skin mottled over with liver spots. She started down, leaning on an orthopedic cane and the banister for balance. The trip took several minutes, and she stayed put without offering to help her.
They had lunch together every Tuesday. They would go to any restaurant that was cheap, so long as it was clean, because Mother only ever ordered chicken soup, anyway, claiming an upset stomach. Nothing ever happened outside the routine—the endless chitchat about family gossip, which Mother was privy to thanks to the phone calls she continued to receive. Did you know your cousin got back together with her lover? Your nephew took a trip to the Far East. Your aunt argued with the maid. Never What is your husband writing? Is your son doing well? or What are you up to? Something she might have wanted to talk about. They had never been friends, really. There had been a time when she would have welcomed some intimacy between them. Now it hardly mattered.
The soup got cold. A layer of skin had begun to form on the surface, and it was looking less and less appetizing by the second. She said she should eat, her food was getting cold. I eat slowly, and you always rush me because you want to be somewhere else. There, I’m finished. And with the impudence of a petulant child, Mother pushed the bowl away, her trembling chin warning of tears. She asked for the check, and they went back. This time, she helped her out of the car and held her by the arm to take her upstairs.
Don’t lock the garden gate. I can never unlock it, Mother said. She promised she never would and then sat waiting in the car, her body turned to face the balcony where Mother always stood at the window to bid her good-bye with reddened eyes and a blown kiss. She blew one back. Then she started the car, wondering how long, how long that Tuesday custom would last. Not much longer, she thought.
But as she rounded the corner, she realized that if she lived long enough, perhaps she herself, every week, would be bidding her son good-bye from behind a pane of glass, her eyes rimmed with red, her hand held aloft in a sign of farewell.