Karen Laws

Karen Laws has had short stories appear in The Georgia Review and Zyzzyva, among other literary journals, and has a story forthcoming in Wigleaf. Karen is a staff reader for Cagibi (Cagibilit.com). She recently completed a novel set in the High Sierra.

CLARIBEL by Karen Laws

The woman I had become accustomed to thinking of as my future daughter-in-law has taken off her white satin shoes but still wears her wedding gown. My son left her at the altar. I don’t know why she’s surprised, why she even went to the church—she keeps saying everything was arranged. I suppose that’s part of it. I’m grateful she has chosen to come directly from the church to the apartment, to me. She paces and cries out in her rage, the dress billowing. The wedding’s off. It’s clear that the rest of the family, the couple’s many friends, the officiator, all the invited guests have gone. He’s gone, she wails. I can’t pretend to share Claribel’s grief. Procumbent on the floor, I continue watching mukbang on the 65-inch TV. The open-plan apartment, with its luxurious furnishings, was supposed to be my gift to the newlyweds. Turkish carpets, new lighting fixtures, sectional sofa. No one has ever fucked on that sofa. Not yet. From the side of the room where romantic dinners will one day be prepared comes the soft whistling of a tea kettle. From the TV, at very low volume even though I love the audio component of mukbang as much if not more than the visual, come the smacking and slurping sounds of someone enjoying her meal. Between bites the pretty girl onscreen describes what she is eating—dumplings—and how they taste. I know what she says thanks to the English subtitles. (I’m keeping the volume down for Claribel’s sake.)She goes on weeping and shouting. I understand her need to vent. Memories of her and my son engaging in public displays of affection compete for my attention with the mukbang. When the mukbang loses, I turn off the TV. I look up at Claribel. In her eyes I see a scintilla of awareness that it’s going to be just her and me now. I’ve won. For months, I’ve been calling my friends by her name. Like when we spent the weekend at Lisa’s beach house. Claribel, I’d say, is there any soy sauce? Claribel, I mean Lisa, I’d correct myself, are you ready for a Boulevardier? All weekend, I kept slipping up like that. You’re obsessed with this woman, said my friends, laughing as they pointed out such mistakes. I couldn’t resist talking about Claribel. Saying things well within the bounds of normalcy, such as: She’s got a good job in hospital administration. She’s plus-sized and body-positive, she loves her body the way it is. She likes me, I told my friends. We’ve gotten close, so close that we have pet names for each other. She calls me Ducky, I confided. She defends me against her parents and other detractors. She even scolded my son one time when he called me a virago to my face. There’s an erotic element to your obsession, my friends warned. I suspected they were right. I may have taken advantage of my son’s fiancée’s affectionate nature. All I know is that I wanted to give Claribel my attention, preferably over a sustained period of time, and that I acted on that desire. My friends would never believe I could do that to my son. My friends—they’ve known me for a long time. They think of me as a loving mother. I, too, once thought of maternal love as unaffected by the passage of time. But as my son grew from infant to child to adult, he needed me less and less. My love shrank accordingly. Imagine a funnel. My love started out big and gradually decreased in size until it became as short and narrow as the human throat.  I faced the consequences of my transgression only today, when my son entered the apartment unexpectedly at 9 a.m. It was the morning of his wedding day. His bride-to-be was stretched out on an antique silk rug, under the chandelier. She had come here because she needed to be alone. With me, she can be alone. I know how to give her the mental space she requires, even when we’re close to one another physically. When my son walked in, my head was resting on Claribel’s capacious ass. I was naked, as was she. My son looked at us and we looked back at him. He slammed the door on his way out. Claribel told me not to worry. She seemed to have no doubt the wedding would take place exactly as planned. I said I hoped she was right, and after she left, I meditated on love as a funnel-shaped object. I imagined refilling a small bottle of olive oil from a large can and how a funnel would make the job easier. I used to love my son so lavishly—I was a good mother. I hope I was.Now, except for the softly whistling kettle, it’s quiet. Claribel is no longer sobbing. She has run out of things to express regret about. If I were you, I say, I’d change out of that dress and into my going-away outfit. Claribel shakes her head at me in a disbelieving sort of way, but she goes out of the room and returns wearing a short, sleeveless dress. The tattoos that looked silly on a bride are now an adornment. All in all, Claribel looks better. Calmer. The tea kettle is still whistling. I say, Do you want chamomile or mint?

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