On winter mornings, my mother used to say, as I laced up my boots or finished my coffee and she stood by the car in the cold, that she could feel time dilate for her as she waited. The sky was the low white-gray of a Boston winter, salt stains ringed the fenders of her busted blue Isuzu, and wind seemed to come from the ground itself.
She’d shake her silver thermos at me, and ice would clink in the white wine. This was when I was a teenager and still lived in the slanting house on Summer Street, in Waltham.
My mother had a Québécois accent, and she put the emphasis on the second syllable: di-late. She pronounced my name the same way, Geneviève, when everyone else called me Gen. I was embarrassed at this, though there was never anyone else there to hear her. I never brought anyone home. My father left for work early in the mornings, and anyway, by that time he was sleeping in the basement and had basically stopped talking to us.
For as long as I was stuck in Waltham, I liked to seek out opportunities to belittle my mother. I was convinced of the intellectual poverty of our household, that it would set me behind my peers.
Why don’t we have any literature, I would hiss, pulling out the Québécois horror novels from the single bookshelf beside the television and dropping them on the floor. Il y aura des morts. Torture, luxure et lecture.
One morning, she called to me from the car—Time di-lates for me, Geneviève!—and I decided not to shout back. I had thought of a different way to make my mother feel stupid.
I slid into the passenger seat with my boots still unlaced. You’re not using that correctly, I said.
She put the car in reverse and said: I don’t care what is correct.
It’s special relativity, I said. Time goes slower when you’re moving than when you’re standing still. So, like, if you got out of the car and I drove away and left you sitting here for a million years, I would age slower than you.
We had just done a module on special relativity in Physics. I wasn’t sure I understood it and didn’t want to. I just needed my mother to feel cowed.
Again, she said, I don’t care.
It’s real, I said. You have to care about it.
Then she said: The true experience of time, Geneviève, is not steady like a clock. I experience time as pure duration, which expands and constricts, and which is linked to former states, the former present, overlapping with these instants and making the immediate present hurt more or less, according to what I’ve lived through before.
She didn’t say it quite like that, but still, it was more words than she’d said to me at once in several years, and though my recollection was colored by halfhearted readings of Bergson and Husserl in college, I still liked to think that she had intuited this conception of internal time-consciousness on her own. That she had showed me up, little asshole that I was.
Time dilated for me when I got the call. It was evening, and I was in the backyard of the apartment that I shared with my partner, Mo. The yard was leafy and shambolic and beautiful and the reason we paid more than was strictly wise in rent.
There was a London planetree toward the back, like those at McGolrick Park. Its bark peeled off in overlapping coins of silver, verdigris, dark gray. Mo and I had found a discarded picnic table on moving day and dragged it from Driggs up Diamond Street. Mo had painted it red, and the paint had peeled at once, but I still loved the color.
I was sitting on one of its benches, the one without knots, smelling the wet wool of my scarf and almost enjoying it, having a last cigarette before I went to bed. It was late October, and the air was thin and chill. I was thirty-one. Life felt stable to me, like something under glass.
My phone was face down on the picnic table; it started to vibrate. I flipped it over at once. It could have been Mo. Nobody else really called me.
But it was my father. I had his full first and last name in my contact information: Christopher Quincy. If I passed out on the street—which was less likely now that I wasn’t drinking anymore—and someone scrolled through my contacts, looking for whom they should call, my father was not the person they would choose. Better that he should appear anonymous in the particularity of his name. Anyway, I never called him Dad; I really only referred to him indirectly, obliquely, as my father.
I slid my finger to answer the call.
Hello, I said.
I heard my father breathing for a few moments.
What is it? I asked.
Listen, Gen, he said, and coughed.
And time dilated—stretched thinner, my face up against its membrane, though I couldn’t see what was on the other side.
I didn’t get much more out of my father before we hung up. I gathered that he had found my mother’s body earlier that evening, and that the paramedics had come and taken it away. He didn’t say the word body, but it was clear she was dead.
I couldn’t tell, from the background noise, whether he was outside our home in Waltham or outside a hospital; there was the rushing of wind and the sound of distant traffic.
I told him I’d get a bus to Boston the next morning. I didn’t tell him that I would bring Mo, and I didn’t plan to. My parents had never quite accepted that Mo was my partner, and so I’d never brought her to visit, not that I’d gone back to Waltham for Christmas or Thanksgiving in years. We spent the holidays at her mother’s house in Forest Hills.
I placed my phone face down on the picnic table and put my hands between my thighs to warm them. I felt a prickling sensation radiate from deep in my sternum out toward my shoulders, down my arms, into my fingertips. Was it shock? But how could I be shocked? I’d prepared for this moment throughout my childhood, whenever I found her asleep on her side on the couch in front of the television, breathing so lightly that I couldn’t see her shoulders rise and fall. But I had stopped actively preparing once she’d stopped drinking—not because I thought she would survive, but because I thought that, in a way, she had already died.
I would have to call a funeral director, I knew that. My father wouldn’t be able to handle the arrangements on his own. I did not look forward to this task.
I watched a moth crawl toward me on the concrete. One of its wings was damaged; I had a strong impulse to crush it with my boot.
Instead, I placed my foot beside the moth’s injured wing, trying to guide it beneath the picnic table. It dipped, as though bowing to greet me; the sight made me shiver.
Mo hated moths. Hornworms had destroyed her tomato plants the previous summer, though I suspected that the plants wouldn’t have survived long anyway. She left the cages against the fence at the other end of the backyard; leaves from the plane tree gathered in the cages, which rusted. I couldn’t see the cages now, when I turned back. A single light mounted above the sliding door shone directly on the picnic table.
The moth by my foot didn’t look like a hornworm. Its wings were brown and red and white, patterned with false eyes—a queenly creature. Its antenna waved out of sync, slowly, like the legs of a swimmer on her back in a pool.
I thought of a passage I had read about moths in some novel: most of them, it went, when a person comes upon them, are in a state close to death. In fact, if they happen to get indoors, they’ll hold fast to the wall, unmoving, until their final breath; they’ll stay like that, even after death, in the place where they came to grief. Came to grief: that phrase was repeated a couple of times. I was supposed to come to grief now, I thought, although maybe that was the wrong way to use the phrase. I had to stop looking at the moth, anyway, which was no longer moving, and make a plan to ritually address the problem of my mother’s body.
I wanted instruction. What did people do in literature, I thought, when their mothers died? But of course, for so many centuries, when a mother died, it tended to be in childbirth, like in all those Victorian novels. A mother was always already dead.
That was the purpose of a mother in literature: to serve as a pretty ghost in the ether, a benevolent and rather sickly face for a young man to remember as he tried to decide what course his future life should take. Better a dead woman, whose face could be imagined, than a living one, whose face could betray emotion that was not just piety or love or, best of all, fear.
I watched the moth lift its wings and pause, its body exposed, a low current of air threatening to lift it. With a shiver, it hesitated. I could see that the movement of its wings was illusory, just an effect of the wind. Maybe it was scared. I put my foot beside it to block the current.
If Mo were here, I thought, she’d tell me that death wasn’t a problem that I could read my way out of. She’d be right, as always, annoyingly.
I would have to call her. That I was sitting here alone in my backyard watching a moth fail to take flight was a sure sign that I was isolating, trying to deny my feelings, to hold myself aloft from simple human connection, to pretend that I needed nothing and no one. It could lead to a drink. I’d had that hammered into me often enough, at meetings that I now avoided.
But I’m not going to drink, I thought. It had been four years. I didn’t want to go back to Payne Whitney, with its pale pink walls and clicking sounds and the sensation of time dripping around me.
I was shivering, but I wasn’t crying. I still had, and felt that I would never lose, the tendency to experience feelings at a certain distance. Anger still descended upon me as though from somewhere outside of my own mind, after a certain time had elapsed. Mo hated this tendency of mine to resume domestic arguments several days after they had been, to her mind, resolved. Was it anger that I should have been feeling now?
I hadn’t asked how my mother had died. It seemed pretty clear. Of course she’d started to drink again. I moved my foot closer to the moth, trying to guide it into the shadow of the bench. It didn’t move. I knew when she’d stopped drinking—I was twelve—that it wouldn’t last. She had gone even deeper into herself, and I had never seen her come back out.
Mo was at her studio, working, and I knew she’d just let the phone ring—I’d seen where she liked to place her phone when she started working, face down on a square of carpet remnant, so that the vibration wouldn’t make a sound—and I couldn’t bear the thought of making a string of unanswered calls.
I didn’t want to speak to her at all, not really. I wanted her to be here already, holding my head in her lap, running her fingernails across my scalp. Mo was good at tactile, wordless comfort. She was patient with me. She never punished me for having feelings. I once accused her, unfairly, of not putting in as much effort as I did in cleaning the grout off the tiles in the bathroom: I’m angry, I said, but I don’t let myself feel anger, because I’m afraid it will never end, because I’m an alcoholic. And Mo came over in her big T-shirt and socks with holes and held me. She smelled like cloves in an orange. That’s not an alcoholic thing, she said. That’s a human thing.
I texted Mo:
call me when you’re out
well something bad but it’s fine
I couldn’t see the moth anymore. Maybe it had climbed up the leg of the table and was holding itself flat against the bottom. I put my cigarettes back in the pocket of my jacket and went back inside through the sliding glass door.
I kicked off my boots and dropped my jacket on the kitchen table. It slid off and fell on the floor, looking defeated. I left it there. I got down on my knees and propped my elbows on the seat of the chair, which Mo had painted white, like so much else in our apartment. The room smelled like cilantro and vinegar. I pressed my palms together, laced my fingers, and closed my eyes. I prayed.
Shoot me in the fucking face, I prayed. My prayer regimen wasn’t too advanced. Mostly I turned what might be called intrusive thoughts into prayer. It helped.
And I breathed slowly through my mouth and stopped thinking in words. I stayed there, breathing, until I could feel my kneecaps shoot pricks of sensation up my thighs. I released my hands and sat in the chair and lay my head on the table. It was cool, and the pressure against my cheekbone felt good.
After Mass one week—I was probably six—I came into my mother’s bedroom without even taking off my shoes and sat on the bed, waiting for her to refresh her drink and come upstairs. I had discovered something during the third reading of the Liturgy of the Word, and I couldn’t wait any longer to tell her.
The car ride back to our house, once I had made my discovery, had been painful, though the silence was really no different than it had been on the way to Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted. There and back, on Trapelo Road in the sleet, I sat in the backseat behind my father. My mother sat in the passenger seat holding her thermos.
My discovery was this: our priest was lying. A forbidden thought. It felt tectonic. I could feel the hairs on my legs prickling beneath my tights. The intensity of the guilt that I experienced, allowing myself to think these words in order, was palpable. I felt my nose dripping and didn’t wipe it.
Our priest’s name was Father Byrne; he was bald and, when you saw him up close, had eyebrows whose individual hairs all stood up straight, as though they were trying to escape his face.
He wasn’t one of the priests who had been protected by Cardinal Law, though there had been such a priest at Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted, back in the seventies. Father Martin Walsh. He took some altar boys up to New Hampshire and raped them in a cabin.
When all that came out, I spread the Globe over the kitchen counter and said to my mother: I wish it had been Father Byrne, so that something would fucking happen in this town, and she came around the counter and slapped me.
Father Byrne was intoning First Thessalonians when I made my discovery. The day of the Lord, he said, so cometh as a thief in the night. I didn’t like that. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. I didn’t like that either. Sleep was good. It was a place I felt safe. And sober was a word that I had only heard being shouted through walls. I knew what it meant—I wasn’t an idiot—but I didn’t understand why it had to be so fraught.
And I started to feel, as the priest kept reading, this bubble in my chest: an alien, acidic sensation. The bubble told me that he was speaking all of us into a lie, not only himself but the whole parish, my body and the bodies of my parents and the bodies of the strangers around us about whom I didn’t care.
When we got back to our house, I sat on my mother’s bed, my shoes on and my legs swung over the edge. I was still afraid enough not to put my shoes on the bed, though I also felt, sitting there, that I lacked the strength to kick them off. I had to tell her what I’d found out. I wanted her to tell me I was wrong, that I’d missed something, that there was still an ordering principle in my world.
She came in, her thermos in one hand and the other on the doorframe. Geneviève! she said.
She didn’t move from the door; she was waiting for me to get off of the bed, but I couldn’t. She said my name again, and I said, He’s lying. It’s not real.
Take off your shoes and go downstairs, Geneviève, she said.
She didn’t reassure me. She was trying to tell me something important.
I swung my heels into the bedframe. Nothing existed, so it didn’t hurt.
My face, laid against the picnic table, had gone numb. I’d forgotten to close the sliding glass door, and insects were coming in from the outside. I had to buy a bus ticket. I picked up my phone, squinted sideways into the screen, and then lay it face down again.
Here I am, I thought. Just come and get me.