Illy resisted the urge to spin in her swivel chair. She knew it was unprofessional but it was so hard to maintain professional appearances when no one had even looked in her direction in two hours. She looked at the sales people in the stores across from the kiosk. Most of them were standing near the entrances of their stores, staring out into the mall like hungry goldfish. Mall work in general was boring enough, but on the really slow days, it felt like a slow torturous death. Without any customers you started to notice the flickering of the fluorescent lights, the lack of windows, the smell of stale popcorn and cleaning detergent. Illy considered organizing a mutiny. She could gather all the other pale, withering mall workers to storm the Dairy Queen, then march out with their Blizzards into the parking lot to see the sky and breathe real air. It would be a victory for mall workers everywhere.
“Simon says you’re not supposed to spin.” It was the eyebrow ring girl, staring at her from across the kiosk. It took all of Illy’s resolve to not say, “Simon says touch your nose.”
“Sorry.” Illy slid off the chair to avoid all temptation. She wondered if her co-worker was keeping track of how many bathroom breaks she’d taken. Probably, since she mostly just stared at Illy from the corner, her daunting opponent in a never ending Simon Says tournament.
Illy was about to risk the reproach and make a dash for freedom, when she heard a familiar voice behind her. “Hello there!”
“Hi Sweetie. Just coming to check on my favourite cell phone girl.” Her mother always called her Cell Phone Girl these days which sounded to Illy like a cheesy pin-up model in an electronics magazine. Turn to page fourteen to see this month’s Cell Phone Girl.
“Well, here I am. Bored but employed. I think I might be developing a tic in my right eye from the fluorescent lights. Can you see it?”
“Oh, Ilia, always the drama queen. I was just on my way home from the gym and thought I’d buy you a quick coffee or something. Come on.” She turned to Eyebrow Ring. “I’m her mother. We’ll be right back”
Apparently mothers were the Get Out of Jail Free card, because the girl just shrugged and climbed onto Illy’s swivel chair. Illy wondered why she never sat on her own. There must be a chair hierarchy Illy hadn’t figured out yet.
It felt great to be walking in a straight line instead of just around and around the little box like an unfortunate lab rat. It even felt great to be with her mother, who at least could provide some news from the outside world.
“So what’s new with you?” Illy worked to keep up with her mother, who sped through life like a professional speed walker.
“Well, I’ve been working more lately, which has been nice.” Illy’s mother worked as a casual nurse at a mental health hospital. She mostly took night shifts since the patients were sleeping and the nurses could all play canasta and take turns napping in the soundproof isolation room. The part Illy could never figure out was how she could work all night and then spend the day cleaning and exercising. Apparently she never slept. Maybe Illy’s need for ten hours of sleep was a genetic compensation for her mother’s sleeplessness. In fact most of Illy’s traits seemed to be some sort of reverse compensation from her mother—her messiness, her lack of discipline, her disdain for all things exercise related. Whatever happened to the natural repetition of heredity? The only thing she could think of that she’d received biologically from her mother was a cellulite-free gene. At least she hoped she had it. She’d always thought her mom had such great smooth legs because she exercised obsessively, but after her grandmother’s knee replacement surgery, Illy had seen a glimpse of her eighty-eight year old grandmother’s legs, and they were as smooth as a supermodel’s. In that one area at least, she seemed to have received the blessing of the gene gods, since her sedentary life and mass chocolate consumption had so far not been able to produce one dimple on her thighs. She wondered if that was something she should thank her mother for. Or her grandmother.
“…which is making me feel like a million dollars, though the enemas are a nuisance.”
“Sorry, what?” Illy jogged a little to catch up.
“This new health regime I heard about from your Auntie Evelyn. It’s from India, I think. Your father and I aren’t eating any sugar, dairy or wheat, and we start each day with a cup of lime juice and olive oil. It’s really quite invigorating.” Illy’s parents were suckers for every possible alternative health program. Their pantry was stockpiled with energy shakes and colon cleanses and obscure mineral supplements. Illy was sure health-related pyramid scheme representatives traded her parents’ address like the Golden Fleece.
“And what did you say about enemas?”
“Well, that’s the annoying part. You have to give yourself an enema every other day. And once a week with coffee.”
“You give yourself coffee enemas?” They were really outdoing themselves this time. Illy wondered if Auntie Evelyn was playing an elaborate joke.
“They’re great for your system. Like I said, I’ve never felt better. You should try it, Ilia. Evelyn says most of us have build-up the consistency of paint lining our intestines. And with the way you eat, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Illy took a deep breath. Here it was. The moment in every conversation she’d had with her mother in the last ten years when she had to decide if she’d be offended and annoyed, regressing to one word answers and eye rolls, or if she’d let the offensive comment slide and remain engaged. She decided to let this one go. Her mother was buying her a drink after all.
They sat down in the food court with their drinks. Illy had decided on a chai latte since she could get coffee for free from the kiosk, and her mother had hot water with lime juice. Illy was just relieved she hadn’t asked for a shot of olive oil.
“How are the plants?” Back to safe territory.
“Great actually.” Illy’s mother had been thrilled wihen Illy had asked her to stop by for a short plant tutorial. Illy had taken notes about watering amounts and name brands of plant food. Though even during the tutorial the plants had perked up, beaming under all that loving attention. “I don’t know what you said to them when you were over, but their mood has changed dramatically. They’re all looking bright and chipper and like they’ve forgiven me their botanical grudges. I can’t thank you enough. Though I expect you might need to come for follow-up sessions pretty regularly.”
Illy’s mother looked relieved at the invitation. Illy suspected she hadn’t been told all the real plant secrets and that her mother withheld just enough information to maintain their three way codependency cycle. Now that Illy no longer needed her mother for Algebra help or rides to the mall, her mother had established a new area of need. Illy figured plant care was one of the least psychologically damaging fields of co-dependency so she didn’t push the issue. She, her mother and her plants were all mostly comfortable with the arrangement.
“And, have you been seeing anyone?” Her mother stirred her lime water in feigned nonchalance.
Illy paused. She hated to even bring up Jay’s name because she knew her mother would be asking about him on a weekly basis for the next six months at least. Not to mention inviting him for dinner and Canasta nights. But it had been so long since she’d had a real life guy to talk about and she knew it would bring her mother so much joy to have news to share with her sisters.
“Well, sort of.”
Illy’s mother looked up from her water with suspicion. It was obviously not the answer she was expecting.
“His name is Jay. I met him at a writing club. He’s a plumber—the kind that does plumbing systems in big buildings—and he’s really nice. We’re going out again tomorrow.” Illy thought it best not to mention the movie thing. Everyone in Illy’s life knew about her anti-movie-date stance and there was nothing her mother enjoyed more than pointing out the inconsistencies in Illy’s quirky principles. Like the time she found a Wal-Mart bag in Illy’s closet after years of defaming the store as the destroyer of all things good and holy. Her mother bought her random items from Wal-mart for months, finding the whole situation hilarious. Illy still cringed when she and her mother passed a Wal-Mart. Some things were best left unmentioned.
“Well, well, well.” Her mother examined Illy’s face like a CIA interrogator. Illy wondered if she should look up and to the left just to throw her off. “A nice writing plumber. He sounds right up your alley.”
Illy wasn’t sure if that was a joke or a sign of just how desperate her mother thought she was, but she held her tongue. She was the one who had chosen to disclose Jay’s existence. Now she’d need to let her mother have her heyday with it.
“That’s wonderful, dear. When will we get to meet him? You could both come for dinner on Tuesday. I’ll be done my stretch of night shifts.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll wait a while till we broach the whole family dinner thing. We’ve really only gone out once so far. Maybe we could come in a month or two if things are still going well.” Illy’s mother looked deflated. “But I could come Tuesday, if I still qualify for the invitation on my own.”
“Of course, dear. We’d love to have you.” She said this like Illy was the porcelain kitten door prize that she was pretending to be thankful for.
“I really shouldn’t stay too long. I’ve already used up my allotted break time and I’m pretty sure that girl in the kiosk is keeping a little black book of my indiscretions to pass on to head office at an opportune time.” She didn’t feel bad for the abrupt cut off. Her mother had never been one for long rituals of pleasantries. Illy regularly found herself staring at the phone mid-sentence, realizing her mother had already said goodbye and hung up.
“Not to mention all the sales you might be missing.” Her mother set down her empty mug. She was the fastest hot drink drinker Illy had ever seen. Illy had spent most of the conversation blowing on her chai and swirling it around with the lid off to cool it down. It was still nearly full. Her mother, on the other hand, downed boiling drinks like shots of tequila, which seemed to Illy to defeat the purpose of hot drinks altogether. “Thanks for joining me for a few minutes. It was great to see you.”
Illy looked at the smile on her mother’s face and knew that she was being sincere. Somehow fifteen minutes of enema and dinner invitation conversation really was meaningful for her mother. All that fast-paced walking and drinking and discussions about diet were her own weird love language. Illy smiled back. “You too. Thanks for the drink.” She gave her a quick hug. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”
“Have fun on your date. What are you two doing?” Her mother was already speeding away.
Illy paused and watched this woman who remained such a mysterious phenomenon but whom she could feel in her very bones. “We’re going to the movies,” she called out after her. Her mother had given her so much. Illy may as well give her this one small joy.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty