Savior, a short story
The young man seemed so out-of-place in her mother’s living room. Maria stood in the doorway with her mother’s groceries, her purse on her shoulder, key ring dangling off one numb pinkie, clutching the heaviest bag propped on her hip, the bag that contained her mother’s supply of Diet Coke. Her mother and this man were sitting together on a Victorian loveseat on loan from Maria’s antique shop, their knees almost touching, the man’s arm draped across the ornate wooden back, his fingers curled behind her mother’s left shoulder. Her mother had a photo album spread out, one leaf resting on her lap, the other resting on his. Maria could see herself, at two, nude in the tub. Christ, she thought, what’s she showing him those for?
The young man leaped up after a few moments of uncomfortable silence, running his hand over his hair and smiling. Her mother folded the album closed, holding out her arm, and he helped her up, a gesture Maria herself had never mastered, helping old people up out of their seats. She tried too hard, using the wrong position and too much lift, until their sharp old elbows jutted out at alarming angles but their behinds hadn’t lifted an inch.
He had a medium build, wavy blonde hair, a deep tan — he was almost, but not quite, handsome. His eyes were too close together and his nose too long: as Maria met his direct gaze, she felt uneasy at his obvious affection for her mother, the implication of knowledge which came from his confident manner. He looked as though he was already sure he knew the older woman’s mind; already sure she must be lonely.
“I’d like to introduce you to my daughter, Maria,” her mother said. “Maria, this is David. He found my wallet over at the library and was kind enough to track me down. I couldn’t believe it when he called. I didn’t even know it was missing yet.”
“That is lucky,” Maria said. “Really lucky,” she continued, smiling in her mother’s direction, one eyebrow arched, whereupon her mother shook her head once, violently, and her daughter’s unspoken reprimand was expertly dismissed.
“Oh, it wasn’t luck,” said David, the sound of his voice causing the small hairs at the back of Maria’s neck to rise. “Nothing’s a matter of luck. Life is all planned for us, down to the last detail.” He nodded, smiling at Maria, his arms hanging relaxed at his sides, and the suspicion came to Maria that he was crazy. Crazy but safe, one of the harmless ones, the kind that made her want to go a little crazy too because they seemed so sure of themselves.
Most of Maria’s son Richard’s friends were the same type, that’s how she knew. Richard — she never thought of him as “Kurma-devi-dasi,” although she respected his desires and addressed him that way — was crazy but harmless too, although she knew she couldn’t see him as clearly in that way as she could a stranger. To this day she was able to discern the fuzzy cartoon of his infant features on his serene face when he smiled at her — the memory of his toothless gums clamped like a rhythmic vise on her breast would come to her, looking at his shaved head and his orange cotton robes as he chanted over his prayer beads, and she would be filled with a sorrowful rage that made her chest shrink into itself.
Not his grandmother, though — she had sat with her grandson over at the temple for hours when he first became a devotee, sitting in a rocking chair next to him as he said his prayers in front of the little richly clothed doll of Krishna. She told Maria it made her feel closer to her own idea of God just being in a place like that. In theory, Maria agreed, but the issue wasn’t whether the temple was a nice place to spend an afternoon, the issue was whether it was a good way for Richard to spend the rest of his life — sewing holy Hindu god and goddess doll clothes on an old black Singer?
“I don’t know about a plan,” Maria replied. “I’m lucky if I know where I am, half the time. If it’s Wednesday, this must be my mom’s apartment — you know?”
He said nothing at first, not seeming offended, not defensive, just staring at her with eyes so full of a giddy, knowing light — his face loomed toward her, and tension rolled through her stomach as his mouth moved into a drawn bow of compassion. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t handsome; he radiated an alarming level of charm. “Down to the last detail,” he repeated, arching his eyebrows and opening his eyes a bit wider, his pupils enlarging like a lover’s, and the sound of his voice vibrated within her ears, warm and solid like hands pressed against her temples.
“Then one of the details must be that I’ve got to put this bag down before my arms fall off,” she said, forcing a laugh. “Excuse me.” She turned away and walked up the hall to the kitchen. By the time she’d finished putting the groceries away — rearranging pantry and refrigerator shelves, purposely taking far longer than usual — he’d already gone. Great. Now their lives were stuck together like flood trash swirling down her mother’s raging river. David would be there for her mother — be there always and forever, overflowing with that sickening, confident love, and her mother would never be able to blame him, not for anything.
Maria was uncomfortable with the amount of time her mother was spending with David, but didn’t dare say too much. There was nothing overtly objectionable about him, other than his religious fervor — and how could she term that a fault? Her mother wouldn’t listen, anyway. Whenever Maria brought the subject up, her mother would groan, “Oh, boy, here we go again,” and she would frown, which consisted of one sharp, off-center line in the middle of her forehead. “You don’t have to like him, sweetie,” she’d say, “but I wish you did.”
Still, her mother’s interests seemed to be shifting. Odd books and papers came and went on the coffee table, crowding out the usual hodgepodge of half-finished crosswords and literary journals: treatises on wild herbs, population-density maps, computer programming manuals, military histories. Flipping through a ratty emergency-medicine textbook, Maria saw numerous large, yellow-highlighted portions and margin notes in both an unfamiliar, childish hand and her mother’s own neat back slant. “What is all this stuff?” she asked, holding the book out to her mother.
“I’m getting ready,” her mother said. She sat down opposite Maria and picked up a needlepoint pillow, arms crossed, mashing it to her tummy like a teddy bear.
“Ready for what?” asked Maria.
“The end of the world,” said her mother. “You know, Armageddon.”
At first, Maria’s son agreed with her concerns, not at all what she expected and a strangely intolerant position for him to take — considering his own lifestyle — his agreement only making her feel worse. They sat in the temple’s empty dining hall. “I’m with you, Mom,” Richard said. “The guy sounds like a real case.” He rubbed his hand over his prickly scalp and yawned, his left hand fumbling inside the peach-colored sack of meditation beads that hung from his neck. He scratched his nose, smearing the delicate yellow makeup lines drawn there that symbolically pointed up: up to God, up to heaven. “Have you checked Grandma’s bank accounts lately? He could be some kind of con artist.”
“No, no,” she said. “That’s not the kind of thing I’m worried about. He seems sincere enough. He’s no con artist. It’s just — your grandmother is really starting to believe what he says — how Armageddon is coming, all that stuff. You should see the books he’s got her reading.” Maria leaned on her elbows, cupping her chin. Richard closed his eyes for a moment, tilting his head to one side like a duck.
“Then again, I suppose the guy could be right on,” he said, his eyes still closed. He looked asleep, his skin pale and fragile. “Maybe that’s what bothers you. I’ve been trying to get through to you on that level for years. At least Grandma’s started thinking about her future.”
“Her future?” Maria asked, her voice louder than before, wanting to reach across the picnic table and shake him by his choke collar of tiny wooden beads. “At eighty-five? People that age should be beyond this kind of worry. It isn’t right. He’s getting her all stirred up — and for what? If all that biblical stuff happened, she’d never survive.”
“You’re just jealous,” he said. He opened his eyes and stared at her, his thick black lashes tangled and dusty-looking. His pupils were pinpricks inside the blotched hazel irises, and as he spoke he stood up too fast, banging his shins on the metal tubing of the cheap table. He grimaced and squatted for a moment, rubbing his leg. “You can’t stand it when someone believes in something you don’t. I thought you were worried this guy was some kind of sleazy fake, but now you’re telling me what freaks you out is that he’s the real thing. Make up your mind. You should be happy Grandma’s paying attention to what’s out there.” He turned and walked away, his robes ruffling out behind him, his rubber sandals slapping the bare wooden floor. “I’ve got devotions to attend to,” he said, not turning back to face her as he walked, his voice thin, echoing across the length of the long, barren room.
The earliest occasion Maria could remember wanting her mother’s opinion was in the seventh grade. Maria had just turned twelve, and had her first crush. She was stringy and awkward in those days, large-kneed and carrying a head of vigorous, curly hair she flattened down into a matted-looking cushion in desperation. Then the quiet boy started walking her home from the bus stop.
She remembered him still: pale blue eyes, so large and widely spaced that they gave him a somewhat doe-like expression. His jaw, however, was firm, angular, and thus saved his face from weakness. Warm hands lay against hers, trembling, stroking her fingers up and down in an hypnotic rhythm. “Do you want to go steady?” he’d asked her, unable to meet her eyes. That meant wearing a silver identification bracelet, his name engraved about her wrist for everyone to see; his property. She hoped his name was in block capitals, not that loopy script: it looked better.
“I don’t know,” she said, and went home to ask her mother’s opinion, a matter of form perhaps, but something she wanted; the camaraderie of womanhood revealed at last. This could be the common ground between them.
“Honey, I just don’t think going steady is a good idea at your age,” said her mother. They sat in the dining room, wallpapered with tiny brown pineapples. “You’re too young to get so deeply involved with a boy.”
“But lots of girls do it,” she said, knowing this was a flawed argument, but even as the shipwrecked are driven to drink seawater, her words carried a dreamlike hope.
“You asked for my opinion,” said her mother, “and I’ve given it to you. It’s up to you to make the decision. I’m not saying no, I’m just saying I wouldn’t if I were you.”
In the end, she told the boy no — and was informed that the going-steady offer had been withdrawn in the interim — and she realized by heeding her mother’s counsel she had been saved from a greater and more penetrating level of humiliation than she imagined even existed. But — that wasn’t the point. Maria knew her mother would never have said no to one of her own teenage boyfriends — that was a lie. Safe advice given as a — joke, as an experiment. Didn’t Maria have the right to be strong-willed? Didn’t she have the right to her own losses? She never stopped trying after that, but the drama was gone.
Then Maria found her mother in the bathtub. She entered the apartment, carrying her mother’s dry cleaning: a few sweaters, a wool suit, a pink blouse. She heard water running, a slight, far-off sound, as if from the next apartment. The bathroom door was closed. The only sound was a rolling and a swishing, as though a large fish reclining in the tub had shifted position. Alarmed, Maria opened the door. Her mother was sitting upright in the full tub, a small trickle of water dribbling from the faucet. The tub was full to overflowing. Her mother was wearing a purple shower cap embroidered with large seahorses.
“Go away,” she whispered, as Maria stood, confused. A bristling red pincushion sat on the edge of the tub, dangling a red cloth strawberry from a green cord into the water. The strawberry bobbed on the surface. In her mother’s hand was a large straight pin, on her wrist several thin scratches. She jabbed with the pearl-headed pin, her hands unsteady.
“What are you doing?” asked Maria, her voice shrill, terror coursing through her. “What in the hell are you doing?”
Her mother turned to her, her unfocused eyes shining and rolling up toward the ceiling as she spoke. “Trying to kill myself,” she said.
“With pins?” shrieked Maria. “Jesus, Mother!”
“I wanted to flush my head down the toilet,” her mother continued, “but it wouldn’t go down.”
On the third night of her mother’s emergency hospitalization, Maria dreamed she was sitting in her living room drinking tea with one of her college professors, a sloppy but verbally precise little man. In reality, she hadn’t liked him at first, but she had taken every course he taught because — unlike the majority of his students — she got A’s from him. She came to admire his sincere and stringent approach, forgiving him his greasy, untrimmed hair, his baggy, stained chinos and ancient, Filipino-style dress shirts.
And so, in the dream, her old professor, uncharacteristically neat, his hair washed and combed, his pants pressed, was explaining to her that he had theater tickets for tonight’s performance — would she like to join him for dinner and a show?
I’m sorry, she said, but I don’t think I can get a baby-sitter on such short notice. It’s already six o’clock.
He raised his eyebrows. I had no idea you were married with a child, he said. Well, that’s too bad, my dear. Perhaps we can arrange it some other time.
As he shuffled off down the sidewalk, Maria wanted to call after him: Wait… I don’t really have a husband… I don’t really have a child… it’s all a mistake. Come back. I want to go with you.
But she was silent, knowing it wouldn’t make any difference what she said. He was already too far away, and could not hear.
The next day, when Maria arrived at the hospital, her mother’s newest flowers were wilting in the heat. Her mother had turned the room’s thermostat up to 85 degrees and wore a sweater and cracked pink leather mules. Still, the new additions were beautiful: three dozen roses, white, yellow, and coral, stuffed into a too-small mayonnaise jar, the faded label turned to the wall. Maria stood in the doorway for a moment, holding a brown paper sack full of the day’s requested items — mostly cosmetics — looking at the bright splash of color. “Hi there,” she said to her mother, who sat hunched on the edge of her bed, flipping through a current TV Guide.
“Hi,” said her mother. “Is it cold out? You look chilly.”
“It’s cool, but the sun’s warm,” said Maria. “Who gave you these roses?” She leaned over to smell them, her nose brushing the petals.
“David,” said her mother. “He brought them by this morning on his way to work.” She squinted at Maria, her glasses speckled with bits of dust, so filthy Maria wondered if she could see anything at all. “He didn’t know I was here; he found out just this morning from my across-the-hall neighbor. He was taping a note to my front door.” She unrolled a package of breath mints and placed one on her tongue. “I thought you would have called him by now — it’s been three weeks, after all.”
“I didn’t think it was such a great idea for you to have a lot of visitors.”
“A lot?” Her mother raised her eyebrows, which were nearly invisible. She penciled them in most days, but today she’d left them defiantly natural. “Any, you mean. You’re the only one I’ve seen other than the doctor, until this morning.”
“What did he say about visitors?” Maria asked.
“It’s fine, as long as I feel up to it. They’re still fine-tuning the dosage on the blood thinner, other than that I could go home already.” She held out her arm, shoving the loose sweater back above the elbow. Small scabs dotted her forearm. “They’re sticking me every four hours, round the clock. They’ve got to balance it just right. So I won’t have another stroke but so I won’t bleed to death, either.”
She stared at Maria, her eyes shining. Her mother’s voice dropped low and fluid, almost a murmur; Maria remembered that voice from long-ago midnights, giving comfort to a distraught child. “I know you were scared when you found me all confused like that in the tub, sweetie.” Maria said nothing. Her mother raised her chin with a jerking nod, relapsed motherhood dropping away from her like a fragment of dry skin, her voice back to normal. “But really, I’m okay now. It was a very minor thing — you heard when the doctor told me I was one lucky lady.”
An hour later, on her way out, Maria saw David from across the hospital’s visitor parking lot as she stepped on the black mat that made the door swing open. He was dressed in jeans and a pink polo shirt, his hair still wet from the shower, combed flat across his head, just beginning to spring away in wisps where the blond curls regained tension as they dried. She stopped short, turning and walking back inside, toward the gift shop, where she stood in the farthest corner. She picked up a stuffed animal and pretended to scrutinize the price while she watched the door. When he passed, moving toward the elevators, she followed. He entered one and the doors closed. Maria waited and got the next one, her heart pounding.
She got off on her mother’s floor, going away from her mother’s room, back toward the nurse’s station and lounge on the north end. Settling in one of the low, soft chairs, she stared up at the wall-mounted television, the evening news in full swing, recounted events drifting over her, seeming important but incomprehensible, the words passing through the air like puffs of smoke. Muscles tense, palms clammy, she took out a pen and paper and began jotting notes of what she wanted to say.
She jumped, startled, as she heard David speak. She saw his back, visible from the doorway, over at the nurse’s station where he spoke to the charge nurse. “I think there’s something wrong with her call button,” he said. “She says she’s pressed it a bunch of times without hearing anything over the intercom.” The nurse, a thin, tired-looking woman wearing lavender scrubs, nodded.
“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute,” the nurse said.
David turned to leave, and then he saw Maria and stopped, his mouth forming an exaggerated O, his eyebrows lifting. Maria felt a clammy flush rise up over her neck, a dull enveloping embarrassment. He smiled like a placid baby, walking to her and holding his hand out. She clasped his hand for a moment, feeling the solid meat of it, the warmth and hardness of his callused palm. “You don’t know what to believe in,” he said, his voice calm and slow, “and that’s natural. It’s a process of evolution you’re going through. Think of your mother’s illness as the catalyst.” He opened his arms and bent at the waist, hugging her so hard she couldn’t inhale, then he removed himself and stood looking down at her, his head cocked, his blue eyes luminous and warm, a crinkly-eyed smile starting to show.
“You’re crazy,” she said, feeling her throat seize up as her heart beat shook her ribcage like a wild animal — she had difficulty speaking. She paused as her chest eased, then forged on. “A catalyst?” she repeated. “I know what to believe — I believe you’re causing all my mother’s problems. She doesn’t need your brand of stress right now. And I don’t need this kind of condescension. Telling me I’m OK. I don’t need you for that. You’re not any kind of expert.”
“No, I’m not,” he said, the smile gone from his mouth but his eyes still glowing with a trace of it like a madman’s. “And since when do you care about expert opinion?” He reached out and stroked her hair, saying her name in his gentle murmur, Maria, Maria, and she flashed — it’s finally happening to me, it’s finally here — a jolt of vertigo as if she’d been through all this before, a hundred, a thousand, no, ten thousand times…. “You don’t care about anyone’s opinion but your own,” he said.
Their lives were now joined – with force of will and love he’d plucked her up and tucked her into the golden cup of his heart as quickly and easily as he would rescue a fear-crazed puppy clinging to a torn-off tree limb, just before that puppy swirled away to her doom down a swift, swollen river. Maria wanted to run, to hide, to retrace her steps, but it was too late. David would be there for her — be there always and forever, surrounding her with this… curious compassion of his, and she would never be able to scare this one away, no matter what she tried.