“How many children are born but never been loved?”
The voice vibrated in the room like an echo, the woman’s gaze was lost in the emptiness, her face emotionless behind a soft make-up, her lips slightly veiled by a neutral color lipstick.
The afternoon sun coming from the facing window boosted the temperature and she could smell her light sweat floating around; the writing pen slowly formed valleys and hills, sometimes opening up to heaven and sometimes descending steeply towards the earth, the phosphorescent ink on the shimmering sheet of paper made the landscape of words stands out even more:
I was born of a dead mother, I sucked her guts until I reached the light she wanted to deny me.
Dead, and I…alive.
Abruptly she woke up and realized that it was a dream, the sun-flooded bedroom was the only point in common with the surreal dimension.
She was born of a cold and indifferent mother, yes, but still alive up to a few years ago.
Her mind still impregnated by the vividness of the dream, she got up and started her usual rituals, ignoring the tremor in her hand while she prepared the coffee.
She chose to wear a middle length dress with patchwork-like pattern. A pair of large, shining earrings competed with the generous neckline which emphasized her bosom, she knew that that day the look of her interlocutors would unintentionally wander from one to the other, bringing it then back on her face, in their eyes often a slight embarrassment.
The subway car was quiet, few passengers in that day which shortly preceded the end of the year.
The atmosphere was so intimate that when she sneezed, she expected to hear someone saying ‘bless you’, but the three passengers closer to her remained silent, each absorbed in their thoughts and occupation.
A small girl was sleeping with her head leaning on her mother’s arm, and Penelope unexpectedly recalled the day she fell asleep on her mother’s bed, unconsciously hoping to receive some attention; instead, upon her return her mother scolded her severely because the kitchen had not been tied; she hurried to get up and with her shouting in her ears she took the stool which enabled her to reach the sink, and she started washing the dishes.
The subway left the open space behind and entered a tunnel, breaking the illusion of traveling towards a faraway destination.
Penelope looked at her blurred reflection in the window of the wagon, a now white lock fell on the side, almost covering the dark eye. She did not like white hair much, but it was by now a lost battle, where barely within two weeks the white roots would appear in whatever color she tried to dye her hair.
But at her age one could get around with white hair, the few wrinkles she had on her face still allowed her to look younger. It was the body who mostly took the blow of time: a ferocious menopause, an out-of-order knee, a breast surgery which subdued her sport zeal, for which she showed up with little perseverance even before. Only thanks to her height and suitable clothing, she was able to cover the scars and the extra pounds.
Distractedly she recalled the dream, the words still ringing in her unconscious, and thought about the relationship with her daughter, and wondered whether her daughter ever had fallen asleep with the hope of a caress in her heart. Probably not. As a child Susanne was different from her and despite everything, until she had been with her, she had been a different mother.
The phone in her bag vibrated, she took it out and saw that it was a call from her daughter: did she have a precursor dream or her thought sent out cosmic vibrations which had reached her daughter?
Her therapy persuaded Penelope of the existence of an internal energy but it was the only vaguely esoteric thing which she believed in, the rest was just a coincidence.
She hadn’t seen her daughter for at least ten years. Relationships died quietly at least five years ago, discontinuing even the occasional holiday greetings. After a short hesitation, she decided not to answer; she did not feel like facing a conversation which would for sure be uncomfortable and she did not feel inclined to renew with her past in those festive days.
Penelope had been working as head of human resources for several years, a job she not only liked, contrary to her expectations, but also which she became good at. She saw a certain affinity between an audition and a job interview, and she was sure that her past helped her filtering through the candidates, seeing who were just acting, who had stage fever and who were naturally themselves.
And those, if qualified, were the best.
At the end of day, after leaving the subway she walked to the supermarket close to her place; contrary to the morning subway, it was very crowded; the tyrannical frenzy of the holidays lead the customers to overload their carts, where more than half of the purchases was ready-made meals, with little fresh food, a lot of alcohol.
For the evening she only wanted to buy cheese and wine: she was expecting Matthieu, who had promised to come after the general rehearsal. It was the last evening they could meet, after that she would go to her friend Magrit and spend the few days around New Year with her. As much as she enjoyed Matthieu’s company, she had no intention to spend New Year’s Eve waiting for him to end the play, get out of his work commitments and then come to see her.
Matthieu would spend New Year’s Eve with his colleague, maybe try to sleep with one of the women, while Penelope would meet her friend, and enjoy the company and the nature.
While she choosing a Spanish soft cheese to combine with chestnut honey, she smiled thinking about the few peaceful days ahead, and told herself it was the perfect end and beginning of the year: the warmth of old friends, the beauty of nature in winter, some pleasant and unpretentious sex, lunches and dinners with good food and nice wine. The sex part was maybe uncertain, she never knew when Matthieu managed to get an erection; he was extremely health conscious and was against any chemical remedy for his erectile dysfunction. Although he denied it, Penelope was convinced Matthieu stayed with her, 15 years older, because the expectations of a younger women were likely to be different.
With her, he could relax; Penelope often preferred to spend the evening chatting hugged, reading or watching a movie rather than stir the genitals into motion.
He mostly left the initiative to her, and by now she recognized his bad moments: shallow kisses, focused more on the neck and shoulders, a hand which holds her back steady without stroking it.
A secret code to tell her that evening is not a good one, and she could enjoy the cuddles with a light heart, without questioning. In her youth her insecurity had deformed and transformed a similar experience into oceans of troubles and unhappiness; with the passing of the years the whole regained its true dimension and a man poorly performing in bed was now simply someone with an unchecked disorder, and no longer a proof of his lack of love or her lack of attraction.
He had invited her to see the general rehearsal that evening, but it always hurt her to go to the theater; only rarely she was carried away by the performance and it was seldom she didn’t find anything to criticize in the actors. Each time she couldn’t help but thinking about her efforts to be the one on stage, and this brought back memories of a past she didn’t want to remember.
She and Matthieu had met during a production where Penelope had a small part, which she had accepted as a favor to a friend director, who was desperate after the actress originally casted for the part broke her leg. Years ago Penelope would have taken this unexpected replacement as a chance for a breakthrough but by then her past experiences had taught her that a replacement remains mostly just that, a flash of professional satisfaction, a star that lights up and goes out in a few nights .
Her clean and tidy apartment matched the holiday mood, thanks to its warm shades of dark red and brown; the sofa looked particularly cozy with its various cushions of similar colors, decorated by cross- stitch. The rooms were mostly illuminated by floor lamps or lampshades placed in different corners on tables of various heights.
She put the cheese in the fridge and poured the wine into a decanter she got as a gift for her fiftieth birthday from an old lover, then went to the bathroom to fill the tub.
The spacious bathroom was equally well-kept, on the walls white tiles with some blue patterns; an old-fashioned bathtub with golden feet gave it a démodé touch; the colored flasks spruced the room, the washing machine hidden in a wooden box with a marquetry door, thus hiding any trace of modern times. She was a great fan of long baths, she could spend hours immersed in water, and the bathroom shelf was full of tiny bottles and boxes with various salts and essential oils that complemented her moments of well-being.
That evening she chose an essence of mountain pine and added some honey to the water.
As she undressed, the phone rang again: it was her daughter again. Ignoring the call again, she lit several candles, the mirror light and she sunk into the tub.
As planned, the day after Penelope left after work for the countryside. The evening with Matthieu had been less pleasant than expected due to the constant buzzing of the telephone, and Matthieu’s gaze, more penetrating than usual. She did not like talking about her past, and although her lover knew about the failed marriage and her daughter, he respected her choice not to go into details.
The previous evening however, sensing Penelope’s malaise, he unexpectedly asked about her daughter. Instead of answering, she went to bed.
She had a restless night, the body tormenting the sheets as the mind tried in vain to shut out the past. She remembered very vividly of that day, the day when happiness began to flow through her fingers.
Breathlessly she opened the door to the physician’s practice and headed towards the waiting room; with a sense of defeat she realized that the wait would last a couple of hours, an infinite amount of minutes in which her stomach would continue to tighten and shoot pangs of pain, caused by the panic and fear of the results. Her right eye was twitching, this was also a sign of the stress that had worn her out since the week before, when she had done one of those home pregnancy tests.
She did not remember forgetting to take the pill, but perhaps the change of time zone due to a short vacation overseas had created a window of time where the protection failed.
Not only was the pregnancy planned neither in the present nor in the future, but it was most definitely unwanted. Her husband knew it!
That day could have mirrored itself in the day of the mother’s death, where she felt life instead of death. The beginning and the end. But perhaps it did not start immediately, that awareness she was at last master of her own life without being subjected to constant judgments. To look in a mirror, eventually without shadows around, and simply see herself, curly hair on the spacious forehead, shoulders slightly curved to hide the height, a body with no glory and no shame, however her own, private.
Her mother’s death came suddenly, shortly after she started her studies at the academy of dramatic art. She had gone out one morning and returned home orphaned in the evening.
All she could feel was a grudge against her mother for having left without loving her, while the empty space became filled with friends and love, new feelings and experiences which allowed her to embed her fragile unwanted child’s ego in a casket, burying it under a layer of self-esteem and confidence, unfolded thanks to the new weapons offered by acting.
Her mother had disapproved of her choice to attend an acting school, as she disapproved of everything about her. She was always a notch lower than what her mother expected from her, from how she matched the clothes, to the games she played, and then the school, the friends, her looks.
Whereas Penelope had revered her mother as a child, and tried hard, really, to be as she wanted.
To see a smile, perhaps have a hug; she always tried to be obedient, not to make noise, not to get her clothes dirty; she did all to make her happy. But those kisses and cuddles always came too rarely.
It had been a good dinner, even a romantic one, in their favorite restaurant, with the dishes she liked best; unlike usual her husband did not comment when she ordered a dessert. It looked like a dinner like in the early days, three and a half years ago. Unlike usual they did not order any wine: she was now expecting a baby.
The day she had the results was followed by weeks of prayers alternated with reproaches and insults, both sides taking their share. In the discussion, Penelope always felt in the minority; they were two, but it seemed that her opinion did not count and that her fears and desires were irrelevant.
The problem wasn’t pregnancy, but it was her. If only she were more flexible, more docile, more maternal, and less arrogant, less selfish, less high-handed…words that echoed those of her mother.
Penelope wanted to be better, she wanted him to be happy with her, about her.
Her husband persuaded her to keep the baby, saying he would take care of the baby, reduce his working hours, take days off if the baby got sick and ensure that she could continue working as usual. The only thing he had to do was to continue with the pregnancy to then discover the joys of motherhood. Swallowing her fear, holding on to her husband’s promise to take care of the baby once born, she agreed not to abort.
A baby girl arrived and that was all.
She did not have that outburst of maternity he waited for and which he took for granted, the one she secretly begged for.
The little girl was all what she did not like in children: dependent, complaining, demanding, rapacious, she sucked her energies, her mind, her sleep.
The birth of her daughter had brought her back to the time when her eye was twitching every day, while a general malaise took hold of her body, inhibited her movement, hold her up.
However, she didn’t want to be like her mother, and wrestled so that her daughter didn’t have to feel like she did as a child; she indulged her, cultivated her self-esteem and let her follow her child inclinations, believing she could make her feel loved; the result was only to make her spoiled and even more tyrannical, while she descended deeper and deeper into a dark and narrow hole.
She had difficulty concentrating on the little work she had, memorizing the lines with a tired mind became a titanic task, and this, because in the end she took care of the little tyrant well beyond that agreed with her husband during the gestation.
“The girl needs her mom now, she’s too young to be with me.”
But her mom needs sleep and rest to work, she wanted to shout. She didn’t have a fixed job, where the performance was relative. If she was not able to act and be available as requested, she would have had no engagement at all.
Her husband doted on the little girl, but was careful not to take care of her, in fact he even reproached Penelope for her distance. The girl was kept like a little princess, but Penelope could not truly feel affection for the girl, with gray eyes like hers, dark hair, and a shrill voice.
Despite this, Penelope performed all her mother’s duties as per the script imposed by the society and her husband.
After yet another illness, the child was better. In that period Penelope had some sporadic minor roles and the recovery of the daughter made her feel less guilty about leaving her again with the babysitter. Although on the other hand, a healthy child also meant that she would start screaming seeing that Penelope was getting ready to go out.
The phone rang as she hung out the umpteenth laundry of Lilliputian clothes, and her heart jumped in her throat! She was waiting a confirmation for a contract that would last six months, which would take her, among other things, to other cities. It was practically done, the dates had been decided and they already too her measures for the stage costumes, only the signing of the contract was missing.
The idea of working regularly for some time was exciting and as much as also the idea of not spending 24/7 hours with the child; the trips, with all their inconveniences, would give her the freedom and autonomy which she was dying for.
As soon as the babysitter arrived, she ran away from the apartment, she needed air, movement and to be alone.
The director’s voice on the phone rang in her head.
She tried to call her friend Magrit, but she did not answer.
She wandered the streets for a few hours, anger turned into cold sweat that stuck clothes on her body and made her shiver.
She was terrified of going home, locked up anew, with no upcoming job possibilities and with the only concrete occupation, look after her daughter.
A few years later she happened to meet the director.
She had stopped to have a coffee after an interview for a part-time job as shop assistant, and while she was sitting waiting for her order, the director of that phone call which had chained her at home came into the coffee shop.
Her body tensed, she could not forget his retraction, but he seemed not to remember and feel shame as he went straight to her and sat down at the table, greeting her warmly.
“So, what’s up? Did your daughter grow up? How old is she now? “
“Well, already big girl. Does your husband now allow you to work again or are you still a full-time mom?”
Penelope tilted her head to her right, keeping her eyes fixed on him and asked what he meant.
“Your husband. That time we had to tour, your husband came to me threatening to blow up the production if we gave you the contract, he said he would do anything to keep you at home with the child. I would also have hired you, but the sponsor was there, and he didn’t want to take the risk of having to replace you at the last minute. “
She saw the director’s lips keep moving but no further sound came out of his mouth. She looked at him inert as the colors around disappeared, the chairs, the tables, the people around, even the director, were sucked into a black hole and she found herself alone in front of her past.
She was on a road, a tree-lined bright avenue, full of colorful people mixed with others who dressed all the same. She had always been colorful, but since childhood a part of her would have liked to be dressed like the others. On this path, she met someone who she thought could help her reach a compromise, to be a little colorful and a tick the same as the others. Along the way, in the company of her boyfriend who soon became her husband, she indeed began to be less colorful, but also to part from the tree-lined avenue. He gradually convinced her first to take a side street with fewer trees, then another smaller one with only faded bushes and while she observed that the nature and the light were no longer the same he persuaded her that this pale imitation was just another side of the tree-lined avenue. And then he led her further and further, towards increasingly bare streets until she found herself in a colorless and expressionless alley.
The director saw her becoming listless, turning pale and then suddenly slip out of her chair, losing consciousness, involuntarily staging what had already happened to her soul for some time.
Penelope was awakened by small slaps on the face, opening her eyes she saw the ceiling of the coffee shop, an inlaid plaster vibrating with colors. She would have liked to be a miniature in such a vivid depiction.
The period before the divorce had been painful.
She had tried to talk to her husband and asked for a change in their relationship.
Becoming mean, the husband began to tear her with verbally violent accusations and outbursts of anger, sometimes with psychologically humiliating behaviors, treating her as incapable and aberrant, effectively recreating the same behavior of the mother, adding the male aggression and the economic control he exerted over her.
Alone, while the child was at school, she had spent hours in front of the television, tapping more than needed from the wine supply. She hated that fake reality which was continually thrown at her through advertisements by that idea of family she never had.
After months of devastation she fell into a state of paralysis, completely submissive and unable to react, in a vicious circle, without autonomy of thought, without economic independence, without will or any psychological strength to get out of it. It was her friend Magrit who supported her and sent her to the therapist, and it was Magrit who welcomed her when one day, after a therapy, she decided not to go home anymore.
For months she saw neither her husband nor the child and when the divorce was effective, the child was entrusted to him.
After the divorce, she had been with the child very little and the first three years had been too busy getting back on her feet to pay much attention to her, the following years she had been crushed by guilt and her attempts to get closer to her when the daughter was almost adolescent daughter were rejected. It had become practically impossible to relate to her without colliding and supported by the therapy she let her go, limiting her contact to birthday and Christmas greetings.
The New Year’s Eve at her friend’s house turned out as expected and Penelope’s smile was clouded only by her daughter’s constant calls and messages.
Surprised by the insistence, she finally decided to answer the phone. Without greetings or asking how she was, the daughter told her that the father died and informed her on the day of the funeral.
Leaving the house, the air was crisp but accompanied by a beautiful sun. The path to the right of the house led to the nearby hill, a nice walk in the open fields, once at the top, one could look at the hills around. The conversation inevitably came to Penelope’s daughter.
“Are you going to the funeral?” Magrit asked. “Don’t you think this may be an opportunity to reunite with your daughter?”
“I only gave birth to her, but she is the daughter of her father,” she replied without resentment.
She recalled her daughter as a small child, feeling for that figurine ambivalent emotions, both a kind of affection and resentment.
“You have had time to work on your pain, understand it and put it away. But your daughter still holds it there, close to her. Paradoxically, the presence of her father and his resentment was what tied her to you, now that he left, she feels you will no longer be part of her life. “
“But will she be ready to greet me as a person, and not just as a mother who has not been a mother?”
“No, she will probably be full of resentment, but let her face her pain. You didn’t want a daughter and you didn’t want to be a mother, but you can’t deny that she was a part of you, physically, and you have your share of responsibility, like your husband had. Out of respect, out of compassion, help her grow and overcome her trauma as a child without a mother. You know it well too, what it means. “
“Yes, but every story is different, every person is different.”
She thought back to those advertising she hated, so similar to those they saw that day between the news and the weather forecast, despite thirty years have passed.
He looked at her friend with a restrained smile.
“Society does not give a chance to insecure people who are unwittingly put into molds and become what they are not, unable to free themselves. The most sensitive break the mold by making a big mess. But I believe what is important is that your world is back in order. That of the others, they will take care of it themselves.”
It was a church funeral, no matter whether the husband was a believer or not, this is what a person with the same clothes was expected to do.
Dressed in electric blue, an outfit which was still less showy than all those she had accumulated in the last years, Penelope sat on one of the last benches. She didn’t care that they saw her, but she didn’t want to be close to other relatives. At the end of the ceremony she looked at the daughter and nodded, then left, without either of them taking the first step.
She called Magrit.
“I went to the funeral. I took a picture of my daughter’s profile.”
“I am sad I went.”
“I left before the mould could close me up again.”
“You did good.”
Penelope looked at her daughter’s pictures, an image as blurred as their relationship.
If one day you wish to know me, you will call me. I don’t think it will happen, Susanne. You have been swallowed up by your father’s world and you can only see faults, you have no pity for the weak nor you can accept what is different from you. I am not your mother, I gave birth to you but I was never a mother because I was still too busy being a daughter and to seek the approval of a mother who could no longer tell me that she finally loved me. If you want to know me one day, we could tell each other how the relationship with our mothers ruined our lives, it would be exhilarating.
Or maybe not.
That person who was your mother no longer exists but is part of me together with the little girl I was with my mother, and I demand respect for both.
To be honest, neither wants to see you.
But me, I could.
As a stranger.
Reaching out to another wounded being, to say that it is possible to have another life.
(Berlin, May 2020)
***Note: I mostly write in English. But this is an English translation of a story I originally wrote in Italian. Even though the plot is the same, the style is a little different as I adjusted some expressions to better fit how I would express myself in English.
I feel them both mine, but translations are similar to cooking a dish of a country, when living in a different one: the recipe is the same, the ingredients are the same but their variety might change or the water used, or the cooking method. Thus one ends up with the same dish but a slight different flavor.