Start with the clothes. Black sneakers. Black jeans, faded badly at the knees and pockets. A black concert T-shirt. Black: the absence of color. Also absent is posture: chin pressed to wrist, elbows pressed to table, back slumped into a permanent declaration of indifference. Add to that headphones, three days of scruff, eyes that never looked at you, that rolled on every third word, a Mitchell's Spare Parts baseball cap—black like the rest of his outfit. You'll start to see that the list goes on and on.
Youth: lazy, unmotivated, wasted on the young. That list can be made to go on and on too.
Across from him is the mother. For a woman with a son about to be married, she's on the young side. She's been through a lot, though—you can see it pressed like a brand mark into the skin around the eyes, fifteen years older than the rest of her. Also, you can tell by the way the muscles in her dimples tremble that she wants to talk. Their time left together is short, and she wants to tell him things he'll need to know to survive in this world. She knows it won't be easy for him—he is small and too often sick for a young man in his prime—and so she wants to tell him about the kinds of people to watch out for, how to slip under the radar, mix into the crowd, keep a low profile. She wouldn't bother wasting time giving him advice on marriage. She didn't have any to give, and he wouldn't take it if she did. But about the other things, blending and lying low, she felt she had something to offer.
He must have known how close she was getting when he hit "play." Joey was like that—not only distant, but committed to distance as a way of life, keenly aware of when the boundaries between himself and the people around him were about to break down, and ready with an arsenal of roadblocks. Out of these, the headphones had become an old reliable. Just try talking to someone wearing headphones who won't look at you.
For extra effectiveness, the music was loud, loud enough for his mother to hear, and she recognized it immediately by the way it started in slow and, to her ears, almost Spanish-sounding, then barreled suddenly forward, the guitar transforming itself into a revving engine. Another one of Joey's bands that was going to take on the world with amped-up power chords. And then the growling vocals over the top of the guitar: The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction. The chorus went like that. She couldn't understand the rest of the lyrics, but she knew the chorus.
Truthfully, this is what most frightened her—the idea that her son was merely the perfect consumer for music like this, a collection of vulnerabilities, will-less, dressed in black like the rest of them. Music like the kind Joey listened to made it so easy to see the world as divided down the middle, rule-makers versus rule-breakers, instruction versus wrath, horses versus tigers, adolescents versus everyone else. She worried that maybe there was no deeper consideration behind his decision to leave, other than it seemed to break some rule, to flout the expectations of horses. Maybe running off suddenly and impulsively was just another button to push. Maybe this absurd premise, this flimsiest of excuses for a wedding, maybe all of it was nothing more to Joey than hitting "play."
Maybe: the absence of knowing anything for sure.
Now, imagine a plain-looking restaurant just outside the airport, a place where they had eaten before, mostly on special occasions. Martha liked it because the steaks were big and inexpensive and there was a sprawling, multitiered salad bar, which included desserts— pineapple chunks, sugar cookies, cakelike squares of bread pudding. Martha got there early so she could secure the right table, the one with the best view of the runways. They sat at the same table the last time they were there, on the night of Joey's twentieth birthday. Was that really almost a full year ago now? She worked to recall it. What had they talked about that night? Did they talk at all? She couldn't even remember the gift that she must have given him: a wallet on a chain? a leather watch? another pair of black sneakers?
She laughed bitterly at herself.
Outside was not the view she remembered or hoped for. Air traffic was sluggish, and everything, the flat buildings, even the sinking sun, looked overused.
Reason enough to order a drink.
Is it enough to say that nearly everything that had happened over the last two months had that dreamlike quality where the characters just do things suddenly and without reason or motivation? When Joey announced that he was leaving to be married once he finished the semester, Martha truly believed he was joking. For a week she waited for him to admit there was no Samantha Wallace in Wilmington, Indiana, or if there was, that there was no impending wedding to this Samantha Wallace.
But then it became crystal clear that Joey was serious, and worse, believing himself to be in love—in love! With someone he'd never met! The thought of it was enough to interrupt her heart. So she began with the questions. Questions about banquet halls and flowers and rings and relatives he had never heard of. Questions like, shouldn't they start going to church again so as to avoid being hypocritical? Because, whether she liked it or not, Martha still felt it was her duty to help Joey make preparations. She pressed him with questions until he stopped her. Things had already been settled, he told her. They were meeting in Las Vegas. Just the two of them; neither family was invited. Samantha had an apartment. There was nothing to take care of and the little there was, he had already handled. So enough. So would she please leave him alone already?
From that day on, Martha swore she would not talk about the wedding again. When she needed to be strong, she reminded herself that the questions were so obvious, the relationship so unbearably superficial, that a born skeptic like Joey would have to come to his senses. She told herself Joey's decision was nothing more than another boyhood fancy that would blow over like electric guitar lessons and tarot cards had before. In time, she and Joey would drink together and laugh about the whole miserable thing.
You would not be wrong in thinking that the waiter's job was in some danger even before Martha got there. Martha herself had seen, through the window in the swinging door, the young owner with his finger in the waiter's face. "This is it! This is it! Your last fucking chance," the owner was shouting as the other waiters, just coming in for their shifts, pretended they weren't watching.
The waiter was old and he moved slowly. His face reminded Martha of coral: layers and layers of porous crust piled on the original. Martha was especially nice to him when he took her drink order. She felt sorry for him. It wasn't right for a young man to treat an old man that way.
The drink arrived and Martha sat quietly with it, wondering how it had come to this, her last meal with her son before he got onto a plane and took on a new life—as a husband of all things. If he even bothered to show up and say good-bye, that is. She had her right hand in her pocket and her fingers tight around a piece of paper. She had written something for Joey, starting out with the beginning of a poem she remembered: How much do I love you? Let me count the ways. It was not exactly right—nothing in her life was—but that was the idea of it, that you could prove your love for someone through a tallying process. After the beginning, she dropped the pretense and just made a list of things she wanted to say. What surprised her was the way it all came out. The slippery rush of the sentences seemed to make up one continuous thought stuffed, like one of those old trick snakes, into a prank can of peanut brittle, and then suddenly set free. She had always expected feelings like these to be impossible to get into words.
By the time Joey did show up, Martha had already made up her mind that he wasn't coming. That's why, when he sidled lazily into the bench across from her, she felt almost disappointed. The writing had done something to her, given her the perfect closure of a list. She had already worked it out: she would mail it to him. It would be easier that way for both of them. He would read it in private, realize that she had done her best, and cry a little. Secretly, he would hold onto it forever.
Looking at Joey now, slouching and impatient, Martha realized she had fooled herself. She couldn't just hand it to him. She wondered now if she would even bring herself to mail it. After all, he might open it and immediately show it to his new wife so that the two of them could howl with laughter. He might do nothing, read those silly, botched lines of poetry and then crumple it up without ever getting to the heartfelt parts. Or maybe Martha was embarrassed. Maybe she had written it only for herself, to stand for all the things she never said, never been able to say, never really wanted to say. She shoved the note deeper into her pocket, not sure what to think of herself. Not sure how defensive to be in light of her failures. Not sure where the mother ends and the son begins, or rises up to become his own person.
She looked him over. It was a small boy she had brought into this world, someone weak, someone needing tips on how to survive.
Shortly after Joey hit "play," Martha felt a jolt of nerve.
Understand the gravity of this moment, the new ground broken, the anything-might-happen-next feel of it. Never before, not even in response to the most flagrant abuses of Joey's headphone-imposed silence, had Martha found the courage to reach down to the phone and yank the plug out of the jack.
They looked hard at each other. It was time they did.
"So, what are we going to talk about?" he asked.
Martha was nervous. "Do we need to plan it out, Joey?" she asked, hoping the idea of needing a plan just to talk would strike him as absurd. "Can't we just talk?"
"No, we can't just talk. God, don't you know that by now? Why do you continue to torture yourself like this?" Joey rolled his eyes in their prescribed arcs, took a sip of water, and then swished the liquid back and forth between his cheeks.
"It's not torture to talk to you. Sometimes, believe it or not, I really enjoy it." Martha laughed a little, and hoped.
Joey rolled his eyes again, but when he didn't go back to the headphones as she expected, Martha was encouraged.
She cautiously pushed the responsibility his way. "Don't you think we should talk?" she said, being careful not to sound overbearing.
Joey sighed. Twice. "Not really. But I can tell you this: If we're going to talk, there's got to be rules."
"Planning. Rules. Can't we just talk?"
"Eh-eh-eh." He held up his hand, palm out toward his mother. "If we're going to talk, there must be rules."
Martha was silent. She knew she had to be.
"Good. If you need to talk so bad, I'll be a good little boy and we'll talk. But you need to be the good mommy too. And to make sure that you are, there needs to be rules." He thought about it again and nodded. "Talking with rules."
Again, she could only wait for him.
He took another sip of water and left it in his mouth while he was thinking. Was he nervous too? She thought maybe he was.
He started firmly, trying to sound unflappable, like a television lawyer.
"Rule number one: No talking about the wedding."
Fine, she thought. She had never planned on talking about the wedding. Never. She was about to say, "Okay, what's next?" when she stopped herself. Instead, she sighed heavily and nodded as if his first rule had broken her motherly heart. If there were sympathy points to be gained, she would take them.
He went on, keeping the same resolute tone. "Rule number two: If either one of us feels like breaking it off at any time, for any reason, we stop. No questions asked."
For Martha, this one was harder to take. "But what if—?"
"No questions asked," he repeated.
He tapped with his fingernail on the hard casing of the phone to remind her that he still held more cards than she did.
"God, Joey, why can't we just talk without all these rules?" she blurted out.
This time, it was Joey who said nothing.
Thank goodness for a noise, a voice, something else to attend to.
The waiter. The same one as before.
Joey ordered a cheeseburger. Martha ordered the same, foregoing her usual steak as a sign of solidarity.
"And two vodkas on the rocks," Joey added. "One for each of us."
The waiter asked to see Joey's ID. Martha cut in. "He's turning twenty-one. Today, actually. But he doesn't have his ID because he doesn't drive."
It was barely a lie. Joey was two months shy of his twenty-first birthday. And he was leaving her. Tonight. To get married. It was barely even a lie.
Martha gave the waiter a pitch of her head, as if to say, "Come on. I was nice to you before. Can't you just let this go?"
The waiter stared at her. Another set of judging eyes.
"Listen," she said in a friendly voice. "Me and my son are about to enjoy a nice meal here. We're celebrating his twenty-first birthday. The whole point is to be able to enjoy a drink. Plus, we're regulars." She regretted not remembering any names. It would have been a good time to drop one.
The waiter's response was quick and assured. "Well, we have lots of regulars here. It's a 'regulars' kind of restaurant."
Martha felt herself warming up inside. "But he's twenty-one. And besides, I'm with him. I'm his mother. Don't you think, sir, that I know what I'm doing? Because I do. Because I'm his mother. I do know what I'm doing, and you're no one to tell that I don't."
The waiter recognized the need for caution. "Ma'am," he said calmly, "I'm sure you're a fine mother. And I'm sure that your son here is twenty-one, just like you say."
"He is." She looked straight at Joey as she said it.
"I am," Joey confirmed.
The waiter nodded. "That's great. But it's not that easy. If I serve you, I'd have to serve every other kid who says he's twenty-one."
"He's not a kid," Martha said, straightening up her spine.
"Well, I'm sorry, but there are no exceptions. There can't be any exceptions. That's why they make the rules."
Martha laughed. The world was cruel, but there were lots of funny connections in it. After a few seconds of laughing, Martha looked up at the waiter and said calmly, in an entirely new voice, "You're new here, aren't you?"
"I won't hesitate for a second," she said. Then she looked over his shoulder at the owner, who was standing at the door, greeting customers.
The waiter understood all of the implications: she would make a terrific scene and the owner, who was just waiting for him to slip up, would be all too happy to fire him. He understood clearly now that this was a woman on the edge, and her eyes, set deep in their encircling bags, forecast the anythings she was capable of. The waiter shivered in the hard, ready gaze of them.
"If... anyone... asks..." he started to say.
"Of course," she said without looking away or blinking.
Joey was impressed. Martha had passed his little test.
The waiter turned to the bar to put in the order. In that same instant, Martha let go of the note, pulled her hand from her pocket, and grabbed the waiter's forearm. The flesh was cold and saggy beneath the black shirtsleeve. She wanted to thank him, to let him know just how important this was. "It's our last dinner together," she was going to tell him, but he pulled away as if he were afraid of her.
Title image "You Are Cordially Invited" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.