April 15, 2013
One of the first New Year’s Eves that I spent without my family was the winter I had been living on my own. Throughout my time in high school and college, my mother had insisted that New Year’s Eve was a family holiday, as it had been in Beirut, where she spent the first sixteen years of her life, Reluctant to question the customs of this mysterious land, my sisters and I surrendered ourselves to the drab New Year’s Eves that lay before us. After all, Beirut had also been responsible for generating the myth that women shouldn’t go to church on Sundays when they are menstruating, which was essentially our get-out-of-jail-free card as far as we were concerned.
“I thought you had your period last week!” my mother would yell at us, when my sister Alice and I would troop over to her bedroom every Sunday morning. Our youngest sister Ani was too young to begin her menstrual cycle, but was always left behind with us; my mother felt guilty letting us stay at home and making her go.
This particular year, my mother was not speaking to me. In October, I had announced that I would soon be moving out and living on my own. My mother greeted this announcement with one of her own: if I moved out, she would disown me. I moved out. She kept her word.
With much coaxing from my sisters, my Aunt Seta and her daughter Amy, I was persuaded to stop by the apartment before continuing to my boyfriend Andrew’s place, where he was throwing a party. I had not been at my mother’s for over two months, and was nervous when I buzzed in at the lobby (I had forfeited my keys when I first left). Aunt Seta, my mother’s youngest sister, opened the door and gave me a hug, followed by my sisters and Amy.
“She’s in the kitchen,” Aunt Seta said, nudging me. “Go in and say hi.”
“She doesn’t want me to.”
“Yes she does, yes she does,” Seta insisted. “Just go and say hi. It’ll make her happy.”
“Hi Mom,” I said, poking my head in. She was pouring sugar syrup over a tray of baklava.
“Hi,” she said flatly, without glancing up.
I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, and didn’t bother to linger. I left and went into my stepfather’s study. As usual, I could barely find him through the smoke-filled haze, and it seemed he had acquired even more books, which were stacked around the parameters of his desk like a fortress.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Hey girlie-girl,” he said, kissing me on both sides of my face. “Sit down, close the door, have a Camel.”
“I just thought I’d stop by. Andrew’s having a party and I wanted to see you guys before I headed that way.”
“You’re not staying for dinner?” he asked, looking slightly alarmed.
“Not that I know of. I’m going to Andrew’s early to help him set up for the party.”
“Does your mother know that?”
“You know we don’t speak. I doubt she even knew I was coming. She didn’t even look up at me when I went in and said hi to her.”
Sevag shook his head and exhaled a stream of smoke. “You should probably tell her that.”
“How come?” I felt panicked, and mentally chastised myself for making this cameo appearance.
“Well,” he said slowly, crushing out his cigarette, “she thinks you’re staying for dinner and I guess for the evening.”
“Why would she think that?” I opened the window, even though it was freezing outside. “I just wanted to stop by and see you guys.”
“I’m not in this, Aida,” he said, and held up his hands in retreat. “But you better go and tell her, because this isn’t the impression you left her.”
I would never come to understand my mother’s assumptions. I was stunned. I wanted to know who had been responsible for telling her I was spending the evening with the family. I stood up and ushered Seta into my old bedroom.
“Did you tell her I was spending the evening here?” I whispered fiercely.
“I didn’t tell her anything!” Seta said. “I just told her you were coming.”
“Well, that’s all you needed to do! Because now she thinks I’m spending the evening here! I have spent the last twenty-three fucking New Years Eves with her! For what? Do you know how many college parties I missed because of that woman?” I said, pointing in the direction of the kitchen. “Why did I come tonight? She won’t talk to me and yet I’m supposed to hang around here to be treated like shit? Are you kidding me?”
Seta was disheartened. “I thought the holidays would smooth things over, and I wanted to see you. So did Amy.” I fell silent. “Go and tell her you wanted to come and see her, and then have a drink with us. Leave after that.”
This seemed harder than telling her I was moving out of the apartment. Quietly, I walked into the kitchen, where she was now slicing the tray of baklava into diagonal pieces.
“Mom, can you look at me for a second?” She froze and looked up at me with the knife in her hand. “I wanted to come to see you and everyone tonight, but I want you to know that I’ll be leaving soon to go over to Andrew’s. He’s in the Bronx.”
After a second’s pause she went back to cutting. “I don’t give a shit, anyway,” she spat under her breath, her voice rising and falling. “Do whatever the hell you want. You always do whatever the hell you want anyway,” she said, and then loudly, with finality, “I wish I never had you.”
It is difficult to remember how swiftly and evenly I approached her, knocked the knife out of her hand, and grabbed her by the collar of her shirt. “You cannot talk to me this way! You cannot say whatever the fuck you want to say to me. I won’t let you!” I shouted, shaking her furiously.
She clawed at my face, and I didn’t let go. To a bystander, it must have looked like I was hanging onto her so she could have scratched my face to pieces. I hadn’t been this close to her in months. Finally, I felt a pair of arms dragging me away by my waist. My mother followed me and held on, still clawing, until Ani’s piercing sob broke her grip.
“You did this, not me!” I yelled, the ‘me’ part barely coming through. My throat was hoarse from screaming the last string of words. I walked out of the apartment and crossed the street to my car.
Seta followed after me and started rapping on my window, pleading for me to come back inside. I watched her face and heard her muffled voice repeating over and over, “Please come back, Aida, please.” I looked over at my mother’s apartment and saw my sisters peering through the window and watching the scene, probably wondering what I would do. What I wanted to do was drive off and leave my entire family behind for good. But Seta persisted, until I gave way.
I shut myself in the bathroom and washed my face. By the time I returned to the living room, everyone was calm and quiet. My mother was still in the kitchen, and I could tell by the sound of her rushed footsteps that she was trying to serve dinner before I had to leave.
We all sat silently around the table and ate. Occasionally, my sisters made stray remarks to one another, and halfheartedly joked with Amy, but the overall mood felt oppressive. The plates of food were passed around and neither my mother nor I spoke to anyone. I wanted to tell her I would stay for dessert, but I knew it was pointless; a solid, unspeakable wall had been erected. After I finished my plate, I deposited it in the kitchen, grabbed my coat, and went to my car. I turned on the ignition and lit a cigarette. I could see their figures in the bright dining room window. My sisters and Amy were clearing the table, Seta and my stepfather were sitting in their seats, and my mother had left the room. I wondered if she was sitting in her bedroom staring into space as she often did when she was in one of her dark moods. Maybe she was in front of the kitchen sink, over-scrubbing the dishes. I waited longer than I expected. As I pulled out, I glanced one last time at the apartment window, hoping to see my mother silhouetted against the curtains, watching me leave.
Aida Zilelian is a NYC writer whose stories have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Pen Pusher, Slushpile, and Waccamaw. These and others can be found at www.aidazilelian.com. She is the curator of Boundless Tales, a reading series in Astoria, NY. Last year her novel THE HOLLOWING MOON was one of the four semi-finalists of the Anderbo Novel Contest. She recently completed the sequel, THE LEGACY OF LOST THINGS.