better now than later

On the night before her wedding, my mother doubted. She had drawn a bath. “I remember sitting there in the tub,” she tells me once, “and I couldn’t explain it, but I just felt tears running down my face. I didn’t feel sad really,“ she says. "I didn’t really feel much of anything.”

We are sitting at the round table in the kitchen, the fake tiffany lampshade over our heads. There is a layer of dust that clings to the chain suspending it from the ceiling. She has found an old photograph from their wedding and she is holding it in her hands as she speaks.

“Maybe that was it,” she says. “Just that I expected to feel something.”

She leaves the photo on the table as she pushes her chair back, gets up, walks over to the sink. She takes a glass from the cabinet above the stove, runs the faucet. She lets it run.

In the photo, they are smiling. My mother is still wearing her veil, although it sits askew on her head. They are both facing the photographer, but neither looks directly at the camera. They are focused on a point just beyond.

It’s been over for months now, the thing with C. and her married man. We haven’t spoken of it in some time. “I cry every day,” she says, “but at least it’s over. Such a relief to be free of all that…” she waves her hand in the air like she is grasping for something, like she is going to pull down the shade in a window. “…shame, I guess. I guess it was shame.”

We are sitting in a café, at a table by the window. The white lace curtains are open and through them, we can watch people walking by on the street. We see someone we both know, but do not wave. He is not looking at us.

“I’ve taken up knitting,” she says with a laugh. “Keeps my hands busy.” I imagine her sitting in her meticulous apartment with its spartan décor – the only point of color and chaos the baskets overflowing with yarn all around her. And C., in the middle of it all – frenetically knitting the longest scarf in the world.

An insistently gray morning breaks and a bit of yellow sun peeks through the cloud cover for a short time. Its warmth is fleeting.

I drive past the playground, empty at this time of day. A forgotten jacket hangs by its hood on the gate post. Just past the entrance, there are men working on the roof of a house. They are sitting on its steep pitch, the wide gray sky behind them. With spades, they loosen long strips of black tar paper from the roof’s sloping sides. The paper flutters away and drifts to the ground, like the flapping wings of some large, falling birds.

The office is quiet. I spend the morning making notes, lists. I eat cold beets and toast at my desk. I sign checks. Outside, rain has started to fall and I can hear the slickness of it beneath the tires of passing cars.

I meet my friend after work at our usual spot and we sit at the corner bar stools, as we usually do. We order salads and pick at them. She tells me about her mother, who hovers in a dream state. “Who is taking care of the baby?” she will sometimes ask.

She tells me about the man she loved through decades, across the borders of several states and I think about adjusting to the changing rhythms of living together and apart in the ways that they did. I have always found separation nearly unbearable in love – my impulse instead to suffocate, to envelop. We learn these behaviors early, I am sure, and for me, to love has always meant to hold fast.

I tell my son that when he was born, he was so small that I carried him tucked into my shirt pocket. “Right here,” I say, with my hand to my chest. “Right next to my heart.” He looks at me with wide eyes and laughs. “You’re just fooling me, Momma.”

I tell him, “Yes, you are right, of course,” but the image is one I find myself returning to. I want a pocket big enough to crawl into – near a heart that beats loud and hot.

Time passes. The hours, the days, the years. I see fine lines on my hands that I do not recognize. My body aches in unfamiliar places.

I tell a mutual friend about C., say I am concerned that she is crying all the time, and she says, “Better now than later.” I don’t ask her to elaborate but the phrase stays with me, and as I go about my day, I find her words stuck in my head, like a bit of singsong, a nursery rhyme: Better now than later. Better now than later.

By the late afternoon, I find myself irritated – this phrase meaningless, empty. What, I wonder, is better now?

After my mother gets up, she fills her glass with water from the tap, takes it into her bedroom with her, places it on the table beside her bed. I follow her, stand in the doorway, holding the photograph. “You left this on the table,” I tell her, hold it out to her. She is sitting on the edge of her bed now, her hands on her knees. “Just leave it there,” she says, gesturing toward her dresser. “Or you can have it. You take it, I don’t want it.” I stand there for a moment longer, say goodnight, leave the photo behind.

Early the next morning, while she is in the shower, I slip into her room for the photo. I have so few of them together. It is not where I left it. I find it instead on her bedside table, near the empty water glass, beneath her reading glasses. I leave it there.