At Café Roma, Bonnie and her daughter, Margo, sit across from one another, a short yellow candle burning between them.
Margo’s hair, newly cut, is short and defiant. Yesterday, on a whim, she snipped off ten inches, then stuffed her loose braid in a Ziploc bag and said, “Hopefully someone out there can use it.”
Someone with cancer, Bonnie thought, though she didn’t say that. She was tired of thinking about illness.
“I need to tell you something,” Margo says suddenly, scooting her chair closer to the table.
“Is everything all right?”
“Oh yeah, it’s — I’m fine.” She glances down. “It’s just something I’ve decided.”
Bonnie gazes at her daughter who looks strikingly thin all of a sudden. And older. Maybe it’s just the haircut. Still, she — and Bonnie, for that matter — could use more protein in their diet. After lunch she’ll stop by the Safeway and pick up a nice piece of red meat.
“What?” Bonnie says. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to Italy.”
A dark-haired waiter bustles through the aisle, his swinging arm absently brushing Bonnie’s shoulder.
“Italy?” she says. “Why?”
“I never planned on staying home this long.”
“But it’s been so helpful . . . having you.”
Margo’s fingers race frantically through her hair. “I’m a mess,” she says. “I can’t function.”
“But that’s normal after something like this.”
“I just need to go somewhere and think,” Margo says. “Process it all.”
“You can’t think at home?”
“I need to figure out what I’m doing with my life.”
“You’re trying to become an artist,” Bonnie reminds her. “You’re trying to save money by living at home.”
“I know, but I need to be alone now.” Margo attempts a smile. “I mean, no offense.”
“No, no,” Bonnie says, her wall shooting up. “None taken.” She smiles politely as if Margo is a stranger seated next to her on a plane.
“I realize it won’t be easy on you.” Margo says. “The empty house and all.”
“I’ll be fine,” Bonnie says quickly.
Just this morning she picked up a smattering of Margo’s items: a tube of Vaseline lip gel, a Guatemalan barrette, a Peter Gabriel CD titled Us, a small sketchbook smeared with charcoal. These items Bonnie straightened up, stacked. The black and white cow print jacket that yesterday was flung over a chair now hung sensibly on a hanger. That the items moved from room to room made Bonnie feel that, contrary to the recent death, life existed in the house.
“It’s okay if you’re not,” Margo says. “It’s okay if you, like, fall apart, Mom.”
“Oh honestly, Margo,” she says, turning away, looking for the waiter. “I’m not the first widow to walk on the earth.”
“I don’t get why you haven’t cried,” Margo says. “You seem totally fine.”
Because I’m relieved, Bonnie wants to tell her. “I do cry,” is what she says. “You just don’t see me doing it.”
The waiter has dark hair and deep-set eyes. He tells them about the specials of the day and asks if they’d like to start out with anything.
“How about something?” Bonnie says, thinking a plate of food between them will help. She likes the idea of sharing — one bite for you, one for me — until their forks meet in the middle.
“I guess I’ll start with a salad,” Margo says.
The waiter turns to Bonnie, his pencil poised to write, but images float past her that she can’t ignore — she’s alone at the kitchen table. Alone in the middle of Margo’s vacant room. Losing her step and falling down the stairs, whimpering into an empty house.
“Nothing now,” she says to the waiter. “Thank you.”
“Are you okay?” Margo asks.
“Me? I’m fine.”
“Is it about the moving out?”
“Well I’m . . . surprised, yes. What about the cost, Margo? Isn’t a flight to Europe awfully expensive?”
“I’ve been saving,” she says. “Plus Dad gave me all those frequent flyer miles.”
Margo and Peter, Peter and Margo. Two peas in a pod. Like father, like daughter. Margo and Peter knew Italian; Margo and Peter loved pizza with anchovies; they watched Bergman films and long, boring documentaries that made Bonnie’s eyelids heavy. All these interests Margo got from her father. From Bonnie — maybe the shape of her feet.
“I sit there at work and think, ‘What’s the point?'” Margo goes on. “I used to be so clear about everything. Now I just . . .” she sighs. “I don’t even know what.”
“Maybe you need a nice long break,” Bonnie says. “At home.”
“I’ve been home. For all these months, Mom.”
“Yes, but that’s different. That wasn’t a break. That was . . . stressful.”
Not particularly for Bonnie, though. Yes, Peter was dying, but his illness provided a certain mother-daughter bond that Bonnie had always wanted. The common goal of nursing Peter erased — at least temporarily — the bitter silences behind closed doors, the misunderstandings, Bonnie’s jealousy. They left notes for each other on the hospital table (“He ate a whole cup of yogurt!” or “Not doing well today. Barely spoke.”). And then they met back at home and collapsed on the couch together.
The waiter places the salad in front of Margo.
“One thing about Dad,” she says with a hint of a smile in her eyes. “I always knew where I stood with him.”
Bonnie brings the glass to her lips and the cold water stings her bottom teeth.
“But now I feel so ripped off I can barely think straight.”
Bonnie has a sadistic urge to tell her daughter awful things about Peter, terrible, terrible things he said to her, rude things, downright mean, but Margo would take his side the way she did when he was alive. No, death hasn’t changed a thing; Peter’s right there at the table with them.
While Margo picks at her salad, Bonnie is reminded of the trip to Italy a few years ago, the “family trip,” the third wheel trip, the one where she spent weeks trailing behind Peter and Margo in museums, struggling to keep up. What if I disappear? she thought once. Would they notice? Even to the Italian men, Bonnie was invisible; they preferred Margo with her long, wavy hair and perky breasts.
Margo liked to turn away from her mother and, under her breath, mutter things in Italian. Bonnie caught words here and there, but Italian was so fast — all those swirling garbled mouthfuls, each sentence so dramatic and melodious — when she did try one night, after having spent the afternoon memorizing how to say, “I’ll have the spaghetti and tomato sauce,” Peter said, “Just improv, Bonnie. Just feel the language and go with it.”
Margo rolled her eyes. “Just speak in English, Mom. It’s embarrassing.”
“Who knows,” Margo says out of the blue. “Maybe in Italy I’ll meet the man of my dreams and then I’ll live happily ever after.”
“Believe me, Margo,” Bonnie says with a fleeting confidence. “There’s no perfect person out there.” She even whispers it slightly, as if this is life’s cruel little secret. “He doesn’t exist.”
And Margo, without missing a beat, says, “Well, he does for me.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Margo reaches in her bag and comes up with a bag, which she hands to Bonnie.
“My braid. From yesterday. Can you send it to Locks of Love?”
Bonnie stares down at it. It’s so real looking. It is real, of course, but it’s bizarre to have Margo’s hair in her hands. Like she’s right there with her, but not.
Suddenly — how did it even happen? — Margo’s water glass spills all over the table, rushing toward Bonnie. She stands quickly, but not fast enough. Her right pant leg — the thigh — gets completely drenched.
“Goodness” she says, wiping off the plastic bag with a napkin she’s grabbed.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Margo says. “Here.” She steals a napkin from a bare table and tries to soak up the mess.
Then the waiter appears and dries everything with just a swoosh of his white cloth.
“I’m really sorry,” Margo says again as they resettle themselves.
“Don’t worry,” Bonnie says. “It’s just water. It’s all right.” Look, Bonnie thinks. You can dump the whole pitcher of water on my head if you want–just don’t leave me.
A chirping sound distracts Bonnie. It sounds like cicadas. It’s not, of course — it’s a ring tone — Margo’s. She brings the cell phone to her ear, as if she’s been waiting for someone to interrupt their lunch. She leans back in her chair, smiling, says something that Bonnie can’t hear.
Bonnie, sighing, glances at the other women in the restaurant — ladies lunching, most of them. Her gaze travels from table to table until somehow she comes face to face with her reflection in a nearby mirror. Dyed brown hair, sloping features. Down down down. Everything falls — breasts, stomach, corners of the mouth — until it’s all loose skin, dripping like icicles.
“Look, I know you think it’s weird or whatever,” Margo says, returning her phone to her black bag, “but I feel this pull to be there. To experience it through his eyes. It’s hard to explain.”
“Where are you planning on staying?”
“Oh God, anywhere. A cheap hotel. A youth hostel. I don’t really care.”
“So you don’t have any sort of itinerary?”
“Mom. Please. I’m 20 years old. I can figure out where to stay. Plus, I’ve got that list that Dad left me.”
Oh. The famous list. “Places to see in your lifetime,” he titled it. Paris, Rome, Florence, a certain restaurant in Venice. The second floor of the Louvre, the Michelangelo museum. Specific cafes and side streets and alleys where student artists hung out, but most of the list was in Italian and Bonnie was damned if she was going to buy a dictionary to look up the meanings.
“Careful of the hot plates!” the waiter sings, taking away Margo’s salad plate and replacing it with squash soup. He sets the slab of salmon in front of Bonnie and she stares at the pink fish, thinking, Did I order this? The smell alone turns her stomach.
“I don’t get how people deal with death,” Margo says now, her forehead indented, her eyes small and focused on the spoon that she slowly swirls through her soup.
“Well, it takes time,” Bonnie says, trying on the authoritative voice once more. “A person doesn’t go from one stage to the next in a day.” But she’s talking to herself. “I think you should stay a bit longer,” she says suddenly. “Wait it out.”
“I can’t. I know it seems sudden, but I have to go. I need to.”
“Just another week or so.”
“I can’t stay there anymore,” Margo says. “It’s too . . .” she shrugs. “Too weird.”
“Weird?” What Bonnie has been feeling (after the death) wasn’t a weirdness, but a silence. And a slow, creeping anger. Peter’s absence made her realize how much time she’d wasted, how paralyzed she’d been. What was wrong with her?
“If you live at home, it’s free,” Bonnie reminds her, but the words float up into the air and disappear like smoke. Now that Peter is gone, Margo is finished with home.
“I have something for you.” Margo reaches into her big black bag.
“More hair?” Bonnie says. She doesn’t even know if she’s joking or not or if Margo even hears her. Did words actually come out of her mouth?
“I made it for you,” Margo says, handing it to her.
She moves the wrapping paper away from the box. She lifts the top. It’s one of Margo’s oil pastels. The colors are muted grays and soft pinks. The subject is a young woman with long flowing hair, someone older than Margo, maybe the way Margo wants to look when she’s older? Forlorn eyes, a quiet mouth. Bonnie never really “got” Margo’s paintings. They seem so longing. More than once, Bonnie has found herself turning away, embarrassed, as if they were a direct assault on her.
But now she wonders if there’s a different kind of message in the painting. Is the sadness a sign to intervene and say, “No. You’re not running away to Europe. It’s clear by this painting that you need to stay here.” She’s never had that kind of authority over her daughter, though.
“Finished?” The waiter says, ducking his head into their small space.
“Yes,” Bonnie says though she’s barely eaten.
As he leaves with the plates, Bonnie looks down at the painting. “It’s beautiful,” she says.
“I thought you might like the colors. The pinks.” Margo is craning her neck, admiring it.
They sit that way for the next several minutes — Bonnie, Margo, and this new woman between them who Bonnie is starting to see as some kind of savior, some sort of link between the two. She gazes into the woman’s face and begins to imagine herself and Margo growing older together, having dinners where they don’t fight, taking long car rides sitting in silence, not because there’s too much to say and nowhere to begin, but because they’re content. She imagines a time when Margo comes back to stay, but she doesn’t dare say any of these things. She remains very still in the bustling restaurant, breathing in what’s left of these last moments together.
“I better go,” Margo says after Bonnie pays the bill. “I have a bunch of errands to run before I leave.”
“Why don’t I drive you?”
“That’s okay. It’s just stuff right in town. I’ll see you at home later on.” She pecks her mother’s cheek and leaves. Bonnie gathers the receipt, her credit card, purse, and painting, and leaves the restaurant.
Outside, the parking lot is bleak. The hazy sun makes her squint. As she gets close to her car, two women walk hurriedly toward her — one young, one older, both wearing straw hats and sandals. They walk toward the restaurant, arms linked, bare shoulders pressed against each other’s. A cloud of their perfume lures Bonnie in, then lets her go. She stops, turns around, and watches them until they disappear inside the cafe.
In her car Bonnie sits for a minute without moving. The heaviness inside her chest is unbearable. It pulls at her eyes and mouth, pulls them down at the corners. It pulls at her shoulders and head until her whole body is down, clear across the front seat, where she brings the braid close to her, and holds on.