Audrey Fuchs

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Chapter I.XI

The plane ride back to the west coast was a surreal, uncomfortable event. I couldn't bring myself to eat. Someone sitting next to me kept trying to make conversation and I wasn't able to keep one up. I had to very suddenly take time off. I had to check the box, "family emergency". I never thought I'd have to check that box. I'd never wanted to check that box. I stared at it for minutes, trying to run things back over in my head, make sure that really was the right one. After much deliberation, I discovered it was, handed it in, and took my leave that day. I didn't bother to check the cost of the ticket. I was tired, I was worried, and I was in a rush.

But worst of all, I was calm.

But not calm like a placid view of the lake. Not calm like rolling mists in the morning. It was calm like the eye of a hurricane, or pulled back beach before a tsunami. And I was waiting, at every moment, for that wave: the crash, the tumble, the ruckus and the explosion. But I knew that it wasn't going to come. That release, when everything finally crumbles, only comes after the part you need to be strong for. And this was what I needed to be strong for. Right now, I had to be the house with strong foundations. At some point, I could lose myself to the storm; have my windows shatter, my doors pull off of their hinges, fall apart from top to bottom, starting with the tiles on the ceiling, then the looser bits of drywall, all my contents emptying out of my open portals, then collapsing in. And then, it would be okay. And I could rebuild. And we'd be fine. But for now, I had to be the house.

That's what was going through my head as this very kind old man continued to try and bring up his vacation to California, and I was nodding along, not just pretending but also really trying to listen. But I couldn't. In one ear and out the other. I think he at some point caught on, because he did eventually stop talking, but it took me a bit to notice. And then I just sat there. I didn't even get the contemplative window seat. I got the aisle seat. So the image of an airplane on a magazine on the back of the chair in front of me seared itself into my vision, inch by inch. I can still recall it, despite its being almost a featureless image, as if it were staring me in the face at this very moment. How strange the human brain works, to be able to focus so intently on that image, but not the conversation of another human being.

I frankly don't recall ever getting out of the airplane, grabbing my luggage, or flagging a taxi. But I do remember arriving at my mom's house.


* * * * *


After I moved to the east coast, my mom moved out of her apartment to get a nice little house in the suburbs. I thought that turn of events was pretty backwards — she only got the white picket fence after the nest was empty. My mom, never having been much for aesthetics, had left it a bland white, with no lawn ornaments to speak of. At a glance, it screamed "for-sale".

I walked up to the door, and Mom opened it just as my hand was reaching for the handle. She threw her arms over me, like a drowning sailor grabbing for a life raft, and pushed her head into my shoulder. I hugged back, and decided that a usual greeting wasn't necessary for the situation. We stood there, embracing in the doorway of her house, for a little while. I'm not sure how long. But it was nice.

"It's been so long since I've seen you," Mom finally said, head still nestled into the crook of my neck.

"I know," was all I could work up, and I wish I had more to say.

She invited me in, and I got to behold the simple design of her little house that was, despite its quaintness, still unreasonably large for just one person to live in. The kitchen was in the corner of the house furthest from the entrance; the dining room was to its right; just to the left of the entryway were stairs leading up; in front of the stairs, by the front of the building, was a lounge area; and under the stairs was a bathroom. At the back of the dining room was a door out to a little lawn that Mom had turned into a garden, and so we moved out to a table and chair under a tree, and drank tea that she had made us.

It was a temperate day, which was the usual way that San Diego weather twisted Spring, Winter, and Fall. If you wanted to be warm, you could stand in the sun. If you wanted to be cool, you could sit in the shade. Besides that, the sounds included cars, people speaking far-off, maybe some children playing, and that was most of it. A breeze came by every once in a while. A dog barked once.

"I'm so sorry that you have to be here under these circumstances."

I looked down at my tea. "It's alright, Mom," is what I wanted to say. But was it alright? It wasn't, I concluded. And so I faltered.

"I'm just sorry I didn't come sooner."

"Don't be."

I nodded lamely and frowned.

"Your dad is going to be over this evening."

"I know."

"Has he seen you…?"

I caught the implication. "No. I'm still not comfortable going out in public in New York like that. I think this place is different, though. More homely."

"Mhmm." She sipped her tea. She left a question unasked, and I felt like leaving it unanswered. In truth, I didn't know yet, and I had a hard time thinking about it. I had a hard time thinking about anything, really.

We talked about benign things. Books we had read, were reading, movies we'd seen, places we'd visited, like museums, parks. Friends of ours. Jobs.

Her veterinary career was going very well. It had taken her a long while to get it off the ground — she'd only really started once I was in my junior year of high school, and that was with the help of Edna. Becoming a single mom had greatly stalled her life plan. But she'd made it. Just in time, it seemed.

I told her about being a controller — a head accountant at the health care provider I was working for. The stories that came about from handling money seemed a lot less interesting than those that came about from handling sick animals, so I let Mom do most of the talking. I'd heard plenty of stories over letters and through emails, but there seemed to be a neverending stream of them, and I was glad to have something to take my mind off things.

"Has Dad told you any of his stories, mmm?" Mom asked.

"Ahh," I replied, stalling, "yes, I think."

"You think?"

I shrugged, and drank tea.

"Well, what do you think of them?"

I gave her a scrunched stare. "They're fun stories, Mom, but that's all they are. I can't imagine running a wildlife shelter isn't exciting. I just wish he told me all the real things."

"Real things," Mom repeated, holding tea to her mouth not to drink but to enjoy its warmth. "Mmm."

I just stared at her. I didn't want to be mad that day, but this game was really vexing me. She caught my expression and sighed.

"I think you should go visit him sometime."

"Mmm," I grunted in response, and used a sip of tea to politely refuse elaboration.

Soon after we had finished, she showed me upstairs to the guest room that I would be occupying. It was as small and unremarkable as the rest of the house: just a bed, a desk, a closet, and a window. She said she was going to start making lunch, and so left me to my own devices. I unpacked, wondering once again whether I had packed too little or too much. The length of my stay was indeterminate. But I had packed as if I was going to live here.

Toiletries, electronics, books, my seashell collection, some important papers, my calendar, and as many clothes as I could manage — all of my feminine attire, and whatever space was left over got filled by my clothes I wore to work and public outings. I kept as much as I could of the latter group androgynous, but typically-boyish clothes stayed typically-boyish no matter how you wore them (at least, so I felt at the time).

I wondered if I should go downstairs. Talk to Mom. Be with Mom. "I should," I told myself. "At all possible times right now, I should." But once I had sat on the bed, I knew I wasn't going to. I needed some moments to myself, some time to actually spend calming down in solitude, not in transit, not about to do anything that required a lot of my attention. Just to breathe.

I felt the pulled back beach.

I felt my strong foundations.

Then, I tended to some quality-of-life improvements. I brushed my teeth, combed my hair, put drops into my stinging eyes. I opened a window just to feel fresh air on my face. Then I unpacked all the rest of my belongings into the room; put toiletries in the bathroom, clothes in the closet, books on the shelves, my shell collection on the desk… it felt, all of a sudden, like home. And in spite of the circumstances, I was really, really glad to be back in San Diego again. New York, while exciting, had never gained that same familiarity and admiration from me that the palm trees, mild weather, and surfer culture had.

With a sudden lifting of spirits, I felt the need to take a shower. The decision carried weight. Showering was something happy people did. I was, at that moment, not happy, but happier than I was before. Home was a powerful force in that way.

When I stepped out of the shower, I was faced with a dilemma. I approached my closet, and saw it split down the middle into masculine and feminine. Trying to choose what to wear felt really childish. Weren't there bigger things going on right now? Who cares what I wore? But as I breathed in San Diego air, and remembered that first Halloween party with my friends (I wonder what April and Jaideep are up to now?), I felt at once more like myself than I had ever felt on the east coast, and the decision became the second-nature it was always meant to be.


* * * * *


I was writing an email to my boss explaining more of the situation that I could not impart before I left when I heard Tim enter from downstairs. There were slaps on the back that I could hear up the stairs from when Mom and him hugged, and then I heard the hushed, strained tones that told me that the worst was on their minds. I opted to finish the email, to give the two time to meet on their own. I heard them echo my visit with mom — stop by the kitchen, make tea, head out to the garden. Once I finished, I sent it, closed my laptop, and headed downstairs.

Framed under the shade in the backyard, the two looked so picturesque I almost didn't want to interrupt them. I opened the sliding glass door, stepped out, closed it behind me, and they both turned to look.

"Hi," I said in a lame, mousy voice.

Mom looked over with the half-smile I hoped she wasn't just wearing for us, but Tim looked completely blank. I tried to make eye contact, but he seemed to be looking me over. Confused. Concerned. Blinking. As his eyes made their way up, we finally caught each other's stare. His brow furrowed further, and then very suddenly he brightened up.

"Oh! Caterpillar, how are you!" He stiffly stood up, as if what his body wanted and what his mind wanted were in direct conflict with one another, and then came forward to give me a hug.

"I'm… okay." I said right by his ear.

He pulled back and looked up into my face. His hesitation was so slight, you could have missed it. "It's so good to see you!"

I tried to figure out if his emphasis really was on "you" or not, or what he meant by it, but before I could respond Mom piped up.

"We were just talking about the Shelter. It's getting very stressful for your dad."

"Oh, very." Tim let out a suppressed sort of laugh, and slowly made his way back to his seat. Mom motioned for me to take the third and final chair, and so I did. "We have so many more animals than we ever thought we would have! And of so many different types! I can't tell you how many times I have had to call an expert. And how many times I have had no idea where I would find one! I mean…"

Tim paused to look at me, mouth half open.

"Well, it's just hard. Seems I can't research fast enough to catch up on all the things I should know by now, heheh. Just the way the business is working."

There was a sudden silence. I took it upon myself to break it.

"Well. What types of animals are you getting that you didn't expect?"

Mom shot me a glance I couldn't read, but Tim was quick on the ball.

"Oh, aquatic animals! I still don't know if it's normal for a wildlife shelter to take fish in. Is that normal? I always thought it was mainly cute mammals. But we've been getting lizards, and fish… all sorts of things. Oh! That's one of the experts I needed, was an marine biologist! It was a real life saver — Laura Irvin, she hails from Portland, though that's not so surprising, we get almost everyone from over there, and she's been a great help! Just fantastic! And just in time, because we got Copper, and…"

Another one of those pauses, another one of those glances at me.

"Well it was just very good timing."

"Mhmm," I looked at him, unwavering. "And what is Copper?"

"Copper?" Tim looked helpless.

"He's a cod, if I remember correctly," Mom chimed in.

"And what's so important about a cod?"

"Well we can't release him back into the wild," Tim blurted, and then slowed down, "and we didn't have space for him."

"And why's that?"

"Well, because…" Tim looked around, and Mom shot me that same unreadable glance from before, except this time I caught that it was readable, and I simply chose to not read it. "He's got a busted fin, Caterpillar."

"My name's Faeowynn."

A silence fell over the table again. Tim looked into his tea, not taking a sip, and then turned his head to peer into the rest of the garden. I turned my head right, and saw Mom was looking at me. Glaring without glaring. And that cut me straight to my soul.

"I'm sorry," I said in an emotionless monotone, rising from my seat. "I think I am a bit travel-tired, and hungry. I am going to go make myself toast."

I excused myself and went back into the house.


* * * * *


I heard a knock on my door, and felt at once younger. What had happened? I had an emotional moment, I had retreated to my room, and now my mom was coming to comfort me. In San Diego again. For a moment, I was newly Fae. I had just had an uncomfortable conversation about sports at the dinner table with Mom and her boyfriend at the time. I wasn't out to anyone but my closest friends yet. I finish quickly and head upstairs. Mom caught the vibe, and she comes after me. I'm in a torrent of feelings I haven't worked out yet, positive and negative, circling the same trains of thoughts to such an extent that I had decided not to tell my friends about them anymore. I didn't want to be a broken record, repeating the same things. But that was life for so many months. And that night, I told Mom all about it. About everything I felt when I looked in the mirror, when I had to go to P.E., when my peers talked about dating, when everything and anything. And she listened. And I felt completely safe.

And that was the year before I came out to Tim. But I didn't come out to Tim because I really wanted to. I came out to Tim because I had to. Because if I didn't, then every time I visited him in Oregon, I would be Felix again. And I never wanted to be Felix again.

And in that moment, I was Felix again.

"Can I come in, Fae, honey?" Mom asked through the door.

I almost laughed at how many years had just been sheared off of my real age with just that question in just this context. "Yes, you can."

She opened the door, and I could suddenly smell something rich and faintly sweet coming from downstairs.

"Dinner's ready?" I asked.

"In just a little bit." She sat down on the edge of my bed. I put down the book I had been pretending to read for the last thirty minutes, and turned to make eye contact. Her comforting eyes, warm in emotion like bagels out of a toaster, slowly melted away the outer layers of my angst, and with a sigh I began to say what I knew she was waiting for.

"I'm sorry for making a scene with Tim."

"With Dad."

"Right." I looked away. "Sorry, with Dad."

"I don't want there to be a funk between you two."

I took in a deep breath. "Me neither."

There was no response. I turned around, and Mom's expression hadn't changed. I moved to hug her, and she hugged me back. "Okay," I said.

"He's out on the front porch."

I nodded. The hug lasted another ten, twenty, however many seconds, and then I pulled back, stood out of bed, grabbed my shoes, and descended the stairs. The smell of something meaty, savory, and somehow somewhat fruity, grew stronger and stronger, and I suddenly felt very hungry. I pushed the feeling out and away as I pulled on a light jacket that I left on the coat rack in the entryway. Out the window of the living room, I saw Tim, out on the porch smoking a cigar. The image was so strange that it stopped me for a moment, but I made it through to the other side of the door relatively unimpeded.

The night air was chill. The world was getting darker, but wasn't night yet. A blue haze covered everything unlit. Tim looked to his left to see me, then squashed out the cigar on the underside of his boot. I sat down next to him. For some moments, we just listen to the sounds of faraway cars and wind.

"Dad," I got out.

"Yes… Fae?"

I took in a deep breath. "I don't want there to be a funk between us."

I wasn't looking at him, trying to be just me with my thoughts. Trying to absolve myself of social limitations. Trying to not second-guess, trying to be blunt. I was never very good at being blunt.

"Me neither," he says, after a pause. "I'm sorry. I know I should use your name."

"If you know, then please do."

Without looking at him, without hearing anything from him, I knew what this pause meant. "But it's not that simple," he thought. "But it is," I thought back, as if having a phantom conversation in my head would force a telepathic bond and change his mind.

"And whatever this is," I continued, "please just stop talking about the Shelter with me around."

"Okay," he said, with every ounce of humility in his body.

I sighed. Tim wasn't trying to do anything. Tim was continuing to be himself. If I could somehow have been an emotionless pillar, this conversation wouldn't have happened. I was the one setting boundaries. I was the one setting expectations. And I was the one reacting. And even though every step along the way was a necessary and reasonable step, I all of a sudden felt like the most selfish woman in the whole fucking world.

"We need to be here for Mom," I breathed, my voice so much smaller than I had expected it to be. "We can't have the two of us chafing. We have to be here for Mom."

"I agree," Tim said back. "But that doesn't…" He struggled for words. "That doesn't mean, that, I shouldn't have… or, that I should have…"

"It's okay, Dad." I put a hand to my face to feel for tears, but there weren't any. "Mom's got cancer."

It's okay, Dad. Mom's got cancer. What the fuck was I even saying. How were those two thoughts supposed to go together. And here I am, worrying about me, when there are more important things going on. Here I am, making this conversation, when people are dying. Here I am, when I need to be with people, comforting and being comforted.

Tim just stared at me with his halfwit face, like he knew something I didn't, like he wanted to go in for a hug but he didn't, because I had distanced us by moving to the east coast, when I should have stayed.

I feel for tears, but I find none. I see the beach. The shoreline like a ghost, thousands of feet from where it should be, a small and temporary desert waiting to be filled back in, and I just hope, I want for a moment that the salty water should come back in and begin to crash through the streets, ravaging houses and overfilling gutters, the sewers becoming a roaring underground river, debris and detritus becoming flotsam as it gets carried back into the big blue ocean, a new, flattened city ready to rebuild itself, a life cycle, a sudden removal of conflict as everyone is given the same solitary, simple goals: shelter, food, water. To be that simple again.

But the shore remains. The wet sand dries. And what lies before me is a desert.

I feel for tears, but my eyes are dry and stinging. A lump in my throat threatens to form but doesn't. And all I could think about at that moment was just how much Mom needed me. And so I did hug Dad. I don't know how long I was there for. But we clung together, and breathed together, and I hoped with all of my might that actions really did speak louder than words, and maybe what I couldn't explain out loud he could just feel if we became close enough.

The passage of time became irrelevant. The front door opened, and Mom yelled: "Dinner is…" but then quickly quieted down when she saw Dad and I. "Ready." She hummed, and went back inside.

I took that as my cue to let go.

I tried and failed to make eye contact with Tim. So to fill the void, I said: "I didn't know you smoked."

"I don't," he replied simply.

I chuckled at the implication, but I have no idea why.





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