Elliott Sand woke up to the sound of something breaking. It didn’t startle or alarm him. He didn’t lie still in the darkness, straining his ears for a sound, too afraid to even breathe. He sat up and rubbed his face with his palms. The window was frosted over, but there was a hint of sunlight there. It must be close to dawn. His mother was drunk. She probably fell or knocked something over.
“Mom!” he called from the warmth of his blankets. She didn’t respond. “Mom!” he yelled, again.
Everything was quiet. He sighed. A lone car drove by outside. He heard the sound of tires on wet pavement. It was still fall, for now.
“I’m coming,” he said, as he stood and pulled on a pair of pants. He leaned over and peered out of the clear space at the top of the window. His father’s car wasn’t in the driveway. He’d suspected it wouldn’t be. He breathed and fogged up the glass.
"Mom?" he said again, turning on the kitchen light and blinding himself. The kitchen was empty and clean. He leaned for a minute on the gleaming counter top and stretched and yawned. He had hoped to find her here, perhaps fallen from her chair, a spray of tiny ice cubes punctuating her landing. He knew where she’d be, instead.
The carpet was thick and cool as he passed through the empty living room. A clock on the mantel place ticked studiously. A single drying rose in a tiny white vase swiveled on its stem to watch him push open the door to the study.
His father's study was really the room where his mother kept all of her secrets; pictures and letters and other things she didn't want to look at anymore, except on certain nights. These nights were made of vodka; a bottle of it, warming in her fist. She flinched slightly as he turned on the light. Her arm flopped, seemingly of its own accord to cover her eyes. She was sprawling across the rug, her white silk night gown hiked up around her waist. She was, of course, sobbing.
Eliot didn’t curse under his breath. He didn’t say, “Jesus, mom!” He was sixteen years old, and had long outgrown expressions of frustrations at being woken up this way. He knelt down carefully next to her, placed his hands under her armpits, and hoisted her into a semi-sitting position.
“Oh, stop,” she whined, clutching a crumpled paper against her breast. A sticky strand of hair was pasted to her lips. Mascara stains made trails down her cheeks. Elliott’s mother was devastatingly beautiful.
Michelle Sand was a model for a painter, in her youth. He was famous in small circles, she said. He played the piano and threw parties where everyone stayed until dawn. They were wild in love but Elliott’s mother wanted a baby.
There was a torn canvas propped up in the corner with the likeness of her naked torso pressed up against the cherry finish of a piano bench. The closet was stuffed with hundreds of sketches and paintings of her like this, nude, elastic and endlessly beautiful. His father didn't ask that she throw them away, just that they be placed behind a door that he could lock. He wouldn’t make her throw them away, as long as he could own them. Elliott couldn’t count the number of times she’d busted the lock open with an ice pick.
“What got broken?” he asked.
“This is a letter from your father,” she said, holding it out to him. She kept a number of letters, all dating around the year 1979, when his father had persuaded her to leave the city and follow him here. There were letters from other people, mostly men, too. She put her hand down in a pile of broken glass.
“Let me see your hands,” Elliott said. “You’re bleeding.”
“I don’t care,” she cried.
“Just be still,” he said. “Hold still or you’ll get blood all over everything.”
She looked down at the front of her night gown, inspecting it for stains. “I’m not bleeding,” she said.
He propped her against the wall, and crawled over her legs, picking up pieces of glass. She reached out with a heavy hand, and stroked his back. “He was gone when I told him about you,” she said.
Elliott’s father spent most of his time away on business. In fact, Elliott wasn’t sure when he’d last seen his father. It must have been at least a month.
“I called him,” she said. “I was so young and so lonely in an apartment overlooking the lake. I called him and when he answered, I said, ‘Guess what is different about me?’”
Elliott retrieved a small broom and dust pan from the hallway closet. She called after him, “Do you know what he said?”
Elliott knew. His father had been groggy with sleep, it was 3am in New York. He was sleeping when the phone rang, and when his newly pregnant mother asked him to guess what was different, he said to her, “Who is this? Maryellen?”
“It’s your wife,” his mother said, her voice filling the small study. She wiped the hair out of her face, leaving a smear of blood on her lips. “I told him, ‘It’s your wife, not Maryellen, and I’m having your baby.’”
“I know, Mom,” Elliott said. “Come on. It’s time for bed.”
She looked up at him, her green eyes rimmed in melting black liner. She looked like something out of a story, like a princess trapped in a tower. Her cheeks were flushed. Beads of sweat like diamonds were broken out on her forehead. Her deep red hair was tied softly into a knot at the base of her neck. "Baby," she said, holding her arms out to Elliott, the letter from his father still clenched in her tiny fist. "Come here, little one."
“Just, don’t,” he said, setting the dust pan full of glass down on the top of the piano. It made a clinking sound.
“My baby,” she said, staring up at him; her long white legs folded haphazardly under her body. “Come here. What’s the matter?”
"You're bleeding," he said. "Nothing's the matter. Just get up.”
"I'm not bleeding," she said, looking at the slippery, red wetness of her palms with some surprise.
"Here," Elliott said, extending her his hand. "Stand up, please."
She gasped as she placed her feet onto the floor. There was a large shard of glass embedded into her heel.
"God, Mom," he said. "Come here."
She wrapped her arms around is shoulders. Her skin was cold. She buried her face in his throat. She smelled like African violets and antisepsis. He picked her up, cradling her like a child and carried her to the bathroom where the light was like pure white fire. He wished he hadn't gotten out of bed. He was tired. He shouldn't be doing these things for her.
"Look at me," she said as he helped her into the bathtub, both of her legs dangling out of the side.
"Not now, Mom," he said. "Give me your foot."
"Look at me," she pleaded. "I want to look at you."
"Give it to me," he demanded. She kicked at him.
She yelled, "I want to talk to you. Just look at me."
He sighed. He was tired in a way that made him older than he was. He wanted to turn the water on and push her under; leave her here to drown.
"You're so handsome," she said, starting to sob again. "Look at this." She thrust the crumpled letter into his hands. "It's from your father. He was away in Costa Rica and he wrote this to me."
Elliott looked at the letter. It was written in a heavy swirling hand in silver pen on blue paper with a floral decoration around the border. “This isn’t from Dad,” he said, setting in on the floor and grasping the protruding edge of the piece of glass in his mother’s heel. “He’s in Costa Rica now. He’s never been there before.”
“It is,” she said. “It’s from him. I was pregnant with you and he wrote me to say he was coming home.”
“It’s just a stupid letter from somebody you used to know, Mom,” Elliott said.
He bandaged her heel and helped her to her feet, guiding her down the hallway and into bed. She buried her face in the mattress and cried. He pulled the blankets up around her chin and turned off the light. He stood for a moment in the doorway, wondering whether he shouldn’t turn her on to her side, so she didn’t suffocate while he was gone. This wasn’t the first time he’d left her this way. She would be fine.
“I’m going to school,” he said.