Maya Sonenberg


In the cluttered living room, Mina finds it impossible to remove herself from the gaze of her four-year-old, who says, “I’m watching you, Momma.” The radiator steams with wet socks, and outside, in the dark, snow gathers even at the bottom of the airshaft their back windows look out on. “Where we going now?” he says as Mina gathers up mittens and shoves his arms back into the sleeves of his winter coat, and who can blame him—just returned from preschool and groceries and bank—but she needs to visit her mother, and now is the only time this week she can think to go.


After the subway, at the home, they can tell her mother from the others in the dining room by the tight braid she does herself and then scrolls so neatly into a bun that Mina needs to remember why her mother’s here every time she sees it. Her son clutches her hand, apprehensive of the folks in wheelchairs—what a cliché, she thinks, maybe he’s really afraid of slipping on the highly polished floor or hoping for a taste of the sticky gravy that coats the slices of turkey or the sweet and salty apple crisp lying in wait for dessert, and sometimes her mother does feed him her dinner, one tiny bite at a time off the end of her blunt-tined fork, going, “Mmmm…lunch…lunch,” as she feeds him. “Mom,” Mina says now, “Mamele,” and places her free hand on her mother’s shoulder, and her mother turns around, puzzled, and then says, “My, you two are a sight for sore eyes.”


Today her son won’t let go of her hand so that she can give her mother a hug and she ends up making an awkward gesture that includes both of them, his arm slung around her mother’s neck, her mother’s breath in both their ears. They sit down and wait for her to eat, but instead she watches them, reaching out to stroke one cheek and then another, saying, “It’s so cold outside.”  With the decorations up—snowflakes and jolly Santas and blue and silver dreidels—her mother could hardly fail to realize that the holidays are approaching, and she says, “Are you going away this year?  Going on vacation?”


Finally, her son climbs into Mina’s lap, struggles out of his coat, lays his head against her chest, and plays with the buttons on his red plaid shirt, then with the big ones on her sweater front. She takes his coat, sticks it into the tote she’s carrying, already full of crayons and markers, pages from coloring books copied on her office machine, stickers, toy trucks and trains, bendy pipe cleaners and a deck of cards, snack crackers filled with cheese, apple juice in a box. Her mother starts the conversation, the only conversation, and while Mina tells her again where they’ve been and how they’ve been and what her eynikl wants for Chanukah and where they’re going for vacation, she notices the boy’s eyes start to drift closed—it must be the heat in here, kept so that the old folks can wear their summer clothes all year round—but then he opens one and says, “I’ve got my eye on you!”


Later, when she gets up to use the bathroom, he follows her—down the hall, through the door, into the stall, where he plays with the lock while she pees, and asks, “What’s that for?” pointing to the paper seat covers and the tampon dispenser, and after she names them, asks again, “But what’s it for?” and Mina just doesn’t answer because those are two topics she really doesn’t want to get into right now—disease and menstruation. When they get back to the dining room, they find that the meal is over and her mother has been moved back to her room, shepherded more like, the aides as tenacious as sheep dogs shuffling the residents along. Her mother is sitting on the side of her bed, tangled in the sleeves of her nightie although it’s only 6:30, and once they finally get her head through the top, she looks at them, startled, and says, “Oh, you’re here. Where have you been?  But you have your coats on.  Are you going away? Where are you going?”


Mina sits down on her mother’s bed, so narrow, confined by bars, and “We’ll be back,” she says—tries to say—as comfortingly as possible. Her son has snuggled in between her legs, pushing her up tight against her mother so that her mother nearly topples, and he takes his hand, which he’s somehow managed to get into his mitten, and rubs Mina’s tummy and looks up at her with sheep's eyes, pulls her head down toward his and whispers, “I’m watching you,” and then licks her ear.  Now he’s kneeling, slid down to the tile, pressing his head up against her crotch as if he’s trying to get back in, as if the umbilical cord had never been cut. Between their two bodies, Mina can’t breathe. Her mother suddenly leans against her even more fiercely and asks again, “Where are you going?”



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Photo by Jennifer Richard


Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies and Voices from the Blue Hotel. More recent fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Web Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, New Ohio Review, South Loop Review, and Hotel Amerika. She has received grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and King County 4Culture, and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington in Seattle.


This story was published in Issue 11 of The Literarian