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:: The Mother : C. Bard Cole ::
My inclination is to rush through this. I'd thought Stewart was appallingly stupid when we'd met the year before, he was dating my friend Daniel who liked him because he always had pot. Stewart told me that Jan Brady had died of a drug overdose, meaning Buffy from "Family Affair"; and that no one knew how they had built the Eiffel Tower, meaning the pyramids, though he staunchly resisted these alternatives. "No, Jan Brady." "No, the Eiffel Tower." But when I ran into him about a year later, I was going to school in the city and I didn't have many friends and he liked me, and he didn't seem so stupid to me anymore. His family was rich and socially well-placed, they were in the social register when I looked it up at the NYU library, and he knew a whole lot of stuff I didn't, important stuff like what restaurants rich people ate at and where they shopped, what kind of clothes they liked, which items sent secret signals only the rich recognized and how complex these codes were.

It's too sickening to even recount. I thought I loved him but he brought out the latent snob in me. He didn't much like that, but I didn't much like being critiqued for my 'middle-class' traits -- certain sweaters, and such, that he disapproved of, or my haircut, or accent.

The first story I wrote for my writing workshop the next year was about this relationship, and I can't even look at it now, even less think of recounting it again. Stewart was my first boyfriend, we went out for seven months and broke up, the end. It doesn't really go away that easily, since some of my friends now were friends of his roommate Mickey, since lots and lots of things, since my life traces back to that year in a lot of important ways.

I told Mason I was gay and that I was in love. He said he'd figured I was gay, said Ellen asked him if he thought Stewart was my boyfriend, I talked about him every time I saw them. I said, pissed off, "You always figured I was gay?" Mason smirked: "Yeah, I mean, from when you were about nine or ten, I guess. It's not like you're Mister Inscrutable. Do you want me to act freaked out instead?"

"No," I said sullenly, sinking down in his living room futon.

"Oh my god," he yelped, running in a circle. "My brother's a homosexual."

"Knock it off."

"He's gonna start cruising the playgrounds, he's going to be arrested..."

"Mason, shut up."

"You know," he said, imitating our mother's infamous tone of empathetic concern, "I just want you to be happy. I just worry about the Aids."

"Mason," I said, drawing my knee up to my chest, "that's not funny."

"I'm sorry. I'm just being stupid." He sat down next to me, put his arm around my shoulder. "It's cool, it's great, I'm glad you're happy. I'm glad you can tell me something like that. I don't care if you're straight or gay or purple or orange, it doesn't make any difference to me."

I leaned against his arm a little. "Do you think," I asked, "that Mom'll really react like that? I mean, should I tell her? I'd like to."

"God," he said, dropping his arm. "Do yourself a favor, don't tell Mom right now. I mean, whatever. Just I doubt now's a good time."

He meant something, obviously. I thought he would just say what but he waited for me to prompt him with raised eyebrows and an expectant look.

"Well..." Mason hedged. "I was on this fucking honesty trip myself a few weeks ago. And I told her something, I should've known better but I did."

I looked him right in the eye; and he flinched, tousling my hair. "What the hell are you using on this anyhow," he said, wiping his hand on his jeans. "It's like fucking vaseline, I was wondering how you got it so straight."

"Mason," I said, tentatively touching my own hair. It wasn't so greasy. "What did you tell her?"

"Stupid me," he smiled. "I told her about El's abortion."

It was a stunningly stupid thing to reveal, even I knew that. "Why?" My mouth hung open.

"A bug could fly in," he said. I didn't know what he was talking about. "Close your mouth, asshole, I know it was dumb."

"What did she say?"

"Nothing," he said. "She was letting me have it about school, in her -- you know -- motherly tone; she didn't understand this, she didn't understand that, yak, yak, yak. And I said, you know, something happened last year which really fucked -- I didn't say fucked -- fucked me up and I was still dealing with it and school was too much for me at the moment. And she asked what. 'Oh Mason, it's not drugs is it? Is it something about your brother?' So I just told her. I told her. And she said... 'Oh.'"

"What else?"

"Nothing. Just, 'Oh.' I said I wasn't looking for her approval or disapproval, it was done, it was real, and I was feeling like shit about it. Not in a Catholic way, bad, but just because it sucked, I hated it, I wish none of it had ever happened. And she answered me in monosyllables for the rest of the conversation."

I lit up a smoke and Mason passed me half a dented beer can, cut open, with cigarette butts inside. "That was it?" I asked.

"Well, I went out for a while and when I came home she'd left a message on my machine, how I'd really surprised her at first but she realizes people make mistakes and she loves me and she really likes Ellen and she hopes everything will work out, that if I want to talk more to please call her."

"Well, that's cool," I said feebly.

"Fuck that," Mason said. "I called right back and told her I didn't need her fucking half-assed response, that if she couldn't be there when I needed her it's not my job to turn around and give her a rim job for being an uptight, un-fucking-caring, awful mother. That she can say nothing to me when it matters, and then want to be soothed and complimented for being so understanding--! Fuck that, I don't need that!"

"You didn't say that stuff," I said, giggling.

"Hell I didn't," Mason said, his eyes wide. "I said, why do you think the two of us are up here, three hundred miles away from you? Even your fucking precious baby rents an apartment when he comes home so he won't have to stay with you."

"Mason!" I stood up suddenly. "You prick, don't fucking say that. Don't talk about me to Mom like that, that's none of your fucking business to throw at her. That's really fucked up, man. You fucking call her and tell her you came up with that on your own. That's fucked up, Mason, you're an asshole."

"So why did you," he asked snippily, "get your own apartment down there?"

"Fuck you, Mason, you're a prick. I'm going."

He snorted, lighthearted. "Whatever," he said. "Thanks for telling me you're gay," he said, with a snide game-show-host finger gesture.

I paused at the door for a second. "Fuck you, Mason. You made her cry, didn't you?" He nodded, no trace of guilt. "You are such a dick."

"She's not going to cry," he said with put-on cheerfulness, "when you tell her you're a fag. She'll just say, 'Oh,' and ten minutes later wish you luck and hope you don't get AIDS."


I slammed the door behind me and walked straight to Stewart's building. He wasn't home so I took the subway to Grand Central, caught the next train to Bronxville and found Chase and Shelby. They'd just started going out, but acted, as I'd expect from Chase, like an old married couple. I left a message on Stewart's machine and went with Chase and Shelby to the Tap, the old-person's German restaurant they'd started to frequent in my absence. Then we went to a kind of yuppie sports bar over the hill and had beer and potato skins. I slept on Chase's floor, roused the next day by Stewart, who'd driven up to Bronxville and stayed with his parents to find me. He took me back to their house, Tudor-style like all the Pondfield Avenue 'cottages', a picturesque front of half-timber, patterned brick and sloping slate roofs masking its enormous three-storied bulk. It was furnished as cleanly and impersonally as a small hotel. The only one home was their housekeeper, who let Stewart kiss her cheek and indifferently prepared us sandwiches. Stewart wasn't racist, he'd said once before, because he loved Maddie more than his own mother, and he used to horse around with her son when they were both little kids.

I took a shower, changed into a pair of khakis, an Armani tee shirt, and a navy blue v-neck cotton sweater with a country club emblem of an indian-chief's head with the word "Siwanoy" below it, embroidered on the chest. I told Stewart I came out to my brother and he asked how it went. I said fine. He said he'd told his parents once, when he was fifteen, at the dinner table but they'd never mentioned it since. "I guess they know," he remarked, surveying my outfit, entirely from his closet. "Or else they think I just run through best friends."

I played with his dog, a yellow lab, out in the side yard while Stewart got his clothes out of the dryer -- "Maddie says," he reported, "'You don't live here, you ain't bringing me a barrel of clothes from that college of yours, you gonna do that wash yourself." When I'd been playing for a while, dog slobber on the country-club sweater, a big black car turned into the driveway. I inched closer to the house but no one came out to save me. The boatlike Mercedes came to a full stop, its engine humming prettily for a moment. Then it fell silent, its heavy door swung open: a lady stepped out.

It was Jacqueline Onassis, I realized. Was Stewart's mother. The camel overcoat, the shiny leather gloves, the sunglasses, the scarf tied over a helmet-like hairdo. The face was a little different, I'll admit, but otherwise it was Jackie O.

"Oh, hello?" she waved as I stepped forward, speaking in a clipped, nasal voice, polite and impervious. "You must be Stewart's friend. I have some groceries in the trunk if you wouldn't mind helping me with them."

The back of the car had sprung open by itself, it seemed. There was one small bag of groceries, some flowers, and a cardboard case of wine bottles nestled down in there. I figured the box of wine would be the gracious thing to carry for her. I gathered that's what she expected.

"Where are you from?" she asked. I said Baltimore, though I figured she wanted a different explanation than that.

"Stewart's father is from Baltimore," she said. I knew that. There's a financial institution of international note in Baltimore which bears Stewart's last name, a fairly common one but Stewart had told me already. His father had grown up in a townhouse on Mt. Vernon Place, the fanciest square in town, a cluster of New-York-sized urban palaces grouped around the towering Washington Monument -- grown up there, Stewart said, and an estate on Long Island, and a house in Eton Square in London; then a British boarding school, then Oxford and Harvard. I assumed his father's accent wasn't much like mine.

Only one mother-suitable story popped into my head to give me conversation to offer. While she opened the front door for me, I told her how Stewart and I had been walking down Mercer Street, near the faculty apartments for NYU, and had seen a fat lady walking a chocolate lab. Stewart elbowed me, said, "Look, there's a brown Caesar dog" -- his yellow lab's name was Caesar, Caesar was running around between us as I followed her through the foyer -- and the lady looked up at us with a broad smile, delighted, and declared, "Yes. Why yes it is."

Stewart's mother set the flowers down on the kitchen table, took off her driving gloves, undid the scarf knotted under her chin. "That's weird," she said tonelessly. "What do you suppose she meant?"

She ruined the fucking story. She was supposed to laugh, say, "how peculiar," and let it go. As it was, she seemed neither amused nor chagrined. It was extremely disconcerting.

"I don't know," I said, grasping at straws to continue. "Either she misheard us," I sighed, "or she was just pleased by the attention."

Stewart came up the back stairs with a folded pile of laundry, trailing a faint smell that mixed fabric softener and marijuana smoke. "Hello," his mother said, unwrapping the flowers from their plastic and placing them, bunch by bunch, in one of the sinks. "Your friend was just telling me a funny story about the dog. We're having your Aunt Susan and Uncle Richard over tonight. If you're going to stay you'll have to get your own dinner."

"That's okay," Stewart said, leaving the laundry on a chair. "We're going back in a little bit. I just have to put this in a bag." Stewart went back downstairs to fetch his laundry sack.

"You'll have to excuse me," Stewart's mother said. "I have to start getting ready for dinner."

She didn't leave the room, though. She just turned her back to me, took a glass vase down off a shelf and began rinsing it with water under the kitchen faucet. Filling it partway and swirling to clean the dust out. Stewart came up with his bag, shoved his folded clothes into it. He kissed his mother on the cheek, told her that Caesar was getting too fat and to tell Maddie good-bye and to stop feeding him so much, grabbed my arm and walked me out to his car.

"My mom really liked you," he said, looking out the back window to keep his distance from his mother's Mercedes.

"You think?" I said. The car bumped over the stone edge of a flower bed.

"Shit," he said, red-eyed. "I hope nobody saw that." The little Honda chugged out onto Pondfield Road. "Definitely. If she hadn't liked you, you'd know it."


Rich people scared the fuck out of me, I decided. At first I thought it was just because I wasn't one of them. Daniel called me from Boston some time after that. He was back living with his dad and stepmon, working at a movie theater with a cute punk boy he wanted to seduce. "God, you met The Mother," he exclaimed. "I'm jealous. I never got to meet The Mother."


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