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Maternal Secrets

I once conducted a private survey. My sample, however, was not statistically significant. I would ask this question: Did you ever find out something about your mother that you hadn't known before? This query was stuffed into conversations and not asked in such a blunt way. At first, I thought this request for personal information could be asked only of someone I knew well, but it turned out the question could be asked of someone I hardly knew it all. For instance, Olivia in reply to my question – we were having drinks at a bar on Broadway with three or four other people – said that her mother was married before. Olivia tittered onward. “Can you imagine your mother married before and you didn't know that? How did I find out? I saw her damn divorce papers in a drawer. Was I hunting for them? – No, I was not. I was planning to borrow – make that steal – black nylons.” When Olivia was asked why her mother and that man – the first husband – divorced, Olivia said she didn’t know. On another evening a girl named Cleo confessed that her mother stole money from United Charities when that trusted mother worked as a secretary in one of their offices. Other admissions were what you would expect – infidelities, drunkenness, and strange hobbies such as twirling a cheerleader’s baton on a front lawn when that mother was fifty-seven. I kept my mouth shut though – my mother’s secrets were no one’s business.

Sophie's Journal - October 1, 1862

This is what I remember about yesterday. The day of golden haze with spruces by the window casting shade. There was a carriage outside. We had a visitor. An old landau pulled by two grays, and these snorting. My mother fussed with my hair. First, she turned the strands one way and then came the tying of a pale pink ribbon, the color of late spring roses. My mother tied that ribbon over and over, adjusting the bow. “This is senseless,” she said at last, in a strained voice, and turned me towards the mirror. “The truth,” she said, “must be recognized. Curls do not suit you nor do ribbons. And that is that.” My mother folded the ribbon and put it in the drawer. “Go and play,” she said, “and be quiet.”


Leo and I were having drinks at the Afterwards Bar. We were waiting for two women from the office. It is true that one shouldn’t fool around with people from work. But on a personal level how else could you meet anyone considering that everyone else I knew was involved with my personal social life. Only the people at work I never saw elsewhere. With Leo it was the same. Did you ever think of divorce, Leo asked. Be honest, did you? I shook my head. I did, he said. Three, four years ago, I went to my cousin for advice. He’s a lawyer. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not going to make any money off you. Is there someone else, someone on the side?” I told him no. Then, he said, as long as Love Story isn’t involved, don’t be a fool. You make an ordinary living. She’ll get the house, the kids. You’ll be in one, two rooms. You’ll be out in the cold. That’s when I became reconciled, Leo said. Actually, it was for the best. I am more tolerant now.

Here they come, I said. Leo and I see two women from another department, same firm. Jeanette and Marie. It’s just chance that Jeanette is divorced and Marie is married. Just chance too that I paired up with Marie. Both of the women are small, dark haired. They have trim neat figures. We meet twice a month, a casual easy thing. We have drinks, we have laughs, and we are discreet. Later I take Marie to a motel. We drive across a bridge. I believe that Leo uses a small hotel in the city. I don’t mind the drive; I like the sense of ease. I know that Marie’s husband is named James. I know nothing else about him. Marie has never asked any questions about my wife. Marie is not a talkative woman. We have been seeing each other about two years. Jeanette is new to our firm; before her, Leo went with someone named Cindy.

It’s not yet dark when we make love, and the room has a soft glow. Afterwards Marie dresses slowly, and I watch the profile of her body. Her breasts always surprise me; they are almost hard and unyielding. Marie pulls on her sweater, a fuzzy gray wool. I lean over and rub my cheek against her shoulder. The wool is soft and silken. Marie is kneeling on the bed. I have no children, she says abruptly. Have you? I am surprised and move back. Yes, I say. Two boys. Marie stands up and I can no longer see the outline of her body. I see her back, the tightly curled black hair, strands pulled down by the sweater. I love you, Marie said, softly. I would divorce my husband. I would go away with you.

We sit there with the twilight expanding around us. After a few minutes Marie gets up and steps into her gray skirt that fits smoothly across her hips. I go into the bathroom, wash up and dress. During the ride back Marie says in a matter of fact voice, That was dumb – forget it. I reach over and squeeze her hand, but her fingers do not return the pressure.

My wife is sitting in the living roan when I get home, magazine on her lap, the television on. Hi, she says. There’s chicken in the frig if you want. Maybe I’ll nibble some, I say and go into the kitchen. I come back carrying a plate with cold chicken stained red from paprika and a bottle of beer. I sit down on the chair near my wife. She wears a blue bathrobe tightly belted. Her hair hangs in strands down her shoulders like a dark yellow-toned shadow. She turns the pages of the magazine. I see hollows beneath her cheeks. I could reach across the cushions and shake her thin unyielding shoulders. I close my eyes, because they are swimming with yearning for the woman I love.

Bette Pesetsky is the author of two short story collections: 'Stories Up to a Point' and Confessions of a Bad Girl.' Her flash fiction is published in Oblong, Chicago Literati, The Moth and she has stories forthcoming in Veritas and Helen Literary Magazine.

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