Ella runs her fingers through Mother’s party dress, the lavender one with the puffed sleeves and ruffles around the neck. She keeps it in the back of her closet, in a place where Dad can’t see. He’d tell godawful stories about how Mother was the only one for him. She told the darkest jokes. And of course, he’d state the obvious: Lavender was her favorite color.
Dad is gone tonight anyway, a business trip.
Mother said the dress was too domestic, left it behind, almost a year ago. Exactly a year as of midnight. Midnight draws closer with each hour and quarter hour marked by the nearby church clock, the quarter hours passing in four, eight, twelve, and sixteen notes. The hours are definitive, stentorian strokes. Seven, eight, nine, ten. Eleven.
Mother took almost everything. Her collection of Yates, Nabokov, Salinger, the Corona Zephyr typewriter she used to write stories, even the leftover meatloaf. She took the vodka, the lemons. The Sinatra records. But she didn’t take petite, fourteen-year old Ella. Ella with the same flame-colored hair and owl eyes. Ella with the same long nose. Ella who could have fit in the trunk with ease.
Ella rips a piece of fabric.
It’s an accident, her fingers clutched tight, but there’s something frightening in it. It’s the power to hurt, to wound, disrupt, something no one associates with her. She’s always in school or trying to fill the living room with lilacs and her pen-and-ink drawings that Mother once loved. Trying to make something out of the onions and sardines that Dad keeps in the fridge.
She rips another piece.
And then another. A neat clean rip.
Ella imagines Mother’s Chevy Bel-Air moving across the vast country, backseats and trunks filled. Mother is listening to Sinatra. Or Rosemary Clooney. Or Erroll Garner. She loved “Misty,” said it was music for one’s “alone time.” Mother’s words float in the night sky, “I need space, darling.”
Space, as in the rarest of phone calls. Once a month, then every three months. And even those calls are replete with Is. I’m finding my creativity again, I’m taking up the piano, I might get a book deal. Space, the lack of a guest bedroom at Mother’s new apartment. More phrases echo, “your father,” “expectations,” “needy,” “you’re growing up,” and the worst, “understand.”
Eleven-thirty chimes, the moon too full for comfort. Ella draws the blinds; the moon still glows. Mother and Dad are fighting. Dad is telling her the kitchen is her domain. Surely, she can be happy here. She can write as a hobby.
Ella rips out another section in the waist. She feels a pang of pity. Unacceptable. And another, around the chest.
She is younger, eight or nine. Mother is reading her a fairy tale, even though Ella has been reading since she was four. She is calling her “my precious Ella.” Ella cannot recall which fairy tale, only that goodness wins and the heroine is given a new life. Mother smells of perfume, and her smile, while sharp has an odd tenderness to it. There is a sensation that the world cannot creep in with Mother here. Mother will not let it. She cleans, arranges, the “tsaritsa of order,” as Mother puts it with a sigh.
Mother is telling her to be good, that she truly loves her. She’ll write. She promises. But the words feel an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Something horrible will ensue. Ella cannot imagine the twist.
Ella doesn’t just rip, but she claws, digs with sharp fingernails. Rip, rip, rip, a rhythm that’s oddly soothing. There goes part of a sleeve. Rip. Another section.
Mother is making her announcement. She is moving to the city of X in one month. She cannot keep cleaning and cooking day in, day out. Her decision is final. Please respect it, she says, with a firmness that frightens Ella and that Ella secretly envies.
The day of departure: Dad is begging, trying to wrest the suitcase from Mother. Mother is telling him to stop demanding. There’s something dark in Dad’s motions. Forceful. Ella cannot help but want to tell Mother that all will be right. She can help Mother in her new life, her writerly life. She truly can. But a part of her knows this is childish, foolish.
A truly foolish image: Ella is chasing after Mother’s Chevy Bel-Air. She is holding onto the bumper, feeling the wind, the speed, all of these things taunting. She is knocked over by the speed, like being shoved off a cliff.
Another image: An empty mailbox. A mailman wearing starched condescension through his mustache while Ella pesters him. Check again. What about that fat envelope?
And yet another image, imagined: Mother arranging her apartment, trying to figure out an arrangement that connotes newness, filling walls with new photos, newspaper clippings of rising success. Mother is wearing a smile Ella cannot see, something wide and wonderful. And a voice within her subconscious wishes Mother luck. She will read Mother’s books someday and pretend she was right there while they were being written.
Another rip. Rip, rip, a sound that disrupts such thoughts.
She rips on until the party dress is but fleeting fabric, dispersed like a war zone. She starts ripping her own dresses too. The clock tower announces midnight, but Ella barely notices. The moon sets and she rips in the dark. She’ll buy new dresses, light blue and yellow and white. Dresses that don’t hold the weight of Mother’s choices. Ella rips the wallpaper. She’ll have it replaced with something functional, as Dad would put it.
Up next to be ripped: Wallpaper, books, fabric, boxes of cereal, napkins. She rips until there’s just rawness and the faintest hint of sun creeping through the window. The clock tower signals a new morning, an old morning.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. His story, “Soon,” was nominated for a Pushcart. Yash has also had work nominated for Best of the Net and The Best Small Fictions. A native of Idaho, Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in WestWard Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.