It had been a week since Joan’s dad died. We were in the garage of his home, the house where Joan grew up, going through his possessions, when Joan’s mother walked up the driveway carrying an armful of receipts, some of which were over 40 years old. She surveyed the garage’s contents like a hunter scanning prey in the woods. Sylvia would engage in conversation later — now was time to focus. Processing the inventory, she sprang into action, taping each receipt to its matching object as an ever-present cigarette remained in her mouth. It was difficult not to admire the efficiency with which she worked. When finished, she waited for a response. Craved it, actually.
“Can someone help me carry these to my car? I don’t think all of them will fit, but we can try.”
It’s what she felt she was owed. After years of a brutal marriage, she believed she had it coming. She got the shore house in the divorce, 10 years ago, but she no longer liked living there. Too cold, too small. She needed more. Always more.
“I’m not helping you with anything. None of this belongs to you. I could call the police,” I said.
This wasn’t the kind of thing to say to her. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Humoring her was basically the family rule, and the easiest route to take. I wish I could go along with this, but I just couldn’t.
This wasn’t the first time I’d threatened her, but she acted like it was. Her practiced facial expression was not unlike the ones favored by an actress from one of her beloved 50s movies, after being slapped across the face by the male lead.
“But these are MINE, Kyle! I have the receipts!” she screamed, pointing to the garage as she rose on her toes. She held them aloft with the conviction of Moses hoisting the Ten Commandments. She looked more at Joan than me, with Joan looking even more exhausted, as if that were possible. She began ramming the items into the trunk of her car, sighing from the minimal physical exertion, until Joan went over to help with the last few things.
We would wind up going out for Chinese food later – it was always Chinese food, or she would refuse to go – like we always did when she was visiting.
Joan is an oncologist. Many professionals of this ilk, i.e. surgeons, academics, etc., in my experience, are also professional assholes. Because they do such important, lifesaving, respected work, they also feel obliged to hold forth on any topic under the sun, particularly if said professional is male. This decidedly was not Joan. She cared about three things in life: work, helping people, and her family, and not necessarily in that order. She possessed a remarkable ability to put people at ease and feel better about themselves. She somehow knew how to put difficult people in their place without being confrontational or emotional. We have been together for five years, and her ability in this area still astonishes me. She is as close to a real-life celestial being as I have ever met, which makes me laugh when I think of it, since Joan is an atheist. Her empathy and social skills have always been a source of bewilderment to her mother. She couldn’t understand why Joan would devote so much energy to such things.
I am Kyle Cunningham, a high school gym teacher and basketball coach, a profession that, to Joan’s parents, was on the same level as coal miner and portable toilet cleaner. They were aghast when Joan and I began dating seriously. It got worse when they found out I lived in a rented one-bedroom apartment and drove a Corolla with more than 200,000 miles on it. Such a man would simply not do, they told her. That is, until they discovered I was rich. Filthy, stinkin’ rich. Rich enough to do pretty much whatever I wanted in life.
My mother was a cook at a side-of-the-road Jersey diner who created something called the Faux-burger, the first veggie burger that people actually wanted to eat for the taste, like actual juicy, Grade A prime beef. It was so good that it sold everywhere, regardless of geography or tradition. That’s right, even in Texas. Every backyard cookout included at least a few Faux-burgers. After a while, people didn’t even think of them as meatless burgers, just that the things were friggin’ amazing. Of course, some diehards refused to try them, but the product took off regardless. Mom was worth millions. It was also the reason I became tolerable to Joan’s parents.
I was thirteen when Mom’s business started to take off. Before it did, we could barely pay the electric bill and subsisted mostly from diner food that Mom took home from her job. Scouring for loose change for the laundromat, having the electricity cut off now and then, going to Goodwill for clothes — all of it was part of our reality. My dad died in a car accident when I was 3. None of this happened so long ago that I don’t remember what’s it like to have jack shit. So don’t get me wrong, I know how lucky I am to be rich. It’s a hell of a lot better than being broke and wondering how you’re going to pay for groceries this week. But life wasn’t all that bad before Mom hit it big. I was loved, had a roof over my head, and good friends whom I bonded with over basketball. It was all I knew, and it was good enough.
Mom liked to listen to NPR in the car, and she particularly enjoyed listening to a show called “Voices in the Family,” hosted by a guy named Dan Gottlieb, who was a psychologist confined to a wheelchair after being involved in car accident. Dr. Dan hardly ever talked about his accident or his condition, but I found it fascinating he could still do everything he did. His voice had an exhausted quality to it, like he probably should’ve been taking the day off but felt he needed to host the show anyway. Sometimes parents would call him with concerns about their child, and many of the concerns were pretty common, but Dr. Gottlieb always would answer them patiently. One day a mother called and was extremely distressed over her son’s debilitating shyness. He had no friends and rarely left the house, other than for school. Dr. Gottlieb responded with this: “If your child is shy, there’s nothing you can do it about it. But if he or she has that one thing and that one person, then they can do anything. They can win the Nobel Prize.” There was something in this comment, about being willing to accept a child for who they are, that always stuck with me. I wasn’t going to win a Nobel Prize, but I had teaching and coaching, and I had Joan. I didn’t need much else.
Simplicity, however, was not something Joan’s mother appreciated. Someone in my financial position should be investing in real estate or overseeing multiple businesses. Sylvia believed that physical education shouldn’t be taught in schools and that sports were a waste of time. She certainly didn’t believe they were things you should make a career out of. She thought it was a disgrace that I would sometimes not get home from away games until 10 pm or so.
Initially, I just tried to smile and ignore my way through all these comments. I eventually learned, however, that this was a sign of weakness to Sylvia, and it meant that she had the freedom to turn up the heat. She would apply verbal pressure until she got what she wanted, which left me with two choices: 1. acquiesce to whatever she wanted, or 2. fire back at her. After a while, I felt I had no choice but to choose No. 2. It was exhausting, and there were times when I was thankful for the rigors and time constraints of basketball season that allowed me to stay away from her.
I met Joan when Mom was one of her patients. It was hardly love at first sight. I wasn’t exactly in a romantic mindset during those office visits, and Joan didn’t seem very approachable. She only addressed me if absolutely necessary, and even then she barely threw a glance in my direction. Until then, I had only dated other teachers. After college, I didn’t really know how to meet people outside of work, and it was pretty common for teachers to date each other. We teachers have to rely on each pretty heavily, more often than colleagues in other professions, so it was only natural for some hooking up to take place now and then. It could get sticky, of course, if things turned sour, but we’re all adults, and it’s a hell of a lot better than the cliché of the young gym teacher taking advantage of the popular cheerleader.
But after a number of visits, I could see that Joan truly cared about her patients and was thoroughly dedicated to them, including Mom. She also seemed lonely to me, like after so many years of dedicating herself to her career, she hadn’t really taken the time to devote herself to much else. One day I noticed her walking with a slight limp and asked her what happened. She told me had competed as a pole vaulter her first year in college and had broken her ankle from a nasty fall. Sometimes the ankle still acted up on her. I had guessed she may have been a swimmer, with her broad shoulders and long arms. After she told me about her pole-vaulting days, I easily pictured her achingly beautiful image soaring over the bar, gracefully falling to earth as if from a cloud. Mom was her patient for more than two years before she finally succumbed.
After Mom’s death, there wasn’t much of a courtship, really. We just continued an ongoing conversation that we had developed, and it quickly turned into love. We’ve been together ever since, and now, god help me, Sylvia was the closest thing I had to a mom.
The annoying mother-in-law has to be the worst cliché of all. How many creatively exhausted, harried sitcom writers have sat down to write a script and resorted to the tired mother-in-law scenario. But years into an otherwise happy marriage, here I was, living a hackneyed nightmare of not only annoyance but manipulation, bullying, emotional abuse, and with a little embezzlement thrown in.
The embezzlement occurred when Joan’s dad was dying and on hospice. Though they constantly professed their hatred for one another, Joan’s parents still had spent a significant amount of time with each other, mostly because no one else would. It had been the oddest and most dysfunctional of relationships. It turns out right around the time Joan’s dad had lost most of his lucidity, Sylvia logged in to her ex-husband’s savings account and helped herself to $40,000.
Sylvia came clean to Joan shortly after her dad’s death, not so much because her conscience was getting the better of her, but because we were bound to find out eventually. When Joan asked her why she did what she did, Sylvia responded as if the answer couldn’t be more obvious: “Well, because I wasn’t getting any money.” I initially said something about contacting the police, but I didn’t really mean it. I knew Joan would overlook it, like everything else. Going to the police wasn’t really something I could do on my own.
“You two have no clue how hard life can get, what it’s been like for me. I had nothing growing up, zip. My dear, departed husband was a miserable prick, but I got what he needed from him. And I worked all those years. Joan, I paid for your education, goddammit. You two don’t understand and you never will.”
Joan, as usual, was able to shrug it off.
“She just, you know, doesn’t think about what she says sometimes,” Joan had said.
A typical night with Sylvia involved watching a 24-hour news channel, even though I don’t like television news. It didn’t matter what anyone else liked when Sylvia visited; she liked television news, and it wasn’t worth the drama and damage to our mental health to spend the night fighting about it. Sylvia was never more in her element, in her comfort zone, than when she was watching the news. Her reactions to the day’s events were rarely more than a few words, but what they lacked in length and analysis, they made up for in stridency and repetition.
“Bully for you, Obama!”
“Obamacare! Obamacare! More taxes!
“They’re going to take over! They’re going to take over!”
“Oh, what do you know?”
“Aahh! Aahh! Oh!”
Every now and then she would take a break and acknowledge us after one of the news reports supported, albeit usually flimsily, one of her worldviews.
“You know I was right about (fill in the blank).” The comment came with her patented smirk and several head nods.
This is how it went, every time she came over, which was several nights a week. I would often cook dinner while Joan and Sylvia watched the news. My mom taught how to me to cook everything she made at the diner. She thought it was important that a man know how to cook, and she would stand with me in the kitchen on her days off and impart her wisdom. She would play Motown or jazz and sing, laughing and kidding with me if I used the wrong ingredient. I would make faces at her musical selections or at her off-key singing, which would make her laugh even more. She was always so patient when teaching me, no matter how exhausted she may have been. When I started to get proficient with a certain dish, she would step back, smile, and let me finish up without her help. We would then sit at our little kitchen table to eat, discussing anything and everything. Each other was all we had, but it was good enough.
These memories came easily to me as I cooked, that is until they were interrupted by Sylvia’s shrieking at the television. Sylvia always ate whatever I made. She would usually complain about it before eating, casting aspersions at its nutritional value, but she never complained after she was finished. The absence of any form of criticism from Sylvia was the equivalent of anyone else doing a backflip. I so wished I could tell Mom about how oddly satisfying I found this little dynamic, and then we could sit at the kitchen table laugh about it together.
It got to a point, however, where I knew I had to do something. It wasn’t any one thing that led to my decision. It wasn’t even about Sylvia’s comments, or the way she hurt Joan and that Joan felt powerless to do anything about it. It was the fact that no one ever did anything about it. We all figured it wasn’t worth the effort or the energy to do something about such behavior. She was old and ignorant, didn’t know any better. At her age, she may not be around much longer anyway, right? But I knew better. She still had so much more to complain about, so much more to hate, so much more to be outraged about. She could very well outlive us all.
I was tired of hearing I needed to accept the things I can’t change. Mom wasn’t coming back, people would tell me, she was in a better place now. I couldn’t accept this, just flat-out refused. I was going to do something, and I was going to figure out how to get away with it. This would be my little contribution to the world. No, life was not fair, not even close, but, just this one time, I was going to make things a little less unfair.
It would have to look like an accident, which meant it would have to happen at the shore house. Accidents happened at the shore all the time: boating accidents, drownings, drunken driving. It would be just another mishap. I just had to figure out how to get her on a boat. She didn’t do much of anything anymore, not that she ever really did. She may go to the beach for 20 minutes or so and complain about the weather and the people before leaving. I had to get her on a boat, but it couldn’t be a scenic cruise or anything similar. It had to be just the two of us.
I remembered that Joan once told me that Sylvia and Joan’s father would occasionally rent a boat and spend a couple of hours on the bay. Almost all relationships have some positive moments in the beginning, even horror shows like Joan’s parents’ marriage was. I could picture them out there many years ago, enjoying a couple of hours of contentment, maybe even smiling and laughing together. They were young and had no idea how bad things would get, the vileness each of them was capable of.
It was worth a shot. Sylvia wasn’t the most perceptive person. Whenever someone offered to do something for her, she responded with her typical sense of entitlement, as if it were about time someone did something for her.
One Saturday morning, Joan was called away to see a patient. She dutifully responded with her typical alacrity after kissing me goodbye. Usually I would’ve left, too, back to our townhouse, fleeing the eventual awkwardness and agitation that came with spending more than fifteen minutes with Sylvia. Instead, I poured another cup of coffee and pored over the newspaper while Sylvia stared at the TV, waiting for something to scream at.
“Have you ever noticed those pontoon boats over in Holgate?” I said.
“What’s a pontoon boat?”
“You know, it’s kind of like a small fishing boat.”
“I don’t know anything about fishing.”
“Right, I know you don’t. A lot of people like to take them out for rides in the bay. It’s kind of peaceful.”
“It’s pretty peaceful here, too.”
“I guess. But maybe we could try it.”
“You’re not going back to the townhouse?”
“No, I don’t feel like driving back right now.”
She turned her gaze back to the television.
“I haven’t been on a boat since before Joan was born, when I was first married to her father.”
“Yes, I remember Joan once saying something about it.”
Her face softened and she tilted her head slightly upward and gazed at the ceiling.
She walked to her room and came out wearing sneakers that I had never seen before.
“Well, are we going?”
Easy enough. Everyone, even Sylvia, likes to get out of the house occasionally. I drove both of us the ten minutes to the dock. Neither of us spoke, except for Sylvia giving me directions on how to get there, even though she knew I knew exactly how to get there.
I paid for the rental and we were escorted to a boat.
“This is so small. Is this all you have?” she asked the man who rented us the boat.
“Well, yes, they’re pretty much all the same size.”
“Well, fine fine!” she said, throwing her hands in the air.
I helped her in. It was sunny but still early enough in the season so that there weren’t many boats in the water. Before long we had a little piece of the bay all to ourselves.
We eased out over the water as I struggled to control my shaky hands. We kept easing out over the bay, wordlessly, before I cut the engine just as we were out of sight of anyone else. I forced a smile to make it look like I was enjoying the peacefulness. I began thinking of the players I coached and how some of them would get so nervous before games they would throw up in the bathroom. I would have to remind them it was only a high school basketball game, not life or death.
Sylvia turned to face me. Her countenance lacked the permanent scowl I had come to hate over the years. She took a deep breath and looked me directly in the eyes.
“I haven’t told Joan yet, but I have been diagnosed with cancer. I guess that’s what over 50 years of smoking will do to you.”
I took my own deep breath and waited for her to continue. She had said the words calmly, thoughtfully, even sage-like. I had never seen her like this before. She was nearly unrecognizable. Up until the very end, Mom remained hopeful she could recover. One look at Sylvia and I saw she had already had enough. She knew full well how wretched the rest of her living days would be.
“I am not like your mother, Kyle. She was tough and strong. Somehow, she was strong enough to turn her pain into love. She saw beauty in everything. I have been in pain for as long as I can remember. I don’t know any other way to be. I’m tired of hurting, and I’m so tired of being alone.”
There were still no other boats anywhere in sight. As I stared at her, I realized how much she must have looked like Joan when she was a young woman. How she was once beautiful, completely in love and brimming with life.
She looked down and then toward the water before springing off the boat like she was suddenly possessed. I had never seen her do anything remotely athletic, and the shocking swiftness of the movement paralyzed me. She started flailing upon hitting the water, breathing hard but mostly silent. I scurried to the edge of the boat and reached out, clutching a handful of silver hair. I pulled like a spastic one-armed rower as I steadied myself. Sylvia was screaming from my hair-pulling; it was long and terrible, and her face was no longer soft.
“Do something, Kyle! Oh god, do something. I need help!”
I thought of Mom and wished she could be there to guide me. I needed her to tell me the right thing to do. I suddenly felt bad about pulling Sylvia’s hair, but it was all I could grasp. Sylvia’s eyes met mine as I pulled her close enough so I could grab the top of her sweatshirt with my other hand. She breathed so deeply I thought she was having a heart attack. I got her back in the boat as carefully as I could. Her trembling disturbed me so much I wanted to slap her to get her to stop.
“Oh, god, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Don’t tell Joan I did this. I’ll tell her about the cancer, but don’t tell her about this. She doesn’t need to know.”
I again was paralyzed, this time by her words. I had never heard apologize for anything before.
“I won’t. I won’t tell her about any of this. It’s, it’s OK.”
I didn’t believe it, of course. Nothing was OK. But I didn’t know what else to say.
Eventually, slowly, she calmed herself enough so her body was shaking just slightly. I gently placed on my hand on her shoulder and kept it there for a few seconds as I smoothed her hair. She remained slumped over, staring at her feet, not acknowledging my touch. I removed my hand, started the boat, and began to bring us both back to shore.
About the author
Kevin Kowalski is a resident of Robbinsville, NJ.