The Teal Wall

Coming back home was a mistake. I knew it the moment I boarded that train. I knew it as soon as I stepped back into that house, greeted by dozens of blank, unwelcoming stares. But I didn’t have much choice in the matter, did I?
Mom’s passing wasn’t completely unexpected. In her own oft-repeated words, she was “born with a bad ticker” which was of course complicated by her increased consumption of cigarettes after dad left. I don’t really remember her being too sick growing up. Every once and awhile though, there’d be commotion in the middle of the night, the sound of dad cursing up and down the stairs, followed by the kicking up of gravel as the car peeled out of the drive.
It really was only a matter of time, I suppose. But that didn’t stop everyone from blaming me for her death. Aunt Gloria was the first to confront me in the front room, hadn’t even had time to take my coat off.
“You got a lot of nerve showing up here, kiddo.” She said, with dead serious eyes.
“She was my mom.”
“Could have fooled us for the last five years.”
Had it really been that long? I guess she wasn’t wrong. Time flies when you’re struggling to live your own life I suppose. In my head, I suppose I thought that life out here in town would simply stand still. I thought that maybe, someday, when I was ready to come back on my own terms, that everything would be the way I remembered, like a time capsule.
As I made my way through the house, I could hear my other aunts and uncles talking about me, as though I wasn’t in the room. I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying but I had a pretty good idea. They were saying I never should have left, that I never should have come back, that mom would still be alive if it weren’t for me. They were probably wondering why I looked so nonchalant, not even a hint of sadness in my face. Nothing even close to a tear.
I wasn’t sure how I felt or how I was supposed to feel. Certainly, I wasn’t happy that my mother was dead. I had never wished it to happen to her. But being in the house stirred so many different things inside and none of them very good. It reminded me of why I left and subsequently stayed away. But, I suppose to someone on the outside, it didn’t look good for someone to not be outwardly sad at their own mother’s funeral.
Only my cousin Brad had enough decency to give me a forced smile and shake my hand. Still, I could see the disdain brimming behind his gaze, politely held in check by the small niceties he spoke. My grandpa, my mom’s dad, my lone surviving grandparent, wouldn’t hardly look in my direction. He carefully migrated his way from one group conversation to another, passing from room to room, whenever I came near. At the very least, mom’s cat Reecey was happy to see me, rubbing profusely against my pant leg.
Among the more distant mourners, the twice-removed cousins and the old family friends, I was greeted with underhanded condolences. Mr. Gibson, the owner of the hardware shop at the edge of town and my first boss, gave me a hard-squeezing hand grab and said: “Bet you can’t wait to get back to the city, eh?” with little mirth in his gaze.
Eventually, it all became too much. I had to escape, if only for a moment. Down the hall, I slipped into family bathroom, “our” bathroom, situated between what was once my room and and what used to be my parent’s bedroom. With the door closed, it was quiet. The voices beyond became muffled and they were free to discuss my terribleness.
The bathroom was a monument to the past. If anything had stayed the same, it was that room. The only thing in it that had changed was me. The same fake gilded mirror frame, the same marble countertop, the same blue and grey tiles, the same faded floral pink shower curtain, the same teal wall with the same silly animal portraits painted into it. I stood there staring at it for so long that I became six years old again.
For a good long while, I stayed leaning against the counter, staring back into the dim reflection of myself in all black. I stared at this strange full-grown adult that I barely knew. But if I hadn’t left, the person in the mirror would never have existed. Why couldn’t I cry?
After dad left, it really felt like mom gave up. Not that she gave up on me, I would never say that, I would never call her a bad mother. But it was like she had had this image of a perfect family life running all throughout my childhood and the moment dad disappeared, it all collapsed in on itself. Suddenly, every decision I made about my own life was no longer good enough, it no longer fit her vision of what life should have been.
Things were already strained by then. I was only a few credits away from my bachelor’s, spending most of my time living up north in a tiny duplex with roommates while I finished my last few classes. At the time, mom was already getting anxious for me to return home, to find a good job, to find a good man, to make her some grandbabies, to complete the plan. And after dad left… the atmosphere in that house became oppressive. Anything I said that mom took as contrary to her envisionment of my life turned into an argument. Things only escalated after graduation.
I received an email containing a job offer in the city. It felt like a life raft at the time. No, it wasn’t my dream job and it wasn’t even something I was really interested in doing with my degree but it was a job. It was a clear and decisive way out. I sat on it for a few days, then for a week. After graduation, I furiously spent my days job searching, looking for anything that was remotely close to this cow-town; anything that paid enough to cover my imminent student loan payments.
Then one day, I have the audacity to leave the house wearing tattered jeans and a hoodie from a friend two sizes too big. Mom just about lost it. She burst forth from her room, wearing only her bathrobe, screaming at me about looking presentable for once in my goddamn life. She told me I’d never find a man at this rate, that I’d die alone and childless, that she was ashamed of me, that she wished I had never been born. It was the last day I’d ever see her again.
I closed my eyes tight. It was a stupid thing to get into a fight about. I knew she didn’t mean it, about me not being born. I could see it in her eyes the second after those words left her mouth. But I was selfish. I wanted to leave, I wanted my own life free of guilt. I wanted an excuse. Mom gave me a perfect one that day.
When I opened my eyes, the teal wall was staring back at me. I traced the image of the butterflies, of the caped rabbit, of the owl and the tiger, of the mom and child kitties wearing clothes, preparing for their day. I felt like I was six years old again, sitting cross-legged on the plastic sheeting. I watched from below as my mother so carefully painted each figure, each pretty portrait frame surrounding them.
If I looked up, I could see my mother looking down at me, a smile on her face, her left cheek splotched with teal. Across from me, the wall began to blur, warm tears welling in my eyes.

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