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THE FIRST HEARTBREAK

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By Catherine Uroff

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The Montréal Review, November 2011

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My mother had her favorites: dark chocolate, lightly salted cashews, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Diamond, silver jewelry, Shalimar perfume, black coffee, red wine, the Chicago Cubs. It was easy to buy presents for her because she was so firm and fixed about what she liked. She also favored my older sister, Elise, over anyone else. "We're so compatible," Mom explained to me once. "It's like we were made for each other."

Elise was the one she bragged about to friends and family. Elise was the one she took to the ballet and theatre in Chicago . Elise was the one who got to sit in the front seat of the car during any trip. She served Elise first at dinner. She let Elise pick the TV shows we watched on Saturday nights. One time, when a visiting great-aunt remarked on how well-behaved I was, Mom said, "If you think she's great, wait until you meet Elise."

It wasn't that Mom was intentionally unkind to me. She was just distracted. All of her focus and energy was spent on Elise. If my father had been with us and seen the imbalance in our family, maybe he would've tried to correct it. Or I could've hung around him, taken an interest in his hobbies, joined him at baseball games, caddied for him during a long day of golf, stayed up late with him to watch disaster movies on TV-whatever middle-aged fathers did with their young daughters.

But my father wasn't a part of our lives. Elise didn't know him any better than I did. He'd moved out of our small town in central Illinois when we were young and returned only at odd times: my recorder solo in the 5th grade assembly, Elise's quarterfinal spelling bee, the night before I left for summer camp. He missed all of our major moments-birthdays, holidays, graduations.

I spent a lot of time by myself in the bedroom I shared with Elise. I studied a lot, although I never got good enough grades to attract any attention. I twisted my hair into tiny braids. I looked in the full-length mirror that hung on the closet door and practiced different smiles, poses. I wanted to be pretty, like my mother and Elise, and I constantly fretted over my wide mouth, small eyes, low hairline.

 

By the time Mom got sick, all that had changed. Elise had gone off to California for college and then moved to New York City after graduation. She rarely came home. I'd stayed in Monticello, having married the first man who'd ever asked me out, Jeff Granger. Jeff was a tool-die operator at Deeder's Machinery in Decatur. He was a cheerful and responsible man. He told my mother, upon first meeting her, that he wanted to be first foreman at Deeder's some day. I waited for Mom to laugh at his trifling ambition but, instead, she told him that it was important to have the highest aspirations possible. "Not everybody can be President of the United States," she told him, "But everyone should have goals."

I was with Mom when she went to the doctor's for a checkup. She'd been feeling poorly, a little rundown. She said it was a summer cold that she just couldn't shake but some days I'd call her at eight o'clock in the morning for our usual start-of-the-day phone call and she'd answer the phone, sleepy, confused, not knowing who I was referring to when I started speaking about Jeff or our daughter, Rose. I was the one who made the appointment for her. I didn't think of alerting Elise. I assumed that all Mom needed was some antibiotics, a simple prescription to fix things.

At Dr. Goldblatt's, I stayed in the waiting room, flipping through old People magazines. Rose was at my feet in her car seat, sleeping in that silly way she had, head slumped to one side, occasionally sucking on the knuckles of the two fingers she had suction-cupped to her mouth. I was thinking about what I was going to do in the afternoon. I wanted to spread a blanket out on the front lawn for Rose and then plant some of the bulbs that Jeff and I had bought over the weekend. I imagined the next spring, seeing the bright, shock of daffodils that would come up out of the dirt. When I heard the exit door from the office open and my mother's voice calling my name, I looked up, smiling, wanting to tell her about my plans with the flowers. Then, when I saw her face, I stood up. Rose yelped in her sleep.

"What is it?"

"There's something wrong."

My mother didn't look like herself. She seemed shorter, smaller. Her shoulders were slumped and rounded. Rose woke up and started to cry. Normally, my mother would've rushed to her, comforted her immediately.

"He felt something," my mother continued and I had a hard time hearing her over Rose's cries.

"For God's sakes, pick her up," Mom said.

It took me a few days to call Elise and tell her the news. I wanted to get all the facts straight, wait until the tests had been done and analyzed so that I wouldn't scare her unnecessarily. I reached her at her office. A secretary put me on hold for five minutes before Elise got on the phone. When I told her the news, she asked me to repeat myself.

"I'm sorry?" Elise asked calmly and politely when I told her about our mother's cancer.

 

Mom and Elise had never recovered from a falling out they had when Elise was in high school and fell in love with a boy that my mother didn't approve of. Will Darwin had already graduated from high school but hadn't gone on college. He worked at the local Sherwin Williams store, mixing paint for customers, stocking the shelves with different sized brushes. He was good looking in a smooth, baby-faced way. There were vague rumors around town that he'd gotten some girl pregnant a few years back, and the baby had been given away for adoption. Will had never accepted responsibility for it, claiming that the baby could've been anyone's. My mother deplored such crassness. "I think you can do much better," she told Elise after meeting Will for the first time. She lectured Elise on the importance of picking the right partner. "Look what happened to me," she'd say. But to my mother's surprise and dismay, Elise stood up for Will. She told my mother that Will made her happy and that was all that mattered.

There were interludes between their fights, days when they'd try to pretend that nothing was wrong. Instead of hanging out with Will, Elise would come home for dinner and we'd eat together like we'd always done. She'd talk about the recent A she'd received on an English paper, and Mom would explain what it'd been like when she was in high school, how she'd been the brightest girl in her class, how when they'd picked her to be valedictorian, her parents had burst into tears, and I'd listen to their stories and watch their flushed faces, their polite smiles, all the while sensing that something was rotting underneath all their civilized talk.

Their last big fight happened the night before Elise's eighteenth birthday. It was June; Elise had just graduated from high school. She'd made it clear that she wanted to spend her birthday with Will so Mom had reluctantly agreed to celebrate it the night before. Mom took a lot of time preparing the celebration, frosting a three-layer cake and sprinkling raspberries (Elise's favorite fruit) on top, seasoning rib-eyed steaks for the grill. She asked me to tie a bunch of balloons to our mailbox by the curb so it'd be the first thing Elise would see when she came home.

But Elise never showed up. I had already set the table with our best china and flatware and I just sat in the dining room, watching the ice cubes disappear into the water glasses, folding our napkins into swans and then shaking them out again, listening to my mother sigh in the kitchen.

Hours later, Elise tripped over herself as she got out of Will's car. She laughed and then slammed the car door shut. I was upstairs, looking out the bedroom window as she wobbled up the cobblestone path that led to our front door. Right before she went inside, she paused and the moonlight hit her just right-highlighting her long neck, the delicate slope of her bare shoulders. She looked, at that moment, stunningly beautiful, and I felt very sorry for her. I wanted to call out the window, "Stop! Stop! Don't go in! Just stay right where you are!" But, instead, I watched her take another step and then she disappeared from sight and I heard the fight begin.

"Where were you? How could you do this to me? You are so inconsiderate. You have no feelings for anyone but yourself. Selfish, selfish girl! Haven't I brought you up to be better than this? How could you have turned out this way?"

"Why don't you just leave me alone and stop trying to control my life?"

"Don't you dare talk to me that way. Look, I want you to stop seeing him. There. I've said it. You must stop seeing this Will. He's no good, and he'll bring you down with him."

"Are you asking me to pick you over him? I wouldn't do that, if I were you."

"I won't allow it. Not in my house, not anymore. I should've put my foot down from the very beginning."

"Then I'll just leave."

"What?"

"I can't stay here with you. Don't you understand?"

"Don't say that. Don't even think it. This is breaking my heart. Don't you care?"

"I can't stay."

"How could you even think of leaving? It'd kill me. If you left, I'd kill myself. I would, Elise."

Something shattered - a plate or glass. Then I heard someone running upstairs, heavy footsteps on the carpeted hallway, and Elise burst into our room. She went straight to her dresser and started piling clothes on top of her bed. When she was done cramming her things into a small backpack she'd found on the top shelf in the closet, she turned to me. She seemed calmer, almost happy. She stretched her arms over her head, getting on her tip-toes, and I saw the muscles in her long calves bulge and tighten.

"It must be nice being you, watching all of this. You must be loving this," she said, yanking the backpack off her bed, "Does this make you happy? Getting rid of me? Having Mom all to yourself? That's probably your idea of heaven, isn't it? Well, let me tell you something, a little warning: be careful what you wish for."

She left before I could answer her but even if she'd stayed, I wouldn't have known what to say. I stayed in my room, again watching out the window as Elise walked outside. Mom trailed after her, calling her name, trying to grab her arm to make her stay. The neighbor's front porch lights flipped on as my sister ran away from our mother, towards Will's car, which had suddenly appeared, idling at the end of the driveway. She ducked into his car and he quickly backed out into the street. The windows of his sports car were tinted so it was impossible to see inside, but there was no way she could've missed our mother running after them, stumbling in her flip-flops as she tried to keep up.

Elise spent the rest of the summer with Will, sleeping on the couch in his basement. Sometimes I'd go with Mom as she drove by Will's house, hoping for a glimpse of her. He lived in a neighborhood that had recently been struck by a tornado and the damage hadn't been fully repaired yet. Small houses had large blue tarps covering their roofs. Fences were down. Work trucks were parked in all the driveways. Mom shuddered when she drove down his street.

I'd wake up in the middle of the night to hear my mother walking around downstairs, the tea kettle whistling, the slosh of water slogging through the washer as she did laundry, the sharp creak of the ironing board being unfolded. I'd also catch her crying at odd times-right after dinner as she was spooning leftovers into Tupperware containers, at the breakfast table, in the middle of watching a funny sitcom.

Then Elise went off to college, leaving all of us behind. I never heard how she broke it off with Will. The last time I checked, he was still working at the paint store.

 

They started Mom on chemotherapy right away, and then she developed a nasty case of shingles that kept her in a lot of pain. I ran back and forth from her house to the drugstore to the doctor's, looking for a remedy but none of the expensive creams or pain medications seemed to work. After a few months of chemotherapy, they took another CT-Scan and I could tell the news wasn't good from the second we stepped into the doctor's office. Even the receptionist, usually so busy and remote, took the time to ask my mother how she was feeling. The nurse ushered us into the doctor's office - not one of those examining rooms, but a real office with built-in bookcases, a large oak desk in the corner, and a great view from the windows - and we didn't have to wait long for the doctor to come in. That wasn't a good sign either.

After the doctor told us he'd done all he could do, I contacted hospice about bringing a hospital bed into the house. Jeff arranged it so Rose went to his mother's house every morning before his shift at Deeder's and he picked her up at the end of his day. I hardly saw my baby girl. I'd come to my mother's house every morning, bring her breakfast on a tray, keep track of all her medications, clean up the house a bit before lunchtime, field all the phone calls and unannounced visits from concerned neighbors, and stay until my mother fell asleep. I thought it was a good routine but then Mom asked for Elise.

"It's time she came home."

"Are you sure?"

I was fidgeting with the controls on my mother's hospital bed, trying to get her comfortable.

"Of course. I want to see her," Mom said. By this time, the cancer had wrapped around her vocal chords and her voice was not much more than a croak.

"But I'm worried. We don't need the drama - "

"Please, doll, call her for me. She won't be able to hear me if I use the phone."

When Elise returned, I was standing in front of the microwave in Mom's kitchen, heating up a plate for myself of some hamburger casserole that one of the neighbors had dropped off. She pushed the door open and then stood in the doorway, waiting for what - I didn't know - applause, a cheer? She looked thinner than normal and wore a tailored black suit with stiletto heels. She had a tangle of gold bangle bracelets on one wrist. Her leather suitcase dropped on the linoleum floor, the microwave beeped, and I took my plate out.

"I'm here," she said.

"I see that."

"Where is she?"

I pointed down the hall. "Asleep."

"It's dinner time. We should wake her."

I shook my head. "She hardly eats anymore. Fruit cocktail, sometimes, only when she asks for it."

Elise started to cry. "This is horrible, horrible. How could this have happened?"

I took my food over to the kitchen table and sat down. I didn't ask if she wanted anything. The casserole pan was still out on the kitchen counter, with a serving spoon stuck in it, but I didn't think that this meal, made of browned beef and cheddar cheese and canned tomatoes, would appeal to her. On the rare occasions when she called home, I understood that her life in New York was filled with business meetings, five star restaurants.

"I don't know, Elise. No one has an explanation for it. Certainly, no one in the family ever had this kind of cancer so it's not genetic. And she's never smoked or drank a lot," I said.

"I think I'm in shock. This just seems surreal to me. This is Mom we're talking about. She shouldn't be sick."

"She's not sick," I said flatly. "She was sick a few months ago. Now she's dying."

My sister turned her head and breathed out through her nose. I waited for her to say something sharp but she didn't. She just got up from the table and went directly upstairs to Mom's room. I trailed her. She tapped once on my mother's door and then walked right in and I remembered what it'd been like when she lived with us and she was constantly in Mom's room, borrowing her clothes, using her lipstick, swapping earrings with her. Sometimes, Elise would crawl into Mom's bed in the middle of the night and they'd sleep in if it was a Saturday or Sunday. I'd spy on them, resting in bed together.

"It's me," she said and my mother lifted her arms up for a hug. They folded into each other, burrowing their faces into each other's shoulders, crying a little. When they finally separated, Elise fussed with Mom's bed covers, fluffed her pillows.

"I brought something for you that's going to fix everything."

Elise began rummaging in her large purse.

"Let's not make any big promises," I said.

"Just you wait," Elise said, and she sat down on Mom's bed to dump most of the contents of her purse out on her lap.

"What is it? What could it be?" Mom asked, sounding - for one moment - like she used to at Christmas time when we were little girls and had glued together popsicle sticks to make a picture frame and wrapped it in thin tissue paper we'd found leftover in a shopping bag.

Elise finally found what she was looking for - a small bottle of body lotion. She squirted the creamy lotion into the palm of her hand and then rubbed it onto my mother's arms. The room lit up with the smell of lavender.

"This? This is it? The magic fix?" I asked.

"I remembered how much you loved lavender," Elise explained.

"Yes, I do. I always have," Mom said.

 

The day before the hospice nurse catheterized her, Elise kept Mom up all day talking about her life in New York. Apparently, she had an amazing boyfriend, some Managing Director at the bank. His name was Gregory and he was 10 years older than she was. Gregory had been to Europe many times and vowed to take her with him the next time he went.

"He went to school in London. Can you believe that? He's traveled all over, Mom. I can't even tell you how worldly he is. We go to these restaurants together and he knows everyone in the room and everyone speaks to him in all different languages - French primarily - and it's all so - "

Mom beamed. "What a life!"

"Now, don't get me wrong. I work hard. Yes, I might make a lot of money but I work hard for it. 60 hour work weeks are pretty normal for me. But it'll get me places. All this hard work will pay off in the end. That's what Gregory says too. He says he can tell who will succeed and who won't in this business and I'm definitely one of those who will succeed. What do you think about that?"

Mom's eyes fluttered. She grimaced a little and I figured that she had to use the bathroom.

"Let's get you up," I said, moving around Elise to get to her bedside. I had placed the portable toilet only a few feet away but sometimes Mom needed to be lifted out of bed to get on it.

She tried to sit up. "I might need a little help," she whispered.

"I can do it," Elise said and then looked at me, waiting for me to say something. I kept my mouth shut. Let her see how bad all of this has been, I thought, and then watched Elise kneel on the bed and hook her arms underneath Mom's armpits. She tried to lift her that way but Mom was dead weight and they ended up flopped together, sideways on the bed.

"OK," Elise said, "let's try this again."

This time, I helped but when Mom had to balance herself on the toilet, she clutched onto Elise, not me.

As soon as Mom was back in bed, I left the room and went into the kitchen. I stared out the window above the sink, looking at a thicket of bushes that hadn't been trimmed all summer because of Mom's illness. Usually, we spent hours gardening together.

I thought about what it was like after Elise left home, how I'd wait by the front door until Mom came home from work, offer to hang up her coat, fix her favorite meal, listen to her grouse about the latest staff meeting at work.

Back in Mom's bedroom, Elise had curled up next to Mom in the narrow hospital bed.

"Did I tell you? Gregory's got a house in the Adirondacks . We go there most every weekend. It's a great way to just get away from the city," she was saying.

"I've always loved the Adirondacks. I went there once when I was a girl."

"It's breathtaking, isn't it?"

"Oh, Elise, what a great life you have. This is just what I envisioned for you - "

When they saw me, they stopped talking. My mother and sister just stared at me and-for a second-it was as if I was twelve years old, intruding again.

"Join us," Mom said, patting the bed, even though it was clear there was no room.

"This is crazy," I said.

"What?"

"How could you?" I said, not knowing if I was addressing my mother or my sister.

I twirled around and stomped out of the room, slamming the door shut on my way out.

 

A few days into Elise's visit, Mom died. Elise was sleeping on the floor next to Mom's bed and I was in the next room over when Mom's breathing changed into little sips of breath broken up by long seconds of rest. Elise quickly called out for me and we stood by the bed and held our mother's swollen, blue-tipped fingers.

"It's OK," we said in unison, like we were singing some song, "You can go now. We love you."

We huddled in the kitchen when the coroner came. After the house was empty again, I made a list of everyone we should call: family, friends, coworkers, the church, the funeral home. Then I called Jeff. I could hear Rose crying in the background, probably wakened by the ringing phone. After I hung up, I handed the phone to Elise.

"You'll want to call Gregory now," I said.

She took the phone from me but then put it down. "No, it's so early. I don't want to wake him."

"Really, Elise, your mother just died. I think he'd understand."

"Just drop it, will you?"

Jeff called again and said that since Rose was already up, he was putting her in the car and coming over to get me.

"You've been holed up in that house for too long. You need to come home. Your sister can come too."

Elise looked at me. She had just lit a cigarette and the smoke floated in the air around us. I had never seen her smoke before. She took a deep drag, and the burning tip of her cigarette crackled.

I hung up the phone. "Jeff is coming to get me."

"Oh."

"You can come too. We don't have a guest bedroom but you could lie down for a bit on our couch."

"That's OK. I'll be fine here," she said.

"Maybe you can try calling Gregory. He's going to need to make arrangements to fly out here for the service as soon as possible."

"Would you please stop? Just go. Go back home and leave me here."

I knew Mom would've wanted me to insist that she join me. The house had a horrible stillness to it. What would Elise do once I was gone? Pace the hall, go into each room, hover outside the room our mother had just died in? I should've thanked her for waking up at the exact moment of Mom's death-five minutes later and we would've missed it-and for calling out for me to join her. If I'd been the one by Mom's side, knowing it was the end, would I have done the same thing? Would I have shared that moment with my sister? I didn't know. I got up from the kitchen table.

"Although after the way you acted, I can see why you'd want to bolt," Elise continued.

"What?"

"That little temper tantrum you pulled."

I saw myself shouting at my mother and sister, slamming the door. Unforgivable behavior, considering the circumstances. If my mother had been alive and well, she would've chastised me for it. "Doll," she would've reminded me, "there's a time and place for everything."

I started to cry. "I'm sorry but you have no idea what this has been like. You just waltz in her and everything is forgiven."

"I'm still her daughter, whether you like it or not."

"But you had no right to come back here and just slide into the family like nothing ever happened. After all that you did to Mom."

"Glad to see that your jealousy has lasted right to the bitter end."

I wanted to slap her hard across the face. I'd never hit someone in my life but the urge was so strong that my fingers trembled.

"I hate you," I said through clenched teeth.

Elise stubbed out her cigarette on a dirty plate. "Why? You got everything you wanted, didn't you?"

I ran away from her, through the kitchen, down the front hall. She was calling for me but I didn't stop. Outside, it was just starting to get light and everything in the front yard looked supernaturally lush, the grass and leaves having turned a brighter green than I'd ever seen before. Jeff pulled into the driveway just then, and I quickly hopped inside the car.

"Let's get out of here. Drive as fast as you can," I said.

"What's going on?"

"Please," I said. He put his hand on my leg and I pushed it off. I didn't want him to touch me ever again. Then I heard Rose call for me.

"Mamma," she said, "Mamma, Mamma, Mamma!"

I turned around to see my daughter in the back seat. She was strapped into the car seat, a full bottle in her chubby hands. I looked at her round eyes and pretty snub nose and gummy grin and just the sight of her overwhelmed me. I lurched towards her, clumsy in my frenzy to reach her, and Rose shrieked, startled by the intensity of my love.

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Catherine Uroff's short fiction has appeared in Slow Trains, The Echo Ink Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Georgetown Review, The Foundling Review, The Main Street Rag, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Worcester Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Carve Magazine, and Primavera. One of her short stories was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award.

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Illustration: "The First Heartbreak" by Svetoslav Tatchev, 2011

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