No Man’s Land

Summer, 2022 / No. 49
Matthew Daley

The last time I saw my mother was at Union Station. I was on my way to Montreal to visit my brother and his family after taking the Amtrak from Chicago, where I attend university. I had a couple of hours to kill, so I called ahead and suggested she meet me for lunch.

I saw her before she saw me, gliding through the midday mill of travellers like the prow of a gilded galleon. At first, in the cavernous hall, she appeared smaller than I remembered her, but the illusion waned as she got closer to where I was waiting, beside the information kiosk. Fifty years old and almost six feet tall, with thick blond hair that was still magnificent, my mother could not be dwarfed by anything as prosaic as a train station.

Without a word, she shoved a large pot of yellow mums into my arms and enfolded me in a suffocating embrace. There were tears in her eyes as she pushed herself away and, gripping me by the shoulders, she fixed me with a deep, appraising look. She wiped her face with the back of one hand and grabbed my duffel bag with the other. 

“There’s a Greek place down the street. It’s not very good, but it’s close. We can talk. I can tell you about Andy before he gets there. He’s trying to slip away from the office. He’s dying to meet you. You’re going to love him.”

The Greek place was dark and filled with bankers, the kind who still drink Manhattans and eat roast chicken and garlic-laced potatoes for lunch. My mother ordered two Martinis, straight up. 

“This is a special occasion,” she whispered, as she lit a long, thin brown cigarette. She leaned close to me. “You are going to love Andy. I am so happy. I have never been happier.”

She had her back to the entrance, and every couple of seconds she glanced over her shoulder and then at her watch. 

“I wish he’d hurry up.” And then, “I can’t understand what’s keeping him.” 

When the waiter came to take our order, she waved him away with a flick of her wrist. 

“No, no, no. Just another Martini. You’ll have one too, won’t you, dear?” She looked at the door again and muttered under her breath to no one in particular, “Where is he anyway?”

After she had drained her second drink and smoked another cigarette, she stopped looking back at the doorway. 

“That bastard,” she fumed. “I am really pissed off.” 

She threw twenty dollars on the table. 

“C’mon. I hate Greek food and it’s too dark in here anyway. Let’s go.”

I grabbed my bag and the pot of flowers and followed her for about two blocks until we came to a sidewalk café. 

“There. This is perfect. We’ll sit outside. It’s really lovely in the sun.” 

It was a brisk, albeit bright, April day, but my mother and I were the only people willing to wrestle with the paper placemats in the breeze. Everyone else sat indoors. A waiter brought us a carafe of red wine, two glasses, an ashtray, and two long, laminated menus.

“Don’t ever get mixed up with someone in the insurance business. They never keep their appointments.” 

She lit another cigarette, pulled up the collar of her leather coat, and slumped in her chair.

“Whatever happened to Graham?” I finally asked.

My mother’s eyes gleamed. 

“That sonuvabitch. He went back to his wife. Don’t ever get mixed up with a married man. Oh, the sex is terrific, but the emotional strain is hell. And after a while you want to do something besides ball all the time. You want to do something normal, like go for a walk maybe, or have dinner in a restaurant. I got sick of eating Chinese takeout in two-bit hotel rooms.”

The sun had disappeared, and the wind was getting really cold. A waiter came out. 

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we are not serving food on the patio this afternoon. Would you like to move indoors for lunch?”

“We don’t mind a little breeze,” my mother insisted. “I’ll have the Swiss cheese and smoked salmon omelet.”

“I’m sorry, but the patio is closed,” the waiter reiterated. 

Large, intermittent drops of rain plunked onto the white plastic table.

“In that case, we’re leaving,” my mother announced.

We stopped in the shelter of a store awning so my mother could reapply her lipstick and light another cigarette. It was raining harder, so we stood there waiting until it let up enough for us to dash across the street to a pub my mother had spotted. There, we sank into a darkly upholstered booth and the waitress brought us a very large pitcher of draft beer. My mother lit another cigarette. The rain had made dark grey smudges under her eyes.

“The thing is,” she began, “the thing is, this single parenting business is for the birds. Kids need a male role model. But did your father ever show any interest in you and your brother? No. There he was, living in the same city, married again with two more kids. But did he ever call or visit or show even the slightest bit of interest? No.” 

My mother poured herself another glass of beer and started to giggle. 

“What do you call all that loose skin around a penis?”

I shook my head.

“A man.” 

She threw her head back, blond hair flying, and laughed out loud. Then she lit another cigarette.

The next place we went to had huge brass birdcages suspended from the ceilings. Lush artificial ivy snaked its way up fake Corinthian columns, and the sound of invisible canaries filled the air. 

“I just wish you could’ve met Andy. He’s never done this before. He’s usually completely dependable; treats me like a queen. He’s pissing me off today, but this is definitely the best relationship I’ve ever had. It’s so important to find a man you can talk to. We just never stop talking.”

“How did you meet?” I asked.

My mother stuck her formidable index finger into her glass and paddled the ice cubes round and round. She looked up at me shyly, with misty eyes. 

“We only met last night.” 

She closed her eyes and smiled a secret smile. 

“But, oh, what a night. He saw me from behind at Caps, that sports bar on Jarvis, and he knew before he even saw my face that I was his woman. We have so much in common. He’s asked me to go camping in Algonquin this weekend. Isn’t that a cool first date? I just love nature.” 

She took a long drag on her cigarette, blew the smoke out through her nostrils, and then applied herself to studying the menu.

“Well, kiddo, what about some lunch? All these memories are making me hungry.”

“I have to catch my train soon. I don’t think there’s time.”

My mother squinted at her watch. “Oh, my God. Where did the time go? And I haven’t even told you about my new job. There’s just so much to catch up on. I’ll have one more cigarette and then we’d better get you on that train.” 

She signaled the waiter. 

“Sweetheart, bring me just one more teeny-weeny Martini.” Then she sat back and gave me a conspiratorial wink.

My mother was silent on the walk back to the train station. Inside, she draped her arm over my shoulders and leaned heavily against me. Once again, her eyes filled up with tears. 

“It’s been so good to see you, baby. Maybe next time you’ll meet Andy. Don’t forget to write.”

At the gateway to the platform, I kissed her cheek and extricated myself from her long arms. I handed her the pot of mums and she accepted it without comment. She reached her fingers out to touch my cheek, but she missed. 

“Sorry about lunch,” was all she said. 

The last time I saw her she was weaving away like a galleon on uncertain seas. I haven’t seen her since.