The conversation during the car ride from Pearson International Airport to the suburb of Brampton bore a strong resemblance to a light switch. Off and on. Off and on. At one moment, it was going at full strength, Simon, Hope and Odete all speaking at once, catching up like people who’ve been apart for a year usually do. At other moments, there was no life at all. Each of them silently trapped in their own obsessions and worries: Simon stressed about Hope’s presence and Jacq’s lack of it; Odete excited about having her eldest daughter and her mother (at least in spirit) together with her again; and Hope filled with dread. Hope always felt dread when she returned to the place where she’d grown up.
When she’d been a child, Brampton had had a population of roughly 75,000 inhabitants. Over the past two decades, by the time of the millennium, this number had multiplied four-fold, but the city had still been left with its trademark as a bedroom community and supplier of workers for the much larger and much more vibrant metropolis of Toronto.
Hope had hated growing up in the suburbs – the mundane existence and isolation which when she’d been a teenager, had fuelled and simultaneously stifled her curiosity about what life was really like. As soon as she’d been old enough, she’d left for her own apartment ‘downtown’ and then five years ago had relocated to Vancouver, where she’d eventually met her husband. She always believed the hypocrisy of suburban life to be unbelievable. The true dangers lay not in larger urban centres, as her mother had taught her, but rather in the cheating and lying that was really underneath all that suburban domestic bliss. Generations had finally found the white picket fences that they’d been dreaming of, only to discover that these lovely fences didn’t contain the gateway to happiness but rather emptiness.
For the tenth time, Odete leaned forward from the back seat and kissed her daughter on the cheek. “Look sweetheart, we’re almost home.”
And indeed, rising in the not too far distance, and quickly getting closer, was the house that Hope and Jacq had grown up in. Hope hated how her mother still insisted on referring to this place as “home”. It had long ago ceased being that for her, but despite the number of times she’d explained to her mother that “home” was now with her husband, the description had never changed.
Hope stepped from the car, and as she did so, she realised that perhaps there was more of an emotional attachment than she’d been willing to admit. Everything was exactly as she’d remembered. Exactly as she’d wanted it to be. The same silver birch with its long, slender branches that whipped around in the wind; the narrow front porch and the wicker furniture with overstuffed cushions; and of course, the lamp post that on snowy winter evenings had enabled her and Jacq to imagine they were in Narnia. Their Narnia, their fantasy land where they had both a mother and a father – who had loved them and had never left them.
But when Hope reached the inside, she wasn’t prepared for what she saw; it seemed nothing like the place she’d known as a child, nor even like the one she’d seen only a year ago.
The wall between the living room and kitchen had been knocked down creating a wide open space. The old fuzzy brown sofa had been replaced by her grandmother’s Louis XIV style love seat and chairs, and on the walls, which had been predominantly bare, were various sized photos of Portugal. The framed images had been strategically positioned to form an interlocking pattern so that almost every inch of wall space was covered. Hope recognized the photos from the albums that she and Jacq used to spend hours looking through as children. The very albums that their mother used to angrily snatch away from them. This is your past. Canada is your life. Thinking of the past is a waste of time.
The part allocated to the kitchen hadn’t been saved from change either. The old neglected, yellow fridge and stove had been removed to make way for mahogany and marble cabinets and counters, and sleek, black and modern appliances. Copper pots were neatly hanging in a row along one of the walls, ready for action, right above a strip of cooking utensils. This was a kitchen that had been designed to be used – a complete puzzle to Hope as her mother not only hadn’t liked cooking but had been completely terrible at it – her pasta had always been crunchy, and her boiled eggs, burned.
“Simon, get the flans out of the fridge.” Unable to contain her excitement and unable to wait any longer, Odete rushed over to the cupboard for the special dishes that had once been her mom’s. Hand painted, they had been made in Sintra, and each plate featured a different exotic bird with multi-coloured plumes set against a background of bright red and pink flowers. As a child, Odete had always thought that they were too pretty to eat on but somehow now, and especially today, it seemed only appropriate.
“Mom, I’m not hungry right now. They fed us on the plane.”
“That was hours ago. Sit down. You can have just a little. I’m sure once you start eating, you’ll realize how hungry you really are.”
Hope knew not to argue with her mother. She’d never win. She took a seat at the table just as Simon was setting down four creamy custards. She stared at her brother-in-law. “Who made these?”
Despite his worries, he laughed. “Your mom. Didn’t Jacq tell you? She cooks now. I mean really cooks.”
“What?” It all seemed too much to Hope. What was this place and who was this woman? This woman who was affectionate? This woman who could cook?
“It was after your grandmother died. I don’t exactly know what happened, but for months she was sad and then suddenly…”
“Stop.” Hope glared at him, and then her look softened. “Please stop. I don’t need to know.” She suddenly realised that for the first time, she was seeing around her the sort of home and the sort of nurturing mother that she’d wanted to grow up with. Talking about it, asking questions, wasn’t going to help but it might jinx everything and cause it all to change back.
“What are you going on about?” Odete sat down and within moments, each was faced with their own wobbly creation.
“Nothing important.” As she spoke, Hope gave Simon another look, and then took a bite of the dessert. “Mom, this is incredible… this is just incredible.” A huge grin appeared on Hope’s face.
Simon softly nodded his head in agreement.
“Sweetheart, I’m so glad you like it.” Odete was already on her third mouthful. This time, she let the creamy sweetness roll around on her tongue before swallowing. But still there was nothing. Nothing. Where was her mother? Why was her spirit not here like before when her recipes had been made? And Pudim Flan had been one of her favorite desserts.
Just then Winston sauntered into the kitchen. The fat, black cat had lived with Odete ever since the girls had found him on their way home from school. It had been almost fifteen years ago, and he still seemed like a kitten, although his legs were far too short now for his rather rotund body. His purr reminded Simon of the hum from the refrigerator, and at this moment, it was rather loud as he rubbed himself against Hope’s legs. While eating with one hand, she reached down with the other so that she could rub his back.
As during the car ride, the light switch was again in the off position; other than Winston and the periodic licking and smacking of lips, the kitchen was without sound. Simon, Hope and Odete were once more lost in their own thoughts and worries. For Odete, this meant sliding another, and another, and another piece of flan into her mouth. But still there was nothing.
This had never happened before. Even during her “learning to cook” phase, when she’d thought she’d gotten more wrong than right, Mama’s soul had always made an appearance. Sometimes her energy had been stronger than at other times, but she’d always come. What could be so wrong now that she’d completely stay away?
Winston jumped onto Odete’s lap but she quickly shoved him off. Hope’s eyes momentarily met with her mother’s. It wasn’t a reproach, nor a glance from an accomplice, but rather an exchange of strangers. Two people who barely knew each other, sizing the other up, wondering how much of the truth the other wanted and deserved to know.
Odete suddenly felt incredibly alone. That same void, that unbearable emptiness that had taken over when her mother had died was quickly seeping back. It was as if she’d been locked in a room with descending darkness and could find neither a light nor the door out.
Odete’s mother had been the last living person to know the truth of her life and not judge her for it. Her mother had given Odete the only unconditional love she had ever known. The only unconditional love she believed she would ever know. And now she feared, as when her mother had died, that this love was lost to her forever.
But Odete, alone in that increasingly black room, knew that only she could find the exit. She took a deep breath, the last bite on her plate and closed her eyes. The texture was smooth but springy and melted easily on her tongue. And the flavour at first was rich and sweet, enhanced by a hint of vanilla. It was good, but it was wrong. There was something missing. She needed to find the recipe.
Winston suddenly sprang onto Simon’s welcoming lap. The shocked look on the face of the beneficiary brought smiles to the women in the room. But for Simon, despite his expression, it was a relief. He was glad for the excuse to put his fork down. He’d taken one, maybe two bites of the flan, and then because of his nerves, had cut the rest up and moved it around to try and make it look like more had been consumed. He loved the old cat. He loved animals in general, but when his beloved collie had died he’d been too devastated to ever have another.
Odete had been only momentarily distracted, and now, without a sound, she stood up from the table and left the kitchen. Hope watched her mother leave and then stared at Simon. She didn’t know what was normal anymore, and needed a sign. Rubbing the cat, he didn’t seem the least bit surprised by Odete’s wordless departure.
Winston’s fur tickled Simon’s hands and he unexpectedly found the sensation calming. He was also unexpectedly surprised by his good fortune. Ever since he’d known that Hope was coming, he’d been eager to have a word alone with her, but he’d never thought that that would happen on the first day of her trip, even knowing Odete’s strange and erratic behaviour. And so, uncertain as to when the opportunity would arise again, as well as how much time he had alone with his sister-in-law, he jumped right in.
“Hope, did you tell Jacq?”
“What? What are you talking about? Where did my mother go?”
“I don’t know. But I’m sure she’s fine. I tried to explain before. I thought you didn’t want to know?”
“I want to know that she’s okay.”
“She’s fine. She just gets lost in herself sometimes. But listen, did you tell Jacq?”
“Tell Jacq what?”
“You know.” Simon looked into her eyes.
She paused. “You mean?”
Simon nodded his head.
“No, of course I didn’t.”
“Hope, are you sure?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, of course I’m sure.”
“It was a mistake. A mistake of youth…”
Hope glared at him. “Yes, it was definitely a mistake. But why are you even asking me this? And now? It was years ago. If I was going to tell her, I would’ve told her then.”
Simon shifted in his seat and pushed Winston onto the floor - the weight on his lap had suddenly felt incredibly heavy. “You don’t know?”
The cat let out a loud meow and sauntered out of the room.
“Know what? Simon, what’s going on?”
“I thought you spoke to your sister?”
“I do. It used to be once a week, but now, it’s more like once a month.”
“She didn’t tell you anything was wrong?”
“Simon, no, it seems that there’s a lot of things she didn’t tell me… what are you talking about?”
He rose from his seat and started pacing around the kitchen. “Hope, your sister hasn’t been around much lately.”
“What do you mean, not been around?”
“Exactly that. She’s not around. In the car, your mom said that Jacq has the flu. She doesn’t.”
“She’s at home?”
Simon shook his head. “I don’t know. She could be, but somehow I don’t think so. I don’t know where she is. Most of the time I don’t know where she is. She gets up in the morning to go to work and then doesn’t come home until really late – usually after I’ve gone to bed.”
“Is she working?” Hope asked.
“She says she is, but I’ve tried to reach her many times and there’s never any answer. When I ask her about it, she just says she was away from her desk.”
“How long has this been going on for?”
Simon cast his gaze downwards. “A few years.”
“A few years, and you’re only asking me now?”
“I know. I don’t know. It just wasn’t as bad at the start. I guess I got used to it. I got used to her being away in the evenings. We still spent the weekends together. But now, in the last few weeks, she’s been really angry, and not around at all. Almost every day of the week she’s gone.” Simon stopped his pacing and just stared at Hope. His eyes pleading with her to tell him something, to give him some sort of clue.
Hope felt at a complete loss, struck by how so much change could so easily be kept secret with just a little distance. She took some time, and when finally she did speak, her voice was low and soft. “I’m sorry, she never said anything to me.”
He resumed his nervous walk around the kitchen, his arms gesturing far more quickly than his legs were moving. “We haven’t made love for almost 3 years now… it’s so weird… I’d gotten used to that too… one day turns into another and then another, and then finally it hits you, how different your life has become… now, it’s all just cold. There’s no intimacy between us at all now, of any kind… Hope, I’m so lonely… and my mind won’t stop. It’s constantly occupied, trying to figure out what’s going on, what caused this, what happened. Jacq won’t tell me anything. She won’t even acknowledge there’s a problem… how does a marriage just go from a dream to a nightmare? What did I do?”
Hope walked over to Simon and took his hand and squeezed it tightly. “I’m really sorry to ask this, but is it possible she’s having an affair?”
His eyes began to glisten. “Why would she do that?”
“I don’t know… I swear I didn’t tell her… maybe it was just her turn to slip-up… I can try talking to her.”
But before he had a chance to answer, Jacqueline’s voice could be heard from the front door, “Hello? Where is everybody?”
And acting as if life were normal, Hope and Simon returned to their seats at the table, and Jacq entered the kitchen, kissed her husband on the cheek, albeit very quickly, and bent down to give her sister a warm hug. Not aware of the lie that her mother had used, she told them that she had been stuck at work, and then distracted the conversation with questions to Hope about her trip, her husband Tim, and her life in Vancouver.