Tea Kettle

Peggy carefully slides a shiny pearl stud into her limp left earlobe. A fresh swipe of red lipstick is moist upon her lips. Her salt and pepper curls feel warm against her cheek. They lightly bounce across her shoulders. The desired effect from thirty minutes of her hairdryer’s heated attention. She notices a button on her violet cardigan is loose and promptly fastens it. She was about to raise the other little white pearl up to her ear when her cellphone begins to skitter across her dresser. The slender piece of metal rattles into a small silver framed picture of her daughter as a newborn infant. Lena’s name is plastered brightly across the shaky neon screen.

“Lena, baby, have you already landed? I was just getting ready to go to the airport.”

Peggy gently places the stud into a tiny puddle of earrings within a small ceramic dish. She glances over at her blue bedside clock. She still has an hour and a half.

“No, Mom. I never got on the plane.”

There is a certain impishness behind her words. They are light, airy, yet hold some sense of withheld excitement. The same voice which had once halted Peggy at the front door before she walked into her surprise thirty-fifth birthday party. As friends, relatives, and her husband scrambled behind the curtains, Lena had successfully stalled her outside in the drizzle that autumn afternoon. She had blocked the doorway with her sly grin, her wide emerald eyes, and that voice. Ten years later, she still possesses that flickering voice which always centers Peggy’s focus.

“What do you mean you never got on the plane? Did you miss it?”

Peggy isn’t thoroughly surprised at the idea of her daughter being swooned away into her Jamaican vacation and forgetting her time of departure. Peggy had reminded her daughter about school projects then watched Lena hustle to get them done the night before they were due. She had planned daily activities for their week-long vacations yet watched Lena decide to rock climb or zip line on a fantastical whim. Lena could have easily followed a wandering pod of colorful clownfish while snorkeling and released any attachment to the time. Lena emphasizes the magic and beauty of her transitions, her flexibility. Time and place never seem to ruthlessly glue themselves onto Lena as they have her mother.

“No, Mom. I did it on purpose,” says Lena followed by an attempt to muffle her laughter.

Is she drunk, questions Peggy as she walks into the kitchen and quiets a shrieking tea kettle resting upon the stove. She places it to the side and begins to dip a few weightless pouches into the bubbling water. The faint smell of lavender trails in from the laundry room as the last slow tumbles of warm clothes thump in the distance.

“Why, baby?” says Peggy as gentle wisps of heated air tickle her nostrils.

Her little junior in college can probably drink down there beside the beautiful ocean. Peggy is sure a handsome man or two had eyed Lena from across the moist boards of an abused tikki bar. They probably bought her vibrant drinks with little umbrellas along with a lame pick-up line, confident smile, and curious hands.

Peggy can visualize her daughter strolling along the beach. The rush of the oceanic winds rustling her lavish raven locks. Her daughter seduced by the tropical sun for another drink, another shrimp, another swim, another kiss. Peggy once traveled alone in her youth. The northern winds of the United Kingdom convey a very different feeling from those sun-kissed breezes of Jamaica. Yet, she had still held a stranger’s hand as they laughed intimately within a dimly lit bar.

Peggy glances over onto her sunlit ring of keys resting within a shallow turquoise bowl on the kitchen table. A little square key chain flashes her name in bold letters across a picture of swaying palm trees. Lena had express mailed it along with a loving postcard after only a day into her vacation. Since it was Lena’s first trip alone, Peggy deeply appreciated the little trinket of comfort.

When Peggy had received the tacky little key chain, she had thought it was just a nice but rather bland tourist gift. Yet she treasured it, truly thankful to be thought of at all. It wasn’t until the next morning, as the sunshine glistened upon the strip of plastic, she noticed it began to vibrantly flash her name. Much better with a little spark to it, Peggy had thought as she watched her name blaze in neon shades of red, yellow, and green. She wrestled with it for an hour that night beside her sleeping, snoring husband. Twisting, turning, and pinching her finger more than once to get it secured upon her key ring. Ready for Lena to see when she returned.

“You won’t believe it but I’m in love!” says Lena in the same lily scented voice which had once screamed thank you when opening presents in the dawn of Christmas morning and called come find me as she quickly climbed into a cramped corner of the coat closet. A voice seasoned with innocence, youth, and a bit of trickery.

Peggy slaps her forehead with a jolting force. Quick and blunt as if a mosquito had been circling above her and finally buzzed down upon it. With a sigh, she allows her hand to slowly drip down her face.

“You’re in love? Who has swept you off your feet in less than a week?” says Peggy as she leans her back against the curved edge of the cold kitchen counter. Her eyes skim the white popcorn ceiling as she remembers Lena’s lost lovers.

Since Lena sprouted her perky breasts and long tan legs, boys had found an interest in her. She embodies the grace of her father’s Italian roots along with the fiery passion of the culture. Her looks get her noticed but her spontaneity and internal flame is what truly entices. She is a tower of fire among a field of lightbulbs. The boys are simple translucent winged moths. They are attracted to most of the bright little globes yet deeply yearn for Lena’s intense flame. The moths who fly the closest to her radiance feel her warmth and her energy. The more they enjoy, the more they embrace, the closer they fly, and the closer they become memory and ash.

Now a strange man seems to flutter dangerously close to her daughter’s flame. An exotic man has held her close one night, misted by the salty sea air, and begun to huddle against her fire. Peggy remembered the first night she had stayed with Russell. The first night she had ever been alone with a man in his apartment. The first time she laid naked within the satin sheets of a stranger’s bed and awoke to the smell of earl grey tea among his lips. Peggy attempts to push that memory away. To tuck it away into the shadows of her mind. To darken the image of Russell that sunlit morning so many years ago. Yet his light brown eyes shine brightly within her mind. She can feel his soft pink lips traveling up her neck to nibble upon her earlobe. Peggy tightly shuts her eyes as she holds her phone close against her ear.

“He’s absolutely wonderful, Mom! His name is Elijah Clarke! He loves to travel and he can cook! He makes the best grilled grouper sandwich I’ve ever had! You’re going to love him, Mom! I know it!”

The words sputter out as if her mouth is a water hose being hastily turned on. Small spurts of forceful, dampened words. Peggy can hear small spurts of her daughter’s heart gushing forth. Russell’s shirtless image quickly fades and the sensations quieten.

Peggy concentrates upon the wild, independent characteristics of her daughter. She remembers when Lena was a little girl and had become intensely infatuated with Snow White. Peggy had been cooking dinner when six-year-old Lena promptly marched up to her. Peggy can still see her willful little girl with her black hair wildly tossed behind her shoulders dressed in her frilly food stained Snow White pajamas. Her shiny emerald eyes bulged forth with that voice full of purpose. Lena proudly announced her name as Snow White. With muffled giggles and a large smile, Peggy had tried to explain how her daughter already had the beautiful name Lena. Children have an unbelievable power beneath those little glassy globes. Beneath those waves of lush green, beneath those tiny dabs of infinite black, Peggy saw a piece of her daughter attempt to wither. She couldn’t bear it.

For six months, Lena Douglas was Snow White Douglas. Peggy convinced Lena’s teachers and relatives to play along. She even introduced her daughter as Snow White when meeting new people or running errands around town. Lena’s father took some time to completely get onboard with the temporary name change. Yet within two weeks, he would come home from work with his arms stretched out wide saying, “Where’s my little Snow White? I need a hug from my princess!” Lena flourished and eventually returned to her birth name.

“I’m sure I will, honey. When are you coming home?” says Peggy as she attempts to refocus upon what she can plan. What she can do to get her daughter home. She isn’t sure Lena would have enough money to buy another plane ticket. A part-time position at a corner gas station doesn’t pay that well.

“We’re thinking about a week, maybe.”

Peggy can hear the faint flutter of small pecking kisses from across the phone. She believes the mysterious Elijah must be right beside her Lena. Her daughter’s delicate hand cradled within his eager grasp. Probably sitting in a swinging hammock nestled close together as their rum induced drinks sweat within their hands. Peggy remembers the lightheaded ambiance of flirtation, attraction, pursuit, and sex.

“Baby, I know you’re having fun but you have classes that start in two days.”

Peggy hates the idea of her little girl’s romantic bubble being popped, yet she had once been scrambled within the same dilemma. Stuck between returning to the predictable homestead or staying wrapped within the embrace of passionate adventure. It hadn’t been easy for Peggy. Whether it be in England or Jamaica, no matter what decade, it wouldn’t be fair.

Peggy’s vacation had seemed to end abruptly. The days had passed so quickly when she was nestled within Russell’s embrace. As two naked bodies, cuddling with rapid breaths, he would express the immense dread he felt about having to say good-bye. Peggy believed him. Every kiss, every grab, every thrust, every smile, every word, Peggy had truly believed.

“That doesn’t matter, Mom.” Lena blurts as if she suddenly realizes she is still on the phone.

“Lena, I know you think you’re in love. Great. But, you do have obligations. Your job, your school, your bank account. Can you even afford to stay another week?”

Peggy realized years ago that her daughter’s loves quickly escalated and as speedily diminished. Lena begins with attraction, rides up along the pursuit and playful conquest. At the height, she’s basking within the first two weeks of the relationship. Blissful and a true sucker for newfound love. Then the downfall begins, she becomes bored and restless. She remembers the perks of living free and unattached. She gradually distances herself and finally ends the relationship. No strained feelings because those feelings take time to establish and flourish. Lena reverts to living happily within the content of herself until another man seems worth her time and energy. A rather lonely, rapid type of love.

Lena’s first vacation alone meant she had paid for it herself. Peggy had attempted to offer help, whether it be in scheduling, packing, or monetary. But Lena had been determined to be and act like an adult. A twenty-year-old with dignity. Inflated talk for someone who still lives at home with her parents. Peggy didn’t judge yet worried at the thought of her love-struck daughter. Her loves usually lasted a month and Lena’s bank account wouldn’t be able to hold on.

There were many nights during the weeks before Lena left when Peggy sat alone in the hallway to Lena’s bedroom. In the shadows with only the faint chatter of a distant television and weight of her night-time glasses rested upon her nose, Peggy imagined driving down South Market Street where all the late-night burger joints, and billiard halls would still be jumping. Where they would grab some food, and find a nice, private spot to talk. Where Peggy would talk about Russell.

Peggy was honest about her life and the personal aspects of herself with her daughter. She told her about the first time she smoked pot in college. The first time she got drunk in public. Even the time she slapped a guy at party for trying to pull her skirt down. Yet, she had never breathed a word about Russell. Nothing about London. Nothing about her first time being truly alone. Peggy wanted to tell her little girl to keep her head down. She wanted to warn her of her free, wild spirit. She wanted to protect her and be smarter for her. Even the planners can be surprised, can be fooled, and can be defeated. Yet, she didn’t want her daughter to feel like she was incapable. She wanted her to feel as confident and as determined as she already did. Peggy had kept her mouth shut, and as her daughter called from another hemisphere, all she could think about was Russell. She should’ve said something. She could’ve said something.

An image of Russell running in from the rain clouds her mind. The pattern of fresh raindrops sprinkled along his black trench coat. His slim smile and his blazing brown-gold eyes. More gold than brown. Every wet, beautiful feature strutting straight towards her mind’s eye. Peggy must quieten the memory like the shrieking tea kettle. Put it to the side.

“Mom, it’s all right. Elijah is taking care of me.”

Lena giggles as Peggy’s eyes bulge forth. Of course, he is. Russell had taken care of Peggy. Being a native-born Brit, Russell pranced Peggy around into the secret nooks and crannies of London. Peggy had fallen for Russell instantly. She loved elegance of his accent, how his blonde hair curled along the nape of his neck, and the way his eyes matched her newly found favorite beer. He promised that what she felt was real. He promised that he felt it too.

“Look Lena, this little rendezvous has gone far enough. Say goodbye to that man and come home!”

Peggy’s neck pulses and her palms sweat. She begins to reach for her lump of keys. She would drive across the ocean for her little girl. Yet, she stops instantly as her little flashing gift centers in her gaze. The square island key chain almost disgusts her. She imagines that strange man helping her innocent daughter select it from the array of tourist junk. His mysterious hand lifting it from a plastic rack and inferring that Peggy would like it. He doesn’t know her. And she doesn’t know him. And it infuriates her.

“I can’t Mom. We’re married!” The accelerated excitement of her voice plunges painfully into the depths of Peggy’s ear. A striking pain begins to throb beneath Peggy’s slender eyebrows.

Peggy clings to the back of an oak chair and slides it under herself before she spills onto the floor. She can hear them kissing once again. Peggy slouches within her chair. She listens to her daughter nuzzling with her new husband. Shocked and confused, Peggy imagines her daughter’s vibrant emerald eyes. The way they must have overwhelmed and captured this stranger’s heart. Her strong, charming young woman doesn’t need that man. She chose that man. She doesn’t have to call. She chose to call.

Peggy had stared at her motionless luggage stacked by a beige hotel door as she called her mother and father all those years ago. Fully embarrassed and ashamed, she had begged for enough money for another plane ticket. With a string of belittling and berating, they reluctantly agreed to bring her home. Peggy had wanted Russell. She hadn’t wanted to make that call. She had to make that call.

Heavy hearted, Peggy finally says, “I love you, Lena. Please, bring him home so we can meet him. I miss you.”

Elijah would have to meet Lena’s father. Johnny has always been a stable, good ole boy with Italian features and working hands. He was working at the bottling company when Peggy met him and never left. He had asked Peggy to marry him after a year of dating. Two years later, Lena was born. Johnny has been a loyal father and husband. Peggy can never tell him about Russell. And after discovering Lena has secretly eloped, Peggy knows she will never tell him. It would only worry him. Make him concerned and scared for his daughter. And perhaps, question his own wife.

The phone call ends with quick, loving good-byes. Too soon for Peggy but the newlyweds have exciting plans. Peggy rises from her chair and searches for some ibuprofen. With two white oblong pills, a tall etched glass, and bottle of wine, Peggy sits back down at the kitchen table. With a large gulp, she tosses the two pills to the back of her throat. She looks at the bottle. Cabernet Sauvignon. Good enough to cook with, she thinks and finishes the glass. She pours another, filling it nearly to the rim.

Johnny will return home from work in less than an hour. He always works a half day on Sunday. Peggy sits quietly at the kitchen table fiddling with her one pearl earring. She has a little time to figure out how to break the news to her husband. Lena’s married, she thinks, I could be as blunt as that. Yet, Peggy knows her husband will probably come home with a bouquet of colorful tulips. He always remembers his daughter’s favorite flowers. He’ll see Peggy’s dark blue pathfinder in the garage as he pulls into the driveway. He’ll cheerfully burst into the house and believe to see his little girl safely returned. Peggy gulps her wine. Red smudges begin to line the thin rim. Her salt and pepper hair limps down beside her face.

Exhausted, Peggy’s mind begins to absorb her secret memories. Forcing them to the front of her mind. The pressure is so fierce the memories seem to project across her eyes like a movie. A movie she had seen once and never wished to see again. Yet, as the bitter taste of her wine coats her mouth and her worries about Johnny and Lena overwhelm her, she needs to remember.

On the final day of her trip, Peggy decided to cancel her flight. She was confident she would somehow make it in this new world. Somehow she would live a free, wild, and exciting life with Russell by her side. With youthful hope, Peggy packed within her dimly lit hotel room and set the small bundle of cloth baggage by the beige door.

Her plane had taken off thirty minutes ago. Another sense of tingling fear overwhelmed by blissful excitement thrashed within her mind. Russell and Peggy had expelled their dreaded good-byes and lustful kisses the night before. Both lovers unable to endure final farewells at the airport. Russell had said he would do something crazy like jump on the plane with her and he simply couldn’t do that. Love-struck, little Peggy hadn’t asked why. Peggy had believed her last minute decision would spark another thrilling flame within their relationship. She wanted to see the elaborate expression of pure surprise and gratitude splash upon his face.

However, as Peggy began to ascend the creaking steps to Russell’s apartment, Russell’s familiar voice rang within the corridor. Peggy paused. He was only a floor or so above her. And not alone. Not one pair of steps, not two, but three continued to swiftly trickle up the staircase. The voices grew fainter and Peggy quietly followed. Russell’s smooth, seductive tone was clear but he was speaking with another person. A woman. She was speaking sweetly, compassionately, and endearingly. He called her honey, darling, and love. All the names he’d rattled and whispered into Peggy’s mind over their close-knit days.

The third pair of steps were lighter and constantly changed pace among the steps. Then the soft, brittle voice said Daddy and I miss you. Peggy’s heart plummeted to the floor when she heard Russell’s voice reply to the child. The voice which swayed Peggy to leave her life and dive head first into a new reality was the voice of a husband and father.

Peggy left the wallpapered staircase and returned to her stagnant hotel room. That poor child’s innocent voice still trapped among her earlobes.

Peggy raced through her newly formed memories of Russell. How had she not noticed, not seen one toy, or one picture? He had said a multitude of beautiful things she had so desperately wanted to hear. He told her about London and how his mother made the best bread pudding on Earth. Then, she remembered, he had told her the apartment was his work space. The small two bedrooms, one bathroom layout seemed to resemble a bachelor’s home and work pad. Yet, Peggy knew she had never seen the second bedroom. The seemingly normal white door had stood closed and silent during their time together.

Peggy had imagined what revealing objects had lain within that dark second room. Behind that door probably laid the child’s stuffed animal covered bed and even some of the wife’s clothes, jewelry, and perfume. Utterly defeated and hopeless, Peggy cried. Peggy cried for her stupidity and shame. She cried for the woman still blinded by the manipulative essence of Russell. She cried for the child.

After a long, forced sigh, Peggy hears the grind of the garage door and the familiar rumble of her husband’s pick-up truck. The dark memories and the sensitive sense of betrayal begins to fade from Peggy. She stares at the door, waiting for Johnny’s tired yet excited figure to bust through. Lena’s being Snow White again, she thinks. Our little girl made a decision. Only this time, she wouldn’t be their wide-eyed Snow White Douglas. She is now Snow White Clarke. Peggy wipes her eyes, quietly downs her wine, and listens as the garage door begins to descend.

Gabrielle Tollison is a freelance writer who has been writing for over six years. She is currently a senior at the University of Memphis.