“See you tonight Sweetheart,” Effie said to her daughter. “Anything special you want for dinner?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll just graze. See you later mom,” returned Artemis, with the air of someone looking forward to solitude. She’d been entrenched in the couch since quitting Yale’s MFA in acting almost a month ago. Effie was worried–she was a mother and a Greek one at that–but every discussion she tried to have with her daughter ended in an argument followed by silence.
Effie went downstairs to her building’s entrance and out. She walked the four steps along the gated path, turned right, and followed the sound of Hoyt’s perpetually screaming traffic. Distracted, she caught her cane in one of the chain link fences. “Goddammit.” The blunder reminded her of how bad she’d been at the mobility thing when she’d first metamorphosed from visually impaired to blind, almost six years ago. “Get it together,” she said to herself.
Her cane swinging resumed its fluidity as she crossed 28th street, listening to the flow of traffic to keep her parallel as she’d been trained to do. What she could not have done, even as recent as a year ago, was split her attention between the sounds that kept her walking safely straight and the workings of her mind’s ear. She heard, for the hundredth time, the phone conversation in which Artemis sobbed and said she wanted to come home. “I’m done mom. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”
Effie had claimed her daughter’s room only four months earlier, with many reassurances and more than a little help from Artemis. They’d gotten rid of the childhood remainders and ordered some new shelves and even a dress form, for Effie to try hand sewing. But just as the daughter’s presence sloughed off the walls leaving new potential, just as the mother began to feel at home in her new workshop, draping and pinning embossed burgundy silk, with audio books filling the room possessively, the daughter, like some kind of broken-winged thing, had suddenly sought refuge in the nest.
Pulling the relatively quiet flow of single-lane perpendicular traffic on 29th street out from the din of the BQE underpass and RFK Bridge onramp, Effie gaged her chances and caught the light. As she did so, her phone rang, probably someone calling in sick. By the time she got to the other side and found her phone, it had stopped. She put her earbud in and flicked through the icons. Her speech output was set at 80 words a minute–faster than the sighted ear could handle.
She’d showed so many people how she used her iPhone with VoiceOver that she’d nearly developed a showman patter. “It’s just a regular iPhone–you can try this at home. Just go to settings, general, accessibility and turn on VoiceOver, which comes with every Apple Product.”
Then she would demonstrate how the icons sounded when touched. “So the only difference for me is that I tap once to hear what the app is and twice to open it.”
When the sighted said, “It’s so fast!” she would laugh and access the router–a gesture particular to VoiceOver users–and slow the speech output down to the speed of molasses.
“Is that ok?”
“Much better,” they’d say, marveling. It’s pretty easy to impress people when you’re blind.
Effie flicked to her voicemail and played the message from Carl. “Hey, Effie, this is Carl. Won’t be in today. I got sores on my feet.”
“That’s a new one,” she thought, winding the earbud round her phone and slipping it back in her bag. She always used earbuds for privacy and because the sound of other people’s VoiceOver babble was annoying. She hated it when other blind people did not use their earbuds. It was one of those prejudices she had. Not that she had no blind friends, she had some, but most of her friends were sighted and, happily, unlike most jobs opening up for over-educated, under-employed blind people these days, she got to work with all kinds of loonies, not just the blind varietals.
Effie ran the Facilities Help Desk at the Commissioner’s Office for Children’s Services, fielding calls and emails regarding eighteen floors of complaints. These included everything from overflowing toilets and mouse sightings to “AC is too cole!!!” and “my pedelstool is broke.” Her job was to soothe on the one hand and delegate fixes to her workmen on the other. Not exactly what she had in mind for her future when she was Artemis’s age. When she was twenty-three, Effie had also dropped out of an MFA program–a painful symmetry–though she’d had good reasons. She’d wanted to be an artist, but she’d had a baby and a degenerative eye disease instead.
Effie still considered herself a very visual person so that, as she walked along Hoyt toward the Astoria Blvd. stop, she saw, in her mind’s eye, the stairs leading up to the ticket level and the slotted tracks above, the basketball court in its nest of sparse trees to her left and the bricks surrounding the little park as she trailed them with her cane. On certain days, Effie believed she could see herself from an impartial spectator’s point of view. “A good-looking woman. Too bad she’s blind,” men might say. The women, more kind, would notice the cool vintage blue leather jacket and hot boots. She walked pretty damn fast too, for a blind person, and her hair was long and dark. She put on lipstick and cool mirrored sunglasses, so her interlocutors could see in those lenses how their features scrambled hideously with pity, and perhaps learn to correct it on their faces. From there, the intelligence might spread to their brains.
When she reached the platform, Effie heard a familiar voice. “Help me Princess Leia, you’re my only hope.” People had been telling her she looked like Carrie Fisher since she was little and dressed up like Princess Leia for Halloween. Nice to know she could still pull it off.
“Not today Obi-Wan, I’ve got to get my hair twisted into cinnamon buns.” She gave Axel and his pitch-perfect Alec Guinness accent a giant smile.
“Well then, May The Force fly up your robes and goose you!”
She laughed and said, “Uh-oh, I must be running late!”
“No my dear, I’m obscenely early. I have a gig with a troll who giggles maniacally at the idea of getting an actor out of his snug bed before the hour of noon.”
“Then I have some troll to thank. I’m very happy to have a train companion this morning. It’s been a hell of a month.”
“Damn, has it been so long? Here’s our train. Allow me.”
“Oh, thank you.”
As he always did so charmingly, Axel offered Effie his arm and they sauntered into the crowded train together. He showed her where the pole was and, though someone offered her a seat, she remained standing, as there were few things she hated more than having a conversation with a voice looming above her.
“So what’s going on?”
“My daughter, Artemis, I’ve told you about her once or twice…”
“yes, I’d like to meet your daughter,” said Axel with an exaggerated vocal leer.
Though it was meant to be funny and though Effie reciprocated with a chuckle, she experienced a tinge of hurt at the reminder that this fine young gentleman was of an age more appropriate for Artemis. In his early thirties, she was pretty sure, just a decade older than her daughter and at least a dozen younger than herself. She felt her tight smile and shook her head to clear the ugliness. Axel was a neighbor, a friend, a “let’s grab a coffee” once in a while pal. Not a love interest. But maybe he could help nudge her daughter back to Yale.
“Artemis left Drama School.”
“I don’t know. We’ve always been so close and all of a sudden she’s not talking to me. I mean, she’s not telling me what’s really going on.” Effie felt tears of frustration threatening. Though she was wearing sunglasses, Axel seemed to sense it. Maybe he heard it in her voice. She was never able to hide her emotions.
He patted her hand. “She’ll bounce back.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” Effie smiled away her doubts, and listened to Axel chat hilariously about this acting gig and that for the rest of the ride. She was happy just to listen and not worry.
With much effort, and special mobility sessions, Effie had learned to get from the N/Q to the 2/3, but it was never fun. She had to put on her angry blind face and barrel through. It often put her in a foul mood, so when Axel said he was also getting off at 42nd street, and offered to walk her to her train, she accepted the help gratefully. As they walked, it occurred to Effie that perhaps today’s chance encounter was fortuitous. Perhaps Axel, a working actor, could persuade Artemis to get her ass back to Yale.
“Axel,” said Effie when they reached her platform “Would you be willing to give my daughter some professional advice? I believe she would listen to you…. I think she’s tired of hearing her mother drone on an on.”
“Sure,” he said. “Why don’t the two of you come to my place for dinner?”
“That’s too generous!” She had been thinking of their usual café.
“Mon pleasure, Madame,” he said in a silly French accent.
“Well then, it’s a date, monsieur,” Effie said, keeping her smile firm. She didn’t feel like a middle-aged “Madame” but, for Christ’s sake, she really must stop thinking of herself as a mademoiselle. “Assuming my daughter agrees to pick her derriere off the couch.”
Axel left her at her platform and gave her a quick hug goodbye. She suddenly felt the loss of him as potential lover. But she was a mother first. She barely registered her tiny hope that it would only be the acting angle that would prove fruitful in the meeting of Artemis and Axel, or her lame attempt to convince herself that she might be wrong about his attractions. Perhaps they were not surface-level. Effie thought it unlikely. She unfortunately had a nose for the handsome ones.
When they entered the spicy, enveloping warmth of Axel’s apartment, Effie knew she’d been right. As if her daughter’s smiling voice were not enough to tell her, Artemis whispered, “He’s hot!” in her ear the moment he’d walked to the bedroom to deposit their coats.
“It smells so amazing in here!”
“And you two look amazing. Your daughter is beautiful, which is no surprise with you as her mother.”
“Thank you,” they said.
“We brought a little something,” Artemis said, handing over the champagne and baklava. The gift had been her idea. It had been such a crazy week at work that Effie hadn’t thought of it. Her daughter was reviving, and Effie began to feel relieved. Before she left this morning, Artemis had apologized for being a couch potato and thanked Effie for giving her the time to “regroup.” She’d given her a hug and said, “I’m ready to get back on that dang horse!” in a funny western accent. Effie had hopefully assumed that meant going back to Yale.
“How nice. Would you like a glass of champagne now? Or perhaps I can entice you with my famous sparkling St-Germain cocktail?”
“Oh yes please!” they said, and followed him, arm-in-arm.
Artemis put Effie’s hand on the back of a stool and said, “It’s an open kitchen. Looks like the set of a cooking show.”
“You ladies have front row seats.”
“Wow, mom, he’s got jars and jars and jars of…” Effie heard Artemis’s voice moving away to inspect. “Pickles, dried beans, spices galore, preserves… Pomegranate molasses?”
“It’s just a reduction of pomegranate juice, tangy and sweet. Goes great with meat. You’ll see what I mean when we get to the lamb. I was raised in a Lebanese kitchen. My mom is an awesome cook and made sure all her kids were too.”
“Is your name really Axel?”
“Why? It doesn’t sound Lebanese enough for you?”
“How about Dan?”
“How about Dan Abood?”
Effie laughed. Her daughter was amazing at sniffing out people’s secrets.
“Here you go, Effie,” said Axel, slipping a cocktail that smelled like tropical fruit and flowers into her hand. “Hold out your other hand.” She complied and was handed a torpedo shaped meatball that smelled like mint and slid around her tongue like butter.
“Do you know my mom’s real name?” asked Artemis after the two had finished chewing and cooing with delight.
“I guess not.”
“Iphigenia,” said Artemis.
It suddenly struck Effie how strange it was that her own mother, Greek to the bone, baptized her only daughter Iphigenia, but never called her by that name. Perhaps it seemed like too much name for a child. People said something of that sort to Effie herself when, in sudden single-mother single-mindedness, she named Artemis, never allowing nicknames nor diminutives to spoil the grandeur of it. And her daughter stepped right into the role. She was Artemis from the time she was two. A child self-aware, but also kind and thoughtful.
“That’s a great name,” Said Axel. “Wasn’t she some Greek tragedy?”
“Well, in some versions Daddy Agamemnon succeeds in sacrificing her, but in others she’s whisked away to Tauris, outwits her barbarian captors, and rescues herself, her brother, his buddy and an effigy of yours truly, a cult figure of Artemis.”
“Artemis ironically played my namesake in a pretty wild adaptation in, what was it sweetheart, your sophomore year? Why don’t you perform–“
“Oh mom, stop! It was my junior year and Axel Dan does not want ancient entertainment.”
“Sure I do.”
“Traitor. If I ever meet your mother, I will join forces with her to embarrass you back.”
“It’s a deal. So let’s hear it. Give me your best monologue.”
“Jeez, making me sing for my supper. I don’t even know if I can remember it…”
“Don’t listen to her,” Effie said. “She remembers everything. Makes up for her mother forgetting everything.”
Effie heard Artemis stand up and theatrically clear her throat. Though she started a bit hesitantly, within a line or two, she found her stride, making her mother’s heart swoon as always.
Oh bitter my beginning in the womb
Of her who bore me, from the very night
When she conceived! Appointed by the Fates
To suffer in this world,
I was a child Accursed.
Yet how she cherished me, her first-born
And thrilled that I, of all the girls of Argos,
Should be a bride upon the way to Troy!
This evening with Axel was turning out fine, Effie reflected with half an ear on her daughter’s monologue—one Effie herself had helped Artemis memorize. She took another sip of her delicious cocktail, and could admit now how nervous she’d been. She knew she hadn’t any reason; they’d had many adventures together in the past, especially when Artemis was little. No doubt being a single mother is no picnic, but there’s a closeness that a unit of two brings that larger families cannot know. Suddenly their long-ago weekend in San Francisco dropped into Effie’s mind and she smiled unselfconsciously. They’d never had much money when Artemis was little, but Effie’s mom had surprised them with a weekend adventure across the country for Effie’s 30th birthday. It had been an uncharacteristically sweet thing for her Greek mother to do, but she supposed she had finally at that point relaxed into the idea of having an unwed mother for a daughter, and the fact that the seven-year-old Artemis was turning out so perfect (even by Greek-mother standards) certainly didn’t hurt.
They’d walked and walked the streets of San Francisco and took glass elevators to the tops of fancy hotels, where they drank virgin strawberry Daiquiris and piña coladas in the revolving lounges. Artemis described the views and the décor and the people. Effie could see better back then, but still not well enough to make out any details, so Artemis put her budding dramatic heart into descriptions of waiters with lopsided moustaches and glimmering Bay waters dotted with tilting sails with childish earnestness. They had met so many people—many of them men—who would pick up their syrupy tabs, charmed by the pretty mother and prettier daughter. What fun they’d had. Her heart swelled to full capacity. Now they could drink spiked cocktails together and she, Effie, had done a marvelous job mothering this fine young woman. “Success!” she said to herself and took the last not-so-dainty sip of her flower cocktail.
I face an altar soaked with bloody death.
I hear the cry for pity and the moans
Of men–a thing too hideous to be told.
Artemis intoned the final words with an over-the-top warbling that still managed to ring with pain and pity. Effie and Axel clapped and cried, Brava!”
“Thank you. Now, may we partake in these fairy eggs?”
“Fairy eggs?” asked Effie.
“Mom, they are so pretty. Deviled eggs, but the whites are pink and the yolks are sprinkled with green. Here eat one with me.”
“I couldn’t decide what to make for you two, so I made everything,” Axel said, pulling a leg of lamb out of the oven.
The little dishes kept coming. Effie was growing tired and sort of hungover already. Worse, she suddenly felt herself to be a third wheel and like a sausage in her small skirt. They were talking about auditioning. Axel offered to drop Artemis’s headshot and resume off with his agent, and then she heard her daughter say, “It was all so pretentious and not-fun anymore. And really really competitive.”
“Well, I’m not going to say that having an MFA from Yale’s Drama School is nothing,” said Axel, “but it doesn’t guarantee work. I know so many unemployed actors in this city who thought their fancy drama school degrees would be their ticket to fame and fortune and find themselves seriously disappointed and even more seriously in debt. The only way to get work is to audition. And be good. Damn good. Shit, I didn’t even graduate from high school and I’m one of my agent’s most-booked, best-paid talent.”
“Really?” said Artemis, sounding impressed.
Effie was disturbed. A high school dropout? Of course. There had to be something wrong with this guy. Too perfect. And was he encouraging her daughter not to return to Yale? Her mind felt muddled and her face flushed, but she broke in anyway, “So you’re not going back Artemis?”
“I told you I wasn’t, mom.”
“So you’re not going to be an actor now? After all that hard work, after all that time and effort and…” She was going to say money, but that would sound petty and not to the point.
“I never said I was giving up acting. I just–“
“You’re telling me you didn’t call me on the phone to tell me you give up? ‘I can’t do this’–isn’t that what you said?” Her voice was rising and her heart thumping.
“I never said I was quitting acting. Just that I’d had it with school. With Yale and all the pretention and ego, self-complacency and snobbery. I told you all that mom, but you haven’t been listening.”
“You haven’t talked to me for a month except to tell me you didn’t feel like talking.” She felt her voice getting shrill, tinged even with a fearful hysteria that she’d been stifling since her daughter’s return. “How am I supposed to know what’s going on in that mystifyingly stubborn brain of yours?”
“I’m stubborn? You should talk mom. You can’t get it out of your head that an MFA is the only worthwhile thing to do just because that’s what you wanted, but–“
“It’s what you wanted too,” Effie said with too much vehemence.
“Mom, your interrupted dreams have weighed so heavy, that I’m not sure I had a minute to think about what I wanted.”
Effie knew she should stop, but she was starting to panic. Had she done what she’d promised herself she would never do? Try to live vicariously through her daughter. “But you wanted to go to Yale.” She tried to remember. She was sure it was true. Yet this thing she’d been so sure of, came out more like a question. She was too drunk and tired to make sense of this embarrassing squabbling.
“Mom, I’m twenty-three, and I don’t know exactly what I want. I need to step aside for a minute. Please realize I am a different person from you. I should have taken time off after college before entering grad school, but I was terrified you’d be disappointed.”
“I could never be disappointed in you,” Effie said. She deflated. It was true. She’d been seeing herself in her daughter, instead of her daughter. Just like her own pathetic mother. She felt shame sting so painfully that she thought she might be sick. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Artemis had taken her to the bathroom earlier. It was just a few steps past the kitchen towards the front door. Effie’s movements were not exactly sloppy drunk, but not graceful either. Her heel caught slightly on the rug, and as her shoulder hit the pickle shelf, hard, she instantly sobered. “Oh shit,” she said, as the jars and bottles rattled. The first jar exploded and splashed her leg with pickle juice and another and a third. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s no big deal,” said Axel.
“I’ll help you,” said her daughter. “Where are your trash bags?”
Effie stood for a few minutes listening to the shards and pickles tinkle and thud into trash bags, and the smell of spices and vinegar flooded up her nose. “Can I help?” she asked lamely.
“No, we got it, Mom.”
“Done in a jiffy.”
She walked the few steps down the hall to the bathroom and sat on the toilet long past the pee with her head in her hands, palms cupping brows. She felt so tired and ashamed. She wished she could just run away, just get her coat and leave, like she used to do when she had sight. But recent years taught her that the production of getting her stuff and trying to make a quick getaway would only present more embarrassment. Anyway, it was a bratty move. Blindness has probably forced improvement there. She had to suck it up and finish the evening like a lady.
The sounds of the clean up finally stopped, and she heard Artemis coming. A gentle knock. “You ok Mom?”
“All clear!” called Axel.
“Be right there,” she said, and reached to the right, then left then forward and found the toilet paper.
She pulled up her sausage-making stockings and pulled down what there was of her skirt. Her hips bumped up against the sink and her hands felt around for faucet, soap, towel.
She walked carefully back to the kitchen and her daughter patted her seat. “There you are,” Artemis said and gave her a little hug. “You ok?”
Effie nodded. She was embarrassed, not broken. “I should get going.”
“Don’t go Mom, Axel is fixing us a special treat.”
The intense vinegar smell was dampened by incense that reminded her of her Greek Orthodox childhood. Effie had hated Sunday school–all the silly Christ coloring books and the neon bumper sticker on the board that shouted, “GOD IS EVERYWHERE”–But she hadn’t minded church, with its chanting and biblical Greek liturgy. At the end of class they gathered silently–or as silently as dozens of children could muster—to march through the dark corridors and up the stone steps to enter the huge cathedral just in time for the Eucharist. The incense hung in the air with the enormous bubble chandeliers, and Effie could finally relax in the aesthetics. The image of the pastel-colored light filtering through stained-glass windows, and candlelight glinting off gold-leaf icons was just as vivid as ever.
“Close your eyes and hold out your right hand, palm up,” Axel said.
Effie felt a cool, slightly sticky finger-shaped item in her palm and brought it to her nose. “Candy?”
Yes. Mother Nature’s candy. Now place it in your mouth and chew very slowly. Keep your eyes closed. Both of you.”
Having been sighted for most of her life, Effie’s attention also heightened when her eyes closed. She recognized the smoky caramel flavor at once and started to ask, “Is there–“
“I do not allow pits in my dates. What you find at the heart of this gift are two almonds, lovingly toasted. Now, chew slowly, savor, and listen. The date palm, or Phoenix dactylifera, has been cultivated for thousands of years. It is dioecious and only the female trees bear fruit, so cultivators grow many more females than males and hand pollinate. It is even possible in many date-rich countries to buy the male flowers at the spring market, to avoid wasting their time growing males altogether.” He paused significantly and Effie laughed, despite herself. “The date is traditionally offered to guests as token of love and friendship. Now, allow me to wax poetic. You two are like those almonds, crunchy and a little bit salty, and I am like the lime zest on top. But the date is all the new friendship surrounding this night. I have welcomed you into my home and hope to do so many times in the future.”
Effie felt shy. She heard his voice, and with it his gaze, linger on Artemis and she thought that her escape was set; time to leave them to get to know one another without mommy chaperoning. She apologized for the pickles and for getting so upset, and they both laughed it off. They asked if she wouldn’t stay for one last drink. Or if they could walk her home.
“Don’t be silly you two.” Axel lived just on the other side of the bridge. If she walked to the corner and over the platform so to avoid crossing the several lanes of harrowing traffic on the street level, she would descend the steps and walk the two short blocks to 28th street, as she did every day.
“Just don’t stay out too late and make your mother worry,” said Effie, pulling out the mom voice. They kissed her on the cheek and solemnly promised: Artemis would be home “before the pumpkin hour.”
They insisted on walking her to the station and probably watched her climb the stairs. She hated that feeling of worried eyes on her.
Safe on the other side of the bridge, walking alongside the park, the rhythm returned and Effie lost herself in loneliness and self-pity. A flash of jealousy for her daughter’s youthful beauty turned right into a mother’s scolding, “you better not waste it like your mother did.” She said out loud to the street, the tears forming. A sad certainty of no more love affairs broke her heart. The tears rolled. “How ridiculous am I?” She scoffed at herself for cutting such a figure: The crying blind lady in a too-short skirt. At least she’d returned her sunglasses to her face, hiding the wrinkles digging round her eyes.
A horn blasted her out of her pathetic reverie and sent a jolt of fear up her spine. She’d been feeling sorry for herself instead of listening, and had walked into 29th street without realizing the light had changed. The car stopped for her and a man’s voice yelled, “Watch it lady!” He sounded as freaked out as she felt. Hitting a blind idiot cannot offer the same satisfaction as hitting a sighted one.
She was trembling as she approached 28th street and stopped for a moment at the fence where she’d oriented herself when she’d first ventured out as a blind person. Immediately the woman who’d been walking behind her asked if she needed help. “No thank you,” Effie said automatically.
“You sure?” the voice said.
Effie turned the corner and leaned her back against the fence. The woman finally passed on, her heels clicking in the direction Effie should be walking, but she didn’t want to enter that empty house.
The frustration was so great that she considered going to The Sparrow to drink herself silly. Maybe she’d stay long enough to get picked up by the dregs of the bar. She’d sworn not to slut around anymore, having regretted an indiscretion seized once in the loneliness of the silent apartment after Artemis had left, but the idea of getting laid was now so comforting, she started to pull herself up and turn the corner. Then Effie thought of her daughter returning home and felt shame. She’d come much too close to envying her daughter’s capture of Axel. That would not happen again. What also would not happen anymore was the coddling. Treating her daughter like a broken thing. Effie’s worries and her own past failure hadn’t allowed her to see her daughter’s life as separate from her own.
She walked to her door and paused again. She listened to the autumn wind blowing hard through the oak trees, blasting acorns through the night to bounce metallically off car hoods and unlucky heads. She thought wistfully of the MFA in painting path not taken, but forty-six was not so old in the grand scheme of things. People lived long lives in her family. She would not do as her own mother had done, mothering beyond all good purpose, never finding hobby nor love but for the smothering kind bestowed thanklessly on her adult children. If she lived another couple decades, Effie knew she must reclaim some lost part of her to supplement the blind working mother identity. There must be a decent way to be a woman past menopause.
If she were completely honest with herself, she could not imagine living with a man again. Even her daughter’s return felt (though she’d not admitted it until now) crippling to something that wanted to grow inside her. An irony there. The most impressive and dearest thing she’d created thus far was somehow competing with an old desire that had been put off when she accepted motherhood.
Vague memories floated across her mindscape. She raised her arms and whispered an invocation, “Oh Muse, sing to me of a wise woman, a creative spirit whose breath stirs. Help me move into this next phase of life, to stop wearing skirts too short and falling for guys too young.” It was high time she start calling herself Iphigenia, her rightful, grownup name.
—About the Author—
M. Leona Godin is a writer, actor, artist, and educator who is blind. She is working on a personal and cultural history of blindness with Pantheon Books. She is a Catapult columnist, and has fiction and nonfiction published in such disparate venues as Playboy, FLAPPERHOUSE, and O Magazine. She founded Aromatica Poetica to explore the arts and sciences of smell and taste.