Maureen obviously knew she was Maureen. She just didn’t like remembering.
She could never focus on her name without that other thing slipping into her mind. The thoughts came together like cherries – just one of them would make the picture incomplete. If it was natural to everyone, or just to her, she never even wondered.
Maureen was Maureen. However, called by a different name, she would still be herself. Something in her head always reminded her, and she loved playing around with it.
She snuck to her mother’s wardrobe a little too often. The scoldings had stopped early – the little girl was unstoppable when she ran off to the courtyard, carrying what would be the trophy of the day, to stay with her friends until the sun disappeared. She wrapped the scarves around her hair, proudly, completely ignoring the fact they were way too big for her.
She liked to choose them in rich, varied colors. The prettier they were, the easier it became to feel inspired. That was when she turned into Gloria, or Sandy, or Daphne.
Maureen loved to be someone else. It was the only way to make things better.
She was pretty sure it had started with her father. She had built a world around that one photograph of him. She had decreed he was the best father in the world, and her imagination had complied – she pictured him brave, kind, even more dashing than the handsome aviator and his blurry smile.
She filled the amazed ears of her friends with his adventures. In her words and their shining eyes, he was still travelling all around the world. Shooting bad guys, doing good things, collecting gifts for the day he would come home.
The grown-ups said she lied, and she really couldn’t see what was wrong with it. It was much better than a crashed airplane, and a man that could never return.
Maureen never abandoned her nature. When everyone else started saying it was wrong, she still didn’t get it.
There weren’t things she felt particularly unhappy about. But there was so much to be desired.
Why give it all up, when dreams cost nothing?
The one true regret of her serene wifely life was Mrs. Fiddlesticks.
If the quarrels had concerned the monsters she called her cats, having her as a neighbor would have still been bearable. They enjoyed, after all, the rare privilege of a semi-detached house, which was something Filbrick had uncharacteristically insisted on.
It wasn’t about her stony gaze, or her irresistible urge to get rid of the dirt in the exact spots where the wind brought it to their shop. Not even her foul-smelling flowers were the worst thing. They were habits, and grudges, that had settled like dust until nobody cared.
What Maureen really hated about that woman was her being the most judgmental creature she had ever laid her eyes on. And if all she had gone through had not gotten her used to judgement, she was pretty sure not even Mrs. Fiddlesticks would be enough.
The words that old rag of a woman had wasted on her were countless. She had always something to say about whatever failure of Maureen’s – or so she called them – came to her mind. It was Filbrick, not caring enough. Her sons, rowdy and noisy during her afternoon nap.
Her constant, subtle jabs criticized everyone’s choices without mercy. Maureen knew that protesting would have been impossible, if she had cared enough to try. But she didn’t – her own way of seeing the world was enough to face anything.
The truth was, Maureen did not know another way. She had tried many, just to stick with the first and only one that had worked. She could only choose things if, instead of them as a whole, she saw what she liked to see.
When nothing else was possible, it was creating and altering that made happiness real. Faking and lying were only bad to whoever refused that truth. How was it wrong to build her job and her life around her element? To dream for people who couldn’t, and get paid, was not unfair. Everyone needed dreams.
And she rarely focused on it, but she did too. If she built her tomorrow in her head, nothing could force her to make things go wrong. She explained it to Mrs. Fiddlesticks with the same tricks – cards and glass spheres, symbols in the sky. Same excuses for the same needs.
Where Filbrick was too hard to reach, he was stable and quiet. When her sons were sad, she held them tight, telling them to close their eyes and forget. She was convincing and able and always ready to conceal – it was natural for her to make the most of it.
The future spoke to her, she claimed with decision, and her neighbor’s annoyed face did not stop her. She was meant to be a good mother, with a long and happy life in a happy family. Everything was alright. As always, everything was alright.
If she believed in it enough, it would always be.
The day she was left without a son for the first time, it turned out reality was much harder to cope with than she thought.
Maureen could not stop it in any way. Or so she believed, for a very long time. Figuring out what had truly happened took her years, and the suspect it wasn’t actually possible never left her to her dying day.
There were too many barriers between her and the truth. The time had come for her to cross them. She had never really needed to before – that was the realization that weighed down on her the most, in the years to come.
She tried hard, beyond her rage and her disappointment. Then, once she got over herself, she realized her defenses had turned into countless obstacles. A whole world of expectations, hopes and life-changing opportunities had collapsed – nothing of the sort went without leaving huge remains behind.
When the haze of disbelief and disappointment passed, Maureen couldn’t do better than focusing on what she still had. A son whose life needed to rebuild, a creature who fully depended on her yet.
She never stopped thinking of what she had lost, either. But the look on Filbrick’s face caught her unprepared every time. With facts so harsh and irreversible, she had never built convincing alternatives to shutting up.
Maureen took to sitting by the phone all day. Her eager waiting for calls was deftly concealed under the excuse of her job. She kept lying to whoever would come to her – because the exception, the one voice she desperately wanted to answer earnestly, never arrived.
And it was alienating, between her and Shermy’s meals, to truly notice how good she was at making up things. How comforting she could be to people who had lost everything, or had nothing, and lived off the hope of a brighter future.
She was one of them now. It was so strange that, of all people, she couldn’t absolve herself.
It was not truly hard to contain herself, until the nightmares came.
Maureen dreamt of picking up the phone to find an eternal silence. She would scream, scream endlessly, until the hollow space in the wire would be filled to the brim with echoes. She woke herself up like that. It happened the most during the winter, when the streets and the deserts were ice cold, and she wouldn’t stop thinking that somewhere out there was her son she had left alone.
She surrendered to insomnia to stare at the window for hours. She soon didn’t hope for anything – it grew to be pure force of habit.
Stanford was always the same. Still far and still bitter. And if Filbrick was out of the question, there was still someone in the house who could help. Defenseless, silent, unable to remember and understand.
She dropped the role of remedy on Shermy. She couldn’t afford to feel guilty. She kept him in his arms during those nights, and sang useless lullabies far after he had fallen asleep. Sometimes, she caught her arms holding him so tight that she had to let go, afraid to break him.
Her guilt was poured on him like a mantra. She wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes, this time. She would give anything for him. She would stay close, no matter the cost, no matter the fights and the screams.
She would. It was the least she could do.
How exactly had she forgotten to do it before?
The nursery rhymes could not last forever. They were as much of a placebo as the rest of her habits. When Shermy was too old to control, and his needs no longer obvious, Maureen began falling apart.
The day started like any other, with her desperate son (too lonely? too needy? where had she been wrong this time?) sobbing on his way to kindergarten. Stanford weakly tried to calm him down, while actually focused his newly stained project sheet and the spilt contents of a mug. Filbrick told them to keep quiet – it was all he could do, since Stanley was gone.
Mrs. Fiddlesticks found her on the edge of her door, and her disapproving look was a mirror to Maureen. She saw herself, clothes and hair a complete mess, and pictured the sheer despair of a tired mother, all within those inquisitive eyes.
How Maureen could be a fortune-teller, the old bag commented with arrogance, she had no idea, when she had failed so vastly in predicting her own.
Maureen thought of it long and hard, all through the following days.
And she broke down.
The future was the only open door, she unenthusiastically recited to ever rarer clients. Dwelling on the wrongs of the past was meaningless, when one could look forward to the riches of the future.
It was with a different energy altogether that she slammed down the phone horn, at the end of each conversation, and took up her search again.
Filbrick said and knew nothing. He was vaguely aware of it, maybe – but neither cared. Their marital accord had crumbled to pieces with every passing day, leaving room to silence alone. And every time she thought of what had caused it, identifying it more and more with a choice she had never taken part in, she could not bring herself to regret their current situation.
What she did regret was too great to define in words, or even ideas. There was no telling how much she had lost, just because of her eternal distance. And the more she wove nets of calls and research, chasing after addresses and identities of someone who sounded more and more like an outlaw, the less she felt able to track him down again.
She had no one to help her in this. Who else could care? The thought tugged at her chest painfully, forcing her to examine what had become of her life. If Stanford was bound to chase after his genius anyway, Shermy had been too oppressed by the weight of an accident he had never witnessed. He had soon grown tired of them all, and gone to build his own life.
She was paying the price of her choices. She was alone.
Fair enough, she repeated to herself, choking back her tears.
The more she chased after him, the more Stanley seemed made of smoke and mirrors. She often recognized the trace of expedients she had used herself, in the worst occasions she had had to deal with. There was so much of her trade in his vanishing acts – the idea was so frustrating, she felt like tearing the last of her hair away.
That was what her example had left him. She had failed as a mother and a friend, but he had taught him well – and taught him what.
Maureen lied for a living. But that was her. It was all their fault – hers and Filbrick’s – if he had had to retrace her steps.
It wasn’t the future they had wished for him. And yet, in the very moment they had started expecting it, they had doomed him to that one choice.
She found clear news, in the end. She did not have time to rejoice. It came in the form of a gigantic headline, bound to a photo she never had the heart to look at.
And when she read the article, each of the hundreds and hundreds of times she did in the weeks that followed, she finally realized there was no remedy from the start.
We don’t know what we have until we lose it. It was trite, predictable, and honestly in bad taste. But she refused to lay down his coffin without that reminder as his epitaph.
Not even Filbrick was there. The shock had gotten the best of what was left of his health. Like the newspaper had entered their home, he had entered a hospital room, and Maureen doubted he would leave it in any other way than dead.
She was the last to go after his remains were earthed. Not that it would change anything, at this point. But she needed time – and time she took, standing alone in the grass – to count all the other people she could not forgive.
With all the weight of her guilt, she couldn’t help thinking of Stanford the longest. She was furious, in the painful way that goes together with the helplessness of a loss. Maureen would never believe his pathetic excuses for his pettiness. He couldn’t be too busy. He couldn’t be too angry. It was his brother they were talking about.
The light rain brought her a memory, right on the edge of his miserable, barren tomb. She saw a beach and a happy family, in the years of their fragile, yet complete happiness. She remembered two cheerful young man, so incredibly similar to the children they had been. They were her sons, with one on the way. They were young, and strong, and glowing with life. They were her future.
She couldn’t help wondering, beneath the dark clouds on her forehead. Where did all of it disappear to? Where did they go?
It was too late to wonder, and Maureen knew. From things like these, there was no going back. When she found the way home, even her footsteps had already changed forever.
She imagined being a child, with a whole life ahead to make mistakes. She thought of Gloria, or Sandy, or Mrs. Pines. She remembered all the lucky and beautiful women she had been at some point – she felt melancholic, but not surprised, when she found she had somehow turned into a spectre of them all.
And she remembered, lying was like breathing to her. It was not a joke, nor a trick for fools. It was a life choice.
With every step, Maureen thought of one empty promise she had made to a stranger. They never ended. She felt glad she was never there to see it, when most of them were probably let down.
But they lived off their dreams, and she had helped them, in a way. This could be payback. Maybe, for her, it was just the same.
All she had left was dreaming of a paradise.