“I wish you were always like this,” Mom says.
“Like what?” I look at the kitchen doorway, but Mom isn’t there.
I’ve lived with my mom for sixteen years, but I still can’t predict her words or actions. No one can. Mom was born a lefty, but my grandmother tried to make her right-handed. My grandmother’s attempt was among the first of many to change immutable things in my mom. They all failed. Mom mounts a hostile resistance to other people’s ideas of what’s right.
Any interaction with my mom feels like a fight. She throws words like hands. Jab, jab, feint, jab, hook, uppercut. I’m down for one, two, three; it’s over. Maybe I’ll stop fighting back when I’m older, if I accept that no one wins a fight.
I sprawl out on the worn yellow sofa that my twin sis Joe found at Goodwill a few weeks ago. It looked more beat up than most sofas there, but Joe liked that “it survived the 1970s” and looked “tested,” so it would fit in at our house. Mom liked its red sticker, the extra 20% off, so we brought it home. Since it’s been with us, the sofa already lost one seat cushion. I guess we lost it, but either way it’s gone.
That morning, I had an appointment with a dentist who yanked my wisdom teeth and an abscessed molar. After, Mom stuffed my cheeks with styrofoam rolls and gauze, but I bled through it all, down my chin, onto my white t-shirt. My cheeks ballooned. When I got home, Joe said I looked like a puffy bobblehead.
Mom set me up on our couch in the living room. There’s a pro table tennis match on TV. Dead serious. I giggle like a schoolgirl over it — grown men with long body hair playing ping pong on TV, wearing uniforms with brands and sponsors, wiping sweat from creased foreheads over eyes bopping to the bounce of a little white plastic ball. A broadcast duo, color and commentary, calls the action in matching sport coats.
The ping pong players are so fucking serious. It’s never serious when Freddie and I play in the basement, forcing back forties, Coors Light, and whatever else we find in his dad’s mini-fridge. I write our scores in chalk on the concrete wall. Freddie always wins, even when I short his score. But we share in the infinite glory of drunken manly competition, until we throw up after.
On TV, the commentators love this Malaysian player who hops around the table like a coked-up kangaroo. “Uncanny stamina.” I laugh hard. I rarely laugh, never at home. The pro ping pong match might not be that funny, objectively, but I’m in the mood to laugh, almost anything works. When I’m older, maybe I’ll understand how people take just about anything seriously. But right now I’ll just laugh.
I stretch my legs and adjust my head against the lint-ridden throw pillow for a better view of the TV. I hold a bag of frozen peas against my swollen face. Blood drips from my mouth onto the t-shirt I’ll never wear again. My cheeks still swell like water balloons, and I feel my pulse thump in them. But I don’t feel any pain. I don’t feel anything bad, except for the itching.
Under my shorts, I feel a gnarly itch on my thigh. Maybe it’s from the spiky stitching on the sofa’s floral patterns. But I feel itchy all over, and it won’t rest, no matter how hard I scratch. And I scratch deep, ripping skin under my fingernails. But the itching doesn’t stop. Neither does the laughing.
I chuckle louder, and call for my sister. “Joe, come look at this. Pro ping pong on TV with commentators. And they’re serious as hell.” Joe wraps her head around the doorframe. Her bangs bounce over her deep-set eyes. “Aren’t you just a riot?” She walks away before I can respond. It was nice of her to acknowledge me, though. Joe is nice like that.
I look back at the TV. It isn’t that funny. Maybe laughter is how I express this new feeling, the joy of feeling it for the first time. The feeling isn’t mine. It belongs to the big white tablets that Mom’s been giving me since we got home from the dentist. But I don’t care if it is real or mine, or how I’ll feel when it’s gone. What wouldn’t be worth this feeling, freed from humid guilt into uncaged bliss, where everything’s all right for awhile, until the next pill?
Mom comes back to the living room. She must have heard me hoot and shout about the ping pong on TV. She stands in the doorway to the kitchen and watches me laugh, hands on her hips, a dry smile, wet gel in her buzzed black hair.
“I never see you like this anymore,” Mom says. “You’re always so serious, so uptight. I wish you were like this all the time.”
I look down at the floor in front of Mom’s white Reeboks. I shouldn’t have acted so stupid. I asked for it, being wild with Mom around, drawing attention to myself like a red-faced toddler bawling his eyes out for the real milk.
“You aren’t like this all the time,” I say.
Mom doesn’t respond. She steps back into the kitchen, grabs something from the counter. She walks over to me with another white tablet and a glass of water. I put the tablet under my tongue and gulp water, looking at Mom. Mom takes the glass and leaves me again.
I look at the TV and flip through channels. The warmth returns to my blood, the rush to my head, the itch to my thigh. A new program starts. As soon as I see what it is, I laugh and call for my sister. “Joe, you gotta see this. Pro badminton on TV, dead fucking serious.”
Peter Tyree Morrison Colwell is a twin from near the Mason-Dixon Line. He placed some short pieces in past issues of Gravel Magazine, Word Riot (RIP), and Thrice Fiction Magazine. He lives in Virginia with a boxer called “Rosie.”