Another Kind of Comprehension

She’s planning her escape, and I’m watching for it.

Her head has been low to the ground now for days; really, ever since she came to stay with us. She listens to the carpet. Everyone else thinks she’s just lying on the floor.

But I know.

I know she’s listening.

And I know what she hears.

 

Shelley’s come over with some unwelcomed whole wheat quinoa cinnamon muffins. Father flashes a smile before taking them off her hands, and Shelley situates herself at the oak table in the dining room no one uses.

In my family, I’m the conversationalist. “Hi Shelley. How ya doin today?” I truncate my words for ease of reception.

“Oh, I’m just fine, Smelly.”

That’s what she calls me. We’re Shelley and Smelly. It’s been that way for years now, and still, I’m the conversationalist.

“Just thought I’d bring some cinnamon muffins over. I know you have a guest.”

She doesn’t mean herself here. She means Mother’s sister. We refuse to introduce the two of them. Bad things could happen.

“The muffins look delicious,” I say and smile. “How’s the water polo team?” There needs to be a change.

“Oh, we kicked Shady Gardens’ ass last week. We’re rising in the standings.”

In addition to being a feared baker, Shelley is a feared competitor in the senior citizen water polo circuit.

“Sounds like good fun. Would you excuse me for a moment?” I leave practically before she’s even heard the question.

 

Mother’s sister is at it again. I watch through the spines of the staircase railing. I know she feels me. But I also know I’m the only one who understands.

I haven’t yet decided what I’ll do when she tries to escape. I’m trying not to think about it, but I do wonder how long she’ll be able to continue listening and how much of that listening will stay with her.

My toes curl with anxiety in my pretty new shoes.

 

Shelley left when I failed to return after two hours. I’m the conversationalist, not the polite one. The polite one is Father, and he was feeding the muffins to the warren of gophers we’re cultivating out back and hadn’t realized I’d left Shelley on her own.

It was okay, really. Shelley doesn’t come to our house for company but for the chance to sit in silence in someone else’s home.

 

Dinner can be a tense time here. The prevailing challenge is to be the most difficult eater but still enjoy eating. Mother has been the reigning champion for two years now, with a landmark seven months of eating nothing but foods that start with the letter “v.” Mother is the focused one. However, her sister looks to be up to the task of challenging her. She has been doing this a lot longer than any of us know.

 

I thought I’d been careful, that everyone was asleep, but I’m not the careful one. That’s my brother.

As I lie on the floor listening to the murmurings, I feel her hand on my shoulder and now understand her escape route.

I am the conversationalist because it helps me avoid explaining why I still live with my parents at 39. My parents do not begrudge my presence, but I know they wonder if it’s terminal.

Mother’s sister and I stand together in the living room, streetlight barely reaching our feet, and she covers her ears with my hands.

I understand, and no, it’s not terminal. It ends tonight as she and I make our escape.


After receiving her MFA from Columbia University, Claudia B. Manley moved to Hamilton, Ontario where she writes, teaches, and makes art. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals including Calyx, Night Train, and Joyland (Toronto). A recipient of both an Ontario Arts Council Writers’ Reserve grant and two Emerging Artist grants, she currently teaches writing at Western University in London, Ontario and is a member of the art collective Shake –n- Make.

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