I GO HOME TO FIND MY AUNT TRANSFORMED into my grandmother and my mother into someone else; she is remarried, and she has a young child, my half-brother, about five years old by now. I don’t know the child much, and I don’t know the child’s father at all.
My mother, the child, and I go to see my aunt, who is glad to see me. The house where my aunt lives hasn’t changed at all except for the tea-towels which she has always had the habit of changing, regularly and seasonally. Red and green for Christmas. Pink for Valentine’s Day. I am relieved to be there. I love my aunt, and have always known that my aunt loves me.
I have been away recklessly and overlong, and because of this it is awkward to be back. My aunt wants to look in my passport to see the paper trail, because she is interested. She touches all the multi-coloured stamps. She wants to hear about the ferry to Estonia, and the long trip overland to St Petersburg, and looks at my name in Cyrillic script on the golden entry permit pasted in, which looks like my name and yet also doesn’t, proof of another version of me, very far away from here… but then my mother gets up to go, gathers the child, and tells me it’s time to leave. I thought I was staying with my aunt? Reluctantly, I say goodbye. My aunt waves and waves from the front steps. Come back anytime, she says. Soon, even.
We drive and drive, into the city and downtown and then we park and get out in a shopping arcade. Maybe there is a library in it, upstairs; this is unfamiliar, all newly built since I went away. My mother says that there are plans already made ahead of time for the afternoon, the whole afternoon. She doesn’t mean me. She is dropping me off at the arcade, where I can presumably amuse myself.
We part suddenly. I am confused. I think they’re leaving, and then through one of the big plate glass windows I see them picking their way across the plaza towards the cineplex adjacent. I push through the glass doors and hurry and catch up to them.
Are you going to a movie? I say.
She says, It’s a children’s movie: it is a children’s movie.
The child says nothing, looks down, accustomed to letting decisions progress in the air over his head. I turn to save face and go back someplace else. I follow what seems to be a shortcut, the quickest way to disappear. I go into another narrow courtyard between the windowed walls of two big buildings. I’m walking on damp concrete through the supports of a towering work of metal public art; there is a groaning, and the sound of moving air. I am among a herd of steel elephants so large between the buildings that I am walking through their legs under the framework of their lofty bodies. Water moves suddenly. It is a fountain, and the elephants are spraying at random intervals through their skeletal trunks. I can hear the water splashing onto the cement ahead and I understand that although I am to meet them for dinner—the words registering belatedly, that we will meet, for dinner—this means that afterwards she will find a way to let me know that I will not be staying with them during this visit, by which time it will be late enough to be hard to find a way back out to my aunt’s house without asking my mother to take me there. And my mother might then very well decide that allowing me one night on the couch is less inconvenient than taking me back out there in the car. She must realise that one uncomfortable night on the couch will send me away more handily anyway. She will wake me early. She will feed the child well in front of me, and hardly offer coffee. I will have to ask for a towel, and she will give me an old one with hanging strings. We have done all of this before.
But why didn’t she leave me at my aunt’s house earlier? My aunt was glad to see me. My aunt wanted to make up the bed for me in the guest room, to thaw frozen strawberries for breakfast in the morning, and to hear everything and to tell me everything, all evening and all morning until eventually I would be on my way again and she would wave goodbye, goodbye, waving from the steps until the next visit.
The public space below the elephants is like all the other places where my mother has dropped me in the past, bus stations and airports, terminals from which anyone can arrive and depart and make their own independent plans and either appreciate or ignore the moment of going. According to her, not every arrival and departure is significant anymore.
I understand, and I can easily remember the candy in her hands now in the darkness of the theatre as she gives it piece by piece to the child. I can picture the reddish flip of her hair illuminated, carefully done, even if I manage to forget, in the intervals, that her priorities are a mystery.
I am sad. But wait, wait, wait: I remember that my aunt has become my grandmother and that I want to spend as much time with her as possible while I am here; she won’t care about offending my mother by taking me in. My mother is someone else now anyway; why should I kill time waiting for her? She’ll be fine, she has the other child with her, watching cartoons in the dusty darkness of a sunlit afternoon. When they come out into the plaza she will have forgotten me. I don’t know what I was thinking. Am I not flexible? Am I not resourceful? I can do anything. It is no challenge at all for me to strike out through the crowds of the plaza and buy a ticket and find and board a bus going in the right direction. It will be easy, very easy; my aunt is probably already expecting me.