Cover Photo: See You Soon by Anne Hellman

See You Soon

Conversations have a way of turning on you, especially those conducted over dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. There is so much to cover and, anxious to get to it all, you rush to come up with the next question, the next topic of conversation. In that rush you find yourself saying something you hadn’t really meant to say, an idea you hadn’t fully worked through. You might even introduce a passing thought you had on the cab ride to the restaurant, a random flight of the imagination that had no real significance at the time but which in the context of a dinner conversation takes on new meaning, illuminated by the need to make it worth telling.

This is what happened when Eve mentioned her mother’s trip to Egypt over dinner with Mimi. They were comfortably seated at the fondue restaurant they both adored, sleeves rolled away from the steaming pot between them as they dipped. It was too warm an October night for fondue, but they had gone anyway. Sweat glistened above their lips, between their eyebrows.

Eve didn’t just mention the trip. She told Mimi about a suspicion that had begun to form in her mind: that her mother had another reason for going to Egypt than simply to take her boyfriend, Gregory, on an exotic vacation.

It was a paranoid thought, yes, but one that surfaced because, looking out the cab window at a woman’s face on a passing billboard, she remembered a note she had found in her mother’s apartment a few days earlier, a scribble she almost missed on her way to the door. It looked like it had been written very quickly on the top sheet of a yellow notepad conveniently placed on the foyer table next to a picture of Aunt Linda, her mother’s younger sister.

The note read: “See you soon.”

            Locking the door to the apartment, Eve had mused over her mother’s haphazard jolts of affection, how she would never take the time to sit down and write her daughter a letter or tell her over the phone that she loved or missed her. These emotions eked out after long intervals through tiny signs, tiny acts of sweetness, like this note, which she at once took to be addressed to her, her mother’s only child. Who else could it have been written to? Not Linda, because Linda had died the year before, at the age of fifty-two. Too young, too tragic to comprehend. Her mother never spoke about it. Eve couldn’t tell where her mother stood in the trajectory of grief, whether she was making progress, “healing,” as the counselors called it, or whether she was still in the denial stage, stuck in disbelief that her sister was gone, that she would never see her again as long as she lived.

            And so, the thought had not come immediately. It had come in the cab as she was rushing to meet Mimi, who she hadn’t seen since early summer and of course she was late, not following the time closely enough as usual. From the window, Eve caught the eyes of a woman’s face passing by on a billboard and the image of her mother’s note appeared in her mind, accompanied by the thought: She meant Linda. The thought jolted forward, then whirred in fuller dimension. She thinks she’ll see Linda in Egypt, waving from the shore as they slip down the Nile. This is why she signed up for the trip so suddenly. To see Linda again. To bring her back somehow.

            The picture of Linda was recent, only about two years old. In it she leaned her chin into her palm, her slightly bony elbow angled on a tabletop. Her blue eyes looked tired but light-filled, her cheeks a faint rose pink. No sign of the yellow that would set in days before her death, no sign of sickness at all.

            “You know, I had this strange idea on the way here,” said Eve as she dipped her fork into the miniature cauldron of melted cheese. “My mom’s in Egypt with her boyfriend, but I think she’s there because of Linda.”

            Mimi knew about Aunt Linda’s cancer, the year-long, impossible fight, the shock of the end coming into view, then hitting all at once. Still Mimi tilted her head, not understanding.

            “I mean,” Eve faltered, pear piece smothered, quivering, “I don’t think she went on vacation. I saw this note she left by her door”¾now her argument was beginning to crumble, she still didn’t know what the note meant exactly¾“and I got a postcard from her today”—this only just came to her, what the postcard said. “Seemed a little strange, now that I think about it—”

            “Hold on a minute,” Mimi interrupted, chewing. Mimi’s father was Swedish and the sun-colored hair she inherited accentuated the dark freckles that rose to her heated cheeks. “You think your mom went to Egypt to do what?”

            “Find Linda, somehow. I know it’s crazy, but it—it was terrible. I mean, it destroyed my mom.”

            “I remember. So sad.” Mimi wagged her head, resting her fork respectfully. With the utensil poised against the rim, she leaned a bit closer. “And so, what do you think your mom is doing?”

            Eve blushed. “I got this postcard today. It said something like ‘might be out of touch for a little while . . . want to explore these caves,’ or maybe it was ‘tombs.’ Something pretty cryptic. On the way over here I suddenly had this idea that there’s more to her trip than she’s telling me. I just think¾

            She didn’t have an end to the sentence and so let it die on the table as Mimi took up her fork again. Nothing but a random thought conjured on a cab ride, warm wind rushing in from the street. But it had come and somehow it had planted a seed, however tiny and insufficient. And Eve had been in the mood to entertain it, even to give it words.

           

            The seed grew in Eve’s mind in the days that followed. Her task was to stop by her mother’s apartment every few days to water the plants and collect the mail, check the answering machine for anything important. She liked lingering in the spacious rooms with creaky floors, something she never did when her mother was at home. The building had at one time been a factory and was since converted into artists’ lofts. A fresh skin of white paint coated its dirty, pocked past life. Her mother was not an artist but an interior decorator who bought into the building early and watched her property value skyrocket in recent years. She also bought and sold antiques, which is how she met Gregory, a dealer, and the antiques she owned were really worth something, “A lot” as she would say, which Eve knew to mean a whole lot more than anyone, except maybe Gregory, suspected. Her mother had an eye for secret value.

            One night after work Eve lingered for a few hours. The light in the windows fell from amber to hot pink to gray to black and she found herself shivering where she stood in the kitchen torn between ordering take-out and starting the trek home before it got late. Her mother was always complaining about the heat in the building, although it was nearly impossible to have the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century factory turned luxury loft without the occasional draft stealing through the multi-paned windows or tunnels of old, scarred wood. Eve opened every radiator, telling herself she would close them before leaving that night. Only a mild amount of heat bled in.

            She decided on Chinese. After ordering she wandered into the living room, which faced tall windows overlooking the street and consisted of a number of white pieces of furniture, a white shag rug, and three darkened standing masks from Africa, or was it Brazil? Eve rarely paid attention when her mother went on and on about her objects. She tried sometimes but even when she tried something prevented her from retaining the specifics of what her mother said. Long ago she came to the realization that she just didn’t share her mother’s interest in old things. Her father hadn’t shared it either.

             As she glanced along the bookshelves her mother had designed herself, a particular spine caught her eye. She waited a moment before moving—could she be imagining it?—then decided she had to see whether it was real. Sure enough, wedged between The History of Interior Design and Mid-Century Furniture was a thick, leather spine embossed in chipped gold. The Book of the Dead.

            She tugged it down from the shelf and held it open. Maybe because it had been flattened between neighboring volumes, it looked surprisingly new for a book with its title, showing no signs of dust or misuse. Though the casing was worn, the pages were crisp and shiny. They even smelled good.

            Flipping the pages between her fingers her eyes picked up flutters, like wings, then bright jabs of color, black lines thickly inked. Eye shapes, profiles, gold headdresses could be found on nearly every page. Her thumb inserted itself on one in particular showing a detail of a wall painting found inside a pharaoh’s tomb. In the painting a woman—“the deceased,” as the caption called her—stood before a giant balance. A figure seated on a throne faced her from the right.

“The deceased waits while her heart (shown on the left-hand scale) is weighed against a feather (shown on the right), as Osiris, King of the Underworld, looks on. From the way the scale is tipped, it appears that the deceased will indeed be allowed to pass on to the afterlife, her heart lighter than a feather.”

Eve turned back to the introduction and skimmed down the page until she found an explanation for what she held in her hands, keeping her finger wedged where the detail was.

The Book of the Dead is the name given by Egyptologists to a group of mortuary spells inscribed on sheets of papyrus and placed with the dead in order to help them pass through the dangers of the underworld and attain a blissful afterlife. Some of the texts and accompanying illustrations are also found on the walls of tombs and on coffins. In ancient times The Book of the Dead was called The Book of Coming Forth by Day, expressing the freedom granted to the spirit forms to come and go as they pleased in the afterlife.”

Eve turned back to the page her finger had found, with the image of the woman standing before a balance. This time she noticed its title. “Spell 125. The Judgment of the Dead.”

            She couldn’t imagine her mother sitting down and reading something like this, much less buying a book called The Book of the Dead. Although she dealt in antiques, her mother preferred the beautiful, the decorative, those things that celebrated life or that symbolized a life opulently lived. An elaborately carved chest of drawers she remembers took a turn in her mother’s house, a chest of drawers worth thousands of dollars and which centuries earlier had sat in the palace of a prince somewhere in Europe. Likewise, the three tall, sinuous masks propped on stands on the living room floor—like brown tusks each carved with a different face—came from somewhere south of the equator—Africa, or South America—and were once used in tribal ceremonies hundreds of years older than the country they now found themselves in. Gregory had mentioned something about them being used in funeral processions, but Eve remembered her mother’s dismissive tone after he said this. “I just think they’re gorgeous,” her mother interjected. “Whether they used them in funerals or whatever it doesn’t matter. It’s the beauty of the carving, the simplicity of the forms. That’s why I have them.”

            The masks were among the few pieces her mother had hung on to for so long. Most of her supply moved quickly, some items staying around for less than a day. There were countless pieces her mother bought and sold that Eve never even saw a picture of. And so maybe she had missed something. Maybe there was an entire Egyptian portion of her mother’s inventory that she had never been exposed to. The thought disturbed her. It made her wonder whether her mother kept a hidden room, locked to everyone but herself and filled with antiquities darker than the rest.

Eve shivered. After several weeks of too-warm weather, the coolness should have been welcome. She was tired of sweating through her fall clothes. But in this moment she wanted the feeling to change, to turn back into sunset warmth and light. She had entered nighttime and didn’t want it.

            Rrrriiiiinnggg. The doorbell sent a shockwave through her body. Right. Dinner. She closed the book and slid it into the missing-tooth space on the bookshelf. For someone who proclaimed to be totally uninterested in the dead and only in the beauty of the things they left behind, her mother had placed the tome in a particularly prominent spot on her self-designed wall of shelves.

 

            The book haunted her. She had dreams about the Egyptian figures on its pages coming to life and walking about her mother’s living room. Even the giant balance pounced onto the shag rug, alive and tipping. She awoke clutching the comforter she had recently added to her bed, and since she was single and there was no reliable presence other than herself in her apartment, she would have to turn on the light and read from whatever magazine she had on her nightstand in order to make herself sleepy again.

            Three days after she found the book in her mother’s apartment, she received a second postcard. It had been two weeks since her mother and Gregory left for Egypt.

            “We are back in civilization, though only for a few days. Cairo is wonderful but completely different from where we’ve been all week, which is UNDERGROUND. We’ve been exploring the tombs! And they are incredible. Absolutely gorgeous stuff. We are going back day after tomorrow because there is still so much to see. Haven’t bought anything yet. Still circling. Give the plants a kiss for me. Hope you are well too, dear. Love, Mom.”

            To an innocent bystander this postcard would have appeared to be perfectly ordinary. To Eve it wasn’t ordinary at all. First, this was by far the longest piece of writing she had ever received from her mother. Second, her mother gave no indication of coming home anytime soon, when she had told Eve they would be gone no longer than two weeks, “Tops.” And “still so much to see”—what was she going back for? The card made it sound as though they abandoned the original itinerary and were heading out on their own.

Which led to Eve’s next thought: She’s going back for Aunt Linda. But how could she know where to look, or believe that Linda’s “location” had anything to do with one of her—most likely momentary—passions? Aunt Linda had been an accountant. For a design firm, yes, but still she had been a numbers person, expressing zero interest in visiting the galleries and museums her older sister loved so much. Eve and Linda would taunt Eve’s mother from time to time, imitating the fake accent she used when speaking to clients on the phone or talking about so-and-so’s “smash” opening the night before. Often it felt as though her mother slipped out of this other privileged existence to correspond with her sister and daughter, only to turn around and slip right back in. Meanwhile her sister and daughter grew to be good friends.

            Oh, Aunt Linda. Still standing in the narrow entry hall of her apartment building, mailbox door swung open, Eve’s throat suddenly closed. Her eyes stung and her lip trembled. Cheeks wet, she bounded up the stairs to reach the other side of her door before one of her neighbors stepped out.

 

            The e-mail came the following day. Eve was at work, standing at her desk about to go to lunch, when the boldfaced message scooted onto the screen. A copy editor at a fairly prominent magazine, Eve worked in the middle of a vast sprawl of desks, all somewhat divided by thin gray walls yet totally exposed to the hovering fluorescent lights of the galactic ceiling, the ebb and flow of the aisles. The subject of the message, “From Aunt Linda,” was why Eve had the immediate reflex to block it from view. She quickly seated herself, rolling the chair close so that her head and shoulders would cover the screen, and double-clicked.

           

Eve. Aunt Linda here. I know you weren’t expecting me, for obvious reasons, but I felt it imperative that I write to you. It has been a while since we have e-mailed, so please bear with me. What I am about to write is hard for me.

First of all, I love you. I didn’t have a chance to say this to you before I died. For whatever reason, the time flew by too quickly and I didn’t get to say half the things I wanted to say before it all went black. I regret this because, more than you may know, I really appreciated your friendship. I know we were aunt and niece, but beyond that you truly were a good friend to me. Our dinners together pretty much saved me. I had few friends I could trust in the end, you see. And your mother and I were going through another cold phase. I know she regrets this as much as I do. We never did have a chance to repair things while I was alive. I never did have a chance to tell her what I am telling you now. Which is, I love you, Eve. I really love you.

            Now for the strange part. I am with your mother now, in Egypt. She came to find me and here I am—in what some call “spirit form,” some call “purgatory,” some call “limbo.” I prefer the latter although none quite describes what I am going through. I have been living in tunnels, in caves. I have finally found the tombs. And their walls are lined with the most gorgeous paintings I have ever seen. So much color, so much life. Though faded, some of them, they still hold far more brilliance than any painting OUT THERE, in the daylight. It is just breathtaking to see these things up close. They are a gateway, I think, to another world. The afterlife? I hope so. I haven’t made it there yet. I’m still waiting to be judged. I felt at first that my heart was too heavy. There was so much I never said, so much I needed to give so that I could be lighter, clearer, ready. I never told you how much you meant to me, how you were the only daughter I ever knew. My only child. I feel much lighter now, just writing this.

            Your mother says not to wait for her. Read this message carefully, Eve. And do not wait.

 

Aunt Linda

 

            Eve was not sure what it was she was reading. It sounded like Linda. They had kept up a fairly routine e-mail relationship before she died. Linda lived in the suburbs and so they would meet for dinner in the city once a month. Now and then Eve’s mother would announce that she planned on joining them but this never happened. Eve and Linda felt that they were very much alike. And over the course of eating good food and drinking a little too much wine they would become something more like sisters than aunt and niece. Eve was sure that the e-mail was in Linda’s voice, yet this was impossible.

            The last e-mail Eve received from her aunt came about six weeks before her death. In it, Linda did not once mention her cancer. Instead, she wanted to hear from Eve about her job, and whether or not she had been on any good dates. Eve never talked to her mother about the romances that came and went in her life, but she did talk to Aunt Linda about them. Linda had been engaged once, when Eve was too young to remember. She never had children.

            The absence of her aunt’s e-mails after her death was much more profound than Eve could have anticipated. The sensation that this person who she felt so connected to did not exist anymore, that she would never receive another phone call or e-mail from her, was at first too much to handle. She would avoid checking her inbox, until work colleagues noticed she hadn’t gotten back to them about this or that. For a long time she refused to believe that her aunt was gone, and somewhere in the back of her mind she expected to see the subject heading “From Aunt Linda” again.

            A year passed. Eve carried questions about Aunt Linda around with her. Who had her fiancé been, really? Linda had dropped bits of information, that he was a successful graphic designer, that she had met him in college, that they had lived in a stylish apartment in the city and had thrown a lot of parties. But she never heard the reason for the end, or what had happened to him. She had the sense he moved away long ago but did not know this for sure.

            Now her mother was the sole keeper of this information. However, in the year since Linda’s death, her mother refused to bring her sister up in conversation. It had begun to feel as though Eve would never learn the whole story, that it along with her aunt were lost forever.

            What could she be talking about?Read this message carefully, Eve, and do not wait.’ Linda had not been one for secret messages, at least not when she was alive. Maybe the dead became more secretive in the afterlife. But she wasn’t in the afterlife yet. The image from the book flashed in Eve’s mind. Waiting to be judged. Her heart lighter than a feather. Why would her heart be heavy? Was she in danger?

She had always believed her first memories of her aunt started when she was around eight. By this time Linda was a single forty-year-old and Eve’s mother single and forty-three. Eve’s father left when Eve was barely four. All her mother ever said was that he’d had an affair, and that was that. But her father explained, when they spent the occasional weekend or vacation together, that it was more complicated than the other woman, who did not stick around for long anyway. He would expound upon the impossibility of continuous relationships, the essential truth that one is all alone, and Eve would start to tune him out. She didn’t have the patience to find out more about her parents and so she pretended there was nothing more to know. Her mother was the secretive one. Not Eve.

            The essential truth was: Eve hadn’t paid attention in years. She blindly drew connections between diffuse shards of information, but in the end she used little that was concrete about her family to draw her conclusions. They bloomed most frequently from her imagination. All she had in this moment were scraps of memory and a new e-mail from Aunt Linda. But it couldn’t be from Aunt Linda. Aunt Linda was dead.

            She shut down her computer and pushed away from the screen. Two officemates stood by the elevator doors, waiting for her. Put it out of your mind, she told herself. But the words remained. Read this message carefully, Eve, and do not wait.

 

            Objects that have inhabited a room for years might disappear over time, if their presence is taken for granted. Then all at once they reappear with just a look. They step from the shadows, taking part in the room again. You notice them now because you have unnoticed them too long. You haven’t paid attention.

This is what happened when Eve sat down on the white couch in her mother’s living room and saw that the standing African-or-Brazilian masks were looking directly at her. They had even gathered closer, it seemed, their heavy ebony bases rooted into the shag carpet rather than the wood. Each face crooned in a different sinuous way: the left almost black, eyes and nose stacked narrowly atop a tall, slit mouth; the middle a rich brown but curved at the cheeks as though stretched by wind; the right the blackest, with a mouth that circled around one silent, sad sound.

It was late, almost midnight. Eve had come as usual after work to water the plants, check the messages, and had stayed to eat dinner and then to think. All she wanted was to be in her mother’s apartment, alone, the lights on and the windows black, to sit on her mother’s couch next to her mother’s bookshelves, next to the book she had found the week before, and take it in. The masks seemed to understand this. They looked back at her hollow-eyed, hollow-mouthed, as though holding breath for her next move.

            She was getting up the courage to go into her mother’s bedroom. She had never been in her mother’s bedroom. They didn’t have that kind of a relationship. But tonight it was imperative that she go in. Her mother was gone and she did not know whether she was coming back. The least she could do was to try to find some kind of an answer, some tiny clue.

At last she stood and moved toward the bedroom door, pushing it open just enough to slide in. She reached to her right and turned on the large lamp resting on top of a long wooden bureau.

            The bedroom had been carved out of the same space as the living room and kitchen and so shared the same creaky floors and high-arched windows as the rest of the loft. Only, to make it more intimate, her mother had draped the windows with layers of gauzy white fabric, which must have glowed with sunlight in the daytime but which, as Eve stood in the room that night, appeared more sheet-like, lacking life.

            Other than the bureau there was a king-size bed facing the door. The expanse had been coated with a thick white satin duvet against which pillows in rich fabrics were propped at the head. Nothing in the room looked as though it had been growing dust for three weeks. Instead, fabrics appeared tight and still, the few furnishings coming sharp into view.

            To the left of the bed froze a rocking chair, though not the ordinary country-style rocking chair you imagine when you hear the word. By turning on the lamp on the bedside table Eve could make out the elegantly carved wooden arms and legs, the oval-shaped seat and backrest, like the frames on old mirrors. The seat cushion was faded, the backrest embroidered with a bucolic scene of a mother seated under a willow tree surrounded by her children. The chair had at one time been painted a warm golden white, which had chipped gracefully to give glimpses of pale wood.

            At first she didn’t want to sit in it, but then she did. Creaking into the seat she knew for sure her mother would disapprove. This chair had not been sat in since it had become an antique. Her mother probably draped her robe on it in the mornings, but more certainly it was meant to be decorative, the right piece for that corner of the room. Its colors were warm, feminine, yet childlike, perfect for a bedroom. And their paleness matched the gauzy light, the bedspread and curtains and floor painted white.

Slowly, Eve began to rock back and forth, back and forth, and as she did this she began to see the room in a different way. It no longer was her mother’s bedroom but a space that felt undeniably familiar. It smelled familiar, too, though she couldn’t say exactly what it smelled like. The more she rocked it just felt more and more her own.

Back and forth, back and forth. Her eyes fell upon a photograph perched in its frame on the far end of the bureau. Black and white. Two figures. She stopped rocking, stood. Approaching the photograph where it leaned among an assortment of neatly placed odds and ends, Eve noticed two things right away. First, it was the only photograph on the bureau. Second, it was a photograph of herself as a baby, held in her mother’s arms. Her father must have taken the photo, since he did not appear in it. The two of them swam in a pool of white sheets and pillows and sunlight. It was a different bed from the one in this room. A bed that existed years ago and that did not exist anymore. A bed her parents must have shared, when they were young and in love and empty of secrets.

Eve peered into her mother’s face, her big clear eyes and loud smile, and then she moved her gaze to her own face, the way it looked only a few months out of the womb. She picked up the photograph and brought it closer, as if to kiss it, but really what she wanted was to get as close as possible to those faces, to those people. She held them like that for several moments then lowered them back down onto the bureau.

See you soon, she mouthed. She left the room.

On her way to the subway she called Mimi, because she had promised weeks ago that she would.    

Anne Hellman lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons. She is the author of Design Brooklyn (STC, 2013) and the blog of the same name. Anne writes fiction and is at work on a historical novel.