Mom was a jigsaw puzzle. I don’t mean a mystery or a riddle or that you couldn’t discern the meaning behind her rare smile. Her skin was grooved into interlocking, thin, wood-like pieces and tessellated over a green felt dermis.
She liked to read on the couch on Sunday afternoons while I assembled moon bases with Legos on the coffee table. Once, I climbed up next to her to show her the rover I’d built and banged my head against her arm, knocking the book from her hands and a tile from her forearm onto the floor. I scrabbled onto the carpet and handed her the chestnut piece. She laughed and slipped it back onto her underlayment. “See,” she said, “all better.”
Dad would come home from the local dive smelling like rum with a dash of cigarette ash. He’d crush mom’s hand while he slurred about his boss keeping him down; how he never got a fair shake. The tabs on the pieces of mom’s fingers became worn and delaminated, lifting like hang nails from each time she’d extracted herself from him and escaped to her bedroom.
One night, she pulled away too quickly. He jerked her towards him, grabbed the back of her neck and slammed her down onto her knees. Pieces of her sheared off under his grip and scattered across the floor, exposing islands of her deep, green felt. I stepped forward, trembling, wanting to scoop them up but the defiant crease of her mouth kept me from crying out for him to stop. Dad let go and kicked the scraps of her across the room before weaving into her bedroom and passing out on the bed.
Mom picked up her tiles and put them into a box with the money she’d been hiding under a floor vent cover. We left the next morning to stay with her mother. Dad showed up, later, begging for us to return. When Grandma’s door remained closed, he raged.
“Who the fuck do you think is going to want you, bitch?”
Grandma covered my ears while mom phoned the police. I bawled when they took Dad away. With Grandma’s help, we moved to Toronto and mom found a job at the local public school.
We settled in and over the months and years she took each tile Dad had knocked loose, five pieces from her knees, another from her left arm, seven from behind her neck and smoothed them back into place. She was whole again, except for the pieces above her heart. They wouldn’t lie flush like before, no matter how hard she forced them down.
By the time I entered high school, S-shaped fault lines had breached the surface of my stomach and worked their way up my chest and down my arms – compartmentalizing my skin with each new experience I had or book I read. I hid them under long-sleeved shirts.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Anjalee.” Mom said one morning at breakfast. I stared at my cereal and didn’t answer. “It doesn’t mean we’re weak.”
At night I traced the new channels between the pieces and wished they’d vanish in the wake of my fingers. “Who’s going to want you?” I’d mouth to the dark.
Mom was there, two years later, when I came out of my room ready for junior prom wearing a black dress that revealed my scribed arms. We conceded, after an hour of waiting, that I’d been stood up. My chest hung concave and loose, on the brink of crumbling inwards with each shuddering breath.
“It’s okay,” she whispered into my hair as she held me on the couch, “Cry tonight. Tomorrow, you’ll put yourself back together.”
Our tiles became more intricate, more difficult to keep in place. Mom went back to school and became a reading recovery specialist; I, an Engineer. And whenever there were breakups, financial hardships, even the dissolution of my own marriage, we’d spend months, bent over the kitchen table repairing ourselves – re-adhering each piece with flour based glues, sealing our surfaces with beeswax or coconut oil.
Mom’s older now. I visit her twice a week with Vikas, my little boy. She calls out to us when I open the door and we usually find her seated in front of the television with a box of her tiles that have come loose.
Today, she let Vikas play with them. He holds them up in his tiny hands, a tile from mom’s fingertip, a piece from just below her nose. She recounts the memories they carry – the light weft of my grandmother’s bright saris, the sweet sawdust scent of me as a newborn. Vikas scrunches his eyebrows as he tries to fit these incongruous pieces together.
“Soon he’ll have his own fragments to reckon with,” Mom says with a rueful smile. I help her replace her tiles. The pieces don’t fit as snugly as they used to; the verdant felt between her seams is visible.
“The day will come when they all fall off,” she says as we walk to the front door.
I kiss her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll pick them up for you.”
She puts her hand on her chest where the tiles still bow upward. “You can’t keep me whole, Anjalee.”
I hug her goodbye then Vikas gives her a kiss. She waves as I help him into the car but her hand clips the porch railing. A piece of her wrist dislodges and sails into a potted geranium. She eases onto her knees to look for it, the shallow dent of worry on her brow.
Before I can run up the front steps, she pulls the tile from the dirt and holds it up, a weak smile curving her lips.
“Will Grandma be okay?” Vikas asks when I return to the car. I look at his still un-etched skin. The corners of my lips slip downward.
“I hope so Vikas, I hope so.”
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is an ESL teacher and free lance writer living in Ontario, Canada. She has had work published at Diabolical Plots and is a first reader for Shimmer.