Five Phone Calls, One Lie

Jennie Evenson


My mother calls today. She asks why I’m so busy these days, why I don’t have time to pick up the phone. I scrape a nail over a lemon peel before I squeeze it into my vodka. It’s my third martini. I’m tempted to tell her I haven’t been answering the phone because I’ve come to my senses, or that I accidentally accepted her call and wished I hadn’t, but instead I admit I’ve started therapy. I sink to the ceramic floor in my kitchen. She asks why I would want to do that. What purpose could therapy serve. Her tone is demanding, but also bruised, as if going to therapy is a criticism of her. And she’s right, it is. She asks again why I need it. There is a moment like this in every conversation we have: a precipice of questions, with the truth below. I don’t even consider letting myself fall. I’ve either had too much to drink or not enough and I’m not buzzed enough to stop lying, so I say I’m fine. I talk about deadlines and the financial pressures of living in a big city like Los Angeles. I ask how her day was and hope she’ll keep talking for a while so I don’t have to speak. She tells me the doctor said her cholesterol looks surprisingly good and her financial advisor told her to cut spending because she is probably going to live a long time which means she’ll have to make her retirement money last. I swirl my martini and inhale, savoring the hint of citrus, and I can’t imagine anything worse than having a healthy mother.

My mother calls today. It is late afternoon and I am sitting on the kitchen floor, my back pressed against a cabinet knob. I’m always in the kitchen, so I can be close to the booze shelf. I’ve had five sessions of therapy now. When I answer the phone, she is quieter than usual and doesn’t ask if I’ve been busy. She makes a comment about politics and I brighten, because it’s our one reliable source of agreement. I love that she’s so liberal, we both are, and we grumble about the lies of conservative pundits, especially that one awful man who said Sandy Hook was staged. Our voices match in righteous outrage. I’ve had a quarter bottle of whisky by now, and I’m starting to wish all our conversations could be like this. I rub my finger on the floor’s ceramic grout, back and forth, meditatively, listening to her, when I notice she’s slurring her words. It’s slight, but I can hear it, which means she’s had more to drink than me, probably more like half a bottle. I pour myself another finger of whisky because I like the idea of sharing this kind of joy with her. It feels exhilarating. Like I could swallow too much of this happiness and never regret it. We could always be like this: angry at someone else, instead of each other. She pauses, and I can feel her thoughts shift. I am still smiling when she tells me my stepfather, the man she divorced thirty years ago, has prostate cancer. She says the tumor is inoperable and he will die within weeks, and she will go to San Francisco to comfort my half-brother while his father dies. I am silent. I should be happy, I tell myself. I should make a cruel comment about spitting on my stepfather’s grave and dancing at his funeral. He would deserve it. Instead, I look up at the whisky bottle on the counter, the golden hour light leaning through its amber, and I imagine the glass shattering and its jagged shards falling around me in a perfect circle of danger that prevents me from moving. She asks if I’m okay, and I say yes. It’s not lying, if you’re paralyzed.

My mother calls on my birthday. For once, I am not on the kitchen floor. I’m sitting cross-legged on my bed, drinking a cup of lemongrass tea. I have plans for takeout sushi with my friends and their dogs on the beach at sunset. I feel smug about my Los Angeles life. I am never sad I left Ohio and its sweaty humid summer mosquito horrors. Maybe that’s why I decide to answer the phone today: I want her to know I’m happy. My joy is defiance. It’s not yet noon and my mother tells me she’s come from Ohio to visit California, but she’s not here to see me. She’s in San Francisco. I expect her to say: “happy birthday.” Instead, she tells me my stepfather has died. She is with my half-brother and my stepfather’s family, and they are offering fevered eulogies about my stepfather’s charisma, the power of his mustachioed Tom Selleck-like smile, how funny he was, how smart, while they scatter his ashes into the Pacific. She tells me this in a serious tone, as if I will be sad. I am tempted to tell her to keep her mouth closed when they release his ashes, lest her ex-husband end up in her mouth. My therapist says I should try saying what I think more often. So, I tell my mother: you know that I hate my stepfather. I say: I told you what he tried to do to me when I was thirteen-years old, but you didn’t believe me. I say: I wasn’t lying about him. I say: the only lie I’ve ever told you is that I’m fine. But the moment isn’t cathartic, like my therapist promised. I feel nothing. I don’t care that he’s dead, and I don’t care if I’ve upset her. I’m indifferent. The true opposite of love is indifference, my therapist says. My mother hangs up on me. I stare at the phone and wonder if I’m wrong about why I answered her call today. I like to believe I drink because of her, but maybe I answer her phone calls because I want a reason to drink.

My mother calls today. It has been six months since we’ve talked. I know it’s ridiculous to hope she’s changed, but I can’t help myself. So, I take a drink of Chardonnay and answer the phone. The first thing she says is that she always believed me. Then she informs me she has written down the timelines of what happened and when. She remembers one night, while she was in the kitchen cooking chili, she overheard my stepfather asking about my body, and there was a Janet Jackson song playing in the background, and she knows when the song was released. I’m wrong about the timeline, she insists. I have misremembered my age. I was fifteen-years old, not thirteen, so I wasn’t a child, she says. Maybe if I’d told him to stop, he wouldn’t have tried to touch me. I’m not shocked. The problem is, I agree. She has spoken aloud the words I say to myself every day: I should’ve been smart enough to protect myself. I can hear her start to cry. She says: I divorced him, what more did you want. She says: I’ve always loved you. I hang up on her.

My mother calls today. She has called every day for two months. I am sitting on my kitchen floor, holding a single unopened airplane mini-bottle of vodka. That’s all I will allow in my house. I haven’t had a drink for twenty-one days, which my therapist says is long enough to establish a habit. All my days are like this: a precipice of need, with my shame below. I’m trying not to let myself fall, so I put the mini-bottle in the cabinet.


Jennie Evenson has received support from Bread Loaf and Tin House Summer Workshop and has work in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Brevity, Ninth Letter, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles with her loved ones and a rescue Cairn terrier who looks like Toto.