We ran off the Regrets last summer, but by winter the Mothers had moved in. Not our own mothers, with whom we’d all formed uneasy truces, but ‘The Mothers,’ the mothers of our exes: ex-boyfriends, former husbands, blind dates, one-night stands. Some of the Mothers we’d known for years, some we’d only met briefly, in doorways, or living rooms, or sometimes only as eyes in the rearview mirror as we huddled in backseats while being driven to the mall, the movies, school dances. Mothers we’d long forgotten, but who’d clearly not forgotten us. No matter how frivolous or fraught our relationships with their sons had been, the Mothers meant business and moved into our building with axes to grind, grievances to air.
Initial sightings of the Mothers were limited to two- or three-story buildings across the city, ones with easily breachable walls. We’d seen the news reports of Mothers scaling trellises, wild-eyed, ivy in their hair, their teeth. Fire escapes, too, provided easy access, as did doors buzzed open by tenants with no regard for security whatsoever. A high rise with a doorman would be safest, we reasoned when we signed our leases.
But the landlord kept offering these sweetheart deals—one month free and 50% off security deposits—and we knew it was only a matter of time. How about tougher background checks, or at least adding a question about sons, and grudges, and disclosures about martial arts skills, karate, krav maga, we begged.
I don’t discriminate, our landlord said, but we suspect he likes to see us squirm. He has many exes and a mother who still makes his lunch every day.
We watch nervously from our windows as moving trucks snake around the block. Boxes quickly unpacked, furniture arranged, the Mothers waste no time settling in.
The Mothers have arrived. The Mothers are on the scene.
We are so screwed, Apartment 10A says.
But why me? 2B asks. I don’t even date men. I just moved here for the easy commute.
We’re sympathetic, but the Mothers aren’t particular about who they hassle. It doesn’t even matter if you knew their son or not. You’re one of Them, the Mothers shout. Heartbreaker. Harlot. Homewrecker. Hussy. Even those of us with no interest in sons whatsoever.
What about your daughters, we ask the Mothers. Do you not want to avenge them too?
Daughters, oh please, the Mothers say. Daughters are made of sterner stuff.
Mine potty-trained herself, one Mother says.
Mine put herself through college, another says.
There are CEOs and fighter pilots and even one astronaut. Our daughters are doing fine, the Mothers say, thanks for asking. But don’t try to change the subject. What about our sons, our sons, they wail. Our bright and beamish boys, they cry, who suckled so sweetly at our breasts!
Or bottles, one Mother says and a few around her nod.
Yes, bottles. Bottles or breast, the Mothers clarify.
Though breast is best, one Mother whispers.
Quiet, Betsy, another Mother says, shushing.
In the lobby, on the stairs, by the mailboxes, in the laundry room, the Mothers are everywhere. The elevator is the worst. The hellevator, we call it, like some B-slasher movie except instead of butcher knives, it’s the cutting words of old women bearing grudges while we’re held hostage riding between floors.
She said she always hated my voice. Grating.
That I was never good enough.
Like lipstick on a pig.
Worst decision her son ever made.
These Mothers don’t play, we say.
But mothers always like me, 3C says.
These Mothers don’t give a shit about your feelings, they aren’t here to make friends, we say.
There are the nervous ones, the sad ones, the mad ones, the ones who wanted to be your friend then and are now your worst enemy. You had your chance, they say. And you blew it.
There are the tired Mothers, the one whose sons sucked them dry. These are the ones who cry the loudest. Withered Mothers, shoulders stooped from years of supporting deadbeat sons. We had a deal, they keen. Where were you for the hand-off? they cry.
The meanest are the ones who’ve gone all in, their son their greatest accomplishment, their greatest joy. Even back then you knew this mother would never like you. Even then you sensed this was a competition you would never win. Oh look it’s SusanAnnaTashaMarie, the chunky one, the slutty one, the gold-digger, the whore, the mean Mothers taunt.
There are even a few who thought you were too good for their son. The ones who pulled you aside in hallways or in kitchens and whispered that you could do better, their hand on your shoulder or sometimes reaching out to tuck a stray strand behind your ear. But you didn’t listen. It took weeks, months, even years before you learned she’d been right all along. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, they say now, smug you had to learn it the hard way.
You bruised him, you broke him, the Mothers say… but did we though? We search our memories and come up short. Sure, there were guys we ghosted, guys we swiped past, the dates we stood up, a few we left at altars, others we divorced, some whose brothers were more appealing, a few whose sisters were more appealing, the ones that promised us the sun, the moon, and the stars but gave us UTI’s instead. Broken? Hardly. At most a bruised ego or two, but we’ve seen the photos on Facebook, the pictures of their girlfriends or wives, their dogs, their children. They are doing fine without us, we say.
Old news, we tell the Mothers. We’ve moved on.
But the Mothers haven’t moved on. The Mothers for whom the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Or something like that.
Are we sure the past is never dead? I could’ve sworn my ex’s mother passed away a while ago, but I just ran into her in the garage, 9B says.
That the Mothers all live on the floors above us only adds to our anxiety.
What’s happening up there? What are they plotting? 11D says.
We gather in the lobby for a recon mission and ride up to the top floor, ready to demand some answers. But when we get out of the elevator, there are no Mothers in sight, just one long carpeted hallway like all the others, silent except for the murmurings of NPR, the distant whirr of a vacuum cleaner, the muffled whimpers of past failures pushing out from under the doors.
Losers, losers, losers, it whispers.
Did you hear that? 7C says.
From behind a door, a Mother yells, Who’s out there? and we run for the stairs.
As new women move in, we offer orientations, tips for how to survive the Mothers. We meet in the laundry room while all the Mothers are in the social room for Tai Chi. We have an hour or more, but still we keep our voices low so as not to attract attention. 4D’s lived here the longest and is happy to share her strategies. Using the stairs instead of elevators, the best times to do laundry, the quiet hours when the Mothers are napping or watching their shows. Avoidance is key, 4D says.
I’m good with avoidance, but bad with stairs, one of the new women says, anxious.
We’re sympathetic, we were all like that at first, but now with calves like clam shells and increased lung capacity, we charge up the flights with no problem. You’ll get there, we say and offer to carry her groceries.
We’re a sisterhood now, even those of us who hated sororities in college.
Nights are the hardest, the quiet whispers at our doors. Loser, loser, loser, they whisper. You’ll never be good enough. Mobs of Mothers roam the halls, calling Come out, come out wherever you are, the muffled thump of baseball bats on carpeted floors.
You were right about us all along. We are not worthy, we call back from behind locked doors. We’re lying, of course, but desperate times—we have work in the morning, we need to get some sleep.
The Mothers never believe us anyway. We’ve heard all your lies before, they say. I’ll wait for you, you’re my one true love, ’til death do us part, it’s not you, it’s me blah blah blah. Does any of this sound familiar?
We make a mental note to find new lines.
Maybe we could try reasoning with them? 5B says.
Reasoning with them goes badly. The Mothers take the laundry room hostage. We have no choice but to fight. We need clean clothes for work.
Fighting goes badly. We underestimated the maternal instinct.
Fall back, we yell as the Mothers surge forward.
These Mothers are out for blood, we cry as we run for the stairwell to break for water and tend to our wounds.
We head back out. We can’t let the Mothers gain more ground. First the laundry room, then the gym, next the garage. Where will it end?
We rush the laundry room again, our baskets in front of us as shields. The Mothers are waiting. The Mothers are ready.
But your son dumped me, 6D lobs at the advancing line of Mothers.
We were incompatible…It was for the best…A one-night stand…A casual fling…He meant nothing to me…I meant nothing to him. We lob, we dodge, we parry, we thrust.
It’s a Mother Melee, it’s a full-on Battle Royale. 10C loses a tooth. One of the Mothers breaks a hip.
You ladies better patch these walls or I’ll be keeping all your security deposits, the landlord threatens later when he surveys the damage.
We talk about moving out, but where would we go? The Mothers have taken over the entire city, and besides, moving’s such a hassle.
Instead, we call a truce. We wave a white towel and the Mothers come running.
We knew you’d come around, they say, unrolling a list of grievances. The list is long, papers the length of the hallway.
Here is the mother who came home from work early and caught you under the covers giving her son his first blowjob. So upsetting, the Mother says, the other Mothers bracing her shoulders for support.
Here is the son who never reciprocated, we say. Here is the son who complained about condoms, who said he had latex allergies, who claimed blue balls were a terminal condition, we say to cheers and claps and ‘atta girls.’
Boys will be boys, the Mothers say, shrugging.
Here is the mother whose son asked you to prom and you said yes but later changed your mind because someone better came along. Heads nod, Mothers call out ‘fickle’ and ‘cruel.’
Okay, we say. Fair point, we say. But, you know, youth, we say. How about the son who asked us out on a dare then left us waiting outside FunZone at the mall, pockets full of tokens we used to play Ms. PacMan by ourselves, earning our highest score ever after three hours straight.
Forgetful. He gets that from his father, the Mothers say.
We didn’t want to have to do this, we say. But you’ve forced our hand. We dig deeper, we dredge up the memories of men we’d prefer to leave buried. The ones who took license, took liberties, the ones who pushed, the ones who pulled, the ugly ones, the bad ones, the ones we wished we’d never met.
Stop, the Mothers cry. We don’t want to know.
We keep going, naming each in turn. Here is the mother whose son offered A’s to any girl who’d come to his office after hours, here is the mother whose son never took no for an answer, here is the mother whose son bragged to his friends, here is the mother whose son posted photos on the internet for all to see, here is the mother whose son claimed the baby wasn’t his, here is the mother whose son let his fists do the talking.
Here is the mother whose son
Here is the mother whose
Here is the mother
Here is the
The Mothers wind down, the Mothers slump forward, the Mothers are finished, the Mothers are through.
Here, we say, handing them our towel. Faces are mopped, sweat blotted, tears wiped.
We’re so sorry, they say.
There there, we say, patting shoulders, guiding them to chairs. It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have known. You did your best, we say.
But did they? 9D says.
Shh, we say. It’s over now. We won, we say.
Julie Innis is the author of the story collection Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture. Her fiction has appeared most recently in Willow Springs, Monkeybicycle and The Greensboro Review, and has received several awards and mentions, including a Notable Story recognition in The Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology, ed. by Dave Eggers.