Susann Cokal: Last Meeting of the China Moon Pain Club

Irene gave herself credit for trying. She had made an honest effort. But no amount of urging could convince Anne to celebrate her birthday in a real restaurant, one with table service rather than a buffet: It was the Santa Fe China Moon or nothing.

“It’s our tradition,” Anne insisted. “Yours and mine and my group’s.” She took a final sip from her mug of Earl Grey, then dumped the rest in the sink and hooked the scratched plastic cup back onto her ugly old thermos. She had lost the original metal cup years ago. “The waitresses know us, and I like the way they do their egg rolls. Besides, pumpkin, you don’t have much money, and I know you’re going to insist on treating.”

Irene conceded the point with a mixture of guilt and relief. It was true that she was beyond broke, and yet it was only appropriate that this birthday lunch for Anne and her friends would be her treat. At thirty-two years old, she should have been able to do better than Chinese buffet. Carrying the thermos, she helped her mother down the narrow cement steps in front of the duplex, then folded the now-frail body into the front seat of the Rent-a-Wreck she had acquired when she flew into Albuquerque.

“This just might be my last lunch in a restaurant, after all,” Anne added, not looking at Irene.

Irene wiped the sweat from her forehead onto her wrist and stowed the thermos by Anne’s feet. That thermos was the bane of her visits with her mother-a little thing, easy to focus on. Anne refused to go anywhere without it. “I like my Earl Grey,” she would say, “made in my own kitchen, with milk from my own refrigerator. This thermos was the only thing I bought for myself when your father left-I couldn’t afford much, but I really wanted my Earl Grey on hand.”

There was little Irene could say after Anne brought out that argument. Anne had been a single mother who had given up almost every other pleasure in order to support her daughter; she’d worked as a secretary while Irene’s father moved to New York City with his willowy new love, and she’d never asked him for a thing.

“You remind me of myself back then,” Anne liked to say as she drank and smoked the endless cigarettes that accompanied her Earl Grey. Irene knew she was seeing the stocky body, the drab blond hair, the capable turns of hands and limbs, the frumpy clothes. Anne must be talking about looks; how else could the two of them resemble each other? Anne always took a measured sip before saying, “But thank goodness you will never have any idea how hard it was.”

Anne weighed less than a hundred pounds now, and for the first time Irene was able to see every one of her bones. Today she wore a thin blue dress that ended at her knees, and once in her seat she gripped the knobby kneecaps as if for support. The car angled down Main Hill Road, and squat juniper bushes flew by the windows. Anne passed the first fifteen or so miles filling Irene in about the friends they were going to meet.

“Barb’s gained thirty more pounds, and she can’t have the knee surgery. You know how she eats when she’s depressed, and she’s been worrying about her daughter-the one who took those diet pills that gave her heart damage. The doctor says in another ten pounds Barb won’t be able to walk or drive anymore, but he won’t let her have those pills now. Jessica’s going blind from the diabetes, so she can’t drive. Her husband’s dropping her off because he has to see their daughter in Lamy and give her some money. Dawn’s neck pains are getting worse, and the other driver’s insurance still won’t pay unless a doctor finds something they can document. Penny . . . Penny . . . I can’t remember what’s happening with Penny these days.”

“Arthritis,” Irene said. “She can’t sit down for more than half an hour before her back seizes up.”

“Oh yes.” Anne reached into her purse for a cigarette. When Irene coughed, she went through the elaborate motions of remembering that smoking bothered her daughter’s asthma. Instead she rolled her window partway down and let some warm air in. “I do remember that her daughter just started law school. But she won’t even say boo to Penny these days. She thinks Penny is a drug addict because she takes the Vicodin.”

Irene knew what she was expected to say next, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Of course she thought Penny was an addict; all the women in the support group were–if not to Vicodin then to the maladies that had won them their prescriptions. Back in Seattle, Irene used to tell her friends that she’d never seen her mother so happy as on the day the doctor told her she had melanoma. Finally something to live for, something that drew attention to the bravery of living itself. And she could always add proudly that the cigarettes never did her any harm.

The battered car rolled into the valley, and Irene slowed to pass the cluster of casinos and fast-food restaurants called Pojoaque. She negotiated the jumble of plastic golden arches and stars and a big red-and-white “DQ” sign by a traffic light, and when she stopped, the dry heat settled into the car.

Anne made the same suggestion she always made at this light: “Maybe on the way back we can stop at Dairy Queen.”

“Maybe,” Irene said neutrally, but she knew that of course they would stop. It was part of the lunchtime tradition that was just for the two of them, and it dated back to the years when it really had been a treat, when even DQ had been hard for Anne to afford. She hardly remembered that Irene hated the place.

By the time Anne did remember, she would be halfway through a banana split. She’d be sure to insist on discussing “that awful boy,” Irene’s one and only high school boyfriend, who had picked a fight inside Dairy Queen one night and driven off, leaving her humiliatingly alone. Anne would spoon up another soft mouthful and say, “Well, he should have waited till you were sixteen and got your growth spurt. You weren’t fat at all that year.”

Irene anticipated the way Anne would look down at herself and smile. The weight loss was another of the small pleasures brought by cancer.

Now, as Irene pulled away from the light, Anne reached over to pat her thigh with surprisingly cold fingers. “It might be our last time for Dairy Queen, pumpkin.”

Irene checked the mirrors carefully and passed a slow RV. “Your club might want to take you out for a nice dessert instead,” she suggested.

“It’s not a club.” The hand left, and Anne rolled her window down the rest of the way. She crinkled the cellophane off a new pack of cigarettes. “It’s a support group.”

———

They had been doing this for two years now-Christmas, Easter, the ladies’ birthdays, Fourth of July. Living far apart and unable to hold regular meetings, the club went out for Chinese buffet to mark each special occasion. That long string of China Moon lunches, each of which Anne had insisted would be the last, made it hard to believe that there would be no more.

As to whether or not Anne truly believed what she herself said, Irene had never been able to tell. True, her mother’s cancer was a kind that wouldn’t respond to radiation or chemotherapy, and there was nothing anyone could do about it but write prescriptions to ease the pain and lend a sympathetic ear–which was all Anne said she really needed anyway. The doctors had estimated six months to a year; but that had been twenty-six months ago. Twenty-six months in which Irene had flown to Albuquerque thirteen times, and rented a cheap car that already smelled of smoke and made her chest ache, and read articles about skin cancer that Anne cut out of the newspaper and saved for her, and piled up charges on her credit cards. She felt she did her best for Anne, but there were nonetheless weak moments at which she accused herself of being a bad daughter. A good daughter might have made herself treat each meeting as if it were in fact the final one.

Anne and Irene were the last to arrive at China Moon. When they left the hot car and walked inside, the air conditioning came as a shock. It forced the tinny scent of m.s.g. down Irene’s lungs and made her cough; it chilled the pink-upholstered chairs in the entryway, where the other ladies were waiting, and it made their bodies creak as, slowly, they stood and came forward.

“Happy birthday, Annie!” the four of them shouted at once.

The ladies of the pain club were wearing rayon pants and colorful flowing tops to hide the bellies they’d acquired with their pain; Barb looked nearly spherical in a fuchsia tunic. They all wore glasses with plastic frames. They’d all brought cards and gift bags. The three older women-Dawn was about Irene’s age-teased Anne, with no apparent irony, about the horrors of getting another year older. Other customers squeezed past them, and Anne declared over and over that her tears were tears of joy.

Irene set the ugly thermos down on a table for six, and a teenager with a bright green streak in her hair identified herself as their waitress and went to fetch the first stack of empty plates. While they were waiting, the ladies leaned on the chair backs and asked about Irene’s flight out.

“It was fine,” she said. She didn’t mention the baby that had cried next to her all the way down the coast. The baby’s mother had alternately shaken it and tried to force her breast between its lips. Irene had never witnessed anything so distressing in her life.

Penny remarked that she couldn’t fly anymore; the seats were too hard on the back and hips. “It’s no wonder your mother’s never made it out to where you are,” she concluded, as if Irene were the first daughter who’d ever moved to a place that required an airplane trip.

Barb described a flight she’d taken a year ago, in which she’d had to buy a second ticket at the last minute because she couldn’t fit into a single seat. Her lawyer was still trying to get the airline to settle.

“I mean, is it fair?” Barb asked as the six of them, plates in hand, slowly shuffled down the buffet line. “My problem is glandular. I can’t help it.”

The steamy air around the buffet made breathing difficult. Irene took a puff from her inhaler. When she finished, she surveyed the double row of half-congealed dishes and saw that Anne was trying to reach some sweet-and-sour shrimp on the other side of the table with a pair of salad tongs. Irene found a spoon and piled the shrimp on Anne’s plate.

“And a water chestnut, pumpkin,” Anne said, pointing with one thin finger. Irene found her two.

On Irene’s other side, Jessica was blinking her cloudy brown eyes at a dish of lichee nuts. “You could still exercise,” she pointed out to Barb. “I saw this program on TV …”

They went back to their table. The paper tablecloth crackled as the women adjusted their dishes and silverware and clutched the edges to ease themselves down. Irene opened the thermos and poured Anne’s tea into the restaurant’s little round cup; Anne grabbed at her own old plastic mug and dumped her tea into it, spilling on the tablecloth. The other women had a taste of Earl Grey, too, scorning the pot that the waitress set down among them. They sampled their nice English tea, ate a few appetizers, and talked about the health benefits of blue-green algae.

“Doctor Pete swears by it,” said Dawn, the accident victim. She’d been going to a homeopathic healer even though the other driver’s insurance wouldn’t cover it.

“It isn’t doing me any good,” said Anne. An egg roll looked enormous in her hand, tiny in Barb’s. “I guess melanoma’s different.”

Irene stayed on her feet to fetch the odds and ends that the women had forgotten: soup spoons, soy sauce, rice. She caught the waitress watching her with a blank expression, the one teenagers in service jobs always wore, and Irene thanked her for bringing the scorned Chinese tea.

Barb continued her earlier conversation with Jessica. “You know how it hurts me to exercise. My knees.”

Those knees bumped the table now, making the dishes rattle as Barb attempted to cross her legs.

“That’s the trouble with pain, Annie.” Dawn pushed her thick glasses up her nose and, stiff-necked, studied her moo goo gai pan, then pulled a hair out of it. “You can’t describe it to people who don’t feel it. This is the only place where people understand.” She waved a hand as if to take in the entirety of China Moon, pink chairs, green-haired waitress, and all, along with the pain club. She gave Anne a special look. Irene couldn’t tell if it meant competition or complicity.

With one hand pressed to her back, Penny pushed herself out of her seat and began to eat standing up. She decided to address Irene again. “How is the Seattle school system treating you, honey?”

“It’s fine.” Irene knew she sounded as sullen as the waitress, but she couldn’t help it. She mopped another spill and remembered the days when Penny had been the most dreaded English teacher at her junior high-Screamin’ Freeman, the kids had called her. How embarrassed she’d been when her mother and Screamin’ Freeman became friends.

“Are you still just a substitute?” Rice grains dropped to the table from Penny’s fork.

Putting her napkin down, Irene made an effort. “I’m a casual replacement, yes. But I do other things. I’ve been going down the Sound and taking some photographs of-”

“It’s hard to live on part-time,” Dawn observed. “Of course, if you aren’t sure you’ll feel like working . . .”

Jessica put her face down to her plate and squinted. “These aren’t potstickers.”

No one commented on that; they were all intent on Irene. She was poised to join the ranks of unsatisfactory daughters, girls who did not appreciate their strong backs and legs while they had them and who skipped work just because they didn’t feel like doing it.

A knot of tension throbbed at the base of Irene’s skull. “I need part-time for now,” she said. “If I were a regular employee I couldn’t take so many days off to come out here.”

She felt immediately, vaguely guilty, though no one seemed to find anything wrong in what she’d said. She got up to fill a small plate with potstickers for Jessica, thinking of the forty-year-old daughter in Lamy who still asked her parents for money.

Anne missed an opportunity to note that this might be Irene’s last visit. But, as if they, too, were certain it was their last chance to talk to her, the ladies stayed focused on Irene.

“Do you like working with children?” Barb asked when Irene sat down again.

Irene speared a lump of chicken on her fork. “Yes,” she said almost inaudibly. She had a sense of what was coming next.

It came. “So when are you going to have some of your own?”

Irene spent a long time chewing, but the women were still waiting on her when she finished. Four pairs of eyes behind four cloudy sets of glasses. “You know I’m single,” Irene said. “I don’t even have a boyfriend.” I don’t have time for one, she could have added, but she decided not to. She shoved another forkful into her mouth instead. It was no wonder she’d been plump in high school.

“That doesn’t matter these days!” Penny beamed triumphantly. “Nobody’s going to stick a scarlet letter on your chest-your mother raised you by herself, after all. And you’re over thirty. So when are you going to make her a grandma?”

Every member of the pain club waited while Irene thought about that high-school boyfriend and wondered what their babies could have been like. Fat; she had no doubt about it. Miniature Barbs bouncing on Anne’s brittle legs-would she have liked that?

Irene looked down at her own legs. Blurry red spider veins were creeping out from her shorts. “Actually,” she said, “I can’t have children.”

Eating stopped. The silence was complete, aside from the soft plash as the waitress poured water into a distant customer’s glass. Irene could feel Anne trying to pull herself together and act as if she had heard this already. As if this were one of the many subjects they had discussed as they drove down the mountain, one of the things that bound them together as mother and daughter.

Barb spoke first. “Are you sure?”

Irene picked another bit of chicken up with her fingers and went through with it. “The doctors say I’m sterile.”

“That’s terrible,” Dawn murmured. Everyone knew hoped to be a mother as soon as her pain ended.

“Not really,” said Jessica. “You could adopt.”

Penny said, “My daughter’s thinking of adoption.”

Anne’s body twitched as if in a spasm of hurt. Her new napkin fluttered to the floor, and her mug fell over. She looked helplessly at the tea seeping toward her lap.

Irene got up with a napkin to avert disaster, and she spoke without thinking. “Why would I want to bother with somebody else’s family?”

———

No one spoke to Irene again until the meal was finished and the presents were unbagged: four sets of bath oil, bath beads, bubble bath, and loofah sponges. “You could use some pampering, Annie,” Barb said, and the accusation in her voice was almost palpable.

Irene was glad then to fetch her box. It held a brand-new thermos that she couldn’t really afford but knew Anne simply had to have: It was from a German company and could contain thirty percent more liquid than Anne’s old model, but it weighed considerably less and came with a shoulder strap. Anne’s fragile fingers tore through the ribbon and lifted the lid, and the China Moon lights flashed off polished chrome as she pulled the magnificent new thermos from the box. It reflected every member of the pain club, all looking grave.

“Thank you, pumpkin.” Anne smiled weakly and set it aside, amid the tissue paper from the gift bags.

Irene knew then that she had chosen badly, though she didn’t know quite why. She retrieved the thermos and said, “It hardly weighs anything.” She unscrewed the cup on top and held it out. “Even the cup is insulated, to keep your tea warm. It attaches with a chain. You can carry it around the house like a pocketbook, so you won’t forget where you put it. I filled it with Earl Grey before we left.”

“Thank you, pumpkin,” Anne said again. She looked around the table and gave a little self-deprecating laugh. “I guess my daughter thinks twenty-five years is long enough to use the same thermos.”

The ladies went about their business. Jessica ate another potsticker. Penny tried to make a joke: “If it ain’t broke, don’t buy a new one.” Dawn opened the bottle of lavender bath oil she’d brought and waved it under Anne’s nose. “Isn’t it yummy?” she asked.

Sitting on Anne’s other side, Irene coughed; the odor of the oil gave her the kind of chest ache she got in hospitals.

Barb unscrewed the lid of the old thermos, still a quarter full. “You thirsty, Annie?”

Throughout the meal, Anne had merely picked at her food, managing to eat three shrimp and half an eggroll. Now she gave her mug a push away. “I can’t hold so much these days.” She gave a sudden lurch, and Irene rushed to catch her-then realized Anne was only reaching for her purse. “I think it’s time to take a picture.”

“Yes!” Dawn actually clapped her hands. “What a good idea!”

Irene dug through Anne’s purse for her, looking for a camera that she suspected wasn’t there. Barb got out one of her own. “I’d like a picture of Annie,” she said. “The birthday girl.”

“One of us five, I meant,” Anne said. “Of the group. Irene, you take it-this might be the last time, you know.”

Irene took the camera from Barb and put the new thermos on the floor so the flash wouldn’t bounce off it. She could not look at her mother. “We’ll all be here again next year,” she said. “And probably a couple of times before that. Now gather in close and smile.”

The ladies shuffled to do her bidding. They straightened their flowing blouses and bared their teeth in brave grins. Anne said again that her tears came from joy, but she said it in such a way as to let everyone know it wasn’t true.

“Did you bring your mother a birthday cake?” Jessica asked, stopping Irene and freezing the ladies’ smiles on their faces. “That would make a nice photo, with candles.”

Anne spoke up unexpectedly. “I don’t want cake,” she said. The tears were drying quick and gluey on her cheeks. “Irene and I are going to Dairy Queen.”

The flashbulb blinded all of them.

“I thought Irene hated Dairy Queen,” said Penny.

In the afterglare, Irene couldn’t see a thing. How did Screamin’ Freeman know that? “We always go,” she said, rubbing at her eyes. “It’s tradition.”

She felt Anne look at her and then look down; a long moment passed in which Irene was sure she should say something but could not think what. The ladies waited, but for the life of her Irene could not think of a single word. Only, perhaps, unsatisfactory.

“Can we go now?” Anne asked after a while. Her bony knees had turned almost blue enough to match her dress. “It is awfully cold in here.”

——–

Outdoors, the heat was dryer and the sun whiter than ever. The women said their good-byes quickly, and Anne left a cigarette half-smoked, though she said she wasn’t hot at all and didn’t mind the sun. “It’s already done its worst,” she said.

Irene took her to the big mall at the end of Cerrillos Road, where she put a cashmere bathrobe on her credit card, had it folded into a gift bag, and presented it to Anne. In return, Anne bought her a book from a remainder bin: How to Grieve, a Lifelong Process.

Driving back in the car, in the slanted light of late afternoon, Anne dozed until they were nearly at Dairy Queen. She woke up at the stoplight and said, as if she’d been dreaming the words all along, “You know, pumpkin, I never put any pressure on you to give me grandchildren.”

“I know that.” Irene busied herself with shifting and adjusting the wheel so she’d be ready to go when the light changed. The big DQ sign was already illuminated, glowing pale against the sun.

“As soon as I turned sixteen, your grandmother started talking about when I would have kids. She wanted a baby to play with. I always swore I’d never do that to my daughter.”

Traffic was clogged going into the casino. It was a notoriously slow intersection this time of day, with all the gamblers stopping off after work.

“So I just want you to know it’s all right. Children aren’t for everybody.” Anne sank back against the seat with her eyes closed.

Irene waited for her to ask if it was true that Irene couldn’t get pregnant, and if so, what might be wrong. Whether it was life threatening, how much it hurt, if Irene minded. Anne did not ask.

“Well,” Irene said at last, “thanks, I guess.” With relief, she responded to the light change and moved forward. The Dairy Queen parking lot was on the right, and she flicked the turn signal.

“No ice cream tonight,” Anne said, still with eyes closed. “I think I’d rather just go home.”

——–

Anne never used the bathrobe or any of her other presents, and she never went to Dairy Queen again. That really was her last birthday. A week after Irene returned home, she got the phone call: I’m in the hospital. But you don’t need to come back.

By the time Irene arrived, Anne’s body had swollen up to twice its former size, and her skin was weeping fluid from the edema. She felt too hot for a bathrobe, and under the influence of morphine she even tried to pluck her hospital gown off. The doctors thought the cancer had made it into her liver; in any event, it was clear that she was dying.

Tossing against her damp sheets, Anne said she could not get enough air in the room, so Irene bought her a portable fan. That was all right sometimes, but nothing was as effective as when Irene took a deep breath and blew directly into Anne’s face. Irene slept in the empty bed beside Anne’s so she could be there to breathe when her mother needed it. She kept her inhaler in her pocket because the chemicals in the air made her lungs tight. Over and over, she thought, Children aren’t for everybody.

Anne took Irene’s breath for granted and got cranky when it wasn’t there, but she was pathetically grateful for little things such as apple juice. “Oh, it’s so good,” she said, as if astonished, every time a nurse brought her a cup and a straw. She didn’t like tea anymore; it tasted too bitter. Her old thermos sat forgotten in a corner.

Irene called the members of the pain club.

“I still haven’t developed that film,” Barb said, accusing herself of something that Irene felt did not matter. Barb didn’t bother to cover the sound of her sobs. “And I can’t fit into my car anymore.”

Dawn’s Doctor Pete had told her not to drive for a while; her court case would be stronger if she said she was too afraid. Jessica’s husband was too busy to drive her, and Penny couldn’t sit down at all now, even in a backseat. They all wept copiously. Irene did her best to console them while still trying to persuade them to come. She didn’t like the hospital either, but then again it didn’t have the same associations for her that it did for the other women.

Anne did not seem to notice that her friends weren’t able to find their way up the mountain. Sometimes the drugs and the pain made her delirious. “Please, please make more light,” she said all one afternoon. The next she was lucid but depressed. She wanted Irene to take her out on the roof for a cigarette, but she was on oxygen by then and the nurses wouldn’t let her go.

Irene blew in Anne’s face and placed the apple juice straw between her lips. “Why don’t we talk about happy times?” she suggested. She had been reading How to Grieve. “Tell me about a time you were really happy.”

Anne was quiet a long while; Irene might have thought she’d fallen asleep if her eyes hadn’t stayed open. At last she pulled at the tube in her nose, a sign that she wanted more air.

“Well?” Irene blew again. “Tell me about it-when you were happy.”

Anne took a slow breath and spoke. “There was the summerhouse my parents had when I was little. It was on a lake . . .” Another breath. “I used to like going there. Those were happy times.”

Irene waited. Anne didn’t say anything more, but she didn’t fall asleep either. She simply breathed, heavily and as if it hurt a great deal. “What about others?” Irene asked at last. “Mom? What about the parties at China Moon?”

“There weren’t really any others,” Anne said, and closed her eyes.

Those were not the last words Irene heard her mother say, but they were the ones she would remember longest. When she called the members of the pain club again to tell them Anne had died, the lines kept repeating in her head: There weren’t really any other times. She delivered her news and hung up before the ladies could start their crying again.

There was no funeral; Anne hadn’t wanted one, and until her house sold Irene wouldn’t have the money anyway. Irene arranged for a cremation on her credit card and packed up Anne’s house and put it on the market. She threw the new thermos away and took the horrible old one with her to Seattle; but when she got home she put it in a Dumpster, along with a few other things that had lost their meaning in the flight. The thermos didn’t belong with her; it was Anne’s. Irene wept all night long. The next morning, she took Anne’s ashes to the Pacific Ocean to scatter them. She was going to keep nothing, not even a spoonful in an urn.

The water was unusually clear that day, and shockingly cold when Irene waded out into it. It reached up and chilled the place where Irene’s uterus waited for her to decide what to do with her life. She let Anne’s ashes go in one big flurry and watched them sink clean and white onto the sand her mother had never seen.

More quickly than she thought possible, the waves scoured the ashes and sand together. Thus Irene was not able to tell exactly when she saw her mother for the last time.



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