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I shouldn’t be here with my mother, yet I am. This is not the sort of place that lends itself to familial bonding. The air, which smells of grilled onion, is stirred passively by a ceiling fan. Breakfast is served all day. Most of the clientele can no longer tell morning from night anyway. The waitress gives life, but only a little, to the word haggard. She refills my coffee mug less often than she should and always forgets the creamer. I mind but say nothing. She is suffering. She is operating on fumes, and at only nineteen, I understand what that means.

My mother sits across the table and looks unfamiliar, holding one of my cigarettes. Every so often she pretends to take a drag and then parts her lips quickly before any smoke travels to the lungs. Her expression is younger than it was when I was little, less capable and significantly more flawed.

I caught her cheating on my father. I saw the emails, and at first she was relieved I had.
“I'm almost glad,” she had said. “I've needed to share this with someone and I can't talk to your grandmother, she is so old fashioned.”
Maybe I am old fashioned too. I screamed like a child then. No, like something worse than a child. As though I didn't know their marriage was unhappy. I remember all the lectures she gave, the little riddle most of all: “Marry for love, but love where there is money.” Something Austen would have mocked. Something theoretically at odds with the 21st century.
He was her high school boyfriend, this adulterer. It was the seventies, and his hair was accordingly long. From an old yearbook I derived he was president of the air conditioner club. She spoke of him often and fondly.
“Greg played the guitar,” she said when I began dating someone who loved the same instrument.
She makes habit of pointing out our similarities. We have the same cartoon eyes. We had the same blonde hair before hers turned gray, and I dyed mine black to look more like a poet.

And again, “You know I smoked too, in college.”

I say nothing. She breathes a dramatized breath and continues.

“Do you think I should leave your father?”

I surprise myself by answering promptly, “No”.

She nods reticently and shifts positions so that the diner light seems to deepen her every wrinkle. I am sickened to share her blood. I wonder what family means and why genetics make me feel so obligated. For a moment, I allow myself to imagine her death. It feels camel colored and insignificant. She probably wants an orchestra at her funeral, live string music at the very least. Last year, she collaborated with a lawyer to write a will. I suspect the instructions are in there. Expensive flowers, a traditional sermon filled with call and response and lots of little finger sandwiches afterward. The priest will talk about a God in which she only pretended to believe, as though the lie would save her. I say none of these things out loud, because I am not sure I mean them, and also because we are in public. The diner was a strategic choice, a safe place to talk things over.

I think of Greg and how he almost certainly doesn’t love her but rather some idealized, grown up version of his high school sweetheart. To him she wants to be Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque, sprawled nude on imported sheets. In my presence, she still calls herself mommy.
The waitress delivers the check and musters a smile. As she leaves the table I hear her joints pop and think, “That poor thing.”

Elizabeth Barbee writes and reads in Austin, Texas. She is a student of English literature at Texas State University and has contributed to many local publications such as Austin Monthly magazine.