Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Lemon Meringue Pie

 

1980: She gets pregnant, refuses to give up the baby, even though her boyfriend, Mike, says he’s leaving her, says he wants no baby. In June, she gives birth and names her daughter Julianna, a name he’d said he liked once, a name meaning young or youthful.

 

In August, her sister introduces her to a man who calls himself Mike. She remembers the man who abandoned her and bitterness fills her mouth. But this man, with the thick accent, in the three-piece suit, asking if she wants a glass of wine, is no Mike. She finds out later his real name: Zuhair.

 

1985: Her mother is diagnosed with leukemia, dies three months later as Elisa drives from Floyd Memorial Hospital in New Albany to Zuhair’s apartment in Louisville.

 

She’s twenty-six, picking out the clothes her mother will be buried in, sending the mortician a pink blouse and jacket with roses on the lapel, but no pants—one final joke for her mother.

 

1987: She and Julie travel to Florida, where Zuhair is working as an engineer. He and his brother have bought a house in a little town called Boca Raton. Three days later they visit the justice of the peace and buy matching rings from Sears. Nine months later, she gives birth to me.

 

1991: After two years of fertility shots and IVF, they decide to stop trying. She goes on Zoloft and starts to gain weight. They move into separate bedrooms. The arrangement is permanent. She says it’s his snoring or their different sleep schedules; years later, my dad confesses to me he never truly understood why, but that the separation it felt like a betrayal.

 

1995: Christmas Day, Louisville, Kentucky, visiting her dad for the holidays. She and Zuhair are having a blow-out in the sitting room that no one uses; the old TV with just two knobs and no remote doesn’t work, and the couch with the gaudy red peonies is covered in plastic so it sticks to your thighs during summer. They’re screaming at each other so loudly, I worry the twinkle lights will fall off the roof.

 

“You’re out of control!” he shouts while pacing from the fire-place to TV.

 

“You’re never home!” she counters, sitting on an ugly green chair, face in her hands, tears ruining the holiday make-up I’d put on her this morning. Green eyeshadow is spreading down her cheeks.

 

“Is that any fucking reason to spend fifteen thousand dollars on a credit card, Elisa?! To forego paying the mortgage? To write so many checks you drain the checking account? What the fuck are you even buying?!”

 

She sobs but cannot answer.

 

1997: She comes home after working out in yet another attempt to lose weight. Her baggy grey t-shirt is soaked through with sweat, and the bottom of her sweatpants is torn. She’s fallen, twisted her ankle while running. He makes a bad joke about calling the ASPCA for a beached whale. She lunges at him, putting him through the glass coffee-table. I did not see this happen, but I listened intently, too scared of what I may see to walk down the hallway and peer around the corner. I stayed in my closet, eyes tightly shut.

 

She, my sister, and I sleep at a hotel for the rest of the week.

 

2000: “Okay, you’re gonna be in charge of the egg whites; be careful because they’re easy to flatten,” she tells me as I roll the lemons along the counter to soften them before squeezing. She’s explaining how to separate eggs and whip the whites without cream of tartar. “Use your hands. Real chefs use their hands to separate the yolk and white.” I let the albumen slip through my fingers, drop into the mixing bowl, while cradling the yolk in my palm. I’m delighted to be responsible for something so delicate.

 

2002: I hold her hand as she has all of her teeth pulled and implants drilled into the bone in her jaws. She squeezes so tight, I fear she might break my bones. When all of the implants fall out three months later, I hold her in the bathroom while she cries, tells me again the story of her aunt ripping her teeth out with dirty pliers, how she was never taught to brush her teeth as a child.

 

2005: She’s nodding out in her soup, hallucinating conversations in slurred speech. Dad keeps asking me what pills she’s taken today. I don’t tell him I’ve been hiding her Stadol or pouring out the golden liquid she sees three doctors a week to get. I don’t tell him about the Xanax bars or Oxycontin tablets. I don’t tell him anything, except I’m taking care of her.

 

2009: When she’s hospitalized for a month with sepsis during what should have been a routine gall-bladder removal, I visit every day. It’s December, and I decorate her room with snow-globes and red and green lights; I bring sheets from home and her favorite Christmas quilt, the one with Frosty and bells sewn on. When she’s finally released, I change and clean the bag attached to her bile-duct through a tube in her stomach, four times a day. I drive her to the gastroenterologist, and we explain how the surgeon hit the duct, leaking bile into her blood. We explain that nothing is routine with her.

 

2011: I come home from work to find her wandering in the front yard. She looks lost and confused, and I’m immediately incensed. My patience has worn thin over the years, like the skin of a grandparent. When she says she can’t find Eli, my four-year-old nephew, that he was in the backyard playing when she went inside to get water, but now he’s gone, I don’t understand.

 

As eight police cars pull into our driveway, they begin to search our house—asking for photos, asking what he was wearing. My father, uncle, neighbor and I are walking the neighborhood, screaming for him. I keep asking myself, are we one of those families who this happens to?

 

When my father pulls me aside, more panicked than I’ve ever seen him, eyes burning behind the lenses I used to pull from his face when I was Eli’s age, asking, “do you think your mother is all there? do you think this really happened?” I say, “She’s never been this bad. I don’t want this to be real, but I think it might be.”

 

When we finally reach my sister, who says Eli has been with her all day, everyone goes silent; they put their eyes to the ground, giving us time to process the relief and humiliation. I leave the house, go to see my lover, and cry for the rest of the night in uncontrollable, heaving sobs that rise up from inside my gut like tectonic plates shifting below earth’s crust.

 

2016: I visit my parents on some weekends, walking in the unlocked door and taking my shoes off in the foyer before walking straight into mom’s room, plopping on her bed while she talks about the blueberries she’s bought this week and the neighbor voting for Trump; she tells me about her doctor’s appointments, how the dentist is always late, how the gastroenterologist is “so good looking,” how the neurologist is Egyptian so he and dad speak in Arabic. I listen with one ear, thinking about her at my age, two years without her mother. I remind myself to take in the scent of her skin when we hug, the soft flesh of her shoulders.

 

 

Emily Jalloul is a Lebanese-American poet who earned her MFA from Florida International University. Her previous work has been published or is forthcoming in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Gravel, Juked, Origins, The FEM, as well as others. She lives in Miami, Florida.