I was conceived in a field in New Brunswick after too much Baby Duck.
“The stars were beautiful that night,” Mom starts, right on cue. It’s one of her favourite stories. Especially if she’s drinking something fizzy—reminds her of the Baby Duck, I guess.
I’ve gone to visit her new trailer—the latest in a long line of aluminum boxes on chocked wheels that she’s stumbled through since I started university. She was already onto rye and gingers when I arrived for brunch.
“I don’t need to hear this again, Mom.” She’s been forgetting things, asking the same questions, telling the same stories over and over, each time I force myself to drive the forty minutes down the highway to visit. The late morning sun filters through the trailer’s small windows, the light and cigarette smoke burning my eyes.
“It’s important that you do.” She takes a final drag off her cigarette, the lines around her lips transforming from valleys to canyons as she sucks the tobacco down to the filter. “We all need to know where we came from.”
I sit back in the easy chair, the cracked faux leather scratching my arm. I press escaped cotton stuffing into the hole only to have it pop right back out. It keeps happening, but I keep doing it. It’s better than looking at Mom with her cheap highlights. They make my heart hurt in places I don’t want to think about.
“Your father planned a camping trip,”—always “your father.” As if I’d chosen him. I remember my father, but only in pieces. Pieces that don’t fit together to make a full puzzle. His dark hair, brushed down over his forehead. His hands, crusted with grease from the garage he worked at. The metallic smell of his coveralls when Mom stuffed them into the washer. The half-finished cups of coffee he left everywhere, a hardened ring of cream hovering above stagnant beige liquid.
“We were going to drive all the way across Canada. Coast to coast.” Mom shifts on the sofa, stretching her feet out in front of her. She’s wearing Christmas-print leggings. It’s June. “Be a sweetie and make me a rye, would you?” She holds her empty glass up and rattles the ice cubes. She’s going to tell the extended version today.
I take the glass, go to the half-size refrigerator, and pull out the ice cube tray: Ginger-Ale, a half-empty bottle of rye.
“Of course, we only made it to Quebec before the truck blew.”
I hand her the fresh glass and she says, “Thanks, duckie,” before I sit back down across from her and sip my take-away decaf from the city. I peek at my watch—I have to be back before dinner. She’s not the only one I need to tell.
She points a stubby finger at my cup. “There’s enough rye for you.”
“Well, we were too late for campgrounds by the time your father stopped driving—he had us on this schedule. So, we set up our tent in some farmer’s field. Tramped the crop right down, even pulled the truck off the road.” Her eyes are glittering like they always do at this part. Drinking in her last moments of adventure. After I was born, she quit her job at the old folks’ home to take care of me, and then when “my father” left, when I was three, she went to work at Safeway.
“He laid out this picnic blanket—like I said, he’d planned everything out. I actually thought he might propose when he brought out the champagne.” Her dry laugh turns to a hacking cough, and she takes a long sip of her drink.
Usually here I’d interrupt and tell her Baby Duck hardly qualifies as champagne, but I let her have it.
“We drank right out of the bottle, talked about how we’d save to buy a house when we got back.” Her eyes look far-off. She’s quiet for so long I wonder if she’s forgotten I’m here. Maybe she’s closer to pass-out drunk than happy-afternoon drunk. She snaps back into herself and her eyes meet mine before she pulls her pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her stretched-out wool sweater. She lights one, takes a long drag, and blows smoke up behind her, towards the kitchen fan that isn’t on. “We all know that was a fucking lie.”
The mass of cells in my belly pulses, burning me from the inside out, making my hips ache. I wonder if I’ll have a chance to give it a better story. Or will I be telling another version of the same tale, being sure to mention how beautiful the fluorescent lighting was that night, how he’d pulled back his Star Wars comforter, both of us giggling as we got undressed under the covers.
Mom’s still talking.
“I told Tabby down at the store that my baby girl is going to be a doctor.” This isn’t new, either. “My little duck, done her first year of university. That’d show your father.” Neither of us have seen “my father” since he left almost twenty years ago. Doctor had seemed easy, straight-forward, a valid and clear path out.
“Give me one of those.” I lean forward and she slips a cigarette between my fingers, holds up the lighter for me.
My shoulders relax the moment the smoke hits my lungs. Alveoli. That’s the scientific name. “Sounds like some kind of noodle,” I’d told him as we’d leaned over the bio textbook, studying for our exams.
You were conceived in a dorm room in Halifax after too much vodka and Red Bull.
This is my last cigarette. The very last one. I lean back in the chair and blow smoke up, just like my mother.