by Sandy Shaller
She sat on the toilet and stared at the blue and white tiles on the wall across from her. She wondered who had made the tiles and whether the patterns of milky blue and white, unique on each tile, had been designed by someone or randomly embedded by a machine. Years before she had spent one complete bowel movement trying to see if there was a repetition to the tile patterns. If there was, she hadn’t been able to find it. It had hurt her eyes and made her slightly dizzy. She didn’t have good eyesight and her tracking was weak. She’d had lazy eye when she was eight, and her mother had taken her to an ophthalmologist. The doctor had given her a patch and eye exercises to do and tried to impress upon her the importance of doing them every day.
“Your eye needs strengthening, Sylvia,” Doctor Bernstein had said. “If you don’t do these exercises every day you’re going to have trouble with your vision when you get older.”
“Do you hear him, Sylvia?” her mother had said. “Do you hear what he said? Every day!”
Sylvia had been irritated by how her mother scolded her in front of the doctor under the guise of caring.
The eye exercises had consisted of wearing the patch over her good eye and doing small jigsaw puzzles. Sylvia hated puzzles. She had a hard time seeing the color patterns and decided that they were boring. The eye patch was irritating and made her stumble on stairwells. She had never been very coordinated, and the eye patch only made it worse. The miserable bastids who made fun of her at school now had fresh material. Sylvia had thought that the eye patch would make her mysterious or at least win her some sympathetic attention, but it hadn’t happened.
For three days Sylvia’s mother pushed her to wear the patch and do the puzzles. Sylvia argued, whined, and fought against it. On the fourth day, after two screaming episodes, her mother had slapped her and said, “Don’t wear the patch! Don’t do the puzzles! Be as stupid as you want! It’s your eye. I don’t care anymore.”
Liar, you didn’t care before.
When her father came home from work, and saw Sylvia without her patch, he asked his wife what had happened. Sylvia’s mother told her husband how much aggravation Sylvia had given her over the patch and the exercises.
“She’s being a stupid mule, and I want you to tell her something.”
Sylvia started bellowing about how her mother was mean and how the patch made her fall and the puzzles made her dizzy. Her father had cajoled and then argued and finally wheeled off his belt and chased Sylvia into the bedroom. He let the belt carry on the rest of the conversation, but although Sylvia bawled loudly and swore that she would wear the patch and do the exercises, she didn’t. When he heard that his daughter remained stubborn, he got red in the face but only shrugged. It had been a hard day at the office, and he had no energy to give Sylvia another beating.
When Sylvia and her mother went back to the ophthalmologist, and he examined Sylvia, he frowned and asked if she’d been doing the exercises and wearing the patch; her mother had folded her arms and said nothing. Sylvia complained that the patch made her nauseous and the exercises gave her a headache. Dr. Bernstein repeated his warning and said that he wanted to see her again in a month.
“Sylvia! Are you still alive in there? How about dinner?”
Sylvia ignored her husband’s voice. Norman knew where she was. She stared at the tiles again. When she tilted her head a bit, she thought that the pattern on one tile looked just like one of the African masks that hung in the living room. The one little corner that’s mine. She was surprised to see that the white and blue swirls in the tile just to the left of the African mask, looked exactly like her father. A dip of the white perfectly created his moustache. She sneered at the tile and then chuckled. A tile just above her father’s face had a blue streak that looked like a vulva. Sylvia laughed. The pussy and the prick, she thought.
She sighed and spun the toilet paper roll, just in case Norman was outside the door listening. It made a dry rattling noise, but she didn’t peel off any paper. There was no need; she’d only gone into the bathroom to have a little privacy and to look at the tiles. Oh, that one’s interesting, she thought; it was a tile to the left of the toilet paper dispenser. The way the white and blue roll together. It looks just like the stew I’m making for dinnah!
She stood up and pulled up her panties, noticing that she hadn’t wiped carefully the last time. She’d throw them in the washing machine when she went to bed.
“I’m coming, Norman! For god’s sake. I’m in the bathroom.”
Her voice was high but not very loud. It only got loud when she was really excited and lost her temper. Then it’s plenty loud. If he calls me one more time, I’ll give him something to hear.
She flushed the toilet and then turned on the water in the sink. She didn’t wash her hands. Instead, she used the time to look around at the blue and white tiles again. No matter how many times she studied them, they tricked her. The patterns couldn’t change, of course. Yet even when she was certain that she was looking at the same tile on two different days, the pattern seemed to change and what she glimpsed in it was different. There, the one over the toilet paper roll. It had looked just like a howling ghost when she first sat down, but now it looked exactly like her daughter Mitzi with her mouth opened wide. Sylvia wondered if she would still see Mitzi when she came into the bathroom next time. Then she turned to the bathroom door, pressed her lips together, opened it and stepped out.
Norman was in the kitchen, Taking over.
“What were you shouting like that for?” Sylvia said from the kitchen doorway. “There are five rooms in this apahtment. Where did you think I was?”
Norman ignored the question. He often ignored what she said, God forbid you ignore what he says!
“What is this?” He lifted the cover off a pot on the stove and stared at the contents.
“Dinner! It’s a recipe I saw in Light Cuisine.” The colorful picture floated in her mind for a moment. She looked at the contents of the pot. Somehow it had looked better in the book. “It’s meatless stew with tomatahs, red peppehs, potatoes, green cab…”
Norman looked around the kitchen. “Is this it?” he asked in horror. “This is the whole dinner.”
“It’s very filling,” Sylvia said.
“What are you talking about? It’s just a bunch of vegetables in hot water. Who the hell wants to eat this?” He picked up the wooden spoon and stirred the pot frowning at its contents. “It smells like a wet garden.”
“It’s delicious, and it’s good for you.” Her voice got a little louder. “You don’t need meat with every meal.” Her lips curled away from the offending word. He’s only satisfied if there’s a chunk of cooked flesh on his plate. It’s revolting, and then I have to eat it, and how can I lose weight when I have to eat all that disgusting meat.
“Alright,” she said. “I’ll make some chicken for you. You can have it with the stew.” She stepped into the kitchen and moved toward the refrigerator.
He waved an arm to keep her back. “Naw! I’ll do it.” He shook his head in a gesture of disgust and frustration that was familiar to her. “It probably took you all day to throw the goddamn vegetables into the pot and add water. You think I can wait another six hours for my dinner?”
One thing about Norman was that he could move quickly. Even as he spoke, he had fished some chicken out of the refrigerator and was cutting it up.
“You’re impossible.” Sylvia sighed and moved to the silverware drawer. “I’ll set the table.”
Norman looked over at the table. His head shook again. “It’s six thirty, Sylvia! You couldn’t set the table before I got home? Never mind. I have a good idea. Why don’t you go back into the bathroom, and I’ll do it.”
“No, I’ll set…”
Norman had already moved to the silverware drawer blocking her.
She pressed her lips together and planted her feet. This was one of those moments, and she knew it. Either she could back off and let the bastid do what he wanted, or she could explode. She put her hands on her hips so that Norman would know that she was considering exploding, but then she exhaled and deflated. I won’t give him the satisfaction, she decided.
“Alright,” she said. “I wanted to make you a nice dinner, but you have no appreciation for what’s good.”
“Don’t worry, Sylvia. I know what’s good.” Norman seasoned the chicken and put it into a frying pan where it immediately started to fill the kitchen with a pleasing smell.
Sylvia looked at the chicken in the frying pan and, as she turned to go into the living room, she said, “Put another piece in for me. I’ll have some too.”
She moved into the living room and scanned it with her poorly tracking eyes. Ugly. Everything in this apahtment is ugly.
Sylvia fell into the old yellow armchair that her mother and father had given them when her parents had moved to Scarsdale. Who wanted their filthy cast-off furniture? Norman made me take it.
“What’s the matter with you?” Norman had said. “It’s a nice chair. It has almost no wear! Do you work for the money? No! Take the damn chair and say thank you to your father.”
He’d made her take the chair, but she hadn’t said thank you.
The couch had come from some second-hand warehouse on the Lower East Side. Norman had gotten the coffee table from someone at the Con Edison plant he worked at. The little bar under the window had been an anniversary present from the kids. Only the African masks had been chosen by Sylvia. She had taken a course in African art at the Met and then purchased the masks from the gift shop. Norman hadn’t appreciated them. “What the hell are these? What’re you into now…voodoo? They don’t match anything in the room. How much did they cost?”
“They’re aht. Do you know what aht is? These are fine works of aht.”
Of course he didn’t know what aht was, he worked for fucking Con Edison. My asshole father knows more about aht than Norman. She had taken the course, not him. Norman repaired faulty circuit breakers and transformers. He goes out in a truck for nine hours a day. He doesn’t know anything about aht.
At one point she had taken up painting, but she had difficulty controlling a paintbrush. Sylvia decided that she had an arthritic thumb and gave it up. Before that she had taken up macramé, and before that she’d taken a pottery class. In the apartment there were four ashtrays that Sylvia had made in the days when she and Norman still smoked cigarettes. Her older son, Glenn had once said, “Ma, why don’t you get rid of the ashtrays. You and dad don’t smoke anymore do you?”
“They’re aht, Glenn.”
“Ma, they’re not art. They’re ashtrays. Kids make them at summer camp, before they graduate to bird houses.”
Sylvia sighed in remembering. It was hopeless. Glenn knew as much about art as his father. She looked around the living room again. Then she remembered the tile with Mitzi’s face on it. Her daughter hated the apartment. She’d never come back to it once she finished college. She’d gotten her own place with her boyfriend, Ira. Now they were married and living in Malibu. Ira was a lawyer, and Mitzi was in real estate. Mitzi came to visit twice a year. Ira only came with her once. During her last visit, Mitzi and her mother had fought about the apartment. “You need a decorator,” Mitzi had said. “Let me get you a decorator to fix this place up. Really, ma, it’s atrocious.”
Sylvia had been irate. “Your father and I sacrificed so you and your brother could go to college and have whatever you wanted. Don’t be such a little bitch,” she spat.
“You’re the bitch,” Mitzi had retaliated.
That had been a bad fight. Norman, as usual, had nothing to say to his daughter. Instead, he’d yelled at her. “Twice a year she comes in and you have to start up! She’s right. The place looks terrible. Try cleaning it once in a while, Sylvia. Give the Met a break and pick up a sponge!”
“She called me a bitch!”
Oh, she’d exploded that time. Oh yes, she’d exploded big time. She’d slapped Mitzi good and hard and shoved her out of the apartment.
Then she’d turned on Norman. He’d called her father to come down from Scarsdale and deal with her, and she’d wound up in the Emergency Room at Mt. Sinai. A stupid young Asian doctor had said that she’d had a slight nervous breakdown. What did he know? She was just angry. I’m surrounded by constant stupidity! she’d told herself. They’re all so goddamned selfish.
Sylvia reached into the magazine holder next to the yellow chair and picked up the latest issue of Psychology Today. She turned back to the article she had read that morning, “How To Deal With Narcissistic People?” by Dr. Jason Masterson. Dr. Masterson’s article, alerted the reader to the seven signs of narcissism. Sylvia had devoured the article and had paid particular attention to Dr. Masterson’s closing comments, “It is important to remember, when you deal with the narcissistic personality, that it is that person who has the problem, not you.”
It’s just amazing how many out and out nahcissists are walking around out there, Sylvia thought. Norman and her parents were right at the top of the list, and Mitzi and Glenn took after their father. Mitzi had the “Grandiose Sense of Self-worth” that Dr. Masterson said was the fourth sign of the narcissistic personality, and Glenn had always been “Entitled,” sign two. Her father had adored her son and had practically stolen him away. She remembered the many weekends he had taken Glenn fishing and camping, and whenever Sylvia had a fight with her son, he threatened to tell his grandfather.
One night she’d exploded about it to Norman. “I don’t want my fucking fathah taking my son away from me. Don’t you care! He’s more of a fathah to Glenn than you are. What’s the matter with you? Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”
“He’s taking him away from you and your craziness, Sylvia,” was Norman’s response, but she knew that wasn’t the reason. Norman did nothing with the kids. She did everything. She had to fight every inch of the way to give them a descent home and get them through school. Norman always claimed that he was too tired after work to do anything. “I feed them and put clothes on their back. That’s what fathers do!” he’d said. Norman has zero empathy and, on top of that, he’s freaking cheap and stingy. He’d refused to finance her going to France to study French History at the Sorbonne.
“You read Madame Bovary and you want to go to France? Take a course at NYU.”
Her thoughts returned to her son. Her father had spoiled Glenn. He’d made the boy entitled. Now Glenn lived in Chicago with his wife who was expecting; he was a successful CPA. When they flew to New York, they never stayed at the apartment; they always stayed in Scarsdale. Last time they had stayed for a week and she and Norman had seen them exactly twice.
Occasionally Glenn called Norman, but when she tried to get Norman to share the contents of the conversation he always said, “He called to say ‘Hello.’”
Narcissistic. All of them.
Sylvia got up and headed to the bathroom. This time she really needed to go, but first she poked her head into the kitchen. The smell of the chicken was making her mouth water. Norman was wearing the old white chef’s apron he had worn when he was a cook in the army. He was thin-slicing onions and dropping them into the frying pan with the chicken. They sizzled and the good smell in the kitchen got even better. He enjoyed cooking. Good, let him do it. Sylvia saw that Norman was humming as he moved about the kitchen, and he had made himself a martini. He held the glass in one hand. Selfish. Did he ask me if I wanted one? Sylvia hated martinis, but maybe she would have taken a beer.
“Another ten minutes or so,” Norman replied. “Do you want some wine with dinner?”
“Yes. I’ll take a glass of wine. I’m going to the bathroom.”
“Don’t fall in.” He laughed.
Sylvia cringed. He always said that. It was an old and corny joke, but it must have felt fresh and new to Norman the narcissist.
Sylvia went into the bathroom and closed the door. The familiar, enigmatic, blue and white tiles surrounded her.
She unbuttoned her pants, pulled down the zipper and let them fall to her ankles. Then she peeled down her panties and noticed, once again, the slight streak at the back. So what. It’s human. I don’t have to impress anyone with pristine underpants.
Sylvia settled herself on the toilet seat and bent forward. She moaned and made sounds as nature took over. Her mother had once screamed at her about making sounds in the toilet. Another one with no empathy.
She looked up at the tiles and sighed. Directly across from her Sylvia saw a cluster of four tiles that seemed to form a pattern. The white swirls on one flowed into the white swirls on the tile to its left. The blue swirls below that tile seemed to merge with the blue swirls in the tile to its right and the one just above.
I never noticed that before, Sylvia thought. She stared at the tiles with great interest. There was something soothing about the way they seemed connected. She remembered when they’d had the tiling done. Those thin men with the moustaches and boxes of tiles. Itinerant workers, she thought at the time. Sylvia had thought that they were Mexicans and wondered how they’d found their way to New York. Certainly, those men hadn’t purposely made the pattern of the four tiles. The tiles had arrived in eight large boxes. They were randomly placed on the wall. Yet here were four tiles that had a relationship.
Sylvia looked at the four tiles and watched the white flow into the white and the blue flow into the blue. She forgot to accompany her body’s peristalsis with sounds. She forgot about the bastards at schools and her selfish parents. She forgot about Glenn and Mitzi, and Norman who took over in the kitchen.
The harmony of the four tiles soothed her. I’ve got my own center, she
Sylvia peeled away some toilet paper and remembered the tile that had Mitzi’s face on it. Where is it? None of the tiles looked like Mitzi now, but one just to the right of the toilet paper roll looked exactly like a chicken with its wings raised in panic. There was something disturbing about the frenzied chicken made of white and blue swirls. Sylvia felt her center wobble. She absentmindedly tore off some more paper and swiped at her bottom with it. She did it again, and decided it was probably good enough. I only have to please myself. It was a mantra she had adopted ages ago.
She flushed and pulled up her clothes and fastened them. As she reached for the bathroom door, she twisted her head to have another look at the four tiles that had calmed her. Sylvia frowned. She scanned the wall opposite the toilet and squinted. She couldn’t find the four tiles, and her poor vision and the strain of trying to locate them, made her eyes blurry for a moment. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. She still couldn’t see the unified cluster, but with a little grunt of discomfiture, she found the tile that looked like her father. She hadn’t noticed before, but a part of the blue swirl made it look like he was smiling. Sylvia showed her teeth to the tile. One day I’ll bring in a magic marker and wipe that smile off your face.
In the kitchen, the table was set and Norman was putting the dinner down. It smelled wonderful and looked good too. He had sliced up some bread and slathered butter and garlic on it. A bottle of red wine was uncorked and two little glasses were half filled with the liquid.
She sat down and drank her wine before Norman was seated. “I’ll take some more,” she said as he sat down.