THE BEST THING YOU REMEMBER
The baby shower was on a Sunday, a day that was supposed to be about peace and rest, but Connie felt anything but peaceful or restful. Her hips still ached from a terrible night’s sleep. The body pillow she draped her leg over at night was no use. And now she waddled around a conference room in the Four Seasons Hotel in Yorkville like a rusty can opener, stilted and slow, but still getting the job done. The job today was to be sweet and smiling, grateful and, mostly, surprised, even though her mother told her weeks ago she was planning Connie a baby shower.
Natalia picked the Four Seasons against Connie’s wishes. With its plush carpet the color of steamed milk, cherry wood furniture, and a brocade couch with ornate carvings, the conference room was meant for high-powered meetings and not the sticky hands of her cousin Louisa’s son or the full red wine glass a tipsy Louisa was now holding. Connie had wanted something small and simple, something at the little Portuguese café her parents owned with their family friend Luis, or the Portuguese club or even her own condo.
“Bah,” Natalia had said. “If we do it at your place, everyone will know you know. Where’s the fun in that?”
Connie knew the day was not about fun, it was about her mother showing off. Her parents had always felt the weight of immigrant responsibility—Connie and her sisters never had dirt under their nails, never tangles in their hair, never a cavity to find at the dentist, her parents with cars never more than five years old. This sheen of perfection that coated their lives.
Louisa, who married money last year, had offered to pay for the location as Connie’s baby shower gift. And Natalia had picked the Four Seasons, promising Connie it would still be small and intimate. Just their family. Just their closest friends. But when Connie walked in an hour ago, feigning surprise that she thought she was just meeting her mother and sisters for brunch, she knew her version of simple and her mother’s lived on opposite poles.
A foldable wall that separated two conference rooms had been pushed back, and the two blended rooms were the size of a small hall. Natalia had arranged a brocade couch in the center of the room where Connie would later open gifts. A table, covered in a white tablecloth and small bouquets of white lilies in glass vases, held tiny gold-trimmed china plates of macarons and smoked salmon sandwiches, the sight and scent of which made Connie gag. Lately, all fish smelled rotten, like carcasses that had been left floating on the surface of the ocean for days before being skimmed off. Connie had told her mother she couldn’t handle fish during her pregnancy. Why had her mother made smoked salmon sandwiches a menu item? There were also tiny quiches, bacon-wrapped scallops, and small plates of potato pavé with thin slices of rare steak. Tiny elegance that Connie struggled to hold with her swollen hands. Absent, Connie noticed, was the Portuguese food she had dreamt last night would fill the table. She had taken such care to write out a menu for her mother. Where were the mini strawberry shortcakes she loved? The pasteis de nata, the São Jorge cheese, the grilled chourico, the creamy shrimp rissoles? Or Luis’ piri piri chicken—the hotter the better she had written and underlined twice?
She found her mother in the crowd and gently pulled her close. “Where’s the food I wanted?” Connie whispered.
“What, you don’t like this?” Natalia asked, her mouth drooping toward the loose skin around her neck. “Louisa said the hotel would cater, and they said this was what all the new mothers had at their baby showers.”
“I don’t care what all the other new mothers have,” Connie hissed. “I’ve been craving Portuguese food.”
Natalia stepped back and tilted her head, looking Connie over. “You can have that stuff any time,” she said. She took a plate off the table. “Here, have a smoked salmon sandwich.”
Connie pressed her hand to her mouth and turned away. She wondered why she even bothered talking to her mother these days. She was like a one-way radio, constantly blaring noise.
She turned back to her mother, defiant. “I’ll pick up some chicken on my way home then.”
“The café isn’t open today. Inspectors are going through it,” Natalia said.
“Inspectors? What for?” Connie asked.
“Didn’t you hear? Louisa bought the place. She’s taking over next month.”
Connie looked over at her cousin who was holding her wine glass out to the bartender for a refill. They were supposed to have bought the place together, but Connie’s husband Jeremy didn’t want to take the risk with a new baby on the way. Connie didn’t begrudge Louisa for going ahead without her, she just never thought Louisa would. When she was younger, Connie always imagined taking over the café. When her father spent long hours working at the place, Connie would beg her mother to drop her off so she could spend the night helping her father place the dough for the Portuguese buns in clay bowls so they’d be ready for the oven in the morning, covering each with a warm cloth like she was tucking in one of her dolls. She sighed. Smile, be sweet, be grateful, act surprised, she reminded herself.
“What is that?” Natalia asked, tilting one ear to the room.
Connie could hear people playing musical instruments in the next room, the notes falling all over each other with no discernible harmony.
“It’s mus—” Connie started to say.
“Music? That’s not music, that’s noise,” Natalia said. She hurried over to Louisa, and a few seconds later, Louisa left the hall, and soon after that, the music stopped.
Connie watched as her mother frowned at her from across the room. Soon, Natalia was standing next to Connie again, her breath hot in her ear. “Connie, you didn’t iron your dress.”
“I steamed it this morning,” Connie said, pulling at her neck where the sheer fabric of the high-collared dress made her feel like she was suffocating.
“Steam?” Natalia shook her head. “Not good. You need the weight of the iron to straighten everything out. Then you won’t have,” her mother fingered the wrinkled edges of Connie’s sleeves, “this.”
Connie pulled her arm away and headed for the bar. Her mother was too much on any day, let alone today when Connie’s body strained with pregnancy, with a blood volume that was doubled, she thought as she placed a swollen hand on the edge of the bar to steady herself.
“Can I get a club soda with ice in a wine glass please?” she asked the bartender.
Natalia approached, motioned to the bartender for a bottle of red wine. “You can have this,” Natalia said, pouring wine into Connie’s glass, and Connie watched as the club soda, turning red, frothed and bubbled. She quickly set the glass down and looked around the room.
Natalia shook her head and sighed. “When I was pregnant with you, your father mixed a raw egg and some red wine in a cup for me every day. And see? You’re fine,” she said, waving an arm over Connie.
And that’s why I’m never asking her for parenting advice, Connie thought, turning her head, before she faced her mother again and smiled sweetly. “How comforting,” she said.
Connie searched the room for her cousin. Maybe Louisa would keep the café open or at the very least share the piri piri chicken recipe with her. But before she could spot Louisa, her aunt Edith sauntered toward her. She placed both hands on Connie’s belly and squeezed slightly but enough that Connie felt her bladder strain under the pressure.
“Oh, it looks like a boy. Definitely another boy in the family!” Edith said.
“Bah,” Natalia said. “Look how low she’s carrying. I carried like that. It’s a girl.”
Her aunt waved her hand over her mother’s face, then turned to her. “What do you think, Connie?”
Connie, standing between her mother and aunt, clasped her hands to her belly. “As long as it’s healthy, we don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl.”
But ever since she discovered she was pregnant, Connie had been secretly hoping for a girl. Of course, she wanted a healthy baby first. Of course, she told everyone she didn’t care what she had, that she and Jeremy were excited for the surprise of their firstborn child. But in bed before turning out the light, while Jeremy snored softly next to her, Connie would place her hands on her burgeoning belly and whisper, “C’mon baby, be a girl.”
She had had enough of boys for now. Louisa’s son, Carlos, was a raucous nose-picking child who constantly swept things off Connie’s coffee table when they visited the condo—the books and architectural magazines Connie had delicately fanned across the glass table, the aloe vera plant she had positioned so it caught the golden beam of morning light that peeked through her window. When Carlos scratched himself—because he was always scratching himself—Louisa would pick off part of the aloe vera plant and rub the oozing liquid on his skin. Connie was annoyed at how her cousin felt entitled to her things. But she would just smile and ask, “Don’t you want some Polysporin instead?”
Now that she was pregnant, Connie wanted a daughter she could teach to be firm and outspoken, proud of who she was and where she came from, confident and secure—all the things Connie felt she wasn’t. But she wasn’t sure how she’d manage that with her mother hanging over her, pushing Connie to do things her way, and when Connie resisted, doing it her way anyway. Like this baby shower. She had plans to be her own kind of parent, much different from Natalia. She was taking her full maternity leave even though her mother had already bragged to her friends how Connie was too important at work to take a full year off. Natalia acted like Connie was constantly on some kind of stealth mission instead of someone who worked at a bank.
Standing on the brocade couch, Louisa wolf-whistled and gathered everyone for a game. Every night as Connie settled in to watch House or Rescue Me or Lost or Desperate Housewives, the titles like a prime-time lineup of her life, Louisa called and kept her on the phone for hours, asking about her parenting style, parenting goals, and the do’s and don’ts Connie would follow as a first-time mother. Then Louisa pressed Connie to hand the phone to Jeremy to answer the same questions long after Connie had missed the end of the House episode where a woman’s aching wrist was really a blocked artery and she was rushed into surgery.
“Did she survive?” she asked Jeremy later that night when they were already in bed and snapping off the lights.
He shrugged. “No idea.”
Now, in the conference room with its wainscoted walls, Louisa carried a cardboard box plastered with robin’s egg blue and dusty rose question marks and explained how she had been interviewing Connie and Jeremy all week and the box contained the results of those interviews.
“Everyone has to guess who said what,” Louisa said, setting the box down and picking out a piece of folded paper.
“When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on,” Louisa read. “Connie or Jeremy?”
“Has to be Connie. It sounds like something she read in a book,” Natalia said quickly, placing her hand on Connie’s shoulder and squeezing gently. She was standing next to Connie like a bollard, as if ready to protect her from some impending impact.
“Not a book,” said a woman Jeremy’s mother had earlier introduced to Connie as her cousin, whose name Connie had now forgotten. “Our mother always said that.” The woman’s glasses were slung low across the bridge of her nose so that she looked like a teacher scolding Natalia for not paying attention in class. “That has to be Jeremy,” she said.
Natalia frowned, and Connie wondered whether her mother was searching her own mind for similarly convincing evidence. Natalia looked up at the woman and smiled deferentially the way Connie had seen her do so many times before with English-speaking Canadians.
“If you say so. My Connie reads so many books, it’s hard to keep up. When she was a little girl she’d disappear for hours, and I’d find her sitting on the toilet with a book.”
“Mother,” Connie said, her voice slicing the air like a paper cut.
“What?” Natalia asked, looking around and sipping her wine.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough guesses,” said Louisa. “It was Jeremy.” She handed the woman a small clothespin. “Whoever has the most pins at the end of the game wins a prize,” Louisa said, stretching the word “prize” into four syllables.
Louisa swished her hand in the box, notched her chin, and raised her eyebrows as though she was choosing a golden ticket and not a piece of paper that Connie knew her cousin had pulled from her recycling bin the night before.
“Children learn what they live. If a child lives with shame, they learn to be guilty. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, they learn to find love in the world,” Louisa read, before turning to the room. “Who wants to guess this one first?”
Natalia snorted. “Now that’s Jeremy.”
Connie felt the air shift. “Why would you think that?” she asked. The words came stilted from her mouth. The letters, once organized neatly, were jumbled, and she had to unscramble them before saying them out loud.
“Shame?” Natalia said, her voice deep, the heat of her breath washing over Connie. “My kids have never lived with shame.”
Rivulets of sweat dribbled down Connie’s back, soaked into her dress, which was now chafing her neck. She desperately wished she had worn something different, but her mother had surprised her last week with this dress, and Connie knew she’d feel guilty if she hadn’t worn it today. She looked around for sparkling water or a dabble of wine—just a few drops to settle her down—and noticed that everyone was looking at her except Louisa, who was quietly ripping the sheet with the quote into tiny pieces as if she were peeling an egg.
“What’s this?” Natalia said to Louisa. “Who said that?”
Louisa looked up, clenched her fist and the pieces of torn paper. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s move on.”
Natalia whipped her head toward Connie. “You said that?”
Her mother was giving her the look, the one she gave in public when Connie was younger, when she and her sisters were bickering in the grocery store or at the local Biway and Natalia wanted them to stop but didn’t want to yell at them in public and make a scene. The look Connie and her sisters called “the golf balls” because her mother’s eyes protruded as if she had stacked them onto tees.
Edith came over and rubbed Natalia’s arm. “Let it go, Natalia,” she whispered.
But Connie knew her mother would never, could never, let it go.
“Well, if your childhood was so shameful, then I don’t know why I’m here,” Natalia said. She swiped her purse up into the crook of her elbow and padded across the carpet, past the uncomfortably hard black chairs wrapped in bleached white covers and knotted with yellow satin bows, and out the heavy wooden doors, a whoosh sweeping into the room as she left.
Edith started to follow, but Connie stopped her aunt. “I’ll go, Tia. Sorry everyone,” she called over her shoulder. “Have some smoked salmon, we’ll be back soon!” Eat it all, she thought as she waddled out of the room, her hips aching from the kitten heels her midwife told her would ease her lower back pain. She pushed opened the doors and looked up and down the long hallway, empty except for a wooden pedestal with a sculpture of two elephants, their trunks entangled. Connie headed for the front desk and approached the dainty woman behind it and asked whether she’d seen her mother go by.
“Why yes, she went left,” the woman said, pointing to the hotel’s glass revolving doors.
On Yorkville Avenue, Connie stood in the bright Toronto afternoon sun next to a red-tiered fountain her mother had used as a landmark in the directions she had written out on each baby shower invitation. Connie crested her hand over her forehead and headed left, past a fire station, where a fire engine was wailing out of the driveway, and the public library with its long stone steps, and she thought of the irony of some place so loud next to some place she found such comfort as a child. She walked past town hall square with trees in round concrete planters and thought of old Portugal Square and St. Mary’s Church where she went for Portuguese lessons as a girl, not far from here but which, to Connie, felt a world away from the Portuguese seafood shops whose walls were lined with large slabs of stiff salted cod that stood erect like signposts in white buckets. She came out at Scollard Street, where she saw her mother slip into a café at the base of a behemoth building. She followed her into the café and was confronted with the hisses and pops of an espresso machine that lined a white quartz counter along the back wall.
“Mom, wait!” she called. “Please.”
Her mother turned, her face carved into a frown. “Why you want to embarrass me in here too?” Natalia spat.
Her mother’s whole life, Connie thought, had been about avoiding embarrassment.
“Don’t be ridiculous, I haven’t embarrassed you at all,” Connie said.
“Oh, so now you’re telling me how to feel?”
Connie pinched the space between her eyes. This was not what she had intended when she followed her mother. She needed her mother to listen to her for once. To just have a normal conversation. She had come to explain the line came from the poem they saw framed in the baby store while Natalia was helping Connie register for a Diaper Genie and a baby bathtub that came with a handheld shower hose. Connie had scanned the framed poem too. She had pictured it hanging above the changing table to remind her of the parent she wanted to be. It wasn’t a look to the past, she wanted to tell her mother now, it was a promise for her future, something she could hold on to when she became preoccupied with the details of parenting and forgot everything she wanted to be.
“Are you going to order something, or are you just going to stand there and argue?” The woman behind the counter leaned over onto her elbows, her high dark ponytail rising above the shelf of espresso mugs and saucers.
Natalia approached a glass cabinet with colorful pastries and pointed. “Duas,” Natalia said, falling into Portuguese the way Connie saw her do whenever she was flustered.
“Which one? And how many?” the woman asked, her finger sliding back and forth along the shelf.
“This, this,” Natalia said. She pressed her finger in front of delicate pastries with brown and white stripes along the top and layers of thin pastry and custard underneath, leaving a ghost of her finger imprinted on the glass when she pulled it away.
“The mille-feuille? And how many? One?”
“Duas,” Natalia said.
The woman shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Two,” Connie said, stepping up to the counter. “My mother wants two.”
“They’re six dollars each,” the woman said, her eyes bouncing between Connie and Natalia. Connie held her face very still. Her toes were jammed into the front of her kitten heels and liquid-filled blisters were sprouting from the back of her feet and she knew she’d clip off a piece of aloe when she got home and ask Jeremy to rub it all over her soles. The skin around her belly was so taut it itched, and she felt as though she was suffocating in her damn dress. But she refused to show any of this to the server standing in front of her.
Smile. Be sweet. Act grateful.
Connie stretched a smile across her face as tight as the skin that pulled across her eight-month pregnant belly. “In that case, make it three,” she said, making her voice light and tempered the way she did when she was talking to an irate executive at work.
The woman folded a shiny white cardboard box into a square and placed three mille-feuille inside. Natalia paid in cash, and they stood at a counter by the door and bit into the flaky pastry, Connie brushing golden buttery flecks from her mother’s cheek.
Natalia chewed and scanned the sky and the clouds, grey and pulled like wool. “Bah,” Natalia said, shrugging. “Luis’ pasteis de nata are better.”
Connie laughed. “And they’re not six dollars.”
“Maybe I’ll tell him to raise the price,” Natalia said.
Connie shook her head. “I’m sure Louisa will do that when she takes over.”
Natalia took another bite. “Too much sugar. Too sweet, even with a coffee.”
Connie nodded. Change is hard, she thought. Her mother was accustomed to Portuguese custard tarts, not fancy French-named desserts served in a cold café. “It’s because you have the taste of Luis’ natas in your head. Nothing is ever as good as the best thing you remember,” she said.
Her mother looked at her a long time, then licked her finger and wiped a spot on Connie’s cheek before sweeping crumbs off the counter and into a napkin, throwing it in the trash.
They left the café, Natalia holding the white box with the last mille-feuille inside, and walked past the square, past the round concrete planters where a young girl was tiptoeing across one of the edges, a woman by her side holding her hand as the girl counted each step. Connie threaded her arm through her mother’s as they headed back to the Four Seasons, and she decided not to bring up the poem or why she picked it. Let them just be happy right now, she thought, let them just be mother and daughter, two people who were doing their best, who offered each other grace when they needed it most.
Kelly Pedro’s fiction has appeared in PRISM and The New Quarterly. She was short-listed for Room’s 2022 fiction contest. She’s currently revising a collection of linked short stories and lives in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada located on the Haldimand Tract within the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnawbek, and Haudenosaunee peoples. Find her on Twitter at @KellyPatLarge.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #41.