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Retirement Fund

Overlook Cafe II by Sung Kim

Overlook Cafe II by Sung Kim

She pores over the stock report in the business pages the way I devoured Siddhartha when I was her age, reading between the lines for clues to the meaning of life. “Should I buy Wal-Mart shares? Or do you think Pier One has more potential for…Mom?”

I glance up from my sketchpad. How should I know? Me, the money idiot?

 Even if I had a clue, I wouldn’t be able to give her an unbiased opinion. I’m tempted to tell her that Wal-Mart stiffs its employees and gets most of its goods from sweatshops staffed by ten-year-olds in Singapore who slave from dawn till dusk. But she’d only nod acknowledgement, and buy anyway.

 

“Mari, you’ll do whatever you think is best.” I stipple the finishing touches on the sunlit lake in the picture.

 

Mari is short for Mariposa, butterfly. I bestowed her the name on the golden summer morning when I gave birth to her in a tent, part of a caravan of Deadheads en route from Finger Lakes to Virginia. My first reason for the choice? Her dad was half Puerto Rican. I wanted Mari to feel proud of both her parental heritages.

 

The name also fit the mood of that summer. Carlos and I met while waiting tables at a self-consciously hip café in Monterrey, were married by my best friend Judith in her Ashland garden, and celebrated our union by purchasing a battered van in Boulder and joining the endless party snaking its tie-dyed way across America.

 

We lived off the sales of my handmade jewelry and his roadie skills, which he’d learned during his brief stint on a garage band tech crew.

Nights when the Dead weren’t playing, we flitted from one campfire to another, Carlos with his guitar, all of us jamming and getting high together. Two years and one daughter later, he flew away for good, leaving me with my little butterfly.

 

I try not to compare my daughter’s life to mine but it’s impossible. At her age, 23, I was hiking across Greece, sleeping in abandoned farmhouses and facing each new day with the expectation of serendipitous surprises. I was not carefully planning my retirement forty years hence.

Nor was I counting on working for the same employer during those forty years, adhering to the same routine day in and out, buttoning myself into a way of life that allows no surprises.

 

How can you? I want to cry out. Don’t you know what you’re missing?

Don’t you want to travel, try out different jobs, and get a taste of the world? Have you no curiosity about all the life teeming around out there?

 

“I know! Let’s go to Marrakech.” I blurt.

 

“Mom, you’re too much.” She returns to her paper. “But you’re onto something. World Beat is hot these days. Everyone’s decorating with Moroccan copperware.” She nods with satisfaction. “Pier One, I think. Now I just need to decide how many shares.”

 

At least it’s not Wal-Mart. I sigh from both relief and despair.

 

¨

 

The spring Mari turned three, half a year after Carlos left, I took her with me to Spain. Following the Dead and living in a hemp haze had gotten old; not only was I bored, I’d also noticed that the folks who remained with the caravan for years never really changed or grew. I’d felt trapped in a time warp, every day rather pleasant but exactly like the last one.

 

Besides, artisan jewelry commands a limited market; unlike groceries or soap, people don’t use it up and get more. Mari had a big appetite, I earned a tiny income. Time to move on.

 

We crashed at my college roommate Louisa’s place in Madrid while I looked for a job teaching English. In those days, before the EU, any kid with half a brain could get hired at one of the big chain language schools if he was a native English speaker. I found work in three days.

Mari spent her preschool years speaking Spanish during the day, at the home of a little abuelita who took in neighborhood kids for extra income, and English at home. We lived in a townhouse that rented to long-termers. On weekends we’d go on jaunts to see flamenco in Seville, ferry voyages to Morocco or long hikes across the “trail of stars,” the medieval road to Santiago de Compostella, traveled by pilgrims from all over Europe for a millennium.

 

For two years, life was good. Then my mom tracked us down.

 

She declined my offer of a cot, choosing to stay at Best Western-Madrid.

Not even a little family-owned country inn, for God’s sake. “I like to know exactly what I’m getting,” she said when I asked her about it. Her voice implied that the accommodations found in private homes and old townhouses wouldn’t be up to par.

 

Mom stalked about the apartment looking at the curiosities on walls and shelves, waggling a plucked-and-penciled eyebrow every now and then. She peered out the window, which gave us a view of laundry waving from clotheslines. “Do you really enjoy living like this? In a dive the size of a rabbit hutch? With your neighbors’ underwear in your face?”

 

I stood at the kitchen sink, slicing tomatoes for gazpacho. “Obviously I do, or I wouldn’t be here.” I sounded like a petulant seven-year-old but I didn’t care.

 

“Well.” She turned suddenly and faced me. “You might not mind it, but you owe your daughter more.”

 

“More than what, Mom? She’s getting a better education here than I could ever imagine back home. She’s learning about the world, she’ll be bilingual-”

 

“It’s not enough!” She cut me off. “I know what you think is important.

But Mari may not want to do things your way when she’s grown, and if she doesn’t have something resembling a normal upbringing, she’ll be handicapped, just as badly as an illiterate welfare mother.”

 

So like Mom, all public assistance recipients are single mothers, and they’re all there because they’re illiterate.

 

She resumed pacing. “I’ve decided that if you won’t come home, I’m going to file for custody.”

 

I dropped the slicing knife and gasped. “You can’t! You don’t have any grounds for taking her from me.”

 

“Don’t be sure.” She moved forward, seeming to grow taller with each step. “A judge in Michigan just last month awarded custody to a mother-in-law on the basis that the baby’s teenage mom couldn’t provide a real home if she works all day and goes to school at night.” She examined her perfectly oval nails. “Your father’s lawyer has assured me that I have a case.”

 

“Dammit!” I shouted. “You’re punishing me because I didn’t turn out the way you wanted.” I went toe-to-toe with her. “Well, you’re not stealing my daughter.”

 

“No, I’m not stealing her. I’m making sure she gets a fighting chance at a normal life.” Mom grabbed her coat from the rack by the door. “Call me when you get home. One month. Then I’m filing.”

 

Burning inside, I resisted for two weeks. What could she do, anyway? I was self-supporting. I didn’t abuse Mari; the very idea made me sick.

For one night I toyed with the idea of disappearing with her, maybe to Nepal or Tanzania.

 

But at the back of my mind a voice whispered what if Mom really pulls it off? How could you live without Mari? Mom had money, and in my experience, money almost always wins.

 

At the end of the month Mari and I were back in Chicago.

 

¨

 

Mari’s saying something to me again. “Mom? You’re not paying attention.

Listen for once, this is important!”

 

I turn to her. “Yes, dear?”

 

“Let me buy a money market fund for you. It’ll be an early Christmas present.”

 

“Honey, I really appreciate that you’re thinking about me, but-”

 

“Mom, you have got to start thinking about what you’re going to do when you’re too old to work or take care of yourself. Do you want to have to live in some awful nursing home where they feed you mashed liver and strap you into the bed?”

 

I smile. Actually, I’ve always pictured living with Mari and her family (assuming she has one) when I’m old. But I understand if she doesn’t think this is a hot idea; I wouldn’t dream of taking on my mom, should the opportunity arise.

 

¨

 

The week before returning to Chicago, I took Mari to Provence. We camped out under the stars. I rented a bike with a child seat in back and as we toured the back roads and villages, I drank in the sight of golden sunlight on rosy stone walls for the last time. We dined on bread, cheese and fruit while sitting in plazas, or in the occasional café.

 

We were finishing up a meal in one of these cafés somewhere between Avignon and Arles when I heard noise at the door. A family entered – Americans, judging from the accents and rather loud voices. “I don’t know, Bert. It doesn’t look promising.” A matronly woman my mom’s age surveyed the interior.

 

A fiftyish man dressed in Tourist Casual removed his sunglasses and glared at the woman. “Fercrissakes, Norma, it’s not the Hilton. We’re not in Paris. Let’s have a little local color for once.” A little girl about Mari’s age clutched his hand. Grandchild?

 

They chose a table at the opposite end of the room. Good. They looked like the kind of Americans who’d clutch at anyone from back home, and I didn’t want to strain to make conversation. We finished and as I was fishing around in my purse for another franc, I felt a tug on my skirt.

Glancing down, I saw the little girl. She held a Barbie.

 

Mari pointed at the doll. “Mama, look!”

 

“It’s mine.” The little girl hugged the doll to her chest. Ownership established, she then held the doll out to Mari. “You can look at her if you want.”

 

Such a simple thing – one child sharing a beloved toy with another. But at that moment, the crack in the wall that ringed my personal world – the crack Mom started – widened enough to admit a Trojan horse. That the “horse” came in the form of an improbably shaped doll (waist and hips like a preadolescent boy, boobs of a 40-year old mother of six, as Louisa said) was the ultimate irony. I watched helplessly as invading forces swept Mari away from me.

 

“Mama, I want one!” Mari stroked Barbie’s butter-yellow hair.

 

“Maybe someday.” I tried to salvage the situation. “I’ll get you a Happy-to-be- Me doll, honey. They look more real. We’ll sew her some dresses, make a house…”

 

But Mari was not to be thwarted. “No! I want one like hers!” She pointed at Barbie. Mari’s eyes flooded. “I don’t want to make dresses!

This is a pretty dress.” She held up the doll. Fuchsia-colored sequins flashed in the candlelight.

 

The entire café was staring at us. “Calm down, Mari. Our friend here needs to go. She needs her dolly back.”

 

Lower lip in a mutinous pout, Mari silently handed the doll over to our visitor, who returned to her table. We walked back to our inn in silence. Mari declined to hold my hand.

 

The next Christmas, Mari asked for, and got, a Barbie from Mom, who was only too happy to comply with her granddaughter’s request. Recognizing that I’d lost a battle but unwilling to give up the war, I sold my jewelry-making supplies and used the money to register for a legal secretary class at the local business college. For the next fifteen years, my driving goal was to steer Mari through the treacherous waters of youth in a soul-starved culture, where the siren songs come from malls and MTV, and where Medusa appears in the form of teenaged fashion police. After I saw her docked safely in adulthood, hopefully with her spirit intact, I could sail off again on my own course.

 

And so, like whitecaps gliding on the ocean, the years drifted by.

 

¨

 

I brush aside the curtain. White flakes swirl outside. It’s only November but in the Midwest, that doesn’t mean much. “I’m going to light a fire,” I tell Mari. I leave the curtains halfway open even though I know the room will lose heat; I want to watch the snow. For me, the first snowfall of winter has never lost its magic.

 

She jumps up from her chair. “I’ll help.”

 

I pile the logs. She wads newspaper and shoves it into the cracks between the logs. I light the match and the flames roar to life.

 

This is it, I think. A fire on a snowy afternoon, a visit from my daughter, and a good book waiting on the bedside table for later tonight. Why should I want more?

 

Mari settles back into her chair. “They say winter’ll be worse than usual. Mom, what are you going to do? Remember how hard it was for you to pay the heating bill last year?”

 

“I’ll do what I always do.” I yawn. “Bundle up into my camping togs and make the fireplace earn its keep.”

 

¨

 

The camping trip in the Minnesota woods had been meant to celebrate Mari’s high school graduation. Of course she’d had a party as well, with all her friends, but the trip was just for us. I wanted one last mental snapshot of us together before she took off for a college halfway across the country and launched herself into adulthood. And although I had a hard time admitting it to myself, for the first time in nearly twenty years I’d soon be living without a ready-made purpose.

Mari had provided me the entire reason for getting up in the morning and facing a day at a tedious job in a stuffy office, for limiting relationships with men to casual dates, and for resisting the urge to take up any artistic pursuits and maybe fail at them.

 

I could leave that job now. I could resume the travels I’d left behind when we’d moved back to the States. I could work my way around the world again. Or I could go for a job that had always intrigued me, such as running a used bookstore or coffee shop. Anything was possible.

 

For some reason, however, the thought didn’t exhilarate me the way it would have twenty years ago. Clearly I needed to begin processing this whole idea of separation and new life purpose. Hence my second and unspoken reason for the trip.

 

Mari’s mood seemed more reserved than usual. I’d known that she wouldn’t necessarily be thrilled with the nature of her graduation trip; unlike me, she didn’t revel in the natural world or back-to-the-land experiences. She’d been a good sport about it, though, and I’d taken care to choose a state campground with shower-equipped restrooms rather than a clearing in the deep wilderness, miles off a hiking trail. I wanted to give both of us a good experience to take with us as we went our separate ways.

 

Nature had something else in mind. The skies, lightly overcast when we pitched the tent at noon, gathered ominous clouds over the next four hours. The downpour started just after dinner.

 

We huddled in the tent, wrapped in sleeping bags to keep warm. I’d slept in worse situations. Even the dribble running down the inside of the tent by my feet, sign of a leak, didn’t faze me. Storms made for cozy nights, provided one brought enough warm bedding. We’d sleep deeply and in the morning, the forest would be washed clean, drops glittering in sunlight. Being touched by extreme elements – biting cold, searing heat, thunderstorms – always made me tingle with…what was it? Joy? Excitement? Something that included both of these things but went beyond them?

 

Mari interrupted my optimistic reverie. “M-m-mom.” Her teeth chattered. “Let’s go home.” She drew the sleeping bag more tightly around herself.

 

“Honey, it’s going to blow over. You’ll see.”

 

“Mom, listen to it!”

 

We sat still for a moment. The rain poured down in sheets, sounding like the crash of ocean breakers against our tent. A small pool gathered by the entry flap.

 

Tears sprang to her eyes. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m just not like you.

I don’t enjoy this kind of thing.”

 

Ever since the Barbie doll incident, I’d suspected that she and I were not destined to be partners in adventure. She was too conventional for my kind of life. She preferred to hang out in a safe circle of childhood friends and work at things she’d mastered rather than jump into unknown situations. Risk troubled her. During my darker moments, I imagined she had the potential to become like my mother. I’d tried to give Mari a wide range of experiences as she grew up, so that she wouldn’t turn out as judgmental as Mom. I knew, however, that pushing her too far in my direction would backfire. And that someday, whether I felt my work with her was finished or not, I had to let her go.

 

Looking at her, huddled in the tent, I saw that my time was up.

 

“Okay, kiddo. We’ll go.” I began rolling up blankets. “I’ll take you out for breakfast and shopping tomorrow.”

 

“Thanks, Mom.” Drops continued to roll down her cheeks, mirroring the drops running down the side of the tent.

 

By the time we loaded the car, rain had drenched us through and through.

She gave the hatchback a final slam and dove into the car, unspeakably eager to escape the downpour.

 

I paused for a minute, hand on the door handle, lifted my face to the weeping sky and let water stream over me.

 

¨

 

“Mom, I wish you’d consider taking some courses to update your skills and get a better-paying job. I mean, I know you love the bookstore, but still…” Her voice trails off, and then regains its urgency. “You need better health care and a retirement fund.”

 

I want to tell her that her love means more to me than all the supposed security in the world. That’s why I tolerate her nagging – it’s her way of showing she cares what happens to me. During the worst moments of her growing-up years, when my former job felt like a prison sentence lived out in a carpeted, muzak-infested cell, she and a few of my close friends helped me get by. My memories are my retirement fund.

 

Maybe she’s right about her planning, her incessant sacrificing and saving, her refusal to sample the world’s banquet now; if it means she can squirrel a few morsels away for later. Maybe I will die young from some awful cancer that could have been cured if I’d had a cadillac health plan, or eventually be evicted for nonpayment of rent like a bag lady. And just maybe, in that moment, I’ll regret those gold-limned days spent sailing the Aegean Sea, riding camels through North Africa, sunning on Thai beaches and climbing pyramids in Mexico.

 

But for now, I’ll imagine and light one final fire, using all my matches for an enormous conflagration. In the flames I’ll see the faces of people who were dear to me – Mari, Judith, Louisa, all my neighbors throughout the years, the people I’ve worked and played and lived with, even Carlos. Then I’ll fly away in a blaze of glory to a land where each of us is endowed with butterfly wings that no one else can clip.

 

Still facing the fire, I ask Mari, “Did I ever tell you about the summer I spent in Istanbul?” A shower of sparks flies upward in the fireplace like the glinting of a gold-flecked mosaic on the walls of a medieval mosque, billowing into a giant swirl that blots out the snow falling in the darkness outside.

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