I saw Meredith at breakfast today. It had been two, maybe three years since I’d seen her—really looked at her, that is. She usually resided in my peripheral vision, like a dust mote floating in the corner of my eye.
“Hi, Mom,” she said.
I was overcome. I loved my girl so much. “Honey, how did you sleep? How are things at school? Tell me everything.” I noticed her hair was in a complicated French braid; she must have learned to do that on her own.
She proceeded to tell me all about a fifth-grade project that involved toothpicks and copper wire and teeny tiny robots. There was some sort of classroom drama. I tried to pay attention. But I was packing her little sisters’ lunches and trying to remember who needed to bring their violin and who needed to return their library book. The dog tipped over the garbage pail and I had to wrestle a chicken bone from its mouth. I know I missed some details. But I thought, thank God I never have to worry about Meredith.
Around then Hallie’s anxiety got so bad she began levitating. I had to meet with the principal and child psychologist and drive her to a social skills group twice a week so she could play board games and practice keeping both feet on the ground. On top of that Fiona developed amblyopia. Her left eye starting rolling around in her head like a greasy marble in a ball socket. When I wasn’t driving Hallie to therapy I was on the Internet researching “levitation treatment” and “child has loose eyeball.”
I ran into Meredith in the kitchen. I’d come in to fix myself a cup of tea and saw her peering into the refrigerator.
“What’s going on, sweetie?” I was happy she was there. I hadn’t seen her in a while though I knew she was around. I could tell she’d gotten taller and more womanly.
“Nothing much. Everything’s fine.” She closed the fridge door. “We’re out of yogurt.”
“Sorry. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to get to the store. Your sisters, their appointments—”
She told me it was no biggie. She was understanding, full of grace. I told her I was grateful to have an independent and resourceful daughter who always did what was expected of her. I hugged her.
I’m kind of fuzzy on Meredith’s high school years. I remember her little sisters were putting me through the wringer. Hallie needed gravitational therapy, which meant I had to tie cans of soup to her feet every night and force her into a heavy-footed walk. Fiona’s doctor recommended she get a mechanical eye. I was buried in insurance paperwork and probably a little depressed. I think Meredith played field hockey. Or maybe it was lacrosse. I vaguely recall there being a stick of some sort. Whatever it was, I’m sure she did well because she’s a team player. Other kids might drink at parties and throw up on people’s lawns, but not her. She’s too considerate for that.
I passed her on the stairs from time to time. Each time she was more self-possessed than the last. Sometimes I felt a hand reach its way inside me and strum a high minor chord along my rib cage. The note reverberated in my chest cavity.
The last time I saw her was in the spring of her senior year. Or maybe she had already graduated, I can’t say for sure. I woke up, looked out the window, and saw her in the yard tending a roaring flame. She was inflating a hot air balloon.
I ran downstairs. By the time I got outside she was already in the basket. The balloon began to float upward.
“Come down, Meredith!” I told her she had to let me know where she was going. She wasn’t licensed and besides, she would need a warmer jacket if she was going to spend time in the stratosphere.
Meredith untied the ropes. She tossed out some ballast and the balloon began to climb. I shouted at her to be careful. I wanted her to know that a mother’s love is infinite, but I wasn’t sure if she could hear me at that point.
She waved. The balloon crested the tree line and found an air current. A sudden gust took it up and away. I couldn’t tell if she was smiling. She kept waving until she was just a dot on the horizon, no bigger than a dust mote. The dog started barking and I turned to shush it. When I looked for her again she was gone.
Doris W. Cheng is a Taiwanese American fiction writer. She received an MA in English Literature from Columbia University and teaches fiction and poetry in NY and NJ. Her stories are forthcoming or have appeared in New Orleans Review, Witness, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Normal School, The Cincinnati Review miCRo, The Pinch, and other literary magazines. She is an alumna of Tin House and the recipient of a 2020 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Grant for feminist fiction. http://www.doriswcheng.com