Terminal Velocity

Daniel DiStasio


It was one of those moments.  Like the Clash song.  “Should I stay or should she go?  If I stay it will be trouble.  If I go it will be double.”  Deanna’s headbanging days were long gone, as was her marriage.  But it was not some undecided love calling to her - it was her mother in trouble again.  What she wanted, more than anything in the world, was to say no.  To stay in the calm dove-grey light of her totally unremarkable third floor walkup in an overlooked neighborhood in upper Manhattan.  Against her better judgment, she acquiesced.  This would not turn out well. 

Five days later, Deana headed to The Rizzoli Orthopedic Institute in Bologna.  The man at the inn where she was staying said it was just up the hill, so she assumed it was a short walk.  Her assumption was wrong; they often were.  A pleasant stroll on a sunny day turned out to be an exhausting tromp two miles upward. What she thought was the hospital, visible eight or ten blocks away, was not the right building, but the Ospedale Generale.  Her destination was another thirty minutes ahead at the end of a cracked sidewalk that stretched forever skyward.  Taxis flashed by, a city bus blew exhaust in her face, sweat dripped from her brow, and a blister grew on her instep as she climbed and climbed. 

“What took you so long?”

Deana did not have the energy to recount the past five days:  a rush to replace her expired passport, interviews with pet-sitting services, a suitcase that had to be replaced due to a rusted-out zipper, and a battle with her insurance company to get prescriptions filled early.  Then she missed her connection in Paris.  The combination of Ambien and scotch turned her into a half dead mollusk.  The stewardess shook her so vigorously she nearly vomited.  Finally, a security guard helped her off the plane.  Who knew airports were now behemoth shopping malls?  Blurry-eyed, she stumbled past Gucci and L’Occitane, purses, hats, cheese, electronics—who bought a flat-screen TV at an airport?—everything but her frigging gate.

“You look awful.”

“Thank you, mother. How’s your foot?”

“It’s killing me, but the doctor from Venice is very sexy.”

Mother had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time: fires, floods, financial crises.  While others lost their homes, limbs, and livelihoods; Mother weathered tragedy as if it were nothing more than a lost earring.  She rattled on about poor service, and the ambulance ride, the disaster of her hair.  Four people were killed, twenty-two injured. The bus was on the border when the attack happened.  A man, disguised as a tchotchkevendor, dropped a bag in the middle of the bus and ran off—no suicide bomber, he—mother was lucky to be in a window seat up front.  The gentleman next to her, a large man from Saudi Arabia, shielded her from the main carnage.  Hospitals were overwhelmed; the worst victims were airlifted to Dubrovnik and Venice.  Mother was held overnight in a small town, and then moved to the Centro Orthopedicoin Bologna. 

Deana longed for a nice tall scotch and a long nap.  Her head was aching and her stomach was still swirling from the long plane ride.  Mother rang the nurses’ station for a cup of tea, complained it was too hot, and then let it sit until it was too cold.  After an hour of half-listening to her mother rattle on, Deana begged to be let go.  She left with a list of items her mother needed for survival: talcum powder, cherry throat lozenges, velvet slippers, a head scarf—preferably colorful with flowers or birds—and bobby pins.  It was going to be a long week.

 

“Slow, mother, slow.”

They put five steel rods in her foot to try and force her toes back in place.  The staff was attentive, but scarce; consequently, it was up to Deana to bring food and water, to help her hobble to the bathroom, and after a few days to assume the role of physical therapist walking her up and down the hallway. 

“You were always afraid of change.  Terrified of anything that moved.”

“Mother, I am just trying to help you walk.”

 “The important thing is to be happy.  How can you be happy holed up in that tiny apartment with one window overlooking an alleyway?  I warned you against the City.”

It was true.  Deana’s days were punctuated by awkward moments of remembering a past that was only a silhouette, an outline barely defining the life hollowed out inside. She managed by holding onto signposts, rituals of waking and sleeping and filling the time in between with diversions that shielded her from demons that lurked outside the lines.  Not divorce, not impairment, not loss of job, or friends; none of those things scared her.  It was what mighthappen: a crippling fear that the next change would end the few comforts she clutched so dearly.

She placed her hand beneath her mother’s elbow as they walked the length of the colorless corridor.  At the end of the hallway, light poured through the window flooding the floor with gold.  Deana focused on the pool of sunshine, on the hint of an oak branch that cut a corner of the window, on anything but her mother’s words.  Her city apartment lacked natural light; windows on each end revealed grey squares of concrete.  In between the walls, her life was pale shades of prepared foods and mindless television, the saving grace of cocktails, litter boxes and mystery novels. Change was overrated.

 

The following day on her way to the hospital, a handsome maître de stopped her in front of a trattoria.  He had called out to her each time she passed by, “buongiorno,” or “per favore,” as if asking her permission for something beyond lunch or dinner.  He was older, but charming in that way that men get as they age.  He stood in her path and then held one of her arms in his hand, gently, as a father might do to a child.  She felt safe, relaxed.  His teeth were shiny white and his breath had a whisper of anise.

 “You must try Bolognese.”  

“My mother.”  She tried to explain.

But he insisted, “E figlia premurosa” taking her elbow and leading her to a table.  “Sit.”

She sat.  He brought her a glass of Bonardafrom his uncle’s vineyard outside Parma.  It was dark and rich, leaving a satisfying sweetness after each sip. A plate of linguine appeared, and more wine.  He flirted and she laughed and ordered another bottle of wine.  When she called for the check, he brought her tiramisu and grappa, which she devoured happily, but when she stood up she realized it was a mistake.  The heat, the wine, the food had made her heavy-eyed and unable to walk.  She was dizzy and her footing uncertain.  She had to lie down. Her inn was only two blocks away but she struggled to make it to her room.  After fumbling with the keys, she managed to unlock the door, find her bed and fall into a deep and dreamless sleep. 

 

The next day, she coaxed her mother along, timing her pace to the metronomic step-flap of house slippers beating a path toward the end of the hall.  She nodded to an orderly whose smile acknowledged the burden of mother.  A tangle of shadows on the floor scripted evening’s approach.  Deanna moved slowly toward the window, as her mother pulled her along.

“Why do you drink so much?” 

“I like to drink.”

“No one likes to drink alone.”

“I do.  Steady.”

“Faster, Deana, faster.”

“You are putting too much pressure on your foot.”

“It’s my fault, I suppose.  I was never home.  Then you father died on the train between Hicksville and Syosset.  But that’s no reason to live your life in a cocoon, Deana.  It’s not healthy.”

It was true.  She had never been a stay-at-home mom.  Home was where you dropped off hats, kids, and doggie bags from World Hong Kong Buffet.  When Deana took medical leave from Kurt, Schwartz, and Oppenheimer for carpal tunnel, she was certain she would be back within six weeks.  Five years later, she collected her disability check, cozied up to a scotch and soda each day at 4 pm, and eavesdropped on her neighbors’ increasing dissatisfaction.  Life was venal.  If people weren’t being left behind, they were leaving.  Stopping time was the only escape.  Most people were too blind to see that.  Deana saw.  She knew.

“Slow, mother, walk slower.”

 

Days stumbled along with tepid lunches at her mother’s bedside, afternoon walks along the corridor, and the long sway of evening waiting for bedtime.  As with all things mother, Deana came to expect the unexpected.  Arriving before noon with a prosciutto piadiniand torta di mele, she found a pimply-faced, man with a notebook, questioning her mother about the bombing.  He looked nothing like the rumpled suit guys from the detective novels, stacked along the wall by Deana’s bedside.  He was younger, wore wire-rimmed glasses, looked more like an insurance salesman than an investigator.

“Did anyone give you anything, ask you for anything?”

“Oh men ask all the time.  I take care of myself.”  She replied in the same voice she reserved for all men, cheerful and coquettish.

She had become accustomed to Mother’s embarrassing behavior, the coquettish voice she reserved for men.  But something in the man’s gaze, the pause as he weighed the answer, made Deanna uncomfortable. 

“You are sure no one said anything unusual?” 

Mother’s chin jutted out, as it does when she lies, and she shook her head no.   The man thanked her and handed her a business card, in case you remember something important.

 

A week later, the city celebrated Ferragustowith street fairs, bands and a parade.  Deana was stranded by the side of the road trying to cross, as a bevy of nuns with brooms swept clean a path in front of four men in robes hefting a statue of the Virgin Mother on their shoulders.  The sky could not have been bluer or the air more fragrant with the scent of incense and gladiolus.  It was a day so bright it could burst.  She dodged dozens of children dressed in communal white, running across the street.  Vendors sold shaved ice and zeppoles, while parents snapped photographs of children with powdered sugar on their lips. Minutes passed, the frittata she had purchased bore a grease stain on the paper bag.  Deana lingered a moment longer, adjusted her sunglasses and continued her hike up the hill.

Even the hospital seemed lighter with half the staff away on vacation.  Mother had tied an orange scarf around her head in gypsy style and wore large hoop earrings.  She was in a festive mood, anxious to be released.  The doctor presented the exit papers, which they couldn’t read, but signed anyways.  He advised them that she should take it easy for next few weeks, walk each day but don’t overdo.  She would need help to shower, prepare meals, and complete simple tasks.

“Don’t leave her alone, va bene?”

“Can she travel?”

“In a few days, I say yes.”

Deana nodded.  

The doctor repeated, “Not alone, si?”

 

At the inn, she booked flights home, sorted through her mother’s carry bag and rearranged the few items they were able to retrieve after the bombing.  Along with scarves and knee highs, she found a leather folio with a passport for Abdulraham Muhammad Al-Mofty and a sizable stack of cash in three currencies.

“Mother, what’s this?”

“He gave it to me. I thought he wanted me to fish out some small bills for souvenirs. He was nearly blind. But thinking back, I don’t know.”

“You said nothing.”

“The man’s dead.  What good would it do?” 

“Unjust enrichment.  Withholding evidence.  Crimes, mother, punishable crimes.”

“Oh stop with the legal nonsense.  He gave me his wallet and then he was murdered. Story over.”

Deana knew it would never be over; not as along as mother had money and a reason to keep moving.  A silent rage threatened to take over.  She kept packing, noticed a pair of scissors in her mother’s carry-on, took them out and set them aside.  She fussed with the pillows, stared out the window, and avoided her mother’s gaze.  

 “This is about that time I left you at Melfi’s furniture store, isn’t it?  You were so content in your stroller watching cartoons.  I hated shopping for sofas and end tables - such a waste of time.  I just wanted to get out of there.  Halfway home, I realized and rushed back, expecting to find you in tears.  But you just sat there staring at the ridiculous moose, as if you hadn’t noticed I had left.”

“Maybe, I didn’t.”

“The whole store was in an uproar.  They called your father.  I can’t believe you even remember it.”

“Who said I did?”

 

In the morning, she took a hot shower, bracing herself for the long flight home.  She woke her mother, helped her to the bathroom and admonished her not to dawdle. She carried the bags down to the front desk, settled the bill and thanked the proprietor.  When she returned to the room, mother was propped up on the bed, pillows beneath hers legs, an Italian movie magazine in her hand.

“The cab’s here.”

“I am not ready.  We can’t leave.” 

“It’s time, mother.  Let’s go.”

“You can’t leave me…”

“I can’t?”

“The doctor said….”

“Time’s up, Mother.  It’s over.”

Deana went to the side of the bed and pulled her mother by the arm.  She resisted, pushing her away. Deana reached for her leg and tried to turn her to pull her up, and her mother kicked at her shin.  Her velvet-slippered foot delivering a surprisingly sharp blow, nearly toppling Deana over.

“Stop!”

 “You’re hurting my foot!  I can’t move…  It’s too much….”

“I am going, Mother.”

“You can’t ....”

 

As passengers, we all travel together, so we do not feel the motion of the earth circumnavigating the sun at 1,037 miles an hour.  But individual objects travel at different speeds, often resisting the drag until they reach a point where the resistance is equal to the driving force.  Terminal velocity is experienced by skydivers and solitary souls who alight from their lives briefly to interact with a world that wants them to change.  It had nothing to do with her father’s death, or a broken marriage, or any of the laundry list of stumbles her life had taken.   She had reached her maximum velocity in the quiet of her apartment with her feet up and Primrose curled beside her.  Opening a paperback mystery, she took a sip of scotch and muted the voice in her head that repeated You can’t go!


Daniel DiStasio’s work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Summerset Review, Reed, Stone Canoe and others. His first novel, "Facing the Furies" was published in 2012. A New York transplant to South Florida, he lives in Wilton Manors and Key West. He is also an English teacher and on line course designer. He has led adventure tours hiking and biking in Peru, Thailand, India and Iceland. He is currently working on a gay adventure set during the Gold Rush in Alaska in 1898. When not work or writing, he is caring for his three Shetland Sheepdogs: Charles Dickens, Nikolai Gogol, and James Joyce.