The Set-Up | Tufts Observer
Poetry & Prose

The Set-Up

My mother, during a lengthy dinner at a new place in Midtown, told me that one of her  clients has a really nice smile. She grinned slightly and slurped an oyster. 

“And her eyes, David. They sparkle, I swear.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her  hand, sighed, and reached hesitantly for her fork. Her hand on the pristine white tablecloth  looked like a delicate artifact. A reminder that although she was paying, as she had after  countless winning soccer goals and straight-A report cards, we were quite a bit older now. My mother awaited a response, her eyes smug and pleading. 

“I don’t need you to do this, Mom,” I said quietly. Someone at another table coughed.  “I’m perfectly capable on my own.” She looked at the floor, thinking, I’m sure, of the nightly  vacancy in the queen bed she had bought for me when I moved to my own place. I noticed the  restaurant’s muffled choice of music. The vague, sensual nightclub bass felt incongruous with my mother’s wrinkled smirk, long pleated skirt, and conservative glass of chardonnay. An attractive 20-something couple, who I’d been making accidental and regrettable eye contact with all night, sat a table away. I wanted to change the subject. 

“That couple over there,” I gestured with my fork, my voice hushed. “Should we play  Names?” My mother looked over her shoulder and chuckled. 

“Of course. Hard to believe we haven’t yet.” It was a classic game for us, played on buses, in lines, at movie theatres before the room went dark. 

“He looks confident. Very professional,” my mother said. “Like a Kurt, or an Evan.” I  nodded and took a sip of my water, noticing how well Evan’s jacket fit him. I wondered if  people still used tailors. 

“Agreed. Evan it is.” 

“She’s very cute. Very cute, David,” my mother continued, pointing with her napkin. “A Melanie, maybe.” My mother may have guessed correctly, because just then, Melanie shot a  glance in our direction. I sat up a bit straighter. My mother noticed and rolled her eyes, reminded  of our other conversation. She cleared her throat and took a breath.  

“This girl, from my practice. She’s a wonder.” 

“Mom.”

“And she’s kind, really very kind.” I thought about my mother, listening to clients all day in her cramped office, each session nothing more than an audition for the role of companion to her handsome son.  

“You’re very handsome, David. And she’s a biker. You love to bike.” For my thirtieth last  year, my mother had gifted me a gleaming white road bike, with clip-on shoes. “You’ll get fit,” she had urged. I’d taken it out once. 

“I don’t need your help, mom.” I felt my face turning red. 

“Honey, don’t–” I interrupted her, and then felt guilty. 

“Or, I don’t know if I need it, but I don’t want it.” Under the table, I tore up my straw  wrapper into wrinkled white shreds that someone would have to clean up. “I really don’t want it.” My mother shook her head and took a sip of her wine. 

“All I’m saying is that you should be open to these things. You don’t have everything  together, David. And I won’t be here forever.” I grimaced, and I think she did too. Her words  stung. Across the room, Evan laughed. A professional laugh, I figured. I asked for the check.

There were sugary mints from the restaurant, a quick goodbye, and a promise to do it  again sometime before my mother ducked into a cab and I bathed in the white noise of the  subway, hurtling back towards Brooklyn. It upset me that our dinner had ended with my mother’s soft look of regret I’d seen countless times before. Yet, I knew I didn’t need her  meddling, or her looking out for me, or whatever she’d call it. It was pitiful! Both for me to  accept it, and for her to even offer it—an expression of grief from a mother who wasn’t able to sever her life from mine. 

I was startled by the F train passing on the right, going the same direction as my train. In that brief moment shared, while careening through space at the same speed and the same way, I peered into the other car and noticed a cute brunette in a green jacket and a bike helmet, with a beat up twelve-speed by her side. My breath caught in my chest and I chuckled quietly. My mother’s client could be any one of these women. Passed on the sidewalk, steps away in line at the coffee place I liked. I sat up straighter, ran my hands through my thinning hair, and smoothed out the wrinkles in my pants. My mother, and she’d be happy to hear it, had gotten in my head.

By the time we were crossing the East River, I had counted four women with bike  helmets in my subway car alone, and one who, after much back-and-forth, I decided had a biker’s water bottle sticking out from her bag. As the train emptied out at my stop, I pushed through the throngs of people on the platform, scanning every face I passed for someone with eyes that sparkled. I wasn’t exactly sure what that’d look like, or what my mother had meant, but I figured I might know it when I saw it. 

I didn’t turn on any lights when I got back to my apartment. On my way to bed, in the dark of the living room, I flicked the little silver bell on my bike handle. A clear tone filled the air. I realized, feeling sorry for myself, that that may have been the first time it had been rung. 

In a fitful sleep in that giant bed, I dreamed I was playing another game of Names.  Sparkling eyes, very kind, likes to bike—my subconscious named her Emma. I didn’t know why.  

In the morning, I sipped watery coffee and noticed an envelope on the counter. A thick,  milky, cardstock ordeal with a familiar weight to it. I tore it open and wasn’t surprised—another wedding invitation, from a grad school friend. They had been together for a few years and the wedding was in Aspen. They looked happy in the photo. I wondered why they decided to use such expensive stationary, and then I thought about someone, somewhere, who might one day want to discuss that sort of thing with me. 

For a moment, I considered pulling out my phone and calling my mother, apologizing for last night, asking her what Emma’s real name was, and whether she could set us up on a date. But I thought better of it. I was stubborn. I couldn’t let my mother win. I took the day off from work. 

Getting the clip-on shoes to fit was a bit of a challenge, but an hour later, I was soaring  through the city on my bike, heading towards my mother’s office in Midtown. While heaving at an intersection, I realized that I didn’t know when Emma had her appointments, what time, or even what day of the week. But I had brought mints, just in case. 

When I arrived, I wandered into the dingy waiting room, making polite eye contact with  the woman at the desk and feeling grateful that she hadn’t recognized me. The room was silent,  except for the tranquil gurgling of a fish tank that, though I didn’t look very hard, seemed devoid of life. I took my helmet off and settled into an uncomfortable leather couch, picking up a tattered, faded copy of People magazine. I pretended to flip through its pages as I caught my  breath and listened to my mother’s muffled speech through the wall. 

I recognized this. Her therapist voice, with its compassionate cadence and thoughtful  pauses. It was a sort of sing-songy, like a kind, even, prayer. Most of all, it was motherly, and I  felt strangely betrayed. I had never heard her speak like that to someone who wasn’t me, and  even I hadn’t heard it in years. A pang of longing struck my chest and I looked towards the door. I wondered what I was waiting for. Would Emma simply waltz in, her kind eyes sparkling, music swelling, locks of gorgeous hair spilling over her shoulders as she removed her helmet? And what was I supposed to do, get down on one knee, right here in the waiting room? I suddenly felt silly, and creepy. With my matted hair and sweaty back and stupid plans. I had called out of work, for God’s sake. I popped a mint into my mouth and wiped my palms on the leather couch. 

I checked the door compulsively and listened for the slight squeak of bike brakes from  the street outside. Five clients had come through the door, but none of them were her, I was sure of it. Recently, the receptionist had begun glancing at me suspiciously and looking down at her desk, presumably checking a schedule. My throat went dry. My mother would be appalled if she saw me, her only son, the pride of her life, in bike shorts, who she wants so badly to be happy, pursuing some stranger at 2:00 p.m. on a Monday. 

I was startled by sudden footsteps and the creak of hinges. The door swung open. My stomach dropped. My mother was coming out. I panicked, and, slouching down low in the uncomfortable couch, with no other options at my disposal, held the People magazine in front of my face. 

“Michael, you’re next,” my mother said calmly to an older man to my left. I could hear  his knees crack as he got up from his seat and started towards her office. “Go ahead, I’ll be right  in.” She continued, walking over to the receptionist. I stayed absolutely still, trying not to draw  any attention. The fish tank was deafening. From my literary hiding place, I could see her practical flats as they padded across the carpet. My hands shook and I felt ashamed. I thought of when I was nine and hid in the pantry after tracking mud on the carpet. My heart beat thunderously in my chest as my mother conducted the longest conversation of her entire life with the woman behind the desk. I felt like a criminal, a stalker, certain that I’d not only be arrested immediately if I ever made it out of here, but that I’d deserve it. When she finally retreated to her office I exhaled a sigh of deep relief and, although my legs trembled and I was wearing the clip-on biking shoes, I put the magazine down, gathered my things, and burst out through the front door. 

In the blinding afternoon sun, the city seemed huge and indifferent. I sat down on the curb, still drenched in sweat, and put my head in my hands. And then laughed. A deep, shaking laugh that must have drawn attention to me, because I heard someone approaching from somewhere. And then, by chance, I think, I looked up and met the love of my life.

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