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The Watched Pot - VA Wiswell

Monday Morning


The pot stares at me like Poe’s veiled eye. Tracks me from corner to corner. Its bright blue-green exterior, a peacock preening in the white porcelain cage of our farmer’s sink. I love the pot—picked it out myself as an early Christmas present. Right now, though, I want to smash it and throw it out the window.


But I don’t.


Then she speaks. Making it all worse. “A watched pot never boils.”


It’s my mother’s way of saying in her sing-song, I-know-better-than-you voice, the soundtrack of my childhood: Get over it. She’s right. I should.


But I can’t.


It isn’t as though this is the first time in eight years that I’ve been bothered by something trivial like a pair of dirty socks left for days on the bedroom floor or a must-have item forgotten at the grocery store. Somewhere between, I do, of course, I do, and Sure, I can drop off your dry cleaning after work, keeping tabs on who’s doing how much of what began to matter. Usually, though, when Marc forgets, overlooks, or ignores his fair share of the necessary but menial tasks that consume our lives, I can move past it.


But this time, with this pot, it’s different. This pot has legs and a mouth. A mind and opinions. It’s a living and breathing thing. A bomb set to explode in my sink.




Sunday night, after dinner, Marc offered to clean up.


“You have work to do on your book,” he said, smiling.


He was right. I did. My final edit was due by the end of the week.


“Thanks,” I said, retreating to my office without hesitation or guilt.




I had cooked for us. Fresh pasta with repurposed meatballs and red sauce left over from the weekend. Sure, it was only pasta, but still, it counted. And it made Marc’s offer to clean the one dirty pot more than fair.




Around midnight, bleary-eyed from hours spent staring at words, my words, on the screen of my computer, and wanting sleep but needing water, I wandered into the kitchen. I drained my glass and set it on the counter. In the sink, in all of its blue-green glory, was the pot from dinner. The one Marc, while smiling, said he would wash.


Maybe he forgot. Or maybe, I thought, he’s letting it soak—a perfectly reasonable approach if up against a pot with a tough stain. But this pot was used to boil pasta in water. Water, the translucent hydrogen and oxygen kind. Not a new, fancy version. How resistant could a pasta-in-water stain be? I thought not very, but I was exhausted, so I let it go and went to bed.




Tuesday Night


Marc comes home late. He’s searching for food and a cocktail—a wife that smiles, not one that scolds. The pot is still in the sink. Unwashed. I consider casually mentioning it or, at least, nodding in its general direction, but he’s had a hard day, and it wouldn’t go over well, so I let it go.


Instead, I smile. Mix the drink he so needs. Place the icy glass in his hand and nod when he goes on about the latest problems at his company. Too many people, he says, want to stay home and work at their leisure in their pajamas with their cats. The distribution chains—where is everything? And the competition—always newer, faster, friendlier, and more reliable, with better press, better PR. A hungry wolf knocking at the door.


Tomorrow, I think, when things are calmer, he’ll clean the pot.




Wednesday Night


Marc spills through our doorway, glowing. Sales are up, he says, better than ever. Employees, it turns out, aren’t as needed as we once thought. Products? Pretty pictures online do just fine. And the press, they always root for the winner.


With the world still safely spinning, I think, Tonight, if given space, he’ll recognize his oversight, make things right, honor his offer, and clean the pot.


After a late dinner, chicken picatta served with a side salad, takeout prepared by our favorite neighborhood restaurant, I pack away the leftovers and carefully load our dishes, Mother’s wedding gift of china, into the washer.


In the kitchen, standing right next to the sink, I stretch my arms and, through a big TV sitcom yawn, complain of having slept poorly. Marc, chivalrous as always, throws down his coat and jumps to my rescue.


“You do look tired. Why don’t you head up? I’ll watch a little of the game, then clean up.”


Clean up? I look around. The kitchen sparkles. Spotless. Except, of course, for the one pot. Okay. I think, clean away.




I crawl under our down comforter, curling into my book, convinced I will rise to an empty sink. Dirty pot, cleaned, dried, and put to rest.


Secure, I doze off somewhere well into chapter three.


Sometime after ten, the voices of Marc’s three favorite NBA announcers cracking wise through the surround sound of the TV, and the unmistakable, uncontainable smell of microwave popcorn wakes me.


Watch the game, he’d said. For a bit. Then clean up. Really?


I roll over, push my face into the memory foam of my pillow, and scream.




Thursday Morning


My alarm wakes me at seven-fifteen. I have an eight a.m. video meeting with my book editor and an afternoon teaching kindergarteners to read. A full day. I want coffee and a shower. Coffee first. But to get it, I have to go downstairs into the kitchen. Strangely, that’s where we keep the coffee maker. And, unfortunately, the sink.


I lift my head off my pillow. The front door thuds. It’s Marc leaving for work. We’ll miss each other. Probably better. Safer. Considering.


I wrap up in my robe—protection against the cold and, I suspect, the waiting disappointment.


Down the stairs, butter’s chemical cousin, the remnants of last night’s stadium-style popcorn, nips at my nose. One foot inside the kitchen, I see it in the sink. Unwashed. The sight of the pot sinks me deeper into my slippers’ cushiony soles.


Unable to resist its pull, I inch closer. The murky liquid filling its cream-colored ceramic center reminds me of the few feet of water left to collect in abandoned pools. The ones they show on TV and in movies. Always as the aftermath of something. A murder or natural disaster. Never anything good.


Asshole.


The word pops into my brain like a soda bubble in a glass. It’s wrong to think of Marc this way, I know. And it’s not an accurate assessment of his character, at least not entirely, but as I look at the pot, the word’s arrival feels beyond my control.




Then, right on cue, she speaks. “It’s just a pot. Wash it and move on.” Mother is standing with her hands on her hips, wearing her apron. Casual, like she’s been up since five baking cookies. “You were always one to make a mountain out of a molehill.”


I sigh. She’s been gone almost five years but somehow manages to appear whenever her subtle, sledgehammer brand of advice is needed—or isn’t.


“It’s not that simple, Mother.”


“Isn’t it? You need to focus on the big picture. Does he work? Does he come home?”


I don’t answer. I need coffee. I shove the grounds into the machine, add the water, and turn it on, dribbling my fingernails on the counter. In seconds, the drip-drip starts. The smell of the beans takes hold—maybe, with coffee, I can get through this.


“Well? Does he?” Foot tapping. She won’t let it go.


“I work, too, Mother. I come home. And I cook and clean and pick up laundry and pay bills and plan parties and vacations and send cards to his mother. You’re right, though; it’s just a pot. It doesn’t have magical powers. It doesn’t vanish when he walks into the room. He can see it as well as I can. So, why doesn’t he wash it?”


But I’m too late. She isn’t listening. As usual, she left seconds after I started talking.




I slump against the counter. Arguing with my mother isn’t getting me anywhere. And a proxy war with the pot is childish. I have to act or move on. I have to decide. I want to wash the pot and put it all behind me.


But I can’t.




The solution is as undeniable as the pot.


I have to approach Marc. I have to ask him why he walked away from the pot and abandoned his promise.


But the how, the way I go about it, must be carefully selected. If I pick wrong, I will be petty: The petty wife. Or a nag: The nagging shrew. Or worse, a micromanager: The ballbreaker.


All women I’ve been before. Bravely. Unapologetically. But with Marc, in the shrinking square footage of our apartment, I’m doubtful there is room for any of those people.


I think while aggressively biting my lower lip. A habit my mother hated. Garish and impulsive—her words to describe how it made me look. I’ve done it since I was a kid, as far back as I can remember, but, of course, if you were to ask her, the nervous tic is impossibly connected to anything she ever did or said.


Ideas. Options. Foolish and rash, bold and brazen, skip rope over each other.


I could write “Wash me!” in a soluble marker on the pot’s side like people do on the windshields and bodies of dirty cars. It’s a request more than a threat. Nice, really. But with the slick surface of the pot, the splash from the tap will smudge the letters. Turning the message of my discontent into pitiful smears of mascara—a hysterical woman—an unfortunate image.


I could spite wash the pot. Leave it clean and gleaming on the counter for him to see first thing when he comes home. But would he get the point of it, the significance? Would he even notice? I’ve tried it before with the bathroom. He doesn’t pay mind to whether the toilet bowl is brown or if the shower basin is rimmed with an inch of grime. It’s simply, Shower. Flush. Goodbye.


For major effect, no misinterpretation possible; I could go old school. Place the pot, dirty, on his pillow. Let him find it when he goes to bed. A warning: You’ve crossed me. The worst is coming. Marc will spend the night, eyes peeled, staring at the ceiling. Desperate for the sleep he needs to get through his big, always super important, morning meeting, but too afraid to even blink.


My phone buzzes. I stop biting my lip.


It’s Marc. His words bubble onto the screen. “GM, hon. Need 2 work late again. U don’t have to cook; I’ll eat @ work. Love u.”


I read it again.


I don’t have to cook. He’s permitting me not to, like the permission is his to give. And he’s working late. Again.


The phone shakes in my hand.


I raise my arm, ready to hurl the phone across the room. Just as I’m about to release it, I catch sight of a wild-eyed, red-faced woman in the dining room mirror. A woman whose sanity is swinging in the balance, back and forth, strung from the ceiling by a shiny auburn thread.


I take a breath and lower my arm.


Instead, I reply, “Okay.” Spelling it out. No happy face emoji. No hearts. Let him wonder.


Seconds later, more word bubbles. “U were making those sounds again last night & thrashing. Maybe u should make an appt. w/your MD.”


I push the button on the side of the phone. My engagement ring and wedding band rattle against each other. The screen goes blank.


My meeting starts in fifteen minutes. I pour my coffee and head for the shower. On the way out of the kitchen, I give the pot, the innocent victim in all this, the finger. Sublimating, but still, somehow, I feel better.




“Make him a special dinner. Something hardy. Beef. Not chicken.”


“Jesus Christ. I’m in the shower, Mother.”


“Show him you appreciate how hard he works. That’s what this is about. You have your teaching, and you’ve been working on your book. He feels neglected.”


“I teach five-year-olds to read, Mother. For pennies. Literally pennies. He runs a company! And the book is an aide for reluctant readers. If three non-teachers buy it, it will be a miracle. There’s no reason. None! For him to feel neglected.”


“All I’m saying is make an effort. Move past this. That’s what I did.”


“You did? Because I remember you never letting Dad get away with missing a play, a movie, a dinner, or a stupid appointment without doling out a consequence. I remember, Dad, head down, dodging the shrapnel of your latest fallout.”


“He was happy. We were happy. For forty-two years.”


“If you say so.”


“And you know I’m right. About Marc—his working late.”


“Don’t, Mother.”


“Fine. But Monday, when he asked you to take his blazer—the blazer—to the dry cleaner, it was a cry for help.”


I press my lips together and refuse to respond. Like when I was a kid, and the cookies went missing. It was never me; I was never the thief, not as long as I stayed silent. I blast the hot water, shove my face into the stream, and stay there, scalding and shaking, until I hear her leave.




Out of the shower, I wrap up in an oversized towel and dry off quickly. The apartment is cold. We don’t run the heat above sixty-two until November. Marc says we need to do our part to save energy.


I grab my underwear and start to dress. I have my pants on when I hear it. Its voice is scratchy and metallic, like you’d expect. It spills from the kitchen into the downstairs hallway, spirals up the staircase, snakes along the hall, slips under our door, and pours into our bedroom, chanting:


Coward. Coward. Coward.


Taunting me.


The fucking pot.


I can feel it coming. I press my face into my towel to muffle the sound. If only for the sake of the neighbors and their idea of us. I can’t wait for the pressure of everything I’m holding in to escape through my mouth.


I wait. Burying my face deeper in the towel. And wait. But the relief doesn’t come. My mouth remains empty. The scream stays silent.




After class, with my brood of five-year-olds sufficiently literate and ready to take on the world, I walk through the park, ambling along, taking the long way home. I’m not procrastinating my fate; I’m enjoying the here and now. It’s part of the plan I devised while watching my kindergarteners joyfully finger-paint pictures of their families. It’s what I realized I had to do when I thought of the familiar, desperate woman in my dining room mirror—a woman I don’t want to be.


Over the last few days, I’ve spent too much time perseverating, ruminating, and second-guessing myself. Too much time being angry. My mother is right. It’s time to move on.




On my stoop, I stop and look down my street. Cars line each side like a chain, almost without space between. Almost as though they are linked.


It’s starting to drizzle, but I don’t move.


I keep looking.


Waiting.


For thirty-three years to slip away.


I see her parked on the other side of the street outside a dance studio. Her head is wrapped in a plastic kerchief; the kind women wear to protect their hair from the rain. She’s in the driver’s seat of a blue Chevy, staring out the window, biting her lip. I want to wonder who she is, but I don’t need to. The woman in the car is my mother. And on that day, I was there, too.


My mother was thirty-seven, young still, eight years younger than I am now, but given the world, how it saw her, and her place in it, she might as well have been ancient. She was there to pick me up after dance class, but not really. Really, she was there to see Cheryl or Charlotte, the mother of one of my classmates, for herself.


Of course, then, as we sat together, silent, fogging the windows, waiting, I didn’t know about the cigarettes she’d found stubbed out casually in my father’s office ashtray. The ones kissed in the same shade of red she’d been scrubbing from his shirt collars for weeks.


Or about the see-through excuses he’d given.


Or about the lies, dismissive and destructive, that went on for years.


I didn’t know any of that until after she died, and I found her journals. Even then, when I read her words, the hairs on my arm stood straight, and the same flush of annoyance I felt every time she scolded or corrected my father flooded my cheeks.


Standing in my bathroom this morning, drenched in anger but unable to expel it, I realized I’d been wrong about my mother. She wasn’t a petty, punitive woman doling out consequences to wield power over her husband. She was sad and angry and quietly expressing her rage and regret in the only way the world would tolerate. She was silently screaming at my father in the only voice he couldn’t ignore.


She was brave.




The drizzle has turned to rain. Fat, cold drops splatter against my cheeks. I give one last look to my mother, boldly confronting her fate, then turn away from the street and go inside.


In my kitchen, I stand next to the sink, touching the cold porcelain with my hips, staring at the pot I’ve decided not to wash. I can’t wash it because the pot, regardless of what Marc or even my father might think, isn't just a pot.


It’s more.


It’s everything.




It’s the casual way Marc handed me his blazer, knowing the lapels were covered in shimmering strands of auburn hair.


It’s the way he looked at me when I asked about the receipt I found in the pocket, one too spendy for a solo dinner, even from an expensive downtown restaurant.


It’s the tone he used when he told me I was imagining things.


It’s eight years gone by that I’ll never get back.


It’s how he tried to turn my voice, my scream, into a silent puff of air.

 

VA Wiswell is a writer who lives outside of Seattle, Washington. Victoria’s work has appeared in Writing In A Woman’s Voice and The Lake. She has poetry, a short story, and creative nonfiction forthcoming in Ginosko Literary Journal, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine. You can find Victoria on Instagram at @vawiswell.

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