Alder’s mother Samantha was – well, ‘primitive’ might be the best word. She was very loyal, very devoted, very hard-working, but would only be able to recognise an abstraction if it left muddy tracks on her linoleum. She was very blunt, and almost immovable in her opinions. (In fact, the word ‘opinions’ was quite foreign to her rather dictatorial mindset; it was somewhere between ‘multimedia’ and ‘Hindu.’)
When he took the bus to his mother’s house, to tell her about Joanne’s decision, Alder was quite terrified. He felt it was a terrible failure. He was most shocked at her response.
“Good riddance!” said Samantha, her jaw muscles working.
“Oh you modern men! A PhD in – what? Ethics? Women?” She snapped her fingers. “Kindergarten!”
“She – I couldn’t understand what it was about.”
“Because you tried this equality thing!”
“This – what?”
She rapped a cigarette on the kitchen table. There were no ashtrays; she lit up and continued, fashioning one out of the silver foil.
“Tell me this: is your house kept clean?”
“Clean? Like hygienic?”
“Clean? Clean! Clean like you grew up with!”
“No, it’s not like this. She’s not into that.”
“So who cleans?”
“I used to; now we get a maid.”
“A maid!” His mother barked a laugh. “Right. That makes sense. You’re lonely, you ring a call girl too?”
His mother’s crudeness continued to shock him.
“Tell me this: do you come home to a cooked meal at night?”
“No – Joanne doesn’t like to cook. We take turns.”
“Your father came home and put his feet up for half an hour while I cooked. I was so quiet, sometimes he napped!”
She held up a hand. “Who takes care of the finances?”
“I do,” said Alder, and a sudden tendril of anger curled up from his belly.
“Drives dear Stephen around?”
“Shared – that’s shared,” he said.
“Pays the bills?”
“Well, she does…” Through the Internet though, he thought suddenly.
“I don’t mean licks the damn stamp,” snapped his mother. “I mean puts the money in the account.”
“She doesn’t work – you know that!”
“Doesn’t work,” she echoed. She smoked rapidly, barely inhaling before expelling smoke, like a tiny pollinated sneeze. “Of course she doesn’t work. I mean my God these modern women have it made! They don’t have to have jobs if they don’t want to; they don’t clean. They don’t cook, they don’t run the household, which is no small feat! Of course your marriage failed, but not at the end. It failed all the way through.”
“Mom – you can’t get women like you anymore.”
She smiled tightly. “Well, that’s the first compliment I’ve gotten from you since you were ten. Modern men are weak, Alder. Modern women need husbands – as women always have – but you’re all so grateful you treat them like princesses, so of course they treat you like dirt.”
He paused. “It’s not as simple as when…”
She wagged a finger. “Laziness, Alder. The word is laziness. You work, she sits around and does – hell I don’t know what she does all day, no work, one kid in school – one – and then you come home and cook for her? What’s the matter with you? Didn’t I teach you anything?”
Alder blinked. The word ‘laziness’ had never really occurred to him. It seemed far too simple, like ‘evil.’ Too reductionist. He frowned. There was no way to explain any of that to his mother. It was like screwing up the calculations of a sailor bound for home by introducing quantum mechanics.
“So now,” continued Samantha (never ‘Sam,’ she liked being a woman, thank you very much!), “now you are truly damned, in the way only a modern man can be. And so am I. She’s going to hit you for all you’ve got, half of everything – plus alimony, plus child-support – and she’s never going to do a stitch of work again.”
“No – she’s not like that…”
She smiled sweetly and stubbed out her cigarette. “Lazy people are too lazy to change, dear. And that’s it for you as a father. Or a boyfriend.”
“Well now she comes with an income – you come with an expense. Can you really afford to support two households on your salary? Smart you may be, rich you are not. You won’t be able to have any more children – they’re expensive. We women have our clocks, but men have their weak spots as well. You’ll get Stephen half the time, but pay for all his costs. You’ll spend the next decade paying for a family you’re not even part of anymore.” She grinned humourlessly. “Very modern. Very equal.”
“So what are we supposed to do? Never marry because it’s risky?”
“Hell no – get a pre-nup! Women want to be independent, let them put it in writing!”
“You can’t get a pre-nup and have a woman stay home.”
“Why not? Then she’s got to make it work. It’s too easy to get out these days. I had my bags packed with your father two – no, three times! But it was much harder back then. Courts were more difficult, neighbours – Lord! Vicious. We all tore down women who ran off, so when it was our turn… But I was glad I stayed. Marriage is hard. Does he get a lunch at least?”
“Who? Stephen?” Alder shook his head. “He buys his lunch.”
She snorted. “I told you she was going to be lazy! Laziness for women is like drinking for men. Just as bad, just as wrong.”
“Huh,” exhaled Alder, sitting back in his chair. In the still air of the kitchen, smoke drifted in dreamy wide banks. His mother glared at him sceptically, sympathetically, then lit another cigarette.