ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Cha-cha-cha", a story by Miriam Kotzin


 Although the window opposite Maddie's bed was still there, the important window was in the wrong place. The morning sun always came in on the right side of her bed, but now sunlight fell onto her bed from the left, and the fat pink roses on her wallpaper had vanished.  Maybe they'd melted, because these walls were a pale pink, so pale she squinted hard to be certain.  And then she was wholly awake and in her new bedroom.  I want to go home, she thought.

Maddie had to walk through narrow aisles of brown cardboard cartons to get to the kitchen, which smelled like waffles. Her mother stood in front of the sink looking across the new back yard. What is she looking at out there, anyway? Maddie wondered and said, "I want to go home."

Her mother turned and smiled. "After breakfast, will you help me pick out the best place for the birdfeeder?"

Birdfeeder! Didn't she hear me? The birdfeeder at home had brought chickadees, finches, once in a while even a cardinal. "I want to go home," she said again.

"I thought I heard a cardinal yesterday afternoon," her mother said, "but with all that commotion, I couldn't be sure."

Commotion inadequately described the arrival of the furniture and cartons. Three men carrying furniture and cartons were everywhere at once.  The rooms were empty and then filled.

Unpacking wasn't like unwrapping presents. Did everything arrive?  What got broken? You open the carton, find your stuff, and put it away in its right place.  But what is the right place when you've just moved?

Maddie had the same white bed, bureau, and desk that she'd been given for her tenth birthday. When she put her clothes in the bureau, everything went into the same drawer it had been in before: that part was easy.

When her unpacking was complete, she pulled the top drawer open and pushed it shut with a little sigh. Her mother gave her a curious look, but Maddie didn't have to explain that she was happy to have something exactly the same as it had always been.

She could text and Face-time her friends, but she wanted to hang out with them, and she hated that they'd be starting high school without her. No. She'd be The New Girl. Everybody would stare at her, or ignore her, and some people would spread nasty lies about her, and she'd eat lunch alone, and she wouldn't know where any of the classrooms were, or who were the best teachers, or what was good in the cafeteria. It would be awful.

Maddie said, "We used to have cardinals at the feeder every day."  She expected her mother to correct her, but instead she suggested that when they go grocery shopping they buy birdseed, too.  

Then the waffle iron whistled, and her mother lifted the waffle from the iron to a plate.  Mom must have gotten up really early to find all this kitchen stuff.

"What about unpacking?" Maddie said, pointing to a carton. "What if everything doesn't fit?"

"I guess we'll find out," her mother said.

"If we hadn't moved, everything would be right where it always was," Maddie said.

"If we hadn't moved, we wouldn't be here now," her mother replied.

What did that mean, anyway? Was Mom joking? "I want to go home," Maddie's voice trembled.

Her mother put her hand on Maddie's shoulder and gave a little squeeze, and then she sat at the table with her.

Maddie stared at the Formica table; in the living room piles of cartons surrounded the furniture; boxes covered the kitchen counter except for the familiar coffee maker and their waffle iron.  The kitchen was hot, too hot, and it was probably going to be even hotter outside. Her mother had explained why they were moving and listened to her objections; she had sounded sympathetic, but they had moved nonetheless.  Maddie had never liked this gray table that her mother called "vintage mid-century"; today the gray swirls were dancing worms.

"What did Nana say to us every time we visited her at Willowcrest?" her mother asked.  She wasn't smiling now.

That was an easy question, but what does Nana have to do with my wanting to go home?  "She told us she loved us—even when we didn't say it first."

"And?  What else?"

Mom has something in mind, and it must be important. She sounds so serious.  Maddie wanted to talk about the move, but she knew she'd have to wait until her mother finished this business of visiting Nana.  If I get the right answer, maybe we can talk about what I want.  Their visits with Nana had been short, and Nana always asked the same questions. Maddie spoke tentatively, hoping this was what her mother meant.  "Nana always asked me what I was doing in school.  And she wanted to know if I was doing the Cha-Cha-Cha. " Maddie's voice brightened. "Nana said, 'The basics are basic, but you can always learn new moves—Cha-Cha-Cha.' "

It had taken a long time, but eventually Maddie had learned that Nana wasn't talking about a dance. "Cha-Cha-Cha" meant knowing what you wanted to do and what you had to do and doing it all—with a smile. Usually when Nana said "Cha-Cha-Cha," she wiggled her shoulders.

"What else, Maddie? Nana said, 'I want to go—'"

"Home.'" Maddie finished the sentence. Of course! That should have been easy to remember.

The first time Nana said she wanted to go home, Maddie was confused.  Didn't Nana know that Willowcrest was her home now? The apartment where she'd lived had been emptied. Some of Nana's pictures and furniture had gone with her to Willowcrest, and some things were in their house now—the needlepoint pillow with roses, white china plates with gold rims Maddie's mother used on holidays.  And, after Nana died, the milk glass hen on its nest, yellow china chick salt-and-pepper shakers. Maddie had liked to tip them over to see the salt and pepper come out on Nana's counter. Nobody seemed to mind her mischief.  If she'd tipped over the salt and pepper at home, she'd have been in trouble.

"Nana's needlepoint pillow should be in one of these boxes," Maddie said, with a sweeping gesture, "And her hen and chicks."  She was glad that they had taken them when they moved. 

"I used to tip over the chicks, too," her mother said, laughing.

So that's why I never got into trouble for spilling the salt. What a funny thing to keep a secret!  "You never told me that!"

"Maybe I was saving it to tell you at the right time."

The "Maybe" sounded like the beginning of a question.  Grown-ups talk about waiting for the right time, the right time for this, the right time for that, but they never say why the right time was right. And if you ask why, you get a big fat nothing of an answer, like "you'll know." Her mother had stopped laughing, and her face looked as serious as it had when she'd told Maddie that she had to change her job; nonetheless, being careful about the tone she used, Maddie asked, "Why now?"   

Her mother took a deep breath. Then she said, "What should we have done when Nana said she wanted to go home?"

Maddie said that telling Nana the whole story of why she had to be at Willowcrest wasn't right, not every detail of why she couldn't stay where she'd lived almost forever.  Either Nana understood and chose to ignore the reasons because she didn't like them, or she didn't understand.  In either case, reciting facts would be useless.

"What if we'd said, 'You don't have a home any more, you live here.'?" her mother asked.

"That's mean!" Maddie said, surprised at how loud her voice sounded. But once, when Nana said she wanted to go home, Maddie had said almost the same thing.  She'd thought that if only Nana understood, she'd stop wanting the impossible, so she'd said, "This is your home!"  Her mother had chided her, and Nana had patted her mother's knee. Both women had looked like they were going to cry. At the time Maddie had been confused.  Now her face grew hot with a mixture of shame and misery.

"And suppose we knew that's exactly how she was feeling?" her mother asked.  She shook her head slowly, staring right at Maddie.

"Especially then," Maddie said. That's how I've been feeling, she thought. She wanted to talk about something else, but at the same time she didn't want to talk about anything else.  

Her mother was no longer tentative.  She had that pay-attention-this-is-serious tone. "Should we have pointed out the sunny lobby?  Said the food was great?  Told her to go to arts and crafts?  That she'll make friends? To make an effort? To give it time? That everybody wants to go home?"
 How am I supposed to know what we should have done? Maddie frowned, accusing, "You made me waffles.  You talked about the bird feeder. That's almost the same thing! And we did say those things."

When we told Nana that she'll make friends and she should give it time, she laughed at us and asked how much time.  Mom had turned pale and said she was sorry, but not why: Sorry because Nana was there, sorry Nana was unhappy, and sorry for saying it, for making them all think about how much time Nana had? Then Nana had sat up straight and said, "Cha-cha-cha."  She sounded as though she'd just swallowed something that didn't taste good, but had been too proud to spit it out.  And she didn't shake her shoulders.

Her mother sighed, but didn't answer Maddie's comment about feeding the birds. She kept pushing, "What could we have done so Nana would feel like Willowcrest was home—besides having some of her stuff there, and visiting her...?  Could we make her feel different?"

Still, it wasn't Nana's fault that she wanted to go home. And how I feel isn't my fault either. It was so complicated. Maddie stared at the bright uncurtained window.

"At one time or another everybody wants to go home—even when they're somewhere that they call 'home' when they're talking to other people."  Her mother's voice mixed misery and exasperation. "Deal with it!"

Was mom talking about herself? Maddie looked away from the window, and a luminous blue parallelogram hung in the center of her vision, obscuring everything.  Her mother had vanished behind the blue.  If she says that everybody wants to go home, that might mean that Mom wants to go home, too! Doesn't she want to be here?  What about me? Maddie was afraid to ask. She felt a little dizzy. 

"'Cha-Cha-Cha' sounds like more fun than 'Deal with it,'" Maddie said, hesitant, "even though they mean the same thing."

"Transitions can be hard, Maddie. Even when you wanted—even when you want—the change."

Mom had been giving herself a pep-talk, too!  Gradually, her mother came into focus from behind the blue blur.   It was ok to be uncomfortable; being uncomfortable doesn't have to mean you've made the wrong decision, and Cha-Cha-Cha has lots of different steps; one set of steps for Mom now, something else for me. I'll always have to learn new steps. How will I do that? Will every single day for the rest of my life be like moving into a new house? Like Willowcrest was for Nana?  Instead of saying what she was worried about, Maddie said something easy, something she thought might please her mother, "I suppose Nana would tell us we have to 'Cha-Cha-Cha,'"

The twitter of unknown birds, inscrutable as static, filled the kitchen; Maddie and her mother smiled at each other, and they smiled at taking on whatever lay ahead. They smiled, and smiled, and smiled almost as though they really meant it.


Miriam N. Kotzin is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently, Debris Field (David Robert Books 2017). Her collection of short fiction, Country Music (Spuyten Duyvil Press 2017), joins a novel, The Real Deal (Brick House Press 2012), and a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press 2010). Her fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Boulevard, Smoke Long Quarterly, Eclectica, Mezzo Cammin, Offcourse, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among other periodicals, and in anthologies. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard. She teaches creative writing and literature at Drexel University.

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