“That’s not quite how it works,” the mother says. She rinses parsley under the kitchen tap, dries it by squeezing it tight. She holds the crumpled stalks over the food processor, takes the scissors and snips them apart. Flecks of green settle on the mush of chickpeas blended with spices. They’re going on a picnic, so she’s making falafel. She’s never tried this before. Right now, the mixture looks too wet to come out right.
The sunlight pouring through her kitchen window makes everything brighter, the colours vivid like kids’ cartoons. Even the sink gleams with a too-perfect silver. Whenever she glances out the window she’s blinded by the blue of a cartoon sky. She feels that she needs to make cartoon food, the falafel perfect spheres packed in with colourful napkins, everything arranged in a picnic basket, which she doesn’t have anyway.
Her son Sam peers across from his perch on the table, waiting for her to explain his mistake. “Being colour-blind doesn’t mean you can’t make out any colours. It’s only certain ones he mixes up,” she tries. “Red and green, and—” She struggles to remember, her eyes on the mushed-up chickpeas. “Yellow, I think.” She’s only been seeing Stephen for a couple of months, and the details slip away no matter how hard she tries to hold them.
Sam swings his legs, once, then twice back and forth. “I got it wrong, then.”
She blinks. She didn’t think he’d admit the art project was about Stephen. At school his class are listening to songs about aliens – the Bumblesnouts, they’re called – and the teacher had them paint the world as the aliens might see it. Sam just painted a bit of grass and a sky, but he decided the aliens saw colours the way Stephen does, so he made the sky green and the grass blue.
The Bumblesnouts are environmentalists and so is Stephen. She supposes that’s what made Sam connect them to her boyfriend. The unexpected link made her nervous when he showed her the painting, though, because she knows there are alien things about Stephen. His vegetarianism, which has her trying to please him with falafel. The way he always uses his proper name. It’s Stephen, never Steve or Stevie, but she likes that. It reminds her of the year she spent in college, of that character in Ulysses. It makes her think of him, in some ambiguous sense, as an artist.
“You can’t get it wrong,” she says, snipping bits off the clump of broken stalks. “Miss Young was really glad to see you make something up. That was the point.”
“I wanted it to be like Stephen sees.”
She hears the pout in his voice and wishes she hadn’t named him Sam. There must be millions of Sams, real and fictional, but the references that spring to mind are bleak. Those sidekicks in Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. Sweet boys, brave, but always trying to please someone. Unable to do a thing for their own sake.
“Stephen says the way he sees is pretty boring. Lots of sludgy colours.” As she reaches the end of the parsley, Sam hops to the floor. He wanders over, deflated, looking doubtfully at the mixer. She gives him the last bit of parsley, a drop of green in his hand. “Try some. You might like it.”
He tries some and makes a twisted alien face. Given something he doesn’t like, he always exaggerates his disgust.
“No?” She goes away to wash her hands. While she waits for him to answer she runs a finger down the directions in the cookbook, making sure she’s done everything right.
“Can’t we just have pizza?”
“Aren’t you sick of that by now?” Their apartment’s above an Apache. She’s gone down there too often lately, to get dinner when she doesn’t want to cook and to chat for a few minutes with somebody who doesn’t call her Mum. The guys who work there are decent. There’s one who gives her a discount when his boss isn’t looking. “We can’t anyway. It’s a nice day, so we’re going out. Stephen doesn’t like cold pizza.”
“I know you do.” She smiles, without turning his way, but the smile fades when she pokes at the runny falafel mix with a spoon. “Stephen likes this stuff, so we’re gonna try it just this once, okay?”
He stands on tiptoe to look into the mixer. “It’s not coming out right.”
“No, I guess it’s not.” She starts to heat some oil, thinking if she adds flour she might get something she can fry. But it feels like nothing’s adding up. She’s never been on a picnic with Sam, but she thought if they ever went on one she’d make sandwiches. The falafel feels like a risk, alarming in its specificity. This isn’t cartoon food but a real lunch that they could really eat together, if she could only get it right. She’s making it for a real man, a new man, whose alien quirks never entered her imaginings. “You do like Stephen, don’t you?”
The TV’s still playing in the living room, though it’s taken her this long to hear it. She’s learned to drown out the sound. There’s the noise of something exploding, a villain’s evil laughter. When Sam’s voice reaches her again, she thinks for half a second that it’s coming from the TV too.
“If he doesn’t come, can we get pizza?”
She turns, her hands sticky from trying to make falafel into balls. “Why wouldn’t he come?”
“Just if he can’t or something.”
“Don’t you want him to come?”
“Nah, I do. Just in case, you know.”
She thinks of her friend Aoife, who was meant to come over last Saturday. When Saturday came and the apartment stayed empty as always, Sam didn’t bother to ask why. She wants him to raise his hopes again, even act a little desperate like those other Sams, but she knows her own uncertainty has killed the hope in him. She thinks that to Sam, Stephen is an alien, and that to her he’s an artist, and that neither expects such a being to come to them.
She gives up on trying to use her hands. Drops a piece of falafel mix, thickened with flour, into the pan from a spoon. She can already imagine Stephen calling. “Claire,” he’ll say. Her name, as it often seems to be, the precursor to an apology. She should be able to rescue her name, think up some reference to prove it belongs to a warrior or a queen. Maybe if she’d stayed in college she’d be able to do that, but the way things are she never learned about characters named Claire.
The falafel’s frying but it doesn’t look right. Just a splotch of the yellowish tone that Stephen insists dirties everything for him, darkening with grease. “Shit,” she mutters. Gave up on not swearing in front of Sam long ago.
“Sorry,” Sam says, as if it’s his fault. “Can I help?”
He might have had more to say, but the phone starts ringing. Sam stands beside her as she fails to move. She watches him peer up at her, the question filling his eyes. Maybe he could help, but she doesn’t know what to have him do. She closes her eyes instead, shuts out the cartoon colours. Her eyelids feel hot so she imagines cool things. Blue grass swaying in the wind, a fresh parsley-coloured sky.
Cassia Gaden Gilmartin is an Irish writer studying Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin. Her work has appeared in The Irish Times, The Bookends Review and Down in the Dirt, as well as in various anthologies.