Irene is happy to be back home in Chicago. She is not actually from Chicago, but near enough that she has always considered it home. After seven years of traveling, a respite with family and friends is desperately needed. Familiar surroundings and well-loved voices ease the soul in a way that nothing else can. She hops up the steps of her parents suburban home, nothing distinguishes it from the neighbor’s house except the family that lives there.
Entering without ringing the doorbell or knocking, she strides across the threshold, "Hi mom, I'm home."
Her mother arches her back so her head pocks out of the kitchen down the hall, "Oh, hello dear, I'll be right over, just let me put this down."
Depositing her things on the door mat, Irene moves through the house, nothing has changed much, the pictures on the walls and table depict her and her brothers as successful adults who ware fancy clothing happily rather than rambunctious children forced into fancy clothing unwillingly, but otherwise things are very much as they were. The walls are still white, the floors still wood parquet, the stairs still have the strange electric blue carpet running upstairs that matches nothing else in the rest of the house. Her father still stares down the television in the living room, waving distractedly at her over his shoulder.
Her mother comes bustling out of the kitchen, she may have gained a little weight, but otherwise she is unchanged too. From her nineteen eighties hair style to her nineteen eighties make up, right down to her recycled rubber shoes, mother looks just like mother.
"Oh Rennie, it's so good to see you," Irene's mom extends her arms in an anticipatory hug as she waddles down the hall, knocking a decorative end table with her hip and a family picture with her hand. She pauses just long enough to fuss at the picture before Irene swoops down to hug her mother. Half a head taller than her mother and a third as heavy, Irene smells the all natural mint and rosemary shampoo her mother switched to two years ago to help with her dandruff, and the pungent smell forces tears to her eyes.
"Hey, mom, so great to see you. Is Dad watching the Bears game?" Irene flips her palm back towards the living room from whence a loud, NO, erupts at that very moment with a corresponding crash of a chair hastily exited, making the question somewhat mote.
Her mom roles her eyes in response, "Why don't you come into the kitchen with me? Diner won't be ready for another half hour I'm afraid and then I won't be able to peel your father off his backside for another hour after that, but we can have some girl time in the meanwhile."
"Sure mom, I'd like that," Irene smiles at her mother, but a small sense of dread blossoms in the pit of her stomach, she had been hoping to avoid any girl time conversations with her mom.
Following her mother into the kitchen, Irene observed that while the entry was trapped in the illusion of homely, reserve, and timelessness, this room aspired to different goals. Everything was different here, the appliances had all been swapped out for gleaming, high-end, new, stainless steal boxes with little touch screens that Irene suspected her mother still did not know how to use properly.
"This new oven was supposed to be fabulous," Irene's mom pouts as she peaks through a useless window that lets you check if your cake has risen yet every fifteen seconds, "Everything should cook evenly, but I just can't get things to cook properly at all in it. Everything takes an hour longer than it should, I have just had to adjust all my recipes, but I really should just chuck the thing out and get the old one back."
Irene knows her mother's comments, however casual sounding, are always calculated. This one is meant to imply several things: first, any imperfection in the cooking is not due to a lack of her mother's skill, but inherent issues with these new fangled things; second, it draws attention to the fact that the kitchen is full of such, expensive, new fangled things; third, the implication of wealth that Irene's father brings home enough bacon to the family that they could just scrape the results of a hugely expensive kitchen renovation at her mother's whim; and fourth, that Irene's mother is such a dedicated and resourceful woman that she will just power through and make due.
Rather than tread into any of these subplots to her mother's rant, Irene sticks with the safest option flattery, "I'm sure it will be great mom. What are you making, I always miss your cooking when I'm away."
"Oh you," Irene's mother waves a towel dismissively at her, "I'm making corned beef and cabbage, because I know how much you like it."
"Wow, thanks mom. So how have things been with you?" Irene felt herself flailing already, trying to delay the inevitable turn the conversation would take.
"Same as always, same as always," she twitters as she bustles over to the kitchen counter, Irene has taken a seat at one of the stoles used for the breakfast knock, and her mother grabs a second stole and flips it around the counter to sit across from her daughter.
"Is there anything in particular you want to do while I'm around? I'll be busy a lot with work, but I'm sure I can get some time off." Irene notices no change in her mother's exterior, but feels her mentally coiling like a cat, ready to pounce.
"Having you around for dinner a few nights a week will be just wonderful. Maybe we can have lunch in the city some time too, where are you working?"
"South Shore Hospital." Irene waits for her mother's reaction to that.
"Where is that? I don't think I've heard of it." Her mother’s eyes dart back and forth and suspicion slaps across her face.
"80th Street, off of Yates. It's close to the Skyway and Rainbow Beach." Irene suppressed a smile, she could have driven a Mac Truck through her mother's dangling mouth.
"Why on Earth did they give you a job down there?! What's your employers phone number, I'll give him all call right now and ask for you to be switched. You can't possibly work down there and live! Where did you say you got an apartment?" Her mother's agitation amuses Irene and she hopes she can keep it off her face.
"I'll live in Calumet Heights, mom, and the hospital is near there too. It'll be fine, it's actually a pretty good hospital." Relatively speaking, Irene adds in her head. In her years with ITG, Irene had held positions in significantly less desirable neighborhoods, although she rarely told her mother as much. For Irene, being a temporary nurse and paranormal investigator had ended up being just as, if not more dangerous on the nursing side as the paranormal side. Very few of her assignments had even led to the detection of paranormal energies, and a personal inclination towards self-sacrifice and a true desire to help the less fortunate had resulted in her relatively high number of jobs in underprivileged, understaffed, urban and rural areas.
"Humph," her mother flusters, "You're definition of 'fine' seems a bit off to me. But it could be worse I suppose. Still you can't expect me to go down their, you'll just have to come up here for dinner every week. You could live here couldn't you?" Irene's mother prattles on. South Shore hospital and the Calumet Heights neighbor hood both have the uneasy distinction of being a fairly safe, well off area, completely surrounded by the worst of Chicago's South Side.
"No, I'd have to commute through downtown everyday, and I'm not up for doing that for three months straight, especially in winter. I found a pretty good place too, another nurse at South Shore owns a two bedroom condo and I'm going to sublet the second bedroom from her." This is one of the better temporary living arrangements Irene has managed to secure and she was proud of it.
Her mother humphs and snorts again compulsively shuffling over to the oven to gaze through the door at the roast that had not changed. "Next weekend you'll have to come up here on Saturday for sure. I've already asked the Hamil family over for dinner."
"Hamil?" Irene cut across her mother's speech, the name sounds familiar, but she cannot place a face to it.
"Yes, Joseph and Olivia, and their son, Eric, I can't believe you don't remember him, he graduated high school the same year as you." Irene suppresses a groan at this statement and knew herself to be strolling right into her mother's trap. She did remember Eric Hamil, not that they had any classes together after freshman year, he was the sort of guy who had skated by with B's, good looks and a good sense of humor; however, by now Irene had enough life experience to know that good looks and a good sense of humor ultimately got you farther than good grades.
"I might remember him. Don't try and set us up though, he wasn't my type in high school and I doubt he's changed much somehow." Irene attempts to cool the approaching storm from her mother.
For her part, her mother acts indignant, "Set you up! Now Irene, you know I would never dream of such a thing, but really would he be such a bad choice? People do change in ten years and after all you're almost thirty can you really expect to be choosy with men at this stage in your life?"
Irene sighs as her complete impotence in avoiding this conversation dawns on her, "I still have plenty of time mom, I don't need to be married, I'm perfectly happy with my life right now."
"Oh sure, you're happy with it. But wouldn't you be happier if you were married and settled down. Here in Chicago would be ideal I'm sure, and Michael's oldest is nearly ten now you wouldn't want to deprive him of cousins his own age, don't you remember how much fun you had with your cousins." Irene's mother presses on.
"They do have cousins their own age already, or did you forget about all our in-laws?" The only reason Irene could forgive her brother for having kids so young was his wife's bevy of family more than compensated for her mother's argument.
"That's not the same Rennie." Irene silently disagrees with her mother on that point, cousins are cousins after all, "I still think you ought to give Eric Hamil another chance, he's done quite well for himself, managed to expand his father's business."
Irene has no idea what the Hamil family business is, but mentioning Eric Hamil so close to children has brought up another association for her, "Doesn't he already have a kid? I thought his girlfriend in high school was pregnant."
Her mother stiffens ever so slightly, "As a matter of fact she was, and they were married, but I'm sure you'd make a great step mother as well as mother."
Raising her eyebrows is the only response Irene can muster to this comment. Of course it should not surprise her that her mother believes she can only capture a man with a history already, after all her mother considered her an old maid at twenty-five, and Irene herself perceives nothing wrong with blended families, but a year ago her mother would not have suggested it and it reeks of a strange kind of desperation.
"Why so eager to see me married off mom?" She inquires a new degree of suspicion arising within her.
"I've always wanted you to be happily married sweety," her mother simpers before turning away from the conversation, "Oh look, the corned beef is done!" she declares at the oven.
Irene is handed the impression that the conversation is over as her mother flounces about the kitchen preparing dinner. The silence stretches, but not uncomfortably, whatever words may pass between them, the silence between Irene and her mother has never been awkward. After a few minutes of preparing food, Irene's father is drawn into the room by the tempting smells.
"Hi, Rennie, the Bears lost." Her father shakes his head as a way of greeting looking mortified at his feet.
"Sorry about that dad. How's everything else?" Irene laughs inside, but quickly stifles the merriment. Her father's irrational emotional attachment to sports vaguely amuses her, but laughing at her father's rare moments of sorrow pains her too.
"Alright. You know, the hospital is doing fine, I'm retired from surgery now, I don't know if your mother told you." he sighs only a little at this declaration, although Irene knows it hurt him immensely to be pushed out of surgery by younger fresher men with younger fresher hands and eyes, "It's mostly administrative work now, which is boring and stressful, but it pays better and beggars can't be choosers I suppose."
Irene cannot imagine her father ever being a beggar, unless her mother bankrupted them with lavish spending, something she had always been threatening to do with her over the top renovations and other purchases. "Well you can retire anytime you want to now. It's not like you have to help pay for us anymore, if you don't like the job quite."
"I could never do that. What would I do with my time?" Her father protests raising his hands before his face as if to ward off the idea. Irene's mother drops a plate of food in front of her father and he scoops it up before sliding to the refrigerator and procuring a beer.
"You'll be around next weekend won't you, Rennie? We can talk about you're new job then." He shoots over his shoulder as he shuffles out of the room. For as long as Irene can remember her father has eaten his meals in his office so as not to be disturbed, as long as Irene can remember her father has done everything at home in his office so as not to be disturbed, even sleep for the most part. After her eldest brother moved out he gave up the farce entirely and had a door put through from his office to the recently vacated adjoining bedroom, creating an office suite for himself inside the house were nobody else dared to enter uninvited. Not that it mattered much to Irene, her father had always been an aloof ideal, something to aspire to and some one who's wrath was to be avoided, but he was not her friend, her mentor, or even really her parent. He was the surgeon that just happened to live her house.
Irene's mother places a plate of food delicately in front of her and takes a second for herself, it's just the two of them so they eat at the counter like old times. Just like old times, Irene's mother returns to the bone she wants to pick, although the conversation is exasperating to Irene, she knows deep down it is her mother's way of showing how much she cares. Her mother is happy with the route she chose in life and just wants her daughter to have the same amount of happiness, without understanding that Irene might find happiness in different places.
"What about some of the men you've worked with then? I remember you mentioning one a lot, MJ right?"
"No, not him." Irene does not want to expand on that one, but feels a tiny shudder escape her. Immediately, a wave of guilt hits her at her reaction. MJ might have been a great guy once and he did serve their country after all, but she is not interested in a project for a husband and MJ's mind is to fractured to pretend he would be anything else.
"Okay, okay, but wasn't there another young man you talked about at work, about a year ago?"
Irene possessed no idea to whom her mother was referring and sensed she was just fishing for information, "I'll look for someone well I'm here, how about that? Maybe I'll meet someone at work." The admission rips from her and she is unsure if she means it or not, but nothing else will pacify her mother.
Her mother beams back, "Of course you will Rennie." There is an unspoken implication that the conversation is over and the both turn back to their meals.