When I turned six, mom and I took a rail to St. Kilda for milk and cake. I said I wanted coffee, but she said no, said I hadn’t yet the tongue for bitter things.
On the ride mom pointed out big, old houses that she cleaned, the palm-trees in their yards so tall they looked like fireworks frozen in the summer sky. Behind us, an older man sat reading a heavy book without a picture on the cover. Every couple minutes he’d rest it open on his lap and sigh, as if what he read fatigued him. Mom told me not to stare, but I was curious why he would read something that made him sad.
My favorite cake shoppe had a checkered floor and round steel tables, polished and set for two. The woman at the counter knew my name and what I wanted. “A lamington for Tristan,” she’d say in a voice that swelled from her belly. “As handsome as they come, that boy.”
Mom had black tea without a sugar and fussed her cigarettes beneath the table. Wrinkles of steam rose barely visible from her cup, melting away completely as they reached her lips.
“I named you for your grandfather, you know. Tristan is a strong name.”
I told her I knew, but I didn’t. I’d never met my grandfather. He’d passed away before my birth. I knew from pictures he was blonde and thin, like me, but that was all.
“When’s dad coming home?” I asked, shedding flecks of coconut from my lips. He’d been gone as long as I remembered, some sort of research in a place I didn’t know. It was just mom and I in an apartment west of Footscray, a redbrick place with old windows whose glass looked full of tears. She always told me he’d come back, though I never missed him.
Mom seemed lost somewhere behind me, looking past my shoulder into the warm street. People walking by supplied an endless stream of voices. Laughter like a pleasant liquid swelling and subsiding. “You should drink your milk,” she said.
Mom never told me she was sick, never told me she would go. Just left her body quietly that summer, one evening as the sky was turning pink.
Mom was right about the bitter tastes. I simply haven’t got the tongue. And so now I hold you here and name you Tristan, after me. And you’ll always find sweetness.