“How’s your mother doing?” my dad asked, glancing down at his plate and stabbing a piece of beef onto his fork. I crossed my legs and watched the waiter digging in the pocket of his black apron to make change for the couple at the table by the tree.
“She’s fine, I guess. I haven’t talked to her in a while, but she emails me pretty frequently,” I said, not wanting to admit that in addition to never calling, I barely emailed. I’ve never been big on family communication or sharing my life. In order to avoid questions, I usually only emailed back with vague updates about what I’d been doing since I came over to France to study for a semester. It worked on my dad, but didn’t usually deter my mom from checking in often and updating me with a plethora of mundane details about the dog or what she and my stepfather, Dave, had had for dinner the night before.
My dad finished chewing and took a sip of wine. He looked tired. I knew he should probably be napping after his long flight, but he had only cut a few days out of his work schedule to fly over and visit me, so we had to make good use of his time. His first day there had only left enough room to get him to his hotel and have dinner outside while there was still some sun left in the sky.
“Well, I only ask because the last time I talked to your grandmother, she asked if I had heard anything from you. Your mom called her about getting together for lunch, and Grandma said she seemed a little confused. Kept talking about coming to the house, meaning the old house in Plainfield, and I don’t know what else, but it was obviously enough for Grandma to pick up that something wasn’t right.”
I took a sip from my tiny water glass and shrugged as I watched the gravy on his plate ooze over the white void from his last bite.
“Yeah, I mean, I didn’t really notice anything before I left a few months ago since I was at school and working a lot, but Dave mentioned something about her not doing too well. He didn’t really elaborate, but he said he thought her father dying was just now hitting her.”
“Well, you might want to keep an eye on her. Not that you can really do much from here, but just check in to see how she’s doing. I don’t know if you know a lot about what she went through when she was younger, but I know she had some problems before we met. I was never really filled in on the details.”
“Yeah, I mean, I know she was in that clinic after college, but I don’t really know much about it.” I hadn’t even heard of it until my aunt let a comment slip back when I was in high school. My mom had followed it up with only a brief comment about being really depressed and losing her grip on reality for a while. “I never really noticed anything. Except maybe once when I was little.”
“What happened then?”
I rolled the corner of the napkin between my fingers, thinking about that night. I was in the back of our silver Corolla, in my car seat, looking at the Little Mermaid pop-up book my mom had just bought me on an unexplained shopping spree during which she had uncharacteristically bought me everything I’d asked for. I’d even refused a few of the toys she’d offered because they’d seemed too young for me. Elvis crooned loudly from the speakers. In the yellow light slanting through the windows from the parking lot, I watched my mom dabbing something from the small yellow and black plastic bottle she always had in the bottom of her purse onto her neck.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s an astringent. It smells really good. Do you want some?”
She reached around the seat to pass me the bottle as she continued to rub it into her skin. I smelled it and dabbed a little on my arm. I had never liked the dirty stickiness of the age-worn bottle. It had always been in the bottom of her purse when I would go through it looking for something interesting like gum or lipstick. I smelled it again, but I didn’t think I liked it. I stretched forward, handed it back to her, and looked out the window at the McDonald’s.
“What are we waiting for?” I asked over Elvis’s low wavering voice.
“Dave’s gonna come pick us up.”
I looked around, wondering what was wrong with the car we were in. Four songs later my mom either ran out of Sea Breeze or places to dab it.
“I wonder where he is. Let’s go in and call him.”
Inside McDonald’s it smelled like stale cooking grease. The glass door closed behind us, and air rushed by, sending bits of white straw wrapper skittering over the grimy brown tiled floor. I watched the people behind the counter clearing the food out from under the heat lamps as my mom dialed our number on the pay phone. I looked at the desolate beige plastic chairs and the gum stuck under the raised counter of the condiment station, and after about a minute of conversation my mom hung up.
“Ok, I guess he’s not coming. Let’s go.”
Confused as to what we had just spent the last several hours of our evening doing, I watched the bugs circling madly in front of the buzzing floodlights as we walked across the empty parking lot back to the car. Twenty minutes later, we were home. Dave was reading in his chair.
“Hey,” my mom greeted him. “I thought you were gonna come get us.”
I didn’t hear Dave’s slightly muffled response as I climbed the stairs to go busy myself with some stuffed animals. Later, they jokingly referred to the incident as “The Elvis Night,” but not much of my confusion was ever dispelled with a real explanation.
“I just remember sitting in the car once when I was about four or five, waiting for Dave to come pick us up and wondering why we couldn’t take our own car home,” I said as I put my napkin on the table and sat up straight. “Eventually she gave up waiting, and we drove home.”
“But it was enough for you to notice something wasn’t right,” said my dad. “Even at that age.”
“Well, yeah.” Even a five year old notices when something doesn’t match up. As we spoke, I also remembered some vague references to what sounded like hallucinations my mom apparently had around the same time, but I decided not to mention those to my dad.
He put his fork on the mostly empty plate, shifted his weight, and adjusted his napkin. “It’s just something you might want to stay aware of. Something that you might have to deal with someday. When she’s older.”
“Right,” I said, reaching for the dessert menu. This was not what I wanted to be thinking about during my semester abroad. I was busy enjoying being reckless and ignoring that I had a very different and uninteresting life to go back to in suburban New Jersey. I asked my dad what he wanted to do the next day, dismissing the conversation much as I had dismissed Dave’s uncharacteristic attempt to let me know that he was concerned about my mom’s behavior when I’d been packing for France three months earlier.
Four years after that semester abroad, I pulled a photo album out to let my boyfriend look at it while he sat on the porch at my mom’s waiting for me to finish up with some laundry. Breezing through it to prepare myself for any overly embarrassing content he might discover, I noticed captions had been scrawled in the margins next to most of the pictures. Jessie, summer, 08846. House, Bergen County. The Lake. The date she had written the captions was included on all of them; November 14, 2006.
“What the hell is this?” I said. “Why would she write this?”
“Oh,” said Chris, looking over my shoulder. “I thought that was stuff you had written. Like when you were a kid, just wanting to label things.”
“No.” I flipped through the rest of the album, the blood draining from my head a little as I read the captions. The pictures weren’t labeled with dates or descriptions of the occasion on which they were taken. They were labeled with obvious facts like the zip code of our house, or my name when I was the only one in the photo. I pictured my mom going through the pages with a fine point Bic, trying to assuage some worry that she might not recognize these images someday. In my head, she looked lonely. I left Chris on the porch with the album and went inside to finish sorting laundry into lights and darks. Checking pockets for forgotten change and hair bands, I tried to ignore the jabbing reminder I’d just been given that, as an only child, there might come a time when I’m the only person left in her picture to help hold the pieces together.
Streets were quiet when we left, but when we turned at the end of our block ten minutes later, a parade of parents and kids with shiny backpacks and fresh haircuts lined the sidewalk. As they bunched at our heels, their enthusiastic chatter at our backs, Riley stopped and moved to the sidewalk’s edge to let them pass. This happened over and over. If he made any comparisons about their speed versus his, he never said a thing. Still, we arrived before first bell on the first day of school.
The kindergarten classes were up a slight hill and through a gate on the right, and his classroom was the last one. Why does it have to be the...