I remember you in an oversized green t-shirt—a promotional giveaway from some company Dad did business with, a shirt you didn’t mind staining or tearing or wearing away. An indoor shirt that you slept in sometimes and wore to lounge around the house. A shirt at least two sizes too big. You swam in it.
I remember when you wore it for two weeks straight. I never saw you go outside in that time.
That time when you lost your job.
That time when Dad yelled at you for everything you weren’t doing. When he yelled at you for being sad and we listened from the top of the stairs, certain that would only make you sadder and I wondered if someone could be so sad her heart would stop.
Did yours stop?
I thought mine did. When I realized you were gone.
Not just the divorce. That was hard, too, but I knew where you’d gone and why and I was old enough to ride my bike out of our neighborhood over to yours and you never made me feel bad about doing so late at night so I could sleep in your bed like I had when I was a little girl.
Not the divorce. The disappearance.
It was after you started dating the man with the word SKULL tattooed down his forearm and a picture of a skull with an eyepatch tattooed on the back of his neck. His name was Roger, but you always called him Rog, like rage but with a sharp, hard a sound. I didn’t like him, but he seemed to make you happy for a while.
Then you disappeared.
You didn’t say goodbye, so I assumed you were dead. What sort of mother doesn’t say goodbye to her daughter? I told Dad we should call the police, but he told me there was no reason. You were an adult and part of what that meant was if you made the decision to go, you had the right to do so without people coming looking for you. By the time I was old enough that it occurred to me to call the police myself, you’d been gone for years. Any investigation would have been cancelled already, so there was no point in trying to launch a new one.
Then you came home.
Your hair was shorter. Your cheeks more hollow than full. You wore a powder blue blouse and corduroy pants I’d never seen before. Somehow, six years later, I imagined that if I ever did see you again, you’d look just like you had before. You wouldn’t have new clothes.
I had imagined you. In the crowd at a farmer’s market and in line for a movie ticket. I imagined that that woman with the same color hair, or a similar enough dress, or a laugh like yours or who wore the same deodorant were you. When you showed up at my door, fresh off a visit to Dad to get my address—he didn’t call to warn me you were coming—I assumed it was my imagination again. A Jehovah’s Witness or salesperson who looked like you. Or someone looking for directions. Scam artist or sincere. But not you.
You showed up with a plate of cookies sliced from a roll. Under-baked. You explained—before you explained anything else—that all you’d had to use was a motel microwave and it hadn’t really worked, but still, you didn’t want to show up empty handed. Not after all this time.
I cycled through many of the things I had thought I might say if I ever saw you again, ranging from I love you to asking for your French onion dip recipe I’d never quite intuited correctly, to punching you in the gut, if for no other purpose than so you’d double over and I could kick you in the face.
But I walked you to the little table that occupied the corner between my utility kitchen and the living room. It was an inconvenient corner I was immediately self-conscious of because no sane person would arrange furniture that way, so they had to turn sideways to pass between rooms. There was so much empty space in either room to put it, but I didn’t like having to carry my dinner plate farther than I needed to for fear of dropping, and I liked to be able to watch TV while I ate. And I didn’t have much company.
You and I sat on opposite sides of that little table, close enough to hold hands, but we didn’t.
“So, you’re back?” I asked.
You didn’t make eye contact. You stared at your knuckles and I thought maybe you were willing yourself to try to hold my hand, or else keep yourself from it.
I removed the plastic wrap from the paper plate of cookies and took one. My fingers sunk into the dough on contact, but I picked it up anyway and took a bite. It was too soft and sticky to chew, but the chocolate was sweet on my tongue. I savored it before it melted to nothing.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into with Roger.” When my mother first came back, she hadn’t revealed anything about why she’d disappeared. That first talk was all apologies and asking me about my life. I must have been caught off guard not to think to probe where she had been all this time. I asked, but settled when she said all over, when she said San Diego, when she told me about a beach she imagined was at the end of the world because the sun was so enormous when it slipped from the sky there. The sky was such a deep pink that it was almost red. The waves were crashing hard and the smell of the sand was not quite like any other beach she’d ever encountered. Dogs played there, another segment of the beach, and she told me that was all that kept her sane there. They were all that reminded her life goes on and hers would, too.
She’d cried a lot and that had seemed like enough not to ask for more that night.
But there we were, another day, at Corky’s Diner. We originally talked about going to Fat Lenny’s where we used to go, which I liked better, but in a flash I’d decided it was better to go somewhere less familiar. It was better to go somewhere we didn’t have memories to talk about memories, to move forward while we filled in gaps between our pasts.
I ordered a BLT and a Coke with a shot of strawberry syrup in it. Mom had a piece of blueberry pie.
And we got to Roger. The man with the skull tattoos who scared me as a girl until I didn’t want to visit with Mom much anymore, because he was always there, at her house, and at Fat Lenny’s for our breakfasts. Roger, who laughed too loud and hard like a mean dog growling. Roger, who pinched my mother when they were horsing around, but not hard enough it bruised, not hard enough for it to really hurt, she’d said. Roger, who, the last time I’d seen him, eyed my chest because my breasts were coming in and had the same look as the boys from school that I didn’t like.
“I didn’t like him in the end,” Mom said. “He was mean and controlling and had all these strange people come to our apartment at all hours. I’d never invited him to live with me, but one day he was there and didn’t leave, and I realized so much of his stuff was there and I wondered how this had happened. I told him I thought we should spend some time apart. He told me he wanted to show me something. Something important. And we needed to get in his car right that second to see it.”
“And you went with him?”
“You remember Roger?” she asked. “Remember how you were scared of him?”
I didn’t know that she knew I was afraid.
“I was scared of him, too.”
She told me about the car ride to follow. The radio was turned off. His window was down just a quarter inch, just far enough for the wind to whistle through. He drove her past the town limits, drove on for forty-five minutes, and then turned down a gravel side road. “He knew exactly where we were going,” she said. The gravel road dead-ended at a river.
It was cold by the water since it was late fall then, on the cusp of winter. I remembered that Mom disappeared just a little before Christmas and I thought she’d be back and spent all Christmas waiting on a miracle, long after presents and dinner, and after Dad and his brothers were drunk on eggnog and whiskey. My brother stole sips, too, but not me. I waited.
“Roger told me that this was where he and his friends left bodies. He said that the current was strong enough to pull them miles away and wash away any fingerprints or DNA. He and his friends had done it before, and they’d do it again. Then he stared at me and I was colder than I’d ever been and I thought he might do me in right then and there and he asked me, Do you understand what I’m getting at?
“I understood all right. Not what he was trying to say about why I should never leave him, but that if I stuck with him, that’s where I‘d end up.”
I tried to swallow what she’d said. That all this time I thought she was running from me and my brother but she was running from Roger instead. And with good reason.
I’d tried to temper everything. The expectation that she wouldn’t bolt from my home after she sat down with me the night she came back. The expectation she’d show up to any meeting we set. That she wouldn’t disappear without a trace. It’s hard not to trust, but it’s a choice you can make, a way to survive.
“He’s dead now,” Mom said. “I saw the obituary online. Died last year in Reno. I thought maybe he was on his way to come find me, but he’d probably moved on. Anyway, I don’t think I need to hide anymore.”
She didn’t think. She didn’t know. So I couldn’t know. I could hope she wouldn’t disappear, but I couldn’t know.
The waitress brought our check and before she could even leave it on the table, Mom gave her a twenty and told her to keep the change. I thought I’d pick up the tab. I had enough money. I didn’t need for her to take care of me.
But I suppose that’s the difference. Not in need, but in want. Not in knowing, but in hoping. In hoping the blueberry pie would be good and that she’d still love me and that we might meet again. And again. That all of this might be enough to make her stay.
AT MY BROTHER’S WEDDING
At my brother’s wedding, I had to wear a marsala colored dress. I’m still not sure what marsala is, because when I asked the bride if it were the same as maroon, she said not quite, and when I asked if it were burgundy, she said no, and I was left to conclude it wasn’t a real color at all but something concocted by bridesmaid dress makers.
I thought I looked silly in the dress, that I’ve always looked silly in any dress I’ve worn. I felt like I was playing dress up because that’s the only time I’d worn a dress by choice.
But Ethan said I looked beautiful. And unlike my father or my brother, I’d find that he had an unnerving tendency toward sincerity—to say what he meant without any additional meanings, hidden or not. And I felt a little less foolish and a little more beautiful, if only in Ethan’s eyes. But then, weren’t his the only eyes that mattered besides my own?
At my brother’s wedding, I had to spend the morning with the bride. We left at eight a.m. to all have our hair done, but the hairdresser didn’t seem to know what to do with mine and wound up only putting in a little gel to comb it like a boy’s, only spiked slightly in a way that felt weird, but I had to admit did look nice. It was professional in a way I’d never seen my hair look, or since I was really little and Dad insisted on getting me fixed up before family portraits.
Then we posed for pictures. We did that a lot at my brother’s wedding. And before and after. I found it was hard to tell when a wedding like that really began and when it really ended.
At my brother’s wedding, we waited. We waited for the man who worked at the church who didn’t look like a priest, more like a businessman because he wore a regular suit and tie, not robes and not even a suit that matched the wedding party. Anyway, we had to wait for him to let us in. He had led us through the rehearsal the night before, when we waited, too. We waited for everyone to get there for the ceremony to get started and waited through the priest saying all kinds of things—he was a mumbler, which didn’t help. We waited for more pictures to be taken—different combinations of people, different places, after the ceremony, all over the church and downtown before we reached the reception venue. We waited through the toasts for our dinner to be served, then waited to eat until the priest—this guy again—had said grace.
At my brother’s wedding, I danced with him. It was the first time since we were kids messing around in our living rom. The first time since I, early in high school, when he was in middles school, showed him how boys and girls danced at school, so if the girl he liked said yes, he’d know what to do.
I held him tight there, at his wedding, after he asked me, after I said yes, to an old slow song I didn’t know the name of but recalled from back in the old house. It was a song Mom and Dad both liked, I think, so they listened to a lot when we were little. They would dance in the living room themselves sometimes.
They danced at my brother’s wedding, too. It was an odd sight, to be sure, dancing in that old-fashioned way so he held her little hand up in his big one, her other hand up over his shoulder. He held her close—I couldn’t remember the last time they’d even touched—arm around her waist, hand flat on the small of her back. She looked up at him as they turned and when her back was to me, he laughed at something she said.
I think they both remembered.
It was just one song. Then there was a fast number and my brother told me he loved me and swooped off to dance with his bride in her flowing white dress, and Dad danced with my stepmom, and Ethan came to meet me.
And it felt right.
Me and Ethan dancing a close, a beat slower than the music so we could take our time. He’d worn cologne that made him smell like someone else, someone more like my father. But he’d loosened his tie and unbuttoned two out of three of the top buttons on his shirt so the tie hung funny from his neck.
At my brother’s wedding, I was as at home. I left late, through cleaning up after the party, until my brother was gone, and my father. My mother was gone too, but when we hugged good night, I felt sure I’d see her again before long. I left late because I never wanted to leave.