I stumbled through the screen door just as my sister’s Chevy turned out of the driveway to blend with a line of traffic that always seemed backed up in front of our house. I could just see a quick blink of her left turn signal, and she was gone. “Elena,” I said to myself. I had missed saying goodbye to her, and now the tears began. I closed my eyes tightly and willed them back, but they slipped out anyway. Elena was on her way to Jameson University, 200 miles away. I wouldn’t see her for months.
How could I have overslept? I helped her pack her last things last night. Her little treasures. A picture of us swinging at the park, a small stuffed blue rabbit from the 4-H Fair. Her ribbons from winning the swimming meets at Penn Valley. She worried that they would seem out of place in her new dorm, but I told her she needed to take what made her comfortable, and we laughed as she sat on her overstuffed bag to try to get it shut. Elena suddenly stopped bouncing, and for the first time, I saw her eyes grow shiny. I had to turn away.
“Meredith?” she said softly. “Do you think I could borrow your necklace to take with me? You know, the beaded one you made in art class last year?”
“That blue and purple one?”
“Yes,” Elena said. “You began wearing it constantly after we moved.”
“Um. Well, sure.” I reached behind my neck and took it off. “Here, hot from my sweaty neck.” I handed it to her.
“Oh! Are you sure?” I nodded.
“Yep. It’s gotta be worth millions by now,” I smiled.
“I love you, Meredith.”
“Love you forever, Elena.”
And so, she had left.
As I stood hanging onto the back-porch railing, my mom, Deborah, came flying out of the back door, purse, notebooks, pens, cell phone, and laptop askew as they always were, and she was late for another house showing, She nearly stumbled, and instinctively, I reached out for her arm but jerked it back just before I touched her.
I stared at the road and pretended I hadn’t heard her. She knows I hate being called that. Besides, I was still trying to stop crying, so I took a deep breath.
Her sharp tone forced me to look at her. I had to. “Mom,” I begged. “Please? I don’t like you to call me that.”
“Really?” she said. “Do you think you could possibly give me some help here? Meredith? I’m late for the Swartz open house, and I can’t open the car doors with all this stuff.”
I made myself move down the steps and towards her white Lincoln. I hadn’t put anything on my feet, and the driveway was pebbled with tiny stones. It was like walking on a hot beach with tiny seashells poking out everywhere.
“Where are your flip flops?” Deborah asked, nearly dropping her laptop. “I can’t imagine how you can walk on this driveway without shoes…of some kind. Dammit! There’s my phone! Mere, can you grab it?”
Just as I reached for her cell, she yelled, “No! Don’t answer it! Did I tell you to answer it? She grabbed it from my hand. I sighed deeply inside my body, something I had learned to do years ago. I was also an expert at rolling my eyes invisibly. I could also swear inside my head. One of these days, I thought. One of these days.
I let Mom rebalance her load of realtor stuff and then held my hand out, “Keys, Mom?” She wasn’t listening, at least to me. “Amy, girl! I’m on my way. Yes, My middle kid just left for college moments ago…I’ll get there as fast as I can. Ta Ta!” She had reached the car and was fumbling in her purse for her keys.
“I can get them, Mom,” I said softly, knowing that any small aggravation would make her furious. She shoved her handbag, half open, towards me. “In there,” she nodded towards a small pocket. I pulled them out carefully and opened the car door. She shoved past me, tossing everything on the passenger’s seat and sat her carefully styled self in the driver’s seat. I breathed in a waft of her favorite perfume, as she rolled down the window. “I won’t be home until past dinner. Do you think you could figure out dinner for you and your Dad, Mere?”
I backed from the car. “Sure, Mom. We won’t starve.” Deborah started the ignition.
“Got to go.” She rolled up the window, backed up, and was gone. It was never as though she hadn’t been there. Deborah Davis Rivera left her mark everywhere she went.
She wasn’t always like this. I can still remember the sunnier days when we first got to Thomasville, and Mom was home with us girls. Besides Elena and me, there was Maryanne, my oldest sister, who was a junior in high school. I was five, just getting ready for kindergarten, and Elena, seven, was already becoming the mermaid of her dreams in swimming lessons. Since Maryanne was busy with soccer and her bunch of school activities, I went with Mom to watch the girls compete. My Dad was finishing grad school to become a principal, and Mom did everything at home. Tuesday was library day, and she and I walked the few blocks to reading circle, and afterwards, we always stopped at Josie’s for a hamburger and fries. By the time, Elena was due home, Mom and I held hands and watched for her. I always spotted the yellow “bug” first. I swear Elena was last off the bus on purpose, and she ran to Mom first and kissed her, dropped her backpack and grabbed me and swung me in circles until Mom made her stop. I got so excited hearing about Elena’s day at school, I could barely wait to begin myself.
And then, it seems like a fissure in time somehow. Dad said it was Grandma’s death. I don’t know, but Mom went back to her real estate office when I started school, and she began to get hardened and tough. She was a quiet person, at least to me, but then she began yelling at us for every small thing. A dirty glass in the sink. A bedspread that wasn’t quite smoothed out. Papers in our backpacks that were crinkled.
She wasn’t happy unless she sold a house. She worked more and more hours, and there was no more time for the library and Josie’s. Finally, I was busy at school, and Elena made sure I got there while Mom slept in. Yet, something had shifted in our family, and it was almost as though we girls disappeared like wisps into the walls of our rooms.
Or maybe we weren’t the ones who disappeared. Maybe it was Mom.
I trudged back to the porch, and I was already sweating from the late August sun. Whew, it sure gets hotter in the city, and we even have trees around us, not like our place in Thomasville, a little town with an old-fashioned grassy square with stores all around it, complete with a deli and an ice cream shop. I thought it was kinda old-fashioned, but it was quiet and pretty, and I never paid much attention to it.
Ow! About every few minutes during the day, a trucker screeches his brakes to slow down for the light. It’s a good thing there aren’t little kids running the neighborhood like they did back home, I mean, at our old house. They’d get flattened in a sec. Come to think of it, traffic is all I hear, well that, and loud blasting music from cars.
I miss the nature sounds, and even though we have some big maple trees around back, I don’t hear any birds unless I wake up before sunrise. There’s just some mangy-looking squirrels, usually covered with street dust like the windows and the patio stones.
You know what I miss the most? Getting up in the summer when school first lets out and opening my bedroom window to catch the cool breeze and thinking that I have this time spread out in front of me that I can spend with my friends and not doing homework and worrying about exams and grades. Just sweet time, quiet and sure.
I know, I’m supposed to be thinking about what I want to do when I graduate. The counselor even bugged us about it at the end of last year. My friend, Bree, said what’s a fifteen-year-old supposed to know about it? I told her just put down something, so I showed her what I wrote: I want to go to college and be a doctor.
Then I had to shush Bree because she snorted out loud. I have this little issue about not being able to look at blood. The counselor took the paper and smiled. “Very good, Meredith,” she said. Then I had to kick Bree under the desk to be quiet.
That seems like a long time ago, and Bree went to all-summer camp like she usually does. We barely got to say good-bye. My other friends had a little party for me before I left, but I couldn’t think we were really leaving for good. That happened when the huge moving van pulled up a few days later.
As I stood on the porch, sweaty and miserable, I let the tears roll down my face as they wished. And something dark and small felt like it was beginning to grow deep inside me. I rubbed my stomach. One day, I thought again. One day.