parenting

unaccompanied

After the festivities downtown, M. and I meet up at the restaurant I love and sit at the bar. He watches me slurp down oysters, one after the other, without comment. It has been a long day, I am tired, and already warmed and heady after a glass of wine downtown. A cocktail – the color of a peach pit – sits on its tiny wooden platform to the right of the plate of oysters, which now looks a bit forlorn. The empty shells are no longer perched neatly on their salt mounds and they dribble beet mignonette across the white plate in angry red lines – like the sudden bloom of a cut to the skin.

We relive our days for each other. The meetings, the conference calls. The details of days spent at desks, screens glowing.

When we get home, Z. is engrossed in what appears to be an elaborate and complicated video game. While I linger there watching, there is a scene off in the distance – in the background, not part of what seems to be the main area of play – where a man stands over the body of a woman stretched out on a table. I choose not to look closely, or to ask, but it looks as though the man is hacking at her body with an axe.

In high school, my friend L. tells me this story. She is driving along a three-lane highway when she notices that another car is driving alongside her, keeping pace with her from the passing lane. She looks over and the driver, a man (“totally hot,” she says) waves at her. Flattered and intrigued, she waves back. They drive like this for a few miles, looking over at each other, smiling, waving. They are approaching an exit. He gestures toward it with his hand, speeds up and pulls in front of her. He puts on his turn signal. She puts on hers, follows him.

“You followed him?” I ask. She shrugs. “Yeah, I know. It was crazy.”

After the exit ramp, he pulls over to the side of the road. She pulls up behind him. She watches as he gets out of his car. He is tall and she feels suddenly hot and cold at the same time. Her hands are shaking.

“So, he comes over to the side of my car, and I unlock the door. He gets in and sits down. He’s smiling. He says hi and extends his hand, so I take it. His eyes are gray and green. He says he’d been watching me for a while. That he couldn’t take his eyes off me. He says, ‘You could have caused a high-speed crash.’ He just keeps grinning.”

He leans over to her and she leans toward him and then they are kissing. “It’s like I saw myself moving toward him, and wanted to stop myself, but couldn’t. Like I was watching it from a great distance.”

“Then all of a sudden, he stops, pulls away. He takes my face between his hands and looks at me.” He says: Do you have any idea how stupid you are? You have no idea who I am. I could be anyone. I could be a killer.

She says she can feel his hands shaking on her face. “Don’t ever do this again,” he says, his face up close to hers. “Do you understand? Do you?” He releases her face and she nods. She feels hot tears running down her cheeks.

He gets out of the car, slams the door behind him. He gets back in his car and speeds off. She catches the last three digits of his license plate, and fumbles for a pen in her purse, but her hands are shaking. “I didn’t know what I would do with the numbers anyway.”

We are sitting on the floor of her bedroom, leaning against her bed. We are facing a set of bookshelves. On one shelf, there is a set of brightly-painted nesting dolls. The tallest is on the left. It seems as though there might be one missing, just before the smallest one. But I cannot tell for sure.

“I was never so scared in my life,” she says.

L.’s story has a happy ending. She marries a man she meets in college – a teaching assistant in her art history class. They move to Connecticut, buy an old farmhouse. She teaches philosophy at an all-girl high school. He works in college admissions. They adopted a boy from Guatemala when he was four. He is ten now, and has an exceptional facility with language. He speaks Spanish and has taught himself Italian. He is working next on French.

I learn all this at the wedding of a mutual friend. L. and I sit together as the band plays its last few songs. We have turned an empty chair around and put our feet up on it. We’ve left our shoes behind long ago.

We are talking about our high school friends, about where they’ve gone. Who we have and have not kept in touch with. We’re remembering staying out too late and driving on the dark roads – aimlessly sometimes – just to keep the night from ending.

“It’s amazing we made it through high school at all. A miracle, really.” She says. I am thinking of the highway story when she says this. I think she is, too, although she doesn’t say it.

When Z. was nine, she flew alone for the first time. To DC, to visit her father’s parents. The flight time was just about an hour. At the gate, she was given a laminated card to wear on a cord around her neck. It bore the words “unaccompanied minor” – a kind of accusation leveled directly at me, it seemed. For failing to accompany her.

She was wearing a dress I had made for her. It was purple. I had appliquéd cats on the pockets. I watched her as she stood next to her wheeled suitcase. She held her small hands in front of her, clasping and unclasping them, a nervous habit she had developed. When we hugged, her eyes filled with tears but they did not fall. And then she was gone – down the long tunnel to the plane. One of the flight attendants walked alongside her. Not unaccompanied, after all.

I talk to my aunt on the phone the night before we are heading down to her. It’s a three-hour drive that we’ve done so many times it is no longer possible to count. I’ve made this drive between New York and Providence through torrential rain. Through snowstorms. Usually in the dark, but even in the earliest morning hours – heading east with the sun as it rose.

“Be careful,” she says on the phone. “That highway can be treacherous. Drive safely.” She says this, without fail, every time we speak about my coming down. There have been times over the years when I have wanted to say – out of the sheer frustration that only family members can engender – “Do you really think I plan to drive recklessly?” if only so that she won’t say it again. But I don’t.

On the drive down, Z. texts me from the train she is on, unaccompanied, to her father’s house. “On the train. All is well.” And so it is.

vigil

It is early when I walk with K. on the long, tree-lined boulevard, and we watch as the dim pre-dawn light gives way to morning.

“I feel like I’ve spent the last month in hospitals and at funerals,” she says. The elderly uncle’s passing was sad of course, but the one that really haunts her is the man who was in a coma. “He was there for weeks. I sat by his bed and read to him for hours.”

“The first few days he was there, so present, you could feel it,” she says, “you knew he was there. But by the end, he was just gone. I watched – I could see the life just drain out of him.”

She nods to the runners who are coming at us from the opposite direction – her neighbors. The damp leaves are slippery underfoot.

“It’s supposed to rain this afternoon,” she says. We walk on a bit in silence. She says, “I guess we knew that days like yesterday couldn’t last forever.”

I take my daughter out last night, just the two of us, and we catch up on the varied and sundry dramas that define her tenth-grade life. “I declare this the year of social awkwardness,” she had said in September, and it has played out, more or less, as she expected. We are at a crowded little café in an area of the city where we are not likely to run into anyone we know. She has dyed her hair again – purple this time, and she shrugs off the glances – the curious and the critical – with an ease that I – twenty-five years her senior – have yet to master.

She gestures with her hands as she speaks. Her fingers are long, her movements graceful. Between conversational bursts, she picks at her apple crumble and sips her vanilla chai, which she has declared to be unequivocally “delicious.”

In her early school years, she was criticized for terrible handwriting. I expressed mild outrage at this, thinking that perhaps her teachers were too rigorous in their attempt to find areas for improvement. But when the sheet came home with tips and exercises that parents could do to help, it was M. who spent the after-dinner hour with her while she practiced the “wheelbarrow:” M. holding her feet up while she walked on her hands around the coffee table and from one end of the living room to the other.

Whether this strengthened her hands and fingers, and whether her writing was better for it, I cannot say with confidence, but the time they spent together, and the quiet moments after when they would sit, side by side on the couch, ice cream sandwiches in hand, stand out in my memory as hours of particular and shining grace.

On the walk, K. and I talk about work. About the next thing. We are always, it seems, trying to move things faster. The language we use feels forced, pre-packaged: we are scaffolding solutions, we are leading change, we are fostering sector-wide innovation. She is a poet, but she struggles. Her interests are so broad and her capacities so deep that she is pulled in all directions. Make time for the writing, make space for it, we say to each other. But this is, of course, easy to say in the early morning light, ambling down a leaf-strewn pathway.

When I get back from the walk, M. and the boy are drawing at the kitchen table. When he sees me, my son throws his arms over his paper, shouts, “I’m making a surprise for you, don’t look!” I catch a glimpse of hearts with arrows through them and what looks to be a giant floating basketball. “I’m not looking,” I assure him as I sit down across from them.

For a time, the room is quiet. They go about their projects and I watch them, their brows furrowed in concentration. The tip of my son’s pencil breaks and the sudden sobs that come up in him seem to carry whole lifetimes of anticipated disappointment.

This afternoon, as predicted, the rain comes. The sky is dark and the air turns cold. A postcard announcing an event at the Convention Center has been tucked under my windshield wiper and the rain has made a soft pulpy mess of it, leaving inky bits of paper smeared across the glass.

I am thinking of the man that K. read to in the hospital. Did he hear her? Did he know the vigil she kept for him?

And I am thinking of the children he left behind. Of all the things he will not know of them. That they will not know of him.

And of the fragile threads that hold us all in place – to each other, to our lives, to the damp earth beneath our feet. Of the rain that continues, relentless. The darkening sky.