Mom Before New York

This essay first appeared at Word Riot in July 2017.

I had been up all night packing, too excited to sleep. Mom woke at five-thirty to take me to the train station. She knocked lightly on the bathroom door as I wrapped a towel around my wet body, my hair dripping down my back onto the floor. I opened the door in a hurry to let her in and walked out to the smell of a freshly lit cigarette burning on the side of an ashtray on the kitchen table.

“There’s coffee in the pot if you want it,” she called to me in my room before leaving the house, trying to get me to hurry. She would wait for me in the car so I would rush.

I dressed myself quickly, uncertain of what would be comfortable to wear on a train for nine and a half hours, the time it would take me to get from Pittsburgh to New York City. I hoped I wasn’t forgetting anything.

I had two bags that each weighed exactly the limit, 50 pounds, and I carried them downstairs individually, forcing them into the small trunk of the car. Mom sat in the driver’s seat with the interior light on, smoking a cigarette. Even in New York her smell would follow me.

I got in the car and wished for someone else to be with me right then—anyone else that would be excited for me, would tell me how proud they were that I was going to New York City by myself to work, to hopefully have a better shot at getting a job when I graduated the next semester. They would smile and ask me questions. They would tell me how this was only the beginning of the new life I could have.

We drove, and I watched her from the corner of my eye. She wore a navy blue baseball cap, her face swollen from sleep. Above everything, she appeared removed. I wondered where the woman was who used to be my mother. I missed the wrinkles around her eyes when she laughed her husky laugh. I missed the way she used to say how handsome Dad was in front of me, only to embarrass him. Something went out in her with the loss of that twenty-year marriage, and it pained me to watch my father’s absence diminish her warmth.

I thanked her for taking the morning off work to drive me to the train station.

“What else would I do? Make you take the trolley?”

“You could have,” I said.

There was a long silence as I pulled at the seat belt digging into my neck. She turned up the volume of the radio. I tried to chat about my internship and all the things I would be doing over the summer, but she only nodded and looked ahead without asking any questions.

It made sense that she wasn’t very interested. By then I knew that like many women, she was finally realizing she had given too much to everyone but herself. I was annoyed and disappointed, but now I know she was only scared for me. She had lived in the same five mile radius for over forty years and never desired to leave. My curiosity for the world scared her as much as her complacency terrified me.

She helped me carry my bags into the station and waited for me to get my ticket. I found her standing near three phone booths with the phones ripped out. She was crying.

“It’s only three months, don’t worry,” I said. She hugged me, and I let her, trying not to pull away. Right then, I missed Dad wholly.

“You better be fucking safe,” she said into my chest.

I wanted to make a joke right then, make her laugh somehow, and feel excited to be leaving for the summer, but I couldn’t. So I let her hold me. Her cheek on my shoulder. Staring ahead until she let go.