I ran into my daughter Alice by the train station one afternoon. I was on my way to pick up my car. It had broken down on a back road, because I’d driven it for twelve years without getting an oil change.
“You’re back,” I said. She had left me two years ago, and I’d seen her around town, sitting on the stoop of a coffee shop with a guitar, heading to and from the train station with her small black backpack, her boots, her oversized jacket. It had been awhile, though, since I’d seen her last.
She said, “I’m not back. Where I’m going is none of your business, by the way.”
I said, “That’s fine. I’m just saying –it’s nice to see you.” Her hair was an eggplant purple this time, and though a wrinkle had sprawled across her forehead, she still had those chubby cheeks.
She looked at me looking at her. “You like the view?”
“Why don’t you come over for dinner?” I said, reaching to push her hair from her eye.
She backed away. “I bet you’d like that.”
I let out a twenty-four-year-long sigh and walked away from her, deciding I’d had just about enough for today. At the auto shop, I found a note on my car. The note said, “We’re very sorry but we can’t fix this. Your car is beyond repair.” I pulled it off of the dashboard, and crumpled it into a ball. Then I didn’t know what to do with the paper, so I put it in my purse. I didn’t want to fight about it. Anyway, the lights were off inside the building and it looked like everyone had gone home for the day.
When I turned around, my daughter was standing behind me and I dropped my purse from the shock of it. She must have followed me the three blocks from the station, to antagonize me perhaps, I didn’t know.
“They could have tried a little harder to fix this,” I said, slapping the hood of the car.
Her eyes narrowed. “That’s the thing,” she said. “You’ve never taken responsibility for your actions. It’s always somebody else’s fault.”
“I should have taken the car in sooner,” I said, nodding. “This one is on me.” I bent down to pick up my purse and felt a sharp twinge down the right side of my back. I wasn’t so old, but old enough to deserve a break.
She laughed, but not as if something struck her as funny. “You’ve always been a scatterbrain. Remember when you left me in the Getty parking lot?”
I didn’t know whether she meant to reminisce or insult me. Either way, I thought, at least we’re talking.
I said, “I recall that.”
“You left me and then you yelled at me.”
She had been five. I stopped to use the Port-A-Potty, leaving Alice and her sister in the car. They were asleep in the back, Alice straight up with her chin to her chest, Tess curled in a ball, her cheek resting on her hands in prayer. I went to the bathroom, hopped back in the driver’s seat and forgot that I was a mother. You see, I was young and I’d spent the majority of my short years without children. So, I drove away without checking the rearview mirror. It took me three seconds to realize what I’d done, before looking back to see that empty seat. The next U-turn was not for a mile, and it felt like fifty. When I returned, she was standing alone on the parking lot in her puffy coat and mittens like a misplaced snowman. I don’t know how I could have missed her.
I ran over to her, put my hands on her shoulders and shook her.
“Where were you?” I said.
She said, “I had to go potty too.” Her whole body quivered. Her teeth chattered.
I might have yelled at her, but I can’t remember what I said. When we got back in the car, she wouldn’t look me in the eye.
Now, at the auto shop she kicked the toe of her boot into a crack in the pavement and said, “I really thought you left me on purpose.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” I said.
I felt awful at the time; maybe I didn’t say it.
I focused on the gap between her two front teeth. I remember when she was all gums. She’d put anything in her mouth, the little monster, baldheaded baby gnawing on a table’s edge. I thought of this and I smiled.
“Why are you laughing?” she said.
The problem was that I was tired and my daughter was lost.
Her senior year of high school, I found Alice smoking pot in the backyard with a skinny boy. He was covered in tattoos, and had no family to speak of. I let him live with us for awhile, against my better judgment, because he did love my daughter, and according to her, he’d end up on the street. She barked orders at him as if he were her child. He would sit on our floor like a little boy, watching cartoons and eating cereal. It struck me one day, as I watched him laugh at the Road Runner with his mouth open, that he was a bit like my ex-husband. Maybe that’s what attracted Alice to him. Maybe, she thought, like me, that if she surrounded herself with weak people, she could pretend that she was strong.
At that time, Alice’s sister, Tess, would drop by every few months from her college in North Carolina. She’d show up with her blond hair pulled back in a braid, wearing riding boots and a tweed jacket. She’d greet us pleasantly with a faint adopted Southern accent. Alice and I looked like squat mushrooms next to her. They were formal with each other, Tess nodding politely, Alice shrinking in the corner in her black smock, her dark lipstick. The only thing they agreed on was that I had screwed them up.
“Mom, do not put up with her bullshit,” Tess would say, blinking at me with an earnest expression, saying I always let Alice get away with murder; she’d talked about it with her therapist and come to the realization that, no offense, I was too passive, which sometimes came across as if I didn’t care.
Tess seemed to think I gave her sister too much attention, while Alice assumed I wanted her to be more like Tess. These accusations were both true and untrue.
Why my daughters turned out the way they did, I couldn’t say for sure. My husband used to toss Alice in the air to make her fly and tickle her until tears streamed down her cheeks. Sometimes, I’d tell him to cool it because she’d laugh so hard, she’d make herself sob. I’d have to rub her back in a dark room to calm her down. When he left us for a dental hygienist, I didn’t do much to stop him, which the girls probably count as one of my major faults. The whole thing was just too typical for me.
After the boyfriend lived with us for several months, Alice started leaving with her guitar. Some of my friends told me they saw her sitting on the steps of the bank, playing for money as if she were a homeless person. The people would throw nickels at her, and she’d mistake that for love. It was embarrassing.
I noticed she was pregnant possibly before she even knew.
When I was sure, I sat her down and said, “It’s not easy, raising a child. If you have soul searching to do, if you’re not sure who you are, it’s that much harder.”
“You had it all figured out?” she said. “You knew exactly who you were?”
“No,” I said. “I’m still working on it. And I think you’ve made some of the mistakes you’ve made because I wasn’t a better mother.”
She raised an eyebrow and said, “You give yourself too much credit.”
“Anyway,” I said. “Someday you’ll be ready for all this, but now is not the time.”
Alice could not seem to take her eyes off the blank white ceiling.
“You should make an appointment,” I said. “I’d do it soon.”
We paused in a standoff, our mouths taut, waiting to see who would make the next move.
“What I’ve said has upset you?” I said.
“No,” she said, with a smile. “You make me feel good about myself. I’m glad you’re so confident in me.”
“Just be smart, Alice,” I said, trying to maintain my composure.
“Oh I will be,” she said, turning away from me.
Later, Tess, home on one of her visits, knocked on Alice’s bedroom door and tiptoed into her room. I hovered with the door open, tilting my head to try to hear them.
Tess’s voice was high and quiet, like that of a little bird. “You can’t let her get you so angry,” she said.
“Get out,” Alice said.
“I’m trying to help.”
“Tess, you don’t get it,” Alice said. “Thanks for your help, but you’re a little sweetheart and I’m a monster and that’s how it will always be.”
“If she just came in here,” Tess whispered, “and hugged you and said ‘I’m sorry’ she could fix everything. But she’ll never do that.”
A magnetic pull drew me toward the room and repelled me at the same time. Was that true? Was that all I needed to do? I stood in my room, unable to move. I loved my daughter, but I couldn’t fathom hugging her in that moment. She was a wild animal.
After that, Alice and the boyfriend were gone and had left a note in their place.
The next few times I saw her in town, I expected to see her stomach growing, but that didn’t happen. I wasn’t sure if she took my advice or lost the baby on her own.
Maybe she thought it was my fault for whatever happened to the baby. Maybe she blamed me for her father leaving. It was possible she was angry at my genes for her height or the heft of her thighs.
Now, I got in my car and saw they’d left me my key, so I turned it in the ignition. The engine crackled like a vacuum cleaner devouring a stuffed animal.
Alice was standing outside my car window.
“Where are you living?” I said, shouting over the engine. “I need to know you’re safe.”
“Why does it matter?” she said. Her face struggled to maintain its hard edge, the corners of her mouth twitching with effort.
“I wish you’d come over so we could talk!” I shouted, but the engine had died and I was yelling into an eerie silence, a boulder dropped into an abyss.
“Why?” she said.
“Because I love you.”
She looked up at the sky, her jaw clenched. I didn’t know if she was ignoring me.
“I’ll come for dinner, but only if we can watch home videos,” she bargained.
“That’s reasonable,” I said, wringing my hands together, trying to hold in my excitement.
“I like the one where we jump in the leaves and eat lunch at the picnic table and that goose takes my sandwich. I like when you run after the goose.”
Her eyes welled up. I wanted to reach out again and touch her face.
“Don’t be upset,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I won’t.”
I saw an opening and so I said, God knows why, “You would have been a good mom.” I thought, maybe she just needs to know I believe in her, even if it’s late.
A curtain of hair fell over her wet blue eyes.
“Now you say that?” she said, her voice cracking.
“No, no, no,” I said, trying to take it back, all of it, starting from the beginning.
“And by the way,” she said, “Thanks for stopping by after it was all said and done.”
I reached out of my window to pull her to me but I caught the sleeve of her coat. She looked at me as if I were insane and wriggled her arm free. She started to walk away, behind my car, her enormous jacket flapping behind her like a villain’s cape.
“I didn’t know where to find you,” I shouted after her. “You were the one who left me!”
She raised a hand in the air and kept walking.
I thought about her first day of kindergarten. She had one little tuft of hair and I pulled it in a barrette. She smiled at me with dimples and I kissed her on her hot cheek. When the bus pulled up to our front yard, she burst into tears. I carried her kicking and screaming, and practically shoved her through the door. The door screeched closed like an angry mouth. After she was gone, I thought, that bus had some nerve to take her away from me. I’d wanted to run after her, but I stood paralyzed.
Again, I wanted to run after her and throw my arms around her, but I had pride. I’d spent a lifetime trying to figure out what I’d done wrong, but right now, I couldn’t think of a thing. I loved her completely. I did the best I could.
I tried the car again. It smelled like hair in a toaster, but I put it in reverse and it started to move, which meant that nothing was beyond repair. I slowly backed up, watching her through my rearview mirror with her hands in her pockets.
I’d always wait for her to come back, and I wanted that to be enough. She’d show up at my door crying. She’d have a child, she’d lose another child, or she’d drop her last cent on a new guitar. She’d need me because she’d have nothing left. She’d not know who she was. And the roots of her purple hair would spill out blond, peeling away the layers of that dark stain, stripping her back down to the little girl who once wrapped her arms around my neck.