1996, I’m eighteen.
My father’s voice is tinny through the phone line. I am in the booth at the bottom of the stairs in Howland dorm. It is my freshman year of college.
Claire, he is saying, your mother is back in the hospital.
It is a Tuesday. My mother was just here two days ago, visiting for parents’ weekend, and I am immediately confused as to why she is in the hospital.
Claire, are you listening to me?
I take a deep breath.
I’m here, Dad.
Listen. I don’t know how to say this. The doctors, they don’t think there is anything else they can do. The cancer is too far gone.
What do you mean?
I don’t like the words “too far gone.” They make me think of a ship lost at sea.
As I listen to my father run through the details of my mother’s hospital visit, the previous weekend replays in my head on fast-forward, scenes flashing by in blurred succession.
My mother had arrived on Friday. We drove along the winding mountain roads together, Vermont like a foreign country to both of us, the autumn trees like bursts of flame—orange and gold and deep, deep red. There was a weird silence between us, a space that had never been there before.
The two months since I’d been at college were as long as we’d been apart in my whole life.
My mother worked hard to close the new distance, acting chipper, and I tried to fill the gap too, telling her about my classes and my roommate, Christine. That night we ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in town. She ordered two glasses of wine, let me have one. Around the room two or three other students sat at tables with their parents, and for no real reason I felt embarrassed for all of us.
On Saturday we strolled around campus, the white clapboard buildings and rolling green hills like a New England postcard. I pointed out my poetry teacher, an old hippie with a scruffy beard, and the boy I have a crush on, Christopher. From the steps of the dining hall we watched Christopher swing one leg over an old motorcycle, kick the thing to life.
He has a girlfriend, I told my mom.
Of course he does, she said. I watched her watch him, knowing that she already knew that kind of boy.
That afternoon we went shopping, and she bought me a shirt and a pair of hiking boots. In the coming months I’ll cling to that shirt as though I’d cared about her that weekend, as though I’d actually been grateful for her visit. As though I hadn’t wanted her gone already so that I could get back to my life.
As the weekend went on my mother grew too loose with me. She let me ignore her, let me smoke cigarettes in her rental car, and invited my friends out to dinner with us on the second night. She seemed desperate for me to let her in.
But I had only just discovered how to be without her. Why would I want to let her in?
On Sunday I watched her drive away, my lip between my teeth, blood on my tongue from the force of it.
That was two days ago.
I tune back in to what my father is saying on the phone. Something about hospice.
Wait, wait, I say. Back up.
She collapsed in the bedroom this morning, sweetie. There wasn’t anything I could do.
I picture my mother in one of her long Yves Saint Laurent nightgowns in their bedroom in Atlanta. Picture my elderly father stooping to help her back to bed.
But she was just here, I say.
I know she was, sweetie. I know.
Months later, after she is gone, my father will tell me that he thinks she stored up that last burst of energy just to visit me. He will tell me that once she saw me safely ensconced in my life there, she was finally able to let go. When he says this, I will immediately wish that I had been more of a mess.
The doctors have recommended hospice, he says.
My father is silent for a beat.
It’s when you go home to die, he says finally.
It’s here where everything becomes very still. Kids are laughing in the common room. The TV is on, and I hear glasses clinking. I pick at a flyer taped to the wall, pull at a corner of it until it tears away, watch it flutter to the floor.
My father calls several more times that week. First to tell me that my mom is home and that they have a nurse with her. Then to tell me that she’s feeling better, not to worry. I should just keep going with school for now.
Can I talk to mom?
Not right now, sweetie. She’s sleeping.
Both times he calls she is sleeping.
That weekend Christine and I go to New York with a couple of guys from our dorm. They’re both named Dave. One of them has a rich dad, and drives a fancy, red Jeep. I cling to the roll bar as he swerves through Manhattan. The other Dave is an anarchist. He says things like “Fuck the Man,” and I nod my head gently, afraid to agree but even more afraid to disagree.
Dave with the rich dad takes us to a jazz bar in the Village that night. It’s a tiny, smoky place, and we all pile into a corner together. I’ve never done anything like this before—go to bars, run around a big city at night. I feel at once exhilarated and terrified.
Suddenly rich Dave leans in and whispers at us excitedly.
Holy shit. That’s Cecil Taylor.
I look across the room at an old black man tapping his foot along with the music. Throughout the night my gaze will come back to him over and over, taking in his frail frame and deeply wrinkled hands. Even though we are in the same room it feels like we are in different universes.
Later that night we crash at someone’s apartment just outside the city, and I end up in bed with anarchist Dave. He kisses me and paws at my shirt. He whispers gruffly in my ear that if I scratch his back, he’ll scratch mine. I cringe inside and turn my back to him, falling asleep to his grunts of dissatisfaction. I vow that after tonight I’m done messing around with boys for a while. Anarchist Dave is the sixth or seventh guy I’ve made out with in the last couple of months and no good has come of any of it.
When I call home on Sunday night, my father finally hands the phone to my mom.
Her voice is hoarse. She says she is in bed.
I tell her about the trip to New York and she tells me that when she and her first husband, Gene, a jazz musician, moved to New York, they crashed on Cecil Taylor’s couch for a month.
I don’t tell her about sharing a bed with the anarchist the second night.
I haven’t gotten a package or a letter from my mother in two weeks. During the first couple of months of college there was something in my mailbox every time I checked, my mother insistent that we stay connected. She was nervous about me being so far away, even though she liked the college I chose.
Marlboro sits on a mountaintop in southern Vermont, far away from my hometown of Atlanta. There are only 250 students; most of them are writers or artists or musicians. They have fucked-up parents, scattered backgrounds, no idea of who they are.
I live in Howland, a squat, two-story, coed dorm that houses twenty students. Even the bathrooms are coed, and I shower late at night, tiptoeing down the hallway, flinching at the sound of the water hitting the cold plastic curtain. Christine is the only one on campus who is from the small town nearby, the only local among a lot of wealthy kids who hail from rich Connecticut suburbs and sprawling California subdivisions.
For the most part, I’m a good fit for Marlboro. I’m a little weird and a little eclectic, in that disgruntled-suburban-teen-girl kind of way. At my high school in Atlanta I was the school poet, spending hours writing long and angst-filled verses about my boyfriend or my mother’s cancer. I smoke Camel Lights and I’m a little daring.
At eighteen, I’m tall and thin. My wardrobe consists of a collection of white V-neck T-shirts that I buy in packs in the men’s section of the department store. I wear jeans and combat boots, black bras that show through the thin T-shirts. My hair hangs long past my shoulders, dyed a silky crimson that offsets my blue eyes. Two weeks before leaving for college I lay back on a tattoo artist’s couch and let him put a needle through my nose. I now sport a tiny silver stud in the hole he created there. I think all these things will help me stand out at college, but really I fit right in.
So far I love being at Marlboro, love being away from the drama of my high school friends in Atlanta, away from my mother’s cancer and my father’s sad attempts to support our small family. I love the changing leaves and my trek up the hill to the library where I read twentieth-century poetry for long hours. And even though I am outwardly ashamed of it, I love my job washing dishes after dinner in the dining hall. I love the camaraderie with the other work-life students; I love how angry I can be. I try to impress them by drinking beer as I work, by smashing cans with my boot for the recycling bin.
I’m not fooling anyone though.
Another week goes by. My father calls every day to update me on my mother’s condition.
Do you want me to come home? I ask him this every time.
Not yet, sweetie. Your mom and I have talked. We want you to stay in school for now.
I nod, and I try to ignore the pit of doubt unfurling in my stomach.
I go about my business at school, running forever late to my poetry class on Monday mornings, stomping cans outside the dining hall after dinner, drinking whiskey in the common room at night with whoever else is around. It has begun to grow cold and the leaves are falling, skating across campus in big drifts.
I try to focus on my classes but it’s not easy. I’m having trouble with a paper for my cultural history class. I can’t seem to form the paragraphs, can’t seem to construct sentences to support my thesis. I write in circles, saying nothing. Finally one night I head over to the little building where the writing tutors work. Upstairs I sign in on a clipboard and print my name on the last available slot: 11:00 p.m.
I return to my dorm, to a note on the door that my father has called. Downstairs in the phone booth his voice is resigned.
She’s not getting any better, my father says. The doctors here say there isn’t anything else they can do.
There is a pause. Suddenly I hate this phone booth, hate the little metal stool I am sitting on, this stupid poster on the wall that I’m always picking at.
My father continues. I found a hospital in DC with a doctor who’s willing to operate on her though. It’s worth a shot, he says.
I listen, saying nothing. I don’t know what to believe anymore. My mother has been sick for five years. Ever since she was first diagnosed with colon cancer, when I was fourteen, our lives have been a roller coaster of operations, chemo, and carefully researched alternative treatments.
I’ve changed your ticket to go to DC next week instead of coming home for Thanksgiving, my father says.
I listen for a while longer, my father’s words rising and falling against me like waves.
When we hang up, I go back to my room and lie across the bed. I feel pinned there, like an insect.
After a while I look at the clock. It is almost eleven. I gather my books and head back to the writing center. A single light glows in the upstairs room. The stairs creak as I make my way up them.
The tutor is a senior named Michel. He’s French Canadian and his name is pronounced Me-SHELL. I say it out loud a couple of times, and he looks at me quizzically.
We’ve never spoken, but I’ve seen him in the dining hall, observed his height, the angle of his jaw, his blue eyes. He is handsome but doesn’t seem to know it. He wears an old coat with worn elbows. There’s something about the coat. It’s not like the ones the rich kids get from thrift stores. The coat is real; it’s the best he can do.
I sit down opposite him and push my paper across the table. I am ashamed. I know it is badly written. I know that he has been reading papers all night and that he surely wants to go home.
I sit quietly while he reads, and I stare out the windows at the snow and parked cars. I think about my mother, about when I will see her next, about yet another hospital we will all become familiar with.
Suddenly I am crying.
Michel looks up from my paper and narrows his eyes. He says nothing.
My mother has cancer, I blurt out. She’s going to a hospital in DC. I’m supposed to go there for Thanksgiving, instead of going home. My father says she is going to die.
I’m aware of my voice, young and husky. I don’t know why I’m telling him all of this, but it feels good to say it out loud.
Michel sets my paper down on the table. It will remain there, forgotten. Somehow the following week I’ll finish it, hand it in.
My father committed suicide a year ago, he says in response.
He just says it. Not without emotion, but as if he can’t bear for me to go on without knowing this.
The sentence hangs there in the air between us.
The room is electric. It feels like we are touching, even though we aren’t.
Michel says it again: My father committed suicide.
After that our conversation unspools like smoke. We sit at the table for the next couple of hours, long past the time the center is closed, talking, leaning forward in our seats. Michel tells me about his father. I tell him about my mother. In some moments we are shy, our eyes seeking out the corners of the room. In other moments we are brazen, the room charged with the strange energy we have created.
It’s my father’s birthday, Michel says. Right now, tonight. He tells me this at midnight, and then together we watch the second hand on the old clock on the wall sink over into a new date with an audible click.
Now it’s my birthday, he says.
Our birthdays are one day apart, he continues. When we lived in different time zones, my father would call me when it was eleven here, midnight there. For that one hour, we shared a birthday.
I am dumb with awe. I can think of nothing to say.
Michel begins to cry, and I watch the tears drip down onto his sweater. This boy who is almost a man, who is almost a stranger, begins to cry.
He tells me that he’s never told anyone all of this, that he’s never cried for his father, not once in this whole last year.
I am silent, marveling at the power we have to unlock a person.
We stay up all night, talking. At some point we move to the empty dining hall. It is always left unlocked, giant cereal dispensers and milk available for students all night. We fill bowls with granola and sit across from each other, the food in front of us an afterthought.
Michel tells me all the things he wished he’d told his father. He is stern in his insistence that I not make this same mistake with my mother.
You have to tell her this stuff now. You might not get another chance. He leans forward, his blue eyes barreling into me.
Okay, I nod.
And sitting there across from Michel, I really think I will. I feel energized and empowered. I feel awake and alive and more determined than ever. Before tonight my mother’s cancer just seemed like this thing that was just happening to all of us. But Michel has made me feel like I can actually play a part in what happens next.
Hours later, when dawn breaks, I am lying awake in my top bunk, replaying the evening. Michel’s instructions, his careful and urgent sentences, float down over me until I am covered in them, breathing in lightly through my mouth.
But the thing I do not realize is that, no matter how I feel in this moment, I do not really think that my mother will die.
For the next two weeks, Michel and I are inseparable. We have opened something, unlocked a door, crossed a threshold. But there are limits to where we go once inside.
I am determined to stick to my vow of celibacy following the disgust I felt with the anarchist, and I inform Michel of this on the second day that we hang out. I immediately regret this decision because all I want to do is bury my head in his neck, feel his hands in my hair.
One afternoon he invites me to visit his apartment in town. He is a senior and does not live on campus. He drives an old, beat-up car and picks me up in the late morning.
The drive to Brattleboro, the town at the base of the mountain, is about twenty minutes of hairpin curves, slowed by the occasional logging truck. We chatter idly in the front seat, the enclosed space presenting an unexpected intimacy.
Michel lives in a tall building in the town’s center. At eighteen I don’t know many people who live in apartment buildings. Michel’s studio consists of a large room with an old, queen-size bed as the focal point. We stand in the center of the room, awkwardly, and I try to pick out something to remark on, but my gaze only falls on the muscles in Michel’s neck, his jawline, and the way his hair waves slightly behind his ears. His eyes are sad, his lips full.
Let’s go for a walk, he says.
We set out along Main Street and duck into the town’s only bookstore, which sells a combination of new and used books. I run my fingers across the titles, hovering here and there, trying to decide on a book to pull out that will impress him.
Michel himself pulls out title after title without hesitation, and I make a list in a little notebook I carry around with me. Michel is a writer. He is almost finished with a novel. He has written dozens of short stories. He is meticulous about them, combing through the words like a surgeon afraid of leaving something behind.
E. Annie Proulx. He says the name with the same stern tone he used when he spoke about my mother. Years later I’ll read a review of Michel’s first published novel that compares him to Proulx, unknowingly bestowing on him the highest compliment he could have.
My mother becomes the silent chaperone of these afternoons with Michel, her threatened existence the reason we are spending time together. She is the subject we return to when the sexual tension between us rises. In a coffee shop Michel’s hand stops on the small of my back, and both of us go rigid. He removes it. We breathe again.
So, when do you leave for DC, he asks?
After the coffee shop we go to the Price Chopper. Michel fills a basket with day-old bread, dented cans of soup. I’ve never been in a grocery store like this. It dawns on me that there is no one to pay his rent for him, no credit card with which to buy his groceries, like the one my father gave me.
We walk by the river, taking turns holding the bag of groceries. We are careful not to let our hands touch when we switch off. We stop under a bridge, sit next to each other on a concrete piling.
What do you want to do with your life?
I want to be a writer, he says.
You are a writer.
Not yet, he says.
He doesn’t ask me what I want to do with my life. I want the same thing he does, but I don’t tell him that.
Back in his apartment we eat our soup and bread, sitting on milk crates. When it’s time for me to go, we stand near the door. A friend from school is giving me a ride back up the mountain and she is waiting.
Michel and I step carefully toward each other, and in one easy move he folds me into him. He is so tall and broad and warm. I want to crawl inside him and sleep there. We stand pressed together for a long time. I turn my face inward, breathing him in, my lips on his neck.
I kiss him there; I can’t help it.
He pulls back slightly. I know he is looking for permission to kiss me.
But I gently push away and walk out the door.
I leave the next day for DC.
The first night in the hospital I burn with Michel’s words. I sit on the edge of my mother’s bed. I haven’t seen her since parents’ weekend, and she looks worse than ever.
My mother was once a very beautiful woman, statuesque with a perfect sheath of white-blond hair that fell to her shoulders. She turned men’s heads well into her fifties. But now her skin is gray, her cheeks sunken and sagging, and tubes snake their way from her nose, disappearing into the sheets. The skin hangs on her arms like threadbare towels on a laundry line.
She was operated on a little over a week ago. The doctor removed her colon entirely and created a colostomy bag by drawing part of her intestine through an opening in her abdomen. It provides a new path for the feces leaving her body.
The bag hangs from a hook on the side of the bed. I am careful not to kick it with my boot.
My mother reaches up and touches her hair.
You cut it, I say.
She nods, fingering its short length. Does it look awful, she asks? Her voice is slurred as though she is drunk.
No, just different, I say.
She drops her hand back to the sheets, closes her eyes.
With a sharp pang, I realize I miss her.
My mother was forty when I was born. She met my father in her late thirties, had already been married twice, but had never had kids. Even at eighteen I already know that she poured all her energy into raising me, as though by giving me so much of herself she could somehow erase the mistakes of her past.
Mom, I have to tell you some things.
She opens her eyes and slowly finds mine.
We’ve never talked about it. What it would be like if she died. She’s been sick for four years and we’ve never talked about it. I don’t know where to start.
Mom, I say, I just want you to know... I start but cannot finish.
What do I want her to know? Michel’s words ring in my ears, but they are his to say, not mine.
I’m never going to stop, Mom. I say this finally, tears springing like little stars in the corners of my eyes.
I’m not sure what I mean, but I want her to know that this fervor I have for life—that it won’t go away, that I won’t let anything defeat it. I stare at the metal chain behind her bed that turns on the light.
I can’t look at her.
She nods at me, her eyes bright with pain. I know, she says.
I ramble on for a bit, and when she is sure I am finished, she closes her eyes, leans back against the pillow.
I sit waiting, breathing through my mouth, as though I am out of breath.
She opens her eyes finally.
I think she is going to soothe me, but what comes next isn’t that.
Can you help me with this bedpan? She motions to a small plastic tub on the bedside table.
I blanch but nod.
It’s awkward, trying to help her. She pulls the sheet away and lifts her bottom for me to shove the pan under. I don’t know if I’ve done it right, but she’s releasing anyway and I can hear urine hitting the plastic.
She moans as she pees, and the sound settles over me like a shiver.
The days come and go after that. I walk the corridors, memorizing the layout of the hospital. I’m good at this. I’ve been visiting hospitals since I was fourteen. There’s a cold, dead garden that I stand in for long minutes, blowing plumes of cigarette smoke up into the air, stubbing the toe of my boot against a concrete planter.
I sit in her room for hours at a time, leaning back in my chair, careful not to disturb the colostomy bag. There is a tennis match on the television. My mother watches with limp concentration, her mouth open, her lips dry and cracked. She used to be fanatical about tennis. Every summer her arms grew stronger and more bronzed by the month. At night she would complain about her backhand, going over the details of the day’s match at the country club.
My aunt Pam comes into the room suddenly, breaking my reverie. She is my mother’s younger sister. Their relationship has always been a complicated one, fueled by competition, but for now they seem to have put that aside.
My mother smiles weakly at her.
Sally, Pam says with a bright smile. She treats my mother as though nothing has changed, and I am both jealous and resentful of this ability.
Oh, you’re so dry, honey, she says. Let’s get you all fixed up.
Pam grabs a little tube of Vaseline and rubs a smear of it across my mother’s cracked lips. My mother presses her lips together, musters another smile.
Let’s see these feet, Pam says, pulling back the sheet. Oh, I bet we can do better with these too.
She grabs a bottle of lotion and begins to gently rub my mother’s feet. My mother closes her eyes.
I watch all of this silently from my chair. I wish I could do these things for her. But I can’t. The truth is that my mother’s body disgusts me. The truth is that I am terrified of it.
I can’t shake the idea that she is rotting from the inside out, like a piece of fruit, bruised and swollen in places. I am afraid to touch her. I miss her beauty, miss her tanned, fit form. I am sick of the sutures and the colostomy bag. I don’t like her cracked lips or her scaly feet. This creature is not my mother.
Later a nurse comes to bathe her. She helps my mother out of bed, spreads a towel over the floor for my mother to stand upon. The nurse unties my mother’s hospital gown, tosses it into a corner.
My mother is naked, her form hunched over, her skin loose. I can see the bones in her spine, bumping down her back. The nurse runs a sponge over them. In my chair I pull my knees even tighter to my chest.
The nurse hands my mother a warm, wet washcloth, and my mother puts it between her legs. She looks over at me.
This is where we live, Claire.
I don’t know what she means. I become perfectly still, trying to will this moment from happening.
I want to go home, but I don’t know where that is anymore.
I want my mother back, but I know that she is already gone.
I don’t want to remember any of this, but I know that I will.
The next day my father and I join a few other families, in a windowless conference room off the cancer ward, for Thanksgiving dinner. I pick at the turkey on my paper plate as I listen to the other families talk about how grateful they are that their loved one is still alive.
I’m grateful for the doctors here, one of them says.
I’m grateful my father has lived two years past his diagnosis, another says.
Everyone is nodding at one another, tears brimming in their eyes.
Someone suggests we all hold hands and say a prayer.
Fuck this, I think.
I want to scream. I’m not grateful for any of it. Not for this pity dinner, not for my mother’s colostomy bag or her extended prognosis. Not for Pam’s sympathetic looks or my father’s hand on my shoulder. Fuck it all.
I push away from the table abruptly and slam out of the room. I picture everyone around the table exchanging knowing glances. She’s a teenager, I imagine them saying.
Fuck them all.
I suddenly hate everything: myself, my father, the doctors, this hospital, and all those families sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. I dig my fingernails into my palms until there are bright red little half-moons left there.
I find a pay phone in an empty hallway and I dial the number to Michel’s apartment.
He picks up on the second ring.
Hi, I say.
Hi, he says.
He sounds relieved, excited to hear from me.
This is hard, I say.
I know, he says.
We are silent for a while then. All I can think about is what it would be like to kiss him.
I’ll see you in a few days, he says.
I hang up the phone and stand there for a while with my hand still on the warm receiver. I imagine Michel doing the same.
When I resurface later, Pam is swift to remind me that I should be grateful that we had Thanksgiving at all. I hate her.
Later I try to tell my mother about it. I’ve always been able to tell her everything, even terrible things, like when I was sixteen and thought I might be pregnant. I remind her now of the Thanksgivings we’ve had at home, of the funny feasts she prepared.
Do you remember the year you stuck Fourth of July sparklers in the turkey?
She stares back at me. Her face is blank and then breaks into the slightest curve of a smile.
I want things to go back to the way they used to be, I say.
The smile disappears. Her eyes fill with tears.
I bite my lip, look out the window. I am so angry. I hate her too.
I am relieved when Sunday comes; my father’s figure receding behind security at the airport feels like freedom.
I call Michel that first night back, but he doesn’t answer. I look for him the next day in the dining hall too, but he is nowhere to be seen.
He answers the phone the second night. I can hear music in the background, someone laughing.
Hello, he says.
Hi, I say. It’s me.
Oh, hey. His tone is different. More casual, distant.
I’m back, I say.
I wait for him to ask about my mom, but he doesn’t. A beat passes and neither of us says anything.
Well, I say finally, you sound kind of busy.
Yeah, he says. Sorry. We’ll talk soon.
I hang up the phone, feeling confused. Back in my room, I lie across the bed. I’ve never felt as lonely as I do right now.
I see Michel the next day in the dining hall. He is sitting with a girl named Kate. She is rich and from Manhattan. She has one of those pert noses that I’ve always envied. I can tell just by looking at them that they have slept together. In an instant shame seeps into me.
Right now I am simply confused and deeply hurt. It won’t be until later that I will be able to recognize what it was like for Michel to walk into my world the way he did. Only then will I understand that my grief was too much for him. Right now the only thing I can think is how incredibly alone I am in all of this.
Michel comes to my room one afternoon, a week later, and asks me to return a short story he had written and given to me. In the story a man and a woman hike to opposite precipices of the same mountain. Taking turns, they each photograph the other.
I give it back to him. Almost immediately I wish I hadn’t.
For a while, nothing changes with my mother. My father calls almost every day. He tells me what they watched on TV, if the doctors have anything new to report, that my mother says she misses me. I wonder if she really said that or if my father is making it up. He tells me that I will spend my Christmas break, a whole month, in DC.
I start hanging out with this girl named Katie. She has stars tattooed on the soles of her feet. So that she’s always walking on stars, she says. She has a shock of thick, dyed, black hair that is startling against her pale skin, and because she’s an RA, she has her own room. I start going there most nights after my dishwashing is done. We smoke cigarettes, listen to music.
Katie is friends with Christopher, the boy I’ve had a crush on since the first week of school, the one I pointed out to my mother over parents’ weekend. He comes by most nights too, and the three of us sit there. I try not to look at him too often.
Christopher is the improbable choice. He is the boy all the girls follow with their eyes as he moves through the dining hall. He is handsome and, unlike Michel, he knows it. He is tall, with a mess of blond hair, bright eyes, quick fingers. He is a jazz musician. I like the way his pants hang from his hips.
Christopher’s girlfriend has left campus for the rest of the semester, gone to Spain or South America or something, and suddenly he is everywhere: sprawled across a couch in Howland common room, cross-legged on rich Dave’s bed and keeping time to Charlie Parker, leaning against a wall outside the post office when I go to check my mail.
It’s impossible: me and him. I know this, but still I can’t stay away. Our paths keep crossing. Sometimes I think it’s just because of his friendships with Dave, who lives in my dorm, and Katie, but maybe it is more than that. Whatever it is, Christopher starts appearing at my door in the evenings. A bottle of whiskey hanging from his hand, a pack of cigarettes in his shirtsleeve.
I let him in and he takes a seat in the corner of the room. We don’t talk much. We listen to music. We smoke cigarettes. Sometimes we go outside, stand in the snow, and look up at the night sky, at the stars there, their singular brightness seeming just as improbable as any of it: me and him, my mother’s death, the future beyond them.
We don’t talk about my mother at all, even though I’m pretty sure he knows. We don’t touch either, even though I can’t think of anything I want more. I don’t even know why I want him so badly. Because I’m lonely? Because my mother is dying and touching boys feels like the opposite of that?
I don’t know why Christopher keeps coming back to my room, but I don’t dare ask him. Instead I just open the door and let him in, night after night. On one of those nights, after he is gone and I am alone again in the old armchair in the corner, I practice saying it aloud.
My mother is dead.
She is not dead yet. She is in her hospital bed in DC, but I want to know how it will feel to say it.
My mother is dead.
I say it several times.
My mother is dead.
My mother is dead.
The words become living things. They scuffle at the corners of the room, and I wrap my arms tight around me, trying to keep still so they will not notice me.
Christmas break finally comes and with it a flurry of papers handed in, bags packed, and dorm rooms glanced over one last time before slamming the door, running out into the cold to catch a bus to a flight to a place I don’t want to go.
DC is the same. My mother is the same: Gray. Slack. Tired. Not my mother.
She is out of the hospital now, and in a hospital bed in the study of my half sister’s house, just outside DC. My father has three children from his first marriage, and one of them, Candace, lives with her husband and son in a suburb in Virginia.
My father and I sleep upstairs in guest rooms, and my mother occupies the downstairs, with nurses and hospital equipment, gently dripping IVs, and pink plastic bedpans.
I smoke cigarettes in my nephew Brian’s room. He is only a few years younger than me, and we stay up late playing video games and drinking red wine that we have snuck from the kitchen after dinner.
On the first day I try to talk to my mom again, but it’s like she isn’t there, like she has already checked out of the world. I tell her about school and my last papers, about Christopher and the snow that finally blanketed the mountain. All these things she once would have cared about, but her gaze focuses in and out and she doesn’t respond, other than to nod.
I sit upstairs in my room after that, sobbing into a pillow so that no one will hear me.
My father takes me for a drive a few days later.
Claire, he says, you know that the situation isn’t good.
I stare out the window. My father is seventy-five years old. For most of my life people have thought he was my grandfather.
She’s dying, he says. His voice is gentle.
I don’t say anything. I want out of the car, out of this moment, away from all of this.
But there is nowhere to go.
After we get back to the house I stand in the doorway of the study, watching my mother sleep, missing her.
My father asks me to be on call that night and he gives me a baby monitor. He says he is tired, that he needs a break, but really I think he just wants me to spend more time with her.
She wakes up at least once a night, he says. All you have to do is sit next to her, comfort her until she goes back to sleep. She’s just scared, he says.
That night, while we’re playing video games and drinking wine, I swallow a little white pill that I’ve been carrying around in my pocket all day.
What’s that? Brian asks.
Kind of like a quaalude, I answer.
Where’d you get it?
My dad, I say, washing the pill back with a swig of wine.
Brian shrugs and then unpauses the game we are playing. The tinkling sound of scoring resumes. I’ve already forgotten that it is my night to get up with my mom.
Hours later I stumble to bed in the guest room. My father has set up the baby monitor by my bedside and the little green light glows in the dark. It’s the last thing I see before my eyes close.
I don’t know what time it is, maybe three or four in the morning, when I open them again. I can hear my mother crying softly. I don’t know how long she’s been crying, but her soft mewling lights up the monitor with each intonation. My limbs feel like sandbags. I am warm and loose and so, so heavy. I push my way out from underneath the covers and make my way downstairs.
There is a tiny light on in the corner of my mother’s room, and I stand for a moment looking at her. She is curled onto one side, her arms wrapped around her abdomen. She looks so small underneath the sheets.
I step forward finally and ease myself down onto the side of her bed. She doesn’t seem to notice that I am there.
She continues to cry. I reach out and begin to stroke her hair. The quaalude has left me feeling open and loose. I am not afraid of her.
Mom, I say again. It’s okay. It’s okay.
I murmur these words to her as I stroke her hair, smooth my hand in circles over her back.
It’s okay. It’s okay.
Her crying fades to a gentle whimper.
It’s okay. It’s okay.
My eyes are closed now too, and I lay my head down against her shoulder.
Mom, I miss you.
She is quiet now, her form gently rising and falling with each breath.
The memory of this moment will become the sole thing that prevents me from completely evaporating with guilt in the years to come.
Mom, Mom, Mom, I say quietly. The word like some kind of prayer.
We stay there for a long time like that, and when I wake up the next morning in my bed upstairs it will be hours before I remember any of it.
Over Christmas break Christopher decides not to return to school. He tells me this over the phone. He is going to work for his uncle in New Jersey for a while, painting houses, saving money. Then he plans to move to San Francisco.
Don’t you want to finish college? When he doesn’t reply I immediately feel stupid for having asked. Naive and girlish.
The last time I see my mother is the day I drive back to school. She is in the passenger seat of my father’s car. He has dragged her out of the hospital bed, wants to take her for a drive, to remind her of the world outside. He has wrapped her in blankets, and her skin is the same gray as the seats of the car.
I lean in through the open door, try to put my arms around her, but it’s awkward and I just kind of press myself against her.
Her voice is hoarse, her hands claw at me just a little. I love you so much, honey.
I do not know that this is the last time I will ever see her.
Months later, years later, when I think back on this moment, I’ll wish for so much more from it. In my head I’ll scoop her up from the car seat like an infant. I’ll hold her against me, burying my head into her. Mom, Mom, Mom. Years later I’ll cry hard and loud, wishing I had done exactly this.
But instead I just give her that awkward hug and then I climb into my car. I let out a breath, light a cigarette, and put both hands on the wheel. I had insisted on leaving, on returning to school, but now that I’m actually doing it I feel uneasy.
It’s a seven-hour drive back to Marlboro and already late afternoon when I leave. As I drive the last hundred miles through Massachusetts and into Vermont, a snowstorm sets in. I can hardly see the road, the world outside a blurry white eclipse. I drive thirty miles an hour, smoke cigarette after cigarette. I listen to the same songs on repeat.
I am frightened as I drive through the storm. It’s not the snow or the road that I’m afraid of but the fact that I’m doing this alone. Just four months ago my parents were driving me to college, our cars laden down with flannel sheets and lamps that would clip to the headboard of my bunk bed.
On that three-day drive from Atlanta to Vermont my mother rode in my car with me, my father alone in the Acura, leading the way along the highway. On the last night of the trip I broke down crying at a restaurant in Massachusetts. My mother sat outside on the steps with me, rubbing my back.
Why did I pick a school so far away? I mumble through my sobs.
My mother smiles, leans into me. She wasn’t sick again yet.
Because you’re brave, she says. And ambitious and hungry for the world.
Tears ran down my cheeks, and I wanted to go home. I wanted to go back to Atlanta and to my bedroom in the basement. Back to curfews and dinner times, back to being a kid.
My mother rubbed my back, and we sat there until I stopped crying.
I think about this now as I drive through the snow, through Massachusetts in the middle of the night, my mother asleep in her hospital bed in DC.
As I finally make my way to campus it is a dark, dead place, and I instantly want to take everything back. I want to go home. I want my mother.
Two weeks go by. I trudge back and forth to my classes. Christine is gone all the time, busy with a new playwright boyfriend. Christopher is in New Jersey. Michel is nowhere to be seen, having holed up after his brief relationship with Kate fizzled out.
One afternoon toward the end of January, my father calls. I am sick of these calls. I hate the student who finds me, holding out a little Post-it note: Your dad called. I hate the little phone booth under the stairs in Howland where I go to return his calls.
Your mother is unconscious, he says.
I pick at the flyer on the wall. Rip another corner off and turn the bit of paper over in my fingers.
The doctors say she won’t last more than a few more days.
I open my fingers, watch the piece of paper drift to the floor.
We talked about it, your mother and me. We decided that you should stay at school.
He takes a breath. He is waiting for me to say something.
I can’t think of anything to say.
But look, kiddo, you’re an adult now. You’re eighteen. It’s up to you.
I breathe through my mouth.
I’m coming, I say, and I hang up the phone.
It’s already afternoon, but I figure I can be in DC by midnight. In my room I throw a few things in a bag: a book I’m reading, a pack of cigarettes, the shirt my mother bought me during parents’ weekend. I leave a note for Christine.
It’s one of those cold, overcast days where everything looks silvery and bright, just before it snows. I take my foot off the accelerator and let the car gather momentum as I wind down the mountain. I wonder how long it will be before I have to brake.
My mother is dying.
My mother is dying.
I say it louder.
MY MOTHER IS DYING.
The words mean nothing. I take a drag on my cigarette and steer the coasting car around a curve.
My mother is DYING.
Before long I’m crossing the border into Massachusetts, the road has leveled off. I think about how happy my father said my mother was when she returned home from parents’ weekend. He said she was glowing, that she couldn’t stop gushing about my life at school. I look at the little clock, calculate the hours, light another cigarette.
By 6:00 p.m. my body has adjusted to the constant hum of the engine. I’ve only stopped once, for gas and to pee. I’ve smoked too many cigarettes. My heart is pounding. I’ve made it through the endlessly boring stretch of Connecticut, but I’ve still got New York, New Jersey, and Maryland to go.
I cross the George Washington Bridge and watch Manhattan fade into the background. I think about my mother living there for all those years. I remind myself that she is dying.
Claire, your mother is dying.
Nothing. I feel nothing.
I make my way onto the New Jersey turnpike and press my foot even harder against the accelerator. The light is ebbing from the sky and my chest feels tight. Maybe I’ll get pulled over.
Do you know how fast you were going, young lady?
I do officer, but my mother is dying.
Go, go, he’ll say, his eyes welling with sympathy and awe for this brave, young girl who is alone out in the world, her mother dying.
But I don’t get pulled over. I just keep driving, the needle on the speedometer bobbing steadily at ninety-five miles per hour. My heart is pounding and I can’t tell if the vibrating in my chest is from the engine or my own breathlessness. I’ve smoked too many cigarettes. Pound, pound, skip. I’m having heart palpitations. Pound, pound, skip. I squeeze my eyes tight for a moment, take deep breaths. Pound, pound, skip.
I start seeing signs for the town where Christopher is living. I want to stop. It’s all I can think about.
After the third sign I let the car coast off the highway, down an exit ramp. I park at a gas station and stand in front of a pay phone.
I stand there for a long time, just breathing and watching the light fade from the sky. It’s cold and my breath comes in plumes. Finally I pick up the phone and dial the numbers. Christopher’s aunt answers.
Is Christopher there? My voice is whispery.
There is a long pause while I wait for him to come to the phone. I think about hanging up, about getting back in the car, about continuing on. But then he picks up. I tell him where I am, what I’m doing. He gives me the name of a coffee shop nearby, says he’ll be there in ten minutes.
I’m shaking as I dial the next number, the one that will connect me to my father.
Dad? I’m in New Jersey.
I tell him I’m stopping for coffee with a friend, that I need a break.
I can’t breathe, I say. But I’m only about three hours away. I’ll be there soon.
My father tells me to take my time. He says that everything will be fine. He is at the hospital with my mom. She is still unconscious. He wants me to breathe. He wants me to rest. He wants me to be safe.
Can you stay the night, he asks?
You can see your mother in the morning, he says.
These are all the things I’m hoping he’ll say.
Guilt reaches its fingers through my rib cage, massages my heart. Pound, pound, skip.
I stay in the coffee shop parking lot and lean against the hood of the car as I wait for Christopher. It’s cold and I’m shivering.
I watch him pull up and park. I haven’t seen him in a month, and he stands in front of me for a beat. Inside we sit across from each other in a booth, order cups of coffee. We don’t talk about my mom at all.
I don’t know what it is about Christopher. I am powerless around him. I feel like I’m constantly on the verge of scaring him off. I stay still, make no sudden movements; I am careful with my sentences. I am always amazed that he is still sitting there.
I like his hands, his mouth, the way his eyelashes curl up slightly, making his eyes that much brighter. He runs his fingers through his hair, shakes his head at me.
Clar, he calls me. It’s at once diminutive and affectionate.
We talk about Marlboro and about his job painting houses with his uncle. I like the way he holds his cigarette, clipped between his thumb and forefinger. His eyes are steady on me as I talk. For whole moments, everything feels normal. I keep very still.
Our cups have been refilled twice and are empty now.
And then he says it: You can stay at my uncle’s tonight if you want.
This is the moment that I will come back to for years to come. Over and over, this moment. Me and Christopher in a coffee shop in New Jersey. Late January. Cold night. Three hours from DC.
This moment. It will play over and over and over, rendering me more powerless than Christopher ever did. My insides will tumble out onto the floor around me, a slick, hot mess of hate and regret, this very moment, me and Christopher in a coffee shop in New Jersey, the epicenter of it all.
I’ll heave into myself, pulling at my skin, wishing over and over that I had shaken my head, that I’d said, Thank you, but no. That I had just walked away from this stupid boy who didn’t give a shit about me. I will offer up anything—limbs, friends, jobs, even my father—for the chance to do it over again, to be able to get in my car and go to her.
But instead I nod yes at Christopher and follow him home to his uncle’s house.
In his uncle’s kitchen, Christopher takes two glasses out of the cupboard, pours them tall with vodka. He unscrews the cap from a bottle of orange juice, pours a tiny bit into each glass.
For color, he says with a smirk.
We sit down at the kitchen table. I take my glass, drink my vodka, keep still.
It’s late when we stumble upstairs. I am drunk. The stairs creak under our feet. At the top we lean against the banister. I am swaying lightly.
G’night, Clar, he says.
He goes to a room on the left. I go to a room on the right.
Years later when I lie in bed at night, helpless against these memories, I’ll want to scream and thrash out at myself, standing there at the top of those stairs.
Don’t go in that room, I scream at her in my head. Stop, I scream.
But she doesn’t stop. I don’t stop.
Instead I walk into that room, some plain guest room in an unfamiliar house in New Jersey, and I strip down to my underwear and a T-shirt. I crawl beneath the sheets and I close my eyes to the blackness, to the room spinning around me.
Hours later, when I wake up, the room is dark, but a swath of yellow light has cut its way across the floor.
Christopher’s uncle is standing in the doorway, the light from the hallway glowing behind him.