I sat on the elevated train staring down at the city below; an old patchwork quilt, each cross-stitched intersection frayed and worn through. Countless abandoned buildings covered in graffiti flashed through the window. Broken glass hung from window frames like jagged icicles, mounds of debris littered the vacant lots, and drug dealers stood on street corners, waiting to mete out their latest fix.
The recorded voice announced our stop and the train screamed to a halt. “This is our stop,” I told my younger sister Tiffany.
The train doors slid open and we trudged down the metal steps, the humidity causing our clothes to stick to us before we reached the bottommost stair.
Tiffany wrinkled her nose. The strong smell of urine had become more pungent with the heat. A hot day in the city, in the old neighborhood Tiffany and I had briefly lived in after our parent’s divorce.
I noticed Tiffany’s electric blue high-tops bounding onto the asphalt and shook my head. They clashed with the drab scenery surrounding us, standing out like a floodlight in the dark. “I can’t believe you wore those.”
Tiffany shot her tongue out at me and smudged my brand new running shoes with one of her sneakers.
I jumped aside. “Hey, watch it. Oh, come on!” The pristine, white leather had a black smudge covering the tip like an ugly bruise. I wiped at the blemish cursing, knowing it wouldn’t come off, and was immediately proven correct. I stood back up giving her a hard look.
Avoiding my eye, Tiffany smirked and looked with expectation at the crowd of bustling commuters. People hurried past us, rushing towards buses that sped away, leaving behind billowing clouds of gray smoke. Forgetting my shoes, I joined Tiffany in searching for the woman we were supposed to meet.
“She’s not here,” I said.
“We just haven’t spotted her yet,” Tiffany replied, her coffee eyes scanning every face in the place.
I shook my head. In spite of my resolve not to hope she was there, my heart drummed an anxious rhythm against my chest. Tiffany, even more wound up than me, cracked her chewing gum, sounding more like an elephant devouring peanuts than a fourteen-year old girl.
I stole the letter clenched in her hand and scanned the loopy script written there. A pang of longing I hadn’t expected to feel hit me when I saw it.
“Are you sure you’re supposed to meet her here?” My voice was rough with an emotion I didn’t want to feel.
Concerned, Tiffany shot me a look, but I ignored her, not wanting to confess my weakness, and focused on the letter. That chapter of my life and the pain that went with it was behind me, but I couldn’t help feeling a powerful, residual ache at the memories that were resurfacing.
Reading the letter, a mixture of anger and pity for Tiffany bubbled up inside me. Anger that she had allowed this drama back into our lives again, and pity that she still needed a connection to the person responsible for so many of our hardships.
“Yes, Zak, for the hundreth time, I’m sure,” she replied, snatching back the letter with a cold stare and a scowl.
She flipped open a compact mirror and admired the blue streaks that ran through her shag hair cut like ribbons on a birthday present. She was just about to paint her lips the same shade when I ripped the stick from her hand. “Aren’t you a little young to be wearing this stuff?”
Tiffany frowned at me. “I’m a freshman now. Dad said I could wear it when I started high-school.”
“It’s only July. School hasn’t started yet,” I quipped, waving the lipstick just beyond her reach.
Instead of reaching up for it, Tiffany punched my arm. It didn’t hurt, but she looked so pathetic that I gave it back, feeling a little ashamed of myself for taunting her, then I remembered the black smudge she’d just planted on my shoe and I didn’t feel as bad.
Without applying any of the lipstick, she shoved it in her duffle bag. “What are you so grumpy for?”
I knew she was right, but I lied anyway. “I am not grumpy.” There was some truth to the statement. I wasn’t grumpy, we were grumpy.
“Could have fooled me.”
Ever since our estranged mother’s letter had arrived last week I had been on edge, barking at people louder than the dog. It had been ten years since we had seen the woman who had birthed us into the world.
During that time, Dad had remarried a woman named Denise. She made him happy, she made us all happy, giving us what we needed needed — selfless love and understanding.
Though Tiffany was reluctant to agree with me, I felt that Denise was our real mom. She was the one who went to all of my soccer games and Tiffany’s swimming competitions.
She was also the one who had stood vigil at my hospital bed when my appendix had ruptured, gave me spontaneous tips about what girls like, and why it was so hard for me to understand them sometimes.
When the letter had first arrived, I had felt dregs of emotion stirring in me, my rebellious heart starting to get excited that she had finally reached out to us after all these years. Quick witted logic had shot through my sudden, irrational reaction, forcing me to remember when she had left Tiffany and I at the DHS office and walking away like she didn’t know us.
I can still feel the disbelief and confusion as she hurried through the glass doors, ignoring my screams that she take us with her. It had taken Dad weeks to find us and get us back home with him.
Another fruitless glance and I snapped at Tiffany. “I told you this was a bad idea.” I swallowed the lump in my throat, my insides coiling like barbed wire.
Red-faced, Tiffany retorted, “I didn’t ask you to come.”
“Oh yeah, like I was really going to let you come down here by yourself. You’re lucky I didn’t tell Dad and Denise what you were up to.”
I had sworn that if she ever came back, I would never see my mother again, but I had insisted on escorting Tiffany to the bus station. I didn’t want her coming to this place alone.
Loathe to admit my hypocritical nature, I also ached to see my mother’s face again, to feel her embrace me, and to hear her voice saying my name. I wanted to show her how much I’d grown and make her regret ever leaving. So like an idiot, I led Tiffany to the appointed meeting place, sat down on a bench beside her, and waited.
The time passed slowly, seconds melted into minutes, until finally an hour had gone by. While Tiffany dug around in her duffle bag, I couldn’t help staring at a piece of chewing gum on the ground. All I kept thinking was, if someone steps on that it’s going to stick to the bottom of their shoe, just like we’re stuck here waiting for a woman who’s not coming.
“That’s it,” I snarled, inwardly reaffirming my vow to never let my mother do this to me or Tiffany again. “We’re leaving.”
Tiffany paused and looked up from her bag, unfathomable sadness on her face. “Let’s give her a couple more minutes,” she pleaded, “She may have gotten lost.”
I could tell by the look of defeat in her eyes, that Tiffany knew it was pointless to wait, but the desperation in her voice held me fast. I nodded. “Two more minutes and then we’re out of here.”
“Okay,” Tiffany whispered, eyeing the crowd. A second later, Tiffany was on her feet, her face beaming as she shouted, “Mom!”
My traitor stomach leapt as I saw the profile of the woman Tiffany had spotted, a pretty face with a pointed nose and waves of long, brown hair framing the sides. I couldn’t believe it, was that really her? The woman heard Tiffany’s cry and turned reflexively toward us. I got a good look at her and my heart sank, it wasn’t our mother. The woman gave us a quick smile, then looked away, and jogged toward her bus.
I turned to Tiffany. Silent tears slid down her cheeks. I wrapped her up in a tight hug. “Come on. Let’s call Denise to pick us up. She may be a nag sometimes, but she’s always there when we need her.”
Tiffany gave a small nod and leaned into me as we walked. I called Denise and told her where we were. She didn’t ask any questions or scold me for taking Tiffany into such a rough neighborhood. I think she knew from my voice that I was upset and not able to talk.
As Tiffany and I slowly made our way through the station toward the terminal building, Denise’s face drifted through the crowd of people, a sad smile tugging at her lips.
“Mom,” Tiffany cried running to Denise and embracing her.
“I’m so sorry she didn’t come.”
Tiffany pulled back, shocked. “How did you know?”
Denise gave her a moms-always-know look. “I saw the letter on the kitchen table yesterday.”
“Oh,” Tiffany said, sheepishly, “I don’t remember leaving it there. Sorry we didn’t tell you.”
“No more secrets,” Denise said with a knowing glance at me.
I acknowledged my tip off with a small smirk. Hoping my parents would see the letter, I had placed it on the table before I’d gone to bed the night before, and slipped it back into Tiffany’s bag before she’d woken up. After all the separation anxiety Tiffany had suffered from our mother abandoning us, I thought Dad and Denise should know what was going on.
“No more secrets,” Tiffany agreed.
We strolled toward our minivan with the large stickers on the front bumper reading, Soccer Mom and Swimming Coach. I let Tiffany ride shotgun and climbed into the back, stretching out across the seat.
I couldn’t help thinking about my mother. I hated her for forgetting Tiffany and me again. But, at least this time I was better prepared for the outcome and able to help Tiffany deal with the disappointment. It also made me realize that although I couldn’t control what my other had done to me, I could control how I handled it.
While Tiffany and Denise chatted about their upcoming ‘girl’s day’, I began to doze off, the last bits of anger and resentment melting away, when I suddenly remembered that it was Saturday–our ice-cream parlor day. Corny, but it had become a tradition in our family and who doesn’t like chocolate fudge sundaes?
Denise remembered, too because she caught my eye in the rear view mirror and said, “Who wants ice-cream?”
Tiffany turned around in her seat and looked at me. “I do,” we chimed in unison.
If anything, this experience with my mother has taught me one thing: Life is like a bus ride.
Some passengers were like my mother and wanted a one way ticket, an easy way out of a situation that they couldn’t handle. Others preferred a round trip, an opportunity to separate themselves from a difficult situation for a bit and then return to deal with it.
As for me, well I hate riding the bus, but it might be fun to drive it.