I was lying in bed on a Saturday morning when my bedroom door opened, and a burly guy stood there staring at me.
“Ignore that room. Everything else goes,” I heard my mother say from somewhere in the apartment. It was April, 1972, my junior year of high school.
The guy took a quick look around at the cluttered mess—clothes, books and records strewn about the floor, my dresser top cluttered with knickknacks—Lake Michigan stones, driftwood, candles and crystals. He blinked, and without saying a word, closed the door. I threw off the covers, reached for my jeans and t-shirt lying in a heap, pulled them on while stepping over my unfinished social studies homework and stepped into the hallway. Two guys were muscling Mom’s mattress out of our apartment onto the third-floor landing. Two other guys looked past me into my room, questions on their faces. Our gray tabby cat, T.S. Elliott, took one step outside my bedroom, saw all the commotion, and scurried back to hide amongst my pillows.
I padded down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. Mom was taping up a cardboard box, her gray-blond hair curling just below her ears. My mother has always been an attractive woman. She struck an appealing figure on stage when she sang musicals in Baltimore’s professional theaters. But that was years ago. We were living in Illinois now. My parents’ marriage had dissolved shortly after we moved in 1968. My older brother and sister and I were surprised they had managed to eke out twenty-one years together. When they sold the house, my father moved to New York and Mom got an apartment in Evanston. David and Tiggy went their separate ways.
On this day, Mom was wearing dark brown corduroys and a brown felt jacket. She always dressed in monochrome or two tones, but never more colors than that, and lots of jewelry, big chunky necklaces and costume gold earrings. Even on moving day. I looked through the nearly empty kitchen cupboards. She’d left me two of everything—two plates, two bowls, two glasses, two mugs.
“I’ll leave you these two pots, will that be enough? And this cast-iron skillet,” Mom said.
Someone knocked at the back door. Our back door neighbor, Rick Alito, pants buckled high over his
potbelly, stood on the shared balcony between our two apartments. I liked Rick, a middle-aged divorcé who spoke Russian and had no kids. But since he had been appointed my unofficial guardian, I didn’t want to see him. Mom said it was necessary just until I turned eighteen later that summer. Because I was still a minor, the school principal wouldn’t let me attend classes unless I had a guardian. It wasn’t a legal arrangement, though I don’t think we told the school that. Rick wouldn’t watch over me, and I didn’t have to move in with him, thank God. It was just a formality to make the school happy. But it still kind of ruined our friendship. He didn’t want to be responsible for me any more than I wanted him to be. I think he agreed to the arrangement because he took pity on me. He’d encouraged my flute playing. “I heard you practicing all afternoon,” he said one evening when Mom had invited him over for cocktails. “She’s got talent, Penny.” That year I had worked my way from the last chair in the worst band and was currently working my way up to first chair in the honors band and was close to reaching my goal.
While Mom and Rick chatted at the back door, I retreated to my room with a bowl of granola, slipped the well-worn disk of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 out of its jacket, and put it on the expensive new turntable Mom had just bought. I was surprised she had offered to let me keep it, and figured it was her guilt gift, which I gladly accepted. The somber low strings of the opening movement suited my mood. The album was Hugo’s copy. He was the man I had loved since I was fourteen and had recently broken up with. Bits and pieces of him were scattered about my bedroom, objects I was not willing to part with—record albums, expensive coffee table books, a turtleneck of his I had swiped. I sat on my bed and sketched in my large sketch pad, keeping my mind off what was coming. As the symphony’s final fourth movement came to an end with the Russian Revolution victory bell clanging its alarm of defiance, Mom opened my door.
“It’s time,” she said.
I lifted Elliott from my lap, kissed the top of his head and placed him in the nest of dirty sheets. I hadn’t noticed how quiet it had become. Outside my sanctuary, the apartment had become an empty no-man’s land. Mom’s heels clicked across the floors and echoed against bare walls. Gone were the Oriental carpets, the original framed artwork, the rows of books, all the family furniture I had grown up with. She stood with her hand on the doorknob.
“That was quick,” I said, looking nervously around, trying not to show my alarm. I didn’t want her to feel terrible about leaving me. I was always protecting us both from our feelings, pretending I was okay, that I could manage on my own, that I was strong and capable, that I didn’t mind. It was an instinctive reaction, a coping mechanism, a survival skill, a way of protecting me from a mother who didn’t care enough to fight. A way of believing that my mother loved me, and that I loved her. I still believe in that fantasy. I don’t want to believe otherwise. Only sometimes, when I’m caught off guard, she can still hurt me. Like when my sister, her caretaker, tells me how Mom responded with a snide remark to my latest email. I forgive Mom, believing she is caught in the snares of her own withering heart, hoping that she will have a deathbed conversion and ask for forgiveness, or that God will protect her from all her sins and not rake her over the coals in Hell.
But on this day, this moving day, though I loved her, I felt betrayed. She had gone back on her promise to stay with me until the end of my junior year and let me finish it without interruption. She couldn’t stand to be parted from her new husband, Paul, who had been transferred to his new job in Washington, D.C. Now she was moving without me to be reunited with him.
They had married that February, a big surprise to everyone, most especially me. He had moved out East right after they married. I remember being relieved that he wasn’t going to move in with us, until I realized what it meant. “Oh no,” I said, “I’m not moving.” I had registered at Evanston Township High School for my junior year and was doing well for the first time, getting As and Bs instead of practically flunking out like I had done at my old school. I now loved my classes, my teachers. I loved band. I refused to move.
I had spent the previous year traveling the country alone with my parents’ permission—bumming rides, hitchhiking, staying with friends, staying with strangers. Mom and Dad didn’t know what I had experienced, and they didn’t ask. I had returned home only after becoming sick of my directionless drifting, not because of my mother’s urging, and she did urge, constantly.
I was just as stubborn on this account. Mom finally gave in. There was no budging me. She sighed and wrung her hands. At first she said she would stay with me until the end of the school year and then we would decide what to do. She spoke to Paul on the phone every night for weeks, but by April, Mom couldn’t stand the separation any longer. I thought it was because she was afraid he’d fall out of love with her without her constant presence, or worse, that she’d fall out of love with him. We found two college graduate students to move in with me to help pay the rent. Dad would send me a monthly stipend.
“Can I help carry anything down?” I asked, as we stood at the door of the apartment.
Mom shook her head. “Everything’s in the car.”
I tried to read her face, imagining what I thought should be there—worry, guilt, fear. I saw those things but also impatience and a bright eagerness, as if she was escaping from prison and all too hungry to rejoin her husband. It had been two months since she’d seen him. Too long for an anxious newlywed.
Mom hugged me and shook me as if she was shaking a coin jar then pushed me away and turned to the door. I started to follow her. “No. Don’t come down.” She gave me a brusque kiss on the cheek. “I’ll call when I get to the motel. Take care, Bunchy Bone. Be good.” Maybe she was trying to keep herself from crying. I know I was, not that I’d miss her so much as that I wanted Mom to be a different kind of mother, one who wouldn’t let me stay behind. At the same time, I was glad she was leaving because it meant I got to stay and get my way. But it also meant I would remain who I was—a sad, sloppy kid without parents to watch over her.
The stairs creaked as she descended. With each flight, I saw less and less of her until just her hand on the banister with the large gold ring on her pinky finger was visible, and then that too disappeared. I raced to the living room window, dust coating the bottoms of my bare feet, and watched her emerge below. She unlocked her yellow Chevy Vega with the “no-count engine” as she called it, that would carry her hundreds of miles across the country.
As I looked out the window, I thought she might look up and wave, but she didn’t. I watched the street for a long time after her car disappeared, the chalky smell of dust in my nose as I gripped the window sash where a dead fly lay on its back—stiff, dry, spindle legs sticking in the air. I did not cry. I would save that for later, knowing that those empty rooms would be a dangerous place to feel everything that was inside me.
Red brown buds on the elm tree outside our window bowed and swayed. I turned and faced the bare walls. “Ba!” I barked. The sharp tang of that echo reverberated in my bones, pounded against my skull.
“Ba! Ba! Ba!” Like gun cracks.
I walked into Mom’s empty bedroom, devoid of all notion of her. I checked the attached bathroom. That felt more familiar. How much could a bathroom change? She’d left behind the clear plastic shower curtain with the large, black polka dots. But the medicine cabinet was empty; her plastic clam shell soap dish was gone from the sink. I shuffled down the hall. The dining room floor and walls looked scuffed without furniture. There were no curtains to hide the view of the brick wall of the building next door, like a dead end fully exposed. The cupboards were bare but for the few dishes and the staples Mom had left me – cereal, corn meal, flour, sugar, salt, a few cans of soup, tomato paste, peanut butter.
Elliott’s mewling sounded louder in the bare apartment. I fed him and went back to the safety of my room. It was like coming indoors from the cold. I left the door open a crack for Elliott, but otherwise wanted to shut out the emptiness of the apartment. He entered soon after. I shut us both in and we stayed there the rest of the day. If Mom called, I don’t remember the conversation. Probably more of the same. Accusations. Towards me for being stubborn. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just both of us saying we were alive in our respective parts of the world. The mountain of feelings and resentments untouched because neither of us were equipped to make such an expedition, nor were we wont to. We made do, loving and hating each other from a distance that was familiar—a more telling and accurate indication of our relationship.
Polly Hansen’s unpublished memoir NASTY GIRL won Memoir Magazine’s 2022 Memoir Prize for Books coming-of-age category. Her work is published or forthcoming in 45th Parallel, Quibble Journal, Metonym Journal, the Off-Campus Writers Workshop anthology, Meaningful Conflicts, and other magazines. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.