I was wearing a ribbed white tee shirt with a wide scoop neck and faded khaki pants with a black leather belt. I was a sophomore in college and I felt well-dressed, cute, accomplished.
Mom was coming from our home in Iowa City to take me out to lunch. She knew how insecure I was, how I tried to hide my fragility. Whenever friends had turned on me or boyfriends dumped me, I’d sat on her bed and cried while she held me and explained how co-dependent I was. Across the room, her Al-Anon book sat on her desk atop a clear plastic sheet that covered the surface to keep dust from settling in. Mom was asthmatic, always sick with bronchitis. That was why she never became a sculptor—all that plaster dust in the studios. Mom was depressed, always trying new medications. That was why she never became a professor—all that failed treatment. She never became a secretary because she was too educated for work like that; never became solvent because she was too indebted to the lawyer from the custody hearing she had finally won; never prevented me from running away; never kept my brother from hating me; never led a successful family meeting because we yelled Fuck you at each other until Mom cried because she couldn’t forgive herself for ever leaving us with my drunk father. Which she did. When I was 7.
“I’m sorry,” she would say, her hands over her face, the legal pad with a list of all we had to talk about abandoned in her lap. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
After she had driven away, I sat at the foot of our back porch stairs and noticed the slits in the chipped paint, the sandy texture of the concrete slab.
But now I lived 2 hours away from her, on the campus of a liberal arts school in a post-industrial town in western Illinois. I was doing just fine. And Mom was driving over to take me out to lunch.
She waited for me at a tiny table for 2 in the center of the dining room. Her glasses were round, the frames clear.
I sat down. She respected my refusal to accept a hug.
“How are classes?” She grinned. Whenever she saw me, she was always glad.
It was Sunday, post-church. A spring day in April. Children had combed hair and flowered dresses. I was hung over, squinting at the daylight through the front picture window. Nausea was unrelenting.
“The spinach bisque is really good,” I said.
“It sounds delicious.” She ordered a cup. I ordered a bowl.
“Are you reading Whitman?”
“Leaves of Grass.”
“Now we’re reading Walden.”
“Wonderful! That is absolutely critical for understanding America.”
The waiter brought the bisque. I broke packet after packet of Club crackers into it and finished the whole bowl. My stomach lurched but in a pleasant way.
“Are you dating?”
“I have lovers,” I said. The night before I had fucked a friend in his loft bed while his roommate was passed out on the floor. The night before that I had fucked someone else, someplace else.
“My favorite,” I said, “is a swimmer.”
“I see.” She sipped her water.
The waiter brought the rest of our food. I picked my sandwich. Mom did not start on her garden salad. After leaving our family, she’d read Diet for a Small Planet and become a vegetarian.
She stared at me. The café was loud.
“How much are you drinking?”
“Not that much.”
“I can smell it.”
“You can not.”
“I smelled it when you first sat down.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“I’m not fucked up anymore.”
“It’s leftover from last night. I was up late with friends. I’m leaving, okay? I have to study anyway.” I left my sandwich and all those potato chips piled beside it, the mustard-mayonnaise spread untouched in its paper soufflé cup.
I carried myself through the people waiting in the entryway and did not look back. I squinted in the full daylight and wished I had sunglasses. I rounded a corner and touched the back wall of a retail store, let my fingers pass over the smooth painted brick. I pictured my mother at the table we had shared, felt her concern grow further and further away until it disappeared.
Anna Moore is a writer from Chico, California. She has been published by Black Warrior Review, Native Peoples Magazine, The American Scholar and many other journals.