Long Way Home
Pamela M. Patton
I am standing alone, in the dark hallway to my bedroom, crying. I must be about three or four and I can hear my parents' voices from the den—loud and angry. The door to the hall is closed, the lights are out, and I can't see a step in front of me or a step behind; I can't see the knob to turn, or my bed back in the blackness behind me.
I don't know if I doze, standing, or wait, weeping for a half hour, forty-five minutes or an hour, but I do remember my father appearing as a shadow against a painful explosion of incandescent light and the sudden gathering as he takes me into his arms, back to my room, into my bed, where I curl, reassured, into his warm breathing until morning.
The summer after seventh grade; I've just had braces cemented onto my gappy smile. I give up caramels and popcorn for Jell-O and milkshakes. I chew the greasy ribbons of wax the orthodontist gives me, as the wrenching taste of metal coats my mouth.
My friends pinch their thighs and complain about fat, press their notebooks up against their chests to hide the swelling there. But I have nothing to conceal. My elbows and knees are sharp and angry, my chest smooth as a plank.
My father and I drive up to the mountains one cool July morning. It is in the deepest green of summer; the flowers have ceased blooming—all except for the orange day-lilies that rise like lit matches along the roadway.
We park on the gravel shoulder and make our way over the short trail, crisping over twigs, climbing over rocks. Dad takes my elbow; I lean on him as I would a walking-stick, to keep me straight and steady. Our long, lanky strides, perfectly matched, carry us well as we make our way together to the lookout.
We soon reach our destination—a broad slab of rock about the width of a dining-room table. Without speaking, we sit. It is our practice to come here, let our feet hang off the edge of the cliff, survey the valley that spreads outward and below us to the horizon. With binoculars, we can see our house.
Mom's there, in her study, probably, doing the audit she's brought home from the office. She's usually got the door closed—she needs quiet, to concentrate.
Mom is a strongly-built woman with only one ovary who says she was never meant to be a mother. When my Dad suggested, after five years of marriage, that they try to have a child, she gave him one year. She was sure she'd fail, and that he'd resign himself in time to couplehood, to self-indulgent, lazy mornings, going to the movies every night—in short, the way she had planned to spend the rest of her days.
But after eight months of trying, they succeeded. My mother was in a state of denial throughout the pregnancy. She refused to buy a layette. She didn't want to think about breast-feeding or bottles or cotton or disposable diapers. She bought only a few maternity dresses, and then did so only after the faux pearl button on the waistband of her favorite Pendleton skirt popped off and was lost.
She has told me all of this.
When my coming became as obvious as an express train, she asked to be put under; she wanted none of the huffing and puffing, the pushing and pain. She awoke in her private room, with solicitous nurses, breakfast in bed and a baby in the nursery on the other end of the maternity ward.
While she was recovering, Dad bought my white wooden crib and the matching dresser with the smiling teddy bears painted in pastels on the sides. He picked out curtains and a rug and a teddy-bear border for the wall. He bought booties, a baby bathtub, a swing, diapers, baby powder, bottles, and formula.
Mom didn't really face the reality of me until we came home, two days later and she found that she had no choice but to become somewhat of a mother.
Today, on North Mountain, Dad speaks: "Casey Ann . . ." and I know this is to be something because he usually calls me "Casey" or "Case." But I look at his eyes, and he doesn't seem especially troubled. He's wearing the expression he wears when he sits on his stump at the back of our yard near the alley and smokes his pipe. That is Dad's time—fifteen minutes to a half-hour every night when, weather permitting, he sits, and smokes, and we are not to disturb him for anything.
"This is very hard for me to say," he says and as he says it, it occurs to me that I know what he is about to say because I have sensed it before only I am just now realizing it.
I know in that instant that my parents' marriage is over.
And I also know that he is going to marry Mrs. Leach.
I remember when Mr. Leach died. April Leach and I were both in the third grade, but she was in a different classroom so I didn't know her very well. About all I did know about her was that she was one of the dumb kids, while I was smart. Also, I knew that her father had died. We found it rather disturbing that a classmate's father had actually gone and died and we kind of looked at April out of the corners of our eyes until we stopped thinking about it.
April was a plump, dark-haired, dark-skinned child who early on became my tormentor. For some reason, she took joy in harassing me. She would come at me from behind and lock me in a stranglehold, and when once I bit her to get her to let go, I was the one who got called to the principal and was told, "Animals bite. People do not."
In the fifth grade, my friends and I saw April, who had "bloomed" before the rest of us, and had become somewhat of a sensation among boys and girls alike; she was on the playground French-kissing a stringy high-school boy, and we wondered what sort of high-school boy would want to kiss a fifth-grader. Then we began to hear rumors that she had tried to have sex with the boy but it hadn't worked and though we hadn't the foggiest notion what any of this meant, it seemed to us that she was surely teetering on the brink of the awful and dangerous and most frightening.
One boring sixth-grade recess, my friends and I sneaked over to the primary-grade's playground and began to play on the swings. We started lazily, but egged each other on and were soon pumping and swinging vigorously. I have always loved the skip of the heart, when the swing pauses in the instant between the up and the down.
"Look at the babies on the swings! What a bunch of creeps!" April and her gang had come over and were standing before us, hands aggressively on their hips as though they were in a military formation.
"Oh yeah?" I said, slowing my swing and pointing my chin up at them, thinking about what it was that April Leach did on playgrounds. "I'm no baby. I got a boyfriend."
"Oh right," she hooted. "Who's your boyfriend?"
"That's for you to know and me to find out," I snapped, reddening as soon as the first words were out of my mouth but it was too late to stop them. April and her friends howled and ran off, laughing; my friends looked at their shoes and we dangled on the swings until the bell rang.
Dad doesn't mention Mrs. Leach by name; he doesn't have to. I'm not concentrating on what he is saying anyway, as he stammers his way through an explanation of why my parents' marriage has dissolved, of how deeply he loves me still. Instead, I am recalling an incident that took place a few weeks earlier, before seventh grade ended for the summer. April came up to me at my locker, and it wasn't to slam it closed or call me Flatsy or Four-Eyes or Q-tip (because of my frizzy, blonde-almost-white hair) like she usually did. She got so close to me that I could smell what she smelled like under her Baby Love perfume—gym-class sweat and girls-bathroom cigarette smoke.
"Your Dad's gonna be my Dad now," she said, and smiled meanly.
So I do not feel especially clairvoyant because I know about what Dad is telling me. I feel only more aware of what I do know, as I watch the red-tailed hawks swirling below us on currents of air. They rise as far as they will, then fall, flapping casually, as though living as they do, tetherless, somewhere between heaven and earth, is nothing in particular to be concerned about.
I had not considered a wedding. A wedding is not something your parents do—it's something they did—and they have the photo album and the corny old stories to prove it. A wedding is something of yours, to look forward to, someday, if you're pretty enough and lucky enough—your day to be the bright cool star at the center of things.
It is not a day to wear an itchy pink taffeta puffy-sleeved gown, strapped into foam breasts that stand out in stiff inhuman mountain peaks.
I have been to the dressmaker's shop; I have endured the endless fittings, the prickle of pins at my neck and under my arms. I see the dressmaker's appreciative eyes as she celebrates her handiwork, plumps my polyester chest, smooths the wrinkles with her soft, worn, hands. She likes the budding young lady she sees in the mirror, but I don't. This is not me.
I also see my mother's eyes, how I reflect in them as a sharp reminder of all that has gone wrong. I see her face tighten and slam shut in front of me as the wedding approaches, as I have to go and search for the right shoes, and a slip, and get my hair trimmed.
Then, the night before the wedding, I go into the bathroom, still damp and humid from my bath, close my eyes, and thrust two fingers down my throat. I gag; I can't breathe—then, release, and I throw up, loud enough for Mom to hear from her bedroom. I clean myself off and pad down the hall.
"Mom," I say. "I'm sick."
"It's just nerves," she says, slowly, and lays her magazine down on the bed beside her. She scrutinizes me over the tops of her drugstore reading glasses.
"No," I tell her. "I'm really sick."
"Fine," she says. "I suppose you should stay home tomorrow." Then she adds, with a purr, "You know your dress cost your father a fortune."
I call Dad at his apartment the next morning to tell him. He sounds angry. Now there will be no one from his side of the family attending. His brother couldn't make it and the rest of the family is staying away in disapproval.
"Are you sure?" he asks. "You're probably just a little nervous. You'll be all right. " He pauses, then adds: "Come on; you can do it. Take a Pepto Bismol and get dressed."
"Christ, Case. I want you to be there. You've got to be there. This is important to me, and I want you to be part of it . . ."
I can feel his hands reaching for me over the phone, his fingers slipping through the wires, taking me in a chokehold, and I picture myself loosening his grip, peeling away his fingers one by one, perhaps pulling them back a bit too far, until it hurts.
After I hang up, I grab a ginger ale and go back to bed. I spend the day with the shades pulled down over my windows, eating crackers and watching TV. I force myself to throw up a couple more times to make it look good, though I'm not sure if Mom, in her office downstairs, can even hear me.
The first year of high school I learn what April learned on that playground so many years before. He is an ordinary boy. We'd been in the same grade since grammar school and I remember being in a play together in third grade. But somehow I begin to fascinate him, and, one afternoon, he takes me behind the stairs by the music room and kisses me and it is as though I find an empty place in myself that is finally being filled. I kiss him back, find how easy it is to let my tongue slip inside his warm mouth, how good it feels.
Afterwards, I go to the bathroom and look at my face, closely and carefully. I imagine my lips are slightly puffy, swollen, sensuous and very grown-up.
Michael and I find plenty of time to be alone together in the afternoons at his house before his parents come home from work. We don't talk much, about ourselves or our lives, but we do kiss, and, in time, he slides his hands under my shirt or unbuttons my blouse and seems satisfied with the little he finds there.
And since it is so easy with Michael, it doesn't seem that much harder when another boy I know, a year older, catches up with me on the way home one afternoon, and we walk together, then go to my room. I let him progress as he will, his hands hot and soft. I let him touch me, and I touch him back, trying not to act startled at the wonder of him.
My old girlfriends are amazed and aghast at my tales, much like I once was when talking about April, and I know that I must find new friends. What I have found with boys is much more important to me than the giggling secrets and play of little girls.
I see April sometimes, though not often. I refuse to set foot in her house so I make Dad pick me up for our every-other Saturday visitation. Our high school, thankfully, is large enough to keep the two of us well separated. She must be in a different track than I am—probably she's taking basic courses, headed for secretarial school or vo-tech, while I'm in honors, college prep.
I wonder if Dad helps her with her homework, the way he used to do for me—if he grins proudly and ruffles her hair, puts his arm around her as he helps her work out one of her basic algebra problems.
I'm surprised to see her walking through the hall one day when I know my father and her mother are on a trip to Florida—surprised, but also meanly satisfied that they didn't take her along. She pretends not to see me. I drift toward a group of girls and boys involved in sex and cigarettes and petty shoplifting. After a while, I allow one of the boys to go all the way; it hurts and I'm glad when it's over, but, when it is over I feel as though I've finally been allowed into a terribly exclusive club.
I learn how to walk without stumbling, how to slide my eyes across a room, how to wear makeup and dress like the rest of my friends. I don't mind my looks anymore. I use my weirdness to my advantage. I think of myself as a match, with my wild-white hair and rail-thin body. I wear the reddest lipstick I can find.
I discover that other girls make a habit of throwing up regularly. Though I don't need to, for my weight, I do it anyway, to preserve my pale, wraith-like appearance.
I start to believe that Mom either doesn't care, or doesn't feel she has the authority to control me, or doesn't know how to try because she says nothing. Until one evening, when I'm dressed to go out, she looks up from her newspaper and says, "Casey, you're a smart kid and I think you know what you're doing. You're old enough to make your own decisions, live with the consequences. It's all up to you."
And I think, "Shit, is that all? That was easy."
Dad, on the other hand, is thrashing around like a bad swimmer, reaching out to me, and I'm careful to stay out of range, holding our only life preserver close to myself.
On our Saturdays, after he comes to pick me up, we never know what to do. In the beginning, he used to ask if I would hike up to North Mountain with him but I'm sorry—I tend to wear clogs or sling-back sandals—no more tennis shoes—and the thought of trekking through the poison ivy and the gnats to go sit on a stupid mountain. I guess I've outgrown the thrill of that. So we have lunch or see a movie or walk around the mall, and I pick out stuff for him to buy for me.
It's as fun as a game; I choose barrettes, bows and headbands. Sweaters with sad-eyed puppies on them, or bears. Or we go to the toy department and I find an expensive, fluffy kitty—stupid kid stuff that I make him buy for me. Actually, I think he's happy to do it. He's almost whistling as he pulls his credit card out of his wallet.
Then, sometimes I leave the shopping bag at the restaurant where we have lunch, or at the movie theater and I don't act concerned about it. He asks if I want to go back for it, and I shrug my shoulders and say, "Nah." Or if I do take the bag home, I stuff it in the back of my closet.
Sometimes, at night, when I can't fall asleep, I think of these lost little items; whether they've found a good home or have ended up in the trash. I think about the toys in my closet, how carefully someone manufactured them and cared for them and I wonder if perhaps they deserve better.
One day, I'm fingering a rack of cheap gold chains and I glance over at him.
He says, "I'm not buying that for you. I'm not buying you anything. I'm sick of this, Casey."
"Sick of what?" I ask.
"Jesus." He says, "You're just like your mother," and he walks out of the jewelry department.
I shrug and hang for a while, trying to look cool, but I'm actually a little worried. I may have to take the bus home if I can't find him; it's starting to rain and he's got the fucking umbrella.
When I dash out to the parking lot, I see the car is still there and I know I can get in because I didn't lock my door (even though he told me to). Then I see that he's there, in the driver's seat, the window cracked open as he smokes.
I slide into the passenger seat, my hair damp, my blouse damp, my shoes soaked from the puddle I didn't quite jump over—and I don't look at him or anything.
I love the smell of his pipe; I always have. I allow myself to remember those evenings when, returning from the back yard, he would be steeped with the sweetness of tobacco, and I'd drift off to sleep, smelling that sweetness, as he read from one of the many books he'd bought me—books way too advanced for me, then, but which I loved to hear him read nevertheless: To Kill a Mockingbird or poems by Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman or even science fiction, Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. God.
If he were smoking cigarettes, I'd ask him for one. He'd be shocked. I consider asking him for a hit off his pipe.
"You know," he says. "Until you have one of your own you'll never understand the intensity of the love a parent has for a child. I know that sounds dumb. You don't understand how different the love is between adults, how that can come and go. How it can fade, turn to hate even, and you wonder how you ever loved that person. But with your child—I think it's one of the greatest tragedies of the human condition that children do not feel the same kind of love for the parent that the parent feels for the child." He looks straight ahead; his jaw is tight and I wonder if he's going to cry. "Casey," he says. "Is there anything you want to talk about? Anything you want to tell me?"
"Do you hate these Saturdays as much as I do?"
I can't help but smile. "Yeah," I say.
"All right, then. No more—is that what you want? I won't come for you anymore, Casey Ann. If you want to get together, if there's anything you need, you know where to find me."
I'm afraid, for a moment, that I might cave. I don't know if this is what I want, but, in a way, this is what I have asked for, and I think about Mom, telling me to make my own choices and live with the consequences and I guess this is one of those times. "Yeah, okay," I say, and he drives me home.
So I feel, as I make my way through high school, that if there's anything my parents have given to me it's the freedom to make my own choices, my own decisions about my future. My friends talk about their parents' nagging them to get a job, dress neat, or whatever. I don't have those voices; the only voices I hear are the ones in my own head.
I begin to distance myself from the old crowd. My friends and I never talk about classes or grades—mine are good, and come easy—or our plans after high school. When the time comes for college fairs, college placement tests, college mailings, and my peers shrug their shoulders and pass around another joint, I begin to see that what I have in my GPA is a winning ticket—out.
I hope to avoid anyone I may have once known, when I stop back in town the summer before my senior year in college. I don't even know what to call this place. Now, I consider my home the town where I am in school, out of state, where I have an apartment and a paid internship in the biochemistry lab for the summer.
Mom is in Atlanta now, with a career in a big accounting firm and a condo that has a sofabed she says is mine any time I may choose to claim it. And Dad is in Johnson City, with his soon-to-be wife number three.
Mom left some of my old stuff in storage when she moved. My task is to sort through, pack up, or throw away. When I decide to break for lunch, I am dusty and sweaty. I'm also a little sad. I do come close to tears once, when I find a bag of those stupid hairbows and stuffed animals Dad bought for me at the mall.
I choose a short-order place a few blocks down; it's off the main drag but has somehow managed to keep enough customers coming in to justify its existence. It is cool inside, humming with air-conditioned comfort. I choose a stool at the counter that has a deep gash in the padded seat, covered with duct tape.
I pull a menu from the napkin rack and study it. I'm a vegetarian now, so my choices are limited in a place like this. I decide on a tossed salad and look up to cast around for a waitress, which is when I see April.
She is wearing a short pink and white uniform, and has a cap balanced like a tiara in her dark hair. She turns her back to me as she gives an order to the kitchen.
She swings back in my direction, and, in the instant before she sees me, I notice that she is pretty. Her features are pleasant, and made up by an expert hand—one that cares about such things. But those eyes that once glowed with malicious adolescent glee are now dull, ordinary.
I am grateful, at this moment, for adulthood, for maturity. Though we have never, in our long acquaintance, had one kind word for each other, I am certain, as April blinks in recognition and moves slowly toward me, that we can deal with each other now, treat each other with, if not warmth, then at least with civility.
"Casey," she says, with eagerness that surprises me. "How are you? What have you been up to?" She leans against the counter, pushes a stray lock of brown hair behind her ear.
"Oh, just packing up a few things," I say, and explain, as concisely as I can, my life.
And she tells me about hers. As she talks about her two jobs, her apartment, her baby, I am moved to reflect on the fine line that separates us—how close I came to a life sentence of work and life here in this town.
April takes her order pad and pen from her apron pocket and I think she is about to ask me what I'd like for lunch but she surprises me, again. "So," she asks. "What's your Dad doing?"
This odd connection we'll always share, like twins separated at birth. "He's getting married in the fall," I tell her. "I haven't seen him in a while."
"Oh," she says. "I was just wondering."
"I was sorry to hear about the divorce," I offer.
She shrugs, with a pretty little toss of her head. "It didn't matter to me. I mean we never exactly hit it off. He'd buy me these books,"—she rolled her eyes—"God, these boring books and then he'd ask me about them—it was like school. And it kind of pissed me off—he and Mom would do all this stuff together and I was like, out there. I was actually kind of glad when they split. Know what I mean?"
I say I guess I do, and order a salad and an iced tea. It's a lousy, limp little salad, and bitter, and I'm not as hungry as I thought anyway, so I pick at it with my fork until I figure I've wasted enough time. I stand, and meet April at the cash register.
"Weird how everything turned out, isn't it?" she asks as she rings up my bill. "I mean, I used to think you were such a little creep . . . I just hated you." She laughs, nervously.
I nod and smile, thinking, with love, and also hate, about that awkward little girl April used to tease. "Well," I say. "I wasn't too fond of you, either."
"Hey, I'm sorry what I said about your dad. I mean, it just sorta came out."
"It's okay," I tell her. "He used to buy me books, too."
"It's like, when my own dad died, I didn't really get it—that he wasn't coming back, ever. I guess I was kind of little and didn't know what was going on. So I kept pretending that one day, I'd open the door, and there he'd be, you know?"
I can't think of anything appropriate to say to her, so I say, "Yeah, I know." I'm thinking about April, too young to have a father die on her.
"So when Mom got married again, it was like, this is it. So I don't mean that your dad wasn't okay—because he was, kind of—but he wasn't, I guess, my dad." She smiles a well-practiced smile. "Take care of yourself," she says.
"You, too," I say, as the door jingles with my exit.
I drive past the turnoff to the self-storage warehouse, almost without noticing, and find myself on the winding way up to the mountains.
The trail to the overlook is overgrown—not as trim as it used to be. Where it becomes confused, I let my memory guide me. The rock slab is still there, as it probably has been forever.
I let my eyes drift over the valley below. I can't see the house where we used to live, we three, our old family, but I know it's there. I imagine that it's there in time as it is in space; that old house where Mom is working at her desk. And I imagine that Dad and I are here on that day when everything changed, and that I can start over, do things differently. Maybe I reach for Dad's hand and say, "Please, don't go," or, "Can't you two try to work things out?" Maybe I go to the wedding after all, spend every other Saturday enjoying picnics with him and his new wife and April. Maybe I tell Mom that it would be okay for her to try to act like my mother, or not, and that I love her anyway.
I watch the hawks as they fall and rise on their spirals of wind. At least they haven't changed. Then I close my eyes, marking this as the last time I will ever be in this place, and I imagine myself soaring.