Thomas took the car keys from her for the first time with the same nonchalance he’d shown when he performed his first shave. Only a smile to acknowledge the significance of the moment, and then he’d shut the door behind him. She heard her car start, and she went to stand at the window. She knew he’d slow as he went past the front of the house, knew he’d expect her to be there at the window, waving. She could just see the outline of his shaggy head against the streetlight as he ducked to look out the passenger window to see if she was there. “Goodbye,” she said to herself.
Earlier in the day when he’d asked to take the car, he’d been careful with his arguments, but she hadn’t really listened. She was ready, her answer prepared. “Ok,” she said. “But you’ll have to be back by ten.”
“Mom,” he said, “it’s a three hour movie.”
“Ok,” she said. “Eleven then.”
Thomas was the youngest of three. She’d been through this before. It went like this: You stayed up and waited, trying not to constantly look at the clock. They either came in on time or they called and asked for more time or occasionally they did neither and were just late and got grounded. Now the two older kids, Janie and Eric, were both out of college and working. And at home, there was just Thomas, and he was not much worry. He didn’t really go out much. He’d rather stay home, invite friends over, play the guitar, talk to his girlfriends on the phone, play the stereo loudly, and leave a trail of socks and abandoned books and what not throughout the house.
She had rented a video especially for tonight as a sort of celebration. The movie was something she hadn’t seen since her husband, Rick, was alive. They had a mutual fondness for drippy, old black and whites, movies the kids would give her a hard time about watching, mainly because they didn't want to join her in watching them and they had only one TV. Thomas would say, “Ma, Ma, Ma. Expand your mind.” They always wanted to keep her up-to-date. They wanted her to know the music they liked, the books, the movie stars. She was fifty-nine years old. In her imagination she saw her mind as if it was the whole universe of stars tightening up in some reversal of the big bang until it resembled water going down the drain.
She went into the kitchen to make herself some tea, and chuckled as she removed a mug from the cabinet and then put it back and reached into the higher shelf to retrieve a delicate cup and saucer. Janie had given it to her when she was about six. It was the first of her gifts that showed some thought of the recipient. Up until a certain point in their development, kids gave what they would want to have. She had received all manner of cheap toys as presents. When she received the teacup from her then youngest child (this was before Thomas was born), she had almost cried thinking that some milestone had been forever breached. Two days later, she’d found out she was pregnant. And then, while she was still pregnant, Rick had died in a car wreck on a rainy highway when a drunken driver hit him head on. The children were all of them afraid to drink and drive or get behind the wheel when the weather was bad. Things to be thankful for.
She curled on the couch in her pajamas and watched the movie. She thoroughly enjoyed weeping unselfconsciously at the sappiest part. Then she put on some music and turned out all the lights in the house and went to stand at the back window and look out across the dark yard with its decrepit tree house. On more than one occasion, she and her husband had sneaked out after the kids were asleep to make love on the dewy grass.
Why don’t you date? her kids asked. Why don’t you get married again?
What she told them was that no one could replace their father. But the truth was, though she loved her husband, he took as much care taking as the children did, and she didn’t want to sign on for that for the rest of anyone’s life. The other thing the kids didn’t know was that she’d bought a condo in Florida and as soon as Thomas left for college in a couple of years, she was selling the house, taking early retirement, and moving there. She daydreamed most frequently now of the colors she would paint the walls and the clean, modern furniture she would buy. What the kids didn’t want from the antique-filled family home, she would sell. She had bought a design magazine at the video store, and she went now into the bathroom to soak in a hot tub and study it, dog earring some pages.
Thomas called at 11:30, apologizing, saying he knew how mothers were: they stayed up until their chicks were all safe in the nest, but would it be all right if he went with his friends to Pizza Hut just for a little while. How dull, she thought, Pizza Hut with teenagers.
“Just an hour,” he said, “and Mom, you don’t have to wait up.” Which is what they always said, all of them.
Before she went to bed, she turned on the garage and kitchen lights for him. On the refrigerator she put a drawing of a smiley face with a balloon coming from its mouth saying, Good night. Sleep tight. See you in the morning light when it’s nice and bright.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It didn’t happen yesterday. I was in a good mood yesterday.”
“You spent the whole day at the Y,” he said.
“I’m trying to survive,” she said.
The leaves were blowing down so fast and skittering along the ground and scrapping past the windows of their third floor apartment that it sounded like rain was falling. The sun shone gold and wan in a streak across the bare floor.
“It’s the weather,” she said. “I miss the ocean. I hate seasons. You know what I want to do? I want to sweat.”
“You’re warped,” he said. “This is living. Go outside for fuck’s sake and take a walk. ”
“Why?” she said. “It’s cold.”
“Are you going to complain from here to Christmas?”
“Until March. Until April,” she said. “Until we move home.”
“Alone,” he said. “If you move back there you’re moving alone.”
“Wow,” she said. “I didn’t know marriage was so cheap.”
“Some things are too ridiculous to discuss,” he said.
She looked out the window and saw a squirrel carrying the entire tip end of an acorn-laden twig in its mouth. The twig was twice as big as the squirrel. It was trying to make its way down the tree but the twig was stuck right between the split in the trunk. The squirrel worked and worked at the problem without much excitement, as if it didn’t really care whether it succeeded or not and had all the time in the world.
“Then let’s not,” she said.