12Near Past #1
The first week of summer after tenth grade had been torturous. I was sixteen and the only place I didn’t want to be was home. But home was where I was, doing odd projects around the house and the shop while my mother worked. Dad was off at his job in the city, and I begged each morning to join him. My mother didn’t like the idea of my gallivanting alone all day, so my requests were vetoed. I suggested I could meet up with friends. She liked that idea even less. The only thing I had to look forward to that week was Friday night, when Megan, Will, and I were going to see Beulah in the city. We’d bought tickets two months before, the second they went on sale, but I hadn’t told my mother. I intended to give her too little time to reject the idea. At the time, it had made sense.
As I had stumbled my way to the teenage years, without guidance or playdates or friends, tensions between my mother and I had escalated. I was no longer the baby she soothed to sleep in century-old rocking chairs or the kindergartener she treated to ice cream on the first day of school. We quarreled constantly over a narrow range of subjects. She was the mother so protective and sheltering, she smothered her young.I wanted independence. She wanted obedience. In wanting to give me her idyll of childhood, she stripped me of mine. In her view, I should have the utopia of traditional, suburban life, the kind of childhood she had wanted when she grew up isolated, alone, a rural farm girl. She had cultivated hat, determined to give me her projection of the fairytale, one that wasn’t quite mine. I wanted to be a city girl. The thought made her quake. The city, the urbane, was unknown, unfamiliar, and dangerous.
At 5:30 that Friday evening, my mother was serving the Crock-Pot dinner that had been brewing all day while we were occupied at the shop. I had come downstairs wearing makeup, which I hadn’t worn all week—I had no need; there was no one to impress at the antique shop. I’d lathered on eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, a touch of blush.
“Do you have plans?” My mother asked, eyeing my makeup as she placed my plate on the table.
For the past year, I preferred to keep my responses to monosyllables.
“Where, what, when, and with whom?”
She was a journalist. I answered her questions in reverse order.
“Megan, Will, and I, tonight, are going to a concert.”
“A concert?” She raised an eyebrow. “I assume it’s not the Bach concert in the park tonight. Where?”
“The city.” I patted my hair, which I had attempted to curl under, but only managed to burn myself with the curling iron. The ends of my hair had poked out at odd angles, appearing crimped. Eventually, I had to rewash it and turn it under with a brush and blow dryer. This had sucked away an hour of my time—an hour that only would have been spent jittery with anticipation.
“You want to go to the city on a Friday night, with no advance notice, with two friends, and to a concert, no less? Absolutely not.” She placed her hands on her hips. The pot was beginning to bubble from her lack of attention.
I had been hoping she’d resign herself to the plan, having too little time to formulate an alternative. Apparently, I had been wrong to hope.
“We’ve already got tickets. I’m not going to waste that money.”
I was determined to stand my ground. My eyes narrowed. My mother preferred to avoid confrontation.
“Then you should have asked before you bought tickets.” She turned her attention back to her Crock-Pot and the water for pasta boiling on the stove. By ignoring my next protests, she would have to final say.
I screamed in fury.
“Do you have to go and ruin my social life? It’s like living under house arrest!”
My mother turned around—furious, yes, but hurt. Her great joy in life, for the last sixteen years, had been raising her only child. Coddled for so long when I was young, for the past three years, I had only wanted to be free of the sheltering. I suppose the desire had arisen years before—when the sheltering began to harm instead of help—but there was no way of knowing.
“Don’t you speak to me that way,” my mother said so softly it was as though she were speaking only to herself. In fact, she probably was.
The only way to win this—and the only way not to get grounded was to win—was to compromise.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked in my sweetest possible voice.
She stirred our dinner, still staring downward, refusing to face me.
I approached the counter where she stood.
“Late,” she said in the sing-song voice that signaled that she felt the conversation was over. I wouldn’t give up so easily. I had tickets. Megan was counting on me. Will would be there.
“Do you think I could meet him after the concert. He could even come pick me up, if absolutely necessary.”
My mother pondered the idea for a moment.
“You may check with him. I give up.” She flung her hands in the air for emphasis.
I hurried to the kitchen phone and dialed my father. The apathetic voice of the receptionist startled me each time—I didn’t know how someone could sound so neutral, like an automated messaged—but I stated my name, asked if I could speak to my father “please” and she put me through.
Once I rather hysterically explained the situation to him, he told me to calm down and then conceded that I did need a break for some fun. He said there was no issue as long as I didn’t spend the night roaming around New York (for my mother’s benefit—he said) and that he would meet my friends and me outside the club at half past midnight—a much more generous time than my mother would have allowed. He would accompany Megan, Will, and me on the train ride back. That was a compromise I could accept. I never minded my father’s conversation and, chances were, he’d probably pull out a history book within the first five minutes back. He asked me to hand the phone to my mother.
After shoving the phone into her hands, I ran upstairs, watching her wrought face from a safe distance. She hung up the phone placidly, meaning we had reached some form of conclusion. I had won, but that didn’t necessarily mean she had lost. That was clear the moment Megan and Will rang the doorbell. They arrived two hours after the incident. She had retired to her bedroom, watching television, which she only did when she was too upset to do anything else. Running slightly late—I still hadn’t grabbed my wallet or ID—I had run downstairs, invited them inside, asked them if they wanted anything to drink (at which point Will asked for Dom Perignon and I laughed) and rushed back upstairs. I could hear Megan attempting to whisper to Will all the way upstairs; I couldn’t tell exactly what she said, but caught “Emma” and “concert.” I smiled. Tiptoeing down the hall, I knocked on the door of my parents’ bedroom. My mother didn’t answer. Her refusal to leave her bedroom meant that the only money I would have to spend was the cash in my pocket—just barely enough for train fare. It looked as though I’d be paying Megan and Will back for drinks at the club.
Within ten minutes, I had gathered my things and was ready to leave. I called up to my mother, but she didn’t respond. I heard her turn the TV up. So the three of us stumbled out the front door–sustained by adrenaline–drove Will’s car to the train station, and hopped the next train to the city. I sat in the passenger seat beside Will, laughing as he teased me about everything from my argument with my mother to my hair. Megan, in back, chipped in a couple quips about Will, just for good measure. On the train, we found a four-seat enclave so we could sit across from one another.
It took an hour to get to Grand Central Station, where we changed from the train to the subway. As it was a Friday night, the station was packed. Megan joked that the number of people inside the building was greater than the population of Wyoming. As we exited the train car, Will worried that we might get lost in the crowd and took my hand. He didn’t take Megan’s. She stayed close, but walked in front of us, directing lost-looking tourists and chatting with a twenty-year-old who held the door open for us. Will and I waited nearby, shaking our heads while they exchanged numbers. She returned to leading us without a word about the incident or about Will’s hand clasped around mine. I imagined her winking and me. Of course.
He didn’t let go of my hand once we boarded the subway. I had told them my father would be riding back on the train with us. Will nodded; Megan giggled. They were all too familiar with my mother’s neuroses. I’d never hated her insecurities more than that day. Mostly I hated her for making me feel the same fear she did. Megan walked ahead comfortably, happily, knowing exactly where she was going and what to expect. I was glad Will’s hand held mine because it made me less nervous being there with the tall buildings and strange people and the possibility for a million things to go wrong. I shook and hoped he didn’t notice.
We reached the club with a half hour to spare. It was a small venue that held intimate indie shows. This was not a highly publicized affair. Megan had seen Beulah the year before in San Francisco with an old friend. She’d lived in San Francisco until she was twelve, when she moved across the country. This concert was their farewell tour. Having spent the last year listening to them non-stop, we couldn’t bear to miss it. Megan had rallied us, found the tickets, planned the trip into the city. She’d even suggested we wait by the stage door—she’d met them last year in San Francisco that way, taken photos with them, joked about Flannery O’Connor to try to prove she was no regular high school girl—but with my father meeting us, that didn’t seem like an option.
After grabbing a few waters at the bar, we fought our way to the front, right up against the stage and waited. My nervousness abated once we’d settled into our places. Like most shows, it started about 10 minutes late. They played our favorites off the last CD, then the lead singer looked straight at Megan and me and said “we’re going to play a few old ones.” Megan and I turned to each other and screamed. Then we turned to Will on my other side and screamed again. The noise in the club was so loud, we could barely hear ourselves screaming.
“This one’s called “If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart,” the lead singer announced into the microphone.
It started with the brass-esque sound that was their signature. And the spotlights were red, and the band was sweating, and the song was beautiful, and we were dancing, and the bass was pounding in our ears, and Megan and I were shaking our hair, and Will was laughing, and the fans were screaming, and the lead singer seemed to be singing just to us, and Will elbowed me in the side, and stopped dancing so he could say “sorry,” and the lead singer was singing the first line as the last, and he kissed me. The lights turned blue, and purple, and gold, and the song ended and I was sixteen and remembered thinking that a first kiss couldn’t have been more perfect.
As the next song started, Will looked at me and grinned. Megan cheered—and not for the band. We danced and smiled for the rest of the set and a couple times per song, Will would give me this big smirk like we shared a secret.
The concert finished twenty minutes after midnight, and Megan made an excuse about getting another bottle of water. Will and I stood in the middle of the dance floor, watching the crowd clear out, and he asked if what he had done was all right because I was kind of quiet.
I nodded because I didn’t quite trust myself to speak without babbling like a toddler and because the pieces of my brain felt jumbled. He was my best friend aside from Megan. For weeks I’d waited and dreamed, never believing that it would actually happen. My throat felt tight all of a sudden.
He squeezed my hand.
“My dad’s coming with us on the train ride back.” I managed to remind him.
“I know. You sit next to Megan.”
He kneaded my shoulder and kissed my forehead tentatively. Right then, nothing seemed more romantic—standing on the floor of an empty dance floor, going back to our normal lives, trying to hold on to that night.
It was almost 12:30, and Megan slowly ambled back to where we stood.
“Back to boring old Hudson,” she said.
We walked out of the club where my father waited on the sidewalk in his nice suit and briefcase next to him. He smiled as though he wasn’t tired.
“Did you guys have a good time?” He asked.
Megan nudged me and Will stood a foot away, nervously eyeing my father.
I’ll fight, if you want me to fight.