1 Near Past 2
It was the third week of August, and I had just turned ten years old. Each year, my parents and I went to Maryland for three weeks to visit Aunt Maureen, my mother’s only remaining family. The night before we left, the final day of July, my mother had to drag me from the Enson-Morton house, where I had spent every previous day of summer. I pouted in the backseat on the car ride home as my mother waxed on about the wonderful time we would have. I grunted, which she misconstrued as positive. She didn’t want to admit that I didn’t want to go; it was the highlight of her year.
She had to pry my hand from Romaine’s as we clung to Lynnie’s dress. Lynnie coaxed me out the front door by making me promise to come visit as soon as I got home. Mom thanked her for the kind invitation, took my hand, and half-carried me to the car. We screeched out of the driveway, waving back to the two small faces staring out the window, watching as the rows of oak trees lining the street ceased. I didn’t notice I had been crying until we reached home.
Maryland was the same as always. Within 24 hours of our arrival, Aunt Maureen’s rotary-dial telephone would ring for Mom. While we were away, Mom’s friend Priscilla manned the shop, and she usually forgot where the receipts and invoices and mops and dusters were. She wasn’t the most efficient or competent, but she was willing, which was all Mom really needed. Dad joined us in Maryland for the first week, but often went home during the second or third; he had work to attend to. My parents would sit out on the ample porch in my grandparents’ rocking chairs and read the newspaper while sipping lavender-infused iced tea. It seemed very extravagant to me, even though I detested iced tea. Meanwhile, I helped Aunt Maureen make jam in the kitchen. My job was the measure and pour sugar. When the ingredients had been properly mixed, I scooped the jam into little glass jars and screwed the lids on tight. Every few days, we emptied a jar, which my mom washed out and I used to catch fireflies in the evenings. I would add a little twig and a couple of leaves to make the fireflies feet at home. On my birthday the second week, we took a boat out on the Chesapeake for a couple hours. Mom made me wear a lifevest because I liked to lean out and peer into the water. I wanted to see the crabs, but the water was too murky. Disappointed, Mom took me out for crab cakes, which we always had for my birthday anyway. Every few days I picked berries in the backyard for Aunt Maureen, which passed a couple hours. The backyard was thirty acres. Aunt Maureen rented out most of the space to farmers. We went into town a couple times a week, and I helped with the grocery shopping. There wasn’t much excitement, but my parents preferred it that way.
It was a normal summer in Maryland. I expected the rest of the summer to be as well. By “normal” I would spend the remaining days at the Enson-Morton house where I would play until 5:02, when Mom rang the doorbell.
We arrived home on a Thursday. Our plane had been delayed, so by the time we pulled into our driveway, it was ten in the evening. I’d begged my father, when he picked us up, to drop me off on Oak Street, but my mother said I could wait. Instead of a reunion, I stomped up the stairs to my room and promptly fell asleep.
I awoke early the next morning and demanded that my mother drive me to the house at precisely nine AM. They would be up by then, probably having breakfast, which is why I had refused mine that morning. My mother reminded me I ought to work on my patience, but agreed to drive me. I hopped into the car and had already fastened my seatbelt by the time she exited the house.
When we arrived, no car waited in the driveway. The curtains were closed, and no light slipped through the cracks in the material. The Enson-Mortons never left the curtains open much anyway and the lights could be on only at the back of the house, I reasoned.
“It doesn’t look like anyone is home,” Mom announced. I unbuckled my seatbelt.
“Maybe Lynnie took the car out. She said to come over when we got home.” Lynnie wouldn’t have taken it back.
My mother took her hands off the steering wheel and placed them in her lap.
“Go check if you like.”
I bounded down the driveway, half running, half skipping, to the front door. I knocked three times and pressed my ear to the thin wood to hear the steps hurrying down the hall. None came. I repeated it. Still nothing. I waited on the step for a long time before my mother called me back to the car. I ran and sat with my arms crossed in the backseat.
“Maybe they went on a quick vacation before school starts up again,” Mom suggested. They had done so the year before, while I had been in Maryland, but Lynnie hadn’t said anything about that this year. She knew when we would be home.
“But Lynnie said to come when I got back.”
The remainder of the ride was silent.
Back at our house, I began to walk dejectedly up the stairs, but stopped.
“Can I call over in an hour?” I asked.
“You can always try,” she responded before heading into the living room to rearrange the pillows. That was what she did when she didn’t know what else to do. She hadn’t planned anything for the two of us, thinking I would be at the Enson-Mortons’ house.
I tried to paint with the new watercolor set I’d bought in Maryland, but my thoughts kept drifting. The effort resulted in a bear that looked more like a dog. On a new sheet of paper, I began drawing a duck, but never got past the first few lines.
I called an hour later; no one picked up. I burst into tears, ran out of the room, and threw myself onto the living room couch, which I wasn’t supposed to do. Mom followed and sat down next to me.
“Emma,” she said as she rubbed my shoulder, “you need to stop being so sensitive. You’ll be able to survive a couple more days without going over to Romaine’s house to play. Don’t be so dramatic.”
I glanced up and dissolved into tears again.
“Crying will not help anything. How about we do something fun today? We could go roller-skating. That would cheer you up.”
“I guess,” I hiccupped.
“Give me a half hour. Then we can go.”
Mom hurried up the stairs, and I went into the kitchen for a glass of water. I sat at the table and took tiny sips. By the time Mom was ready, my glass was nearly empty.
The roller-skating parlor, as it was called, was a couple towns over. It was an eccentric place with a pink and green exterior and a poorly lit interior strung with multi-colored Christmas lights all year round. Everything was old-fashioned: the popcorn stand, the skakes, the music, even the hats the employees wore.
We spent the afternoon skating around the rink, singing along with Elvis and The Beach Boys and attempting to dance. I managed to fall three times in the process. Mom was much better than I was; she could twirl in circles. I tried but ended up on the floor, laughing. Mom tickled me and helped me up. She was right; it did cheer me up. I forgot about all my earlier plans for the day. In the parking lot on the way home, I held her hand and told her that had been more fun than tag. She smiled a little sadly, then beamed the whole way home.
For dinner, we went to the diner on Main Street. We sat in a booth, gulped down our food, and were home by six. When my father got home at seven, Mom and I were lying on our respective beds, so worn out we could barely lift our heads. It had been a long time since Mom and I had spent a whole day together doing something fun—no antique shop, no errands. Long gone were the days when we went to the ice cream parlor, played at the park, and drove around after school when Mom could take some time away from the shop. I fell asleep in jeans and a t-shirt at eight..
The next day, I called the Enson-Morton’s telephone at ten, but again there was no answer. Because it was Saturday, Mom decided she had better relieve Priscilla at the shop, in case there was a rush. I begged her to let me tag along, clutching blank paper, my watercolor set, and my crayons. In another hand I toted a tattered copy of The Door in the Wall; I’d forgotten how it ended. As long as I didn’t bother her or the customers, she had no objection. We loaded into the car, and I craned my neck as we pulled into the parking lot, hoping to see a car in a driveway not much further ahead.
I dutifully sat at my table behind the counter. After an hour of coloring—a big oak tree with a tire swing—I told Mom I was going outside to get some air. Priscilla had neglected the dusting, so the excuse was not entirely far-fetched. I walked out the screen door, through the parking lot, and continued down the block. Every so often, my head pivoted to check behind me. My mother never let me play in the parking lot alone, much less cross the street. I stood in front of the house, waiting for a flickering light, a darting shadow. But there were no lights on inside, still no car in the driveway. The tire swing tied to the big oak tree sat stationary. I hopped up and wiggled my way into the proper seating position within its hoop. It began to swap. With that little momentum, I pumped my legs back and forth, never getting much higher. No one was around to push me. After a minute, I let the swing come to a standstill and lept to the ground. I would have waited on the porch of the house, but I knew Mom would check up on me, so I retreated to the back step of the stop, watching the few cars pass, expecting each to be theirs. When my mother poked her head outside, she found me on the back step, breathing deeply, coughing slightly to prove how dusty it had been inside.
I called every day. On Tuesday, the automated voice told me as nicely as she could that the line was no longer in use. On our way to the shop, I asked Mom to drive by the house to see if there were any other changes, but I found none. I told her confidently that they forgot to pay their phone bill that month; they could be very scatterbrained. Mom nodded and reminded me to bring my jacket into the shop. That afternoon, she handed me a ten-dollar bill and told me to walk down to the diner for lunch; she had some work to finish. Never allowed anywhere without adult supervision, I skipped to the diner and ate at the counter, proudly handing my ten dollars to the waitress, who gave me four dollars back. I tucked it in my pocket and strolled to the shop. I had been gone a whole forty minutes, and Mom was helping a customer as I returned to my table. I had a math worksheet to complete; school started on Thursday. The Enson-Mortons would be back by then.
The next evening, Mom sat me down at the kitchen table.
“Emma, I have something I think we need to talk about.”
“But school hasn’t even started.”
She told me that the day before, while I was at the diner, she had paid a visit to the Enson-Mortons’ neighbors to make sure everything was all right. Mrs. Thomas, who lived to the left of the house, hadn’t seen them since the second week of August, but they hadn’t asked her to water their houseplants or check up on things, she added defensively. Then, Mom had gone to see Mrs. Davis, their neighbor to the right. She had been widowed for many years and had nothing better to do than sit out on her porch and watch cars go by and gossip with her Monday night Bridge club, which Mom secretly called the busybody club. Mrs. Davis said that late on the 11th, around midnight, she’d gone to get a glass of water. Her kitchen window overlooked the Enson-Mortons’ front yard. The lights were all on as they piled boxes into the backseat and trunk of the car. The two younger children, she said, were asleep and had to be carried to the car. The oldest one, though, wouldn’t go. She flailed her arms and kicked as her father picked her up and placed her in the backseat. All the lights were turned off and, with everyone in the car, they drove off. They hadn’t informed her of a vacation, she had noted crossly.
“Emma,” my mother said gently, “I don’t think they’re coming back.”
My hands, knuckles whitening, clamped around the edge of the table. I felt like a statue—perfectly still; my muscles refused to move. My mother waited for any sign of acknowledgement.
“They’re coming back!” I blurted.
“Sweetheart, I don’t think you’re,” she began.
I stood up abruptly and ran. I bolted out the front door and down the incline at the top of which our house was situated. I didn’t really care where I was going. Running just seemed like the only thing I could do at that moment. My mother followed, screaming my name behind me.
“Emma, do not cross the street. You don’t cross without an adult!”
There were no cars coming. I jumped over the curb. I kept going straight, toward the center of town. My feet began to hurt as they struck the sidewalk, but I couldn’t stop. Not with my mother behind me, furious. Not with the prospect of returning to my house and being sent to bed. Not with the possibility that I would be told the same thing over and over again.
“Emma, come back here!”
The distance between us widened. I made a sharp left. My legs knew where they were going, even if I didn’t. I sprinted past the people holding end-of-summer barbeques in front of their houses, with their perfect trim and perfect trees outside. They suddenly nauseated me.
“Emma!” I could hear my mother calling. She was out of breath. I kept running. I made a right and suddenly hated the oak trees that came into view. I tripped on a raised piece of concrete and nearly fell. I passed Mrs. Davis’ big, fancy porch, which I also hated, and collapsed, sobbing, on the lawn just beyond. I punched the tire swing and curled up into a ball.
That was how my mother found me a couple minutes later.
“Emma,” she said sternly. Then she changed her mind.
She crouched down next to me and began to rub my back. I crawled into her lap.
“It’s okay, honey. It will be fine. You’ll do just fine.”
After a while, my tears ran dry; my body had exhausted them. I looked up, my eyes a blotchy shade of scarlet, sniffling, with sobs like hiccups.
“They can’t have gone. They didn’t—they didn’t say goodbye.”
I burrowed my head in her arms. The sky darkened, and nosy Mrs. Davis stumbled out of her house in her lacy, pink bathrobe.
“Everything all right there, Kathleen?” She yelled.
My mother waved her off.
“Just fine. We’ll be gone in a second.”
Mrs. Davis returned inside, only shutting her screen door.
Mom shook me gently a couple times. I raised my head, glancing at her, then to the house, shuttered and empty. I didn’t expect the lights to come on this time.
“Let’s walk over to the shop. I’ll call your father and he’ll come pick us up.”
The next morning I got up at 7:45 like I always did for school. I put on the jeans and nice shirt I’d decided on the afternoon before. Downstairs, pancakes were cooking; it was the traditional first day of school breakfast.
“Do you want to go to school today?” Mom asked.
“It’s the first day. Why wouldn’t I—“ my eyes began to water as I remembered the previous evening. “I won’t have any friends at school.”
“Sure, you have plenty of friends.”
I started crying again.
“How about you stay home today,” Mom suggested. “But tomorrow, no tears.”
I nodded, and she handed me my pancake breakfast upstairs, which she never let me do. I heard her tell the school that I had caught a little bug in Maryland and wouldn’t make it. I didn’t get out of bed for the rest of the day.
The tears didn’t stop there. At school, I had no one to talk to or play with. I tried sitting with Roosevelt at lunch one day, but he was just as sulky and lonely as I. We couldn’t be lonely together. After school, since Mom couldn’t close up early every day, I went to after-school care, which I hated. One Thursday, I snuck away. At 5:45, after half an hour of panicked searching at school and beyond, Mom found me sitting on the front step of the house on Oak Street, where I had been sitting for the last three hours. I was amazed by the fact that I couldn’t feel anything—not the nerves in my hand, not the thoughts in my head, not the anger I’d nursed for the last month. Mom didn’t scold me. We went for ice cream, where I talked incessantly about pop pops and Thursday teatime, and told her I didn’t feel anything anymore, which meant I was all right. The next Thursday, I had an appointment with Dr. Friedman, who was a nice lady who had me draw pictures and talk about Romaine and Ara and Boo, Dave, and Lynnie. I didn’t really have friends those years. My teachers and my parents wrote lots of memos to Dr. Friedman, who asked why I didn’t make friends. I told her I already had friends. She asked for their names. I told her Romaine and Ara. She sighed and bit her lip.
I didn’t really believe they were my friends anymore. They never said goodbye; they never wrote, not even a postcard from a sleepy town like ours. At the start of seventh grade, I met Megan, who was the loud to my quiet. Her chatter made me finally want to talk. We used to dream about meeting our favorite bands and following them on tour. It was exciting at the time; it meant getting out of our town and away from our parents, which was the real attraction. Then there was Will, who sat with Megan and me the first day of seventh grade and never left. He and I would stay up late whispering on the phone because our parents were asleep and it was long past our bedtimes. But that first year, they listened when I wanted to talk and didn’t ask when I didn’t. Midway through seventh grade, the visits with Dr. Friedman stopped.
Like many teenagers, especially those with more issues than they can name, I wasn’t fond of my parents. They were old and boring and stifling and didn’t let me do what I wanted. A few times, Megan and I told out parents we were sleeping at the others’ house and went to the city for concerts: jazz, rock, Broadway, classical—whatever we could get our hands on; it didn’t matter as long as we were there. This ended one night when my Mom called Megan’s house because I didn’t pick up my cell phone. We were both grounded for a month.
All during that time, I used to see parts of the Enson-Mortons everywhere—walking down Main Street, on the train, in Times Square. They were all false alarms: a similarly shaped smile, the same hair color, a freckle in the same place. Megan sometimes asked what I was looking at; I told her I stared into space a lot. I never talked about them, never mentioned them by name; Megan hardly knew they existed.
But still I searched. I had this crazy idea that if I could find them, if I could bring them back, everything would go back to the way it had been, the way it was supposed to be. Everything wrong from the years following their disappearance would be erased.
I was beginning to get used to the disappointment.
When I was sixteen, I went back to Dr. Friedman following my break-up with Will after a brief, two-month relationship. I suffered; he refused to speak to me, since I was responsible for the break-up anyway. But I missed talking to him; he was my best friend aside from Megan. Dr. Friedman asked why I broke up with him and I told her I didn’t know. She said that wasn’t good enough. I went home and thought about it. The next week, I arrived prepared with a notecard because I didn’t trust myself to give the full truth; I didn’t know if I’d be able to say it. If I got stuck, I had my notecard. I needed to say it, if only to hear myself say it. I was sick of lying.
One day, two months into our relationship, I realized that Will had not called, and I hadn’t spoken to him in nearly 36 hours. I was mildly annoyed that he had forgotten. The feeling was soon overcome by a sense of panic. I was angry that he hadn’t called. I liked him: the way his hair smelled, the fact that he sometimes snorted when he laughed too hard, the ridiculous, faded blue shirt he always wore, the bands he listened to. When I realized that I might jut be falling in love with him, I began hyperventilating. I was becoming too attached. What if he found someone else? What is he didn’t want to be with me anymore? What if he didn’t like me as much? I forgot that Megan told me he waited four months for the perfect time to kiss me. I resolved to break up with him first, giving some lame “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, which was true, but predictable nonetheless. I couldn’t let him leave me; I couldn’t be abandoned.
I watched Dr. Friedman’s glasses slide off her nose. Eventually, Will started talking to me again, but he didn’t want to date me, which was my fault. I had done to him what I feared he would do to me.
I was sixteen years old with stable, loving parents, a seemingly fairytale childhood, and an irrational fear of abandonment. Dr. Friedman figured it out about the same time I did.
It all came down to what I thought as I was curled up in a ball, sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe, in the front yard of the house on Oak Street: they left, and they left me behind.