My freshman homecoming date rumbles away in his dad’s Ford pickup with his older brother—dressed in a clown suit—at the wheel. I huff the sweet exhaust and watch their red taillights burn out of sight. I take it slow up the front steps to the house, wondering how I’ll make it past Mom without her seeing that my dress is torn. She won’t believe the truth, that I ripped the slit hiking up into that damn truck. And she’ll be pissed like she paid for it, even though I bought it with money from my paper route.
But something is amiss inside. I know it before I reach the top step. Every downstairs light is on like the house is burning inside. Mom likes to wait up for me in the dark to improve her chances of catching me at something. I’d half expected her to be quietly back-and-forthing in her porch rocker, ready to pounce from the shadows if I dared break curfew for my first high school dance.
What I see when I open the front door sucker punches me—Dad in his La-Z-Boy sobbing so hard his plaid flannel shoulders shake. His swollen, crackled red eyes tell me he’s been at it for a while. Standing there I can’t shake a single word loose. I’ve seen Dad cry exactly twice—both over dead dogs. Muffin, our current boxer dog, paces at his feet, echoing my terror.
“Your mother’s gone,” he says in messy, gushing sobs, then blows his nose in the ironed cotton hankie he usually keeps tucked in his back pocket.
“Where?” I ask.
“I don’t know. She’s just gone. No note or anything.”
“Well, something must have happened for her to up and go,” I say because asking if they had a fight is like asking if the sun came up that morning.
He just shakes his head no and shrugs. It hits me then that he’s not sad, he’s scared. My ivory satin bodice shrinks tight around the tornado in me, a violent swirl of a guilty Hallelujah! tangled with heartbreak for seeing Dad undone. What is he afraid of? Mom says she’s leaving all the time, but she never does. I stopped believing it could happen the day I finally asked her about it.
“Why do you stay?”
It was the most fearless and direct question I ever asked her, standing at the butcher counter, eyeballing a blood-red tub of fresh sausage. Her answer shut me right up even if it was a lie. Dad’s dad and uncle, men I’d never known, both had committed suicide. “There’s no tellin’ what your father’ll do if I leave,” Mom said.
Her response burned two things into me: How much I didn’t know about my dad. And that despite their frequent screaming matches, Mom actually cared about him.
So, why leave now? She left her first family curbside when my half sisters and brother were little and needy. I was finally old enough to be of use and take care of myself. Or maybe that’s what she figured, that I could take care of me and Dad now. Hope flashes—I will never have to stomach another skillet of weenies and potatoes or a tuna fish casserole.
“I’m sure she’ll be back,” I say, because I know I’m not that lucky. My voice catches me by surprise. It’s the same one I use when I babysit the kids across the street, and one falls off the swing. The reversal of our parent and child roles chills me.
“It’ll be okay,” Dad sobs, nodding yes like that might make it so.
I kick off my heels and drop onto the couch as Johnny Carson takes the stage. Dad’s fear she’s left him confuses me the way Mom’s fear of him killing himself did. How do two people so angry and miserable in each other’s midst hold on to love or whatever it is that binds them? I feel myself wishing her back for him alone. Maybe if she comes back, it will be different. Maybe soul-scaring fear can shock someone into a better version of themselves. At least he’s sober tonight. But that’s just Dad. What about Mom? Maybe she can change too. I will cling to the hope that one day something will change her into someone other than who she is, into the Mom I want and need, until the day she dies.
“How was the dance?” Dad asks, unfolding and refolding his hankie to find a dry spot.
“Fine,” I say, the disaster of my own night—the clown suit, the torn dress, the awkward slow dances with the sweet freckled boy who wasn’t my crush—as dim as the taillights on that Ford.