Published in the Fall 1999 Issue of Ploughshares
WHY WAS IT, Janice thought, that everything took longer than you wanted?–like life. It was the last day of summer, their last day together, and all the way upstate her mother went on about Cornell–the boys she dated, the friends she made–going “oh,” and “oh!” over the radio until Janice’s head went completely blank, buzzed emptily like when she skipped her Mellaril. They’d eaten at the travel plaza Roy’s (her mother ridiculously ordering a salad), and Janice could still taste her onion rings. Outside the world ran by, bright and hot and sharp as a paper cut.
Of course Lonnie had to come, sitting between them on the front seat like a rug, reeking of flea dip and panting so hard his tongue dripped on the carpet. He was old, a Cocker with bags under his eyes like someone punched him. Her mother tipped the air conditioning vent to blow right on him so the whole car stunk. She couldn’t leave him at home even though she knew Janice couldn’t stand him. He was her father’s dog, except her father’s new wife Marion was allergic to his dandruff. Janice hadn’t liked him before that. He was sneaky, and growled when you cornered him under a bed. When Janice said, “Stupid dog,” her mother dismissed her with a laugh.
“But he loves to ride in the car,” she’d said. “And this way I’ll have company on the way back.”
Now they cruised up the Thruway in the slow lane, the Mohawk glittering in the heat. Monday was Labor Day and traffic was bad, tons of construction. In the fields, cows knelt under scrubby trees. Her mother was going on about Cayuga’s Waters and the bell tower chiming every quarter hour, and Janice concentrated on the radio.
They weren’t going to her mother’s beautiful Ithaca, just dumb, ugly Utica. It was punishment, Janice thought, for trying to kill herself. She’d missed a large part of senior year after the attempt, and her grades were only good enough for a SUNY. Utica was the farthest one from Bellmore and their empty house, and she accepted bitterly, sure her mother wouldn’t let her go. But she had. Since October, the Mellaril seemed to be working, or that’s what her mother thought. It had been a quiet spring, a quiet summer. There were no episodes. This morning when she opened her pill reminder and ate Sunday’s, Janice wondered if it could be true, that it really was the drugs.
It was usually summer when she thought of killing herself, she didn’t know why. Something about the long, airless days, the empty streets and hot yards. It had been September last year; though no one ever said, the anniversary was coming up. It had been a day like today, the sun glinting off the parked cars. She walked through the house turning the air conditioners off one by one until she reached her parents’ room. Her father had been gone for years, but her mother still kept his dresser, inside it a few shirts pressed from the cleaners, stiff with cardboard. Janice turned off the air conditioner and let the heat settle before going through the medicine cabinet, choosing. After she took everything, she lay down on her mother’s bed and closed her eyes. It took longer than she’d thought, and after a few minutes she got up and stood at the window and watched a boy ride by on a three-speed, a baseball glove impailed on his handlebars, the tassels flying from his grips. She was holding on to the gauzy curtain, feeling the grittiness between her fingers. Little waves of heat shivered on top of the cars. She felt she could reach out and pinch the cars between her fingers and squish them like lightning bugs if she wanted to. If she wanted to, but she didn’t. She didn’t want anything anymore, and she felt good about making that clear. How satisfying it was to finally say what she meant. The sun felt good on her arms, the stifling air.
And then, after she was dead, she woke up with a hose in her mouth, choking on it. The vomit was hot in her nose and there were faces flying above her, gloved hands, the noise of voices.
“There you are,” a doctor said, huge, hovering. “I’m afraid you can’t leave us just yet.”
And then the questions, the psychiatrists, her father coming back from Seattle to see if she was okay.
“I’m okay,” she said.
“No you’re not,” her mother said.
Even now Janice had never given her a real explanation for it, or as close to one as she’d figured out herself. What could she possibly say to justify it? I’m lonely. I don’t love anybody. I’m tired.
“For God’s sake,” her mother said, “you’re eighteen. You haven’t even lived yet. Give it a chance.”
And she had. Wasn’t this proof, today, going off to college like someone normal?
But it’s all fake, Janice thought. It doesn’t mean anything.
She looked down and saw that Lonnie had slobbered on her jeans. “Oh, nice,” she said, and found a napkin on the floor to wipe it off with. Overhead a sign flew by.
“What did that say?” her mother asked.
“I didn’t see it, I was cleaning up this slobber.”
“We must be getting close. See if you can find it on the map.”
“The exit. There must be a number.”
“What number was it?” Janice asked.
“I don’t know–something. Just find the one we want.”
Janice flapped the map open so she couldn’t see the road, and Lonnie sighed.
“I think that might have been it,” her mother said.
It made Janice look up but there was nothing to see, just a Cadillac passing them. She would have noticed if they were close, she thought. She got the number from the map and folded it away.
“I’m sorry, honey,” her mother said. “It just came up on me too fast.”
“It’s all right,” Janice said, and it was. Another hour or two and she’d be in her new room, her mother caught in traffic above the city, Lonnie sprawled across the front seat, his head in her lap. All summer Janice had been planning for this, making lists of what to bring, buying soap and deodorant, shampoo, new towels. Now she wanted to enjoy her escape, but the hot car, the dry fields slipping by–none of it seemed as sweet as she’d pictured it. It didn’t feel like a release. It was still the three of them cruising along in the Buick the same as any road trip, as if they might bypass Utica completely and end up at the cabin at Blue Mountain Lake, her father already there, waiting with a stringer of crappie. It was so bright out, so green, that it seemed like there was a lot of summer left. But no, this was it.
“There,” her mother said, and pointed at a sign too far away to read. “What does that one say?”
She slowed, and Janice automatically looked behind them, but there was no one.
“What’s it say?” her mother said.
31, the sign said.
“That’s it,” Janice said. “That’s the one we want.”
The ramp took them west into the city, dropped them on Genesee Street. On the map it was the main drag, but most of the buildings they passed were abandoned, the windows soaped, doors boarded over with plywood and posted with sheriff’s notices. Fluff from some tree floated over the road. After being on the highway so long, it seemed like they were crawling. Huge weeds grew in the supermarket lot. The city was deserted, in a park only a boy her age practicing foul shots at a netless backboard. It looked like Hempstead.
They climbed a long hill, hitting every red light, and by the top the neighborhood had changed, the buildings giving way to three-deckers, porches strung with laundry. A panel truck missing a wheel sat propped on cinder blocks, its side crowded with graffiti. Still, her mother said nothing.
They came upon the gates of the college, two brick pillars with a wrought iron arch above them. A campus cop in a blaze orange vest motioned them in, pointed toward the dorms. With every speedbump, Lonnie puffed and grumbled. Since she’d received the brochure, Janice had gone over the map so many times that she knew what every building was. By the old stone dorms was a confusion of mini-vans and Explorers pulled off onto the grass, and parents unloading trunks and desklamps, plants and stereos. It reminded Janice of the first day of skating camp, all the fathers in bermuda shorts. Another cop had her mother ease the Buick up over the curb and shut it down. Ahead stretched a small quad, complete with a three-story Gothic bell tower sheathed in ivy. When they’d come in March, it lay under a foot of snow, the crisscrossed walks carved out by plows. Just like Cornell, her mother said. Now the grass was brown and bare in patches, a scraggly pack of boys playing ultimate under the belltower.
“It looks very nice,” her mother said. “Don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Janice said.
Her mother set a bowl of water down beneath a tree for Lonnie. He sniffed it and laid down in the shade. They started unloading the trunk. The building didn’t have an elevator, and Janice’s room was on the fourth floor. The stairs were marble, and echoed. A sign on her door had her name on it, and her roommate’s: MARLA RAY. She wasn’t here yet. There was an RA who gave her her keys and helped them bring a load up. Janice hadn’t wanted to look like a dork in shorts; now she wished she’d worn them. So many clothes. Books, her Mac with the little troll who stood on top of the monitor. She didn’t remember packing so much stuff.
“Which bed do you want to be yours?” her mother asked when they’d gotten it all up.
“It doesn’t matter,” Janice said. “We’ll decide when she gets here.”
“Is there anything else you need?”
Janice couldn’t think of anything. She felt like lying down, like letting the whole ride up here drain away.
“If you do,” her mother said, “I noticed a phone in the hall there. I took down the number in case I think of anything on the way home. I’m sure I will.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
Her mother looked at her and tried to smile–that smile that said, I’m trying, will you try too? Janice never knew how to react to it. Mostly she froze, tried not to give in to it. It was unfair, her mother asking her that, as if Janice would always disappoint her. Maybe it was true, but why did she always have to do it?
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right?” her mother said.
“Okay,” she said, and gave her a hug, a final kiss goodbye.
Janice trailed her out the door. Now it was advice time. Get your rest. Eat. Take your medication. When you drink–because I know you will–just have two of whatever it is. And let me know how things are going. Use the calling card.
“I will,” Janice said, already wondering how long she’d wait. She could see Marla hollering from the payphone–“It’s your mother again.”
On the stairs her mother stopped and looked back at her. “Do you think you’re going to like it here?”
“Yes,” Janice said, maybe too hard, because her mother looked hurt and said, “All right,” softly.
Christ, Janice thought, just go.
Outside, the quad was filling up with cars, a black lab chasing the ultimate game. Under the tree where they’d left Lonnie, the water dish had tipped over. He was gone, nowhere.
They both stood on the stoop, shielding their eyes. Besides the lab there was a golden retriever circling a family in a Wagoneer. No Lonnie.
“Stupid dog,” Janice said.
“He’s around here somewhere,” her mother said. “He can’t get far.”
They split up, each taking a side of the quad, walking toward the belltower, calling and calling. Her mother could whistle with her fingers so loud it hurt, and people turned to her. Janice asked one of the players–a tall guy in a tie-dyed Phish shirt–if he’d seen him. Her mother stopped an RA with a clipboard. Nothing.
They headed back to the stoop, calling. Her mother wiped the dish out with a paper towel; she’d brought some treats, and she put those in the dish and sat on the stoop, then a minute later walked over to the cop and came back with a phone number. “Just wait here,” she said.
Campus safety couldn’t do much for them. It was a busy day; most of their people were on traffic or issuing parking permits. They’d put something out on him, but they were stretched a little thin. It was the best they could do.
“Do you believe that?” her mother said. “Honestly. How much are we paying for this?”
It was nearly five now, the sun taking on a soft orange light, like in a commercial. Her mother tossed her keys from hand to hand. She stood up. “Let’s drive around a little and look for him.”
“I’ll watch here,” the RA offered.
Backing the car onto the road, her mother scraped the tailpipe. “Just great,” she said. “This is just what I need.”
Janice navigated with the campus map. Her mother hunched over the wheel, peering down alleys, dead-end parking lots. They went by the observatory, the engineering center, the fieldhouse. It only took a half an hour.
“Not a very big campus,” her mother said, as if unimpressed.
“Maybe he’s back at the dorm,” Janice said.
Her mother said nothing, just wheeled the car around. “I’m not leaving till I find him,” she said, and it sounded like a threat, like this was her fault.
Back at the dorm, Marla Ray had arrived with her family. She was tall and pretty and wore a print dress, her hair in cornrows. Her father was built like a football star and carried her trunk on his shoulder. Marla’s mother came down–the whole family was tall–and Janice’s mother introduced herself, explaining about Lonnie running away, waving her keys at the quad. “What a day,” she said, and Janice went upstairs.
“Oh no,” Marla said when Janice told her.
“I know,” Janice said. “We’ve had him for ten years.”
Marla’s father was a lawyer; her mother didn’t work but loved to garden. They were from Pittsburgh.
“I should go take care of my mom,” Janice said. Marla understood. It was good, Janice thought; she really liked her.
Her mother was still talking with Marla’s, who seemed glad to see Janice.
“Well, we should go get Marla settled,” she said. “We have to get back tonight.”
“They’re nice,” Janice’s mother said when they were alone.
“They are,” Janice conceded.
“I’m going to get a motel room tonight, if that’s all right with you. I think what we should do is put up a flyer around campus. Do you think that’s a good idea? We can use the number of the phone in your hall, that way people can reach us. Did you bring any pictures of Lonnie, or just pictures he’s in?”
“I’d have to look,” Janice said, though she knew she hadn’t. She hadn’t brought any pictures. Her mother kept a big one of Janice on the mantel in the living room; it was the winter she won Regionals. She stood there at center ice in the Coliseum, holding a bouquet of roses, slightly bowing to the crowd. The picture was eight years old. Sometimes she wanted to switch it for one of her in the ER, the doctor shoving the rubber tube down her throat.
“Let me go look,” she said.
Upstairs she said goodbye to Marla’s parents.
“I don’t,” she said when she came down.
“That’s all right,” her mother said. “People know what a Cocker Spaniel looks like, that’s one nice thing about the breed.”
They went to Kinko’s, which took forever, then to Walmart to buy a stapler and staples, a roll of doublesided tape. The flyers were fluorescent yellow and said: PLEASE HELP FIND, and then all the information and their number at the bottom. The reward was $100; Janice didn’t say it was more than Lonnie was worth. They walked around campus in the dusk, Janice handing them to her mother, her mother stapling them to trees, taping them to poles. They’d made a hundred of them. When they were done, her mother asked if she was hungry. And how about Marla, did Janice think she might like something to eat? Janice would have to stay and watch the phone in case someone called.
“Is your mom okay?” Marla asked. They’d chosen beds and were lying there talking.
“She’s just upset about Lonnie. And me. Everything. You know.”
“She’s not going to have anyone to boss around anymore,” Janice said, and thought of the house now, dark, not even the porch light on. That’s what her mother was going back to, and Janice thought of that day last September when it seemed there was no one else in the world except her. The empty streets, the sound of insects all day long. Across the street a sprinkler turned slow arcs, darkening the sidewalk. She felt the gritty curtain, rubbed it like grease between her fingers. And then she was dead, she had left, and that had made her happy. How could she ever hope to explain that to her mother? It seemed another failure.
The phone rang in the hall. She looked to Marla.
“It’s got to be for you,” Marla said.
It was. It was a frat house. The guy read their address in Bellmore off Lonnie’s tag.
“He just wandered in here around dinner. I don’t think he can see very well.”
“Where are you?” Janice asked, and the guy told her. It was all the way across campus; she knew it from the map.
She ran downstairs. Just as she was coming outside, her mother pulled up across the street, the Buick rocking over the curb and onto the grass. Its lights dimmed, and her mother’s door opened. For a second nothing happened, and then her mother slowly climbed out, hitching her purse on her shoulder. She leaned in across the seat, then ducked back out with a pizza box, and the purse fell off her shoulder, hit the box and flipped it so it landed in the grass.
From where Janice was standing, she could see her mother sag, her hands cover her face. They were supposed to have split the driving, but at the Roy’s her mother said she wasn’t tired, and so she drove the whole way. Now she seemed exhausted, kneeling to pick up the box, then plodding across the road with her head down. She was talking to herself, muttering something, and Janice was glad she had good news, that for once she could make her happy, and as she waited, brimming with it, she realized that this was what her mother wanted for her. It was this same concern, this wish to save her from unhappiness that her mother couldn’t give up. That was love. How helpless she must feel, Janice thought, and promised, that instant, not to disappoint her again.
“Mom,” she called, “they found him.”
“They did?” Already she was trying to smile for her.
“Oh good,” she said, and Janice reached across the pizza box to hug her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually wanted to do this, but it seemed right now, natural. She didn’t really hate her, she had to know that, didn’t she?
Her mother seemed more relieved than happy, and Janice wanted more. But wasn’t this exactly how her mother felt, always telling her to buck up, to smile? It was funny how they’d changed places.
“I am happy,” her mother said. “It’s just been a long day. I’m happy you like it here.”
They drove over to the frat and picked up Lonnie. He was fine, the dummy, they’d even given him dinner. The guy didn’t want the reward but her mother insisted, writing a check to the whole house.
On the way across campus, her mother said she’d drive back tonight. She didn’t have a reservation yet; it wasn’t that far. “And it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “You want to be with your new friends.”
“Aren’t you tired?” Janice asked.
“I’ll roll down the windows, that should do it.”
She didn’t park the car. They said goodbye at the window, Janice leaning in, the pizza box on the roof. Lonnie sniffed the air.
“Call me when you get home,” Janice said, “okay?”
“You call me if you need anything,” her mother said.
They both said I love you, and then Janice lifted the box off the roof and took a step back and let her drive off, watched her taillights out the gate and into traffic, headed back through Utica toward the interstate and the city. It was almost night now, the last of sunset dying beyond the quad. Swallows dipped and turned, chittering. The belltower was lit, and as she paused a minute, breathing in the cool air, the bells chimed, a high, light ringing like Sunday, like the cities in Europe she always wanted to visit, and Janice thought of her mother and what had happened today, how it was a mystery, how it had changed everything between them, and this was the feeling she would remember just a few months later, before her last, successful attempt: how badly she’d wanted to be happy here, and how it had seemed, for one still and perfect moment, almost possible.