256 Hillary Lane
I have a castle in my mind. My tower, a room with two side by side windows, where sunlight turns the carpet into Rumpelstiltskin’s spun golden thread. My garden, half an acre of dandelions and cotton woods, and, in the summer puffs of white settle over the grass like a fairy’s blanket. My cat pokes her paws underneath my door, begging to be let inside, but at night she roams the house as sentinel, taking stock of all three floors. My steed, an ancient blue scooter, and when I speed down the decline of the driveway, I fly for a single second.
I saw my home for the last time five years ago. A family of strangers besieges it now, but they are wrong to do so, because they don’t remember it like I do, and they don’t live in it like I did.
My mother says someone stole her wedding ring. She took it off at the gym and never saw it again. I see it again and again, because every time I look at my mother’s fingers I expect to find it. But neither my mother nor my dad have worn their wedding rings in months.
My dad will say to me, years after this, that although his children are the most precious things in his life, he should have never married my mother, and I can’t begrudge him for that, because I could never love someone like my mother. All throughout my childhood, divorce whispers through my dad sleeping in my brother’s room when he’s at college, my mother’s friends who I never meet, the unplanned trips, and silences over dinner. But there is so much that I do not understand.
I don’t think of my mother as someone who lives in my house. She works, she teaches at the gym, and she goes to bed at nine o’clock. She is in the remnants scattered around the house: a coffee pot half empty, salt-crusted boots on the welcome mat, the last ring of the front door slamming into place. I won’t find her sitting on the couch, remote on her knee, groaning and swearing along with me when the Sabres let another goal slip by—like my dad does.
But I do find her Friday after work, slinking for the front door, as though I won’t see her clearly from the living room. “Where are you going?” I ask her, pausing my video game.
She freezes. There’s a brown backpack on her shoulders. She just dyed her hair its original color, the grays hidden among black. Veins pop out blue on her hands.
“I’m going to my friend’s cottage for the weekend,” she says, and she expects me to accept that.
There’s nothing else I can say. Even the most banal question—“Whose cottage?”—can stir a thunderstorm.
So I don’t say anything. My mother tears off in her car faster than anyone should go in a quiet neighborhood, as though she can’t stand being here a moment longer.
My mother’s mother was one hell of a mother. She forced my mother to do the cooking and cleaning and screamed at her if it wasn’t done right. She threw my grandfather’s clothes through the window onto the front lawn. She took her kids to meet her various boyfriends at their houses.
My mother cried to my dad, asking him, “What if I turn out to be just like her? What if I’m not a good mother to our kids?”
My mother is beautiful. She always had veiny hands that I poked when I was little, but smooth skin and curly, shiny hair down to her back, an indeterminable shade between black and brown. “It’s the coconut oil,” she would say. I know she has a perfectly symmetrical face, pronounced cheekbones, and straight, white teeth when she smiles, but I don’t remember her like that. I remember her cutting her hair off because Dad always said he liked women with longer hair. I remember her shoving floss at my siblings and me so that we could have shiny teeth like hers. I remember her veiny hands in fists, her collar bones protruding, feet planted apart, the skin from her cheeks stretching taut as she shrieked, “I’m your mother!”
When my mother leaves, the four of us kids emerge like vines creeping over the side of an abandoned house. “Dad,” I ask him at the dining table. Quizzes from his students lay partially graded with red pen in front of him. “Where did Mom go?”
“She went to a cottage with her friends,” he says without looking at me. Somehow, he feels he has to cover for her, though she barely bothers to pretend for us.
“Dad, I don’t mean to be rude, but Mom doesn’t really have any friends.”
“Yes, she does,” he says, marking a student’s grade. They didn’t pass. “You just haven’t met them.”
Later, my younger sister Claire finds the note hidden in the bag my mother packed for her cottage trip: a stick figure drawing of my mother in bed and a man with a large, smiling head next to her. “Counting the days until I see you again.” It’s not my dad’s handwriting.
My dad teaches calculus to high school kids. He’s been in the same classroom for the past twenty-something years. The same Albert Einstein poster has hung there since I was in kindergarten. He leaves for work around 7:15 a.m., because he loses track of time in the morning, and he commits himself to every Friday afternoon happy hour; even if the rest of the crowd changes, he’ll be there.
I’ve seen pictures of my dad when he was around my age. Twenty-two and married, smiling at the camera with all his teeth, my teeny tiny older sister tucked between his arm. Back then, he had bright red hair and thick-framed, nerdy glasses. His hair is more transparent than red now, and he’s gone for more understated glasses. I can’t picture myself like that. Twenty-two and married. How can you tell what anything will be like thirty years later? My dad doesn’t lift my older sister between his arms now, but he still places her head on his shoulder, rubs her back when she’s sobbing.
My dad used to work for an insurance company, but he left after a few years. All the complications needed to keep a business going weren’t for him. “I like math because there’s only one answer,” he’s told me.
My mother, surprisingly, returns to my home at the end of the weekend as she said she would. She yanks the Xbox controller from my hands before she even takes her shoes off. “Don’t you kids ever do anything?” she says. “Don’t you ever go outside?”
I don’t say anything. Lightning can’t be stopped with talk.
My mother pulls Claire from her room and drags her downstairs. One earphone dangles forlornly at my sister’s stomach. “Let’s go on a walk,” my mother says. “Come on, girls. Do something active for once. What do you do all day? Play video games?”
“I’ll get Adam and Rachel,” I say.
“No, no. Just us. Your siblings are athletes.”
On our trek around the neighborhood, my mother says to me, “Emma, you’re lucky to have the figure that you do, even though I only see you sitting on the couch. Claire, darling, however—you’re getting a, a pouch. We need to do something about that. Your teenage metabolism won’t last forever, you know.”
My sister stares at her feet as she walks. “Why would you say something like that?” I ask, a ball of rage bubbling in my stomach.
My mother faces me with the narrowed eyes and upturned nose. It’s the look that makes me want to punch her. “Emma, sometimes some things need to be said,” she says. “You would understand that if you were an adult.”
My younger sister and I always shared a room. Sometimes it was annoying as hell. Claire snored at night, and her side of the room was disastrously messy. Sometimes it was the only place we could whisper to each other without our mother overhearing.
We were together nearly every single day after our parents announced the divorce, traveling from one impermanent apartment to the next, together in changing spaces. I don’t know how we survived. Sometimes, I think we’re so much the same it’s no wonder that strangers couldn’t tell us apart when we were little. We both wanted to sink into the screens of our laptops, clicking video after video, so we didn’t have to look up and remember where we were.
My parents met while working at the same diner. Perkins. My dad was the bus boy, while my mother served coffee. My dad had a little crush on my mother and always hung around, hoping for a chance to talk to her. He saw his chance one day, went to take it, accidentally colliding with my mother, and spilling coffee all over her. They went on a couple dates afterwards.
I asked my mother in the car one day, “Didn’t you and Dad meet when he spilled coffee all over you?”
She pulled her attention off the road to frown heavily at me, eyebrows drawn low and pinched. “That never happened, Emma,” she said.
This did: My mother had a crush on my father and followed him to the same college. She’d scream if I told anyone that. In college, they were reacquainted and started dating. Something must have gone right then, because the August after they graduated, they were married. My older sister and brother followed shortly after. My mother said to my dad that what she wanted more than anything was to be the best mother she could possibly be for her kids.
“I thought that was so noble, so honorable,” my dad told me. “To me, back then, there was nothing more noble than raising children.”
In the five years after my parents divorced, I don’t think I could tally the number of times my sister and I returned to my dad’s house sobbing after an evening with her. Each instance is distinct and yet the same. She says we’ll burn in hell for the way we’ve treated her. She says I’m a high and mighty bitch who needs to learn a lesson. She tells my brother she’ll never be whole again after he failed a course. I’ve quit talking to my mother entirely.
When my older siblings were born, she stopped working so she could take care of them. She went to every single boring choir concert and losing baseball game. She’d take us to any movie or get any snack the moment we asked.
I want to ask her what happened. I want to know what changed between my oldest sister’s graduation as valedictorian of her class, my brother’s Little League championship game, my youngest sister’s Beatles-themed third grade play, my acceptance of the largest grant at senior awards night, all of our awkward first boyfriends and girlfriends, knee scrapes, kiddie pools, Halloween, watching fireworks from the driveway, Granddad’s yacht club, high chairs, babies in white baptism dresses—and the moment when my mother threw her wedding ring in the trash. But, now, all I could ever tell her is, “You’re not my mother.”
Neither of my parents can afford to continue living in our house on a singular income. I’d ask anyone, if they ever stopped in the neighborhood, to check if it’s changed. It has muted blue double doors, a pine tree in the front yard, meticulously trimmed hedges all around, relentless and resilient dandelions poking through the grass, and a newly paved driveway. There are other people living there now, but they don’t see my home as I see it—through my dad’s car window, a stark white emptiness glowing in the sun.
Emma Gears is a senior English (literature) major who spends a lot of her time wishing she could bring her cat to Geneseo. The rest of her time is spent crying over Bills games and coming up with new story ideas that she may or may not write down.