It was embarrassing to take the bus, but it was doubly embarrassing to hand the driver a coupon that had been cut out of the back of a Cheerios box. My father ate Cheerios for breakfast every day except Sundays, and then he ate eggs. When my parents divorced, back when I was ten, my father moved from Charlottesville out to the country, sort of toward DC but sort of toward the mountains, and fixed up an old house. My sister, Eden, and I took the Greyhound bus to visit him every other weekend because neither our father nor my mother was willing to make the ninety-minute drive each way. My mother insisted it was our father’s responsibility. Our father thought he was paying my mother more than enough for child support, considering she had a decent job and he never had to pay Eden’s mom, Suriya, anything. He tried to bargain with my mother to drop us off at a shopping mall halfway, but she refused. He drove us the first year and a half until he spotted the bus coupons on the back of the Cheerios box, and then he never picked us up or drove us home again.
Eden always let me give the tickets to the bus driver. I was excited at first that she let me do it, since she was two years older, but when I realized I had been duped into having the uncool job, she said, “No givebacks.” I had to go on the bus first and hand over the tickets, and Eden could wait and lag behind, distancing herself from me and the embarrassing Cheerios coupon. Her preferred seating arrangement was to have her own two seats and she would sit wherever she wanted, forcing me to move closer to her if she sat too far away. If I tried to sit down next to her, she would say, “Hope not,” which was her way of politely saying “Fuck off,” since my name is Hope.
The bus station was next to a dentist’s office in a small strip mall of only four shops and a Jack in the Box that had been closed since our dad moved to his small town. If our dad wasn’t there to pick us up, Eden and I would wait inside the station on the single row of connected plastic chairs and read or do homework until he showed up in his old VW bus, which we called The Camper. When my parents divorced, my mom got the car and our dad got The Camper.The parking lot had grown dark and we couldn’t see anything out of the windows except our own muddy reflection. We were the only ones in the station and other buses had already come and gone.
One Friday, when I was in my first semester of high school, our dad was late. I got tired of trying to do my Algebra homework. Eden put on her headphones and popped a mixtape in her Walkman and ignored me when I asked for help, even though she was taking Trig and was good at it. We stared at the television bolted to the ceiling and watched as the programs segued from news to game shows to a really dumb movie to news again. The parking lot had grown dark and we couldn’t see anything out of the windows except our own muddy reflection. We were the only ones in the station and other buses had already come and gone. The guy behind the counter asked, “You girls need to call someone?” and Eden quickly replied, “No.” The ticket agent sighed, like he was just trying to be a nice person and why did Eden have to be so unfriendly in return. He hit a button on his cash register and printed out the long receipt of the day. A few minutes later he said he had to close up the station for the night. “You girls are going to have to wait outside,” he said, obviously somewhat uncomfortable with the situation but not wanting to get involved with us any further. “There’s a pay phone over there if you need to call someone,” he said, pointing to a post at the opposite end of the strip mall. Eden and I sat on the curb outside the station and watched him drive away.
Eden lit up a clove cigarette. I liked the way they smelled, so I didn’t pester her that she shouldn’t smoke.
“Why didn’t you want to call?” I asked.
“Because I didn’t,” Eden said. She dug her Walkman out of the pocket of her trench coat and flipped over the cassette.
“If we had called, Dad would’ve been here by now,” I said. “No, he wouldn’t have answered because he’s either on his way or his car broke down.”
“What are we supposed to do if his car broke down?”
“I don’t fucking know,” she said.
“Maybe he got the weekends mixed up and he doesn’t know to come and get us.”
“Then he’s really fucked up.” She put on her headphones and pressed play and I was cut out. She was done with me.
Finally, headlights turned into the parking lot and swept over us. Eden half hid her cigarette behind her hip and pulled off her headphones. A pickup truck drove up next to the bus station and a skinny guy in jeans got out. “Hey,” he said. “Sorry you girls had to wait so long. I’m Larry. I’m a friend of your dad’s. He had some serious car trouble so he asked me to come get you.”
The whole thing played out like the script they read you in school about how you shouldn’t get into a stranger’s car, even if he offers you ice cream, even if he says he’s a friend of your dad’s. Larry probably sensed this, because he said, “I met you before, but you were really little. You probably don’t remember. It was at a birthday party for you” — he pointed at Eden— “when you were three or four maybe. You were just a baby,” he said to me.
We stared at him, unsure of what to say. Eden was usually the one to take charge in these situations, but she was silent. Eden thought that once you were over sixteen you were basically an adult, and she didn’t like being reminded that she had ever been a little girl. She flicked away her cigarette and crossed her arms over her chest. Larry leaned back against the truck. “Or, do you want to wait out here another hour while your dad finds someone else to come get you? ’Cause I do want to eat dinner at some point before breakfast.”
Eden picked up her backpack. “Let’s go,” she said.
Larry walked around to the driver’s side. “You want to squeeze up front, or you want to sit in the back?” he asked.
“The back,” Eden said.
“Wait,” I said.
“What? The back is better,” Eden said. She lowered her voice. “I don’t want to sit next to him.”
“I don’t want to go,” I said, slightly above a whisper.
“I don’t know.”
Eden rolled her eyes. “Lots of people ride in backs of trucks,” she said.
“I don’t like him.”
“Well, too bad. He’s friends with Dad.”
“How do you know?”
Eden rolled her eyes again. “Do you have to have proof of everything?” she asked.
“Dad would’ve given him a note or something.”
Eden sighed a loud sigh. “Look, I remember him from my birthday party.”
I was shocked that she did because I couldn’t remember my fourth birthday party at all. “You do?”
“Yes,” she said. “It was in the backyard and we had little individual containers of ice cream. I dropped mine on the ground and we didn’t have any extras and that’s why I’m crying in all the pictures.” She flung her hair over her shoulder, exposing the multiple ear piercings I wasn’t allowed to get until I turned fifteen in the spring. “Now, can we go?”
Larry honked his horn a short beep and Eden pulled on my backpack strap and tugged me to the rear of the truck. “Just climb on in and sit down,” Larry said.
Eden climbed in first and helped me up. The truck bed had lots of junk in it, tools and wooden crates and sacks of stuff. We sat down with our backs against the cab, and the bus station got smaller and smaller as we drove out of the parking lot. Eden would later say it was like watching the end of a movie. She would also later say that she didn’t remember her fourth birthday party, but she had heard the story so many times she felt like she did.
When I was thirty-five, my mother was dying of cancer. She had a cough she ignored for weeks, months maybe, she said, maybe a year, and when she went to the doctor he didn’t have great news. She told me it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t need to come out, she said. Her friend would drive her to her treatments. “They ask you to bring a friend to drive you home because you can be groggy afterward. It’s the same thing they tell you when you get an abortion,” she said. My mother had volunteered at a women’s health clinic for years. When she had given me and Eden the obligatory teenage birth control talk, she confessed that she had had an abortion. “I was too young,” she said. “I couldn’t be pregnant at that time. It was barely legal. I had to drive to a different state.” Eden and I didn’t have much of a reaction to her abortion story and I think it disappointed her. When she told me she had cancer, she bypassed me having a reaction. “Don’t worry,” she said. “People get this kind of thing every day.”
I flew out to see her in October. Since she moved to the West Coast I rarely visited because the plane ticket was out of my poor, starving playwright price range. She was sicker than I thought. For a moment I didn’t recognize her. She was thin and gray and slow-moving. Her skin was translucent in places. It was hard for her to breathe. She had an oxygen tank on wheels that she trolleyed around like a small dog. She looked at me when I first arrived and I couldn’t tell if her eyes were watery because she was crying or if she was happy to see me or if it was some side effect of her treatment. I was dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, and my mother said, “You’re cold.” She went to a closet and pulled out a fleece sweatshirt and insisted I put it on, which I did, even though it was two sizes too big and a shade of purple I would never wear. She nodded at me approvingly and then said, “You need better socks. This is the Northwest.” She started rummaging through the closet again and I said, “You don’t have to do that.” And she said, “I’ve got some extra wool socks in here.” I said, “Mom, it’s really okay.” I said, “I packed other socks. I’m pretty good at dressing and taking care of myself.” Her oxygen machine started beeping and she said, “Oh, be quiet,” to it, and when it wouldn’t shut up, she bent down and tapped it and whispered, “Please, please, please.” Then she got a little lightheaded and teetered backwards into the closet, her extra clothes and blankets cushioning her fall, her oxygen tubing getting tangled up in the buckle of a winter coat and sliding up her cheek. She waved me away when I tried to help her up. “Happens all the time,” she said.
My mother’s friend Gail came by with cannabis oil and instructed me to rub it into my mother’s chest. Gail had basically moved in. “It’s not good,” Gail said. “It’s spread to her lungs. There’s not much more they can do for her unless she can get on a clinical trial.” I wasn’t sure how I reacted to Gail; I tried not to show any reaction. I didn’t know Gail. My mother had mentioned her a few times, but I didn’t keep track of my mother’s friends. Gail told me that everything was in order, my mother’s papers and things. Her estate. “There really isn’t anything there of substance,” Gail said. “She didn’t have good insurance and had to spend down her assets, what she had of them. It’s probably all just going to break even. She said you weren’t expecting anything monetary like that anyway.” Gail said, “You won’t have to worry about the paperwork. She didn’t want to bother you with it. She knows you’re busy with your career.”My mother was all business, no fuss. She had delegated her health to Gail, who sent me periodic updates via email.
Gail didn’t guilt me on any of that, on being the absent daughter, or being the daughter who didn’t rush to take care of her mother. She knew my mother didn’t operate that way. My mother was all business, no fuss. She had delegated her health to Gail, who sent me periodic updates via email.
I started calling my mother once a week. She thought it was odd. “Anything wrong?” she asked after the third time I called and it appeared it was going to be a regular thing. “I’m not dying,” she said. I asked her how she was feeling, and she snapped, “I’m not going to talk about my fucking cancer! I’m fucking sick of it! There’s more to me than this fucking disease!”
She was quiet for a second, huffing as best she could on her oxygen machine. I had never heard my mother so angry, not even when she was in the middle of divorcing my dad. I meekly said I was sorry. She strained to catch a decentbreath. “We’re not going to do this,” she said. “Do what?” I asked. “We’re not going to have some heart-to-heart, motherdaughter moment where I officially say goodbye to you. Life is for the living,” she said. “Go live your life.”
Gail was the one who called me. “I don’t know how to get in touch with your sister,” she said. I was silent, in disbelief that this was how it was happening. Your mother dies and you get a call on your cell phone when you are at a temp job and out on a break, walking aimlessly around midtown Manhattan to avoid going back inside a soul-sucking cube farm, dressed in a faux corporate costume you would like to burn, so obviously an alien among all the other passersby on the street who seem to have no problem with normal life. You are the freak standing on the curb, not walking when the walk sign says walk, frustrating people shoving past you with their salad-bar lunches. You are exposed as the impostor you always were.
I told Gail I didn’t know where Eden was and I doubted my dad did either. Gail asked if I wanted her to call him. “I have his numbers,” she said. I said no, I would do it. She asked when I would come out for the service, and that’s when I started crying. It was near Christmas and flights would be astronomical. I embarrassingly blubbered something about that. The thing you wish you didn’t say the moment you learned your mother just died. How expensive it was going to be.
From Eden. Used with the permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2018 by Andrea Kleine.