My mom and I are outside a karaoke bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan smoking cigarettes. It’s her birthday. She is a small woman, thin and just under five foot six inches, wearing a black-and-leopard print dress. She is beautiful, no doubt about it. Tonight I’ve given dirty looks to three different guys, closer to my age than hers, who have tried to buy her drinks and steal her away from me. But that is not what tonight is for: I am leaving to go back to Chicago in less than a week, and I know that when I am gone I will miss her terribly, like always.
I toss my cigarette to the side before it’s half done and my mom continues to take long drags off hers. The resemblances between us are uncanny. People often mistake us for sisters, but our similarities run deeper than just looks. We both love to cook, we both have the same quirky sense of humor, we both love music and books, and we both have a knack for doing impressions. As the midnight city swarms around us I am reminded of possibly the most relevant sameness between us.
“When did you move here again?” I ask.
“I was twenty-one.” She nods and grins in that way people do when they are remembering something from another life.
“And you were alone?”
“Oh yes. My parents wanted me to come back so badly. But I was never that California kind of girl. I didn’t belong there. I wanted to start over for myself.”
“So you came here and then you fell in love.” I’ve heard the story a million times, about how my mother dropped out of Brigham Young University and high tailed it to the big city, determined to become a star. Her acting career was short lived, but she had taken a risk in the name of independence. And it had all worked out, hadn’t it?
She smiles and looks towards the concrete as she stamps out her cigarette with her heel.
“Well, yes. First with the city, and then with your father. I knew pretty early on that I would never leave.”
It is the Spring of 2009 and I am in Union Square, lying flat on the grass in the little park behind the statue of George Washington reeling back on a horse.
I’ve heard the story a million times, about how my mother dropped out of Brigham Young University and high tailed it to the big city, determined to become a star.
My dark sunglasses hide the fact that my eyes are beginning to well up. With my phone to my ear I listen to my cousin Erika calmly telling me that everything will be OK. I want to believe her, but it seems very, very hard.
I had recently left college, a small Jesuit school in Philadelphia where everyone owned a North Face fleece and the big weekend draw was getting primped and perfumed for frat parties in dungeon-like concrete basements. The brick walls of the campus felt suffocating, and the stone gargoyles that hunched on the edges of buildings felt trite. I packed up all my shit before winter break and left. There weren’t many people that I bothered to say goodbye to.
Coming home was not easy. My mother had married Bill, a tall, lanky Irish guy with hollow eyes, a nonexistent sense of humor, and a drinking problem obvious to everyone but her. Mom had sold all her things and moved in with him; I suppose that while my brother and I were off at college, it was easy for him to pretend that we didn’t exist at all.
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Like two pit bulls fighting over the same territory, Bill and I circled around each other with ruthless suspicion and growing animosity. I resented the fact that I had to share a living space with him, and even more so the grip he had on my mom. She made excuses for him, defended him, took his side over mine. My dad’s house, the home in which I had grown up, was a ten minute drive away, but it would be too difficult for me to live there given the circumstances: the house was in the depressing process of foreclosure. There was no way to stop it, no way to refill the empty, dusty rooms that were left after furniture had been sold, no way to speed up time to get it all over with. The four-story structure, at one time swelling with life, was now a skeleton. There was no electricity, no hot water, no gas, no way to stop the ebbing summer heat from slipping inside and filling up the space with a stuffy reminder of how helpless we had all become. The once elegant chandeliers hung like ghosts from the ceiling. Books were piled in corners, clothes strewn into boxes, magazines cloaked the floors, abandoned trinkets littered every surface. It was all a mess.
“You have to calm down first,” Erika said. She was across the country in California, where I imagined things were somehow easier.
“I have to get the hell out of here,” I responded. Around me there were happy people: couples laughing, people reading peacefully, friends chatting. I was not one of them. My plan to go off to college and make all these great new friends and find out what I wanted to do with my life and transform into this independent person had failed. While I was there, all I had wanted was to come home. Now that I was back, I found myself still wishing for the same thing.
“Is that what you want?” Erika asked.
“I don’t know what I want. But I know I have to leave.”
A friend of mine once said that I shouldn’t be scared to make a change just because I couldn’t predict what would happen next. I clung to this wisdom as I began packing all my things.
Leaving has been a strength of mine for as long as I can remember. When you grow up with divorced parents, you are aware that if you don’t like it at this house, you can always run to that house. I had thought about leaving my mom’s and Bill’s house many times. I thought about it when my mom and I came home one night after having dinner only to find that Bill had locked us out. I thought about leaving when I felt his hot breath behind me, slurring that he was proud of me and, despite what I thought, he didn’t really hate me. I thought about leaving every day, but I didn’t leave, not until I had to.
When I came home one night, after being out late drinking with some friends, I stumbled into Bill on the staircase. We bumped into each other and I said in as rude of a tone as I could muster, “Excuse me.” It seems like that was all it took for a confrontation to unfold. We stood facing each other in the dim hallway scowling, daring the other one to say something else. The something else was said, and the floodgates opened.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I demanded to know, fueled by the alcohol and my building rage.
“What’s wrong with me? You’re just a drunk bitch.”
“I’m a drunk bitch? What the hell do you call yourself? You’re a low-life alcoholic! Why don’t you get the fuck out of here and leave us all alone!”
“Fine! I would love to! You people are all crazy!”
“Crazy! You are the biggest piece of shit I have ever met in my life!”
We went on like this for a while, spitting out insults and curses, trapped within a face-off that had been brewing for a long time. The door at the end of the hall swung open and my mom stepped out, wiping sleep from her eyes.
“What’s going on out here?”
Neither of us bothered to explain. When words failed to express the fury that roiled through me, I lunged at Bill with both arms extended, pushing him back as hard as I could. I had played rugby for a year at school, and with all my strength I wrestled him to the floor. With our fingers gripping at each other’s hair and necks, we pushed and shoved and flipped over and back.
“Stop it!” my mom screeched from the sidelines, but there was no stopping it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that this was it. This was our first and last physical fight, and I wasn’t giving up. As Bill pinned me to the floor and shook my head back and forth by the roots of my hair, I took one deep breath and reached between his legs. I grabbed and twisted until he screamed and threw his head back in pain. He rolled off of me and I quickly got up and ran to call my dad. Bill hobbled off to call the cops, which wasn’t a new tactic of his. When I heard my dad’s car pull up outside I bolted for the front door.
“That’s right! Get out of here and never come back! Do you hear me? You’re never coming back here!” Bill’s voice faded with each step I took. My mom watched me leave and the sound of her crying hit me like bits of shrapnel. But I left, and I never did go back.
The idea of Chicago began to take on a kind of magical promise. Once I was there, things would be better. I would be on my own and I would be somewhere else.
A friend of mine once said that I shouldn’t be scared to make a change just because I couldn’t predict what would happen next. I clung to this wisdom as I began packing all my things. After I had left my mom’s house that night, I went back to my dad’s, a decision that I knew was temporary. I had applied to several colleges, but one seemed the most endearing. Columbia College not only had an excellent writing program, but it was in Chicago, a place I had never been. Once I received my acceptance letter, I began fantasizing about the clean slate that would come with moving there. I wouldn’t have to be tied down by anything that had happened in the past. I would get my own apartment; I would get a job and make my own money. The idea of Chicago began to take on a kind of magical promise. Once I was there, things would be better. I would be on my own and I would be somewhere else. And, at the time, somewhere else was exactly where I wanted to be.
Four years later, I still call the Windy City home. Much has changed since that day I piled all my stuff into a U-Haul, waved goodbye to the New York skyline and pulled onto the highway. Finally, I have found my own independence, but I’ve realized that being independent does not mean being alone. As I pieced together a life for myself in Chicago, my mother began to discard pieces of her own life that no longer served a positive purpose. Bill had to go. Both of us individually worked to patch together a world where we could live happy, free, and hopeful. My mother has rediscovered her own independence: how ferocious, how determined, how capable she can be when there is nobody standing in her way. She has remembered that young girl from so many years ago who abandoned what she knew and took a risk because it felt right.
Six days after our night out at the karaoke bar, it’s my last day in New York before I leave for Chicago. I am having brunch at a bar with my two friends when my mom calls and says that she is going upstate for the night and is coming to say goodbye to me now. When she walks through the door I am flooded with dread. I hate goodbyes. The bartender and my friends ignore us as we sit in a corner by the window; my mother hugs me tight as I begin to cry into her shoulder. “I don’t want to leave,” I say, and she strokes my head and says, “I know, I know.”
“I don’t want to leave you,” I repeat in a crackly voice.
“But you’ve got to go. You know that. You have an exciting life waiting for you out there.” She holds my shoulders back and looks at me. I am once again struck by how radiant she is. “I will always be here for you. And remember, you can always come back home.”
Emily Schultze is a writer from Brooklyn who now lives in Chicago. Her work has appeared in HYPERTEXT Magazine, Hair Trigger 34, Gapers Block, Every Day Fiction, Zine Columbia, The Cadaverine Magazine, and By The Overpass, as well as winning several awards and scholarships. Emily graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BFA in Fiction Writing and now works as Marketing Assistant for the indie press Elephant Rock Books. Pay her an internet visit at www.emilyschultze.com.