The Obligatory Emoticon
It was a long drive and Eve cried most of the way home, because the big day hadn’t gone the way she’d hoped, not that big days ever did. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, graduations, funerals—they were all too loaded with expectations, and the important people in her life rarely acted the way they were supposed to. Most of them didn’t even seem to be working from the same script as she was, though maybe that said more about the important people in her life than it did about big days in general.
Take today: all she’d wanted, from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning, was a chance to let Brendan know what was in her heart, to express all the love that had been building up over the summer, swelling to the point where she sometimes thought her chest would explode. It just seemed really important to say it out loud before he left, to share all the gratitude and pride she felt, not just for the wonderful person he was right now, but for the sweet little boy he’d been, and the strong and decent man he would one day become. And she wanted to reassure him, too, to make it clear that she would be starting a new life just the same as he was, and that it would be a great adventure for both of them.
Don’t worry about me, she wanted to tell him. You just study hard and have fun. I’ll take care of myself . . .
But that conversation never happened. Brendan had overslept—
he’d been out late, partying with his buddies—and when he finally dragged himself out of bed, he was useless, too hungover to help with the last-minute packing or the loading of the van. It was just so irresponsible—leaving her, with her bad back, to lug his boxes and suitcases down the stairs in the sticky August heat, sweating through her good shirt while he sat in his boxers at the kitchen table, struggling with the child-proof cap on a bottle of ibuprofen—but she managed to keep her irritation in check. She didn’t want to spoil their last morning together with petty nagging, even if he deserved it. Going out on a sour note would have been a disservice to both of them.
When she was finished, she took a few pictures of the van with the back hatch open, the cargo area stuffed with luggage and plastic containers, a rolled-up rug and a lacrosse stick, an Xbox console and an oscillating fan, a mini-fridge and a milk crate full of emergency food, plus a jumbo bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, because they were his favorite. She uploaded the least blurry photo to Facebook, along with a status update that read, Off to college! So happy for my amazing son, Brendan!!! Then she inserted the obligatory emoticon and launched her message into space, so her 221 friends would understand how she was feeling, and could let her know that they liked it.
It took a couple of tries to shut the hatch—the damn rug was in the way—but she finally got it closed and that was that. She lingered for a moment, thinking of other road trips, vacations they’d taken when Brendan was little, the three of them heading to Cape Cod to stay with Ted’s parents, and that one time camping in the Berkshires when it rained and rained—the earth turning liquid beneath their tent—and they had to pack it in and find a motel in the middle of the night. She thought she might cry right then—it was going to happen sooner or later—but before she could get herself started, Becca zoomed up the driveway on her bicycle, moving so swiftly and silently it felt like a sneak attack.
“Oh!” Eve flung up her arms in self-defense, though she was in no danger of being run over. “You scared me!”
Becca shot her a withering what-planet-are-you-from look as she
dismounted, but the contempt came and went so quickly it was almost like it hadn’t been there at all.
“Good morning, Mrs. Fletcher.”
Eve bristled at the greeting. She’d told Becca numerous times that she preferred to be addressed by her first name, but the girl insisted on calling her Mrs. Fletcher, as if she were still married.
“Good morning, Becca. Shouldn’t you be wearing a helmet?”
Becca released the bike—it balanced on its own for a moment before toppling dreamily onto the grass—and patted her hair with both hands, making sure everything was where it was supposed to be, which of course it was.
“Helmets are gross, Mrs. Fletcher.”
Eve hadn’t seen Becca for a few weeks, and she suddenly realized how pleasant the interlude had been, and how she’d failed to appreciate it, the same way you fail to appreciate the absence of a stomachache until the cramps return. Becca was so petite and adorable, so totally put together—that cute little turquoise romper, those immaculate white sneakers, all that makeup, way too much for a teenager riding her bike on a summer morning. And she wasn’t even sweating!
“Well, then.” Eve smiled nervously, acutely conscious of her own body, the doughy pallor of her flesh, the dampness spreading from her armpits. “Something I can do for you?”
Becca shot her that frosty look again, letting her know that she’d used up her quota of stupid questions for the day.
“Is he inside?”
“I’m sorry, honey.” Eve nodded toward the van. “We’re just about to leave.”
“No worries.” Becca was already moving toward the house. “I just need a minute.”
Eve could have stopped her from going in—she totally had the right—but she didn’t feel like playing the role of bitchy, disapproving mom, not today. What was the point? Her mom days were over. And as much as she disliked Becca, Eve couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, at least a little. It couldn’t have been easy being Brendan’s
girlfriend, and it must have hurt pretty badly to get dumped by him just weeks before he left for college, while she was marooned in high school for another year. He’d apparently done the dirty work by text and refused to talk to her afterward, just crumpled up the relationship and tossed it in the trash, a tactic he’d learned from his father. Eve could understand all too well Becca’s need for one last conversation, that vain hope for closure.
Good luck with that.
Figuring they could use a little space, Eve drove to the Citgo station to fill the tank and check the tire pressure, then stopped at the bank to withdraw some cash she could slip to Brendan as a parting gift. For books, she would tell him, though she imagined most of it would go for pizza and beer.
She was gone for about fifteen minutes—ample time for a farewell chat—but Becca’s bike was still resting on the lawn when she returned.
Too bad, she thought. Visiting hours are over . . .
The kitchen was empty, and Brendan didn’t respond when she called his name. She tried again, a little louder, with no more success. Then she checked the patio, but it was pure formality; she already knew where they were and what they were doing. She could feel it in the air, a subtle, illicit, and deeply annoying vibration.
Eve wasn’t a puritanical mom—when she went to the drugstore, she made a point of asking her son if he needed condoms—but she didn’t have the patience for this, not today, not after she’d loaded the van by herself and they were already way behind schedule. She made her way to the foot of the stairs.
“Brendan!” Her voice was shrill and commanding, the same one she’d used when he was a child misbehaving on the playground. “I need you down here immediately!”
She waited for a few seconds, then stomped up the stairs, making as much noise as possible. She didn’t care what they were doing. It was a simple matter of respect. Respect and maturity. He was leaving for college and it was time to grow up.
His bedroom door was closed and music was playing inside, the usual thuggish rap. She raised her hand to knock. The sound that stopped her was vague at first, barely audible, but it grew louder as she tuned in to its frequency, an urgent primal muttering that no mother needs to hear from her son, especially when she was feeling nostalgic for the little boy he’d been, the sweet child who’d clung so desperately to her leg when she tried to say goodbye on his first day of preschool, begging her to stay with him for just one more minute. Please, Mommy, just one little minute!
“Oh shit,” he was saying now, in a tone of tranquilized wonder. “Fuck yeah . . . Suck it, bitch.”
As if repulsed by a terrible odor, Eve lurched away from the door and beat a flustered retreat to the kitchen, where she made herself a cup of soothing peppermint tea. To distract herself while it steeped, she flipped through a catalogue from Eastern Community College, because she was going to have a lot of time on her hands from now on, and needed to find some activities that would get her out of the house, maybe bring her into contact with some interesting new people. She’d made it all the way up to Sociology, circling the classes that seemed promising and fit her schedule, when she finally heard footsteps on the stairs. A few seconds later, Becca stepped into the kitchen, looking rumpled but victorious, with a big wet spot on her romper. At least she had the decency to blush.
“Bye, Mrs. Fletcher. Enjoy the empty nest!”
The previous summer, when Eve and Brendan were visiting colleges, they’d had some lovely long drives together. Lulled by the monotony of the highway, he’d opened up to her in a way she’d forgotten was possible, talking easily and thoughtfully about a multitude of normally off-limits subjects: girls, his father’s new family, some of the options he was pondering for his undergraduate major (Economics, if it wasn’t too hard, or maybe Criminal Justice). He’d surprised her by showing some curiosity about her past, asking what she’d been like at his age, wondering about the guys she’d dated before she got
married, and the bands she’d liked, and whether or not she’d smoked weed. They shared a motel room on the overnight trips, watching TV from their respective beds, trading the Doritos bag back and forth as they laughed at South Park and Jon Stewart. At the time, it had felt like they were entering a gratifying new phase of their relationship—an easygoing adult rapport—but it didn’t last. As soon as they got home they reverted to their default mode, two people sharing the same address but not much else, exchanging the minimum daily requirement of information, mostly, on her son’s side, in the form of grudging monosyllables and irritable grunts.
Eve had cherished the memory of those intimate highway conversations, and she’d been looking forward to another one that afternoon, a last chance to discuss the big changes that were about to unfold in both of their lives, and maybe to reflect a little on the years that were suddenly behind them, gone more quickly than she ever could have imagined. But how could they share a nostalgic moment when all she could think about were the awful words she’d heard through the bedroom door?
Suck it, bitch.
Ugh. She wanted to press a button and erase that ugly phrase from her memory, but it just kept repeating itself, echoing through her brain on an endless loop: Suck it, bitch . . . Suck it, bitch . . . Suck it . . . He’d uttered the words so casually, so automatically, the way a boy of her own generation might have said, Oh yeah, or Keep going, which would have been embarrassing enough from a mother’s perspective, but not nearly so disturbing.
She probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Back when Brendan was in middle school, Eve had gone to a PTA presentation on “Web-Savvy Parenting.” The guest speaker, an assistant county prosecutor, had given them a depressing overview of the internet landscape and the perils it posed for teenagers. He touched on sexting and cyberbullying and online predators, but the thing that really bothered him was the insane amount of pornography that kids were potentially exposed to every day, a tsunami of filth unprecedented in human history.
This isn’t a copy of Playboy hidden in the closet, okay? This is an unregulated cesspool of degrading images and extreme sexual perversion available to everyone in the privacy of their own bedrooms, regardless of their age or emotional maturity. In this toxic environment, it will take constant, unwavering vigilance to keep your kids safe, to protect their innocence and guard them from depravity. Are you prepared to meet this challenge?
Eve and the other mothers she’d spoken to were shaken by the grim picture he’d painted, but they agreed afterward that it was a little overdone. The situation was bad—there was no use denying it—but it wasn’t all that bad, was it? And even if it was, there was no practical way to monitor your kids’ every mouse click. You just had to teach the right values—respect and kindness and compassion, pretty much do unto others, not that Eve was religious—and hope that it provided a shield against the harmful images and sexist stereotypes that they would inevitably be exposed to. And that was what Eve had done, to the best of her ability, though it obviously hadn’t worked out the way she’d hoped.
Suck it, bitch.
It was a little late in the day for a big sex talk, but Eve felt like she had no choice but to let Brendan know how disappointed she was. What he’d said to Becca was not okay, and Eve needed to make that clear, even if it ruined their last day together. She didn’t want him to begin college without understanding that there was a fundamental difference between sexual relationships in real life and the soulless encounters he presumably watched on the internet (he insisted that he stayed away from all that crap, but his browser history was always carefully scrubbed, which was one of the warning signs she’d learned about at the PTA meeting). At the very least, she needed to remind him that it was not okay to call your girlfriend a bitch, even if that was a word you used jokingly with your male friends, even if the girl in question claimed not to mind.
And even if she really is one, Eve thought, though she knew it wasn’t helpful to her cause.
Brendan must have sensed that a lecture was imminent, because he did his best to seal himself off in the van, tugging the bill of his baseball cap low over his sunglasses, nodding emphatically to the hip-hop throbbing through his sleek white headphones. As soon as they got on the Pike, he reclined his seat and announced that he was taking a nap.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, which was the first halfway polite thing to emerge from his mouth all day. “I’m really tired.”
“You must be,” she said, larding her voice with fake sympathy. “You had a really busy morning. All that heavy lifting.”
“Ha ha.” He propped his bare feet on the dashboard. “Wake me when we get there, okay?”
He slept—or pretended to sleep—for the next two hours, not even leaving the van when she stopped at a rest area outside of Sturbridge. Eve resented it at first—she really did want to talk to him about sexual etiquette and respect for women—but she had to admit that it was a relief to postpone the conversation, which would have required her to confess that she’d been eavesdropping outside of his door and to quote the phrase that had upset her so much. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to say it out loud, not without grave embarrassment, and she had a feeling that Brendan would laugh and tell her that she’d heard wrong, that he would never say, Suck it, bitch, not to Becca or anyone else, and they’d end up disputing the basic facts of the case rather than discussing the issues that really mattered. He could be a pretty slippery customer when he needed to be; it was another trait he’d inherited from his father, a fellow master of denial and evasion.
Just let him rest, she thought, inserting a Neil Young CD into the slot, mellow old songs that left her with a pleasant feeling of melancholy, perfect for the occasion. We can talk some other time.
Eve knew she was being a coward, abdicating her parental responsibility, but letting him off the hook was pretty much a reflex at this point. The divorce had left her with a permanently guilty conscience that made it almost impossible for her to stay mad at her son or hold
him accountable for his actions. The poor kid had been the victim of an elaborate bait and switch perpetrated by his own parents, who, for eleven years, had built a life for him that felt solid and permanent and good, and then—just kidding!—had ripped it out of his hands and replaced it with an inferior substitute, a smaller, flimsier version in which love had an expiration date and nothing could be trusted. Was it any wonder that he didn’t always treat other people with the kindness and consideration they deserved?
Not that it was Eve’s fault. Ted was the guilty party, the selfish bastard who’d abandoned a perfectly good family to start over with a woman he’d met through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist (he’d falsely claimed his marital status was “Separated,” a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one). Eve had been blindsided by his betrayal and devastated by his refusal to get counseling or make even a token effort to save the marriage. He just pronounced it dead and buried, unilaterally declaring the past two decades of his life to be a regrettable mistake and vowing to do better on his next try.
I have a second chance, he’d told her, his voice quivering with emotion. Do you see how precious that is?
What about me? she’d replied. What about your son? Aren’t we precious, too?
I’m a jerk, he explained. You both deserve better.
The whole world acknowledged her status as an innocent victim—even Ted agreed!—but Eve still felt complicit in the breakup. The marriage had been floundering for a long time before Ted found his way to Craigslist, and she hadn’t done a thing to make it better, hadn’t even admitted there was a problem. Through her own passivity, she had enabled the disaster, letting her husband drift away and her family fall apart. She’d failed as a wife, and therefore as a mother, and Brendan was the one who’d paid the price.
The damage he’d suffered was subtle and hard to pinpoint. Other people marveled at what an impressive young man he was and how well he’d weathered the divorce. Eve was delighted by the praise—it meant everything to her—and she even believed it, up to a point.
Her son did possess a number of good qualities. He was handsome and popular, a gifted athlete who never lacked for female attention. He’d done well in school, good enough to be admitted to Fordham and Connecticut College, though he’d ultimately settled on Berkshire State University, partly because it was more affordable, but mainly, as he cheerfully informed anyone who asked, because BSU was a party school and he liked to party. That was how he presented himself to the world—as a big, friendly, fun-loving bro, a dude you’d totally want on your team or in your frat—and the world seemed happy to take him at his word.
To Eve, though, he was still the bewildered boy who couldn’t understand why his father had left and why they couldn’t just make him come home. For the first couple of months after Ted moved out, Brendan had slept with a picture of his dad under his pillow, and more than once she’d found him wide awake in the middle of the night, talking to the photo with tears streaming down his face. He’d toughened up over time—his muscles turned wiry and his eyes got hard and the picture disappeared—but something had gone out of him in the process, all the boyish softness and vulnerability that had touched her so deeply. He just wasn’t as nice a person as he used to be—not nearly as sweet or as kind or as lovable—and she couldn’t forgive herself for letting that happen, for not knowing how to protect him, or how to fix what was broken.
They hit a traffic jam on the edge of campus, a festive convoy of incoming freshmen and their families. Inching toward the Longfellow Residential Area, they were cheered along the way by clusters of upperclassmen in matching red T-shirts who were apparently being paid to greet the newcomers. Some of them were dancing and others were holding up handmade signs that said, Welcome Home! and First Years Rock! However mercenary its origins, their enthusiasm was so infectious that Eve couldn’t help grinning and waving back.
“What are you doing?” Brendan muttered, still grumpy from his nap.
“Just being friendly,” she said. “If that’s all right with you.”
“Whatever.” He slumped lower in his seat. “Knock yourself out.”
Brendan had been assigned to Einstein Hall, one of the infamous high-rise dorms that made Longfellow look like a public housing project. Eve had heard alarming things about the party culture in this part of campus, but the vibe seemed reassuringly wholesome as they pulled into the unloading area and were swarmed by a crew of cheerful and efficient student movers. Within minutes, the movers had emptied the van, transferring all of Brendan’s possessions into a big orange bin on wheels. Eve stood by and watched, happy to be spared another round of sweaty labor. A scruffy kid whose T-shirt identified him as Crew Leader shut the hatch and gave her a businesslike nod.
“Okay, Mom. We’ll take this fine young man up to his room now.”
“Great.” Eve locked the van with the remote key. “Let’s go.”
The crew leader shook his head. Despite the ninety-degree heat, he was wearing a knitted winter cap with earflaps, the material so sweat-stiffened that the flaps curled out like Pippi Longstocking’s pigtails. “Not you, Mom. You need to move your vehicle to the Visitors Lot.”
This didn’t seem right to Eve. She’d seen lots of other mothers heading into the dorm with their kids. An Indian lady in a lime-green sari was accompanying her daughter at that very moment. But even as Eve began to point this out, she realized that the other mothers must have had husbands who were taking care of the parking. Everyone seemed to agree that this was the proper division of labor—the men parked the cars while the women stayed with their kids. Eve softened her voice, pleading for clemency.
“I’ll just be a few minutes. I need to help him unpack.”
“That’s great, Mom.” An edge of impatience had entered the crew leader’s voice. “But first you have to move the vehicle. There’s a lot of people waiting.”
I’m not your mom, Eve thought, smiling with excruciating politeness at the officious little shit. If she had been his mother, she would have advised him to lose the hat. Sweetie, she would have told him,
you look like a moron. But she took a deep breath and tried to appeal to his humanity.
“I’m a single parent,” she explained. “He’s my only child. This is a big deal for us.”
By this point, Brendan had tuned in to the negotiation. He turned and glared at Eve.
“Mom.” His voice was clipped and tense. “Go park the car. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
The crew leader patted her on the arm.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “We’ll take good care of your baby.”
The Visitors Lot was only a short drive away, but the walk back to Einstein took longer than she’d expected. By the time she made it up to Brendan’s room on the seventh floor, he was already in full-tilt male bonding mode with his new roommate, Zack, a broad-shouldered kid from Boxborough with a narrow, neatly trimmed beard that hugged his jawline like a chin strap, the same ill-advised facial hair that Brendan had sported for most of senior year. They were wearing identical outfits, too—flip-flops, baggy shorts, tank tops, angled baseball caps—though Zack had spiced up his ensemble with a puka shell necklace.
He seemed nice enough, but Eve had to work to conceal her disappointment. She’d hoped that Brendan would get a more exotic roommate, a black kid from inner-city Boston, or a visiting student from mainland China, or maybe a gay guy with a passion for musical theater, someone who would expand her son’s horizons and challenge him to move beyond his suburban comfort zone. Instead he’d gotten paired with a young man who could have been his long-lost brother, or at least a teammate on the Haddington High lacrosse team. When she arrived, the boys were admiring their matching mini-fridges.
“We could dedicate one to beer,” Zack suggested. “The other could be for non-beer shit, lunch meat and whatever.”
“Totally,” agreed Brendan. “Milk for cereal.”
“Arizonas.” Zack fingered his puka shells. “Might be cool if we stacked one on top of the other. Then it would be like one medium-sized fridge with two compartments. Give us more floor space that way.”
Eve went straight to work, putting sheets and blankets on Brendan’s bed and organizing his closet and dresser just the way they were at home, so he wouldn’t be disoriented. Neither boy paid much attention to her—they were strategizing about maybe lofting one of the beds and moving a desk underneath, freeing up enough space for a couch, which would make it easier to play video games—and she told herself that it was completely natural for a mother to be ignored in a situation like this. This was their room and their world; she was an outsider who would soon be on her way.
“Where would we get a couch?” Brendan wondered.
“People just leave ’em out on the street,” Zack explained. “We can go out later and pick one up.”
“Is that sanitary?” Eve asked. “They could have bedbugs.”
“Mom.” Brendan silenced her with a head shake. “We’ll figure it out, okay?”
Zack stroked his beard like a philosopher. “We could cover it with a sheet, just to be on the safe side.”
It was almost five thirty by the time Eve got everything unpacked. She saved the area rug for last, positioning it between the two beds so no one’s feet would be cold on winter mornings. It was a nice homey touch.
“Not bad,” she said, glancing around with satisfaction. “Pretty civilized for a dorm room.”
Brendan and Zack nodded in that subdued male way, as if they could barely rouse themselves to express agreement, let alone gratitude.
“Who wants dinner?” she asked. “Pizza’s on me.”
A quick, wary glance passed between the roommates.
“You know what, Mom? A bunch of guys from the floor are going out in a little while. I’ll probably grab some food with them, okay?”
Jesus, Eve thought, a sudden warmth flooding her face. That was quick.
“Sure,” she said. “Go ahead. Enjoy yourselves.”
“Yeah,” Brendan added. “This way you won’t have to drive home in the dark.”
“All right, then.” Eve scanned the room, searching fruitlessly for another task. “Looks like that’s it.”
No one contradicted her.
“Okay.” She smoothed Brendan’s bedspread one last time. She had a slightly dizzying sense of being overtaken by time, the future becoming the present before she was ready. “Guess I better be going.”
Brendan walked her to the elevators. It wasn’t an ideal place to say goodbye—too many kids milling around, including a crew of student movers pushing an empty bin—but there was nothing they could do about that.
“Oh, by the way . . .” Eve fumbled in her purse and found the cash she’d withdrawn that morning. She pressed the bills into Brendan’s hand, then gave him a fierce hug and a quick kiss. “Just call me if you need anything, okay?”
“I’ll be fine.”
She hugged him again when the elevator arrived. “I love you.”
“Yeah,” he muttered. “Me too.”
“I’m going to miss you. A lot.”
After that, there was nothing to do but climb aboard and wave to her son until the doors slid shut. For a few seconds, the elevator didn’t move. Eve smiled awkwardly at the other passengers, all of them students, none of whom responded in kind. They were chatting excitedly among themselves, making plans, bubbling over with enthusiasm, utterly oblivious to her presence. Eve felt old and excluded, as if everyone else was going to a party to which she hadn’t been invited. It’s not fair, she wanted to tell them, but they were already going down, and nobody would have believed her anyway.