“How much further down you think it is?” He turned to look at me in the backseat as he drove.
Through the front windshield, dark streets I didn’t recognize spread out in confusing perpendiculars. I had booked a place in the North end—somebody’s basement done up all IKEA-chic—because it was close to my mother’s facility. I’d barely been up this way before and never in the dark, on the lonely industrial roads from the airport.
He said sorry again, repeated it. We had turned off at an orange Detour sign, below it, another reading, “Road Closed Ahead.” I knew the road well enough: a major artery up here, the thru-line between 84 and the smaller state highway used by logging trucks coming down from Rainier and St. Helens and Scappoose. I didn’t think it was actually closed, I’d said, but he shook his head and took the turn indicated. Now, his GPS kept telling him to turn-around, alternating with “Re-routing” in that robotically-annoyed voice.
We came to a stop light and he put it in park while he tried a different app. He held up his phone. “You want to try?”
I held up mine. “Dead.”
The word sounded so hard, those deep, conclusive “d’s” ringing sharp from my mouth. Next to me, the soft rectangle shell of the animal carrier shook, then a long whistle.
His eyes in the rearview. “What kind of dog is that?”
“Not a dog,” I said. “Guinea pigs.” I slid open the zipper and stuck in a finger. A rough tongue licked it, then nibbled. “Ouch, Olive.” The other, Cayenne, would be huddled at the back. My mother insisted I bring them. She said, don’t think I won’t throw your ass out the door you don’t have them, and my mother is the kind of woman—stalwart and stubborn, irrational too—who would refuse a daughter just flown across the country if she appeared without the demanded items. She promised it’d been cleared with the hospice director, but she’d also told me to bring a coat with deep pockets.
“That’s a new one on me!”
“They’re my mother’s. She wants to see them.” One last time. “She gave them to my daughters when we moved to Philly.”
“I just moved from Boston!” Like we were college roommates meeting on some far-flung shore.
“Uber driver in a new city?” My thighs began to sweat. I could feel my mother’s words clawing up my throat. What the hell you think you’re doing, driving in a foreign city like this? What? London too full up? Rome didn’t need another shitty cab driver? Instead, “seems hard.”
He shrugged and waggled his phone. “Not with these things.” Something dinged, the color lighting up the underside of his chin changed, and he popped it back into the dashboard cradle. “We’re off!” He took a left, crossing from the far-right lane.
I could see our new route in yellow. The detour had taken us on a stiff diagonal away from where I was meant to be, and now we’d have to zig-zag back through the unplanned neighborhoods littering North Portland: their sidewalk-less streets, sharp unexpected curves, and random three-way intersections.
On the East Coast, it was 6 a.m. and my body was both excruciatingly fatigued and menacingly awake. Leyla would be rising from our bed, padding down the hall toward the kitchen, hoping for a quiet hour to enjoy coffee in silence before waking the girls. We didn’t know how long I would be gone. I didn’t know how long she would stay after I returned. It’s just bad timing, she said, helping me pack.
Can you believe this fucking timing? my mother had said into the phone as she punched her pillows back into plumpness. And the Seahawks in the playoffs too. Finally. I could hear the crisp snapsnapsnap of the blanket as she took it off the back of the couch, aired it, and folded it again. Her home was aggressively clean. You could almost hear the furniture whimper when she entered a room. Well, she finally said, the words I knew crackling over the line. What’re you going to do? We’re just god-damn ping-pong balls.
She told me this when I didn’t get into the college I’d hoped for. When my marriage fell apart. When Gretchen took the job directing the Children’s Museum in Amsterdam and forgot to call our daughters on their birthday. It’s what she’d say if she knew about Leyla. About the life she was incapable of leaving behind in order to step fully into mine.
When, I asked, do we get to hold the paddle?
What fun would that be?
That was only a few months ago. The tumors had since threaded through her body, latching onto anything nearby, turning her agile (though potty-mouthed) mind into a passenger within that thin, meager shell, just as I am a passenger inside this car.
I hadn’t realized we’d stopped. By the time I gather my bag and my coat and the guinea pigs, he was waiting at the back of his car, hands on hips, my roller bag on the pavement. He wore plaid, like my father. And his sunglasses were perched in his short hair, where my father kept his.
He extended a hand in apology, making amends. But I stepped past and wrapped my arms around him. After a moment, his arms closed around me. The guinea pigs shifted in their carrier, whistled.
A car drove slowly past, watching us, probably writing their version of our story. Two people. One bag. Someone going, someone staying—which, perhaps, is the only story there ever is anyway.
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