Kiss Me Goodbye
The year is 1975. The flight to her ancestral home costs Luce Warner $140. Living there might cost her her life.
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The Shape of a Heart
I forgot to kiss her goodbye.
Rain pelts my yellow slicker as I hesitate halfway up the steps on the first day of third grade at my new school. Around me, other kids run hand in hand with their mommies or daddies, heading for the front door, trying to escape the downpour. Some of them wear yellow slickers and rubber rain boots just like mine. Some of them are sheltered by the umbrellas their parents hold above their heads.
There’s no one to shelter me, to hold my hand. I’m alone.
And I forgot to kiss her goodbye.
Should I go forward? Back?
I stand frozen.
Mommy’s battered gray car with the rusted rear door and the dented bumper is still parked in front of the school. Through the misted window I see the pale smudge of her face. She’s watching me, waiting to see me safely inside.
I run down the stairs toward the car, hoping she’ll push the door open, step out, come to me. Foolish hope. I know by now that wishes don’t come true.
When I reach the car, I press the tip of my finger to the window and draw the shape of a heart, raindrops clinging to my lashes and running down my cheeks. Then I press my lips to the wet glass and kiss her goodbye. She smiles with her mouth but not with her eyes. For her, even the car is too open a space. I smile back because I made her smile, if only a little.
Then I turn and run up the stairs as the morning bell chimes, loving her and hating her, wishing she could be…normal.
June 29, 1975
The pickup barrels along the narrow highway that clings to the edge of a cliff. On my right, the earth juts skyward, a wall of gray and brown and green. On my left, a single lane separates me from the flimsy barrier and the white churn of the ocean that crashes against the rocks below.
Wind gusts off the water, making the pickup shiver and shake. There’s no grab handle so I curl my fingers over the worn seat and hold on. As if that will save me if we go over the edge. The driver—Rick, according to how he introduced himself when he picked me up at the airport, Richard Parsons, according to the letter my aunt sent—slaps his breast pocket, hauls out a cigarette one-handed, tucks it between his lips, and pushes in the lighter to heat it up. Rick takes a deep lungful of smoke and blows it out, adding new cigarette stink to the old cigarette stink that mixes with the scents of sweat and mildew and sickly sweet rot coming off the red burger boxes on the floor.
Minutes pass and the flame burns the white cylinder to ash. He hacks up a lung, takes a final drag, and stubs out the cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
“You’re a real chatterbox, huh?” he says, turning on the radio. Sound crackles, half-static, half crooning. Rick hunches forward against the wheel and peers through the windshield, his mop of stringy hair hanging to his shoulders. I don’t like him, don’t like the way he looked at me when he found me at the airport or the sneer in his voice when he said my aunt’s name. Pat, he’d said, like he was horking up a loogie. But he’s my ride north and I have no other way to get where I’m going. If I’d had another option, I’d have taken it. But I didn’t, and I don’t, and it’s a waste of effort to wish otherwise.
The truck skids as we round another curve, number one million and six of the curves we’ve rounded on this endless drive, part of it through forest, part of it hugging the cliff. I slap my hand against the window for balance and say, “We could slow down.”
Rick glances at me then back at the road. “No need.” He thumps a closed fist against the truck’s dash. “She’s been getting me where I need to be for almost twenty years.” He gives a rusty laugh.
I’ve fielded leering looks and groping hands many a time. I’ve wrangled bill collectors, an asshole boss, and the 6’6” guy who moved in next door and stayed nasty-drunk from that moment on. I grew up knowing not to walk down Mermaid Avenue at night, to never trust that the Q or R would be on time, to fade into the background when the situation called for it, and to speak up for myself when there wasn’t anyone else to speak up for me. So, I speak up now, making my voice calm even though my heart trip-hammers as I say, “I’d like you to slow down. I’d like to get there alive.”
Rick’s mouth twists and he turns his head toward me, this man I don’t know, don’t need to know in order to read his expression: anger, and something else, something darker.
He points his right index finger at me, close to my face. “You—”
The wind gusts, catching us on a rare stretch of straight road. The pickup swerves to the right, almost slamming up against the wall of earth that spikes toward the sky. As the truck goes one way, I go the other, digging in my fingers to keep myself from sliding all the way across the bench seat and slamming into Rick. He swears and jerks the wheel to the left, sending the truck in the opposite direction, across the yellow line, closer to the flimsy rail that’s all that holds us back from the jagged rocks and crashing surf.
The back end fishtails, the truck gliding over wet asphalt like skates on ice. With a snarl, he jerks the wheel to the right and we’re back in our lane, speeding along the deserted, rain-slick road.
My breath comes in short gasps.
The needle of the speedometer eases down a couple of notches.
I don’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything. The radio’s still playing and the static’s gotten worse, scratching at my last nerve. With a muttered curse, Rick turns it off.
Rain pounds the windshield, the wipers smearing hazy arcs.
I stare out the side window. It’s the rain that makes me remember that day. I wonder if I made the wrong choice, if Mom would have stepped out of the car had I not run back to her, if she would have lived a different life if I’d only waited on the stairs of the school, waited for her to come to me. But in my heart of hearts, I know I could have stood there for hours, even days, and she would have stayed trapped in her cocoon, tears streaming down her cheeks, eyes darting side to side, seeing things only she could see.
She must have driven home after she left me at school that day. She never drove again. I walked home alone, using my memory of the landmarks she’d pointed out on the way to school and the map she’d sketched on a piece of pink construction paper. She was waiting for me just inside the door to our building and she grabbed me and pulled me close as soon as I crossed the threshold. I walked alone to school and back the next day and every day after. The car sat untouched for six months and then Mom called someone and a tow truck came and hooked it up and that was the end of that. Mom said it was a good thing, a smart thing, because owning a car when you lived hand to mouth was just a mess of crazy.
Might-have-beens don’t matter, Luce. Don’t look back, baby. Never look back. Just forward, always forward. Mom wasn’t much one for nostalgia. No photo albums. No rogue’s gallery of baby pictures on the wall. We never ordered the class picture I suffered through each year. She never even showed me a picture of my dad but I figure I must look like him since Mom was blond and blue-eyed while I’m brown-haired with hazel eyes.
Straight ahead, the highway’s yellow dividing line unfurls like a ribbon. I stare at it and swallow against the lump in my throat. Choices. That’s what life’s all about. Did I make the wrong one coming here?
I shiver and I know Rick sees it. I don’t want him to think it’s from fear because people like him feed on that.
“There’s a draft,” I say, reaching up to poke at the faulty seal between the doorframe and the window that’s been leaking icy drops since the rain began. Water pools on my fingertip, slides down across my palm, along my wrist, my forearm, my elbow, before dripping off onto my denim-clad thigh.
This morning I’d dressed for what I thought was late June California weather: black t-shirt, faded denim cut-offs, well-worn Adidas, the white stripes still bright against the blue suede. My wavy hair is in a ponytail, the ever present curly-frizzy bits escaping at the sides. Then I’d locked the apartment door for the very last time. It was empty. I’d sold everything I could, and what didn’t find a buyer, I’d donated or dragged to the Dumpster. Everything I own is smooshed into the massive, camping-sized backpack I’d discovered in a second-hand store. It sits now between my feet, the top rising above my knees.
I stare out the window at the rain, not really seeing anything, the fingers of my left hand absently twisting the ring on my right hand. Mom’s ring. The one she never took off. The one she’d slid on my finger while I slept in a chair next to her bed.
I’d left Brooklyn thirteen hours ago.
Bus rides and plane rides and truck rides ago.
A lifetime ago.
I shiver again. It hadn’t take long after we left the airport for me to figure out that I don’t know jack squat about Northern California weather. I unzip the pack, pull out my black sweater, and shrug it on.
In the pocket is the letter my aunt sent, folded in half and in half again. I’d read it twice on the plane, adding to the dozen or so times I’d read it in the days since it arrived. Each subsequent read yielded no more information than the first.
A letter. Not a phone call.
Aunt Patience wrote me a letter in response to the letter I’d sent her because the only contact information I had was a yellowed slip of paper with a hand-written mailing address. I found it in the drawer of Mom’s bedside table. I tried to get a phone number for my aunt so I could call. No luck. Maybe she doesn’t have a phone.
I pretty much wrote: your sister is dead. She pretty much wrote back in her cramped, wobbly, back-slanted cursive: I didn’t know she was sick. Here is a plane ticket. Your uncle poses no objection to you coming. A man, Richard Parsons, will fetch you from the airport.
The abundance of warmth and welcome in that brief paragraph left me all soft and fuzzy inside. The first time I’d read her reply, I’d wondered why my aunt wouldn’t meet me at the airport herself. I’d wondered if Richard Parsons was my uncle, but my aunt’s wording—a man, Richard Parsons—made me think not. There had been no time to write her back to ask the questions churning in my thoughts and then wait for her to mail her reply. Not if I wanted to make that flight. Any answers I’m going to get will have to wait until I see her in person.
I almost decided not to come. I could have stayed in the apartment that had been my home and worked at the diner, taking in a roommate or picking up extra shifts to make ends meet. Or I could have taken the $438.00 I have to my name and gone anywhere.
But I didn’t want to stay in the apartment that had been Mom’s self-imposed prison. I didn’t want to let my life become a pattern of double shifts at the diner. And I didn’t want a stranger living in the place that had belonged to me and Mom. Besides, I was curious about my aunt. I was intrigued by the things she might be able to tell me about my mother; Mom hadn’t been the type to share the stories of her childhood or the secrets of her heart.
But most important of all, I had made a promise, and I keep my promises, even when they make no sense.
“I need to know you’ll go to her,” Mom had said when she told me to contact her sister. She’d still been wearing her ring then and she’d twisted it on her finger much the way I’ve been twisting it during this endless drive. “You’ll be happy with Patience. You were always happy to see her. Remember?”
I haven’t seen Aunt Pat in more than ten years. I have fuzzy memories of a young, pretty, blond woman. At the time, she must have been twenty-three or so, just a couple years older than I am now. I remember big blue eyes like Mom’s, but Aunt Pat’s turned up a little at the corners, especially when she laughed. She laughed a lot. Mom laughed with her, which was so rare both before and after Aunt Pat’s visits that the childhood image stands clear and bold in my thoughts.
I remember that my aunt visited every few weeks for a while, back before Mom stopped going outside altogether. The fading strains of the music at the carousel in Central Park dance at the edges of my memories, Aunt Pat riding the horse next to mine, Mom standing on the side, expression pinched and nervous, arms crossed and pressed tight to her midsection. Months later, after Mom stopped leaving the apartment building, Aunt Pat took me places, just her and me.
I remember that when she told me she was going away, that she wouldn’t see me but that she’d write to me, I cried into my pillow.
After she left, she kept her word, writing us long, colorful letters, happy stories of travel and excitement with a man she called My Prince. Houston, Las Vegas, Reno, San Francisco. Mom read those letters aloud to me like bedtime stories. After a couple of years, they came less and less often, then not at all. I don’t know if Mom and Aunt Pat had a falling out or if distance drifted between them. It’s a long way from Brooklyn to California.
Of course, it wasn’t the distance that kept Mom from taking me for a visit…from taking me anywhere…ever.
Maybe my aunt will be able to explain the why of that. I hope so. Because right now my life is one big question and even just one answer would be nice.
Days before she died, Mom had stared hard at me and said, “Pat has answers.”
“To what questions?” I’d asked.
“Questions and secrets and things best left buried.” Mom had closed her eyes, the lids thin and papery. As I’d drawn the sheet higher, she’d grabbed my wrist with surprising strength and whispered, “Think carefully before you dig them up.” Her lids had flipped open and her eyes had locked on mine. “I don’t want you to go, but I do. If you don’t—” Her eyes had welled with tears. She’d clutched at my hand, her fingers more bone than flesh, blue veins stark against gray-white skin. “Promise you’ll go to her. Promise.”
By then I’d stopped pretending that Mom was going to get better. She refused to go to the hospital, refused to leave the apartment.
She was more afraid of going outside than she was of dying.
“You used to call her Patty Cake. Do you remember?” Her words had made my chest tighten. Mom didn’t do nostalgia.
I’d nodded even though I didn’t remember calling my aunt that and Mom had nodded back, happy with my little white lie.
“You’ll be happy with her. With family. And she’ll tell you…” She’d closed her eyes and I’d thought she’d fallen asleep. Then her lips—blue and chapped—had moved and I’d leaned over to catch her words. “You didn’t promise to find her. I need you to promise, Lucian.”
So, I’d promised.
“Lucian.” Rick’s smoke roughened voice jars me from my memories. “That’s a guy’s name, ain’t it? You’re not a guy dressed as a chick, are you?”
I realize that I haven’t paid attention to him or the rain or the road, lost in my own thoughts for who knows how many miles. The highway has veered inland again, away from the ocean. We’re surrounded by trees now, and ahead of me where the road heads north…more trees, thick-trunked and tall, punching the bruised sky.
Rick watches me, waiting for an answer. “Lucian means light,” I say, ignoring his questions.
I don’t tell him it was my brother’s name. Lucian Lafayette Warner. The brother I never met. The one who was born three years before me, still and cold, never taking his first breath. And it was my sister’s name. The sister I never met. The one who was stillborn a year after my brother. At least, that’s the way Mom told it. She said I was lucky number three. The one who lived. She named me Lucian just like she named them Lucian. Because Mom was bat-shit crazy.
“I prefer Luce,” I say.
“Well, Lucian” —Rick bares his teeth— “I need gas and I need to take a shit. You might want to use the facilities yourself. Or you can wait till we get you to your aunt. We’re almost there now.”
He pulls off the road and circles around to the side of a squat brown building with a white sign on top that proclaims: Easy Mart. The rain’s let up, but concrete clouds edged in charcoal hang heavy in the sky, promising that there’s more to come.