As the credits roll on the theater screen, I check my phone. Eleven thirty-four p.m., still too many hours until morning. Dad left for work a few hours ago. He’s working nights at the hospital this week. I make a list in my mind of things I can do tonight to pass the time. Read. Study for my upcoming AP biology test. Clean the bathtub. Reorganize the Tupperware. Sort bills from the junk mail for Dad. I walk out of the mostly empty theater into the yellow lights of the deserted lobby. The girl behind the ticket booth waits for the last few customers to leave.
A guy dressed in jeans and a Bush Hills Swimming T-shirt exits the theater through the opposite door. I recognize the shirt before registering that the guy is Tripp Casener. I’m surprised to see him here, even if the movie was only a dollar. The Tripp I remember could barely sit still through a thirty-minute sitcom, let alone over two hours of South Pacific. His mom always reprimanded his incessant talking while my mom snickered under her breath. My throat goes dry as my mom’s memory resurfaces into my conscious thought. One hundred fifty-seven minutes of peace destroyed in seconds, just from seeing Tripp.
At first I don’t trust my ears when I hear my name. I walk toward the front doors that lead out to Cary Street. But I hear it again, louder this time, and turn back around. Tripp breaks into a slight jog to catch up to me. I’m not looking for a conversation or even recognition. Shared history doesn’t guarantee a shared present or future.
“Hey,” he says, taking the door and holding it for me.
“Hey,” I say back.
“It’s been a while. How are you?”
We stand a distance apart. I smash an ant beneath my shoe, wondering why he approached me. I notice his height, only a few inches taller than me, which puts him well under six feet.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, trying not to sound like he’s intruding, even though I feel like he is.
“Do you want the honest answer or the one I’ll make up to protect my reputation?”
“I love musicals.”
This revelation surprises me. In all the time we knew each other as kids, he never mentioned this.
“Where you headed?” he asks, as I begin walking toward Sheppard Street.
Mom didn’t leave any specific funeral wishes, but Dad and I both knew her well enough to know she’d want us to say goodbye to her beneath a bleeding crucifix and stained-glass Virgin Mary.
“I parked over by the church,” I tell him. There is no need to specify which church. Mom didn’t leave any specific funeral wishes, but Dad and I both knew her well enough to know she’d want us to say goodbye to her beneath a bleeding crucifix and stained-glass Virgin Mary.
“Let me give you a ride to your car,” he says.
“It’s fine,” I tell him. “It’s four blocks.”
“I know, but it’s dark.”
He doesn’t know the darkness is familiar to me now. I walk at night often, wandering through neighborhoods to a natural cacophony of crickets chirping and toads croaking.
“I’m not scared of the dark anymore.” I was, back when we were friends. As soon as the sun began to set in those summers, I headed inside. The neighborhood kids stayed out late, playing flashlight tag and ghost in the graveyard. Tripp always stopped by to ask if I wanted to play. He even promised to stay with me and let me pick the hiding spots. I always declined. I hated the dark, the unknown of it, the endless possibilities of terror, mostly the thought of being kidnapped like Elizabeth Smart and Samantha Runnion. I never suspected that the true terror would come under the blinding lights of a hospital hallway.
“I know,” he says. “I’ve seen you walking before.” I stop. We are at his truck, but I hesitate to get in.
“I see you walking late at night.”
“Oh,” I say, like my secret has just been announced over the intercom and everyone in the school is looking at me. I wait for him to ask why, to say something else about it, but he just unlocks the truck and climbs into the driver’s seat.
I stand beside the blue truck, my hand on the door handle. The street light makes the door shine, like it’s just been washed. Tripp hasn’t started the engine; he sits behind the steering wheel, staring ahead. It reminds me of the time we went to King’s Dominion and rode the antique cars together. We were only ten, a far cry from driving age, but I remember thinking Tripp looked so natural behind the wheel. That evening we stayed until the park closed. It was one of Mom’s good days, while she was in remission. This memory, of my mom still healthy, propels me into Tripp’s truck. He is one of the only people who might remember her that way, instead of wasting away in a hospital bed.
“Are you hungry?” Tripp asks, as we near the church. My car is parked just beyond it, on Belmont Avenue.
“I could eat,” I say.
“I know the perfect place if you want to grab a bite.”
I haven’t talked to Tripp in years, a combination of Mom’s death, busy schedules, and his parents’ divorce. Being around Tripp and his family was hard after Mom died, a constant reminder of the family I would never have again. Then, his mom moved across town, a twenty-minute drive on a good day. The distance may as well have been hours because we barely saw each other after that. The fadeout happened naturally.
“Where are we going?”
This cryptic response should raise some red flags. I wonder, as we drive down Boulevard, whether I should have declined the offer. But it’s almost my birthday, and I know my mom wouldn’t want me to spend it alone, the way I spend every other day of my life. So I try not to think too hard about it. Tripp turns into the parking lot of a brewery. Four trucks sit in a row in the empty lot. I’ve heard about the food truck rodeos held down here, but I’ve never ventured out. There’s something about eating food made in the back of a truck that doesn’t appeal to me. Apparently they stay open late on Tuesdays.
Tripp parks the truck and gets out. Even before I open my door, I smell the grease and fried food. The red “Fire Truck” has flames painted on the side and only serves spicy food. There’s a lot of sriracha on the menu. We pass it. The next truck makes only grilled cheese sandwiches with a variety of different cheeses, meats, and vegetables to choose from. The gouda-pimento-bacon is on special for buy-one-get-one-free. The chalkboard at the window says “It’s So Gouda, You Need More Than One.” I cringe at the terrible pun. I remember that Tripp hates grilled cheese, so we continue walking. We pass the hibachi truck without hesitation. Asian cuisine from a truck makes my stomach turn. Finally, we stop in front of Timmy’s Tacos, at the end of the line.
“Think you can still beat me in a taco eating contest?” Tripp asks, grinning.
I used to challenge him all the time. We would each have thirty minutes to eat as many tacos as possible, while our mothers tried to talk sense into us. We never listened. I beat Tripp every time. The competition ended the evening Tripp challenged me to a wrestling match directly after dinner. I had to forfeit in order to make it to the bathroom in time to vomit all nine tacos back up. Our moms officially declared the end of the taco wars that night.
“No way,” I say.
“It’s on me.”
“So you’re forfeiting?”
“Can’t we just eat tacos like adults and enjoy them?”
“You’re eighteen now, so you can’t have fun?”
“It’s your birthday,” he says, checking his watch. “In four minutes, it’s your eighteenth birthday.”
“I didn’t know you remembered.”
The smile drops from Tripp’s face, as if something has suddenly crossed his mind. He puts his hands in his front pockets like he’s checking them for holes. Before I can ask him about it, the strange look is gone and he purchases ten tacos from Timmy, who used to play on the school volleyball team, led them to states his senior year. I guess he sells tacos now.
Minutes later, I discover these aren’t just any tacos. I know after my first bite that they are the best tacos I have ever eaten in my life. It’s a simple recipe: moist ground beef, crisp lettuce, and instead of shredded cheese, melted queso, the white kind, filled with chopped jalapenos. We sit on a grass margin in the lot. Parking lot lights cast shadows across Tripp’s face. A trace of stubble lines his upper lip, trailing down to his chin and up to his sideburns.
“You started the clock, right?” I ask Tripp between bites. He throws me a thumbs-up. We eat in silence, taco after taco, until all ten are gone. Five each. I finish just a bite ahead of Tripp.
“Call it a tie?” I ask.
Tripp considers this, as if something important hangs in balance.
“We did eat the same amount,” I say, trying to sway him.
“A tie is better than another loss.”
I lie on my back, hands on my stomach.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to walk for an hour.”
We stare into the nothingness. The lights prevent us from seeing any stars, but knowing that they are there even though we cannot see them comforts me.
“I’ve got nowhere to be,” he says. The paper trays the tacos came in fill the wide gap of space between us. Tripp stacks them together and puts his keys on top to prevent them from blowing away before lying down, his hands folded behind his head. We stare into the nothingness. The lights prevent us from seeing any stars, but knowing that they are there even though we cannot see them comforts me.
I realize that besides my dad and my teachers, I haven’t talked to anyone else for an extended period of time in a while. My swimming friends and I lost touch when I quit the team, and after a while, the girl who’s always sad about her mom isn’t fun to hang out with. At least, that’s what I assume they think. I never asked, just disengaged a little at a time. If I don’t let people in, they can’t leave. If I don’t care about anyone, I can’t end up hurt.
After a while, Tripp says, “Happy birthday.”
“How does it feel to be an adult?”
“Being eighteen doesn’t make you an adult.”
“What does then?”
“Guess I’ve been an adult for a while,” he says.
“OK.” This comes out harsh, sarcastic, because I don’t know what else to say. He can’t seriously be comparing a divorce to a death.
“Caroline, I’m sorry I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Whatever, let’s go.” I stand, brushing dirt off the back of my jeans.
* * *
Tripp drops me at my car at a little after one. It shouldn’t take longer than thirty minutes to get home at this time of night. The beltway will be clear.
“Thanks,” I say.
“It was fun,” he says. “Felt like old times.”
I offer him a small smile.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. I exit the car without responding.
* * *
The bags under my eyes keep darkening, but I use concealer and wear bright lipstick. It draws people’s eyes to my mouth instead. They always comment on the reds and pinks, never on the purple.
The house is quiet. I navigate the rooms in darkness, by sheer familiarity. I change into a pair of yoga pants and an old Bush Hills Swimming T-shirt. I should get into bed and try to sleep. I feel tired, but I know that as soon as I get into bed, my mind will start racing and it will keep me awake. If I told Dad, he’d probably prescribe some sort of medication, over-the-counter or otherwise. He always wrote scripts for me as a kid, for antibiotics and naproxen, even steroids the time I had bronchitis for over a month. But I don’t want him to worry. I’m managing, even without a lot of sleep. The bags under my eyes keep darkening, but I use concealer and wear bright lipstick. It draws people’s eyes to my mouth instead. They always comment on the reds and pinks, never on the purple.
I study, trying to memorize the nuances of cell organelles, mitosis and meiosis. It’s all much more complicated than what we learned in tenth grade. I read until the organelles feel cemented into my brain. I flip the page and study the cell-division diagram. The chromosomes become chromatids and then go back to being chromosomes again. It happens over and over, every second in our bodies. A little purple box at the bottom of page 113 explains that one mistake in this delicate process throws it entirely off balance. I shut the book with force, thinking how pointless it is to know all of this when our cells betray us anyway, leading us slowly and painfully toward death.
I crawl into my bed and shut my eyes. I wait. Nothing. I think about my mom, about Tripp, about the simple summers that included both of them. Sleep does not come.
Two hours later, I go for a walk. The leaves rustle on the trees, and twigs snap somewhere within them, most likely from raccoons or some other night animal. I tread the familiar paths, my mind conjuring images of my mom, trying to hear my name roll off her tongue, the way she drew out the long “i” in my name, so it sounded like Caroliiiine. I do this often, a part of my nightly routine. I am scared that if I don’t, I will forget. I can’t imagine a world in which I cannot hear my mother’s soft, lilting tone or her eruptive laugh, even though that is the world in which I now exist. I want to remember her green eyes, as I inherited my dad’s brown ones.
I decide to take a route that passes Tripp’s house, to continue with the nostalgic feeling of the night. Despite the years, being with him wasn’t awkward. It felt natural, like getting back on my bike after I’d broken my arm. Light shines from one downstairs window. I wonder if it’s him, or if it’s his dad, up late preparing for a big case. I pass the house, and a minute later I hear my name, called from a distance. Just like at the theater a few hours ago, I turn. Tripp walks down his front steps and to the end of his driveway.
“You’re still up.” I walk back to meet him.
“You sound surprised,” Tripp says.
“I figured you’d be making rounds,” he says, hands in his front pockets.
I am taken aback that he waited for me.
“Well, here I am.”
“You sound tired.”
“I am, but I can’t sleep. I already tried.”
Tripp joins me, and we continue to walk, rounding the cul-de-sac and making our way back toward his house.
“You gonna keep walking?” he asks.
“I’ll probably just go back to my room and stare at the ceiling.”
“At least you have those glow-in-the-dark stars to look at.”
I can hear his grin though the dark masks his face.
“Those fell down years ago.”
“Oh.” Another reminder of the time that has passed and how our relationship has changed. Not changed as much as dissipated. I think of seeing him at football games, huddled by the bleachers, an arm around Janie, instead of in the stands watching the games with our parents and me; of seeing him in line at the movie theater with his friends instead of sitting on his couch with a bowl of popcorn.
We reach his house and hover at the end of his driveway, by the mailbox that has CASENER engraved into the newspaper slot. I run my finger along the groove of the C. It catches on a tiny piece of split wood. I pull it back, the pain sharp and concentrated. I step onto the wooden railroad tie that lines his driveway, which makes me taller than him.
“Why are you doing this?” I’m skeptical of his motive. We haven’t spoken in years. “Why now? Why tonight?”
“I don’t know,” he says. His head tilts towards the ground; he kicks at the gravel in his driveway and puts his hands in his front pockets again. His mouth forms a straight line, and he looks up at me through his eyelashes. I can’t tell if the look contains pity or something else.
I bite my lower lip and shake my head. I turn and begin walking away.
“What?” he yells.
“I don’t want your pity, Tripp,” I shout back. I keep walking.
I roll my eyes, but I turn around. Tripp waves his hand at me, but I can’t see what he’s holding.
“What is that?” I walk back towards him.
He hands me a small brown parcel, no more than two inches wide. My name is written in a sloppy cursive script, like a third grader’s. I realize it is my mother’s; she must’ve written it towards the end. I wonder what’s inside it, a locket with her picture, some piece of memorabilia she wanted me to have. Dad still has her wedding ring, so I know it can’t be that. We move to the steps of his front porch.
“Is this why you were at the movie?” I ask him, the whole night suddenly making sense.
He nods. “She made me promise I’d give it to you.”
“How’d you know where to find me?” I feel violated at the thought that this night was not a random encounter but a calculated plot.
“Your dad gave me a few ideas.”
I don’t speak. I look at Tripp, the uncertainty in his eyes. I hardly feel the weight of the small brown paper in my hand, yet I feel weighed down.
“Why didn’t she leave it with my dad?”
I stare blankly at the small package in my hand. Tripp has had it for the past five years. He never mentioned it. He never handed it over. My hands shake.
“You should have given this to me years ago,” I say.
“She made me promise. Not until your eighteenth birthday.”
“It wasn’t your choice to make,” I shout.
“That’s all you’ve said all night. You’re sorry. You had no right to keep this from me.” I am so angry that I don’t even care that a deep sadness fills Tripp’s eyes.
“I thought about giving it to you a hundred times.”
“But you didn’t,” I say. “You kept it. And you didn’t even stay in touch.”
“That’s not fair.”
He’s right. I withdrew. I couldn’t stand to be around Tripp and Mrs. Casener. Every second of being with them intensified the void of Mom’s presence. And once his parents got divorced I barely asked Tripp how he was. I left him alone with his grief because I was incapable of navigating my own. I look down at the folded brown paper again. The thought of opening it terrifies me. I’ve spent the last five years figuring out how to live without her, and now I feel like I’ve made no progress at all.
“Happy birthday, Caroline,” Tripp finally says. I hear the screen door creak open and the click when it closes. I sit on Tripp’s porch for a few minutes staring at the little package that could change everything. It can’t bring her back, but it’s some sort of link to her. I want to hate Tripp for keeping it from me, but for some reason, Mom trusted him. She probably thought we’d still be best friends right now. She had no way of knowing that the Caseners would divorce and the family friendship would fall apart. It dawns on me that Tripp and I are connected, whether we want to be or not. My mom trusted him with whatever is in this little package, so I decide to trust him, too. I stand and open the screen door, stepping into the foyer of his house. He sits on the couch like he expected me to come back in.
“Tripp,” I say reluctantly. I know I should say something else, but I don’t want to admit that I can’t open this package alone. Tripp takes his keys out of his pocket and walks out the front door. I follow. When we get into his truck, I put the small parcel between us in the cup holder.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“If we’re going to be up all night, we’ll need sustenance.” Tripp smiles.
We sit at a table in Luna Sweets. I eat a peanut butter chocolate fudge cookie, gooey from being warmed in the microwave. Tripp chooses a sugar cookie covered in blue icing. We each intermittently sip from large cardboard coffee cups. I left mom’s present in the car, but it consumes my mind as we sit in silence. What could she give to me that needed to wait this long? How could she know who I would become? So much changed when she died. Life kept moving. She doesn’t even know me anymore.
When we leave, I direct Tripp to the yoga studio run by Jada Winston. She is strange and wonderful. Her hair is always done in microbraids and pulled up into a fabulous bun atop her head. I’d gone to her classes for a while, but when Mom died, she gave me a key to the place, said that you never know when you need to focus on your energy. I don’t typically come here in the middle of the night, but I need to find some inner peace before I can open the surprise package.
“You should open it,” Tripp tells me. He carries it inside with him.
I glare at him. He shrugs. We walk through the lobby, where there is a small alcove that serves as a welcome desk. Wooden cubbies cover the opposite wall. I remove my shoes and put them in a cubby before locking the door behind us. Beyond the front lobby is a large, empty room with wooden floors and a wall of mirrors, painted cerulean blue. I point Tripp towards the door at the back of the room and instruct him to get two mats while I walk to the sound closet and begin the recording. I leave the lights dim. We set our mats next to each other, and Jada’s voice fills the room along with soft music.
“Lie down on your back,” she tells us. “Close your eyes. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Focus on your two life-sustaining forces. Thank them for carrying you through to this moment.”
I do as her voice tells me. My heart rate is slightly elevated, since Tripp and I are alone in this sanctuary. I concentrate all of my thoughts on the hand on my belly, how my breath rises and falls, even though I am not telling it to. I switch my focus to my heart, beating constantly along with my breath, amazed that even if I asked it to, it would not stop. I hold my breath for a moment to hear Tripp breathing next to me. I sneak a glance at him, and he lays on his mat, eyes closed, doing exactly as Jada says.
“Your mind is an elastic, flexible thing,” Jada’s voice croons. “It can go into the past and into the future. The true challenge of yoga is to train your mind to be present, to occupy the same space as your body.”
Focusing on the present means feeling the pain beneath my ribs each time I breathe a breath without her.
Before my mom died, I never gave this much thought. Of course my mind is present, that’s how I’m here, I always thought. Now, I see with unfortunate clarity what Jada means. My mind spends little time in the present anymore. I spend my hours thinking about the past life I shared with Mom or the life I am continually forced to live without her. Focusing on the present means feeling the pain beneath my ribs each time I breathe a breath without her. Opening her birthday present will only exacerbate that pain.
We move into what Jada calls our happy asana, finding our most comfortable posture and bringing our hands to our heart center. This is my favorite part. I get to choose where I am, how I am. Everything in this moment is up to me, within my control. I determine what happens here. I sit with my feet touching, my legs splayed in a butterfly. My hands rest in a prayer position at my heart, though I do not pray. I focus on my breath, forcing myself to be painfully aware of each one. Jada tells us to move to a standing position, but I remain seated. I hear Tripp rise next to me. I listen as my heart beats in my ears, and I am acutely aware when tears begin to fall from my eyes. They roll down, along the bridge of my nose, over my lips and down onto my chin. I do not move my hands from my heart center to brush them away. Jada moves the imaginary group into another exercise. My tears fall continuously. This is what it feels like to be present, I think. This is what it will feel like to be present for the rest of my life.
My over-awareness of my present body means I feel Tripp’s hand on my shoulder the instant it lands there. My skin does not burn beneath it. I do not shiver or feel giddy inside. Instead, a widespread comfort flows through my body, from the hair follicles on my head down to the tips of my toes. When I open my eyes, Tripp is looking at me. I am thankful he is here.
I sigh. Tripp walks to the sound closet and turns off Jada’s recording and turns the lights up. He scoots his yoga mat so it touches mine, and he sits cross-legged, his happy asana, facing me. He brings his hands to their heart center. I match his posture. We sit like this until my tears stop. I bow. He bows back, then hands me the package.
My heart beats in my ears as I unwrap it, treating it like a fragile piece of china. Inside is a rose-gold chain with a circular silver charm. A single pearl hangs in the center. I hold my breath for a moment as the weight of this gift sinks in.
When I was younger, Mom called me her little pearl. I haven’t thought about this nickname in ages; it’s part of the distant past, before the hospitals, the cancer, the chemo. She wasn’t supposed to have kids. Before she and Dad had me, she had three miscarriages, but somehow, I made it. I survived despite that none of the others did. She and Dad chose to keep me even when the doctors recommended an abortion. It was a rough pregnancy that she always assured me was worth it, just like the pearl is worth all the irritation in the oyster.
More tears make their way down my cheeks, and I realize I’ve cried more tonight than in the last few years combined. The nearness I feel to my mom in this moment makes it feel like she might appear, but the perfect gift reminds that she is really gone, that she is not coming back. I try to clasp the necklace behind my neck, but my hands shake and the necklace falls to the floor. The clink of metal against the cold floor echoes in the silence. Tripp picks up the necklace and fumbles with the lobster claw clasp, much too small for his large fingers to maneuver. As he tries a few more times, I think of why she gave this gift to him instead of my dad or Mrs. Casener. Maybe she sensed my coming withdrawal and wanted to make sure I stayed connected, kept relationships with people. Tripp finally succeeds, and the necklace lays flat against my chest.
Am I closer to allowing my body and mind to occupy the same space at the same time, or am I beginning the process that leads to my mom’s memory slowly fading?
Before we go our separate ways again, we stop at a gas station to get more coffee.
“It’s going to be a long day,” Tripp says as he dumps two packets of sugar into his cup. We drive back towards our houses. The sky gets imperceptibly lighter as we both fight sleep. I only notice because Tripp’s face begins to get clearer, no longer obscured by the darkness. A breeze pulls a few leaves off the trees, and they float to the ground. We turn onto Genito Road, and the sun breaks through the horizon. A quiet settles in as light illuminates the world around us. I take a sip of my coffee as we round the bend in the road, turning into my neighborhood. I focus on the details of the moment, the hum of the truck’s engine, Tripp drumming on the steering wheel with his fingers, on his breath, on mine. I realize that these breaths are not so painful. I’m not sure if this is progress or regression. Am I closer to allowing my body and mind to occupy the same space at the same time, or am I beginning the process that leads to my mom’s memory slowly fading? I slide the charm back and forth on the chain. Even if memories fade, she will still be here; I understand this to be true. We pull into my driveway and I press the charm against my heart, which keeps on beating, just like the sun keeps on rising.