Mom never forgets to call me each night. Mostly she talks and I listen. I like her voice, soft yet clear, a touch of melody in the way she emphasizes her verbs: what she cooked today, whom she met, what she discovered on the telly or in the attic where all my childhood memories now rest in packed boxes and trunks.
Sometimes I complain about work, or a friend, or a guy I thought I liked, and she hums, and I can hear her nod over the line. Like she understands why writing a “delightful” jingle for a horrible-tasting protein bar — that too for kids — is no easy work. Or why a friend who dubs you “Ugly Betty” behind your back is no friend at all. Or why the fellow in the art department, who you thought was cute, finds that said nickname funny, and chuckles every time you walk into a room. She may not understand, but she listens. And hums.
And sometimes, we just say goodnight and I hang up. Because I am too tired, or busy, or just not in the mood to explain my epic failed choices for that day — yet again.
We don’t talk about dad, but he is always there … at the back of our minds. But no matter what, she always calls.
But today she hasn’t. It’s well past 9:30, her standard calling time. And I find myself staring at the clock.
10:30. 10:31. 10:32.
I call her up on her cell. Once. Twice.
I try the landline.
The phone rings. Its trill deafening in the quiet. But she doesn’t pick up.
I try the neighbors, but either they are out or hard of hearing, because no one answers the phone.
I call the cops. I call the ambulance service. But they’re all 45 minutes out.
So I grab the keys and head over to her home, our home, expecting the worst.
The night’s clear but chilly, the stars are out, and the road’s near empty. Thirty minutes is plenty of time to imagine all the worst case scenarios.
Maybe she fell in the bathroom. Maybe she fell from the stairs. Maybe she tripped and hit her head on something flat, or something sharp. In all the scenarios, she is out cold, completely helpless, and cannot call for help. She’s all alone in that big, old, windy house and I need to get to her fast.
I make a hard turn into the driveway, and come to a bumpy stop, knocking down a planter or two. There’s a knot in my chest, and tears at the corner of my eyes.
I rush up the steps and knock at the door. Panic stricken.
All the lights are on in the house. Which never happens. Mom seldom uses all rooms at once.
The swing creaks to my right and I jump, startled. And then sigh with relief.
There she is. On the porch swing. Happy, smiling, in a new black dress, I think. She gets up, comes closer, and touches my face, concerned. She can’t believe I drove all the way home in the middle of a workweek. Is that makeup around her eyes?
I am just about to ask her what she’s doing out here in the cold, when a man with salt and pepper hair steps out from behind her. He’s dressed casually, in a khaki shirt and cargo pants. He has drinks in both hands. And a pleasant glow that matches mom’s. And I realize that she has company.
She’s on a date with an old guy who looks nothing like dad.