Early one morning in February my mother and I were lazing on the rag rug, between the woodstove and the Valentine's Day tree, eating pink oatmeal. Bo-Bo slept sprawled out across the counter. What did he care about oatmeal? It was pink because we'd added the wild cranberries we'd harvested at the bog off Kettle Hole Lane on our last mental health day. This bog was on private property so we'd had to be very stealthy.
The idea of taking the ornaments down and packing them away had made us feel weepy and bored, so last night, after my mother had some more wine, we'd converted our Christmas tree — a Fraser fir, Abies balsamea — into a Valentine's Day tree by scotch-taping hearts we cut from construction paper to the brittle branches and rearranging certain ornaments so it looked like they were kissing. Mrs. Claus kissing a brown llama made from real llama fur, for instance. A wooden moose kissing a Polaroid of me in a cardboard frame I'd decorated with glitter and elbow pasta last year, back when I was in first grade and quite the patsy. The trunk had stopped taking up water and the needles weren't green anymore, but it didn't matter; you could barely see the tree for the decorations. It looked so good when we were done I said let's use it for Easter too, but my mother said Easter wasn't until April this year. We could pick forsythia — Oleaceae — by then and force the blooms to open in water — but I knew how special our tree would look with hard boiled eggs nestled in the crooks of the branches, and force didn't seem like the right word. Plants didn't understand what people wanted. You could control them, sure, but force made it sound like they were aware of what was going on.
"Mental health day?" my mother said.
I nodded my consent. I'd been expecting as much because of the special oatmeal.
"Let's go to Boston," she said.
"Today?" I said. I was so taken with our tree I'd barely touched my breakfast.
Bo-Bo jumped down off the counter and my mother yanked his tail. He purred, flopped onto his back and kicked his hind feet in the air. He was in love with her.
"Now or never," she said.
"Not really," I said. She was on unemployment. We could go to Boston whenever, but I began to eat faster. I was excited. I'd never been to the capitol.
"Ann says I'm self-obsessed," she explained in the truck. "She says I need to go off island. See the bigger picture." Ann was the counselor she talked to for free at Community Services while I read Dog Fancy in the waiting room. Ann was also the step-mom of one of her ex-lovers, I forget which. That's how it was on island, everybody connected to everybody else. "We'll show Ann," my mother said. "Thinks she knows everything."
We parked at the A&P and walked across the street to the ticket office. The air smelt like rolls because of the bakery on the corner. The bakery was for people, of course, but they also made dog bones out of stale bread. I'd forced my mother to buy me one the last time we went in. It tasted like a very tough crouton without any salt. We didn't go in today because we were rushing to catch the 7:45. We probably could have got the truck off without a reservation but my mother was scared to drive on the highway, and the truck wasn't accustomed to going over forty. The truck was an 'island vehicle.'
She asked for two walk-ons and two bus tickets to South Station.
"One way or round trip?" said the friendly lady behind the counter. She was plump but she had a pretty face. Pink lipstick, whereas my mother was anti-makeup.
"Round trip," I said.
My mother squinted at me.
"We didn't pack anything," I said. "And Bo-Bo."
"One way," she told the lady.
Children got a discount for the ferry ticket — two dollars instead of four — but not for the bus.
It was windy and well below freezing — the harbor was slushy near the shore — but I vowed to stay outside for the whole ferry ride, forty-five minutes, give or take. The ferry was the only boat I ever got to go on so I had to make the most of it. I'd never even been in a kayak, which was infuriating as I relished the feeling of being dry but surrounded by water. Boats were islands that could go where they pleased. The ferry was especially wonderful in the summer, with the seagulls swooping overhead, begging the tourists for handouts, sometimes diving down to rip a hot pretzel from a rich child's hand. My mother said she'd be by the snack bar which meant she'd be drinking boat coffee and flirting with the construction workers who reverse commuted to the mainland — not a scene I had any interest in watching or making an appearance in so early in the day. Why didn't these men just move off island? Were they or were they not islanders? Well, they have to take what jobs they can get, my mother explained when I'd complained about them in the past. An islander might work on a mansion in Falmouth to get himself through the winter. So what? There's no shame in it. And why do you care so much who's an islander? I wasn't born here. Your very own mother is a wash-a-shore, what do you think of that? It didn't bother me because at least she had the spirit of an islander — she'd never reverse commute for a job — and I remained skeptical of the men, some of whom drank beer in the morning. If you ordered beer at the snack bar in the morning they put it in a coffee cup for you. Surely there was plenty of work on island for capable construction workers. More work to be had during the off season, actually, since the rich people didn't want construction workers around in the summer, the only time their big fancy houses got any use. And if these men were truly stranded between jobs, why not just go on unemployment? It couldn't be that hard; my mother did it every winter, after they sold the last Christmas tree and before they started seed-sowing in the greenhouses. Oh how she loved unemployment.
There weren't many seagulls because it was so cold — no one but me outside and I didn't have a pretzel — but January and February were the best months for seal-watching. Seals were the dogs of the sea! They liked the cold. The colder the water the more energized the seal. I speed around the perimeter of the deck, one hand on the railing, scanning the water for their bobbing heads. A thoughtful shipmate had salted the deck so I wouldn't slip and fall overboard. My hood had a strip of fake fur around the edge that made me look like an eskimo, but the coat was cheap, from Bradlees, and not warm enough. I finally located a few seals barking on the rocks the red buoy warned of once we'd crossed the Sound. I could hear them better than I could see them. The salt spray in my lashes had turned to ice. I was having trouble getting my eyes open. My mother found me as the vessel was docking. "Jesus," she said.
She picked me up and carried me down the gangplank and onto the bus where she got us a good seat near the driver so we wouldn't be harassed by back of bus lowlifes. She took my boots and socks off and held my feet against her belly, under her sweaters and canvas coat. She gasped when they first made contact with her skin but didn't pull away. I put my hands under there too. I would have crawled back inside her if I could, but I couldn't, so I settled for kneading her flesh, like I was making bread except there wasn't enough to work with. My mother was slim. She was a manual laborer and she only ate crap on special occasions.
What were they doing in school without me today? I wondered. I wasn't worried about catching up. Whenever I went back after a mental health day or two it became painfully obvious how little progress we second graders made as a unit. I might as well take the rest of the winter off, like my mom — but I'd miss Ryan too much. I'd miss tickling him with a feather on the bean bag. I nuzzled my mother's armpit, closed my eyes, and sank into that warm, colorful space where I didn't have to explain anything and might just as easily find myself harpooning a seal as riding one.
When I came back to my real life we were on the outskirts of the capitol. Gray syringes pricked the clouds — no, those were skyscrapers, my mother said.
"What's in them?" I said.
"I don't know. Offices?"
"Med-i-cine," I said, stroking each syllable with my tongue.
"Stop it," she said.
I wasn't afraid of needles, she was. She'd squeezed my hand so hard my fingers turned white when we went in for a tetanus shot last spring after she stepped on the rusty nail.
"See Ho Chi Minh?" she said.
"Who?" I said.
She tried to show me with her fingertip where he was hiding in the blue swash of paint on the water tower. "His nose pokes out the farthest," she said, "then his lips, and that long dribble is his beard, see?"
"Relax," she said. "He's not going anywhere." A nun had painted him on the water tower in the seventies to stick it to the man. Ho Chi lived in Asia. "There's your history lesson for the day," she said.
We got plain croissants at the Au Bon Pain in the bus station food court and sat by the fountain to eat them. Then we went to the bathroom where I used the hand dryer to warm my kidneys, still chilled from the ferry ride though my extremities were back to normal. "Don't take your shirt off in here," my mother said. I put my coat back on and we went back to the fountain where we flipped pennies into the water with our thumbs and made wishes with all our might. I wished for Ryan to give me a handmade valentine, to not get lost or fall prey to a pickpocket in the capitol, and for a dog. I didn't care what breed as long as he was mid-sized to large, and not a poodle, or a schnauzer, or a greyhound. Or, God forbid, a doberman pincher. Long fur, God, but I'd rather it not be too curly. A Pyrenean mountain dog would be ideal —
I paused before flipping my last penny. "Wait, are we asking God for these things or are we just asking for them in general?" I said.
"I'm not asking for things," my mother said.
"I asked to see a new color. Not a new shade but a whole new color."
And wasn't that just like her?
I used my final penny to ask for a second dog to play with the first dog so the first dog wouldn't feel scared while I was at school, or get to thinking he was the center of the universe.
My mother took my hand and we ran up the down escalator, turned around, and tried to run down the up escalator but it was too confusing and she claimed she was going to puke, so we rode up the up escalator with the other people, disembarked like we did it everyday, and paused beside a haughty mannequin to catch our breath. The mannequin wasn't wearing any clothes but she didn't seem to realize. She had a butt crack but no vagina. My mother was slim but the mannequin was slimmer with perkier breasts.
A bright three-walled shop pushing magazines, soft drinks, neck pillows and t-shirts that said WICKED SMAAHT caught my interest, not because of the merchandise but because I could hear Joan Osborne inside asking, "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger o-on a bus?" I loved this song. This was the song Ryan sang in the lunch line, eyes closed, shimmying his narrow hips to get more laughs. I steered my mother into the shop, tried on a black neck pillow and asked her sweetly for the new issue of Dog Fancy.
"You have that one," she said.
"I do not," I said. "This one hasn't made it to the island yet."
But as I flipped through the pages, I realized she was right. I'd already read this article about how to test puppies to see which one was right for you. The first and most important test was to separate each puppy from the litter, thus removing it from its comfort zone, and pin it to the floor on its back. If the subject writhed it was willful and might be hard to train, whereas if it lay still it was eager to please and adaptable, though this might also indicate below average intelligence, which was why it was important to do the other tests as well. Some of the tests weren't tests really, just things to take note of. Puppies that slept on the bottom of the heap were submissive, for instance, while puppies on top thought of themselves as alpha, which was only a pro if you were looking for a guard dog. Puppies with dry noses might have an illness, but if all the puppies' noses were dry it was probably just low humidity —
"Not 'sposed to read it unless you buy it," said the cashier.
"Oh, please," my mother said. She was perusing the travel medicines. "She can't look at pictures while we wait for our train? That's not okay with you? What kind of witch — "
"You've been in here forty minutes," the cashier said. "She ain't just looking at the pictures."
My mother ripped Dog Fancy from my hands, tearing the cover, and put it back on the shelf upside down. Had she been sipping from a flask when I wasn't looking? In the bathroom stall, maybe? Had she had morning-beer on the ferry and covered the scent with coffee? How was I to know?
We rode down the down escalator and descended several flights of stairs until we were at street level. Through the glass doors I saw yellow taxicabs, a backlit sign with a giant egg roll on it, businessmen, pigeons, businesswomen, a sneaker store, a limousine full of movie stars, an icy puddle, a hot dog stand with steam rising up from the roller grill, two women in high heels sharing a cigarette — prostitutes? — politicians, bigwigs, a beggar wrapped in a plaid blanket shaking a styrofoam cup and his poor freezing dog curled up like a cinnamon roll at his feet, a sly pickpocket, a butcher, a baker, and a woman in a long brown skirt who might well have been a candlestick maker —
"Maybe not," my mother said. "Not yet." And she guided me through a different door that opened onto a causeway above many train tracks. Trains pulling in, pulling out. Trains waiting for their turn to go. Had I ever seen a train? If I had, I didn't remember. Travelers rolled their suitcases around us, thirsty for adventure.
"Where are we going?" I said.
We walked across the causeway and into an enormous room my mother said was called an atrium — much fancier than the bus terminal. The glass ceiling was so high there were sparrows flying around up there, improving their nests, and the restaurants here had their own dining areas, not just a communal food court. I chose a place called Legal Sea Foods for dinner and ordered a bowl of clam chowder. My mother said a beer and a bump.
"No hard liquor," the waitress said.
"I know," she said. "I was joking. Sam Adams."
"Certainly," said the waitress.
Sam Adams was a beer, I knew, as well as a historical figure — he had something to do with a feather quill — but it was hard not to think of him as just another ruinous lover. I hated Sam Adams and all the rest of them. Although it was very hot, I ate my chowder quickly in hopes of getting back safely tonight. Just the two of us, just me and my mother. Still, she managed to get through two and a half beers before I reached the bottom of the bowl, and then there was no stopping her from finishing the one she was on. The light was fading outside, but all was not necessarily lost; I knew how to get back to the bus terminal. "When I was a little girl," she said, and she launched into another discouraging anecdote.
When the waitress came by she ordered a fourth beer before I could ask for the bill. "You want dessert?" she asked me.
I shook my head.
"Get dessert. Lighten up, it's our big night in the city."
"No," I said.
She threw up her hands. "What kind of kid doesn't want dessert?" she asked the waitress, but the waitress was on my side, I could tell.
"I'll bring the check with your beer, then," the waitress said.
"No," my mother said, so the waitress brought the fourth beer only.
My mother took a long drink and got going on her salt shaker trick. Step one, pour a small pile of salt on your placemat. Step two, position the shaker on an edge of its base in the center of the mound. Step three, carefully blow the salt grains away, dispersing them across the table, except the ones the shaker is using, and, voila, the shaker balances on its edge. The other restaurant trick we knew was scrunching up your straw wrapper and dribbling liquid on it to make it stretch like an earthworm. It wasn’t as good as the salt shaker trick, but I did it with a few wrappers so she wouldn't accuse me of being a killjoy. The salt shaker fell over when she set her empty glass on the table. "That's all right," I said. "It doesn't matter." The real edge was where we were now. Between the fourth and the fifth. Because even without any dinner, four drinks was okay if you stopped right there, turned around and went home to your own bed. Round trip. But four drinks was one step from free fall, if that's what you were after, and then who knew where you'd sleep, or if you'd land in a bed at all.
Ryan slept in a tan ranch house just a few streets over from us, 214 Norris Avenue, with both his parents and Duke, his big yellow lab mix. His father, Richard, was a lobsterman, so their yard was always cluttered with bent traps, frayed nets, buoys in need of fresh paint. I'd never been in Ryan's house but he'd been in ours twice. Once for my birthday party and once in January, just him. When we got home from school my mother said, "New Year's egg hunt!" She'd hard boiled a dozen eggs and told us to go up to the loft and close our eyes while she hid them around the house, which was only one room plus the loft and the bathroom. After Ryan and I found all the eggs we could eat them, she said, if we wanted to. Technically our house had a shower but we'd ceded it to the spiders a long time ago, and that was just as well because my mother and I enjoyed playing hobos. Hobos meant heating water on the woodstove and scrubbing each other down with washcloths. Or it could mean eating straight from the pot.
"Your mom's so fun," Ryan whispered as we sat next to each other on the futon where she and I slept together most nights, the nights she didn't have a lover. Ryan and I could hear her tiptoeing beneath us, humming a perky tune. I don't know if that was a real song or something she made up as she went. "My parents hate each other," Ryan said.
It took me a second to find his hand with my eyes closed. Our skin was exactly the same temperature. I moved my thumb back and forth across his palm. "No they don't," I said. "Relationships are just really hard," though of course I had no idea what he or anyone else in my class had to deal with when they got home.
My mom didn't get a fifth drink that night. Because I stayed calm by thinking of Ryan and didn't beg her not to, or because of Bo-Bo at home, waiting for us, I can't say. Her step was funny as we recrossed the causeway, but she managed to purchase our return tickets without making a scene. We got on the right bus and made it back to Woods Hole for the last ferry. I stayed inside and sat on her lap this time, pinning her to the bench so she couldn't visit the snack bar. She fell asleep but I stayed there to be sure. It felt good to be alpha. The ferry only had a few foot passengers so they didn't bother with the gangplank. I woke her up by plucking gray hairs from her scalp. "Thank you," she said, and we walked off the vehicle deck behind the tractor trailers.
The lady who'd sold us our tickets in the morning was unlocking her car in the staff lot. I guess she recognized us because she called out, "Good trip?"
It was late. She must have worked a double, or even a triple, which meant she hadn't been home to cook dinner for her family. Still, I found myself wishing she was my mother — but then who would my mother be? A beggar shaking a coffee cup? A prostitute? I shook myself to dispel the vision. "It was great," I said to the lady. "We went to the aquarium."
"Oh we did, did we?" my mother said.
"I liked the seals the best," I yelled over my shoulder. Lying was wrong, I knew, but I was willing to do it to protect my mother's reputation.
I'm still willing to do that much for her.