Last summer I began a long-distance relationship with a man from my hometown, Muncie, Indiana. I don’t know exactly why, not yet, but I think I just really wanted to be in love. We had grown up together but had very few actual memories together—he’s a few years older than me, and we’d attended different high schools, and I moved to Chicago and didn’t think about him for a decade. But then we reconnected when I was home for my sister’s wedding in July. We began talking every day, and then I was booking round-trip Megabus tickets to Indianapolis twice a month: for my mother’s birthday, for Labor Day, for occasions I’d missed or otherwise ignored the past five years, enamored as I was with Chicago and my own oh-so-busy life, but which now seemed as good an excuse as any to come home and sleep in an almost stranger’s bed and pretend I knew how it was all going to turn out.
That my frequent trips home would set off a summer that changed my relationship with my mother should have seemed inevitable, but it didn’t at the time. I never seem to see that sort of thing coming.
When I get off the bus in Indianapolis, it is always the same:
My mother waits for me from inside her car, parked along the sidewalk next to the bus stop. She does not get out to greet me. She does not smile. She does not wave.
I pitch my suitcase into the trunk and then open the passenger-side door. My mother’s purse is in the seat, along with an atlas, because my mother is the kind of person who brings an atlas along for a trip to a city from which she has lived less than two hours her entire life. My mother moves these items to the back seat, and I get in.
We hug. Hugging any one of my family members is an awkward and uncomfortable affair, because genetics deemed us all bony, long-armed and sharply jointed. Our bodies are not built for embracing. My mother pulls away to turn and twist some dials on the dash. She gets caught in my necklaces, which I wear in layers, so many that they tinkle like tiny bells when I move. We laugh nervously and untangle ourselves. She checks her mirrors, adjusts her seat. I flip down the visor and buckle up. I clear my throat. My mother coughs.
That same summer, my mother wrote me a letter in blue ballpoint on the front and back of two sheets of office-printer paper, folded into fourths, and stuffed inside a standard white envelope, the sort with a blue checked pattern printed inside for confidentiality.
My mother wrote that she loved me and was proud of me, but that I didn’t “need to write trash” to gain notoriety as a writer. She wrote that she wished I would start going to church again. My mother wrote that it was her fault I had “turned out this way.”
I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel angry. I refolded the letter, slipped it back inside the envelope, and kept it on my dresser for exactly ten hours. Then I ripped it into pieces the size of small coins, envelope and all, and let the whole mess fall like confetti into my trash can.
My mother turns off Highway 332 onto County Road 500 West, the road I grew up on. This is where home begins: this road, which was last paved seventeen years ago, during my seventh summer. I sat on the steps of our front porch with the stink of hot tar in my nose, watching the road crew spread the asphalt, which fell from the back of a rusting blue dump truck in thick, tongue-like sheets. I remember my father, watching from the center of our front yard in his usual summer attire: navy Dickies and a white, sweat-stained tee shirt. I remember him saying, “You’ll be an adult before the county comes out here and paves again.” I remember thinking that I didn’t want to be an adult.
I’ve traveled that road innumerable times, on two, three, four, eight wheels, and on two feet after my short-lived stint as a distance runner my freshman year. The two-mile stretch of it with which I am most familiar has a white church at either end, and in between is a miniature pony farm, the field where I learned to ride a horse, the bridge I used to lean over to spit at minnows in the creek that runs below. There are the front yards of the homes of my childhood friends, but none of us lives here anymore.
Our gravel driveway is flagged on either side by antique iron wagon wheels, which my father purchased and refinished with black lacquer one year as a gift for my mother. As we pull in, the headlights of the car sweep over the house, now settled in the blue shadows of dusk. There it is: the red brick, the shutter-less windows, the porch, the swing.
I’ve made a list of things my mother and I share: a stubborn insistence on writing in cursive; wide, thin shoulders that bloom cinnamon freckles in the summer; an old person’s habit of wearing socks to bed year-round; hazel eyes; mousy hair; small kneecaps.
We are bound by genetics, by blood, by the womb, and sometimes I think that is all.
When I open my bedroom door, I notice immediately that the bunk bed I once shared with my younger sister is gone. There is an empty rectangle in the beige carpet where the bed had once been, framed by the same two cluttered bookshelves, the same dresser, the same floor lamp.
“Mom?” I call out, staring into the room.
“I told you, we sold your bed to Colleen,” my mother says, coming up behind me. “Just sleep in your sister’s room.”
“You never told me. Who’s Colleen?”
“Colleen Wiley, Naomi,” my mother says, as if I know a dozen Colleens. “You went to church camp with her? She’s Madeleine’s cousin.”
My mother sighs. “Colleen lived with us last summer.”
“She lived here?” I ask. “How did I not know this?”
My mother widens her eyes at me, her mouth slack.
I didn’t come home at all last summer. That’s how.
But then, between my mother and me, there is this:
I am sitting in a blue plastic pool with my sister in the backyard of the little blue house where my family once lived. It is summer, the sky is blue and the grass is green and the sun is round and high, high above my head. Sun-stewed water laps at my elbows, stirred by my sister’s splashing. She is laughing and water shakes off the thick wet ropes of her hair. My mother is ten yards away, sitting on the cement steps of the back porch.
Suddenly, my sister is screaming. A bee has landed on her knee. The only thing to do is run—she grabs my hand and drags me from the pool. We dash through the yard, through a world of color and more color that I see through the diamond drops of water on my eyelashes. We run toward our mother, sitting quietly on the stairs, and while it’s not a part of the memory—and this is my very first memory—I imagine her face is turned up to the sun. I imagine her smiling. I can almost hear her laugh.