All Streets in Time Are Visited
It was late Friday night; I'd just stepped out of my girlfriend’s shower and was putting on my clothes. I yanked my jeans up, the denim sticking to my still-moist thighs, and reached into my pocket to feel if my train ticket was still there. And it was, though crumpled and torn. I was supposed to visit my mother tomorrow, something I did as infrequently as I could. She lived in Virginia, I in New York; the two train rides to reach her would last all night.
She’d called yesterday, asked to see me. This was not an abnormal occurrence since I’d moved out of her house and out of state. Normally I’d just brush her off, make up some tired excuse as to why I couldn’t just up and leave simply because she couldn’t stand being alone with herself. But this time was different.
She was in the hospital.
She’d tried to kill herself, something she hadn’t attempted since I was a kid.
I was supposed to have left an hour ago. I turned out the bathroom light and shut the door behind me and walked across my apartment, toward the bedroom, where I would say goodbye to Alexia. The door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it open, spilling the hall light across the floor and the bed and her body. She lay asleep in her nightdress, the one with the little angel on the front, her chest heaving gently. I walked inside, the floor under my bare feet creaking with each step. When I reached her, I brushed her hair from her face and then caressed her cheek until her eyes opened.
“You haven’t left yet?”
“I'm about to now,” I said. “I wanted to say goodbye.”
“You already did, like—what time is it?—two hours ago.”
“I know.” I paused a moment. “I don’t really want to go.”
She hummed under her breath and gave a slow blink. “Then don’t. Stay with me tonight. You don’t have to go, so stay.”
I climbed into bed with her. She put her arms around me as I watched her eyes close again. Then she smiled.
“She sounds like a real cunt.”
“Uh-huh,” She yawned. “She’ll probably put you in a bad mood like you said she used to do. You don’t have to go.”
“Don’t call her names like that. She’s not a cunt.”
I rolled over and lay facing away from her. We were both quiet for a long time.
Normally, when I think of my mother, the first thing I remember is this: evening, the room small and a dreamy shade of brown, really washed out looking, almost bordering sepia tone. Or maybe it was just my young eyes: and I was younger; I can't say how young exactly, just younger, a child. I must’ve been sitting in a high chair, because I could see the whole room somehow. My mother and father were there: They were talking loudly, but the subject is lost to me now, if there ever was one. I remember hearing something crash, something glass or maybe silverware. Then the voices got louder and something knocked into me. Then I was on the floor. Looking around, I saw the front door was open. I remember stepping outside, alone, and that there were fireflies. I remember drawing a hopscotch board on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk—it was sky-blue, though the real sky was a bruised purple. I drew the chalk down to a nub coloring in each square, then used the nub as a stone. I played by myself a long time, feeling the breeze chill as everything dimmed. The fireflies came out in greater numbers. The stars came out too. The streetlights came on finally. But nobody called me in.
The second memory: twelve years old and the noise of drunken tourists and the smell of saltwater and hot pavement and gasoline blowing in from the open window of my mother's Ford. The breeze didn't help me much in the back of the car; my shorts riding up my sweaty ass crack, the vinyl seat sticking to my bare legs, hot and pulling my skin. I could see my mother's eyes glancing at me in the mirror. Hazel eyes in the cobalt-pink-orange tie-dyed heavens, overlooking their creation. A small, plastic angel fluttered beside above her head, dangling by a nylon string looped around the mirror's arm.
For a second, she looked very pretty.
“Put the goddamn window up, Cameron,” she said, and the sharpness of her tone told me she'd refused to take her depression pills that day. “It smells like dog shit and urban sprawl.”
The main road running down the center of the Virginia Beach resort town, dividing the bayside from the more expensive oceanfront, was heavily congested for the first week of May. Without putting her blinker on, my mother jerked the steering wheel, swerving the car toward the left lane. When the car blocking her honked its horn loud and long and didn't yield to her, she screamed “Asshole!” loud and long and merged back to the right. She put on the signal light and the next car in line slowed down and let her over. A light blue Nissan. She waved a thank you at it behind her.
We kept driving.
The road eventually forked and my mother turned the car to the left. She didn't signal. There would be three more streets before we reached my father's house. My mother's eyes looked at me in the mirror again. She took one hand off the steering wheel, reached over, popped open the glove compartment. The car slowly drifted leftward. She shuffled some paper until she found her red and white Marlboro pack. The car drifted further. She mumbled something angry I couldn't understand and grabbed the wheel, crushing the pack against it. The car steadied and she fingered a bent hand-rolled cigarette out of the pack, tossed the pack back into the glove compartment and closed it, then lit the cigarette with the dashboard lighter. Smoke swirled around her and filled the air. The scent of tobacco cut with grass and something else I could never figure out.
“I'm not going in,” she said.
You never do, I thought.
“I'm just dropping you at the door.”
I didn't say anything, just looked out the window.
“You hate me now?”
“Why do you always ask me that?”
“Don't talk to me that way! You don't fucking talk to me that way!”
I was quiet again.
“You understand me? You treat me right, not like some goddam nothing!”
“I don't hate you,” I muttered, but kept looking out the window.
When we passed the first street that would have led to my father’s street, I watched it drift from the front window to the back like a reel of film and vanish cinematically behind the car behind ours. My mother and father had been divorced a long time; after a long custody battle, which I recall vividly, the court decided my dad would have me one week, my mom the next. By now I was used to this system, but it was the car rides to and from his house that were always the worst. My mother was never one for sharing.
Sour smoke filled the car with a gray haze. I coughed even though I didn’t really need to. Then I coughed again because I did need to, and I heard my mother sigh under her breath.
She took a drag and didn’t answer.
Another long drag. “What!”
I didn’t answer.
“Can I open the window back up?”
“Cunt.” I was fourteen and didn’t know what that word meant. Just that it stung more than bitch and sounded less cliché.
“What?” she snapped.
“I said okay.”
Inside the car, the air was almost nonexistent. I felt dizzy. Through the smoke, the waves looked small as we passed distant dunes and umbrellas, my mother trying to beat the sunset without getting a ticket.
We passed the second street.
My mother swerved into a diner parking lot and turned around.
When we reached my father’s house, a shacky little brown place on the bayside and far from the condos and surf shops where tourists frequent, we pulled into the driveway and then into a car-sized bald spot in the grass beside the garage.
We sat there a long time, my mother looking pissy, and I behind her listening to her breathe strong and hard, powerful like a lioness, so I didn't move. My fingers touched the door handle, bitter gray haze still swirling in the air from the crushed out butt in the ashtray; it made my head hurt and my eyes feel heavy. Then she stopped and took in a long, whistling inhale through her nose, and I almost pulled the handle, before she slammed the car back in gear and backed up.
I didn't ask what the hell she was doing.
I'd known how this would go since before we left our house.
We turned around and sped away.
My hands and stomach shook, a burning cold feeling in my core, as though I'd just eaten a bowl of peppermint ice cream way too fast—a feeling born partially out of fear, partially out of anger, but mostly out of helplessness. She veered into the diner parking lot and slammed the shifter into park. She hit the steering wheel with the palms of her hands, gripping it tight. We sat there a while with the engine running, my fingers still touching the door handle.
Sitting still and listening.
She let out a violent, banshee-shrill shriek, hitting her hands against the steering wheel.
So that the wheel made that deep, muffled, crunching noise with each impact.
Passing people stared for moments, then looked away.
One little girl pointed. Her father tugged her arm and mouthed, Don’t stare.
My eyes again averted out the side window, electricity flowing through my blood as my heart slammed into my ribcage.
She screamed again, her now raw looking hands clenched and trembling. Like a child who'd had a toy yanked from her fingers. Then everything was quiet, save for the humming in my ears.
When she finally said anything, it was, “I hate you right now, you know that?”
I was quiet.
“You're a disrespectful little brat—”
I didn't say anything.
“—and you don't care about me at all!”
I was afraid.
“Everything could've been fine. Everything was fine, and I would've just dropped you off, and then you could've come home next weekend, and everything would've been fine. Until you started getting mouthy like a little creep!”
My fingernails bit into the soft palms of my hands.
“What did I say?”
“Just shut up,” she said. “I don't want to talk to you.”
“What was it I said that made you so mad?”
“What did I say this time!” I tried to yell it, but my voice squeaked and cracked.
And then, quietly, she started to cry.
I could hear her.
I stayed quiet and listened. With my other hand, I fingered the door handle again. Just to give my hands something to do. Just so I didn't have to realize I was crying with her. I didn't want her to win, didn't want her to be right. None of this was my fault.
None of this was.
Then she said my name.
But I didn't answer, not at first.
“Cameron,” she said again.
She didn't answer.
“I'm sorry I yelled at you,” she said, a shuddering whisper.
“Okay. I'm sorry too.” But I wasn't sure why. Just that I felt sorry.
We were both quiet for a long time after that. When, at last, she said “Give me a hug,” I opened my door and she opened hers, but only some of the smoke was let out before we both stepped out and closed the doors again. She stayed standing where she was and I walked over to the driver’s side. She put her arms around me and held tightly. My arms dangled loosely at my sides.
“I just want you to love me,” she whispered.
I didn't say anything.
Just sobbed into her shoulder.
Then we got back into the car.
When I shut the door, I kept my fingers on the door handle again. My mother slowly shifted the car back into drive and maneuvered out of the parking lot and back onto the main road. When she did, I dropped my hand from the door handle and let it rest in my lap.
“Can you open the window?” I asked.
The wind rushed in faster and faster the lower the windshield went. It stopped about a quarter of the way down. The old air full of bitter smoke swirled and dissipated as it was sucked outside. And the angel hanging from the rear view mirror danced again above my mother's head. Hovering between us both. And as she held the steering wheel with both hands, I looked at the marks on her arms. Where the doctors in the emergency room had been able to close her back up because she'd done it wrong. But they seemed new to me for some reason, took on a new shape: a couple pale oblique crosses. They reminded me of my dad and how much my mom used to cry after he left. It was then I realized what I was, what my very being had done to her. Why she’d stayed with him so long and why, despite the hurt, she drove to his place every week, was driving there right now.
I didn’t mean it…
I looked up, and she looked at me for a second, and I looked at her eyes. Red and wet and drooping: looking at me again. I looked away and she shuddered, loud and long, and wheezed through her teeth.
I felt Alexia’s warm breath against my neck, could hear her nose whistle the way it always did when she was falling asleep. Then a long breath wheezed through her teeth and she nestled closer and said “Do you want me to say how much I’ll miss you?”
“Okay,” I said.
We were both quiet a while.
“What if I show you?”
I smiled. “Okay.”
“Okay,” she whispered, and kissed my neck.
Then I felt her nails spidering down the notches in my spine and over my hip, then her fingers curling between my thighs. I rolled over to face her, felt her breath warm over my lips and tongue. Closer, and closer still, until her breath smelled clear and her mouth tasted like mouth and her hands melted into my body and my body melted into hers, and I closed my eyes and imagined fireflies. After a long while, their light grew brighter behind my eyelids until it burst into a flash of brilliance and dissipated into the blackness of sleep.
I left the following evening, just as the stars were beginning to show through the dark blue sky. I’d have to buy a new ticket when I reached the train station, but I didn’t care. I stepped outside with both hands in my coat pocket, even though it wasn’t cold, and began walking toward the corner bus stop.
Then I paused. I stood there with my eyes to the sidewalk and tried to make a hopscotch board appear under my feet. Then it did, drawn in the sky-blue chalk I was holding in my small hands. The night my dad had left, my mother sat at the window crying. I looked up at her, and she looked at me and then turned back and disappeared. I didn't see her a while. Then the front door opened and she glided outside toward me. I saw the bruises covering her face and arms, green and purple. Then she knelt down and hugged me while my arms dangled loose at my sides. Her neck smelled of sweat and the metallic aroma of blood. Kisses fell on my head like snowflakes as fireflies swirled and trickled down all around me. My mother's arms pressed tight against me, her body leaning on mine.
We played hopscotch until sunrise. And that was all.
Twenty-five years ago, Jacob Ian DeCoursey was born in a quaint hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He still lives there today--in Baltimore, not at the hospital; that'd just be weird, living in a hospital. He likes veggie burgers and a good Cormac McCarthy novel when he can get one. He also has a history of sleeping on floors. When he's not doing those things, he likes to write. And he's pretty good at it: Google him sometime.