Biographies & Memoirs

Part Two - Returning

Chapter 39

If I’d gone straight from the Tanners’ house back to my mother’s, I might have fallen into her and cried, confessing all the times I heard her talking as I walked from room to room on Lewiston Street, wishing I could call so she could tell me what to do. But I did not go back to her. I hitchhiked a thousand miles to resume my odyssey.

I rode a horse out of the rain forest, across a beach, and straight into the ocean. I stayed up all night to watch the sunrise in Gisborne, New Zealand, the place where every new day on earth begins. I bungee-jumped 129 feet off a bridge, first by myself and then tandem with Tracy, who wouldn’t do it any other way. I scuba-dived a dozen times, mostly during the day but once at night, when it was dark and cold. In a postcard to my mom, I said it was like twirling through outer space with nothing but a flashlight, knowing full well that she would judge the exercise a colossal waste. I wandered around glaciers, fjords, and the lesser-known Fijian islands. I sang with a band and kissed many boys—eighteen, it says in my journal. And in all that manic doing, the curiosity about my mother that struck me so frequently at the Tanners’ faded.

After reentering the United States through Los Angeles and driving across the country, I walked through the back door of Wooded Lane on the afternoon of my parents’ Christmas party, an event my mother hosted begrudgingly with my father, who never could understand why they didn’t have people over more frequently, i.e., weekly.

She was standing at the sink rinsing dust off wineglasses. I stared at her, no longer sure what I was seeing: the actual woman or the woman I’d created in some unknowable mix of memory and imagination, and of longing.

We hugged. It was nice. She said my hair had gotten lighter and asked if I had lost weight. Then she looked at my scummy backpack on the floor and said, “You’re not going to leave that there, are you?”

I sighed. “No, I guess not.”

“Good, because you know wherever you put it, that’s the first place someone is going to want to put their coat.”

“Good to be home,” I grumbled as I lifted the offending object.

“We’ll get caught up tomorrow. You know your father. He has to have his big soiree.”

That night, I passed hors d’oeuvres and emptied ashtrays. My dad pulled me close every time I passed. “Look at my girl! Can you believe it! My girl—a world traveler!”

At the kitchen table the next morning, I brought out the photos Tracy and I had developed in Brisbane.

“You have to go, Mom. Especially Australia. It’s so awesome,” I said, knowing full damn well that she’d probably never go to Mexico, much less all the way the hell to Australia.

My dad loved the verbal captions I made up for each shot. “Tell me more, Lovey!”

My mom pushed back from the table after about ten photos. She had seen enough. “The good news,” she said as she rose, “is that you got home safe. Anything could have happened out there, Kelly.”

Though I knew moving home would be fraught, there’s only one place to unpack when you don’t have a checking account or a phone number. My mom granted me the holidays to do my laundry, call all my friends, and drop the hint of Aussie intonation I had adopted. I spent most of my time writing letters to new friends back in New Zealand and Australia, people I would never see again, while watching game shows and soap operas. There was no reason to put on a bra or wear shoes. I usually waited until after lunch to brush my teeth.

After two such days—a day at home being such a long time, fourteen or fifteen hours from sunup to bedtime—my mother leaned in the doorway, appraised the value of my spending another afternoon on the sofa surrounded by aerograms and snapshots, and told me to make a list of every person I could call for work.

That took ten minutes.

“And go see your brother,” she added.

GT was (and still is) a headhunter. I threw on my old duck boots and a Benetton sweater that went nearly to my knees.

“You may take the Buick,” my mom said magnanimously, “but be back here by two P.M. I have a bridge match, against Overbrook no less.”

GT lived across the street from Yang Ming, a Chinese restaurant unique for its formal atmosphere. He loved the dumplings. The moment I arrived, he called in a double order.

“I buy, you fly?” He held out a twenty.

“Sold.” I dashed across Lancaster Avenue. Between a stack of take-out menus and the toothpick dispenser was a pile of xeroxed job applications and a posted note that said: LUNCH SHIFTS ONLY. Could be a nice way to break up the day, I thought, and my mother would feel heeded. Something’s better than nothing, she had said when I rejected her suggestion to do data entry for her friend’s nonprofit inner-city tennis camp.

So this is how it happened that my first job back in the United States was as a coat check girl at Yang Ming. My opening shift, four hours, was midweek. The weather was terrible, welcome news for checkers of coats. The manager set me up on a folding chair in a closet behind a small counter with a tip jar pushed to the side. Every time I centered it, he tucked it back to the side.

The last customer left around three P.M. I had safeguarded twenty-seven coats and made, wait for it, three dollars. Three dollars. Trudging home down Lancaster Avenue, days of dirty snow in piles along the sidewalk, cars spraying slush on my new Payless flats, I talked to myself like a street drunk—seventy-five fucking cents an hour—about the staggering downturn in my fortunes since returning to my country. A job, I’d called it. I got a job today, I’d said.

“A month ago I was in Fiji!” I whined to my mom that evening. She laughed. She couldn’t help it. Three bucks for four hours in a closet was squarely in the funny category.

Eventually, my old boss from the United Way in Baltimore tipped me off to an opening in the San Francisco office. After negotiating a relocation package, I packed up my red Jeep and grabbed my cousin Lisa and set out to drive back across the United States. I tried like hell to get Tracy to go with us, but she’d gone to work with her mom.

“God help the West Coast when you pull into town,” my mother said, standing in the driveway, shaking her head. I’d be back east in a year, two max; that’s what we thought. It would have been a different goodbye if we’d known I was leaving the East Coast forever.

I found an apartment on the corner of Franklin and Union and enrolled in grad school at night. I had my own office and health insurance. I quit smoking, along with everyone except the pierced-nose, roll-your-own-cigarette types from my master’s program, who were more articulate and better read than anyone I’d ever met and who regarded me like I was overdressed and slightly off, like, say, Tipper Gore.

In a matter of months, my dad came out to visit. I threw a keg party for my new friends to meet him. The next day, we drove down to Palo Alto to watch the Fighting Irish crush Stanford. My mom did not come—not that weekend, not that year. Cross-country travel is no casual thing, and we were seeing each other back east for weddings plenty.

My roommate’s mom came three times in the first year. After one of her visits, I said to my roommate, “I’ve been here for fourteen months, and my mother literally never even mentions coming. I mean, you’d think she’d want to see where her child was living.” I wasn’t afraid to phrase things dramatically; blame it on five months of Santa Barbara.

I wanted to take my mom to my office and introduce her to my manager, a strange and loving woman who fancied long fingernails, scarves, and dirty jokes. I wanted to take my mom for a burrito, surely her first, and show her all the fleeced boys in their hiking boots. I wanted to drive her across the Golden Gate Bridge with the top down.

“What does she say when you ask her?” my roommate said.

“Do I really have to ask her? I mean, don’t parents just automatically—”

“I don’t know. You’re not, like, super-nice to her on the phone. Maybe she thinks you don’t care.”

I paused, then shook it off. “Oh, come on, that’s crazy.”

But the idea stayed with me, and the next time my mom called I asked her to come out, and she said she would look into it.

“She won’t come, watch,” I said to my roommate when I hung up.

Later that evening, she called me back with a choice of dates and flight times.

Applying her Houseguests are like fish rule, she came for three days. I took her to all the best places I had found to eat, to walk, to look. Pasta at i Fratelli, beers at Sam’s, scones at Home Plate. The weather was perfect. She loved it.

Back at SFO on Monday morning, I walked her to the gate, as people did in 1994.

“You’ll never come home,” she said.

“Yes, I will—”

“No. If I’d seen this place when I was young, I’d have stayed forever.”

It was hard for me to imagine my mother young. She’d never really been me, a girl out of college, looking at the map, wondering where to unpack her trunk and set up her JCPenney bedroom set.

“I’ll be back, Ma. When it’s time to buy a house …”

“No, it’s too good here.” She nodded, agreeing with herself, and then stepped into line at the ticket counter.

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