Marie was the first car at the stop sign, a trail of cars behind her. Classes had just let out, she knew, by the herd of students in the crosswalk, most with headphones bigger than there ears, some in pajamas, others in khakis the color of Easter eggs. The row of aged, brown brick buildings with small, dark windows was on one side of the narrow, unmarked street, the cozy, how the brochure described it, cafeteria and dorms on the other. Hardly any of the students talked as they passed in front of her car, Marie noticed. Marie scanned the faces of the students, looking for James, her son. They hadn’t spoken since his tenth birthday, back when Neil, her ex-husband, thought it was healthy for James to have a relationship with her. A few missed birthdays and then an operator’s recorded message saying the number was no longer in service. That was either James’ thirteenth or fourteenth birthday. She couldn’t remember, the events over the past decade or so a blur, her only concrete memories thundering headaches, random couches, and random faces from the revolving staff at the liquor store. She only knew James was here because of his Facebook page.
There were about a thousand kids at the college, Marie knew, from the brochure she’d picked up at the information center. She had stood in line with mostly adults and next to them, she presumed their high school children. Marie tried her best smile on the overweight girl sitting at the desk, her square glasses and acne an exclamation mark on her unattractiveness, Marie thought.
“Hi, I have a daughter who is interested in arranging a meeting with an admissions officer,” Marie said. She smiled wide, how she thought a mother would smile when trying to help her child, and kept her arms at her side, more comfortable in her lie than any truth.
“Here’s a brochure for prospective students.” The girl handed Marie a folded pamphlet, which Marie took like it could prick her.
“Thanks,” Marie said. “Also, I know this is silly, but her best friend, our neighbor, actually, James Watson, he’s a student here. She baked cookies for him as a surprise, and I was hoping we could drop it off if you could tell me his dorm room.”
“I’m sorry, we can’t give out student information.”
“I know, I know. But I’ve called his mother, but she’s not reachable. Lawyer. Probably in court. I’d hate for these cookies to go bad.”
The girl stared back at Marie, her eyes unblinking through her thick glasses. “I’m sorry,” she offered. “But really, there’s nothing I can do.” She looked past Marie to the next person.
“Well, I’m sure you’d know what to do with the cookies,” Marie said. Her voice was sharp, her motherly smile a distant memory. She turned and walked out of the building, past the posters of students with cheesy smiles plastered across their faces, arms around their classmates. They’re not your friends, Marie thought. Ten years will go by and you won’t even recognize each other if you passed on the street.
Marie felt like this visit was going badly already, and she started to panic. She was trying to be involved, was embarrassed when she told her boyfriend, Todd, a custodian she’d met at an AA meeting, that she hadn’t spoken to her son in a few years. She didn’t say eight. For Todd, a guy who’d fucked up his first marriage with booze too, not to mention two DWI’s and a revoked teacher’s license, for Todd to look at her with a look that he couldn’t comprehend the situation if his life depended on it, Marie knew she’d have to do something. She didn’t want to lose Todd, and there were plenty of girls at those meetings that would throw themselves at him if she ever missed one. The vultures. Marie supposed a part of her wanted to make things right with James, it’s what mothers were supposed to do, she thought. Mothers forgave their sons for their mistakes. When he apologized, she would accept it. But she really, really didn’t want to lose Todd.
Marie sat outside the dorms, hands on the steering wheel, the car in park, stale, dry heat blowing from the vents. She sipped from her plastic water bottle, more vodka than water. The burn in her throat was a relief, a calming sensation. Everyone at the meetings always talked about how long they’d been sober for. Marie used her birthday as easy reference for sobriety, and she never suspected that anyone doubted her. She was that good.
There were two dorms, and Marie watched both doors. Students walked in and out of the dorms, some with backpacks, others with nothing. A campus security car drove by her twice. Both times she pretended to check her phone. Each time she saw the taillights glow red at the stop sign and turn, she exhaled, watching the doors between sips from her plastic bottle.
After four hours and an empty plastic bottle, Marie resigned that she’d have to make up a story to Todd. He’d believe her, she had no doubt. She’d tell him how happy James was, how he thanked her for coming, how his father had poisoned him against her. She would even cry, but not too much. She didn’t want to overdo it. Stopped at a red light, she looked to the small library and noticed James, his bushy hair, carefree walk, emerge. He walked with a girl. Marie could see she was short, looked thin, not too thin, Marie thought. James held his cell phone out in front of her and they both laughed. Marie pulled her car to the sidewalk and left it idling. She approached James. She was surprised that she wasn’t nervous. Her legs felt fine, head clear. She put a piece of gum in her mouth.
“James,” she said, the spearmint flavor of the gum filling her mouth. “You look wonderful. How are you?” She felt her face twist into a big smile.
“Mom?” James said. His face bore no expression. A gust of wind cut through, the late autumn sun falling below the tree line. In a half second, Marie noticed, James’ face changed from shock to rage. “Marie, what are you doing here? You just can’t barge in whenever you feel like it.”
“You’re right, I can’t. But I’ve, I’ve really missed you, and I know you missed me. I’m sorry for what your father has done. He had no right to cut me out of your life.”
“Marie, I don’t have time for this, Marie,” James said.
The girl stood next to James and stared at the ground, kicking loose stones on the pavement.
“Let’s go somewhere, have a coffee or something.”
“Can we at least get a picture?” Marie asked. Todd would love a picture, a smiling mother and son. Marie would put her arm around James.
“Have to go, Marie,” James said. “Don’t get yourself arrested again on the way back.”
“That was a long time ago, James, a long time ago.”
“You wanna get drunk? Fine. But you didn’t have to show up drunk at my school and have all my classmates looking out the window at you getting hauled off.”
“James,” Marie said, her voice calm, low. “That was a long time ago. You know I have a disease. An addiction.”
“What’s done is done,” Marie said. She softened her voice. “But really, my apartment has no pictures, nothing.” Marie smiled, this time trying for a balance of motherly and desperate. If that were possible, she wouldn’t know. She held the camera out to the girl, her arm fully extended. The girl backed away from it like it may bite her.
“Let’s go,” James said. They walked away. Neither of them looked back. She watched them walk, the girl rubbing James’ back as they turned the corner.
Marie walked back to her car. As she pulled onto the main road that cut through campus, she called Todd. His phone went straight to voicemail.
“Hey, honey, I hope you had a great day. I met with James today, it was wonderful. I think we’re going to have to set an extra place at the table for Thanksgiving. Maybe even two.” And no, she thought, I wouldn’t accept his apology.
©2012 This work is the property of the author.