The red bathing suit stood out from all the others, its modest cut being a departure from the scant bikinis dominating the poolside. I noticed the girl wearing it from under an umbrella. She moved with ease in and out of the water, shoulders glistening with whatever oil she’d rubbed into them. As for me, I rarely emerged from my shaded little corner, lest my pale skin burn and blister. I was self-conscious about so much then, my inability to acquire a tan being just one of a dozen things I didn’t like about myself.
My mind was on my two best friends, Ethan and Eric. They were planning the road trip we’d all talked about since Freshman year in high school. I’d been notably absent from the planning process, and was now on the fence about going at all.
As if on cue, my phone vibrated from inside the backpack I carried with me everywhere that summer. It was a text from Ethan, reminding me once again that they were waiting for an answer.
I had known Ethan since middle school, Eric even longer, but that year I found myself feeling like a third wheel around them. It was no big shock to me when they started seeing each other as more than just friends; I’d seen that development before they had. It’s just that lately we’d been less like the Three Musketeers and more like Ethan and Eric and their pathetic loser friend Glenn. Still, I mostly wanted to go on the trip - our final adventure together before classes started in the fall. I was going to our local community college; they’d both be out of state.
I started to text back, when a pair of wet feet appeared on the ground just past my phone.
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
The girl in the red bathing suit didn’t wait for an answer. She was already pulling the chair next to me out of the shade. Water dripped from the ends of tiny curls and made crooked trails down her back as she spread out a towel. She sat down and reclined, slipping on sunglasses. I wondered what color her eyes might be.
“Sorry to interrupt your solitude,” she said. “That guy over there was a creep.”
I looked dumbly in the general direction of where she’d nodded and couldn’t decide which guy she was talking about. I answered with an indecipherable noise intended to be something along the lines of “That’s okay.”
My phone vibrated again in my hand. This time it was Eric, pressing for an answer. I texted back apologetically, telling him that I was still thinking about it.
“Hey, why do you bring your phone to the pool?” the girl in the red bathing suit asked. She was looking at me, head tilted forward, sunglasses pulled down just enough to meet my eyes. I noted that hers were brown.
“My Mom’s been sick,” I said. “I keep it on me all the time in case she needs something.”
This was how I explained about my mother to people. I always said she was sick, and she was, in a way. My mother suffered from severe depression, and I worried constantly that she might need me and I wouldn’t be there. It was the main reason I was going to community college, and perhaps the real reason I was hedging about the road trip.
“Oh,” said the girl. “I hope she feels better.”
I murmured a word of thanks, noticing the time. I was going to be late for work.
I gathered my stuff together and started to head to the entrance feeling rather like I’d forgotten something.
It was an impulse not usual to my character that made me turn around and walk back over to her. My mouth suddenly felt full of cotton, but I asked anyway.
“Hey, since I have my phone, do you think I could get your number?”
As if having my phone with me was a reason for her to give her number out to a stranger. She raised her eyebrows and deliberated momentarily.
“Sure, why not?”
She reached up and took the phone from my hand, punched in some information, and then handed it back to me with a slight smile.
“Thanks…Jade,” I said, looking down at her entry in my contacts. “I’m Glenn, by the way.”
She extended a hand and I shook it for a few seconds too long before hurrying away awkwardly. On my way through the locker room, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror and felt queasy. She was so beautiful; far out of my league.
I’d been waiting tables at the diner on the corner of Main and Second since I was old enough to have a work permit. The owner, Chester, was also the manager and cook, and had never missed a day in the entire time I had been there. Chester lived in a small apartment above the place, so even when he wasn’t working, he was known to sit in one of the booths reading a paperback novel or doing a crossword puzzle. Most of the time, he worked.
“You’re late!” Chester shouted at me from the kitchen as I hurried in. “Louise was supposed to leave fifteen minutes ago. You know she’s got kids?”
“Sorry! Sorry, Louise, I lost track of time.”
A slightly disheveled Louise schlepped out of the back room, untying her apron, keys already in hand. She leaned toward me conspiratorially.
“It’s okay. The girls are at their dad’s house for the summer,” she whispered, and then raised her voice loud enough for Chester to hear. “And don’t let it happen again!”
Louise was like that. She always looked tired, but her humor was unwavering. She winked at me as she walked out.
Tips were lousy most nights at the diner, and this night was no exception. There wasn’t much work to be had in our little town. My financial situation was another reason to rethink the road trip, but not a good enough one to skip out on it. I knew Eric would spot me if I was short; money was never an issue for his family. I tried not to be envious about that.
As I walked into a dark house after work that night, I looked down the hallway toward my mother’s bedroom. There was a light flickering under the door. I knew she’d been in there watching TV since she got home from work. I considered going in to talk, but the thought of it made me even more tired than I already was. I decided I’d see her the next morning.
I would regret that decision.
The morning routine in our house had gradually reversed course over the years. I could still remember a time when my mother woke me, made breakfast, and got us both out the door, but now I was doing all those things. I didn’t mind. She worked hard and I knew she struggled, but I wondered what she’d do when I eventually moved out.
I knocked on her door.
“Mom,” I said. “Mom, it’s time to get up. You have work.”
I went into the kitchen and started the kettle, measured coffee into the French press, then pulled her work uniform out of the clothes dryer before knocking on her door again.
She was always groggy in the morning, but it was unusual for her not to answer. I could hear that the TV was still on and thought maybe she couldn’t hear me calling because of it, so I opened the door a crack and peeked in. She was facing the wall.
“Mom? Hey, Mom, you have work today.”
I walked over to shake her, and she rolled onto her back. Something didn’t look right about the line of drool coming from her mouth. I lifted her by one arm. She fell back, limp and unresponsive. That’s when I saw the pills on her nightstand.
“Shit! Not again!”
I called 911, giving them our address, the information from the bottle, and anything else they asked for while I knelt over my mother trying to slap and shake her awake.
I don’t know how long I was sitting in the hospital waiting room before a doctor came out to talk to me.
“Are you Glenn?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, jumping up from my seat. “Is my Mom going to be okay?”
“She’s fine for the time being. We’ve got her stabilized, but we’re going to have to keep her for observation for a few days.”
I thanked her and turned to leave.
“Don’t you want to see her?” the doctor called after me.
I didn’t answer. I took a deep breath and managed not to exhale until I got into my car. I knew if I were standing, I would pass out.
The last time she did this I was fifteen. Now, as a young adult, I still didn’t know how to handle it.
I didn’t have to work that evening or the next, so instead puttered around with various neglected fix-it projects around the house, only to leave half-finished piles of junk all over the place.
I was in the middle of stripping the old cracked caulk from around the bathtub when the doorbell rang. It was Eric.
He towered above me, and most other people. Eric was a football player, and looked every bit the part. Except for my red hair, we had resembled each other until the eighth grade, when he shot up and filled out in the space of about six months. I continued to grow at a snail’s pace.
Blond hair swept over his right eye, and he shook his head to the side, blowing it out of the way. He did that a lot.
“Dude, what’s going on? I’ve been calling you. Your phone dead?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but couldn’t get the words out.
“Hey man, you alright?” he asked, softening. I started to cry, and he pulled me into a crushing hug.
“It’s going to be okay. I got you.”
He called Ethan, who was over in minutes, as I knew he would be.
After I caught them up, we sat in bored silence together for a little while. I watched them from the overstuffed chair sitting caddy cornered to the sofa where they lounged together, linking fingers. They were an interesting looking couple. Ethan’s height and build were average, but next to his boyfriend he looked slight. His smooth olive skin and carefully manicured hands contrasted against Eric’s callouses and ragged nails. Ethan put a lot of work into his appearance; Eric always looked like he’d just rolled out of bed.
Eric cleared his throat, breaking the silence.
“Hey, I know you’ve got a lot going on, but earlier we were going to ask if you wanted to come along with us to the county fair. Tonight’s the demolition derby. It might help to get your mind off things. You up for that?”
I perked up at his suggestion. It sounded like exactly the kind of thing I needed, and then a thought occurred to me.
“Do you guys mind if I invite somebody?”
* * *
Jade wouldn’t let us pick her up, but she agreed to meet us there. She wore a simple blue dress with sneakers. Her curls were mostly tamed into a braid, save for a few rebellious locks springing out here and there. With no jewelry or accessories and little make-up, she looked wonderful.
As we strolled down the midway, Jade picked at a spindle of cotton candy. There was something oddly soothing about the way the crowd around us blended into the background. It was like we were surrounded by white noise.
I watched my two friends walk in front of us and smiled to myself. We were four wheels now.
“So, did you just move here?” I asked Jade. “I don’t think I ever saw you in school.”
“Private school,” she said, veering us off in the direction of the exhibition building. “All girls.”
She rolled her eyes at that last part.
We passed oversized produce, jars of assorted pickles, and stalks of sunflowers which loomed over our heads, all with various colors of ribbons on them. Stopping at a small cubicle displaying photographs, my eye fell on one featuring a bird in a cage. The lens focused through the bars giving the bird a bright, crisp outline, blurring its surroundings.
“You like it?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, still staring.
“Thanks, it’s mine.”
I looked at her to see if she was kidding, but she was already on to the next exhibit.
“For real?” I asked, noting that there was a red ribbon on the side of the photo.
She nodded, licking sugar off her fingers.
“Geez, you should do that professionally,” I said in all seriousness.
“Thanks, but my parents want me to study something more practical. I don’t know, I think they’re probably right. What about you? What are you going to do?”
I could see from her face that she could tell she’d hit a nerve. I tried to shrug it off.
“Community college for a couple years. Then, who knows?”
I knew. Deep down I did. I told myself that by then my mom would be doing better, and I’d transfer to another school, maybe even stay on campus. But I knew that I’d most likely still be right there, still working at the diner.
There was a momentary awkward silence, and then I was embraced from behind by a pair of huge arms. I heard my back crack as Eric lifted me off the ground.
“You guys disappeared on us. What’s up?”
“Jade took this,” I said, pointing to the picture.
“Oh yeah?” said Eric, sizing it up. “Sweet.”
Ethan looked at it more thoughtfully for a few moments before linking his arm into Eric’s and saying, “Come on, let’s go ride the Ferris wheel. We’ll catch up with these two later.”
He looked at me with approval over his shoulder as they walked away.
I found myself relaxing through the evening. I didn’t talk much, just enjoyed listening to her. We went on some rides together. I was careful to avoid the spinning ones. I had learned the hard way that my stomach couldn’t tolerate them. She let me hold her hand.
The evening ended too soon. I promised to call and we hugged goodbye in the muddy parking lot before parting ways.
The guys offered to come in with me when we got back to my house, but by then I felt okay to be alone. I left the lights off, enjoying the dark silence. It seemed there was always a light or the glow from a TV casting shadows. But I was the only shadow in the house that night, and I was experiencing a bittersweet happiness.
The next few days I spent as much time as I could not thinking about my mom. I worked and hung out with my friends, and got to know Jade better. We spent most of a day hiking the trail near the old hospital on the outskirts of town. She brought her camera.
She was mostly taking candid shots, but occasionally wanted me to stand in a certain spot or look in a particular direction.
“Here, just kind of turn your face up. Yeah, like that,” she said, the camera so close it made me feel totally self-conscious.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
“Because I want to get the focus on your freckles.”
“Oh good, my best feature.”
“Shut up, they are,” she laughed, pulling the camera away from her face.
I was seated on a cement barrier while she stood over me at an intimate proximity. She took another step closer. It was the most natural thing for my arms to encircle her waist, so I slid them around her and let my hand caress the curve of her lower back. Her brown eyes caught the sun and glowed with golden flecks I hadn’t noticed before. I kissed her.
When we got back to Jade’s car, there was a light summer rain starting. It turned into a full downpour by the time we reached my house. We ran for the door, laughing as we pushed our way inside. Our laughter stopped abruptly, however, at the sight of my mom sitting in the living room with some lady I didn’t recognize.
“Mom, you’re home,” I said, going to her with halting footsteps to offer a gentle hug. She was still wearing her hospital bracelet.
“Yeah, Joan gave me a ride. I would have called, but…”
Her voice trailed off. I extended my hand to Joan and introduced myself.
“Hi Glenn, it’s nice to finally meet you,” she said. “I’m going to be working with your mother for a little while.”
“Oh, cool,” I said, nodding awkwardly.
We stood in silence for what seemed like a long time before my mother spoke up.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“Oh, sorry. Mom, this is Jade,” I answered. “Jade, this is my mom, Pamela.”
“Oh, are you Glenn’s girlfriend?”
I was too flustered to answer, but Jade managed to come up with a graceful reply.
“Well, we haven’t really talked about it; we just met.”
“Oh, damn. I’m sorry! I’m always putting my foot in my mouth like that!”
Joan placed a steadying hand on my Mom’s shoulder.
“Well,” she said, “I should be going. Pamela, email me some appointment times that will work for you so we can get things set up.”
She turned to Jade and asked, “Would you like to share an umbrella?”
Jade took the hint that it was time to go.
“Oh, yeah sure. Thanks.”
She mouthed for me to call her later as they walked out the door, and then my mother and I were left alone in an uncomfortable silence.
“So,” my mom said finally, “Looks like you kept busy while I was gone. I mean, I won’t say I’m not hurt that you didn’t come see me in the hospital, but I guess I get it.”
“I didn’t know what to say to you, Mom.”
“Yeah, no. I understand.”
“I did wait there until I knew you were okay.”
“Well, that’s something, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right. We’re off on the wrong foot. So, what’s new? I mean, besides the young lady you forgot to introduce me to.”
I shouldn’t have brought it up then, but whenever she got that passive aggressive tone, it pushed my buttons exactly the way she intended. I realized at that moment how angry I was at her. That I didn’t visit her in the hospital was a testament to how much I didn’t want to hurt her, because I would have said things I couldn’t have taken back. Now she was, once again, focused solely on how I’d made her feel without a thought as to what she’d put me through.
“I’m thinking of going on a road trip with the guys.”
She looked like I’d punched her in the gut. I was happier about that than I care to admit.
“Now?” she said breathlessly, searching my face for reassurance. “But you can’t!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Mom, we’ve been talking about this forever and I decided I’m not missing it.”
It was the first time I knew for sure, and I suddenly couldn’t imagine any scenario that would keep me from that trip.
I could see that she was starting to panic. To her credit, she tried to remain calm.
“But Glenn, you’ll have lots of time to go on trips with your friends. I just got out of the hospital. I need you here.”
“No, Mom. Listen. I won’t have lots of time. They’re leaving. Don’t you get that? They’re going away and I’m staying here, and they are going to move on with their lives. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see them again.”
She started crying.
“Are you doing this to punish me?” she said quietly.
I sat down next to her.
“No, Mom. I just…”
Her face turned red, and suddenly she wasn’t crying anymore. She was shouting.
“What about me? Who’s going to take care of things around here? Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?”
That was it. I rounded on her, pointing a finger in her face.
“What’s wrong with you? I’m your son, not your caretaker! Did you ever give a moment’s thought to what it would be like for me to find you like that? AGAIN?”
Her hand flew out and struck me, but she looked like she was the one who’d been slapped. Her chin quivered and she ran to her room and slammed the door. I stood outside of it knocking softly.
“Mom? Mom, I’m sorry…”
“Go away!” she screamed, and so I did.
* * *
The next couple of weeks, we were like ghosts to each other. I went to work and so did she, while at home we did a careful dance which tiptoed on the edge of being polite and not speaking. I noted that she was keeping all her appointments, and snuck a peak at her medication once a day, to make sure she was taking it and in the right amounts. Other than that, we each stayed out of the other’s way.
Like my friends, Jade was going away to school; I knew that the time I had left with her was limited. I considered asking her if she wanted to do a long-distance thing, but decided that would be hard for both of us. We didn’t talk about it much. I simply tried to enjoy her company.
Finally, the day came. The guys pulled up in Eric’s SUV and helped me load my stuff. Jade was there to say goodbye; she’d be leaving before we got back. We hugged for a long time, and I told her I hoped I’d see her again. She handed me an envelope full of pictures from the day on the trail. I wanted to look at them right away, but held her a little longer instead.
I went to the door and poked my head inside, calling out one more time, letting my mom know I was leaving. There was no answer, so I got in the SUV and Eric started driving.
I was looking out the back window at Jade, watching her get into her car, when suddenly I saw the door to my house fling open. It was my mom, and she was running, calling my name.
“Glenn!” she screamed, chasing us down the street.
Eric looked at me uncertainly and asked, “Dude, should I stop?”
I didn’t relish the idea of getting into a fight with her there on the street, but I couldn’t just leave her like that.
“Yeah. Yeah, stop. Please.”
I got out and walked toward her. She slowed down as she approached me, out of breath.
“I just…” she started, panting. “I’m sorry… you were right… you aren’t my caretaker… and you should go with your friends… you should…”
She threw her arms around me, crying.
“Shh, Mom. It’s okay. I’ll be back in a couple weeks. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay.”
She had started to catch her breath, and looked me level in the face.
“I haven’t been fair to you. And that’s going to change. Look, I can’t promise you that I’ll be fine and everything’s going to be great from here on out. But I can promise you that I won’t make it your problem anymore. I can promise you that.”
She looked at Eric and Ethan, waiting for me.
“Okay, go,” she said. “Go, have fun.”
I was speechless. Despite everything, my mother had a lot of good qualities, but unselfishness was not one of them. I was dubious about how committed she was to what she was saying. For the time being, though, it was enough that she’d said it.
I kissed her cheek and left, leaving my doubt there on the street with her. I felt a heaviness slip away as we drove off. For the first time in years, I felt like a kid. Funny, since we were embarking on our first adult excursion.
* * *
To this day, that trip is one of the best in my memory. We were the Three Musketeers again. It was the last summer before my life began.
After school started, Ethan and Eric tried to stay together for a while, but eventually the distance won out and they parted ways. As the years pass, they remain the best of friends, and sometimes I still feel a little left out. Every so often we all get together, now with our respective families.
I’d like to say that my mom had some sudden big turnaround after that, but depression is a tenacious beast. She kept her word to me, though. I eventually transferred to an away college, and she made sure that I wasn’t spending all my time worrying about her. She took care of things, including herself.
In those days of my youth, it felt like my life was on a slow-motion treadmill of routine interrupted by occasional crises. It seemed nothing would change, especially not my future. Those friendships I had were lifelines to me; promises of happiness I couldn’t quite imagine for myself.
Now time moves differently. It marches across my face leaving lines I only notice every so often, and then all at once. It is measured in milestone markers on my wall showing my daughter’s height and in albums full of her changing countenance. I’m so busy living life, I don’t notice it until one part is gone, and we’re on to the next. This might be a sad reality for some, but I have decided that it’s a good thing.
I’ve only seen Jade a few more times in my life, and we’ve had friendly, polite encounters; nothing of the magic I felt when I first met her. I’ve noticed her work in several magazines, but when I introduced her to my wife, it was as the photographer who took the photo prominently displayed in our living room. It’s a close-up portrait of me as a young man with my freckles all over it. A certain red-headed little girl I know loves that picture.