“What are we trying to do?” I say. “I don’t understand what there is to be proud of.”
“You’re trying to stay married,” she says. “And be happy doing it. I’ve never accomplished it. So to me, that’s brave. To me, you are brave.”
It feels weird to hear, because this whole time, I’ve just been waiting for someone to call me a coward.
“OK,” my mom calls out. “You can come in now.”
Rachel comes to the door. Charlie is there behind her, and Thumper is at her feet. As I look at them in my house, I realize that it’s been a long time since we were all a family, just us. Ryan has been such a part of me that he became a part of this. But maybe it’s OK that he’s not a part of this right now. It’s nice to look at the faces around the room and see . . . my family.
My mom waves her hand to let them know that they are welcome. They all come sit on the bed, Thumper pushing his way into the middle, trying to get the attention of all of us.
“Everything OK?” Rachel says.
“Everything is good,” I say, and that seems to work as enough of a segue to get the conversation away from my marital troubles and toward other things, like what Charlie is going to do with his life. (He has no idea.) If Rachel is dating anyone (Whom would she be dating?) and whether Thumper may need another dose of flea medication. (Yes.) Charlie’s flight leaves tonight, and I think it’s making my mother sentimental.
“Can we do dinner at my house tonight?” she asks. “As a family?”
“My flight leaves at ten,” Charlie says.
“We can take you,” I tell him, referring to Rachel and myself. “We will just leave Mom’s around eight.”
“I could serve dinner around six?” she offers.
“Serve dinner?” Rachel asks. “Like, you’re gonna make our dinner?”
My mom frowns at her. “Why do you kids act like I’ve never made a meal?”
The three of us look at one another and start laughing. As much as we are all a family, we are also three siblings with a mother. Sometimes it is three against one.
“I have made dinner before, you know,” my mother continues, ignoring our laughter. “You’ll see. I’ll make something great.”
I appear to be the one feeling the most charitable. “OK, Mom. You got it. We’ll be there at six. Ready to eat a home-cooked meal.”
“Oh, you kids have made me so happy! I can’t even tell you. All three of you at my house for Sunday dinner.” She gets up off the bed. “Grandma and Fletcher are leaving in a few hours, so I should go have lunch with them. Then I’ll go grocery shopping. Not sure what I’m going to make,” she says. “But this is going to be great.” She nods to herself. “Just great.”
She gathers her things and says good-bye to all of us. I walk her out to her car to thank her for talking to me earlier.
“Honey, you do not need to thank me,” she says, getting into the front seat of her SUV. “I have three grown children. To be honest, it’s a relief to be needed.”
I laugh and hug her through the car window. I didn’t even realize I needed her until she just said it. How stupid is that? “We’ll see you tonight,” I say.
“Six o’clock!” she calls out as she pulls out of the driveway.
I nod and wave. I watch her drive away. I watch as her car, so big and fast, is eventually so far away that it looks small and slow.
Dinner is burnt, but I don’t think my mom actually realizes it. Despite the charred chicken and lumpy potatoes, all of the elements seem to click. No one really mentions Ryan. We make fun of Rachel. We ask about Bill. Charlie seems happy to be there. No one acknowledges how terrible the cooking is. To be honest, I don’t think any of us really care.
Mom made too much food. Or maybe we just couldn’t stand to eat very much of it. Either way, there are plenty of leftovers. By the time we have taken in all the dishes and put all the extras into Tupperware containers, it is time to head out.
“Well, who wants to take the chicken? Charlie? Will you eat it on the plane?”
“You want me to bring half a roasted bird carcass on a plane?”
Mom frowns at him and hands the chicken to Rachel. “You’ll eat it, right?”
“Sure,” she says. “Thanks, Mom.” Then she looks at Charlie and shakes her head. My mom pawns the green beans and carrots off on me and then thrusts the container of sweet potatoes at Charlie.
“You can take the potatoes, at least,” my mom says, but Charlie isn’t having it. He won’t relent. That’s part of what I’ve never understood about him, or what he’s never understood about life. Sometimes you should just take the potatoes and say thank you and then throw them in the trash when Mom’s not looking.
We say our good-byes and then head out on the road. Rachel has agreed to drive, because I’m still hungover from last night. I feel as if it will be days until I’m OK to operate heavy machinery. Charlie grabs the front seat, so I sit in the back.
I hate driving to the airport. LAX is a nightmare, but it’s more than that. The route is such an unattractive view of Los Angeles. You don’t see beaches and sunsets. You don’t see palm trees and bright lights. You see strip malls and strip clubs. You see parking garages and 7-Elevens. To ride to the airport is to see Los Angeles the way its enemies do: bleak, cultureless, boring, and fake.
So I don’t bother looking out the window and instead close my eyes and listen as Charlie and Rachel debate whether to take the freeway or La Cienega Boulevard. Rachel wins because she’s driving and because she’s right. The freeway will be clear at this time of night.
When we get to the terminal, Rachel turns left into the parking garage.
“Why are you parking the car? Just drop me off,” Charlie says. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but our family doesn’t really drop people off. We pay the money to park the car. We walk across the lanes of traffic. We see you off at the security checkpoint. I’m not sure why.
“Stop, Charlie,” Rachel says. “We’re walking you in.”
Charlie rolls his eyes and starts to bitch about it and then stops himself. “OK,” he says. “All right.” So maybe he has learned to take the potatoes sometimes.
We park and walk out. Truth be told, we don’t have much to talk about. But when Charlie checks in and walks to the gate, when it’s time to say good-bye, I’m suddenly sad to see my little brother go. He’s ornery, and he’s kind of a jerk. He doesn’t say the things you should say to people. He spikes punch with Everclear. But he’s a good guy, with a kind heart. And he’s my little brother.
“I’m going to miss you,” I say to him as I hug him.
“Me, too,” he says. “And I’m proud of you, or whatever. You know, for what it’s worth.”
I don’t press him on it, the way I want to. I don’t sit him down and say, What makes you say that? What do you really think of what I’m doing? Do you think I can fix this? Do you think Ryan will come back to me? Is my life over? I just say, “Thanks.”
Rachel hugs him, too, and then he takes off, up the escalator and back home to Chicago, where people have seasons and cold air. I’ve never understood it. People come from all over the country to experience our sunny winters and mild summers. Charlie got out as soon as he could, looking for snow and rain.
As Rachel and I are walking back to the car, we get lost and end up on the floor below at Arrivals. It occurs to me that Arrivals is a much nicer place to be than Departures. Departures is good-bye. Arrivals is hello.
I happen to look toward the revolving doors. I see dads coming home to their families. I see men and women in business suits finding their drivers. I see a young woman, probably a college student, run toward the young man waiting for her. I see her wrap her arms around him. I see him kiss her on the lips. I see, on their faces, that feeling I once knew so well. I see relief. I see joy. I see that look people get when the thing they have been dreaming of is finally in front of them, able to be touched with the tips of their fingers and the length of their arms. I think I stare for a second too long, because she turns to look at me. I smile shyly and look away. I think of when it was me, when I was the one waiting at Arrivals for that one person I ached for. Now I’m the lady looking.