“It’s all yours now, Sally,” I said.
Sally didn’t answer me, and I turned away and walked back to the front room.
Mom was still there, holding her arms around her body like she was afraid that she might fall to pieces if she let herself go. Nathan was standing by the door, holding a cardboard box full of dog supplies, with Beverly sitting patiently by his feet. She always settled down like that once we got her leash onto her; as long as she was promised immediate access to the exciting outside world, she was happy to wait for the humans to finish getting their act together.
Her original master must have worked long and hard to train her as well as he did. But he, like Sally, was long gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
“I’ve got everything,” I said.
Mom jumped, turning toward the sound of my voice. “Sal, I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said, and was surprised to realize that I meant it. “You’re worried about Joyce. I can’t blame you for that. I’m worried about Joyce, too.”
“I still shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. It wasn’t fair, and I’m sorry.” She sounded contrite.
That was a good start. “It’s okay,” I said again. “I understand. And it’s probably a fight we needed to have a long time ago. Dr. Morrison says feelings of resentment are only natural on everyone’s part. Mine because you’re holding me up to the memory of someone I’m not anymore, and yours because I’m here, and you feel like you have to love me, but I’m not the daughter you raised. It’s probably a miracle it took so long for those feelings to come to the surface.”
Mom blinked. Then, to my surprise, she smiled. “I thought you hated your therapist.”
“I do hate my therapist. He’s annoying and he thinks I’m pretending to have amnesia because I don’t want to cope with the realities of my situation. Also he breathes through his mouth while I’m trying to think, and it’s weird. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything, just that I don’t want to invite him to dinner or anything.” I looked at her as levelly as I could, trying to pretend this wasn’t awkward—that I wasn’t looking at my mother and telling her it was okay if she didn’t love me anymore, because she’d put off grieving for the daughter that she lost for long enough. It wasn’t working. I didn’t honestly expect it to. “I love you, Mom. I do. I don’t blame you if you can’t love me. And I’m leaving because I think it’s probably way past time for me to be gone.”
I wanted her to argue; I wanted her say that no matter what I did or didn’t know, she would love me forever, because I was still her little girl. Children don’t remember being infants, but parents don’t stop loving them the day that they forget about learning how to walk. I was just a more extreme case.
She didn’t argue. Instead, she wiped her eyes, smiled at me, and said, “Sally would have hated you, you know. You’re the sort of do-gooder she used to complain about being boring and… and effortlessly law-abiding, and making the rest of us look bad. She would have done her best to convince you never to come near her again. Probably by shouting ‘fuck’ at you a lot in public, and then claiming to have Tourette’s if anyone called her on it. I don’t think you would have liked her either, though, so I suppose that’s all right.”
I didn’t say anything. Mom wiped her eyes again, and straightened, seeming to draw strength from some unknown source. A decision was made in that moment. I could see it in her eyes, and I think that she could see it in mine. Whatever happened after this, whether we all came back together as a family or not, things had changed between us.
“Will you be at Nathan’s place?” she asked. “I have the number there. And you have your phone, of course. I’ll make sure that we keep you posted about what’s happening with Joyce.”
I hoisted my suitcase higher, briefly amazed at how little my life weighed. “I’ll call tomorrow, once I’m settled in at Nathan’s.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’d appreciate that.”
And that was that. There was nothing left for me to say to her, or for her to say to me: we had used up all the words that we had left to spend between us. I nodded, once, and turned to join Nathan next to the front door. His hands were occupied with Beverly and her supplies, and so he allowed me to open the door and let him out. Beverly’s tail wagged wildly as he led her to the car. I followed them, not allowing myself to look back until my things were in the trunk and Beverly was safely ensconced in the backseat. Then, and only then, did I look toward the house.
The door was already closed. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I froze, my heart seeming to turn into a solid lump at the center of my chest. Nathan followed my gaze. Then he walked over and put his hand on my shoulder, comforting and solidly warm.
“I will never judge you for not being someone that I’ve never met, or known you to be, or wanted,” he said quietly. “You’re my Sal. That’s all I’m ever going to ask you to be.”
“Thank you,” I whispered. I hugged him before getting into the car. Beverly promptly stuck her nose over the back of the seat and licked my ear. I laughed, and twisted around enough to hug her neck. “At least one of us is excited.”
Nathan got into the car, smiling at the pair of us. I could see the regret lurking behind his expression. Now we had both been rejected by our mothers. “I’m excited,” he said. “I’ve got my girl and my girl’s dog. Suddenly, we are a nuclear American family. All we need now is a picket fence.”