Once my mom tried to leave my father. She packed up the car while dad was passed out somewhere and the moment I got off the bus she told me to get into the car and we drove off. I was 12. Matty was three and wouldn't stop talking and asking questions and Mom only ignored him and it drove me crazy. Even as it was happening, I knew we'd go back. Even as it was happening, I was resenting her. Because we would all have to go back. She could never really leave him.
I had a cracked rib and it hurt like hell and that was why we were going. Dad hadn't done it on purpose; that man drunk in the house was like a gorilla. He didn't really mean to make a mess, but he always did. I had recently started thinking of ways to minimize the severity of the bruises, the breaks in my mind. It was actually easier for me to get over it, to get to sleep when I thought of things this way; that dad wasn't really violent, he was just careless. He was just clumsy. I considered myself to be pretty damn mature thinking this way.
Mom looked at me sideways a lot as we drove. I could tell she felt good about herself doing this: she felt brave. She felt free, like, yes, she could make this decision on her own. She could be a mother bear.
I opened up my grandfather's copy of Capital Punishment and looked at the page with the illustration of a person being dissected alive. I wondered why they stopped administering punishments like that. If you had asked me then, I would have said that I understood why the world was going to shit. I would have been completely sure. If anything, people were doing even more horrible things to each other than they were five hundred years ago, and the punishments were less severe? More humane? Please.
Mom told me to put that book away. She cringed, said she couldn't believe I was reading something like that.
"I'm going to have to talk to your grandfather," she said.
We made it all the way to Roanoke Rapids before it got too late and stayed in a Hampton Inn. I was awake and reading the whole drive even though Mom tried all through South Carolina to get me into conversation, asking me about every damn thing she could except for Dad. She would do anything to avoid a fight. Mom drew the curtains like we were on the run from the mob and it made me laugh out loud, the obvious fear in the action, because I was picturing dad waking up on the floor. I was imagining him getting up with his head splitting open and finding no one around to get him his morning Bloody Mary besides his employees. I laughed at the thought that she could ever be afraid of him, the bumbling fool. I thought of my father like that quite a bit. I still do sometimes, the rare occasions he crosses my mind.
Matty slept the whole way to the motel, then kept sleeping as mom unpacked, actually hanging up our clothes in the closet, folding our jeans and putting them in the dresser under the TV. Like we were staying. Like this was our new home. She made coffee from the package and used the little machine that came with the room and drank and drank and made more and stared at the TV with all the lights off. I was under the covers with Capital Punishment and a flashlight but I could hear Judge Judy, Judge this and that, and all the other shows celebrating the misery of other peoples' lives. It made her feel better. For a while I was just pretending to read, my eyes buzzing like insects in their sockets and my brain couldn't take any more of those little illustrations, those lithographs from the seventeenth century that still remind me of cruel middle school distractions in ballpoint pen. Judge Judy made me feel better too, though I wouldn't concede that to my mother.
She used to say, "a boy needs his father. You just do."
I fell asleep I don't know when, having at some point actually but my book aside and marking my page with a fast-food receipt I found on the floor of the car. As I woke up and looked at the book I realized that what woke me up was a burst of TV audience laughter. Mom was watching a show where two men were talking over a fence, a set that was supposed to be outside but clearly wasn't. She wasn't laughing at the funny parts, it was like she couldn't even hear them. She sat in the upholstered chair near the door, her hand on the receiver of the hotel phone, her eyes huge and wet in the TV light. She was smoking a cigarette and next to her sat an ashtray stuffed with butts. The curtains were opened partway and the window was cracked, the cool air outside dragging the smoke out from the end of the cigarette like thread from a spool.
Mom looked at me, then back at the TV.
"What time is it?" I asked her. I really didn't want anything else from her.
"Almost three," she said.
Her eyes were glassy, unblinking one minute, then squishing shut, oozing out tears the next and it was like she had been saving up her weeping for this moment so that I had to share in it.
"I did this for you," she said, "you know that, right? You believe me?"
"Yeah, I believe you," I said to her. But I didn't say anything else because I didn't want to turn this into a conversation. So I rolled back over and as soon as I did this she started crying and I could hear it and I knew I was meant to hear it. It would only get louder if I ignored it.
"I just miss him," she finally said, "I miss him so much."
"I know, Mom," I said, my voice muffled by the pillow, by my own indifference, "my ribs really miss him too."