As a child my home town seemed so big, crossing it once from the industrial area in the west to the shopping center in the east, just at the freeway, was like a trip around the world. Back then I couldn’t even imagine leaving much less for college which seemed out of reach for me anyway. Sometimes my parents couldn’t afford the basics and it only got worse after Dad left. No matter how much Mom worked, it just wasn’t enough.
It didn’t help my narrow horizon that we never could afford a proper vacation either, I mostly spent my holidays with my grandma who – surprise, surprise – was chronically short on money too.
But now, coming back here after having left for college, thanks to my scholarship and Mom’s hard work, it feels small. Suffocating.
I run my fingers through my hair, adjust it so it covers my ears a bit, and take a deep breath. The station looks exactly the same and so does the bus I’m boarding. I even recognize the driver, give him a short nod that he returns without any sign he’s recognizing me too. Fine with me.
I cram my suitcase halfway under my seat, glad that there are only a handful of other passengers, before I plop down and enjoy being out of the sun. The bus is too old for a proper AC, but half of the windows are open and although I will end up with a stiff neck tomorrow I sit in the draft, let it dry the sweat that covers my neck, my arms and the sliver of my back that peeks out from under my shirt.
The rhythmic rumble of the bus, the heat and the fact that I’m on the road for almost seven hours already make me sleepy, I struggle to keep my eyes open for two stops before I give in, rest my head against the window.
An especially mean pothole shakes me awake, just in time to see my stop fly by. I curse and hit the ‘stop’ button, hoping against hope that the driver will let me off before we reach the next scheduled bus stop.
He does, but an elderly woman grumbles about young people and paying attention to the announcements. I smile at her while I squeeze past her, brush my hair behind my ears and sign ‘Thank you’ with my free hand. Paired with my hearing aid the perfect response, she pales, makes a face but shuts up. A quick wave to the driver and I exit, drag my suitcase behind. It’s only two streets further than planned, a short walk from mother’s home.
The door is locked, of course, Mom is probably still at work. Stale, hot air welcomes me and I open all windows with fly screens. Some of the outside blinds are broken, there’s not much I can do to shut the sun out so I look for some shade and curl up. Traveling is always exhausting but coming back home takes all of my energy. Always staying observant, always keeping the head low. There are so many people I’d rather not run into.
“Honey, I’m home!” Mom’s cheerful voice rouses me from my not so peaceful slumber, I need a second to realize where I am. And how old. No, I’m not a high schooler anymore, thank goodness that nightmare is over.
I find her in the kitchen, busy stuffing groceries into the formerly empty fridge and cabinets. Yeah, Mom, I noticed you had almost no food at home. But if I mention that to her she would just shrug and tell me she ate at work most of the time. A valid argument, after all food preparation is part of her job.
She looks tired but happy, pulls me into a familiar embrace, tight and warm. The scent of her shampoo hasn’t changed in years, it takes me back to my childhood. A bittersweet feeling.
“You are so skinny! Don’t you get any food over there?” She immediately frets, makes me smile and roll my eyes at the same time.
“I’m the same as last time. And Christmas. I haven’t lost weight in years.”
She looks doubtful, brows knitted in disapproval, but she quickly smiles again, lets go of me and turns back to her groceries.
“Well, I will simply have to pamper you a bit. What do you want for dinner?”
And with that we are back to her favorite topic. Food. For Mom food is more than just nourishment, it’s a way to convey feelings. Love, condolences, even anger – there’s a dish for every occasion and emotion. For me vanilla and cinnamon would always taste like rainy fall afternoons, cuddled under a blanket with some cookies and a book or a movie. And there is this bread, sourdough with olives and walnut she always made when she was angry. Kneading the dough takes so much strength that afterwards all the anger has vanished and only sore upper arms are left.
Now all I want is to escape from here, but I can’t. So I make the best of it.
“It’s so hot today,” I whine dramatically. “I don’t feel like eating something hot. How about that cherry soup with the sweet dumplings?”
“You’re lucky, I still have some preserved cherries from last summer. Dinner’s ready in half an hour.”
And with that everything is said, I’m dismissed to go and play – or in my case now, to watch TV or browse the internet. Which barely works, given that the Wi-Fi in this area is really weak. And I can’t plug my phone or tablet to the router. So TV it is, right after I unpack my luggage.
Even my room feels smaller now. Although that’s probably because Mom put some additional shelves in, turned it into a study/guest room. That doesn’t bother me, why should she keep a room for me when her apartment is tiny to begin with? No, this is fine. I will only stay for two weeks, I can make it that long on a dingy sofa with Grandma’s quilt as cover.
Over dinner we catch up, Mom asks about my internship – it has been fun and I learned a lot, especially that I wouldn’t do that job without payment ever again – my lovelife – sorry, Mom, let’s skip this topic – and my plans from here on.
“I had a few job interviews and now I have to wait for their decision.”
“And is any of these potential jobs around here?” She tries to play it cool but I can see her sharp gaze, hear the mix of anticipation and disappointed in her voice. Or maybe I just imagine that, I’m not sure.
“No Mom, there are not many jobs in my field around here. It’s better to stick to the bigger cities, those with colleges and universities, you know?” I haven’t even applied for one job in my hometown, don’t know if there are any. I don’t want to come back.
“I see. Well, maybe you can at least come and visit me more often. I haven’t seen you in months, muffin cheeks.”
I sigh inwardly at the nickname, but I know that she’s right. In the last semester I have found excuse over excuse to not come back home.
“Sorry, Mom, but my final thesis was killing me. At least it’s over now and I’m home until I know what’s next for me.”
She smiles brightly and I have to admit, I have missed her, too. I dig in, glad to taste familiar food again.
“Did you move out of your dorm already?” She casually asks between two spoon full of dumpling.
“Yeah. I sold most of my books and left my other stuff with a friend. Good thing I don’t have that many clothes to begin with.” The most important things are in the suitcase I brought, including my diploma. Mom couldn’t make it to the grant ceremony and I’m not sure if Dad even knows that I graduated. Not that it matters much.
“Anyway, I’m glad you’re here. Just in time for the big party.” Finished with her bowl of cherry soup Mom leans back in her chair and watches me as confusion takes over. A familiar feeling. Mom tends to jump from topic to topic, thought to thought so I often lose track.
“Party? What party?”
She gives me The Look, the typical ‘you never listen when I tell you something, especially if it’s important, honestly, child, where do you have your head’ look. Fed up and exhausted with a hint of disapproval.
“Mayor Rosenfeldt celebrates his tenth anniversary in office AND the town has its birthday, too. There will be a huge fair and a smaller, private dinner party for invited guests. I told you about it ages ago.”
That rings a bell in the depth of my memory, but also some alarms.
Mayor Rosenfeldt is one of the most important, influential and richest people in town. And he is Mom’s boss. Actually a nice guy in private, he has never been anything but polite to me although I’m on the complete opposite end of the food chain.
Mom swears he’s a great boss, even gives her a day off for Christmas every year despite being Jewish and not celebrating that holiday. Mom is his housekeeper. She cooks, cleans, helps with preparations for parties and dinners. But she’s basically a servant and back in school I was ashamed because of that. Being poor is one thing, but being poor and having other kids tell you that your mother is a maid, that stings.
“Jazz? Are you even listening?” Again the disapproval, mildly though, but still noticable.
“What? Uh, yeah. Sorry, I took out my hearing aids earlier.” Funny how I sometimes completely forget that I need them.
“Oh, honey. You must be really tired. Anyway, I want you to stay for the celebrations. We could go and watch the fireworks together. You love fireworks, don’t you?”
In the past we have watched firework whenever we could. Not because I’m particularly fond of them, but because they are usually for free. But I’d rather bite off my tongue than telling Mom.
“Sure. Fireworks are great. I’m looking forward to it.”
After dinner Mom says she’s tired and off to bed early, but I’m too restless although I’m completely exhausted. After leaving a note for Mom I slip on my jacket and go out for a walk, just a short round through the neighborhood. In the last couple of years nothing has really changed, nothing but me. Living in a bigger city has made me cautious and I head towards the better parts of town. There’s the main street with shops and smaller businesses, restaurants and diners. Even at this hour there are still people out and about, but still much less than back home.
When did I start thinking of my college campus as home?
I walk a bit faster, follow the line of streetlamps, from one small isle of light to the next. The air is cooling of already and carries the scent of freshly cut grass and the leaves of acorn trees that line the sidewalk. In a few weeks it will smell like fall but the lack of rain and the heat lately kill every other scent than the one of dryness. Dry leaves, dry asphalt, the boring and dry lives people lead here.
I chase away those thoughts, just because I can’t be happy here doesn’t mean no one can. Mom often seems content enough, but then again, she barely knows anything else. Small town lives are narrow.
I turn the corner, hear the jingling of keys from somewhere but keep walking. The shop owners are closing up for the night, only a diner and some bars are still open. I would kill for coffee right now, but I better head back. My body is tired but my mind still racing, an exhausting combination. Especially since I struggle to keep my thoughts from wandering to that one topic that’s on my mind all day already.
I only notice that I’m humming again when people throw me strange looks. It helps drowning out the annoying peep of my tinnitus but I tend to hum louder without my hearing aids, it’s a habit I have for years now. My antsy feeling doesn’t stop, not even when I reach the door of my former home.
Everything is dark and quiet when I enter. On my tiptoes I sneak into the guest room, get dressed for bed and go the bathroom to wash up and brush my teeth. This routine helps me to calm down and when I finally crawl into my bed, I fall asleep almost instantly.