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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Home, Alone

It’s Elisabeth Eckleman’s first year of college, and she has a lot of tough choices to make. In this installment, Elisabeth goes home to see her mom—without Brad—and then meets an old friend with an attractive offer.

In the last installment, Elisabeth found out that her mother’s cancer had returned. She had to decide whether to go back home alone or let Brad, her ex and her mother’s friend, drive her back. You voted for her to... go it alone.

 

I wake up at 8 a.m., my eyes sore and swollen. It takes a while for the details of the night to come into focus: The kiss with Brad, the drinking, the crying that turned to sobs. I must have passed out here on the couch. I have a corny dog in my hand. That’s weird.

As I’m scrubbing my teeth with toothpaste on one finger, I notice two condom wrappers in the bathroom trashcan. Oh shit. What happened? But the trash must be left from the last time Ariel came over. I should feel relieved at this; instead, I feel a pang of jealousy. No—envy, which my mom always insists is not the same thing.

I check my phone: Four calls from Chad. Ugh. I text him (“sorry I missed you”) and he rings me immediately.

“Elisabeth, are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” I say. “Did Kat tell you what happened?”

“No, I read it on Geoff’s blog.”

“Perfect.” That vegan motherfucker.

“Look, I want to come see you,” he says, and reflexively, my hands push away at the air.

“I think I want to be alone right now.” At the time, I suspect I am lying. But afterward I walk into Brad’s room to slip under the sheets with him and find, to my surprise, that I feel I don’t belong there. I watch him as he sleeps, snoring lightly. The room smells of dirty boy clothes. In the corner, there is a lacy black bra that is not mine.

Last night, unhinged by beer and heartache, I told Brad he could drive me home to see my mother. But staring at him now—his mouth agape, a chalky white line of drool around his lips—something tells me that’s not going to work. The realization is like a sharp pebble in my mouth. I tiptoe over to his bed, brush his floppy brown hair back from his brow, and kiss his forehead before I leave to return home, alone.

Before I go, I heat up another corny dog. You know, for the road.

 

My dad picks me up from the airport, and we don’t speak much during the 40-minute drive back home. He points out construction on a new Applebee’s, mentions that the old 7-Eleven is shutting down. “I really thought they’d make it,” he says, shaking his head.

I nod, watching the red-brick housing developments blur past. “Who’d have guessed?”

“Later, if you want, we can go to Friday’s. Get one of those sundaes.” When I was a child, my mother was certain the chocolate fudge sundaes at TGI Friday’s were shot full of hormones and poison, but still I obsessed on them, begged for them until she could only relent. I haven’t had one in years.

“That sounds nice, Dad.” I give his arm a squeeze. “Thanks.”

 

Our home is a sprawling ’70s ranch house with dark rooms and more bookshelves than furniture. A large pile of old clothes collects dust near the entryway where it’s been sitting since my mother and I cleaned out our closets five months ago.

Mom is in the bedroom. A bottle of clear nail polish sits in her lap. “How’s my college girl?” she asks me. She looks better than I expected—color in her cheeks, only a small tuft of hair missing beside her ear—but her voice sounds funny, smooshed. “Did the Professor bring you home?”

Huh. “No, Dad just picked me up at the airport. Remember?”

She waves this away like a fly. “I knew that, I knew that.”

For the past two years, my mother has been doing things like this. Forgetting names of friends, misplacing keys, like little holes were growing in her brain, little black holes once filled with information to which she no longer had access. Like, who wrote War and Peace? Like, what was the name of the restaurant that served the delicious chicken salad she liked so much? She had headaches, too, but I dismissed it—we all dismissed it—as menopause, as the vagaries of aging, as heatstroke, as stress, as anything we possibly could because to admit something more was so... dramatic. Sometimes a shadow of grief would pass across my father’s face, and I would want to yell at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. She’s just like that.” But then, she had her moments. Once it was her turn at Trivial Pursuit when she stared at me, bewildered. “I don’t know what color I am,” she said, blinking at the two pink and green pies on the board. “I have no idea which one is mine.” After a while we made this into a joke. Especially when she was losing the game.

“Tell me about college,” my mother says, lying back and closing her eyes. “Tell me about the college boys.”

“They’re fine.” I fiddle with a corner of the sheet. I leaf through a biography of Benjamin Franklin on her bedside table. The beep of a monitor fills the silence. I think she may have fallen asleep when I blurt, “I don’t know, Mom, this is all so sad and weird. I just feel so badly for you.”

“Elisabeth!” Her eyes pop open. “Feel badly for me?”

I smile and take her hand. “I feel bad for you.” I just committed her biggest grammatical pet peeve. And when your mom’s an English teacher—what can you do?

 

Brad calls, and I don’t answer. Chad calls, and I don’t answer. I wonder, vaguely, whose call I would pick up right now. I lie in my bed, surrounded by lacy throw pillows. The shelves are covered with stuffed animals I could never bring myself to toss. A plastic speech trophy. A picture of Brad and me at prom. God, I look skinny.

A knock on the door. “Feel like an ice cream sundae?” Dad peeks his head in gingerly, as if he might catch me doing something.

“Next week is Parents Weekend,” I tell him.

He sits down at the end of the bed. “I know.”

Conversations with my father make me nervous. I don’t know how to start them, or end them, or sustain them. I feel a slight panic as soon as they begin, like I have to keep churning out questions before we peter into silence. It’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong, but when I think about my mother dying, what terrifies me the most are all the conversations I will have to have with my father, just him and me.

“I guess you guys won’t be coming,” I say.

He knits his brow. “I could come. If you wanted me to.”

“I don’t think I do.” I sigh. “I don’t know that I want to be there at all.”

“What, college?”

“What do you think about me staying home for a while? Taking care of Mom?” This idea occurs to me at the exact moment I say it. It feels comforting, though, and I see myself taking walks in the morning around the lake, my shoulders getting tan, a room of my own, everything unfolding quiet and slow.

He stumbles for words. “It’s... we... if that’s what you want. But you shouldn’t feel that you need to. We’ll talk about this later, OK?” He slaps his hands on his thighs. “Now how about that sundae?”

“I’m on a diet.” I crinkle my nose. “Too fat.”

“What? You’re beautiful,” he says, and it makes my face buzz with embarrassment. “You look just like your mother did at your age.”

“You didn’t know Mom at my age,” I say.

“Well, I’ve seen pictures.”

My phone rings. It’s Kat. “Dad, I’m gonna take this. Ice cream raincheck?”

He nods and blows me a kiss before closing the door.

 

“Roomie, I miss you!” cries Kat. “The room seems so gigantic and empty without you!”

“OK, now I know you’re lying.”

“There’s an echo in here now. Can you hear it? Ka-kaw! Ka-kaw!”

A smile creeps onto my face. “So how are things?” I ask. “How’s Geoff? How’s India?”

“Booo,” she says. “Booo to that topic of conversation. Let’s talk about happier things. So tell me: Anything new with you?”

I laugh. “Oh, you know. Same old, same old.”

“When are you coming back? I feel certain I can find a cheese pizza with your name on it.”

I take a deep breath. “Actually, I’ve been thinking I might stay here a while.”

“Oh.” The temperature of the conversation dips. “Like for the semester?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. God, I’m tanking my classes. I’ll probably fail Reality Television at this rate. I missed the Mark Burnett test on Friday. I just think maybe I should spend time with my mom right now.”

“What does your mom say about this?”

“I haven’t told her.”

Her voice is stern, meant to wound me. “I don’t think she’d be too pleased.”

I fall silent. She clears her throat, and I notice the room does seem to have a bit of an echo.

“Elisabeth, I think I’m pregnant.”

Of course she does. Of course!

 

Dan Christopher was Brad’s debate partner through junior year. Tall and lanky, with a complexion like burnt cheese, he never had a girlfriend, and so we became close platonic friends, swapping secrets about our gender in the hope of giving each other a leg up. He is the first person who told me, in rather explicit and humiliating detail, how to give a blowjob. I told him to quit driving by girls’ houses at night. It was creeping them out.

These days, Dan helps run his father’s housing development company and goes part-time to the local junior college. I call him and we meet at our old stomping grounds, the park across from the Catholic church, where we used to spend hours with Brad on a Friday night. Tonight, Dan comes prepared: One six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft and one six-pack of Diet Coke.

“So your roommate’s pregnant and your mom may have a brain tumor,” he says, settling himself onto a swing. Dan has never been one for small talk.

“My roommate thinks she’s pregnant.” I kick off my flip-flops and jump onto the rubber seat of the swing. “My mom actually does have a brain tumor.” Tears seize my throat for a moment, then gratefully disappear. “It’s been a rough week.”

“I say we start with the roommate then segue to your mom.” It charms me that Dan speaks like this. “Why does she think she’s preggers?”

“She’s late. And a month ago, she had some shady incident with a gay guy.” I pump at the swing, letting my bare feet find the breeze.

“How do you sleep with a gay guy?”

“She’s in theater.”

He pops open a beer and sips at the fizz. “So is she getting an abortion?”

“If she is pregnant, which we don’t even know yet, she wants me to drive her car to the place, the health center, whatever.” I’m swinging high now. I can see over the tops of the trees and into the parking lots beyond.

“But the problem is that you want to stay with your mom.”

“That, and I can’t drive a standard.”

“Why do you want to stay home? I mean, I know why, but... You hate this place.”

I spy a couple parked by the church. Brad and I used to do that, used to make out till our lips were sore and our bodies ached. “I don’t hate this place.”

He does a spit-take, and beer sprays onto the sand. “That may be the most disturbing thing I’ve heard yet.”

“Well, why did you stay, then?” I leap off the swing at its highest point and stick my landing neatly on the ground. “Why did you stay if it’s so awful?”

“You know exactly why. I stayed because of my father. And before anything smart comes out of that sassy little mouth of yours, please note that I would do anything—well, almost anything—to get the hell out of here.”

I take a Diet Coke. “How’s school?”

He shrugs. “I’m making all A’s. And most days I skip.”

“I’m failing Reality Television.” I let out a nice, round burp.

“Your college has a class on Reality Television? I’m jealous.”

“Envious,” I correct him.

He smiles. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’d love having you in town.”

“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that being in town would be awful nice.” I like the feel of the cool sand in my toes. It makes me feel like a child. “This is like a free pass—who could blame me for leaving college when my mother’s dying?”

I sit on the ground and dig my toes in deeper, until my feet have disappeared. If I could, I would keep going, keep digging, letting the sand fall over my body until I was nothing, until I was nowhere to be found.

Should Elisabeth stay home to take care of her mom and take classes at the junior college or go back to college and try to salvage the semester?