She Loved Me That Much
by Jennifer Gravley
The flags were yellow, the best they’d been the whole trip, on our last day so we went into the warm water and let it float the weight of having to keep talking to each other. We stayed near to the beach and kept our legs ready to steady ourselves in the lapping waves.
The past three days, the flags had been red, and two entire afternoons had been lost to rainstorms so intense we were trapped in our room. The living area with a second TV allowed us to draw near and repel away from each other like magnets.
“Have you heard from any of the places you’ve applied to?” Mom asked for the third time on the trip, not counting twice every time we were in the car together.
I wondered if fathers did this too—waited until things were the best they could be and then picked at a sore in the earliest stages of scabbing—or if it was something unique to mothers.
“Not yet.” I drew myself down until my head was under the water and held myself there until I popped up involuntarily. I had let her believe I’d started applying for jobs online before school was over when what I’d really done was get two new T-shirts when I opened credit cards on the campus quad. I’d told the reps that I was going to Europe and asked for larger credit limits than originally offered. The whole enterprise felt more like a regular lie than a white one, but I figured I’d find something eventually, and she’d never know it wasn’t true.
I pushed my bangs back off my face and asked, “Are you dreading going back?” She hadn’t taken this many days off in a row since my grandfather died, and I did wonder if she despaired at the idea of returning to turning over old people so they didn’t get bedsores. She always said it took a certain personality, but I’d always believed adults just said things like that to make their lives bearable.
“To tell you the truth, I do miss home,” she said. “It’ll be nice to have you back for a while.”
“I guess you’re glad you didn’t convert my room into craft storage.”
“Did you open up your drawers yet?”
Even though I liked to make my mother laugh, this felt like it was at me, and I dipped below the surface again.
Five days before, I’d painstakingly packed for our trip while Mom packed the rest of the apartment, my half and Amber’s too since we had to be out the next day and Amber was working her last shift at Target. Mom had saved her Amazon and Zappos boxes all year so they wouldn’t be too big and heavy.
Amber was taking all my furniture since her dad had a pickup truck and lived an hour away. I guessed a lot of it would end up on the curb because I couldn’t imagine her dad as a multiple-round-trips guy. Even though most of it was Wal-Mart pieces bought used off Facebook Marketplace, I still felt old and sad to think of the desk where I’d written some kick-ass papers and the nightstand where I’d kept all my socks and underwear crumbling wetly in the dew.
It was only a four-hour drive home, but Mom was sleeping with me on my mattress on the floor, and we’d drive home the next day. After one night back in what she’d call a real bed, we’d drive down to the Gulf Coast for the kind of vacation we’d never had before. She’d talked about the post-graduation celebratory girls’ trip so much over the past four years that it had come to seem inevitable, but I knew it had cost her. Mom didn’t believe in doing things you couldn’t pay cash for—I was surprised she’d even let me go to college—so I knew she’d been saving a long time for this. It was just hard to appreciate my mom’s sacrifices the way I could others’ or strangers’. There was something about how personal it was that washed me in shame and made me want to stand a little farther away from her.
She finished the whole apartment and just stood in the door of my bedroom, watching me finish packing my one suitcase with all the things I’d set aside for the trip. Her eyes on me made my muscles roil beneath my skin.
Neither of us knew Mom already had cancer when she asked me to find a station the next day and I couldn’t. Whenever a relative or anyone we knew died from it, she’d secretly voice the opinion alone in our house that everybody had cancer already inside them and sometimes it just decided to grow. Maybe I should’ve found this scary, but I grew up thinking of it as a comfort—I didn’t have to be afraid of getting it because all of us already had it. We were all just waiting to see what it’d do or if our hearts gave out on us first.
Mom preferred classic rock stations, the ones that played hits from before I was even on the planet. Mostly I didn’t want to listen because the last guy I’d had sex with had been a Soundgarden fan. Half the songs on those stations sounded like ones we’d fucked to in his dorm room. He still lived on campus as part of a scholarship he’d gotten, and it was part of my belief system not to have sex in your own bed unless you were in a real relationship, which I could never tell for sure but figured that was a sign.
I’d done an overnight visit at a college closer to home when I was a junior in high school, and my big sister had the opposite philosophy. She said she’d gotten bedbugs from sleeping with a guy from her history survey. I wasn’t super excited to be camping out on her floor, but maybe bedbugs were just part of college like cancer was part of us.
When I couldn’t find a station we both agreed on, I put in my earbuds, and Mom didn’t say anything for a good twenty minutes.
Mom wore large bulky sunglasses over her glasses, even in the ocean. I worried she’d lose her progressives in a wave, and I’d have to drive us home, her anxiety piqued even higher by her inability to see at any distance. The sun clawed at our sunblock. Every night I’d been surprised when we didn’t have bleeding red areas where we’d failed each other in our application.
In the brightness, I could see white hairs sprinkled throughout her brunette bob. She seemed too young, and I wondered if she’d dye it or just let it eat at her. I wondered if I already had a white hair hiding out in my ponytail, turning me more and more into her as she turned more and more away.
Running my fingers through the warm water was like watching the most satisfying YouTube video. Mom’s hands had always been more delicate than mine, her fingers slender and nails looking like they had a clear manicure even though she neglected them. I always felt ashamed of my hangnails and unevenly cut nails. A few were flattened on top as if I slept with unabridged dictionaries on them.
A wave dropped Mom to her bum in the shallows, and I knew her crotch would be full of sand until we went back and she showered it out, but she obliviously got back to her feet and bobbed in the water, watching me like a soap opera.
Was it like this in families with fathers? Would I be a third wheel instead of the constant center? Would that be as pleasurable as it sounded, or would I burn with jealousy at the girls who shared their mothers’ attention with no one?
We’d gone to look for crabs the previous night, but once we saw their tiny white translucent bodies crawling on the sand, Mom couldn’t stop seeing them, and we’d had to go back to the room and watch the end of a movie we’d seen before on cable.
Perhaps some girls drank wine or margaritas with their moms on their girls’ trips, but by unstated agreement, we didn’t want to lower our guards in front of each other. I still felt like I didn’t want her to know that I was grown—it was too new, raw, embarrassing—and maybe she didn’t want me to know that about her either suddenly.
We ate microwave popcorn, passing the bag back and forth, and drank the single-serve Gatorades Mom always bought in the summer as if we were suddenly going to become active. Mom kept up a steady stream of what people I’d gone to preschool with were up to. Some of it she’d already told me on the trip. I grunted now and then, minimally polite.
We kept the TV blasting as we got ready for bed. Mom walked up and stood behind me as I brushed my hair in front of the mirror. My eyes found her face reflected next to mine. I couldn’t believe how much mine echoed hers. Disgust filled me as I realized we’d neither one be able to separate ourselves from the animals of our bodies. I wished she wasn’t there.
Perhaps because we were newbies or because she loved me that much, Mom let us sleep in instead of setting a 6 a.m. departure time. Perhaps she figured we’d be home soon enough, back to whatever regular life had in store for us from here on out. As long as we could stand on the balcony and watch the waves roll in from the deep green, it felt like nothing could change or touch us. We were suspended.
About Jennifer Gravley
Jennifer Gravley is a research and instruction librarian in Columbia, Missouri. Her work has appeared in Gone Lawn, Sou’wester, and others.