I tap the pack of American Spirits on my palm, pretty sure I hadn’t smoked them all. My body has been on autopilot since I was yanked from sleep hours ago by a familiar nightmare. Standing outside in my pajama pants it feels as if I have simply entered another dream. My mind and body disconnected.
In college, I smoked for comfort. I desired a companion who wouldn’t give advice. I gave it up when I got pregnant. Turns out I cared more about the baby’s health than my own. Immediately after giving birth, I made sure there was always a pack hidden in the freezer for truly hopeless moments. Since my son left, there are some weeks I inhale more cigarettes than meals.
When he was in high school I stopped fretting that he would find my secret pack. Junior year he often came home smelling like stale cigarettes. I mentioned it to him once and he brushed it off with a quick comment about his dad’s friend always smoking.
“I can’t control what others do, only myself,” he said with a shrug.
“You chose who you surround yourself with,” I felt instant shame for blaming his friend.
He paused halfway up the stairs. “Smoking doesn’t make someone a worse person,” he tossed back effectively putting an end to anything I might have thought to say. I knew the smoke was from him, but he’d never own up to it because he didn’t see the point. He’d already played it out in his head; he’d tell me, we’d argue, I’d be upset, and he’d keep smoking.
He has always been good at seeming upbeat and unaffected. It made me feel like I was a nuisance for worrying, despite other mothers warning me I should be more involved. Several women were eager to give advice after James and two friends were caught with a bottle of vodka on school grounds.
“Not having a father figure is hard on a boy. Maybe if you’d been closer you could have steered him in another direction,” said one of the mothers from a book club I lasted three weeks in. She has three girls.
Senior year of high school he came home to find me eating dinner, leftover Chinese food, on the couch. Just because I could sense what was coming doesn’t mean I was prepared. I would have preferred that he kicked me in the gut, then the ache would have faded away with time.
“I enlisted,” his voice steady, “The Marines.” I could sense he was holding back a smile to not upset me with his excitement.
I paused, knowing my reaction could not change his mind but could change our relationship. Every sentence I started in my head seemed inadequate. He wasn’t scared of confrontation. Last year I got a call from the school’s superintendent, Gary, letting me know that my son was currently sitting in his office with a black eye. Another student had said something about his girlfriend, so James threw a punch. When I arrived at the school twenty minutes later Gary greeted me with a sweaty handshake. I peaked around Gary to see James sprawled out nonchalantly, with his head bowed, in a chair meant for a middle schooler.
“Hey mom,” he grinned, raising his eyes to meet mine, “I’m starving, can we get a burger on the way home?” His black eye had lasted a couple of weeks while the other student’s nose took a couple of months to heal.
“What about Allison?” I asked, hoping the mention of his girlfriend would give him enough pause to buy me time to form a compelling speech.
“It’s not her choice.” Then his expression softened slightly. “She said she’ll stay with me, wait for me to come back. She just wants to be supportive.” I didn’t meet his stare, but I knew the last part was pointed.
I had never made up a story to tell him about his father. I know single mothers who try to comfort their kids with tales of a great man. I told him the basics; when we met, what he looked like, why I left and the most recent place I knew he had moved to. I tried to keep anything too personal left unspoken. I wanted my son to grow up to be his own person and not be defined by the idea of a man he had never met. Because of that, I was unsettled watching him unknowingly choose a similar path to his father.
“When are you scheduled to leave?” I couldn’t believe how weak I felt, how easily I was giving in. I argued with myself to persuade him he had other options but all I could get out were a few questions. It was as if I had already accepted his choice as fate.
That was four years ago. A flood of emotions flashes through my brain. I’m torn by the anger that he didn’t consider me and the knowledge that I have no right. Shouldn’t the happiness of the person I love most in the world bring me solace? All I can muster is unease.
It’s eerily quiet outside right now as I find myself immersed in isolation. One last white stick falls out of the box. I watch it slip through my fingers to the cement where it looks luminescent in the dark. I become more anxious to light it as the nightmare that woke me is starting to bleed back into my thoughts. It looked like every other nightmare only this time there were tears in his eyes. He had never cried in these dreams before. He hardly ever cried. He rarely did as a baby and then I never saw him cry again after that. Joy and rage are what he is most comfortable with, sometimes a mixture of both.
During the past four years, I haven’t slept more than four hours in one night. I stay awake until my eyes hurt, my head aches and then I wake up more exhausted. The constant threat of James in harm’s way spreads like a weed amidst my thoughts until it’s the only thing I can focus on. Since he left I went back to working part-time at the hospital where sleep is a rare commodity. Helping other peoples’ children helps fill the void. Like a thin film laid over a cavernous hole in the ground.
There was only a month left in his contract with the Marines. He had assured me he wouldn’t re-enlist, but I can’t be certain. It had been two weeks since we last spoke- excluding a few sporadic texts- and it left me feeling helpless. I can’t allow myself to believe he won’t come home.
My mind wanders, replaying when I spoke to James for the first time after he completed basic training. He called me, most likely after Allison, when he got his phone back. I focused on my breathing while he described the drills, the officers and the other recruits.
“There’s a guy here, Isaac, from South Carolina. The first time we met we got in a big fight over something stupid. Anyway, he’s never been to Minnesota before, and I told him he’s coming back with me to visit,” his voice was jovial. “I’m going to teach him to play hockey.”
I inhaled, sucking in air until I burst with carbon dioxide. Despite the ache stretching my throat and the flush in my cheeks, I couldn’t get enough oxygen.
“So, you like it?” I knew the answer.
“Besides having to get up before the sun, yeah. It’s hard. They try to push you during training, scare you off. But they can’t get rid of me that easily,” his laughter filled my ears.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be having fun,” I managed a partial joke. A part of me was swelling with pride. He was still good-humored and strong. The Marines hadn’t changed that.
“Then why do they have all these hi-tech toys?” His comparison of military weapons to toys made me bristle.
I heard some noise in the background.
“Oorah!” the mystery person yelled. James chuckled in response.
“I’ll be there in a sec,” he assured them.
I desperately wanted to prolong our sparse interaction but didn’t have much more to say. I couldn’t get too serious. These calls hung on his desire to talk to me.
“Well, I’ll let you go. It was really great to hear from you. Maybe I can call you Friday?”
“I think we’re going off base. but I’ll call you next week. Promise.” The promise was enough to pacify me for the time being.
“Be safe. I love you-” I realized he’d already hung up. He was gone.
I’m pulled back to the looming sunrise by a set of headlights turning onto my road. The official start of morning traffic. I can’t tell if my erratic heartbeat is prompted by the knowledge that I’m burning through my last cigarette or replaying memories. I have worried myself sick, cigarettes as my weapon of choice.
I flick the remaining cigarette stub before I finish draining all the nicotine it has to offer. I stop myself from smothering the remaining burn with my bare feet. I’m not addicted. The boy I was dating when I first confided in cigarettes, Jason, was convinced he was watching me fall prey to Big Tobacco. “Addiction will rule your life,” he would say with a sigh.
“So does the perpetual worry I feel as a parent,” I think in retort. Several things in life will claw at a person’s throat and consume their thoughts, like the constant dread I feel. Defining and labeling an addiction hardly seems worth the energy.
As I make a feeble effort to appreciate how the sky has turned into a comforting pinkish-grey I realize I have to choose between watching the sunrise or pretending to sleep for a few hours. I know dark bags are starting to settle in under my eyes, smudges along my cheekbones. I rationalize that the fresh air is more beneficial than my stuffy room. I’m not ready to move.
Allison will be here in a few hours. I laugh without humor at the thought of such a sweet, young girl feeling responsible to look after me. I can already picture how my appearance will cause her smooth skin to crease with worry. She shows up once a month with flowers and bagels as if we are our own little support group. Maybe she will have encouraging news from him. He prefers to talk with her rather than endure my “unnecessary” worries.
I don’t know how many hours pass before I decide I need coffee; the smell of smoke and my buzz have been swept away by the breeze. For the first time all morning, I feel cold. I retreat inside and click on the tv before heading to the kitchen. I don’t bother to notice what program is on, but the voices keep me company.
An hour later there’s a knock on the door. There she is. Allison takes in my appearance, but polite as ever doesn’t comment. She looks tired, but her youthful skin and perky energy help her hide it better than me. Sunlight pours in through the doorway, mocking me with its vibrance.
“It’s good to see you,” the words come out quieter than I intended, but it’s the best I can do. I muster up the most comforting smile I can and open my arms. As she steps into my embrace I realize how much I appreciate having Allison during this process, how much I actually mean my words.
“You too. I made a special stop at Toni’s bakery for bagels,” she said lightly, but her tone hints that she is eager for my approval. Toni’s has my favorite bagels and was neither cheap nor convenient to stop by. This month the bagels are accompanied by a bouquet of daffodils mixed with baby's breath. She takes her usual seat at the kitchen table while I pop two bagels in the toaster: an everything one for her and a cinnamon raisin for me.
“I talked to James…” she starts.
I busy myself cleaning the counter and grabbing plates so I won’t have to turn around yet.
“He’s staying. He re-enlisted yesterday,” her words hang in the air like smoke so thick and dark I could choke on them. He did it.
The only thing my eyes can focus on out the window is the spot where James dented the fence while learning to drive. After half-hearted attempts on my part, I stopped trying to fix it. Was that why I was losing him all over again? I couldn’t fix anything.
When I turn around Allison is without her usual kind smile.
“He’s going to Japan.” When she looks up at me, her expression is confused. “He requested it.”
I can’t live four more years with my heart in Japan. My feelings of shame and rage clash making my skin hot. I am proud, but I can’t endure this anymore. I fear it will get harder to recognize my own son. Only seeing him twice a year will lead us to slowly drift apart until one day he’s a stranger.
“If I want to go with…” She hesitates, “We would have to get married.” I watch her eyes widen in disbelief at her own words. I hold my breath, waiting for her to continue. She doesn’t.
I take a reprieve from my selfish thoughts and sit down beside her slumped body.
“You have been amazing these past four years. I would have been miserable without your support.” I continue before she can dismiss my words as a compliment. “I know you love James…” My loyalty to my son and my desire to free Allison grind against each other.
“Don’t let his decisions dictate your life.” Just because they dictate my happiness, doesn’t mean they have to control hers. Constantly feeling like half a person is something I can’t escape. I’m forever tangled in a web of pride and worry and insomnia. I watch worry lines mar her skin.
“What if he changes his mind? What if I can’t find a job? What about my family, my friends?” Her worries flow out. She stops herself, taking a steadying breath before peering at me. “What if I resent him for this?”
“I can’t tell you what to do,” I would be faking wisdom if I did, “but I will not judge you for what you choose.”
After reigning in her anxiety and composing herself, Allison becomes hard to read. She offers to help clean the two dishes and the knife we’d used. After four years I know when she’s getting ready to leave.
“Thank you,” she says as I trail her to the door, “You’re so kind to me.”
Instead of telling her how backward she has it, I lean in to hug her. I squeeze my eyes tight to keep my tears captive. When I regain enough composure to open my eyes they drift to her battered, leather purse. The large bag is filled with miscellaneous items, among them is a pack of American Spirits. I realize this may be the last time I hug her for a while and hold on a second longer, pulling her an inch closer.
“Same time next month?” I say lightly, “Breakfast’s on me.” I envision us meeting for coffee. I can see James by her side with his arm slung around the back of her chair like I’ve seen him do before. He takes his coffee black. My wavering vision of us all laughing fades away.
“Maybe.” the side of her mouth briefly lifts.
Izzy Teitelbaum's first creative muse while growing up in Duluth, MN was Lake Superior. She started out by writing poetry about love, nature, injustices and anxiety. Since graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Journalism, she has turned her focus to short stories. She is now passionately pursuing a career in the creative writing field. When she's not hiking or reading you can find her planning her next trip.