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A Meaningless Kiss Goodbye
“I’m leaving today,” I told her, “this morning. I’m on my way.”
Three time zones west, gray, fog drifting off the chilly bay and sweeping above her neighborhood, Mom struggled to lift herself from sleep.
“What did you say, darlin’? You’re coming now?”
“I’m leaving this morning. I’m all packed and ready to hit the road.”
“That’s wonderful,” she drawled, a sloppy accent from years in the South running through her voice. “It’s a long way out here. Are you sure have enough money?”
She’d been mailing me five dollars at a time to save for bus fair. I thought about adding to it from my own small allowance but had, as days turned into nights, spent some instead. Spring blossomed, and I knew I couldn’t wait to afford a Greyhound. The day might never come.
“I’m hitchhiking. I’ll save what I have for food on the way.”
My bankroll, fifteen dollars, was going to take another hit before I stepped one foot outside Binghamton.
I saw no advantage in telling her exactly how much or how little cash remained in my pocket. It was more than I ever had before but meaningless since I didn’t know what it took to get to San Francisco. How was I supposed to know that? Here was another of those things no one else had ever done, and here I was, doing it.
It’s much easier to thumb rides if you’re dragging a suitcase, I learned, especially when you still look young enough not to own a car. Nobody hitches rides anymore, of course. The last person I saw thumbing stood along the main road outside Carmel, twenty years ago. TV has defined the adjacent world of strangers as a twisted turf of lunatics waiting to lure the unwitting into random violence. Kindness to strangers now more closely resembles wire transferring money to a charity that caught your attention on Facebook, clicking a like or favoriting an empathic meme. Believe it or not, we used to commonly believe strangers were interesting, not pre-defined by mass media as frightening, and that extending a literal hand was a virtue.
Quaint, aye? The marvels of capitalist mass media, the primary criteria no longer between right and wrong but between profit and more profit.
I caught a ride down Upper Court Street, past the jumble of cheap motels, the junkyard where Barlow met Laughlin Road, unfortunate scattered residences, the high embankment that held Buffalo Psych at a distance as travelers entered the city. Businesses buzzed at midmorning, shops opening. I lugged my suitcase down Chenango to the Queen Elizabeth Diner on Henry Street. The Queen E was where we congregated on weekends after Boys’ Club dances to smoke, drink coffee and talk fast like we knew something.
Joyce was waiting, smiling, tall and thin.
I’d talked her into skipping school, half-expecting her to chicken out. Why I did that was baffling, even at the time, but for one thing, she was the only girl I knew well who had a bad reputation. Vague fantasies of having sex with her propelled my initiative, but my partially fried adolescent brain had not yet finished the picture with an explanation of how we’d pull off this feat at midmorning, downtown, without Joyce having previously been enlightened on the project. Faint possibility seemed fuel enough.
I bought her a burger and told her where I was going.
“That’s pretty brave,” she said. “Write to me when you get there, okay?”
“Okay,” I agreed without any idea why I’d do that from three-thousand miles away with no intention of ever coming back.
My disparate parts were already far out of synch. In truth, Joyce was the only person who liked me well enough to take the risk of seeing me off, but all I could rope together within my own heart was a short, unfinished film about pulling the curtain back on the mystery of sex with her for the first time.
When we hugged in front of the Queen E and said, “Goodbye,” that morning, I thought I was seeing her and this confining town for the last time. In California, I’d join the Navy after a few weeks with Mom, my half-brothers and half-sisters, and my family back here would never sink their claws into my skull again. I ran away and dropped out of school, where my track record was a relentless disaster, during the coarse, gray winter. Then, when hunger and a warm bed brought me back home, I killed time all day without a thing to do but watch Lucy at noon and dream about getting the hell out. So, I’d sail away like my oldest brother did, to a new life and never come back.
“Invisible helper number one,” Val interrupted my retrieved story.
“Don’t you see it? Joyce let you leave town with your chin — and et cetera — up.”
She laughed at the E. E. Cummings reference she was sure I would get it.
“I was pretty screwed up,” I conceded.
“But she risked getting into trouble, skipping school, just to meet you. That must’ve helped you feel better.”
“Boy, I guess it did. I missed it, then, though. I was so inward. When I thought about it over the years, I just saw it as an inane act that delayed my leaving that day — and with even less money.”
“Can I tell you something else?”
“You can’t see all your alternative paths today any better than you could then, at least not clearly. You don’t have that knowledge, but you need to know that, without her kissing and hugging you on that busy, dusty sidewalk, when you walked away with your suitcase, you could never have gotten to California or seen your mother. Never.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’d have crashed. She lifted you up enough to keep you from drowning…”
“I don’t see that, Val.”
“Of course you don’t. I told you, you don’t have that knowledge, but trust me, she made you buoyant. You owe her everything that happened since.”
“Trust you? Is it like I have a choice?”
“Sadly, you do, as you’ve shown so many times. But let’s get back on the road. We can debate later.”
The road started at the edge of the city. The Vestal Parkway sped up traffic as cars sprung free of the city streets. I lifted my suitcase into the back seat of the first car that stopped and hopped in.
“Where you goin’, buddy,” the blond, crewcut driver asked.
“California,” I said.
“Well, I can get you as far as Chautauqua. You’re on your own after that.”
It wasn’t until we crossed most of western New York that I realized that he had not said, “Chicago,” and I was not going to get what I considered halfway across the U. S. in one day. I definitely was buoyant, though.
When the first night’s dark chill grew full, I stood under a single streetlight outside Erie, Pennsylvania, shivering whenever gusts from big rigs blasted me as they sped by.
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