I had stayed late at school, long after the last bus left, for some club or tutoring I had felt obligated to partake in just to claim involvement with something other than my own misery. I found myself walking home in solitude. Following the curve of a street lacking sidewalks and careful drivers, my feet dragged along cracked asphalt; my shoulders slumped under a backpack stuffed to the brim with binders and books.
The rush of winter wind whipping past sent my hair flying as I made the dreadful trek towards my house. I imagined the click of my heels filling my ears to be similar to the chatter I would have heard if it had been just a few hours earlier, surrounded by my peers stuffed on the school bus heading home. Any other time I would have loathed sitting on that stuffy old bus, but I missed the routine. I longed for the courage to ask a friend for a lift. Knowing that my parents wouldn’t be able to return the favor hindered me, too terrified to tell my friends much of anything that was going on at home; I just assumed they didn’t really care. A fugitive to my own feelings, I let them collect dust like an army of overlooked knick-knacks. I marinated in my own melancholy; and it was no one’s fault but my own.
Most of my days were spent stuck in a daydream. I drifted through my freshman year of high school as if I was on autopilot, learning the hard way that nothing would ever be as perfect as I imagined it to be.
Climbing my way through suburbia and into my own neighborhood, I trudged past warmly lit homes with white picket fences boxing in the beauty of something I was no longer accustomed to. My closely-knit community was placed in the northernmost point of Westchester county and had modestly sized homes. The neighborhood itself was a reflection of the middle class citizens who inhabited my small, run-of-the-mill hometown—equally average and mundane. Many of the homes were decorated with carved pumpkins sitting on the stoops where children would color with chalk after school and soccer moms would sit and gossip about the neighbors. I made my way past perfect houses full of perfect children and parents with fewer problems than my own. Feet dragging onwards, I recognized that what I was heading towards no longer felt much like a home.
Up the hill, footfall after footfall, the typical ten-minute hike doubled as I pulled myself onto my own street, my house looming behind the bend. The faded brown siding was looking greyer with age, especially against the orange leaves that covered the ground. Unable to make out much inside the house, I searched through lone sheets of loose-leaf and books until I found the key stuck at the bottom of the bag. My vision of the dog sitting at door, alone, in the dark, came into focus. Turning the key in the lock I let myself inside, and settled in alone.
I had lifted the regular note off the cold kitchen counter. That day it was written on a small lavender post-it note and left next to a can of dog food. I scooped it out into a plastic dish, fully knowing he wouldn’t dare touch it until someone with more authority over him got home. The clank of my keys dropping down to the surface of the countertop echoed off each wall, “Off at treatment, text me when you get home, love you—mom”. My usual dinner of frozen waffles made everything smell somewhat burnt. I ate them with a scrunched up nose while sitting cross-legged on the couch. Warm peanut butter slipped out of my waffle sandwich onto my arm. “Teddy, come here!” I shouted out until the dog came around, and let him lick it off, leaving my arm coated in his slobber. A real treat—one I felt was well deserved.
In that moment we were at peace with the world, snacking on peanut butter in silence. It had been enough. And even though my little ball of fluff of a dog had no grasp of the severity of the situation that surrounded us, he was more than aware that a critical change transpired. I was now the one to take him on his afternoon walks around the neighborhood, the one who put out his dinner, who was there during those odd hours where the afternoons met the nights. Despite the fact that I was probably his least favorite member of the family, I became enough for him.
It was like the few times my Dad and I would spend, driving forty five minutes in each direction, just to see her at the hospital. We were always there the rare occasion she would stay overnight after a surgery. With little tubes hooked into her chest, bundled up in the scratchy blankets they gave everyone. She always looked so small. Things were complicated; things like this were never uncomplicated. Yet seeing her was always enough.
The problem was the treatment plan she was on. While it seemed to be working it had also managed to trigger other health issues. Health issues my parents did everything within their power to leave me in the dark about, making one last attempt to keep me sheltered from the unfortunate brutality of the truth. I let Dad choose the music we listened to as we took the windy road to the hospital: The Cure, Pink Floyd, The Clash, anything he listened to and loved during better times, were now my favorites. The English new wave and rock and roll soothed my soul; the varying elements and instruments in each piece contained some sort of balance that my life had lacked. He needed to know some things were still as good as they used to be. We both wanted to believe it.
I snapped out of it upon hearing the jingle of my dog’s collar as he pranced towards the front door. Ecstatic the loneliness he faced day after day had gone to rest for the night; he sat poised by the door—but then she was home. Exhausted and feeble, but home nonetheless. I dumped my dinner in the trash and headed down to the door, hoping to see the tired-yet kind smile that signified the day had been okay adorn my mom’s face.
“Hey, how was it today?” I gave her a smile as she began peeling off the many layers it now took to keep her warm.
“It was fine, I’m just a little tired.” The same old worn-out words escaped her lips. I watched her slowly make her way upstairs to the couch, her strides short, but she still went on strong. I traded her the wig that undoubtedly left her bald scalp itchy and red, for a hat—a soft, periwinkle cloak of comfort.
“School today was surprisingly okay.” I answered her favorite question to ask before she could even utter the words, and handed her the television remote. “I recited the Shakespearean sonnet I had to memorize and I didn’t freeze up. And I finally went to algebra extra help. It’s starting to make a little more sense”.
She turned on the television and smiled—a real smile, allowing the imaginary elephant resting on my shoulders to stomp away. I listened as she told me all about the ladies she met at chemotherapy, loving getting to hear about the new friendships she was forming, and how happy she was that I finally understood math, at least a little. I told her all about the new songs we were learning in band, and rolled my eyes when she requested her own personal concert. It wasn’t ideal but it was enough. Shifting into a comfortable quiet, I listened to the muted buzz of the television, grabbed my books, and settled in beside her.
Isabel Keane is a freshman Creative Writing major at SUNY Geneseo. She schlepped all across Geneseo with a full bag of books in search for the perfect subject to write about. Ultimately she was reminded of a time in her life where she would occasionally walk home from school alone, usually with a backpack bursting at the seams.