“Do you have your train ticket?”
“Your emergency money and change for the phone?”
“You saw me put it in my pocket. Besides, I have the cell phone.” I waved it in front of her face.
Mom didn’t take her eyes off the traffic. “You can’t rely on cell phones, Victoria. Keep some change for the pay phone just in case. And that fifty dollars—it’s not all for junk food and magazines, you know. It’s emergency money. Call me as soon as you get to your father’s.” She let out a long breath and shook her head. “I still can’t believe I’m letting you do this.”
“Mom, I’m fifteen. Besides, we made a deal.”
“And that credit card is only for absolute desperate emergencies, understand? Don’t even take it out of your pocket otherwise.”
“Okay, I get it! Absolute desperate emergencies only. No problem.”
“Maybe we should call Dad just to make sure he has the right time.”
“We called him last night. Good grief, Mom. If it means enough to him, he’ll be there.”
“Honey, please don’t be so dramatic. He doesn’t love you any less just because he can’t come to every school play or softball game. This is hard on him too, you know.”
“Yeah. I’m not the one who left.”
“Then why are you going, Victoria? No one’s forcing you.”
“I’m going for decent pizza, and real Chinese, and Saks and Barney’s and Bloomie’s. Besides, how else can he see exactly how miserable I am?”
“You will be miserable if I find out you’re spending that kind of money.” She sighed.
“You know, you’re right. You and Dad need to spend some time together. But please, have a good long talk. It’ll be good for both of you.”
She pulled over to the curb and put the car into park. “I’ll have to just drop you off. I’m running late. All you’re taking is that little backpack, for a month at your father’s?”
“Mom. You worry too much.”
“I know it. I can’t help it.” Then she shrugged and smiled. “Have fun, okay? I’ll miss you, baby.”
“Oh, Mom.” I threw my arms around her and squeezed her tight. “I’ll miss you, too.”
The Hartford station is a sad little one-track wreck on the escape route to New York. It must have been beautiful a long time ago. On the track side you can see the carved red stone of the building, and the big arched windows all in a row. You’d never know it from the street side, where it’s completely covered with this disgusting metal and plastic from the psychedelic sixties. What were they thinking when they did that? Did people go around then, saying, “Hmmm, there’s just too much beauty in the world. What can we ugly up today?”
Ten minutes until departure. Enough time to stock up on reading material and breakfast, and to plan my seating strategy. Comfort is very important when you’re going to be stuck on a train with strangers for three hours.
I stood in line at the newsstand and separated out the fifty bucks Mom gave me from my own stash of allowance money, and put the Mom money back in my pocket. I’m not totally irresponsible. I know perfectly well the difference between emergency-emergency money, and emergency-there’s-a-really-good-sale-at-Bloomingdale’s money. I bought my stuff and then headed up the wide stone steps to the platform.
The train blew into the station with a high-pitched screech of brakes on rails. Just when I was sure my eardrums were going to pop, the train stopped, and the screeching did too.
A hiss of compressed air opened the doors all along the length of the train, one door at either end of each silver car.
I stepped through the front door of the first car and worked my way toward the back of the train, scouting for a decent seat. Kicking aside the crumpled newspapers and empty coffee cups in the aisle, I did my Goldilocks thing: this seat has too many crumbs … this window has too many schmutzes … the bathroom on this car reeks … .Good grief, doesn’t anyone ever clean these trains?
I finally found an acceptable spot and hurled my back•pack onto the bars of the overhead rack. I slid onto the faded blue plush of the aisle seat and dropped my essentials onto the window seat: five gossip magazines and a giant crunch bar. That should get me as far as New Haven, anyway.
There were only a few other people in the car, so I had both seats to myself. Most of the commuters had already taken one of the early trains to New York. The way Dad used to. Before the world blew apart, in more ways than one.
Dad moved out over Labor Day weekend last year. As in, September 2001. I strongly advised against the whole thing. Well, what I said was, “This stinks. Why can’t you people figure out how to live together? Don’t you care about how I feel?”
They said, “Of course we do, honey.”
He left anyway.
His apartment in Chelsea was still full of boxes on September 11. I thought Mom was absolutely going to lose it that day. One minute she’s telling Dad good riddance, and practically the next minute she’s crying and screaming into the phone trying to find out where he is. Didn’t I tell them to try and work it out?
In my former, pre-divorce life, Mom and I took the train into the city practically once a week in the summers, to go shopping and to meet Dad for lunch. I knew the route by heart. But after the divorce, I had to beg for months before they’d let me go on my own. Even though they’d promised me last year. It was part of the deal we made when Dad moved out, as if that would make up for everything else. It didn’t, of course. Not by a long shot, but a deal is a deal and I wanted my trip to the city.
Dad finally softened up. He converted his spare room into a bedroom for me.
“It’ll be your second home,” he said. “Here for you any time you want. How many girls are lucky enough to have their own Manhattan digs?”
Which just made me mad. Second home? What the hell does that mean? Home can only be one place. That’s what “home” means. “Two homes” is like “most unique.” Unique means one of a kind, nothing else like it. And just like something is either unique or it’s not, someplace is either home or it’s not. Telling me I had two homes just made me feel like I had no home at all.
Mom was ready to nix the whole trip. She said, “The world is a dangerous place, Victoria. Especially New York City.” I gave her the comforting argument that a cloud of smallpox will find Farmington, Connecticut, just as easily as New York or anywhere else. Of course I’m scared to be in New York. It’s just that I’m not any less scared staying home. So why not keep myself occupied with a summer of kick-ass shopping in the city? It could be very therapeutic.
She wasn’t buying it.
When logic didn’t work, I resorted to guilt. “Does a promise mean nothing to you anymore? Your marriage vows go out the window, so you think you’re off the hook for everything else?” She tried to tell me how people can’t promise not to change, but I didn’t want to hear it. People shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep.
Maybe the guilt thing worked, or maybe she finally just wanted me out of the house for a while. Either way. She bought me a train ticket.
She also bought me a cell phone and programmed in all of Dad’s numbers. Then she made him swear not to be late meeting me at Penn Station. And now here I was, on the train to New York on the first day of summer vacation, with a pocket full of spending money and a pile of trashy magazines to keep my mind off the real world.
I like reading the gossip mags. It’s mostly idiotic stuff, but it’s fun to read about famous people. If they want to be famous, that’s what they get. I like to find out if they’re decent or not behind their public faces. It helps me decide what movies to go to, what music to buy, stuff like that. Moral fiber is important. You can have money, or fame, or brains, but if you act like a jerk, then what’s the point? Mom was right about one thing. The world is a dangerous place. There are people out there trying to kill us all in our beds. Right now you could be inhaling nerve gas, or anthrax, or God knows what. Do you want to take your last breath as a total jerk, or as a decent human being?
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no excuse not to be decent.