43-Hour Drive

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43-Hour Drive by Orly Berkowitz-Henkin - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

There was a letter in his mailbox. He could see the autumn-themed stationary from the gap in the lid, so he knew it wasn’t a bill, and it was too big to be a thank-you card. Who even used snail-mail anymore? It was 2014, and he now used his mailbox to store old New Yorkers and Chinese takeout menus. He’d lost the key months ago and retrieved the important-looking mail by shoving his stubby fingers into the slot and dragging out whatever it was he needed. But, for some reason, he was intrigued by this letter. It reminded him of summer camp and birthday cards. He stood and smiled in the dimly-lit hallway outside his apartment; he hadn’t felt nostalgic in a long time. It was pleasant.

His father lived in San Francisco with his wife, Natasha, and their son, Theo. He didn’t see them often, for plane tickets were a luxury considering his low salary as an assistant to the editor of a failing cooking magazine. He kept a picture of his father on his bedside table. It was one of him grinning at a plate of Ethiopian food at a restaurant downtown. It had been taken right after he had graduated college when he was struggling to afford an apartment, and those unexpected visits from his father were just about the only thing that made him feel at home. There was nothing too special for him about this moment in particular, but it made him chuckle, and he didn’t laugh very often.

He had grown up in a brick house off a dirt road in Vermont. He lived in a small town populated by barely 1,000 people, and this made him feel isolated. He and his father lived in a three-story home all to themselves, desperately searching for guests. His father was the kind of parent who forced his kid to throw parties to rid himself of the fear that his child had no companions and he had failed as a parent. So, his teenage years were filled with uncomfortable get-togethers orchestrated by his father. It wasn’t even as if he didn’t have any friends. He did; they were just meager and unusual. They’d lie on his bed and talk about philosophy or politics or the newspaper. They never went outside. His father would casually offer to take them to the mall or the movies, but it always seemed to be more of a plea than an offer. He lost touch with all of them when he left for college.

He had thrown the letter onto his desk in a sluggish trance on his way to bed, and he left it there until the next afternoon. Then he opened it. Inside was a lined sheet of paper with green ink. Handwritten.

Hey Parker,

It’s Addie, your mom. I’m living in Queens, and I heard you’ve got an apartment downtown. I want to meet you and talk things out. My number is 732-458-9697. Call me. If you want.

He felt flustered, which so rarely happened. He had always been a decisive person, grimacing at those who were so painfully awkward that it hurt to watch them. He lived his entire life trying to avoid uncomfortable situations, confining himself tighter and tighter into his comfort zone. At this point, his comfort zone was more of a jail cell.

Technically, he had met his mother before. Once. She had cradled him in the recovery room after he was born for a minute or so. She had checked out of the hospital early the next morning, while his father was sleeping. She took their car and drove off. He lived with his grandparents for the first few months of his life after his father had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. But they were happy. They got off to a rough start, but they were happy. They would even daydream about where Addie went when they were bored.

“I bet she’s in Alaska. Living with a bunch of polar bears, probably,” he would say.

“Be realistic, Park. I bet she’s living inside a volcano. She probably went for a tour of one in Hawaii and never left,” his father would respond.

He didn’t grow up missing her. He’d always thought of her as a mystery woman, a nomad, driving from place to place in his father’s silver Toyota without a care in the world. But this letter ruined this fantasy of his. Now, for some reason, he was picturing her with a family, with a job, with a new car. He hated it. He decided he wanted to see her.

They were meeting at a coffee shop. It was the kind of coffee shop that was always full of depressingly hopeful writers who spent Thanksgivings working on their manuscripts. He wanted to show up late because he knew that Addie would, but he didn’t. He sat in a booth waiting for a dangerous woman on a motorcycle to screech to a stop outside the door. She probably had dyed hair. And big earrings. And a purse full of gum and cigarettes. Maybe she’d have a tongue piercing too. The bells on the door jingled, and a woman walked inside.

She didn’t have dyed hair or a tongue piercing. She looked like a walking melatonin ad. She had bags under her eyes that went down to her cheeks, and her hair was a bird’s nest. Every step she took brought her slightly closer to the tile floor. Her hands shook when she opened the door. Her sweatpants were barely hanging onto her hips and her gray t-shirt was torn.

“Parker?” She looked at him as she spoke. Her eyes were dark brown and glassy, her glance quivering.

He nodded.

“I’m Addie.” she stammered. “My god, you’re so handsome. Tall, too. I know you’re sitting, but you seem tall.”

He didn’t say anything. She collapsed into her chair and sighed heavily.

“Jesus, Parker,” she breathed heavily. “It’s just so nice to see you. You look nothing like I would’ve imagined. How are you?”

They maintained pleasant small talk for a few minutes, both of them skillfully avoiding the mention of his father. Addie was working at a tattoo parlor in Astoria, and she lived with a few roommates. Six of them, actually. He didn’t say very much. He didn’t really have much to say, anyway.

“Park,” She started calling him Park after a minute or so. He didn’t like it. “It’s so, so lovely to get to know you, truly. You’re such a wonderful-”

“Where did you go?” He sat up in his chair. “After you took the car, where did you drive?”

She put her hand on his, but he pulled away. He didn’t like how nonchalant she was being.

“Well, Park,” she began, “I went to my sister’s in Boston. I lived in their basement for almost six months, actually. But I got my own apartment in Northampton, which wasn’t too far from them. I lived there for almost a decade. I got married there.” She chuckled sadly and rubbed her forehead.

“His name was Earl,” She continued. “He died a few years ago. Lung cancer. He was such a good man, Park, you would’ve loved him. He was just so wholesome, you know? He didn’t have a bad bone in his body, I swear. I mean, he fucking donated his kidney to a stranger. A stranger, Park! Who even does that?” Addie rolled her eyes, strumming her fingers on the table. His father once told him that Addie refused to donate her hair when she cut it short. He said she kept an eight-inch ponytail in her jewelry box for years.

“Anyway,” she proceeded, “I just couldn’t stay there after he died. The whole town reeked of death, and people wouldn’t stop looking at me with those pity eyes. God, I hated that. So, I moved here in 2012. Things haven’t been too great since. I’ll spare the details, but it’s been rough. Actually, speaking of that, I’ve got something to ask you, Park, and—”

“Did you travel?” He was massaging his wrists. “Did you go to Europe? Or Burning Man?”

She scratched her chin. “No,” she sighed. “Not really. I never really liked traveling. I never felt that thrill of going on an adventure. I guess I’m just a homebody.”

He scoffed. She looked at him sympathetically.

“Look.” She reached for his hand again, but he put them in his pockets, anxiously fiddling with the lint burrowed inside. “I’m sorry. I am. And honestly, I’m not here to try and become your mother. It’s too late for that. I just need a favor. Please. Hear me out?”

He nodded cautiously.

“Ok.” She took a sip of water. “It’s been hard recently. I’ve been struggling, financially. And, I swear, I wouldn’t even consider asking if I didn’t really, really need it. I need to borrow some money. I’m alone, Park. I don’t have anyone anymore. My sister and I fell out of touch and my parents are dead and, Jesus, it sounds completely insane, but you’re the only person I have left.”

She looked so small, so sad. Like a stray puppy. She looked so beaten, too. Like the life was sucked out of her eyes, like she was barely alive. But when he looked at her, he saw himself. He saw himself in this lonely, miserable woman. He felt his brown leather wallet in his pocket and dragged it out. He took out his credit card and driver’s license and slid the remains across the table.

“Don’t call.” He spoke firmly. “And don’t send any more letters.”

She opened her mouth to thank him, but he was out the door before she could say anything.

He called his father, and it went to voicemail. He had gone out drinking after leaving Addie in the cafe, and he had stumbled home in the early hours of morning. He tried to fight off his persistent hangover before he heard the beep.

“Hey, Dad, it’s me.” He sighed. “I already called a few times, so I thought I’d leave a message. I miss you. Theo and Natasha, too. It’s lonely here, and I haven’t seen you guys in almost two years. I quit working at the magazine. It’s a dead-end job anyway. I’m coming to California to see you. I might stay for a while, get an apartment if I can. I’m not totally sure. I’m thinking of driving there, actually, so I won’t be there for a few more days, at least. Call me.”

He set the phone down on the windowsill in his empty bedroom and reached over to grab the last cardboard box, but he realized he didn’t need it. All of his belongings were already packed up in the U-Haul truck. He glanced at downtown Manhattan through his dusty window, knowing he wouldn’t miss it. He grinned boyishly as he tripped over the empty rolls of duct tape on his way to the door.

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