Faraway, so close

Coming home causes my oldest daughter to withdraw into corners, turn her face and back up toward the door until she can run away again.

By Debra Gwartney
Published November 23, 1998 9:24AM (EST)

Again we have dinner, my oldest daughter Amanda and I. Not at the
house, where her younger sisters will hover around her and ask again to see
the green devil face tattoo burned into her tender forearm or will want to
touch her hair, chopped off with third-grade blunt scissors and dyed a Mad
Dog 20-20 shade of purple. Not at the house, because Amanda knows there,
at my table, I'll comment on the angry, sore earlobe being stretched
with a jammed-in ceramic plug; the ragged, dirty Carhart logging jeans;
the scabby arms.

At the house, ghosts of Amanda's former self sit at chairs around the
kitchen table. Eight-year-old Amanda giddy over how high she got on her
toes at ballet class; 11-year-old Amanda scratching out a science
report on electrical currents, coloring orange and red jolts on the margins
of the paper for effect and decoration; 13-year-old Amanda punching a
fist through the air toward me, then pounding her palm down on the marred
oak, condemning my rules, demanding she be allowed to attend a punk rock
concert downtown. Home causes this oldest daughter, now 18, to withdraw
into corners, turn her face and back toward the door until she can run again.

So tonight, the two of us eat instead at a restaurant. A small Chinese
place downtown, as benign as the blunt, blond chopsticks that wag through
our curled fingers. Amanda orders shrimp. It glistens with color -- green
peppers and pea pods, yellow bamboo shoots and baby corn, the hues a
startling contrast to her pasty face. She shoves her fingers, with her dirty
fingernails, into the food to aid the chopsticks. I ask her not to, unable
to hold back this mother-talk. She digs her hands in deeper.

The city is small enough that I can find her every few weeks. I know
where she goes to drink coffee, the downtown corners where she finds the
panhandling good. Or sometimes she drops by the house on the pretense
of looking for mail or a warmer sweater. I suggest that we go
somewhere for a meal together. She usually agrees. At the restaurant,
I ask her again if she wants to get out of the street life she's chosen.
Are you looking for a job? Are you thinking about school? Do you want
to go stay with your aunt, your grandmother, your father? Where are you
sleeping? I ask her to let me help her make a plan, but she looks away.
I'm not like you, she says, I'm not a planner.

I dread the dinners as much as she does. Though they're a connection,
they are a forced one. So why do I keep making them happen? I tell her she
can come home anytime if she agrees to live like a member of the family --
someone who helps and talks and fills her day with a job or school.
Someone who comes home when she says she's going to. But she tells me her
friends are her family now. After a year on the street, wandering
from shelter to shelter, becoming hard and indifferent, there's nothing
about our family that appeals to her anymore. She doesn't want warmth.
She doesn't want the structure a family provides. She wants to be free,
she says. To drink if she wants, to use drugs if she wants, to smoke
cigarettes or do nothing all day. Without me looking over her shoulder,

- - - - - - - - - -

Even the restaurant, a neutral commercial zone, doesn't allow us distance
to pretend there's any kind of peace between us. Even the carefully
formulated time -- no more than two hours -- can't keep still
what's on my mind: At what point does a mother give up, say that though
she loves her child, it's time to let go? Counselors I've gone
to with Amanda say I need to see her side, to understand where she's
coming from, to try to relate to the kind of culture she's attached
herself to. But I can't see it, I can't explain why this has happened.
What I know is that I want her back. And in the middle of the night I'm
left thinking that good mothers always, somehow, find a way to rescue
their children, and that I'm failing by not rescuing mine.

Amanda and I have whittled our relationship down to these few dinners a month.
Sometimes I take groceries to the house across town where I know she lands
now and then -- I leave the sacks on the front porch, lined with beer
bottles and cluttered ashtrays. Sometimes I persuade her to go with me to a
secondhand store to buy jeans and warm socks; once in a while she'll show
up at one of the younger girls' ballet recitals or music programs. But the
little girl who once curled around my lap, tucked her head under my chin and
listened as I read to her has grown into a young woman who thinks she can
only be herself if she cuts off the people who love her. What started as fury
over my divorce from her father and our moving across the country has consumed
her, filled her with hate, closed her down as tight as a molecule, where
nothing can get in. At 17, she found kids living on the street who promised
her comfort and understanding, who told her she wasn't alone anymore.
She says she wants to be with them now.

The plates empty of their bright colors, leaving only smears on white
ceramic. The teapot is dry. I get up to pay the bill and Amanda says she'll
meet me on the sidewalk -- she wants to go for a smoke, I know, though neither
of us can acknowledge even that. Inside my wallet, there's a $20 bill I've
brought to give her. By midnight, I imagine the cash will be
transformed into beer and cigarettes, though she might save a little for a
decent breakfast. Perhaps it's best to give her nothing, to hope she'll
become hungry and broke enough to come home. I'm lost about how to help.

Ten minutes later, down the stairs and into the chilly, starless night,
I look for her. She's not waiting in front of the restaurant. I consider
that she's simply left, but instead of allowing myself to feel stunned and
hurt, I study the road, which is an intricate web of cracks. I've never
seen a street fractured like this: A forked and reforked jag of lines
trailing into darkness. I walk into the asphalt, lean down to get a closer
look. Amanda is behind me then; I feel her. I point out the shattered
pavement, but she says no, the street isn't cracked, it's just the shadow
of the trees. She's right. The lights behind the bare mimosas along the
length of sidewalk have cast intricate deep lines of leafless branches on
the black road. I raise my arm, blocking the light. The cracks go away.
Can you drop me off downtown? Amanda says, thwarting any chance I have to
suggest she come to our house. I shrug, agreeing to take her where I don't
want her to go.

We walk across the crooked shadows, to the other side of the street
toward my car. At a well-lit table on the alley sidewalk outside a closed cafe, a
couple sit, their swaddled baby in a plastic infant seat rocking gently on
the bare table top. Tiny pink hands poke out of the blankets, knocking
around the cold air. Seeing us approach, the man jumps up, puts out his
arms. Teeth are missing from his mouth, he has no coat on. The woman,
coatless too, stands, her long brown hair collapsed over her shoulders, her
eyes dull and tired, drawn heavier with a ring of thick black liner. "Can
you help us?" he says.

Amanda and I stop in the alley, separated from the family by a
waist-high retaining wall of red brick. "Do you have one of those cards?" the
man asks me, pointing to a nearby ATM machine. No, I say. Amanda knows I
have one. I look over, waiting for her to reveal me to these strangers. But
she says nothing. The man goes on as if he hadn't heard. The baby's
godfather sent a check, he says, taking out the rectangle of paper, shaking
it loose from its folds and whipping it toward us. "We're not from here, and
we can't get it cashed." He wants me to deposit the check in my account and
then give him the dollars. I tell him again that I don't have a card. "We
needs the money," he says, rattling the check again, as if this sound and
movement will conjure action, will turn the promise written there into
dollars and food and comfort.

I'm sorry, I tell them both, and turn away as the man jams the check
back in his pocket. Amanda has gone on. She is 20 or 30 feet down the road,
her stiff torso bent into the night under the streetlights. I watch her
back get smaller as she moves deeper into the alley without me. And for a
moment, the time it takes to breathe in and back out perhaps, I think about
going a different direction. For a second I wonder what it would mean to
follow the jagged shadow cracks down the street, letting them decide the
end, giving into the shadows and the darkness. But then my hands wrap
around the keys in my coat pocket and my body begins, wearily, to cut
through the same air, the same path, as my child. But I don't hurry. She's
already too far away.

Debra Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is the author of "Live Through This," a memoir, and co-editor of "Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape." She teaches in the low-residency program at Pacific University and lives in Western Oregon.

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