Mandy Mays accepted her diploma from the Principal, and smiled so wide her cheeks hurt. Her eyes darted to the audience and met Joe’s eyes and felt a shiver of pleasure go down her spine. Following her brother, who had received his diploma moments before, she returned to her seat next to Joe and hugged him hard, giggling.
He whispered in her ear, “I love you so much, babe.”
A few minutes later, the last senior had received his diploma and the principal called the graduating seniors to stand, then dismissed them for the last time. Mandy hugged Joe again. He leaned close and their lips touched, initially in a chaste kiss that turned to passion. She felt the pressure of his lips, the very faint stubble, and a lightheadedness that could have swept her to the floor if her love hadn’t been holding her up.
They parted a few inches, looking in each other’s eyes. Joe’s smile was as big as hers: his beautiful, strong smile that was enough to convince her that everything would always be all right as long as she was in his arms.
Then she heard her brother say, in a low, shocked tone, “Oh, my God.”
Mandy’s eyes darted to her brother, then followed his gaze to the woman approaching them. No. Not possible. No, no, no. Why now? Mandy’s feeling of ecstasy flip-flopped into a clench in her stomach and tears came to her unwilling eyes.
The woman, her face a haunting older mirror of Mandy herself, stopped three feet away, a hesitant smile on her face, and said, “Mandy… Bobby. Oh my God, you’re all grown up.”
Bobby moved to hug his mother, and she wrapped her arms around her son.
Mandy grabbed Joe’s hand, squeezing it for reassurance. Her mind was frozen in place. Her mother. Her mother was here? After more than ten years, she just walked in out of the blue?
A rapid flash of thought and emotion passed through Mandy. How many nights had she prayed for her mother to return. How many times had she begged God for her mommy to come home; how many times had she cried herself to sleep. What the hell was her mother thinking? Disappear for ten years, then just walk back in?
The words burst out of her mouth before she could stop herself. “What are you doing here? What do you want?” Mandy’s tone of voice was cold.
“Oh darling,” her mother said. “How could I miss your graduation?”
“It shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve missed everything else in our lives for ten years.”
Her mother’s eyes watered, and she said, “I didn’t want to, Mandy. I’ve always loved you… I was hoping… I don’t know what I was hoping for really. I’m sorry.”
She’s sorry! Mandy’s mind was still stuck. The nights as a nine year old girl when she’d wept for her mommy. The missed events from school, the shock and embarrassment of having to go to her friends’s mothers for advice when she had her period, then when the nightmares really started, when she had to lock her drunken father out of her room at night, barricading the door with a bureau because God only knew what he would do once he started drinking.
How many times had she begged God to bring her mother back? Well, now it was just too damned late.
Mandy’s voice rose to a screech. “You’re sorry! You run away for ten years, you disappear on us and leave us in the hands of your abusive pervert of a husband, and you’re sorry? You leave me with your rapist husband and expect me to forgive you with a simple I’m sorry? Go ask God for forgiveness, because you’re not getting it from me.”
Mandy’s shout brought a sudden, oppressive silence to the crowded gathering. The families of thirty graduating seniors stared in shock, then quickly began moving for the exits.
Mandy’s mother’s looked stunned. “Oh god, Mandy, I’m….”
“Shut up!” Mandy screamed. “How dare you?”
Joe quietly said, “Easy, hun, let’s just go.”
She yanked her hand out of Joe’s and screamed at her mother, “Get out! This is my graduation and you’re not welcome here. Get out!”
The older woman shook her head, and she backed out, weeping. “I’m so sorry, Mandy.”
“Go!” Mandy screamed. Then she collapsed into a chair and began to weep. Joe swept her into his arms, and whispered, “It’s okay, babe. I’m here for you. I’ll always be here for you.”
Mandy felt her whole body shake and shudder, and she began to moan and weep. “I hate her, Joe. I hate her. How could she do this to me? Why did she leave? Why!”
The image of her mother–face stricken, backing away toward the exit–flashed through Mandy’s mind. What had she done? After all these years of wishing her mother were there, she’d shut her out, thrown her away. A fresh bout of tears burst forth, and she whispered, “I want my mommy.”
Joe just kept hugging her, knowing better than to question her contradictions.
She barely noticed as the people she loved gathered around her and they moved on to dinner and later back to her foster parents’ home. Finally, Joe kissed her goodnight and she shuffled off to bed, thinking she was still numb. That was a dream though, because for the first time in years, she cried herself to sleep: bitter tears of loss and rage.
The morning after graduation, Mandy slowly forced herself out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen still in her nightgown. Face still splotchy from crying, her hair in a mess, she poured herself a cup of coffee, mixed it generously with cream and sugar, then sat down at the table across from her foster-father.
Rich Ellison owned a car dealership just outside Charleston. Not necessarily the most sensitive of men, all the same her deferred to his wide on most, if not all, decisions affecting their life. One of those decisions, made not long after the then young couple learned they could never have children of their own, had been to become a foster family for the county’s Child and Family Protective Services. Mandy and Bob had lived in their home for several years now.
Ellison carefully folded his newspaper and set it on the paper and looked across the table at Mandy. “So,” he began. “Do you think you’ll live?”
Mandy stared at him, stunned. Then she saw a corner of his mouth jerk upward in a quirky smile, and she couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yes, I think so. I’m sorry I was such a nutcase last night.”
His quirky half smile turned into a full grin, and he responded, “Teenage girls are entitled to be nutcases every now and then. And you had ample reason, I’d say.”
She cupped her hands around her coffee cup, took a sip, then said, “Thank you for that.”
He waved his hand, said, “There’s nothing to thank me for.”
She sighed. “Yes, there’s plenty. You’ve been there for me and Bobby… through everything. That’s far more than I can say about our parents, and you didn’t have to do it.”
He chuckled. “Sure, I did. My secret to living a happy marriage is simple, Mandy: do what the wife says. That said, you and your brother have done as much for us as ever did for you. Having you in our lives has been a gift.”
A gift her mother had walked away from.
“So,” he said slowly, “With your mother in town… what are you going to do?”
She frowned. Why the hell should she do anything? Her mother wasn’t part of her life, never had been, never would be. Mandy would be fine if she never saw that woman again.
“I don’t really see any reason to do anything different.”
He nodded, then said, “I see. I only ask because…”
She interrupted. “She doesn’t deserve anything from me.”
He raised his palm in the air as if to say, ‘Stop,’ then responded. “It’s not really about what she deserves. I happen to agree with you about that: what your mother deserves isn’t at issue here. She gave up her right when she left. But I am concerned about what you deserve.”
“I think what I deserve is for her to leave me the hell alone.”
He nodded. “That’s probably true. On the other hand, you might also deserve an explanation, and an apology. You deserve some closure. I don’t know what her reasons were… in the end it doesn’t really matter, because it won’t change the fact that she left. She left when you were vulnerable and couldn’t protect yourself. I think you deserve an opportunity to tell her that.”
At the words, ‘She left when you were vulnerable,’ tears began coursing down Mandy’s face. She sniffled, then said, “It’s hard for me to imagine an explanation that would be good enough.”
He nodded. “I’m fairly sure there isn’t one. You’re going to find as an adult, Mandy, that very often things aren’t good enough. But sometimes not good enough will be all you have. I’m going to leave it alone… you’ll have to decide on your own what you want to do. I know it will be the right thing for yourself. But if you do decide you want to get in touch with her, here’s the number.”
He held out a sheet torn from the notepad on the refrigerator door, a small sheet of paper bordered by flowers and a cocker spaniel in the lower right hand corner. The details of a life she’d never imagined when she’d been a little girl living with her drunken father: imagine taking the time and effort to find a notepad for the refrigerator that reflected some small bit of beauty. It was inconceivable.
Mandy took the sheet, folded it twice, then whispered, “Thank you.”
Ellison stood, then said, “Whoops, look at the time. Gotta run, Mandy. Let me know what you decide, okay”
Mandy’s quiet knock on the door of the motel room did nothing to express the extreme anxiety she felt; the pounding of her heart, the fear that dug deep in her gut and made her want to start crying before she even started.
The door opened, framing the five foot two, brown haired woman who had abandoned her.
Elizabeth Stanton-Mays looked across the threshold at her eighteen year old daughter, fear reflected in her own face. She seemed to study Mandy for a moment, then said in a rough voice, “Mandy. Thank you so much for calling me. Please come in.”
Mandy walked into the hotel room and glanced around. The Whitesville Motel wasn’t exactly a five star accommodation, but it was all that the town boasted. Her mother’s second story room was small, with a slightly slumped bed draped in a threadbare bedspread. A small table was shoved against the wall next to the window, overlooking Boone Street.
Her mother had set out cups of hot tea. Steam rose into the air in a lazy pattern that caught Mandy’s eye.
“Please, dear, sit down.”
Mandy sat down stiffly, on the edge of her seat. Her mother sat down across from her, equally awkward, and said, “I’m grateful you called.”
Considering how to respond, Mandy finally said, “I didn’t do it for you. I’m here for me.”
Her mother nodded. “In that case, tell me … how can I help?”
Mandy bit her lip, trying to force back the wave of emotions that were threatening to overwhelm her. “I want to understand…. I want to understand why you left us.”
Her mother’s eyes watered, and she whispered, “I hurt you so much, didn’t I?”
Oh, now she feels bad about it. A little late for that, isn’t it, Mom? “Just tell me the truth.”
Her mother slumped in her seat. She whispered, “I just couldn’t take it any more. I’m so sorry.”
“Couldn’t take what?”
“Your father… this town… this life! I … it was never what I wanted. I love you and your brother more than you can ever know. But it was killing me. Every day I was dying a little more, and I knew that if it went on much longer, I’d really die, at my own hands.”
It was as if her mother had stabbed her through the heart. “Were we so horrible, then?”
“No!” her other cried. “It was never you! It was me.”
Mandy leaned forward, unable to stop herself, and said in a vicious tone of voice, “Make me understand. Make me understand why you left us all alone with him.”
A tear ran down her mother’s face. She said, “When I met your father I was at Julliard. All my life I’d done nothing in the world but dance. It was my life… the life I’d worked and bled for, but it was … so narrow. Then your father swept in to my life. He was … so amazing back then… glamourous.”
Mandy found that hard to imagine, but didn’t interrupt her mother. “Your dad had served in Vietnam, and stayed in the Navy when the whole country scorned Vietnam vets. I was … very young … when this white jacketed fighter pilot swept me off my feet. We got married. I thought my parents were going to go insane… I dropped out of Julliard and followed him to San Diego.”
Mandy stared at her mother, incredulous. Her father a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam? Her mother a dancer at Julliard? What the hell was this?
“What happened?” she whispered.
Her mother grimaced. “Life happened. Your dad was in a bad accident… he had to eject from a crippled jet, it went down in the Mojave desert. His parachute deployed, but he landed unconscious on bad rocks, broke both his legs and cracked his skull. He was in a coma for weeks, we didn’t know if he was going to live or die. Finally the Navy medically retired him, and we came here… back to his childhood home.”
Mandy struggled to assimilate this information. It was… not even believable.
“So,” her mother said, “We made the best of it. When he’d recovered enough to work, your dad went to the mines, and I taught dance at a studio in Charleston. But… you can’t imagine what it was like. Your father was so bitter about losing his Navy career. He would fly into a rage at the drop of a hat. He drank… so much. When he was drunk he would…”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “He’d hurt me.” She buried her face in her hands.
Mandy stared at her mother. Now that was the father she knew. A cruel, uncompromising bastard.
But even he hadn’t abandoned his children.
Mandy said, “So you just…left. Abandoned your children to the abusive drunk?”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “No! I … I didn’t have any choice. I couldn’t stay here…not in this horrible town, with him, with my whole life narrowed down to absolutely nothing. I couldn’t be stuck here in Whitesville, West Virginia, with absolutely nothing in life to look forward to but another beating.”
Nothing in life to look forward to, Mandy thought. That’s what Bobby and I were to her. Nothing. Slowly, forcing the words out, she said, “So what did you do?”
“I … I went back to New York. I tried so hard to get back to my old life… to work on Broadway, or a ballet troupe. I auditioned … everywhere. I tried to keep tabs on you and your brother, but from such a distance… it was too much.”
Auditions and Broadway. Way more important than protecting your children. That made sense, if you were a heartless bitch.
“Did you get back to it?”
Her mother shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “It was too late… I’d lost it. I never got a single part… I ended up waitressing. Finally I realized I had to come back here… to you… before it was too late.”
Forcing herself not to cry, Mandy said, “You missed that boat, mother. It was too late the first time your husband tried to rape me. It was too late when you walked out the door without considering how much you were hurting a nine-year-old girl. I don’t want you in my life, mother. I don’t ever want to see or speak to you again. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. You can go to hell for all I care.”
She stood up quickly, knocking the flimsy hotel chair over.
Her mother sobbed. “Mandy, please! It’s not too late, I know it’s not. I can… I promise… ”
Mandy whispered, “I had enough of your promises when I was nine.” She turned her back, opened the hotel room door and walked out, letting the door slam shut behind her.
Joe Blankenship awoke to faint tapping on his window. Disoriented, his darted around the dark room before the quiet tapping came again. Fingernails clicking against glass.
He jerked to his feet, then untangled himself from his blanket and moved to the window without turning on the light.
Mandy was outside in the dark. What the hell? He felt for the lock on the window, sprung it, then slid the window up.
He whispered, “Mandy? What are you doing?”
“Let me in,” she replied.
He reached outside and took her hands and lifted her to the windowsill. As she got inside, he switched on the desk lamp.
Her face was blotched. She’d been crying.
“What’s wrong, babe?”
She came into his arms, furiously kissing him. Then she whispered, “Make love to me, Joe. Please.”
Joe didn’t have to be asked twice. Afterward, they lay entwined on the bed. Drowsy, he turned to kiss her, and was stunned to see a tear rolling down her face.
“Mandy, what’s wrong? Talk to me.”
She stared at him, her eyes wide and brimming with tears. Abruptly, she got out of the bed and began struggling into her clothes.
Desperation seeping into his voice, he called her name again.
Finished buttoning her sweater, she sat down in his desk chair and faced him. She said, “Joe, listen to me. I don’t have the strength to say this more than once.”
A leaden feeling in his stomach, he nodded, then said, “I’m listening.”
Her face twisted in grief, then she said, “I can’t do this. I can’t do it to you. Or to me. Or to what we might have one day. If I stay here in Whitesville, I’ll die. Or even worse… I’ll be like my mother. I’ll leave you and our children when they need me the most. I cannot do that. I can’t be that person, waiting to find out every day if you’ll live to make it out of the mine.”
She sobbed, then said, “I’m leaving, Joe. Tonight. And I won’t be back.”
Joe was paralyzed. He tried to speak, opened his mouth even, then snapped it shut. Finally he whispered, a choked, painful sound forced past his breaking heart, “Please, Mandy. I’ll do anything.”
She shook her head furiously. “It’s not you, Joe. Don’t you see it? I’m the one who is broken. I just … I don’t have the strength to keep loving you. Please don’t fight me on this. If you love me, please let me go. I’m begging you.”
She couldn’t be doing this. No, no no no. Mandy was his life. Who would he be without her? Just another kid bound for the coal mine. A nothing.
A horrid sound of grief escaped his throat.
“Mandy… I love you.”
She leaned over and kissed him on the lips. She whispered, “And I love you. That’s why I have to go.”
Then she turned and slipped out the door of his bedroom and out of his life.