It started to drizzle with the kind of fine mist that slicks the pavement into a mirror and seeps steadily through each layer of clothing. Almost simultaneously, the boy and I lifted up our collars, buried our shoulders to our ears, and started to walk without speaking. There was a deserted bridge in front of us. It was a massive steel thing, born of sinewy cables and bulging beams and it perched over the city reservoir. He led us on our way over it, placing himself between me and the edge as we squinted into the idea of the water below. We could hear its agitated turning, but the darkness was so swollen that we saw nothing but an inky black void.
We were so fucking lost.
The boy and I had been introduced to each other hours earlier. Our mothers talked over us with teasing voices while we both stood mutely by, shrinking into our 14-year-old selves and consenting to eye contact in short, apologetic glances as if to say, I know, I’m disappointed with me, too.
It was supposed to be a blind date, of sorts. I visited my mother twice a month on weekends, leaving my small-town teenage life behind and crashing at her city apartment for a few days before returning home to my dad, my stepmother, and my younger siblings. Unmarried and in her thirties, my mother spent most nights enjoying nightlife, and on this particular weekend, a Mardi Gras celebration meant I needed to be occupied elsewhere.
This similar scenario happened often on our weekends together, but I had gotten too old to have a babysitter or to sleep over at the neighbor’s house. One of the other revelers had a visiting son the same age and it must have been easy enough to realize we could be paired off and sent on a wholesome teen date while the adults continued with their bar hopping and merry making.
Giving me a quick wink, my mother idled her car and deposited the two of us under a garishly glowing arena sign. Leaning out the window of the car, she handed me two tickets to the evening’s hockey game and a small piece of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. She told us to have fun, and to call the number when the game was over.
The boy and I broke the record for finding our way to our seats using as little communication as possible. We sat down feeling as uncomfortable in the hard plastic seats as we were with each other’s presence. During an interlude in the pulsing bass of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” the boy asked if I wanted anything to eat. Mortified that a male peer would potentially see me eating food up close and personal, I played it cool and shook my head, “No, thanks.” He left his seat to stand in line for nachos and I sank back in my chair, relieved to fade into anonymity in the busy arena, even if it was only for a few minutes. My empty stomach rumbled and I sighed the teen girl sigh: most of us have been well-acquainted with the gurgles of a belly we fuel too infrequently.
When the game ended a few hours later, we found a payphone on the basement level of the hockey arena and called for our ride. Only, the phone number my mother had given to me was out of service. We must have dialed multiple variations of it dozens of times, but had no luck in connecting with anyone on the other end. A security guard approached and told us it was time to leave. When we shared our predicament with him, he shrugged, “You can’t stay here. We’re closing the place down.”
As the lights in the arena powered off, one row at a time, we nervously made our way into the murky March midnight and started to weave our way through downtown. We both were in a city that didn’t belong to us and without any means to contact our caregivers.
I don’t know how, but a car with a man belonging to someone in my mother’s entourage pulled up next to us after we had spent a bone-chilling few hours circling the glowing bars searching from the outside; we were underage, and therefore unable to enter. Unconcerned, he rolled down the window and raised his voice so we could hear him above the pattering of the rain. “There you guys are,” he said. “Come on, get in.”
He took us to a diner where we were warmed with cocoa while the intoxicated and rosy-cheeked adults uproariously recalled the evening’s shenanigans. It was the downtown kind of late by then — close to 2 a.m., maybe? Everything was near to closing and those who had nowhere to go stumbled into the brightly lit restaurant oasis. We watched a topless woman order a slice of cherry pie at the counter, saw beautifully plumed and masked drag queens in heels parade through to the restrooms, and grew alarmed as an argument bloomed in intensity across the room. But our alarm was temporary; the boy and I were reunited with adults and thus relieved of our responsibility to keep ourselves safe in unfamiliar surroundings.
I don’t recall how my mother and I managed to return to her small, uptown attic-apartment when the evening finally ended, but it was surely done as dawn broke.
Back at home the next week, and full of the bravado that comes when one is surrounded by familiarity, I relayed my evening to school friends, animating bits to make it sound as exciting and colorful as I could. For weeks, I lived under the assumption the boy would call me and we’d have a big laugh at it all — our shared adventure — and it would be the icebreaker we needed to finally dissolve the awkwardness of our previous interaction. We’d continue to talk, find each other fascinating, and then one of us would mention prom, and ten years later we’d be married for ever and all time.
It took me many years of growing up to realize that this story hadn’t been the beginning of some should-have-been teenage romance. It’s the framework I used when recounting it because it was easier to think about the blossom of a relationship growing from a traumatic event than it was to face the truth. But the truth is this: that evening, we were two cold, scared, and lost children, and we were strangers to each other. We relied on each other out of necessity because we had no mothers to look after us when they should have been.
I spent a lot of time attributing my vulnerability that evening to the awkwardness of being a teenager, but it was really derived from the neglect of a parent, which was a common theme throughout my relationship with my mother. More often than not, she left me behind, or coaxed me into compliance then put me in similarly uncomfortable — or worse, unsafe — situations.
Any yet, youthful reasoning is incredibly malleable. It ignores intuition. It berates you for your inability to go with the flow, and it insists on holding people in high regard when it’s neither earned nor deserved. It makes you think that you’re the problem, and that the story of neglect is defined by your actions alone. You lean into it for a good while, but if you’re lucky, you reach the right level of age or wisdom to realize you were just filling in the blanks during the absences of others: the absence of guidance, the absence of concern, and the absence, even, of basic presence.
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