I remember it very clearly. I was 15 years old, listening to Elvis Costello in the dark of my room. Thinking about a boy with red hair who didn’t like me. He had told me so. I should have been asleep by then, but I was too busy being sad about the boy. Since my mom worked nights, I was in charge of making sure my younger brother got a bath and went to bed on time. My mechanic father had fallen asleep hours before. It was always like this. Me taking care of my siblings, him passing out on the couch before my mom got home from her department store job. I got used to the sound of his snoring. Big tired bear of a man.
I remember it so clearly because it is the day my life changed. In my dark room, the digital clock said 12:03 a.m. She was nearly an hour late by then, but I didn’t want to wake him and worry him. I figured she would come home sometime. Then the phone rang. It surprised me. Frightened me. I reached up to the Swatch phone and answered it. A man was on the other end. He asked for my father. I said he was asleep. The man was stern, I would have to wake him. So I did. I called downstairs. Wake up! Phone! No, she isn’t home yet.
When I got back to the phone, I didn’t hang it up. Instead I listened. The stern man was a police officer. He told my father that my mother had been arrested. She was caught stealing money from the safe at work. My father argued. There is no way, he said. The stern man said she was seen doing it. The money had her prints on it. It is her job to put the money in the safe, my father said. Well, they caught her stealing it, the stern man said.
Then he put my mother on the phone. She was so tiny. A tiny voice. Crying. I didn’t do it, she said sobbing. I was stunned. I was mad. I hated her and loved her all at once. I remember thinking she was a horrible liar. I looked around my room and thought about how things had been going so well lately. How there had not been much yelling about money lately. I don’t remember what happened next, exactly. But nothing was the same again. There were lawyers to pay and bail and a trial. My mother would be unemployed for the rest of my teen years. She had been our only source of health insurance and now it was gone. She didn’t go to jail and I don’t even know if she was convicted. We never talked about it. But it was always under the surface. I would come home from school and she would be asleep on the couch. She was either asleep or yelling at us. She was no longer our mother, but this sad tiny shell.
Shortly after that night when my mother didn’t come home from work, I told my dad it was time for him to teach me to drive. I was about to get my learner’s permit and was so excited. He said he would try to get around to it when things calmed down. But they never calmed down. Every time I asked, he said we didn’t have a car for me to drive anyway. Soon after my 16th birthday, I got my first boyfriend. He got his driver’s license that summer, so I no longer needed one. I was off. With him in his black car. Speeding into the night like a Halloween child. Having a boyfriend meant being free of her. Free of the mess she was making of our lives. So, I never went without one. A boyfriend with a car.
I graduated from high school and entered college without a driver’s license. Finally, with the help of lots of friends, I learned to drive. I got my driver’s license a few days before my 19th birthday. By then, my mother had found another job and acted like nothing ever happened. But I never forgot. Whenever someone talks about when they got their driver’s license, I remember it. I remember her tiny sobbing voice in the dark.