You didn’t know you would have to leave that day. You made the promise weeks ahead, which you didn’t do very often. Promise things. Not because you were stingy, just because you were realistic. You promised you would go to the spelling bee, which was big because you worked nights. It felt big—there were posters everywhere, and the teachers wouldn’t stop talking about it, wouldn’t stop sending home bright pink flyers. So you promised you would go, sacrifice an evening’s pay, and go sit in the audience and watch children misspell words you had never heard.
You never could have guessed that the day before the spelling bee a man in a convenience store would recognize you. He knew you from another life, when you had no children and could take risks. Back when you made more money than you did from the night shift. When you lived on the other side of the law. You had another name back then. So when he saw you, you drove to the airport and bought a standby flight. You didn’t tell anyone where you were going. You didn’t tell me.
When I got home, Sarafina was sitting on the couch eating cheese puffs angrily. She said there had been a note from you, that you were gone, just gone, no why, no where, no when you would be back. I wanted to see it but she said she tore it up. That wasn’t true, by the way. She showed it to me years later. She never told me about the part where you told her to take care of me. Well, she did that all the time anyway, when you worked nights.
So I walked back to the school gymnasium by myself, and I was shaking. You were somewhere over the ocean, probably, when I spelled achievement with the i and the e switched and sat down crying. The first round was the easy words, see, and I didn’t make it past that.
When I got home in the dark I didn’t talk to Sarafina, which suited her just fine, because after you left she didn’t talk to me if she didn’t have to. She didn’t come home if she didn’t have to, either, and neither of us went to school very often. It sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Not having anyone to tell us to go to school, or to eat our peas. Living on the other side of the law. But it wasn’t fun. Sarafina should have taken her college entrance exams that year. Instead she graduated high school by a hair, which, five years later, I failed to do. I ended up in a sublet room with a gas station job, and Sarafina ended up in a one-bedroom apartment with a man who criticized what she wore.
I didn’t see her until thirty years later when we met in a lawyer’s office. We had each been summoned there by a letter. It seems you had gotten your affairs in order before you died. The lawyer was bald and his nose stuck out over his lip at the same angle as his belly stuck out over his pants, and he told us we each had a little money and a plane ticket to a little town in Mexico. It was nice, I guess, where you were living all those years. There were lizards in the curtains and cracks in the ceiling, but the paint color was pretty and it had a nice view of the sun which was orange every night when it set.
I know you never wanted me to know who you’d been or what you’d done. I know you felt bad about leaving us, even if maybe it was safest. I know you felt bad about the spelling bee. You didn’t leave us with any of those answers, so Sarafina and I had to find them ourselves. You would rather we have forgotten you than know what would have happened if you had stayed. But I know, now, Mother. And it’s alright.