Yesterday I met Jan at 2:30 a.m. Twenty minutes outside of campus on a little country road — just when I was nodding off, despite the rattle of the airport shuttle — Dick pulled to a stop and let her in. The smell of cigarettes and peppermint and alcohol filled the van. Along with a voice loud enough to confirm that I would not be getting any sleep. She plopped down right next to me, even though all the other seats were open, and as I gave her a polite, if cold and exhausted nod, she announced to all the world that, “I’m afraid of planes, and yes, I’ve been drinking.”
I think I grunted to break the silence. She continued, saying she hadn’t slept for days and she didn’t know why she had let herself be talked into taking this trip to Florida and if this was her day to go, there was no stopping it anyway.
I wanted to say that there was a better chance that we’d die on the way to the airport. That Dick might very well fall asleep at the wheel at this hour. But I held back, wondering what kind of a ride it might be if I did say it.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’ll be okay.”
“Are you in college?” she asked.
“My daughter’s in school in Cambridge — not Harvard, but close. Lesley University. She’s a good student. And tomorrow’s her last day of sophomore year.”
I nodded. Dick drove.
“You far away from home?” She asked. “Yes,” I said. “Flying home today.”
“Miss your Mom?”
“Yes, but I talk to her every day, except when she is out of the country working, and then I miss her a lot.”
“My daughter and I were best friends when she was growing up,” Jan smiled. “We didn’t have much money, but we’d have fun anyway. We went into Boston once on the train and we couldn’t afford the tour, so I bought a $2.00 map and we walked the Freedom Trail and I read about all the sites out loud and we had fun.”
I turned my head and smiled a little, thinking of my visit to Boston last week. “It’s true that you don’t need money to have fun there,” I said. “Did you know the ferry from Long Wharf to the Navy Shipyard and Old Ironsides is only $1.70?”
“You talk to your mom every day?” she asked.
“Sometimes twice a day,” I rolled my eyes. “Just yesterday I told her she had to stop calling me so much.”
For the first time since getting in the van, Jan was silent. Even in the dark I could see her eyes glistening. I heard her swallow hard. “I haven’t talked to my daughter in weeks.”
I swept my hand across her shoulder quickly — only for as long as it took me to say, “College is a tough time. She’ll come around.”
She leaned forward, not resisting my touch, but a little uncomfortable for a moment. We were strangers. She slid her fingers roughly under her eyes. “Sometimes I hear about what she’s up to through the grapevine,” she tried to recover composure. “But she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
I thought about how embarrassed I had been for her when she had climbed into the van, smelling of alcohol and bellowing that she was afraid of planes. I imagined her daughter going off to college in Cambridge and morphing from the young girl who had enjoyed her mother’s amateur tours of the city to a young woman who was mortified by this overweight, high school educated Chatty Cathy of a mom. I could see it.
I wondered if it was the distance between them that kept her daughter from even imagining the pain I saw so obviously in her mother’s eyes.
“She’ll be home for summer soon,” I said, remembering that tomorrow would be her last day of school. But I knew at once that my words were no comfort.
“She’s not coming home this summer,” Jan said, her saddened voice becoming forcibly detached. “She’s living with her boyfriend. I still support her. I still send her all the money I have left over after the bills are paid and I’ve bought food for Mom and my disabled brother. I still work two jobs — every hour — for her. But she’ll be living with him, and that money will go to buy pot.”
I wanted to say, “Why don’t you cut her off?! Why don’t you make her see that it’s not so easy?” I was angry. But I looked at her and knew that at the moment this was her only connection to her daughter. If she cut her off, her daughter might cut her off. I saw that it was not so easy.
“So you are going to Florida alone?” I asked.
“To visit a friend — to help a friend,” She replied. “She’s had some bad luck lately and had to have one of her legs amputated and I am going to go help her get to therapy and cook and adjust.”
“It’s my first vacation in three years and I am so excited!” She exclaimed, a burst of her original energy returning. (It was now 3:30.)
It didn’t sound like much of a vacation at all.
As we entered the city, Alanis Morisette came on the radio. I like this song. “Oh no! Dick!” Jan shouted, startling me. She was waving her hands at the radio. “We have to change the station! We have to change the station!” He did.
I kid you not, the song was “Ironic” — and I had forgotten about the second verse.
I laughed at this latest outburst, fully awake now. “You’re going to be fine,” I smiled, as if we were friends. “You know the statistics.”
Later, on the plane, I experienced the steadiest and most prolonged turbulence I had ever remembered, all the way to Chicago. I thought a lot about Jan. I envisioned her making a real ruckus if her flight was anything like mine. I was grateful she and I had shared the morning shuttle, even if it had cost me sleep. Was it coincidence that Mother’s Day had just passed? Or that my mom’s birthday had been the day before, and I had scarcely acknowledged it because of my Chaucer exam?
Please God, I prayed, let Jan have a smooth flight.