“Let’s make a bet,” my father said, on my fifteenth birthday. I remember very clearly being fifteen; or rather, I remember what fifteen feels like to a fifteen-year-old. The age is a diving board, a box half-opened.
We were sitting in stiff wooden chairs on the porch, watching the evening settle over the neighborhood, all of that harmless diffuse light softening the world.
“I bet you’ll leave here at eighteen and you’ll never come back,” he said. “Not once.”
We lived two hours outside of Los Angeles, in a suburb attached to a string of other suburbs, where the days rarely distinguished themselves unless you did it for them.
“You don’t even think I’ll come back and visit?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I don’t.” My father was a reasonable man. He did not generalize. He was not prone to big, grandiose statements, and he rarely gambled. I felt hurt and excited by the suggestion.
“What about Mom?” I asked.
“What about her?”
I shrugged. It seemed she had little to do with his prediction.
“And James?” I asked.
“Not sure about James,” he said. “I can’t bet on that one.”
James was—and still is—my younger brother. I felt little responsibility to him. At ten, he was brilliant and anxious and very much my parents’ problem. My mother adored him, though she thought she had fooled me into thinking we were equal. Make no mistake: we were equally loved but not equally preferred. If parents don’t have favorites, they do have allies.
Inside, my mother was cooking dinner while James followed her around the kitchen, handing her bits of paper he’d folded into unusual shapes. Even then, he had a knack for geometry.
“Where will I go?” I asked my father. My grades were aggressively mediocre. I’d planned—vaguely, at fifteen—to transfer somewhere after a few years at the local junior college. [End Page 218]
“It doesn’t matter where,” he said, waving away a fly circling his nose.
Next door, the quiet neighbor kid, Carl, walked his miniature pinscher, also called Carl, back and forth across his lawn. The weather was balmy.
“What happens if I do come back?” I asked.
“You’ll lose,” he said. “You’ll automatically forfeit the bet.”
I hated to lose, and my father knew it.
“Will I see you again?” I asked. I felt nostalgic in a way that felt new, at fifteen, as though the day had already turned shadowy and distant, a predetermined memory. I felt nostalgic for my father and his partly bald head and his toothpaste breath, even as he sat next to me, running his palms over his hairy knees.
“Of course,” he said. “Your mother and I will visit.”
My mother appeared on the porch with my brother, his finger slung into the back pocket of her jeans. “Dinnertime,” she said, and I kissed my father’s cheek as though I were standing on a train platform. I spent all of dinner feeling that way too, staring at him from across the table, mouthing good-bye.
My eighteenth birthday arrived the summer after I’d graduated from high school. To celebrate, I saw the musical Wicked at a theater in Los Angeles with four of my friends. The seats were deep and velvety feeling. My parents drove us, and my father gave us each a glass of champagne in the parking lot before we entered the theater. We used small plastic cups he must have bought especially for the occasion. I pictured him browsing the plastics aisle, looking at all the cups, deciding.
A week after my birthday, my father woke me up, quieter than usual. He seemed solemn. I still had my graduation cap tacked up on the wall, its yellow tassel hanging jauntily. My mother had taken the dress I’d worn that day to the dry cleaner, and it still lay pooled on the floor in its plastic.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked.
“Where are you taking me?” I wanted to know.
“To the train station,” he said. “It’s time...