We’re eating Chinese tonight. Dark plastic bowls filled with rice and vegetables, egg rolls in little cardboard boxes, even the fortune cookies with the lottery numbers on the back of the paper. This is a real treat. Mom doesn’t care for Chinese food, but it’s Dad’s favorite, so tonight she’s putting up with it. In case you hadn’t guessed, I kind of like it, too. I crammed about six pieces of sweet-and-sour chicken in my mouth and smiled at Mom. She forced herself to smile back. I could tell she wasn’t into the food tonight.
Dad reached his hand across the table. Mom placed her hand over his, stroking it gently. I’ve never seen them do that before. “Jason,” said Mom, “you love your father, don’t you?”
“Um… of course. Why?”
“And your father loves you more than anything else in the world,” Mom continued. Dad nodded his head. “He wants you to grow up to be the best that you can be.”
“But sometimes, when you grow up, you have to make decisions that aren’t… easy.” I could tell Mom was softening things up. But what was she getting at? Did I do something bad? Was there something wrong with Dad? Were they getting a divorce? I mean, they fight sometimes, but I never thought… “Your dad wishes there were more options, but sometimes there just aren’t.”
“Mom, please spit it out.” I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought this was going to be a great night. We ordered Chinese. The weather was getting nice. I was thinking about seeing a movie.
“Jason, your father’s job is being moved to California.”
I stared at Dad. He looked back at me, his eyes deep and soft. “You mean Dad’s out of a job?” I asked.
“No, it’s not like that. He’s going to California, too.”
“Wait! We’re coming with, right?”
Dad looked sadder than I had seen him in years. He shook his head slowly, once to the left and once to the right. That’s when I realized what was actually happening.
“Wait, why? Why do we have to stay here? I want to go with Dad!”
Dad swallowed and cleared his throat. “I wish there were another way, Jason, and if there was I would do it, but these are very difficult times and we need the money.”
“Why can’t Mom find a job?”
“There are millions of qualified people out there looking for work. We can’t take that chance,” Mom said. She put her hand on my shoulder. “I know we’ll all miss having Dad around. But don’t worry! He’ll call us every night, and he’ll still fly up here on holidays. Besides, it’s only until we pay off the house.”
“That’s not the same! Why can’t we just live off of welfare or something? We could get by! Isn’t it worth it if we can keep Dad here?” I could hear myself getting angry before I knew it.
“We’d have to give up the house, which is bad because we owe more than it’s worth. We’d sell most of the furniture. We’d live in a small, dusty apartment in a bad neighborhood. We’d use food stamps and thrift stores to get by.”
“So? You guys can handle that!” My voice quivered.
“It’s not about us. It’s about what’s best for you.”
I just about choked on a piece of chicken. “For me? It’d be best for me to have my mom and my dad in the same place!” Rice sputtered out of my mouth and stuck to the table. There was a moment of pause. Mom tilted her head to the floor, gripping Dad’s hand tightly. I saw a tear rolling down her cheek. I felt guilty. Did I make her cry? Was she just sad that Dad’s leaving? It felt a little unfair at the same time. It wasn’t my fault that Dad was going away. Then I had another thought. “Dad, do you think they’ll change their mind?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think if you ask real nice, they’ll let you…” I trailed off because I felt stupid saying it, but I really wished…
“I already asked. They’re very sorry.”
That was the moment where it all felt real. There was no other way. It was going to happen. Mom and Dad just stared.
I stood up and left the table. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just thought, I need to get away, I need to get away. It was a stress-relief type thing. Sometimes I have to hit a pillow to get it all out. A pillow wasn’t good enough, though. Pillows are soft and fluffy. I could feel a panic setting in, but I didn’t know where it was coming from. I spun around. I felt like screaming, but that wasn’t much better than a pillow. I spun until I got too dizzy. Then I did something stupid.
I ran out the door as fast as I could. I didn’t have any shoes. It was dark. It was so cold. The stress kept building up inside of me so I ran faster and faster, but it was no good. I thought about what my life would be like with Dad gone. He was always there for me. He drove me places. He gave me advice. He could talk to me about… I don’t know, girls and stuff. I need that kind of support. In first grade, we learned the difference between needs and wants. Dad is a need. Money is a want.
I yelled at the top of my lungs, even though I knew it wasn’t enough. My feet hurt really bad, but I didn’t care. I thought about running forever and never coming back. I thought a lot of crazy things that I won’t admit. My chest heaved in and out, forcing me to sprint faster. I couldn’t see much, just dark rows of houses, and the road going out ahead of me. Miles and miles of suburban wasteland. I wanted to go away from the houses. Houses reminded me of home, and that’s the last place I wanted to be.
* * *
I decided to stop at the gas station. A guy in the back looked at me funny, but he didn’t say anything. People at gas stations don’t really care about much. Get your snacks. Gas up. Go. I forgot why I stopped here. Maybe I was just cold. I looked down at the tile. I could almost see my reflection, if it weren’t for the cracks in it. Gas stations are really depressing. I guess I fit right in.
I walked to the back of the snacks aisle and knocked on the bathroom door. No reply. I walked in and sat down on the only toilet, resting my face in my hands. I imagined how hard it must be for kids who only knew one parent. Was it more difficult if you had a chance to know them first? That thought only got me more depressed, and I looked around for something to take my mind off of things. Four walls. Lots of little tiles. Water on the floor under a tiny sink. I ripped off a square of toilet paper to make myself feel better. Then I ripped off another, just for the sake of it. I kept ripping until there was a huge pile of paper waste on the floor and the roll was almost gone.
I shoved them into the trash bin and walked back to the snack aisle. It felt good to waste stuff sometimes. I was tempted to throw some of the snacks in the trash, but then the store clerk would get mad at me. I could tell I was getting bored. Here I was, spinning my wheels at a gas station while my real problems were miles away back home.
I thought about my parents. I’d been gone for a few hours. They’d be worried about me. Maybe they were looking for me. I stumbled outside. There was a truck pulling away. I didn’t like the way it smelled. I wished I could do something about it. I wish a lot of things. None of them would make that truck stop smelling. I plugged my nose instead.
I started thinking about Dad again. He loved me. I couldn’t help that he was going away, but maybe if I plugged my nose… OK, bad analogy. But the thought got my brain working again. I didn’t want Dad to feel bad. I wanted to make him proud, and I wanted him to be happy again. He was probably ripping his hair out now, trying to figure out where I was. I turned back towards home and ran.
* * *
I jogged back through my neighborhood. It was way past my curfew. All of the houses were dark. It was a welcoming environment. A couple of cars drove past me. I hoped it was no one I knew. I’m guessing I looked like a mess. My ears were freezing off, yet I was sweating at the same time. One of the cars turned on some extra lights. They were blue and red. “Hey!” yelled the cop. “Is your name Jason?”
Oh great. “Yeah.”
“Are you eighteen?”
That’s a weird question. I was tempted to say yes, but I suppose messing with a cop is a bad idea. “Not really.”
“All right, get in the car, Jason. Let’s get you home.” I opened the back door. It was heavier than I expected. Or I was tired. I buckled myself in behind the driver. There was a wire mesh to separate us. I felt like a criminal. In light of that, I decided to ignore him if he said anything else. I have the right to remain silent.
We drove the remaining two blocks to the only house with lights on. The officer walked me to the door. He rang the bell and we waited. I snuck a peek at him. He looked pretty bored. He’s probably looking for some extra cash, too, being out this late picking up kids. I hope someone pays him for bringing me home, even if it was only two blocks. I heard footsteps from inside and more lights flipped on. They rushed to the entryway. I knew who it would be. The door opened. I gave Dad a hug.