You can get your driver’s license at fifteen, if you live so far from town that there’s no school bus. Spend an entire year watching your friends drive themselves into the school parking lot and for the first time in your life wish you lived way out on a ranch.
When you turn sixteen, discover you have to get this bullshit learner’s permit.
Spend the next six months driving your mother back and forth to her new sewing job at the dry cleaners. Your father wants her to stay at home, and she wants to leave him; the job is their compromise. Learn to compromise too. Compromise on the radio, compromise on the route, compromise on how late is late exactly. Endure a baseline of frustration with each other, endure it without doing anything about it. Keep your eyes on the road. Discover how this unacknowledged truce between you and your mother joins you as allies, a wordless link that feels vaguely familiar. On days when she chooses the radio station, listen to the old songs and remember times when she would pick you up from summer camp. Remember the clothes she wore then, the only mother in the pickup line wearing black crepe silk.
One day you’ll need to parallel park outside the post office. You will pretend you already know how and she will pretend she isn’t teaching you. When you turn too sharply and hit the car behind she will suck in her breath, reach over and push the shifter into drive, telling you to go, go, get out of here, her voice spring-loaded in a way you’ve never heard before. Drive very carefully on the way home. Use your turn signal. Go to your room and play Bikini Kill.
The night before you can finally get your real license, try to fall asleep. You will not be able to. Lie flat on your back and think of driving by yourself, alone in the front seat, without your mother. Think of no longer needing her. Think of getting a job and buying your own car; think of driving that car to college; think of no longer needing your father. Picture your parents at home without you and wonder what they would do, unmoored, demagnetized. Watch your fear of this grow inflamed and rapacious in the dark. Cement it all by having your first panic attack.
The next morning, refuse to do it. Tell your parents this at breakfast and make your dad look up from the paper. He will ask you why the hell not? You will reach for the cornflakes and not know how to explain. He will launch into a lecture about responsibility and maturity and he will tell you one day you’ll have a family of your own. Sing the national anthem inside your head, quietly, to drown him out. Eventually he will leave for work and as he shoulders his lunch bag he’ll look back at you from the kitchen door like he can’t understand how he created a stranger.
Your mom will look at you for a long time, the kitchen silent except for your chewing, and you will begin to think about how cereal isn’t chewing exactly but half drinking, isn’t it, like soup, and once you’ve started thinking about this you won’t be able to do it properly, like your jaw has a limp. Then she’ll push her chair back and say, well. You’d better drive me to the dry cleaners. That afternoon get a job there.
Your first day a short girl wearing a blue polo shirt and no bra tells you how to tag the dirty laundry. There are gloves you can wear—she points up at a flattened carton with purple latex poking out—but they make it hard to do the buttons. So you pick up a bag that smells of a stranger’s filth and dump it out onto the table, spreading the tangle of sweaty sleeves with your bare fingers. The girl spends the next hour reminding you: if you don’t undo every single button, the pressers will have to do it, and that costs time. You are there to save time. And always, always stick your hand inside the pockets in case there are ballpoint pens. Every half hour she stops at your table and picks at the growing stack of shirts to make sure you’ve done it, and she says things like, let’s pick up the pace! even though you’re moving faster than she did, and the pressers have plenty to do.
Chemical steam explodes in huge clouds at each pressing station, shirts inflated suddenly like torso balloons in oxford stripe and glen plaid, their sleeves flying madly left and right, and though the bay doors are wide open the fans cannot suck in enough air and the room is clammy and close. A radio plays over the PA system, a thin stream of Top 40 looping as one DJ passes the shift to another. By the end of your first day you will be able to sing every word to “Rhythm of Love” by the Plain White Ts and you will not be able to remember whether it is pink or orange tags that mean heavy starch.
Your second day on the job, do a load of jeans dropped off by the high school rodeo team in bursting white trash bags. Twist the denim legs apart, shake them loose. Hold them in front of you so the starched inseams hang free, springing back into the shape of the kid who wore them. Picture him inside them now. Picture holding him up by the belt loops and punch a pink tag through them. Against your will, sing along to “Animal” by Neon Trees until you realize the girl is standing behind you, watching you, her bangs sweat-flattened to her temples as she drinks hard from a water bottle with a sip top. She reminds you about undoing the buttons.
Once she leaves, lean over and pick up a pair of the jeans again. Realize these rodeo kids like the kind with buttons instead of zippers on the fly. Start building a joke around the idea that this means they can’t be having much sex; abandon it when you remember seeing one of these rodeo kids up close, in the faculty-only bathroom they keep unlocked behind the computer lab, and he was so skinny, skinny like rope, like rebar, the jeans would pull right off. Fit your fingers between the riveted buttons that run up and down the fly until you can flex the crotch fabric around your fist like a glove. Undo the buttons.
Your mother waits for you beside the car, leaning against the passenger side door, elbows in the air as she pulls her hair back. A rubber band in her mouth. You tell her sorry, the time card machine is broken, and she stays quiet instead of telling you the trick to keeping it from jamming. They’ve had her shut up in the alterations room with no lunch break because a wedding dress came in, a bell-shaped thing so heavy with padding and satin it bends the plastic hanger nearly in half like a shiny dead fish on the end of a pole. The bride has been doing Slim-Fast and needs the bodice taken in and the wedding is two weeks from Sunday.
Once she told you she wanted to move to New York, get a job making theater costumes. Try out your newly-muscled cynicism and think: a wedding dress is almost the same thing.
In the passenger seat your mother looks small. Flyaway white threads cling to her, kinked into the shape of the stitching from which she pulled them. Her cardigan is a cheap knit thing from a sale rack, pilling at the elbows. She must have forgotten to hang it up on the back of the sewing room door, still freezing from the air conditioning that overflows from the pressing room.
She sits still while you drive, inert until you pass the Safeway. Then she calls your father to see if he wants a bucket of fried chicken for dinner. When the red-aproned attendant hands it to you in the drive-through you give it to your mother and she holds it to her chest to feel its warmth, leaning her head against the glass of the window. Three stoplights later the grease has soaked through the cardboard and into her lap but when you look over she is asleep.
Clear your throat as you pull into the driveway, but look out the window as you do it, pretending to concentrate as you ease the car past the mailbox, so she will not know you saw her sleeping.
To finish the wedding dress she needs a sleeve board, a small one, smaller than the one they have at work. It’s in a carton of sewing things under her bed and when you stretch to reach it your fingers brush against another box in its way. You elbow it out behind you along the carpet and breathe in the dust caught in its soft fraying corners. When you crawl out again her face is blank and she kicks the box back to you with the toe of her sneaker. The lid falls off.
The box is full of thick watercolor papers, torn carefully from notebooks, a hundred studies of bodies in charcoal pencil, each dated thirty years ago. Thick, sinuous lines degrading into smudges at their ends. All are unfinished except the last one, the watery rose face of a girl, and she looks directly at you with an expression so sad it makes your stomach cramp underneath your shirt. When you ask your mother what it is, she says it was meant to be a self-portrait. She tells you she failed the class. She tells you you should probably throw it out. She leaves to check the mail and doesn’t return for a long time.
By your second week on the job, pull out a set of headphones so you can drown out the radio. Put them in while the girl is out of sight. Listen to Pussy Riot. You don’t understand what they’re singing about but decide you agree with all of it. Listen to the album again, straight through, undoing the buttons and checking the pockets, and then a third time, so that the words which needed to make sense at first no longer need to. Your mind will free itself up with the repetition to focus on other things, and this is when you will notice his clothes.
Their labels are different, of course, Thom Browne and Dries van Noten, but you feel the fabrics before you notice this, and they feel practically liquid next to piles of dirt-caked Wranglers and Levi’s. Roll the shirts back and forth through your hands and try to think what kind of man would wear these, in this town, what kind of man could afford these. Silks and linens and long-limbed cottons in greys and browns of such closely varying shades that the entire laundry bag seems like one garment, a night-colored waterfall.
The tag reads J. Morris. Punch it through each garment carefully, reverently. No starch. Delicate. Think of how appalling it would be to starch such a shirt, disrespectful, forcing something so perfect to hold a different shape.
When you are finished go back through the stack of shirts again, checking the pockets, undoing the buttons, and look behind you to see if the girl can see you taking so long. Gather them into your arms to carry them to the bin. When you smell the cedar and sweat you will be able to picture him: taller than your father, going silver. He wears a watch, and you don’t know anything about watches, but it is a good one. He takes you out to dinner and thinks you’re smarter than you do, but still he corrects you, to make you better. He drives. He gives you a tie clasp for your birthday. He lets you borrow his socks. His name is J. Morris.
Stand at the tagging table again and do half a bag of identical cotton work shirts with iron-on name tags from a carpenter’s union. A thick stew of navy canvas, salty with cratered waves of dried sweat radiating out of the armpits. Shake clay dust out of the cuffs of the first one and then put it down.
Return to the bin and fish out the last shirt, a Brioni button-down in a white so crisp it seems to crackle under your fingers. Panic that there might be clay dust on your skin and drop the shirt back into the bin until you’ve rubbed your hands against your trousers.
Stuff your headphones into your pocket and take the shirt up to the register. Be ready to tell the register girl, this one, I think this one might need to be hand-wash, if we have Mr.—Morris, is it—if we have his number, I’ll call and ask. It’s no trouble.
But when you turn the corner, it is your mother at the register, taking a duvet in a trash bag from a young woman in khakis. Try to duck out of sight as she heaves it into the duvet bin but she catches your eye and it’s too late, so show her the shirt anyway and ask her. She will weigh it in her hands the way your French teacher speaks French, as if it is something she owns, something she has a rightful part in. Marvel in the deep back of your mind at her ability to do this, and lock your awe of her there, stored forever.
Synthetic, she’ll tell you, it’s partly a synthetic, but a very good one. Dry clean is fine.
Notice this, though. Before she hands it back to you she will slide her fingers along the seam, looking for the tag, and when she finds J. Morris’s name, you will look up at her face to prove your nonchalance, your detachment. Your pulse will jump into your ears. Instead you will find in her face recognition, unguarded for just a moment, the same look you are trying to keep off your own face. She does not know him but she wants to.
For a moment she will just hold it, looking at the tag. It’s very nice, she will say before letting you go.
At the end of the week you will see his shirts again, pressed and shined into their plastic sleeves, and you will like them less because of how rectangular they look, inhuman until he has been inside them.
Give up on Pussy Riot and listen to Regina Spektor on a loop. Drink a Diet Coke from the vending machine in the break room. Get more and more reckless with the headphones, until the girl in the blue polo notices and rips them out of your ears to get your attention. She is telling you about a load of fluff-and-fold whites completely ruined by clay dust because someone didn’t check the pockets. They are short-staffed, she tells you, didn’t you notice your mother working the register again? and they don’t have time for carelessness like this. It is your first warning.
You are not listening. You are thinking about J. Morris and his law firm, which you looked up on the internet. Family law is less impressive than you would like, not as alluring as trial law, but not as unmentionably boring as corporate. Decide that this will make him the perfect kind of conversationalist, his stories funny but not interesting, and himself well aware of it. Think how it will feel to introduce him to your friends, each of them recursively dating around and around each other, trying to become themselves by editing instead of striking out anew. Imagine how his Etro sweater will feel when you lean your face on it in the corner booth at Frankie’s, both of you watching your friends wolf down chili cheese dogs. He will like your friends but not much, which is the same way you like them.
Keep your eye on the front desk. He will pick up the shirts anytime now. Ignore your groaning bladder and stay at the tagging table as long as you can. Keep your headphones out so you won’t miss the sound of the bell.
J. Morris will pick up his shirts during the three and a half minutes you are in the restroom. By your junior year in college you will come to recognize this as your luck and resign yourself to it, but today it pulls a trapdoor from underneath your stomach. You close the restroom door behind you, wiping your hands on your trousers, and thread your way back between the pressing stations, and you see him standing at the counter. He looks exactly as you imagined he would. You stand still. Your mother hands over his clothes, lifting them up in their clear plastic, supporting them on her arm so that the fabrics flash rich greys and reds and browns like an entire autumn all at once.
He turns toward the door and fumbles for his keys. The receipt flutters to the cement floor and your mother rushes to pick it up, kneeling in her navy slacks, standing up to him; and you will notice she comes exactly to his shoulders the way you wanted to. It is at this moment you decide you have seen enough.
When your mother’s boyfriend is a family lawyer, the divorce goes through quickly and undramatically. When your mother’s boyfriend is a lawyer of any kind, their post-divorce apartment is a five-bedroom colonial on Williams with topiary shrubs and a latticework garage door. The first time you visit, J. Morris pulls up the For Sale sign and hefts it under his arm, scattering thick black dirt across his trousers. He points at the weeds stunting up between the cobblestones in the driveway and offers to pay you all summer, whatever you want, if you’ll spend your Saturdays pulling them. Tell him you already have a job.
The weekend after they move in he takes you upstairs to show you your room, which you can stay in if you want, but you don’t have to—it’s important you feel comfortable—and the room is a clear white box with one window and brown carpet and its own bathroom. The toilet lid already has a wooly cover on it. Everything smells like Clorox and everything feels pointless.
He will drive you to meet your mother for lunch, and in the car ride to the café you will learn that J. Morris likes jazz. Any jazz at all, indiscriminately.
When the waitress leaves your table, ask to be excused. Walk outside and call your father, and when he picks up tell him next Saturday, when you visit, you want to get your driver’s license.