The first one comes in the fall of Jessica’s junior year, a letter from the admissions office of Kansas State University.
I don’t immediately recognize what it is. Once I do, for a moment hope flaps its vain and tinsel wings. Maybe it’s true. Maybe my daughter can go to college, and get a great job, and move to Portland or Austin, the way young people do. Fall in love and have a family, her life complete and whole, like other people do.
But reality coolly asserts itself, the way reality always does. Jessica could apply for admission, yes, but that is a fool’s game; she would never be admitted. Not to Kansas State University, not to the University of Kansas, not to any of the private liberal arts colleges or community colleges badgering her to apply.
They get lists of high school juniors and seniors and they target those on the honor roll but they don’t know Jessica is on an IEP, that she is a member of that other 1 percent. I wish could get them to stop sending promises they won’t keep.
For a while each letter hurts, like a small sharp cut, but over time I learn to stop flinching when I collect the mail.
That is when the military recruiters arrive, tall young men in dress uniforms, strong and heroic, knocking on my front door and asking for Jessica.
This time, I recognize immediately why they are here. Small town girl on the honor roll, wrong side of the tracks; this is her ticket out. Except it’s not.
She’s intellectually disabled, I tell them. She won’t qualify for service.
The one on the right says gently, We’ll make a note. We won’t bother you again, ma’am.
And they don’t, which I wish I could say about everyone else.
The postings on Facebook and other groups start. The young adult children of all my friends, accepted by this college and that, alarums about financial aid, pictures of dorm rooms and awkward goodbye photos. The young adults are moving out. Moving on.
Not too much later, Jessica moves in with me. By that I mean she stops alternating her time between her father’s house and mine. She is my roommate, she decides, and she will go to her dad’s for dinner once a week, like a regular grown-up, and she’ll be a weekend guest now and then. But this is her home and and we are roommates, except she doesn’t actually pay her share of the rent or anything. She can’t.
To me her new life is a lot like her old except now I have less time to myself.
Long ago I knew I would not have the same milestones my friends and neighbors do. My life and other people’s are like a Venn diagram; they only overlap a little, in awkward places.
One day, in the spring of her senior year, for the first time ever she successfully ties her own shoelaces. We go to Dunn Brothers and split a cookie to celebrate.
I don’t know what we’ll do after she graduates. She will make more of her art glass, I know, but I have no idea how one makes a living from a thing like that. I am already hard-pressed to juggle her studio hours and the small amount of marketing we do with my own work; I don’t see how to make hers bigger without making mine smaller, and that sounds like a good way to wind up living under a bridge.
I panic and start thinking about buying a house and settling down. Maybe the cure is for me to act like other people. Then maybe my life will be more like theirs.
I am able to be enthusiastic about this course of action for several months in a row, which is some kind of new record for me. But then reality does its thing. I don’t have enough money for a down payment, and it’s unlikely I can get approved for a mortgage loan just now because I had that down year a while back, but if I try earnestly and am a good soldier, maybe five or ten years from now, I will be able to do this thing.
I envision another crappy rental in another crappy part of town and I think how my life wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Jessica tries to cheer me up. “You wanted to go to Ireland sometime. You’ve got enough money for Ireland, right?”
I look at the bank balance. Yes, I have enough money for Ireland.
“Then let’s go to Ireland,” she says. “And maybe other places. You like Europe.”
I do like Europe. Tentatively I make a list. Ireland goes on it. Scotland. I’ve never been to Scotland, either.
“We’ll go back to London,” Jessica says. “We can see some plays. You know. That guy you like.”
“Shakespeare,” I say.
“Where would you like to go?” I ask her and she gets that shy smile and her eyes slide away from mine; she isn’t sure how I’ll react.
“Romania,” she says.
“Romania?” How does she even know Romania exists? Then I remember how much she loves Buffy the vampire slayer and Buffy’s lover Angel and I get it all in a rush, how she wants to go to Transylvania and see Dracula’s castle and be in this place that has meaning to her. I don’t laugh; I had things like that when I was her age, things I longed to do with my whole heart and was embarrassed to tell anyone about.
“Sure,” I say. “But only if we go to Sofia, too. Bulgaria is right next door to Romania and I’ve always wanted to see Sofia.” And Prague and Budapest and Berlin. The list of places I have always wanted to see is long and daunting. Maybe someday.
She nods, absorbed in reading a website about things to do in Romania. After a while she looks up and says, “What if we keep traveling?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we don’t have to come back right away. We could just keep traveling.”
“It’s expensive,” I say. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Well, not staying in hotels. And we could work.”
I start to see a shape to things, a glimmer. We’ll give up this rental, put our things in storage, and kick around Europe for a while. Jess starts looking up youth hostels that accept old people, “Even though you are not really that old, Mom.”
I entertain the idea of never having a mortgage at all. The glimmer blossoms into something bigger, sharper and clearer. There are things I have always wanted to do. Places I have always wanted to see. All my teaching and editing and writing is online. I can do that from anywhere.
We decide to winter in Florida after we come back from Europe. She’ll work with some hot glass artists and pick up whatever skills she can over the winter. In the spring we’ll head west; there’s a warm glass studio in Santa Fe we can visit, and then I want to see the redwoods in California.
“The only rule is I have to see my dad sometimes,” she says.
“Of course,” I say. I’ll keep my post office box and a storage place nearby; we’ll have to stop in at least occasionally anyway so I can do banking and legal things. Maybe in ten years I will settle down. But not right now.
I meet some friends at an open house, and Jessica shares our plans, and Johanna, who has been teaching for thirty-seven years and is the epitome of all that is settled and committed, says, “Oh, my gosh, yes. Don’t get a mortgage. You don’t want a mortgage. Go do this.”
Vickie chimes in. “This is the kind of thing you do, you know.”
And it is. I realize that the thing that has been wrong, the thing that hurts, is not Jessica’s situation at all; it is that I am still trying to be like other people, even after all these years, even after I should know better. The problem has never been Jessica or her situation. The problem has always been me.
You have always had a gypsy soul, my grandmother used to say to me. She meant it as an insult. But she was wrong. Not about the gypsy soul, but about the insult.
Not long later I am squinting at the computer screen, looking at the seat layout and trying to figure out which tickets I want to buy. The map is small, and it is in German, and I don’t read German.
In another window on the computer I have some guy’s answer to the question, “Which are the best seats in the house?” and I am putting a lot of faith in Random Internet Guy. I’m about to spend 190 euros. I have no idea how much that will be in dollars by the time my bank gets through with me, but it will be a lot, and I don’t want to make a mistake.
So I pick two seats that Random Internet Guy says are good, one for me and one for Jess, and the website offers me a hearty congratulations for successfully placing my order.
That is when I start to cry. I was thinking I might cry when I got there and sat in my seat or when the house lights lowered and the performance began, but I am doing my crying now and I can’t understand why. They are not exactly tears of joy; I am sobbing, bone-deep and ugly.
When I can finally catch my breath, I print out the tickets. I look at them. The Spanish Riding School. Vienna, Austria.
It was been almost forty years since I first learned about the Lipizzaners. I was perhaps twelve years old when I read Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart. I must have read that novel a hundred times over the years. I wanted to be that kind of heroine, intrepid and kind-hearted, capable and brave.
In the world I grew up in, I was none of those things, not intrepid or kind-hearted or capable or brave. They were hard years and I don’t like to think about them. I read a lot, then; I read desperately. I read as if my life depended on it, and in many ways it did.
And then I escaped, not in one headlong rush for freedom but in small evasive maneuvers until one day, not as many years ago as I would like, I woke up and thought, It has been a year since I have had the dream. The one where I am trapped in that house and I can’t escape, no matter how hard I try.
I cried that day, too, the same bone-deep and ugly sobs. It was then, not as long ago as it should be, that I began to believe I could trust myself to take care of me.
When I was twelve years old, I made a lot of promises to myself, promises about what the future would be like, promises that made it possible to get through the present. The only way I could hang on was to believe some day I would keep those promises.
I didn’t. I didn’t move to Malibu or become a film director in Hollywood. I didn’t go to medical school or wear designer jeans. I didn’t buy a stone cottage by the sea. I didn’t have a career like Mary Stewart’s, and I didn’t live happily ever after with the man of my dreams.
That twelve-year-old couldn’t always count on me. My god, the number of times I let her down. The number of times my courage failed, or I compromised, or I gave up. The number of times I betrayed her, or said she asked too much, or decided she didn’t matter at all.
But this time I didn’t. This promise I kept. Not the one about the Lipizzaners. The one about being intrepid and kind-hearted and capable and brave.
“You’ve got the tickets?” Jessica asks, picking them up from the table where I have set them and filing them in the folder she has neatly labeled as “travel.”
“I got the tickets,” I say.
“Then that is good. That is a good start.”
And I see, as I have seen so many times before and yet keep forgetting, that it is not Jessica who built the house I keep having to escape. It is always Jessica who frees me.