You would love to figure out how to stop thinking of her and how she's gone. For real, this time. You remember all the times she's left and come back, each time wearing the smile that swung between sheepish and sad. You used to let her camp out in your room, lending her the bed and yourself roughing it on the floor because God knows what your father would do if he found out she was back again.
"You mind me, Mark; she's running around with some Vegas boy," he would say through half a mouthful of leftover meatloaf. "There's no question about it."
You knew the drill: your father would talk at the table and you would speak only when asked to. It's why you wish that you were with her instead of him. You miss the times when meals didn't have to be filled with talk; when dinner didn't have to be much more than eating. Besides, with her you never had to really say words to communicate (she would call it being kindred spirits so you can't help but think of it that way, too, usually in her voice). As it is, five in the evening is one of your least favorite times of day. It surprises people when they find out that five in the morning is one of your favorites. When they ask why, you just shrug, and people being the way they are don't inquire much further.
You remember the first time she tapped on your window. 4:49 AM is blazed in glowing digital red across your memory, and sometimes when you close your eyes you can see it and bring back those emotions. You had let her in, questions and anger-guilt-hurt bubbling violently to the surface like the way she had always let the water in kettles boil until there was barely enough water to fill even one mug. She had put a finger to your lips and had shaken her head, jerking her chin toward the door, and smiled the smile you would come to know so painfully well. The smile that didn't let you ask her where she had gone, what she had done, why she was here, because to her none of those questions mattered when it came to telling you anything. She had mouthed "can I stay with you?" and every time you recall the wounded look on her face, shame tugs at your chest, making you wish you hadn't hesitated in saying yes. You had pointed at the bed and she had crumpled into the bed sheets, falling asleep instantly, a luxury you weren't granted; you had lain on the only clear patch of carpet the mess of your room could afford you, staring at her. Her exhausted form curled on the mattress made thoughts chug away in your brain so steadily that you wonder how you were able to resist waking her up and demand to know why she had come. You wish that you had actually done it, because you fell asleep eventually and when you woke up she wasn't there anymore, vanished except for "I'm so sorry" scribbled on a torn scrap of paper you would later find was taken from the corner of a biology assignment (you still have it stowed away somewhere, which is your way of pretending you hadn't lost – read: discarded – it. Your sad little stand-in is the old torn homework taped to the back of your binder, seven out of twenty be damned).
She visited three more times in the following ten days, which was how long it took for you to start setting your phone alarm – on vibrate, of course – for 4:45 AM, in case she might show up. She became the only reason you started to try to keep your room as clean as possible; she became why you did your best to keep your room stocked with cereal, granola bars, candy, and chips without your father noticing (you were right when you thought she would like Black Forest gummies. You like to think that you're the reason they're her favorite now).
It was only on the sixth visit that you were able to stay awake long enough to catch her before she left. You were still half asleep as you staggered to your feet while hers were already out the window. You will never be able to forget the staggering amount of guilt her expression had betrayed, as if you could never have been able to see it without having surprised her so much; as if she were so good at hiding her feelings that you could not and would not ever truly get to know her. She had begun crying, "I'm sorry" spilling from her mouth and eyes as she clutched your shirt, holding you to her in what you would learn to be the greatest show of emotion she would ever give you. It had lasted only eight minutes but to you it was both the longest and shortest moments of your life.
"I won't come back ever again," she had promised you as she gathered herself, her tired red-rimmed eyes still glinting with tears.
Your only response had been to nod stiffly, attempting to be as good at walling up your feelings as she was and knowing you were failing miserably. You had watched her dart out onto the street and barely manage to hop on the eight o'clock bus, a familiar horridness carving out your insides until you felt hollow. It had been a combination of stubbornness and excruciatingly hopeless hope that had kept you waking up before sunup for another fortnight. It was at the very end of that span of time that she had knocked on the glass with that smile filling her face. The ensuing amount of relief had nearly overwhelmed you, rivaling the simultaneous flood of joy. You had opened the window with a reckless speed, barely finding it in yourself to care about the noise you might be making in the midst of how happy you were to see her. You had hugged her fiercely, and though she did not quite return the embrace, you knew she was just as glad to see you. The only difference between the two of you was that her other, stronger, line of emotion was guilt. You had wanted to tell her that she had no right to be sorry for coming, that you wanted her to be as big of a part of your life as she could be without being so absent, but you knew that that would not have done even an inch of good. Though you wished you could have not understood, you knew that she could never stay. So you held her as tightly as you could, trying to force those thoughts to her through your arms.
"Hi, Mark," she had whispered to him when you finally let her go. "It's me again." The smile. "I'm sorry."
That had been the first night you had talked instead of sleeping. You never probed her for information about her life for fear of scaring her away, and naturally she never breached the topic – yet somehow, the conversations came easy between the two of you. Dawn had tinged the walls yellow-orange-pink when she had gotten up to leave, smoothing out her shirt and jeans while trying to run a hand through her tangled hair. Thus began the pattern of "I swear" and "I promise" telling you the exact opposite: she would return, whether or not she intended or wanted to because at least a part of her needed this, just like you did. (You still do.)
"Dad calls you a cougar," you had told her once. The bark of laughter she had given had been at once bitter and amused.
"Your dad's an asshat."
Those words still make you grin, but nowadays it stings, too.
"I bet she's whoring herself on some dirty street in some dirty town," your father had said one night. It took all the strength you had not to burst out in sheer fury. But you will never hate him for saying those words as much as you hate yourself for having never told her that he said this because you were afraid of what she might – or not – say.
Visit number who-knows. Late March, early April. As usual you had fought to keep from dozing off even though neither of you were talking; struggled to stay awake despite her being asleep simply because you cherished every moment you got to spend with her. The clock had blinked 7:54 when she got up, and you hadn't been far behind. She had been wearing a dress – one that had made a lump form in your throat from your recognition of it – and she had flattened her hands against the cloth, pressing out as many wrinkles as she could before looking up at you.
"You've gotten so tall, Markie," she had whispered.
Well that's what happens when you disappear for a couple years had unexpectedly jumped onto the tip of your tongue. You had glared at the floor, determined not to let it slip out.
"Chin up, kid," she had said, laying a hand on your face. "It's not like I'm going to be gone forever."
You had looked up in shock, for you had been expecting the customary meaningless vow to stay away. The only things you took from her expression and voice were that the former was no longer so guilty and the latter so very casual, as if there could be no other natural course of action. The hope had dazed you with its immensity, gripping you so hard that you could scarcely keep breathing. You hadn't even stood at the window to watch her go. You had gone straight back to your bed, collapsed on it instead of the habitual staring out the glass and going to your chair to fall asleep at your desk. It had taken a couple moments for you to notice that the smell of your pillow and bedclothes was not one of detergent or fabric-softener; no, it was a familiar blend of vanilla and cinnamon with a hint of peppermint. You had smiled then, beaming into the sheets, the scent wrapping you in a blanket of nostalgia as you closed your eyes, letting half-buried memories – however clichéd – of Christmases and board games on cloudy weekends wash over you.
For a week you hadn't awoken to stand vigil, wholeheartedly believing that sooner or later, she'd be knocking at the door instead of the window. But a week had passed into two weeks, then into three – you had started setting your alarm to 4:45 again, hoping both that you had missed her and that you hadn't – the weeks numbered four, five, six; turned into months. It had come in a slowly sinking epiphany why she hadn't looked so guilty and had sounded so casual: she had known that she would never visit again and thus in her mind would be redeeming all the times she had lied before. You realized then that she was gone for good.
It's been two years since then. Graduation is looming and you've already pinned down what college (out of state, naturally) you're going to attend. Over the course of two years your father's hair has further grayed and frayed and he no longer spends all of dinnertime slandering her name. For two years you got up before the sun more times than you'll ever be willing to face, regretting it every single time (and every single time regretting that you hadn't gone back to bed all those chances you'd had before to breathe remnants of her in).
And even though you know – for real, this time – that she isn't going to come back, you're terrified that she'll show up at your window after you're gone; that she'll come tapping at the pane, waiting for you to let her in, wait until she comes to the conclusion that you've abandoned her, too, when really it's been the other way around the entire time; she abandoned you years ago and in so many ways it's you who's been knocking on glass, and you're still not sure who ended up breaking it but it's definitely your skin all the shards slipped under. And the truth is that you don't know when you're going to stop standing outside her house waiting for her to come out and welcome you back into her life the way she should've been from day one (the way you took her back into yours even though you didn't have to) but you sure as hell don't want to anymore. It's times like these you would give anything to be nine again, helping her bake cookies and hugging her upon coming home from school; to have your father's arm slung around her waist and have both of them sit on the couch in a silence not borne of anger but of comfortable love. Instead, you're eighteen and everything hurts too damn much, from the long-night talks to her fucking smile to how the smell of her perfume she left on your bed makes you want to cry because you miss your mother like a bullet to the shoulder.