Abby gripped the steering wheel. Where on earth was she? The houses on the street were dilapidated, their paint peeling and roof shingles curling. The gardens were comprised of weeds and piles of dirt instead of flowers. On a patchy lawn rested a rusted car with tireless wheels. Farther down the street stood a warehouse, its windows dark squares of cracked glass. A group of men, boys really, leaned against it smoking, watching her with eyes barely visible from under baseball caps.
“Yo!” one of them called. Another one tipped his hat and shouted something she couldn’t understand.
Her stomach clenched and she clicked the lock button. The people at Peter’s office had warned her to avoid certain parts of the city. This must be one of them. She averted her gaze from the boys, hoping not to draw more attention in her shiny red Honda.
She glanced around frantically, looking for a place to turn around, puzzling over how she ended up on this street. She cursed this new life in which she never knew how to get anywhere. Three weeks ago she wouldn’t have lost her way. Then she knew how to get to places, knew how to live her life. Now she continuously questioned herself. Where to go. What to wear. How to behave. Being lost in this dubious neighbourhood was only fitting, since she was lost in her uncertain life.
A splash of dark pink caught her eye, incongruous with the surroundings. In a yard surrounded by a small white fence stood a large crape myrtle, its crinkled flowers bursting from the smooth green foliage. The house looked more cared for than the rest, despite the big confederate flag hanging in the front window. The windows were intact and a pot of purple petunias decorated the porch.
As she pulled into the driveway and shifted into reverse, the front door to the house opened. A tall man wearing jeans and a muscle shirt stepped outside. His head was shaved and shiny and his shirt stretched over defined chest muscles. Tattoos decorated his thick muscular arms. He held something in one hand. Was that a gun? She tightened her hand on the stick shift and her foot jumped off the clutch. The car lurched forward and stalled. The man strode toward her. She froze.
He stopped at her window. Lowering her head, she turned the ignition. It just clicked.
“Watcha want?” His voice was muffled through the glass.
She gripped the key, afraid to move. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him raise his arm, the one with the gun. She flinched and squeezed her eyes shut. Her heart pounded in her ears. This was the end. She would be shot in Richmond, Virginia, on a street whose name she didn’t even know, at the hands of a stranger. She would die lost.
A tap sounded on the window.
Opening her eyes, she veered her gaze toward him, trying not to turn her head. His raised hand held a sprinkler nozzle, gray handle, black spout, and he was using it to rap against the glass. What a fool she was.
With a shaking finger, she pushed the window button and opened a one-inch gap of air. “I need to get to I-195.” She hoped her unsteady voice didn’t betray her misguided fear.
He pointed the nozzle in the direction from which she’d come. “195? Ova theya. Two blocks.” His southern drawl stretched the words.
“Thank you.” Pushing her foot on the clutch as far down as it would go, she turned the ignition again. The engine rumbled, and she backed out of the driveway. Her racing heart didn’t slow until she saw the green signs indicating the entrance to 195. Limp with relief she pulled off to the side and took out her cell phone. With hands still trembling, she pushed three on the speed-dial. Peter’s voice spoke on the voice-mail, assuring her he’d return her call as soon as possible.
Her throat tightened and she plucked at her slacks. “Peter? It’s me, Abby. I...I...” she faltered. What could she say? I was lost and scared? I need you here? She shut the phone and cradled it in her hand.
The silence in the car was suffocating. Vehicles whooshed past her onto the highway. She flipped the phone, open and closed, open and closed. What should she do next? She couldn’t face going to that meeting now, but the last place she wanted to be was the apartment. The emptiness of those three rooms closed in on her day after day, with its blandness of color, its atmosphere of transience. It fed her desolation the way moisture nourishes rust.
She shook her head. Today wasn’t supposed to be like this. Today, for the first time in weeks, she’d awakened with purpose. She’d gotten out of bed early. She’d showered and dressed before Peter finished shaving. She’d hummed while making the bed, Feelin’ Groovy of all things. And she’d made coffee, set out breakfast.
In her normal life she completed these ordinary tasks almost without thinking. But this wasn’t her normal life. In this life she stayed in bed while Peter shaved and showered, dragging herself out from under the covers to wave him off to work. He’d leave without breakfast, without coffee even.
“I’ll pick up something at the office,” he’d say, aiming a concerned look her way before walking out the door.
But after yesterday she knew things had to change. Yesterday Hanna yelled at her on the phone.
“What’s the matter with you, Mom? Isn’t it bad enough that you moved so far away from me? Do you have to become a zombie too? Get out there. Do something.”
She couldn’t explain to Hanna how difficult “doing something” had become. How living in this city where she knew no one, had no life, paralyzed her. How untethered she felt from the person she used to be, as if she’d left herself behind in Canada and was marooned here as a stranger.
A daughter should be able to look up to her mother. So today Abby was going to be different. She would get out there and do something.
She made a list while Peter was in the shower and was cutting a banana into her yogurt when he came in the kitchen. He smelled of shaving cream and soap. His hair was damp, combed with his part too low the way it always was, and he wore a shirt starched crisp by the cleaners, pale blue the color of his eyes.
He sniffed and a surprised look crossed his face. “You made coffee?”
She nodded and smiled. He poured himself a cup and slid into the chair across from her. He shook granola into his bowl.
“You seem happy today.” He said it almost like a question as if uncertain he’d pegged her mood correctly.
“I’ve got plans. See, I even made a list.”
“That sounds like the Abby I know. What’s on your agenda?”
“First the Social Security office. Then a hair appointment.” With her fingers she combed through her ragged locks, thinking how she last had it cut nine weeks ago. Back home. “And I’m going to that Lost in Transition meeting.”
“That’s good. You’ll meet people there. Will you go to the bank?”
“Oh right. I’ll try to get the transfer arranged this aft.” She added it to her list. Drinking the last of her coffee, she took her dishes to the sink. “Okay,
They went out the door together. They used to do that before, in their normal life. Both with briefcases in hand, Hanna leaving with them, backpack slung over one shoulder. When Ben lived at home, he’d head out at the same time. She smiled at the snapshot in her mind, the four of them all jumbled together at the door, putting on coats and shoes, each going their separate ways, finally to converge together again at the dinner table.
Not anymore. Now Ben and Hanna lived a thousand kilometers away and Peter went off to work while she stayed in the apartment.
“Have a great day, Abs.” Peter kissed her as she stood by her car groping for keys in her bag. “It’s good to see you so upbeat.” He didn’t add “for a change,” although she knew he thought it. He was right. It was good to feel upbeat for a change.
Then he was off. The trees glowed green in the early morning sun and their pink blossoms looked fresh. She marvelled that here trees were still in bloom. It was almost October. Back home in Ontario, colored and dying leaves would be falling, and the days would be gray and cold. Certainly no flowering trees.
At the highway exit she remembered the MapQuest directions she’d left sitting on the printer tray in the apartment. Damn. She tried to recall the route: I-64 to I-195, then onto Laburnum.
The waiting room of the Social Security office was filled with people, mostly seniors with gray hair and canes. In one corner sat a Latino family—mother, father, two noisy boys munching on granola bars, and a baby casting his large brown eyes around the room. Was the family new to the country the way she was? Why were they all at this office?
A burly man with a flash of gray in his black hair leaned against the window. His blue jean overalls stretched across his belly. He smiled at her as she came in, his teeth gleaming white in his dark face. She smiled back and then scanned the counters, puzzled about where to go since there was no free wicket. She read the signs: Retirement, Disability, Survivors, Other. She assumed the last was her. Other.She’d barely taken a step when the man in overalls moved forward.
“Ma’am?” he said in a deep voice with a thick drawl. He waved a slip of paper. “You hafta take a number.”
“Oh.” Her cheeks grew hot. “Thanks.” She followed his pointing finger to a dispenser by the door and pulled out a paper tag. Number twenty-eight. Already so high! It was a good thing she hadn’t taken the time to go back for the MapQuest directions. She sat down on a hard plastic chair, faded red and surprisingly comfortable. Clutching her purse on her lap she looked around, wishing she’d thought to bring a book. Her old self wouldn’t have gone anywhere without a book in her bag.
It felt strange sitting in this waiting room with all these unrecognizable people. She looked at her watch. If she still lived in Waterloo, she’d be readying herself to give a lecture, greeting students as they took their seats.
She glanced at the woman beside her, a tiny thing leaning her bony hands like claws on a blue cane, wearing a purple knit suit, gray hair permed into tight curls. The woman’s frailty reminded Abby of her mother, although her mother would never wear a purple pantsuit.
She checked the forms she’d completed last night and wondered how long she’d have to wait before her number was called. Hopefully there’d be enough time to phone Ben. With the phone ringing in her ear, she tried to remember how many weeks it had been since she’d spoken to her son. He didn’t answer when she called and she kept leaving messages to which he didn’t respond. Almost twenty, he was pushing his independence, keeping to a minimum his contact with his family. But she worried about him, certain he was still on a troubled path.
To her right, the father in grimy work boots played peek-a-boo with his baby. The baby had chocolate on his face and he giggled uproariously, his chubby cheeks jiggling. Ben’s recorded voice came through the phone. She opened her mouth to leave yet another message when a digital voice informed her there was no more room in the mailbox. What was up with him? Didn’t he check his messages? She snapped the phone shut, frustration and worry trickling into her mood.
“Twenty-eight. Window three.”
Throwing her phone into her bag, she jumped up. “I’d like to apply for a Social Security number, please.”
“Identification?” The woman had a bosom big enough to set a teacup on. Abby took her passport out of her bag.
The woman brought it close to her face. “This is a TD visa. Your husband here on a TN?”
“Yes. He’s already got his Social Security number. I was told if I filled in these forms I could get one too.”
“Nope. You’re here as a dependent and have no status on your own.”
“But I’m a legal resident here.” Abby tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. “Surely I can get a Social Security card.”
“Sorry, ma’am.” The woman looked at her as if she expected her to move along.
“But...” Deflated, she jammed the forms and passport into her bag and walked out, willing herself not to cry. Getting behind the wheel, she threw her purse onto the seat. It was so frustrating to be identified as only a dependent. She, Abby Settel, was significant back in Canada, smart, educated, a university professor. But here she was a non-person.
She shook her head to redirect her thoughts and drove out of the lot. After five minutes on the road, five minutes of deep breathing and resettling her mind, Abby realized she had no idea where she was going. She pulled the car to the side, thinking about the printed directions in the apartment, wishing she’d taken the time to go back to get them. Twisting around in her seat, she scanned buildings along the street. No beauty shops. And she could no longer see the parking lot she’d just left. No signs for 195 either. She must have turned the wrong way out of the driveway.
Five after nine; she was late for her appointment. She ran a hand through her hair. If she were still in Waterloo, she’d be on her way to Debbie, who’d been cutting her hair for fifteen years. Debbie would slot her in no matter how late she was. Would this new hairdresser? But there was no point in trying to find the place now. She should go straight to the Lost in Transition meeting. At least complete something on her list. If she drove the other way, she’d get on the highway and find the church where the meeting was held. She was pretty sure she knew where that was.
As she turned the corner, her cell phone rang. Ben? She answered in a voice that tried to let him know she was glad to hear from him but annoyed it hadn’t been sooner.
“Mom. Are you out doing stuff?”
Not Ben. Hanna. Abby tried not to sound disappointed. She was happy to hear from Hanna too. “Yes, as a matter of fact. I’m on my way to a meeting.”
“Good for you. Guess what? Our trio’s been picked to play in a concert. I just found out.”
“That’s great. Congratulations, sweetie.”
“Will you be able to come? It’s next Saturday.”
Abby shook her head. How could she go? She was here in Richmond. It was ridiculous to drive twelve hours to go to a two-hour concert. “Uh, I’m not sure. Let me think about it and I’ll let you know, okay?”
“But I want someone from our family to be there.”
“I know you do. Maybe Ben...”
“Ben! He never answers my calls. I haven’t talked to him since you left.”
“Oh.” Abby again wondered why Ben never answered his phone.
“So you and Dad’ll think about coming?”
“I’ll talk to...”
“Gotta get to class. Bye.”
The silence from the phone settled in Abby’s ear. What kind of mother was she, not to go to her daughter’s first university concert? Not to be available to figure out what was up with her son? A month ago, in her old life, her normal life, she’d be there for her kids. She would be on top of things. Now everything was out of control.
It was like an odd déjà vu, remembering how less than a half hour ago she had sat in the car with the phone in her hand, feeling frustrated and upset. Here she sat again, phone in her hand, barely recovered from her fright of that big man with the sprinkler nozzle.
A sprinkler nozzle, for God’s sake! What was the matter with her?
She stared at the entrance to the highway. She would go to that meeting. She’d prove to Peter and Hanna, and to herself, that she could figure out this new life of hers. Get back in charge of things. Throwing the cell phone on the seat beside her, she flicked the turn signal and looked over her shoulder as she eased into the traffic.
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The Unraveling of Abby Settel