Two days after graduating high school, I sat sullenly in the passenger seat of my mother’s car as we passed the city limits sign. I clutched my Walkman tightly, loudly blaring the mixtapes crafted for this trip. The handful of friends I had made after moving to San Antonio at the end of my junior year would be living a few more months of teenage angst and life with no responsibilities, while my mom and I would be living la vida loca in a quiet hamlet in the Tri-State area. That fall, I would begin attending university in Massachusetts, and my mom wanted to be close enough in case something happened.
This was not how I envisioned the summer before college.
This was not OK.
Honestly, I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted that time to be filled with, but I had a job that kept me busy making sandwiches and earned me enough pocket money to spend frivolously on movies and concerts. And I had FRIENDS! We’d moved just before prom in my hometown and just after in San Antonio, so finding friends to hang onto for the last remnants of high school was hard. Then having to give up those friends? I was miserable.
The winter before, we’d visited the township in Pennsylvania where we’d be living. Mom was able to find a job at a company that worked closely with the one she worked at in San Antonio. While quaint, I wasn’t expecting this to be my new home base. Have you ever worked on a 1,000-piece puzzle with a barn and lots of trees, or with a barn bridge and a water-wheel mill? That’s everything in between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Our new place was a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of town, and every business was closed by 8:00 P.M. I went to the movie theater a lot. I sulked, silently. I went to the library and wandered the stacks aimlessly. My other options were to sit on the couch and wallow or find a job. And after a couple of mind-numbing weeks of watching soap operas and game shows, I headed to the mall.
You remember malls, right? Bright, shiny, loud places full of teenagers drinking soda, wandering in droves, and bumping into all the adults who are there to shop for pantyhose or appliances. I wandered through the food court, watching groups of kids sitting and having fun. I must have looked like the saddest sap, walking slowly with my Dutch-style pretzel in hand.
After submitting numerous applications and completing three interviews, I found myself working behind the counter of an ice cream shop. (I really, really wanted to work at the florist shop and hide amongst the roses and lilies, but the owner didn’t want to train summer help.) I lucked out and wound up working with some pretty interesting characters there: the owner, who bought into the franchise as her retirement plan; the shift manager, who had never left the state and had no plans to ever travel; the grad student, who talked my ear off over bioacoustics; and the stoner, who along with his girlfriend took pity on me and asked me to tag along all summer.
My mom was happy that I wasn’t lounging on the couch all day. I was happy that I wasn’t lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling all day.
There were many post-work hangouts in the mall parking lot, eating food we’d traded for at the food court, sitting on the hoods of our cars, listening to the radio. The summer heat was actually enjoyable, with a cool breeze and skies clear enough to see the stars. Sure, you could smell the fragrance of the meat packing plant a few miles away, but it was bearable. The days were without expectation. And while I didn’t know these new friends as well as I did my other friends, it was easy to surrender to the easygoing, low commitment of the season.
We, along with a handful of other mall kids, drove to Philadelphia for Lollapalooza that July, an absolutely epic experience that included us being covered in mud from the rain that would just not stop, to Courtney Love singing a tribute to Kurt Cobain, to one of the best Smashing Pumpkins sets I’ve ever seen. We huddled under a vendor tent to try and stay dry, but in the end I remember embracing the chaos around us and really taking it all in. As much as I wanted to remain angry and bitter about leaving home before summer’s end, I appreciated the moment: this new beginning, in a city I didn’t know, with people who were basically strangers, counting the days before moving again and starting over.
Also, something did happen while I was at school, making my mom’s proximity helpful: at the end of my first full week at university, I broke my knee in a freak accident. While walking to the parking garage on a snack run with my new dorm-mates, one of them thought it would be fun if I gave him a piggyback ride down the hill.
Thankfully, the paramedics were located less than 100 yards away from where this happened. Kids ran out from the dorm or peeked through the window once my wails of pain carried up from my crumpled body. Later, a rumor went around that I’d jumped off the three-story building. My roommate ran down, asking if she should call my mom. I asked her to wait until morning so she wouldn’t jump in the car right then and drive five hours through the middle of the night. (My dad, still in Texas, wouldn’t be informed for a while for the same reasons.)
I remember one of the girls who stayed overnight with me in the ER coming into my room the next day and quietly saying, “Your mom is here. And she is PISSED.”
She was. She told me later that she kept her rage to a minimum after she met “Piggy Back” out in the hall—he’d stayed all night, too, to make sure I was OK. He told her that he would be responsible for anything I needed and that he was very, very sorry.
Piggy Back, and many other new friends, would become my new family over the course of the next four years. They helped me get through crutches, surgery, getting fed and showered, medical appointments, studying—they even got a couple of my professors to pop in. My mom visited frequently and got to know everyone, often inviting them to dinner with us as a “thank you” for being there for me.
“It’s a good thing I moved us to Pennsylvania,” she would say on our way back to campus from the hospital.
“Yeah, Ma. Good thing.”