Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It will run every Friday this month, and then return for a month each in the winter, spring, and summer.
I’m sliding into the corner booth when Steve sets down a water with two limes, the napkin already damp. About once a week, I drive two towns over—twenty minutes along the backroads beyond I-35—to write here. I call it my Writing Restaurant, and the only person who knows it’s this restaurant is my daughter, Indie. I text her before I take off, let her know where I’m headed. I’ll stay here for most of the day.
A year ago, Indie got her first job here as a host, so I stopped coming to let her have this space for herself, but now she works at another restaurant a few miles from where we live.
I’m glad to have my booth back.
I like the drive, the disappearing, the secret. No one knows that while I’m sitting in this booth, I’m pulling into a gravel drive in Colorado or stepping off a bus on Michigan Avenue or playing Uno with Indie in a restaurant miles and states and years from here.
When Indie was about three, she woke in the middle of the night unable to sleep. I turned on the kitchen light, and she and I sat on the floor eating cherry sours and talking until we were sleepy enough to wander back to our beds. It felt like a secret world. That night, I realized that as a single parent, I could let Indie eat cherry sours in the middle of the night if I wanted to. I was the only one around to say yes or no or—as she’s gotten older and the questions have become more difficult—Let me think about it.
That night, the joy of those cherry sours: simple.
We lived in southern Utah then, and on Thursday nights, we’d go eat at Main Street Grill where a fifty-something man named Jack, always in creased jeans and cowboy boots, a starched Western shirt, sang country into a microphone in the corner. Jack managed the State Liquor Store across the street and dyed his hair a different shade of blonde every few weeks. Indie and I’d sit down in a booth just as Jack was plugging in his speaker, doing a mic check. He’d wave, wink. His set list was a rotation of Conway Twitty, George Jones, the slow Cash songs. His voice was a rough whisper over the clinks of forks against plates, and when he got to any line with “loving you” in it, he’d aim his eyes on me. Indie, perched on her knees and peeking over the top of the booth to see Jack, always giggled when he did that. Jack kept his distance. There was a world of sadness in him, but I had my own, still hoping back then that Indie’s father would come home.
Not long after Indie was born, I found a receipt in his wallet. Dinner and drinks for two. I woke him up in the night. He didn’t even try to talk his way out of it. Just made me feel like I was the one who’d done something wrong.
From across the restaurant, Steve gives me a thumbs up. I give one back and nod. I like that the servers here leave me alone.
I think it must have started with tic-tac-toe, when Indie and I played on napkins or Kid menus. Once, when we were in Chili’s marking Xs and Os, an elderly woman and her husband shuffled by our table on their way out. The woman leaned over and put her hand on my shoulder, “You’re a good mother.” I smiled and thanked her, but wondered if what she said was true. Still do.
Indie and I have always enjoyed each other’s company, and just the other day, she told me a friend asked how I knew about something. She told him what she tells everyone, “My mother and I talk about everything.” That I know to be true, but it’s also part of the worry. The worry that I’ve asked more of her, at times, than I should, to be a confidant rather than just a child. The worry that I haven’t sheltered her as much as I’ve shown her the seams.
As a single mother, I’ve never been able to give Indie much beyond what we need to get through the days. I’ve made the fun I can afford, like running out into the yard every time it rains, or shoving the couch out of the way to dance wildly to a song, or playing games in restaurants.
When we eat out, usually at the beginning of the month, we like to go early, 4:30, 5:00, when the place is mostly empty. We settle in and set up. For years it was Connect Four. Two of us at a high top in Eskimo Joe’s in Stillwater, Oklahoma, taking turns dropping red and black checkers down the slots, the pieces spilling from the bottom onto the table for another game. We’ve shuffled cards for Go Fish, Hearts, and Uno, more than any other. At Buffalo Wild Wings, we’d each get a game console and play Buzztime trivia, or I’d give her a roll of quarters for the Claw Game. Just the other day, she told me how much she loved those days at BDubs, quarter after quarter. I confessed that those were the times I needed a minute. That was the secret of the Claw Game.
Looking back—on Jack and trivia and all our games—I see it all as my way of letting Indie leave the world behind, the world she’s always been so keenly aware of. But a few months ago, I took the Uno cards out of my glove box. I don’t remember when we stopped playing, but I remember it was in this booth, when Indie started a story about some friends at school and the choices they were making, choices that carried them away from her, the same choices I warned her against when she entered high school. She no longer needed, I understood, to let the world fall away, because she’s finding her own world, and she needs my help understanding it. She needs to ask difficult questions, the kind I often answer with stories from when I was her age.
We meet at restaurants these days, when we both finish with school or she gets off work, and with her band and work and friends, I take myself out to eat alone more and more. Sometimes I take my laptop and write. Sometimes I just sit in the nearly empty restaurant and take a minute.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.