Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces in real time the moments before her daughter leaves for college. The column ran every Friday in November and January. It returns through March, and then will again in June.
It’s the middle of the night, or maybe it’s just dark in my memory. I’ve already put my daughter, Indie, to bed. She’s ten, maybe eleven, and we’re living in northern New York. I’m standing in the living room, hitting my palm against a wall and shouting, “Something has to change. Something has to change.”
Not long ago, I asked Indie if she remembers that night. She said she doesn’t. But I can still summon the room, still feel the pinch in my chest. My weariness. At what, I don’t remember, but I can guess it was about a late check in the mail or not finding a permanent university position or maybe it was the snow falling outside the window in April.
In our memories, there are rooms we’ll always be standing in, saying one thing or another. Or not saying what we should.
In high school, before I had my driver’s license, I snuck my father’s Olds 98 out of the garage. I wanted to borrow an outfit from my friend, Amy, an outfit my mother would never allow. I can still feel the rush of rounding Riggs Circle, the windows down, the radio up. Later, when my parents pulled into the garage in my mother’s Cutlass, my father noticed pens and a notebook on his floorboard. I had forgotten to put the seat back (and turn down 97.1 FM, The Eagle). In the living room, I sat on the brick ledge of the fireplace, watching him yell. At fifteen, I was growing more defiant, more confident in my rebellions. “When you leave this house,” he raised his arms, “you’re going to go wild. Wild!” I stood up, arms by my sides, fists clenched. I yelled back, “I already have!”
By that time, I was a weekend drinker, always going as far and as fast as I could toward oblivion. My escapes were the kind that came from roaming our Texas town and passing a bottle of Boones Farm in the backseat or giving some guy from geometry class a twenty for ecstasy or roaring beyond the city limits toward the shores of Lake Ray Hubbard.
My curfew was eleven thirty, but I often got around it by spending the night at Amy’s. Worse yet, she told her parents she was staying with me. The only connection I had to my parents on those nights was from a pay phone.
When my daughter was little, we were poor. I’d often take rolls of toilet paper from the English building. I’d add prices while grocery shopping, Almost daily, I’d divide my checking balance by how many days were left in the month. Sometimes I’d falter under the pressure and yell into the cramped rooms of our apartment. Every time, I’d assure Indie, “I’m not yelling at you. I’m yelling at the world.” It wasn’t until she was twelve that she finally responded in a sad voice: “It sure sounds like you’re yelling at me.”
I stopped yelling.
As Indie approached high school, I braced myself for a turn. I readied myself for her own wildness, her rebellions, her yelling at the world and at me. I figured the smokes I’d kept locked in my glove box at her age, the boys who lingered outside my bedroom window, even the Bartles & Jaymes I’d kept in my trunk had set me up for the surge I assumed would come. It never did.
I gave Indie the same curfew, eleven thirty, though I added an “ish,” remembering how I used to speed across town to get through the back door on time. More often than not, Indie texts me well before her curfew that she’s on her way home.
When she started driving, I told her to text me both when she arrived and when she left. She told me how some of her friends gasped in horror at my rule, while others said they wished their parents cared where they were. Last month, I told her she could stop texting because soon she’ll be coming and going from places I don’t even know exist a thousand miles away. Just now she texted, “I’m at work!”
My mother and I spoke a jagged language, and sometimes we didn’t speak at all. When I was in sixth grade, I told her she was a bad mother. I don’t remember why. We were standing in the dining room—I can still see the thick gold carpet, the shine of the dining room table, her tears. I never apologized. I should have.
Those years when we lived in New York, I had a friend whose children were in their twenties. She and I would go on walks through the woods beyond the campus, and once, as we stepped around a fallen tree limb, she said, “Always apologize to your child. If you want a good relationship with her when she’s older, say you’re sorry when you need to.” It was good advice.
In graduate school, one of my professors asked why I never wrote about my daughter, who was barely one at the time. “There’s no conflict there,” I told her. And so it has gone, all these years. No shouting matches, no slamming doors, no silent treatments.
Indie was only three when I went to rehab. My days had turned into a steady stream of wine. My mother mailed me a letter: “You have a daughter who calls you her best friend. Don’t lose that.” My father left a message on my voice mail: “Pull your head out of your ass.”
At eighteen, Indie still calls me her best friend.
Maybe she and I have always gotten along because it’s the two of us. Or maybe it’s because we only have each other. It’s tough to turn on that.
Earlier this year, we went to New York City for the first time. I think it was our fourth day of riding subways and staring at maps on our phones and sharing a small hotel room. We were turning onto Forty-Sixth Street from Sixth Avenue just as dusk settled between the buildings. After a long day of walking, we were weary. When Indie said she was tired, that she wanted to get back to our hotel, I stopped. I spun around and shouted into the blur of horns and a passing tour bus.
The days of this last year with her at home are dwindling. Soon so much will have to change.
It had been years since I yelled at the world. And for the first time, my daughter yelled back. We stood in a front of a bodega, stunned. Suddenly the busy street felt like a small room. We dropped our heads and stared at the sidewalk as if we had spilled something. “You know,” she said, “we don’t have to fight because I’m leaving.”
We both said our sorrys. We went on our way.
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.