Mom grips the steering wheel tightly as she drives; white spots spring up on her knuckles. At first we sit in a silence broken only when she asks if I packed certain things.
Yes, I packed them.
It’s not like I haven’t done this before. I gaze out the window and try to control my breathing, try to be patient. Just a couple more hours, and I’ll be free for a whole two weeks. I pick at the edge of the window lever where the plastic has chipped. Just six more months, and I’ll be free for good.
Mom makes an attempt at small talk but abandons it quickly. We mostly listen to public radio after that.
We pull into the parking lot of the Sherwood Valley Casino nearly fifteen minutes early, but Mom keeps the ignition running. God forbid she waste an extra ten seconds on her way out.
“Mom, the…environment?” I say, gesturing vaguely around at the car, the sky, the dusty mountains off in the distance. “Giant global catastrophe bearing down on us all? You wanna turn that off maybe?”
She sighs, closes her eyes, and tilts her head back performatively. But she cuts the ignition.
I bite my lip. I shouldn’t have said it like that. But I can’t quite summon an apology.
As noon ticks closer, Mom flips down the sun visor and begins checking her lipstick, smoothing down her hair, adjusting her collar. I look down at my phone and pretend not to have seen.
I don’t know why she even bothers. It’s not like she’s going to get out of her car, and my dad won’t get out of his either. They never do. They each stay seated, seatbelts on and gazes averted, while I haul my duffel bag from one car to the other. I’m an arranged drop.
We don’t talk about it, but all three of us know exactly why they don’t look at each other. Neither can bear to see it.
Mom ages with each passing month, each passing year. Gray hairs persistently sprouting in her dark braid, no matter how vigilantly she dyes them. Light wrinkles creasing her forehead and cheeks, which is honestly surprising considering how infrequently she laughs or displays any emotion whatsoever. She looks every one of her forty-four years.
Dad, meanwhile, looks twenty-eight, exactly the same as he did when he started the treatment sixteen years ago. “Old enough for people to take me seriously,” he explained to me once, “but still in my prime. The perfect age for men.” His jaw square, his blue eyes twinkling, his sandy-blond hair tousled playfully. He wears horn-rimmed glasses when he wants to age up a few years, a ball cap when he wants to age down. He has fun with it.
Mom has fewer options.
She slams the sun visor shut and checks her phone, starts tapping away. It’s obvious when noon strikes because she shakes her head and makes a tsk sound with her tongue. Typical, she means. After the divorce, she and Dad made a promise—she mentions it several times a month—that they would never criticize each other in front of me. She’s never broken that promise, not technically. Yet somehow she always manages to get her point across.
It’s eight more minutes before we see Dad’s car pull into the parking lot. I let out a long breath—how long had I been holding it?—as the car pulls up, sporty and shiny, and parks five spaces away from ours.
“Well, see you later,” I say, reaching into the seat behind me for my bag.
Mom lets out a stream of instructions and reminders, and I nod and repeat “got it” as I throw open the door and step outside. The cold air feels like a relief. I zip up my hoodie, adjust the duffel bag over my shoulder, and wave as I walk away.
“I love you,” she calls after me, and I say “I love you too,” but I don’t look back.
I’m halfway to Dad’s car when I realize he’s not sitting in the driver’s seat. Susie is. I turn to look back at Mom, but she’s already driving away.
Pop music spills out as I open the passenger door. “Hey Di,” Susie squeals. “Happy spring break!” She flashes a grin at me—teeth straight and white—and sets her sunglasses on top of her head. Blonde waves fall just below her shoulders; her skin is tan and unlined.
Susie’s vis-age is around eighteen, the same as it was when she married Dad eight years ago. I was nine at the time, honestly too old to be a flower girl, but I was so excited and I guess nobody could bear to disappoint me. I remember feeling awed by how glamorous Susie looked in her giant gown, and how proud I was to be wearing my own little poofy white dress. That was the night I told Susie that I wanted to come live with her and Dad all the time. “Aww, you’re so cute,” she had responded, before running off to take more pictures. Nobody ever mentioned it again.
Now she taps her giant diamond-encrusted wedding ring on the steering wheel as she sings along to the radio, motioning for me to get in the car. I do.
We exchange a few brief pleasantries before I ask where Dad is.
“Oh, something came up at work,” she says, waving her hand dismissively. “You know how it is. So I called the nanny in so I could come get you myself. Now we can have girl time!”
She grins at me and I nod weakly. I lean my head against the window and dream of having my own car, of making this drive alone.
As we turn onto Route 101, Susie jumps right into questions about school, about track season, about boys. I duck and weave in my responses, evasive and noncommittal but polite enough. I stare out the window at the thick, tall trees rising up on both sides of the highway. They feel like guardians, silently guiding us on our way. They’re comforting.
I start to relax and even laugh along with Susie a little as she churns through stories about something the kids did, something that happened in yoga class, something her assistant said. The trees keep rising and receding alongside us.
We’re about halfway back to Palo Alto when Susie decides she wants coffee. “I know a great place in Santa Rosa,” she says, and we pull off at exit 489. The parking lot’s tiny, but we find a spot. Susie hops out; she’s wearing shorts despite the weather, and she runs to get inside as quickly as possible.
The air inside the shop is thick with the smell of coffee and beer. Plush furniture is scattered around the room; board games are piled neatly on shelves. A bored-looking family eats sandwiches by the windows—three kids with their vis-twenties mom and dad. Two vis-teen males laugh in a corner.
Susie orders a latte, and I get some tea. We’re heading over to a counter table to add milk and sugar when one of the males from the corner turns and looks over at us. His eyes linger on Susie, and I step in between them, turning my back slightly, but it’s no use. He’s heading over, his buddy a few steps behind him.
He sidles up next to Susie, sets his half-empty coffee cup down next to hers. “Needs more milk,” he says genially, though his drink’s already a creamy light tan. He smiles over at us; he’s got a strong jaw, dimples, and bright blue eyes. “You girls go to Santa Rosa High? You don’t look familiar.”
Susie laughs lightly. “Oh, we’re not from Santa Rosa. Just passing through.”
A text pings on my phone. I fish it out of my pocket, but instead of opening my messages, I pull up the Verify app. I’ve gotten good at doing this surreptitiously.
I snap a picture of the dimpled male, then pretend to type something while I wait for the results. “Sorry,” I say, glancing up quickly, “it’s my mom,”—but nobody’s watching me; Susie’s chatting to the male while his friend looks on awkwardly.
A match pops up on the screen. Five pictures of the dimpled male, with a bar across the top blaring “TREATED.” I tuck the phone away, hand my tea to Susie, and excuse myself to the bathroom.
I close myself in a stall and sit on the toilet, then pull Verify back up. I swipe through the pictures of the man—yep, it’s him—then read through the profile. His name is Phil. We’re four degrees of verification apart—Liz, who’s on the track team with me, verified someone named Allyson, who verified someone named Sofia, who posted Phil’s profile. “Stay away!!” says a note from Sofia. “Old and creepy!!!”
I click over to my profile; the bar above my picture says “TRUSTED” and there’s a list of the eighty-three girls who’ve vouched for my phys-age—most from Arcata High, some from summer camp, and a few from San Francisco, where we lived when I was a kid. All swearing that they’ve seen me grow up firsthand. I look through my pictures—should I reorder them?—but lose interest quickly.
I wash my hands and head back out. As I approach from behind them, I see that Phil’s friend is still hanging back, and he has the public age records pulled up on his phone. Is he searching for Susie? Did she really give them her full name? Doesn’t matter, I guess. Don’t bother, dude—she’s not on there.
Susie’s never told me her phys age; she won’t tell anyone. I don’t even know if Dad knows. I searched the public records myself when I was a kid—she should be on there, she said she used to be a teacher—but she must’ve paid to be removed. I swiped her ID from her purse a few years later, but she’d upgraded that as well.
I walk back to Susie and grab my tea off the table; she’s got her left hand buried in her pocket and she’s saying something about spring break.
“Ready to go?” I ask.
“Sure!” she says, and she smiles at Phil. “It was nice to meet you, Lucas. You too, Connor,” and she nods at his friend. She waves as we walk out, and her mood is noticeably peppy. “What nice young men,” she says.
We drive off and I drink my tea, wondering how much Susie suspects, wondering how much she cares.