"If all's well, you'll come for dinner next Friday," my mother is saying to me. "It's warm enough now, but it's only Tuesday. It could get a lot colder. Snow even. So let's confirm." It's November. Not a high risk month in the New York area for snow. It's barely probable we'll even get a frost, and if November chill is going to keep us from trekking across town, we may as well hibernate. I try to point this out to her, but I hear myself becoming testy. "Ma, don't worry about the weather, for goodness's sake. We'll wear coats if it's cold. I'm a grown-up, you know." My angry words are pinging off her protective shell within which I can hear her matching irritation begin to percolate.
If all's well. It's her mantra, and it drives me nuts. She keeps her little shopping lists headlined with "if all's well," as in "if all's well, paper towels, coffee, chicken bouillon cubes." She tells it to the plumber and the cable man when she makes repair appointments, which sounds incredibly funny, since if all were well, she wouldn't need them to come. She drops it into every other sentence when we try to make any sort of plans. If all's well we'll meet for lunch at Bloomingdale's. If all's well, she'll come to Grandparents' Day at Jamie's school. If all's well, she'll go down to Arizona this winter like she has every year since Dad died. I cruelly envision scenarios of all definitively being not well. Like a transit strike coupled with record sub-zero temperatures, or I get a brain tumor, or she does. Then I recoil, and try to be my normal, pleasant self: nice mom, nice daughter, nice information systems manager. You have to understand. She's been like this all my life, and there were some periods, like adolescence, when it was even less fun than it is now. God, I think of the parties I never made it to because she was too worried to let me go out late, and of the parties I did go to and came back late from to find her ashen-faced and ramrod straight on the sofa.
Jamie, my fifteen-year old, bounces through the room, his shock of
red hair hanging in his eyes.
"Yo, Mom," he says casually.
"Taking a break?" I ask. He's been hot and heavy with a major report on, of all things, natural disasters. They're in fairly short supply, thank God, in New York. We've been talking about back-up systems, a hot topic since the bombing at the World Trade Center a few years ago. How to safeguard data from fire, flood, theft. It's something I've been sweating about at work, trying to keep all the computer users in line with their own daily back-ups, never mind virus checks.
"I've been on the phone with Grandma If All's Well," I say, then immediately bite my tongue in chagrin. "I shouldn't say anything negative. It's just her shtick," I say quickly. "She wants us for dinner next Friday. That O.K. with you?" Jamie's got control of his own weekends, and a lot of them he spends over with his Dad in New Jersey.
"Yeah, cool," he says. He actually likes my mother. He's really an incredibly sweet teenager, about a million times nicer than I ever thought he'd turn out when he was seven and cursing at everyone and leaving filthy clothes and partially eaten snacks all over the apartment. We have an animated discussion about earthquakes and river levees. "I'm heading over to Jay's now," he tells me. "We're working on this together." Jay lives a couple of subway stops away, and it's on the tip of my tongue to offer Jamie cab fare, but I hold back. I give him his independence and he never betrays my trust. That's our deal. "See you later," I tell him.
Thursday my mother calls to confirm, and again on Friday afternoon.
"Yes, of course. Jamie and I will both be there. Can we bring anything?" I'm frantically trying to answer my e-mail and waving my assistant into the office.
"You sound harassed, dear," she says. What a talent she has for the obvious, I'm thinking.
"Mom, I'm at work," I say. "That's just the way it is." Not that she would know. She's been sitting at home waiting for various members of the family her whole life. Never worked, unless you count worrying as work. Drove my sister and brother to settle in California, although now they're kind of regretting it, getting middle of the night telephone calls every time there's an earthquake. Anywhere. Anyway, I'm here, and I'm the lightning rod. The last egg left in her basket.
"How will you be getting here?" she's asking. "Why don't you take a taxi? It'll be after dark."
"Mom," I tell her, "It will be rush hour. I will take the subway uptown and be jammed in like a sardine. A mugger couldn't even breathe on the IRT at five o'clock, never mind try to hurt me."
"Well, dear, take a taxi, then, if it's so uncomfortable."
"No, ma. I'll see you at six. Jamie will be meeting us there. He's got chess club, and he'll come over straight from school." I don't bother to explain that there's no way to get a taxi in lower Manhattan at rush hour, or that they're too expensive, anyway, or that the drivers are maniacs, and more likely to kill me than the subway.
I'm sitting at my desk with my eyes rolled up into my head like I'm dead, or something, when my assistant clears her throat and I sit up with a start. We start making arrangements to send the weekly tape with the company's transactions up to the storage place in Connecticut and make sure we've downloaded virus protection for the latest batch the hackers have dreamed up.
The subway is packed, and it crawls up to 77th Street and Lexington Avenue, my mother's neighborhood. Unlike the scruffy Upper West Side where I live with Jamie, it's polished, here. White glove, and full of worried-looking elderly ladies teetering along looking as though any moment the weight of their leather handbags dangling precariously on their thin fur-draped arms will overbalance them. With a sudden shiver, I think of my mother as old.
The apartment is the same as ever, overstuffed and hung with paintings in every nook and cranny, mostly mediocre ones. My mother peers through the peephole, and then cautiously swings open the door.
"Johnny didn't announce you," she says.
"He knows me," I tell her.
"He's coming on his own."
"From school he'll take a taxi?"
"I don't know. Probably he'll walk," I tell her. His high school, the one for really gifted kids, is on 94th Street and Park Avenue. We sit on the edge of our overstuffed seats and wait. My mother pops up and into the kitchen every five minutes to check on the pot roast.
"What should we do?" she asks each time she returns. "Should we eat it now? Should we wait? Are you sure he's coming?"
"Of course I'm sure," I tell her. "I reminded him this morning." There is nothing else to talk about, really, but we mechanically compare notes on what we've heard from Jeff and Susan in California and various cousins. It's nearly six thirty, now, and I confess I'm prickling all over with nerves.
"What should we do? Should we call the police? Why don't you call home and see if he's there?" my mother asks. I demur on the police, but can't see the logic in not trying home. The phone rings hollowly three times and the answering machine picks up. "Jamie, are you there?" I call into it. I try Jay's house too, and the school, which doesn't answer, and Mark's and Max's, and even Steffy's, although I'm not supposed to know she's a friend of his. No one has any idea where Jamie could be. Of course, the most lurid images are floating freely and uncontrollably through my mind. It's nearly seven o'clock and the only logical reason Jamie is not here at his grandmother's house the way he's supposed to be is that he's dead. Did I tell him "see you later" this morning when we both charged out of the house, him to the crosstown bus and me to the subway downtown? That "see you later" is the protective shield I try to throw over him every morning when he ventures out into the world. It's what ensures that he'll come back. I'm trying to tell myself that this is crazy magical thinking, but I can't quite convince myself. My mother's anguished looks confirm my worst fears in every particular.
Of course, the door buzzer sounds and both of us rush to answer it, nearly colliding when we go sliding across the highly polished foyer. Of course, it's Jamie, all five foot eleven of him, filling up the doorway and with a look of genuine concern on his face. "Grandma, I didn't mean to worry you," he says. "I started right down here after chess club, but then I got to thinking about this paper I'm working on, about disasters. Well, it's about disaster recovery, really. Jay and I are making the argument that it's mitigation that's more important than preparedness. You know, building up the foundations of your house if you live in a flood zone, or even moving out of the flood zone all together. That's better than just having canned goods and a row boat handy." During this speech, which is amazingly long for my usually laconic son, my mother and I are just standing there, not even getting him in the door and shutting it, so mesmerized are we.
"Well there I am, with a copy of our draft on disk," he's saying, "and whatever's on my hard drive at home, when I get to thinking that what if I lose this disk, what if it drops out of my book bag or something, and then we go home and find out that there's been a leak in the apartment and the computer's ruined? Well, I just ran over to the Kinko's, rented a computer, printed out the draft and copied the disk. Then I ran the extra disk back up to school and put it in my locker. I sure feel better now."
"I have no idea what you're talking about dear, but it all sounds very
sensible," says my mother.
I'm still kind of shell-shocked by this whole explanation, but manage to blurt out, "Why didn't you call?"
"I'm sorry," said Jamie. "I was just rushing to get here, and I thought that would just hold me up more. I hope the pot roast's not burnt?"
Finally we let Jamie into the house, and he wanders off toward the kitchen.
"I think I'm proud of him," I say. And I turn toward my mother with new understanding. She is, thankfully, not rubbing it in that I was just as worried as she was. "I guess all's well that ends well," I tell her, deeply cognizant that I've got my one and only egg in one basket, and there's no way to guarantee his safety.
Laurie Joan Aron has been a freelance reporter and essayist for the past
15 years. Her work has appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping,
Family Fun, Crain's New York Business, Fortune Small Business online, The New
York Times and The New York Daily News. A short story writer as well, "Trust"
is her first published work of fiction. One of her poems appeared in Columbia
Magazine. She lives in New York City. firstname.lastname@example.org