They Were Both Soldiers
by Alexandra Adams
They had decided on IHOP, hoping that a delightful breakfast for dinner would ease their stress, the sorrow and dread that had been produced after the realization that it was Sunday, a school night, and there were still piles of memorization and work ahead of them.
The car screeched to a stop, a thick smell of gas dissipating throughout the brutal air, as the roaring engine was silenced, and the only sounds penetrating the tranquility of the dusk were the faint conversations of families, ordinary customers, strolling down the parking lot towards their cars.
Food. Syrup. Greasy bacon. It clogged their heads, clear, poisonous images of irresistible, hot plates making them dizzy, as they unbuckled their seat belts and studied their destination outside the iced glass of their windows, their hunger urging their legs and wrists.
Agony coursed through her back as she pushed the door open, emerging from the cozy warmth of her family’s vehicle and took her first breath outside, wondering if her heart was trying to explode through her chest, with the desperation to escape the cold as well. The blinding light that shot out in tiny beams from the large windows of the friendly IHOP restaurant illuminated the parking lot, which eased her discomfort slightly, knowing that she could see the ground, the damp road, the slimy white lines and filthy blotches of gum, which lowered her chances of stumbling and tripping, blindly, like a fool.
Sharp, powerful blows of the untamed gust pinched her cheeks as she slammed the door of the bulky, ancient Escalade, her breath visible, as if she were smoking one of her father’s cigars, like little clouds of smoke, each time she exhaled, numbly. Unable to feel her fingers, she reached out for her opposite’s arm, her mother, who looked just as uncomfortable as she did, her eyes bulged as if someone were strangling her, her jet black curls whipping across her face, the moonlight shimmering above them creating thin streaks of blue...as if a chunk of the night sky had fallen and piled itself, like a ton of black sheep’s fur, onto her head.
The young, teenage girl, who felt as if she would pass out right in front of the Jeep she and her mother were approaching, rolled her eyes, unable to fathom why her ski jacket, and waterproof gloves were unable to give any sort of warmth within the cocoon of icy air crushing her chest.
“M...maybe if we run, it’ll...it’ll be easier?” she asked her mother, feeling as if her voice were crawling back down her throat, away from the daunting chatter of her teeth.
She waited for a response from the panting women beside her, who had wrapped her arm around the girl’s shoulder, her oldest daughter, affectionately, but also with slight desperation, as she blew a coal-dark lock of hair away from her eyebrow. The young girl, dressed poorly for this brisk twilight, noticed the tiny glints of blue within her mother’s stormy hair, like simple rivers of starlight glimmering down to her forgotten split ends, then peered over her shoulder and studied the reflection of her own, unkempt mess, which she’d had no intention of combing that morning.
She, with long, milky-oak strands of hair that waved down her back, like melted chocolate, the added bounce of curls at the end, usually speckled with gold when exposed to the morning-rays of light, tickling the small of her back.
Her mother, born with an endless, frizzy pound of oil-black hair, stubborn and dark, as if iron, or steel, rather than chocolate, were melting from the center of her scalp.
“I cannot,” she replied in her thick Greek accent, the freezing wind making her articulation poorer than usual.
“Okay,” The impatient girl breathed back,”Okay. Let’s just walk.” She studied the road, then the pavement of the sidewalk, the splatters of bird waste, and faded color drawn from what looked like chalk rock. Feeling herself form a painful smile, her cheeks stiff, she imagined the little toddlers, their cheeks and chins smeared with chocolate from the deserts, their careless hands snatching the rocks and destroying the spotless ground with their dreams.
Life had been so easy then, she had begun to forget. The life where the only things to worry about were the wind messing up her large bow, whether her tutu had enough glitter, the numbers of hours left for her to play with her stuffed animals before bedtime...and homework.
Now, dozens of things floated within the air, tons of stressful, heartbreaking, and exhausting troubles, swirling around in front of her and her mother’s squinted eyes, like a confusing curtain of restless leaves, blurring the image of their destination in front of them, stinging their eyes with their rough surfaces, slowing their footsteps. It was hard to ignore the stress, the anxiety, the trauma, and most important, most intoxicating...their dreams, which filled the atmosphere they breathed, made the wind colder, and the seconds crossing the parking lot even longer.
“Almost there,” she told her mother.
“Oh gosh,” her mother groaned. “Oh gosh, I’m working tomorrow….darn.”
“I know the feeling,” she chuckled back to her. “I’ve got a math test tomorrow afternoon. I barely know anything.” She wished she hadn’t said the last part, knowing how her mother would normally react...the woman who was one of the best students in her class, in medical school, and high school...a very accomplished pupil. She would say, or rather, she would scold that in order to achieve anything, you had to work, and this girl, with her shivering, small body, was in no mood for another lecture about work ethic. However, despite her worry, her mother didn’t seem to have heard most of her sentence...or even her voice. Were her ears numb? Or was she blinded, once again, by worry?
“I don’t want to work,” she could feel her mother’s fear, not pain...fear. And suddenly, the wind hurt her more, made her arms ache, her exhales more frequent.
“Don’t worry”, she offered, trying to ignore the goosebumps prickling across her shoulders, legs...even wrists…. “I’ll be there, in the morning, ready to drink coffee with you. Then, you know what will happen?”
Her mother shook her head, a few of her twilight curls bouncing over the brim of her big, yet exotically beautiful, nose.
“I’ll give you a tight hug before you walk out the door.”
Her mother grinned, her face, pale, even though she was blessed with a deep, olive tan, brightened underneath the moonlight. “Thank you, honey.”
They continued to walk, and even though she told her mother that she would be there, at the crack of dawn, right beside her while she blotted lipstick and applied eyeliner, the girl still heard her moan, and complain.
It was unsettling, but even though her mother was human, the teenage girl always thought she was bulletproof...the woman with the bluish-black hair, the unique, beautiful facial features, the flawless body….the girl always saw her mother as an impenetrable soldier. Any sign of weakness from the woman who had raised her to be strong, to avoid shedding tears, to fight hard for anything worth fighting for, any sign of a breaking point, and she felt unsafe. As if something important, something she needed desperately, something more urgent than oxygen, was slipping away from her fingers.
Her mother hadn’t always been a woman who woke up early to beat traffic, coffee mug in one hand, big coat in the other….not long ago, she was just a mother. A mother of her, the typical, lazy, yet passionate teenager shivering in her arms as they approached the steps of the IHOP. One day, before she started junior high, the woman who had cooked the greatest meals, had taught her to work hard and strive to achieve the greatest and more, the woman who tucked her in each night and gave her the most beautiful adventure known as her childhood...decided to go back to work.
She would never forget the nights she’d come up and bring her mother Diet Coke, after Diet Coke, after Diet Coke, watching her study those books like she was studying the skin of one of her children whenever they had developed a strange rash. Her mother’s creased forehead as she pondered a question she had come across as impossible, challenging, irritating…
A mountain. That was what her mother had chosen as a challenge. A mountain that was even more unbearable, excruciating, and mentally difficult than the wind the girl faced tonight. A steep, endless mountain with a foggy destination and strategic obstacles, a path taken with a price, with moments when faith, and hope, dwindled unexpectedly. Her mother, the girl’s superhero, had climbed one of the hardest mountains. How could she be afraid of work?
“I have to work tomorrow.”
“It will be okay,” she assured her mother, “I promise.”
At last they reached the end of the parking lot and stepped up to the sidewalk. She peered down at the marks, the spots where the children had scribbled their imagination and dreams, and without hesitation, almost automatically, stretched her scrawny arm out, curled her aching fingers around the metal knob, and with an exasperated sigh, yanked the door open, the immediate wash of heat dumped onto her body snatching her breath away, burning a tender area deep within the center of her stomach.
Her mother smiled, closing her eyes, and exhaled, her fingers trembling with gratitude, as she scratched her daughter behind the head, then walked toward the hostess stand.
The teenage girl imagined that this was how it was for her mother when she passed her board exams and was officially licensed to carry a stethoscope and wear a lab coat. All those years of Diet Cokes and staying behind to study finally gave her a reward, something unforgettable and rare.
As the girl took off her jacket, she saw her mother’s cheeks burn red, as if the cold outside had slapped her while she was struggling to walk toward the rest of her family, toward IHOP, the oasis. The promise of warmth.
A breaking point.
Her mother had moments when things were too much. She, the teenage girl who despised studying, who wanted to enjoy life, and avoid any sort of responsibility, had a breaking point too, when things seemed overwhelming.
Then, like her older, wiser, and experienced Opposite, who had just sat down with her father and brother, laughing at something on Facebook, she had a breaking point. A point when giving up looks sweeter, and much more delicious, than your dreams. The brief moment when anything, anything, is better than what you are doing.
The girl sighed, took off her coat, smiled at the waitress who passed by, carrying a tray of room temperature cups of water, and winked at her; then walked over to the booth where her mother was sitting, scanning the menu eagerly. Slumping beside the inspirational woman that had raised her never to be afraid of her own potential, she looked at her mother and focused on her makeup, on her eyes, big, chocolate ones, and at her hair, which now looked standard black, shiny, with a thick scent of coconut.
They liked different things, and worked hard to achieve goals that weren’t even in the same category. But they did have one thing in common, one thing that didn’t involve character, hair, or passion.
They were both climbing the most impacting, dangerous mountains.
They both had brief moments of fear, a few seconds when they could barely swallow.
They both used each other to cross the parking lot, to break through the unfair, overpowering cold towards what they desired.
They were both soldiers.
Alexandra Adams is seventeen and lives in Garden City, New York.