In September of 2010, I was starting my second year of an MFA program at NYU. I’d moved to the city straight after undergrad, determined to make it as a writer, though I was twenty-three and barely even knew what “making it” looked like or meant. Against the advice of many of my teachers, who told me to get a little life experience first, I headed to grad school.
During the first semester, I realized quickly that my teachers had been right in a dozen small ways. Coming from Boston, I didn’t know the language of New York. I ate the wrong things, I didn’t know where to drink or what to drink, I had never argued with a cab driver at four in the morning or stood swaying in the subway at midnight while men stared at me. I was still a kid, in so many ways. Week after week I showed up to class wearing button up shirts and jeans only to discover that I was dressed the same as the men in the class. The women wore dresses or fashionable leggings. Their hair looked expensive. They knew about makeup. They all understood the hidden code of New York womanhood that I had missed.
In workshops in the cramped writers’ house downtown, I often found myself laughing at the wrong times, or shocked by something said in the class. Afterward we’d cluster around on the sidewalk and get drinks at the local bar, where I’d always order the wrong kind of beer. On the long subway ride to Brooklyn I'd analyze the day, noticing moments I’d been obtuse or self-absorbed or perhaps just childish.
That summer my mother was diagnosed with cancer. As the fall semester approached, I returned to New York after a summer of treatments and statistics and frightening realities. I felt crushing guilt about leaving Boston, but my mother was adamant: I would not put my education, my writer experience in the big city, on hold.
Instead, I visited her every other weekend, taking a Bolt Bus or a Greyhound—whatever I could get cheaper tickets for—back to Boston. The visits meant I wasn’t around for the kind of after-hours socializing that the other writers fell into easily, naturally. When they clustered around on the sidewalk, talking about where to go, I was always hurrying away to catch a late afternoon bus.
I grew accustomed to the burnt-sugar smell of the basement levels of the Port Authority bus terminal, the low pelvic rumble of the bus as it growled out of the depot and onto the highway. The smell of other people’s food in the close uncirculated air. The blurry lights of the Roy Rogers in the window, at the one rest stop where the bus always took a break. The trips in between seemed dreamlike then, but ten years later, the memories will stand out vividly when I think about a time when I was divided in two: the writer who was a little naïve, the anxious daughter returning to her childhood home turned keening household.
My mother was going to die, but we didn’t know that yet. We wouldn’t know for sure until another two years of scorch-the-earth chemo and body-altering surgery. Sometime that fall I wrote the first chapter of what would become my novel. After terrible early workshops, my professor told me I had a style that worked by accumulation. It was the first time anyone in my program told me I had a style at all.
My mother had surgery the same week, so I returned on the train with the commented manuscript stuffed in my bag. I went straight to the hospital from the bus station. I remember hurrying down the hall to find her room, and seeing her in a bed, suddenly, her face very white on the pillow. I remember a clear glass beaker was filled with black stomach bile, slowly draining out of her.
She saw me, and sat bolt upright and called my name, and I flew to her like some sort of bird. I read her my novel chapter aloud, slowly, and she listened with her eyes closed and told me in her clear, measured way that it was good, my best yet.
It was a very lonely time. I remember sitting in my small New York bedroom and looking out at the rainy tops of buildings and thinking about how many wonderful things were happening in that great city right then, things that I could go to, experiences I could have. But I didn't want any of them. I wanted to be with my mother. I wasn’t fully there, not really, and I wouldn't be anywhere again for a long time.
BLAIR HURLEY is the author of THE DEVOTED, published by W.W. Norton, which was longlisted for The Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize. Her work is published or forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, West Branch, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and two Pushcart Prize nominations in 2019.
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