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All Fall Down(9)
Author: Jennifer Weiner

When I was almost eight years old, my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I’d been thinking about it for weeks and I knew exactly how to answer. I wanted my mother, who was usually asleep when I left for school, to take me out to breakfast at Peterman’s, the local diner that sat in the center of a traffic circle at the intersection of two busy highways in Cherry Hill. Everyone went there: it was where kids would get ice cream cones after school, where families would go for a dinner of charcoal-grilled burgers for Dad and dry tuna on iceberg lettuce for Mom and a platter of chicken wings, onion rings, and French fries with ranch and honey-mustard dipping sauces for the kids. One of my classmates, Kelly Goldring, had breakfast there with her mother every Wednesday. “She calls it Girls’ Day,” Kelly recounted at a Girl Scout meeting, taking care to roll her eyes to show how dopey she found the weekly breakfasts, but I could tell from her tone, and how she looked when she talked about splitting the Hungry Lady special with her mom and still having home fries left over to take in her lunch, that the breakfasts were just what Mrs. Goldring intended—special. I imagined Kelly and her mom in one of the booths for two. Mrs. Goldring would be in a dress and high heels, with a floppy silk bow tie around her neck, and Kelly, who usually wore jeans and a T-shirt, would wear a skirt that showed off her scabby knees. I pictured the waitress, hip cocked, pad in hand, asking “What can I get you gals?” As I imagined my own trip to the diner, my mother would order a fruit cup, and I’d get eggs and bacon. The eggs would be fluffy, the bacon would be crisp, and my mother, fortified by fruit and strong coffee, would ask about my teacher, my classes, and my Girl Scout troop and actually listen to my answers.

That was what I wanted: not a new bike or an Atari, not cassettes of Sting or Genesis, not Trixie Belden books. Just breakfast with my mom; the two of us, in a booth, alone for the forty-five minutes it would take us to eat the breakfast special.

I should have suspected that things wouldn’t go the way I’d hoped when my mother came down to the kitchen the morning of my birthday looking wan with one eye made up and mascaraed, and the other pale and untouched. “Come on,” she’d said, her Philadelphia accent thicker than normal, her voice raspy. Her hand trembled as she reached for her keys, and she winced when I opened the door to make sure the cab was waiting out front. I rarely saw my mom out of bed before nine, and I never saw her without her makeup completely applied. That morning her face was pale, and she seemed a little shaky, as if the sunshine on her skin was painful and the floor was rolling underneath her feet.

This, I reasoned, had to do with the Accident, the one my mother had gotten into when I was four years old. I didn’t know many details—only that she had been driving, that it had been raining, and that she’d hit a slick patch on the road and actually flipped the car over. She’d spent six weeks away, first in the hospital, having metal pins put into her shoulder, then in a rehab place. She still had scars—a faint slash on her left cheek, surgical incisions on her upper arm. Then there were what my father portentously referred to as “the scars you can’t see.” My mom had never driven since that night. She would jump at the sound of a slammed door or a car backfiring; she couldn’t watch car chases or car crashes in the movies or on TV. A few times a month, she’d skip her tennis game and I’d come home from school to find her up in her bedroom with the lights down low, suffering from a migraine.

The morning of my birthday, my mother slid into the backseat beside me. I could smell Giorgio perfume and toothpaste and, underneath that, the stale smell of sleep.

The cab pulled up in front of the restaurant. My mother reached into the pocket of her jacket and handed me a ten-dollar bill. “That’s enough, right?” I stared, openmouthed, at the money. My mom looked puzzled, her penciled-in eyebrows drawn together.

“I thought you’d eat with me,” I finally said.

“Oh!” Before she turned her head toward the window, I caught an expression of surprise and, I thought, of shame on her face. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. When you said ‘I want you to take me to Peterman’s,’ I thought . . .” She waved one hand as if shooing away the idea that a daughter would want to share a birthday breakfast with her mom. “Since I knew I’d be getting up early, I set up a doubles game.” She looked at her watch. “I have to run and get changed . . . Mitzie and Ellen are probably there already.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I said. Already I could feel tears pricking the backs of my eyelids, burning my throat, but I knew better than to cry. Don’t upset your mother, my father would say.

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