“What a perfect day.” Winter had finally thawed in Boston and spring was upon us. The campus had come alive and was buzzing with college students, tourists, and city natives, most dressed for summer in their eagerness to take some rare sunrays.
Many still wore their graduation gowns from this afternoon’s ceremony, the entirety of which I was still processing. Everything felt surreal, from saying bittersweet goodbyes to friends to the anticipation of facing real world problems in the days ahead. A blur of emotions whirled through me. Pride, relief, anxiety. But what I felt most was happiness. To be in this moment with Marie by my side was more than I could ask for.
“It is, and no one deserves it more than you, Erica.” Marie Martelly, my mother’s best friend and my own personal lifesaver, gave my hand a little squeeze and hooked her arm into mine.
We walked down the tiny paths that wove through the Harvard campus, shaded by rows of full leafy trees rustling quietly from the soft breeze blowing. Tall and slender, Marie towered over my petite frame. Her soft skin was the color of cocoa and her brown hair was twisted into dozens of short dreads, a style that expressed both her eternal youth and eclectic style. From the outside, no one would suspect that she was the only mother I’d had for nearly a decade.
“Thank you for being there for me today,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Erica! I wouldn’t miss this for the world. You know that. Plus I always enjoy a little trip down memory lane. I can’t remember the last time I was on campus. Makes me feel young again!”
I laughed at her enthusiasm. Only someone like Marie could visit her alma mater and feel younger, as if no time had passed.
We hopped into a cab and left the campus, passing over the Charles River into Boston. A few minutes later we pushed through the heavy wooden doors of one of the best steakhouses in the city. Compared to the sunny streets, the restaurant was dark and cool, and a noticeable air of refinement floated over the quiet murmur of the evening’s patrons.
We settled down with our menus and ordered dinner and drinks. The waiter promptly delivered two glasses of sixteen-year Scotch, on the rocks, a taste for which I had acquired from more than a few complementary dinners with Marie. After weeks of overdosing on coffee and late night take out, nothing said congratulations like a cool glass of Scotch and a steak dinner.
I traced lines into the sweat on my glass, wondering what I would ever do without her. Over the years, she had always offered the perfect measure of support. She listened to my friend drama and my moaning about work and finals, but she never pushed me. She knew how hard I already pushed myself.
I told myself over the years that not having parents was sometimes better than having the kinds of parents I heard about and occasionally met. My classmates’ parents were typically overbearing, physically there but emotionally absent, or old enough to be my grandparents and suffering from a serious generational gap. By comparison, excelling seemed vastly easier when I was the only person putting pressure on myself to succeed.
“What’s on your mind, baby girl?” Marie asked, breaking me from my thoughts.
“I really wish mom could have been here,” I said quietly.
Marie took my hand in hers from across the table. “We both know Patricia would have been so proud of you today. Beyond words.”
No one had known my mother better than Marie. Though distance had separated them for years after school, they remained close—all the way to the bitter end.
I avoided her eyes, unwilling to let myself succumb to the emotions that tended to rush over me like a goddamn flood every Hallmark holiday. I wouldn’t cry today. Today was a happy day. One I would never forget.
Marie released me and held up her glass. I raised my glass with hers and smiled through the sadness, letting relief and gratitude fill the empty place in my heart.
“Cheers.” I tipped my glass to Marie’s. I took a healthy swallow, savoring the burn of the liquor on its way down.
“So what’s next for you, Erica?” Marie asked.
I sighed, letting my thoughts drift back to my life and the real pressures I was still under. “Well, this week is the big pitch at Angelcom, and then at some point I need to figure out where to live.”
“You can always stay with me for a while, you know.”
“I know, but I need to get set up on my own for once. I’m looking forward to it actually.”
“Not really, but I need a break from Cambridge.” Harvard had been great, but academia and I needed to start seeing other people. I had spent the past year seriously overachieving, juggling a thesis, starting a new business, and managing the usual senior burnout moments. I was eager to start the next chapter of my life well away from campus.
“Not that I would ever want you to leave, but are you sure you want to stay in Boston?”
“I’m sure. The business might take me to New York or California at some point, but for now I’m happy here.” Boston was a hard city sometimes. The winters were hell, but the people here were strong, passionate, and often painfully direct. Over time, I’d become one of them. I couldn’t imagine calling anyplace else home on a whim.
“Do you ever think of going back to Chicago?”
“No.” I chewed my salad in silence for moment, trying not to think about all the people who might have been here for me today. “There’s no one back home for me anymore. Elliot remarried and has kids now. And Mom’s family has always been…you know, distant.”
Ever since my mother had come home from college twenty-one years ago, newly pregnant with no plans to marry, her relationship with her parents had been strained, to say the least. Even as a child, what few memories I shared with my grandparents had felt uncomfortable and colored by how I had came into their lives. Mom never spoke of my father, but if the circumstances were upsetting enough for her to keep silent about them, I was probably better off not knowing.
The sadness in Marie’s sympathetic eyes reflected my own. “Do you ever hear from Elliot?”
“Mostly around the holidays. He has his hands full with the two little ones now.”
Elliot was the only father I had ever known. He’d married my mother when I was a toddler, and we shared many happy years together as a family. But no more than a year after my mother had passed, he became overwhelmed with the prospect of raising a teenager alone and enrolled me in boarding school with my inheritance.
“You miss him,” she said quietly, as if reading my thoughts.