My mother’s brand-new Kodak camera clacks and flashes awkwardly, as the university's chancellor clasps my clammy hand to shake it. I see stars from the flash of the taken photo, but when I adjust my line of vision, she is the only one I see. Despite the audience in the auditorium, who are heftily cheering me on, and believe me, today it is brimming, overflowing with people. Small kids, who don't know what or why they have been dragged here, run around chasing each other into the corners, squealing in excitement, only stopped when a strict adult grabs them up by the wrist and firmly sits them down. Students, past graduates, perform their nerve-wracking performances, whether strumming a Led Zeppelin riff on their electric guitar or a magic trick or a speech. Oh, those goddamn speeches. Every possible viewpoint of every possible type of person. My friend, Sam, nods off halfway through, and I shake him awake when it's his turn to get his honors.
But first comes my moment. She sits in the second row, my mother, clapping and shouting through cupped hands: Yay, Charley! It's her version of modesty. Smiling so big, her dimples that she usually so successfully hides, pierce through her cheeks. She told me she found them ugly, scarring to her dainty little face, but that day she was the most beautiful in the room and I'm tempted to say the whole world. As a teenager, I had always preferred the look of Adrienne Barbeau or Gretchen Corbett, but in the end, you always realize your mother topped them all. The camera she had bought was new, a memento for the day.
"Charley, just imagine, in twenty years' time this camera will be old." She told me, a couple days previously when she had just bought the camera. A new model, that would've made the other mothers of the time "ooooh" and "aaaah". She pronounced the word "old" as though it was foreign. I remember giving some smart ass comment, that would've made her slap me over the ear any other day, but those couple of days before graduation, nothing could have shaken her. She had a star-gazed, proud, happy expression, that she just couldn't get rid of. No matter how many times I told her how dumb it looked or how embarrassing she was.
"Ahh." She teased me "I'm a mother, Chuck. That's part of our scheme." I'm grateful, thinking back, that she took it lightly. That she took my cheeky comments as jokes, and my rude gestures, as acts and outbursts of nervousness. However much of her attitude killed me at the time, I am grateful that I had hit the million-dollar jackpot on mothers. Whether I deserved her or not, is a different subject.
The day goes fast. Just like my life. One moment we're sitting, side by side, in the university’s gum-covered chairs, wearing our blue nylon robes. In the next moment, our square caps are being thrown in the air, and the ceremony in the gym finished. The iconic moment passed, and I can recall my hesitant approach to the situation. I didn't feel the burst of joy I wanted so much to feel. I told myself that I was scared. That it was normal to feel like this. I hugged my favorite professor's goodbye, holding them close and whispering a sincere, heartfelt thanks in their ears. Wishing I could do something more in return, to express my gratitude. Then my friends and I head down to the lake. The college chant we sang still rings in my ears these many years later.
I made a mistake, whatever that means. An act or judgment that is misguided or wrong. What in the hell does that mean? All I can tell you is that what I did that day of graduation, was a mistake. My mother had warned me, I had three hours, and then she wanted me home. She had put all faith in me, even as she watched me march off, arm in arm with friends. She wanted me to remember this day as a special one, and she trusted I would listen. But I didn't. I didn't act like I was supposed to. I didn't celebrate this day, as the day I said goodbye to my past behavior. Behavior that would only be expected from a college kid. Childish, immature behavior. I can't say I didn't have a choice. I guess I'm a shit decision-maker. Always have been, always will be.
I drank, I smoked, I cursed. Made out with about three girls. Things escalated, and before I knew it, I was sitting bleary-eyed in front of an overworked cop, in the local police station, at 3 am. Charged for smashing the window of the corner shop. I was sleazy, stunk of my sweat of the whole day. Alcohol and cigarettes and regret. I couldn't form a sentence. My words slurred, meshed together like in a blender. I laughed at everything said, but deep inside I hurt. I hacked everything out as much as I could. I hacked out the pain, and regret, and sadness, and stupidity, that had come to possess me. I hacked it out in laughs until my throat closed up and I had to lean over the side of the chair they had provided, and puke it all out.
"Whoa, kid." Was all they could get out. And then my mother was there, leaning over me in the early hours of the morning, harshly pulling me up by my wrist. This time it was her turn to be embarrassed, and rightfully so. She had promised to pay for the damage in the window, and I was tugged out at the first chance she got. She didn't want to talk to me, she was furious. Her jaw set in a firm, motionless line, very much like a statue. Her chestnut eyes looked straight ahead, filled with nothing.
Filled with nothing.
The next day was silent as if somebody was missing. But it was just my mother and I, like always. A dull ache, in my head. My eyes stung, with exhaustion. The decorations for a party she had so meticulously and lovingly put up, still hung, almost as a reminder at what I had done. I felt as though I was walking through a grave. A grave of my mother's trust and support and love and respect, that she had developed for me, as her only son. The unopened graduation gifts perched on the dining room table, and when I tried to run away from it all, I was just confronted by a full fridge. It was crammed with party food. Canapés, ice cream, and sodas, even a few sneaky beers. Mini burgers, stuffed with lettuce, and a ludicrous amount of mayonnaise. Like she did 'em when I was small.
Fuck, fuck, no. I told myself, I was not going to cry. Don't cry, Chuck. Don't you dare, don't you dare, you better not, you fucking bastard. But everything became muddied up. The first tear came, which was then joined by the second one. I was crying, tears staining my cheeks. I was sobbing and then I tore up to my room. And I stayed there. I didn't get out of bed. Barely ate, barely slept.
A week later I got a job down at the convenience store. Sorting cans of beans from the incoming shipment of diapers. The week after that I moved in with my girlfriend, Joanie. Packing didn't prove difficult. I was a quick packer and all that I needed fit in the sports bag. What much would you need? A couple of shirts, underwear, pants... A wad of cash, that would keep you going for a bit. The bag, that had previously served as my baseball bag, I had now come to live out of. This became my new life and as fast as my days went, so did my life.