Graduation

“I’m joining the Marines.”
“Hah, okay.” I snorted into the phone, picking at my denim comforter.
I’d had to transfer schools so I could come home in time to watch Aaron, so these secret phone calls while my mom was at the store were usually the only times Anthony and I got to catch up—unless we decided to skip school that day.
“I am. I went down to the recruitment center today and signed up.”
““Uh-huh…hang on…Aaron—no, you can’t have another Capri Sun! Go do your homework—your homework—because mom said! Whatever, I’m telling when she gets home…Sorry, back…so, does Katy know?”

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“Yeah, I told her. She’s cool with it. I don’t sign the paperwork until I ship out, though.”
“Sure.” I rolled my eyes. For kids like us—high school dropouts, kids who had to get their diploma through the Miller Education Center, or who graduated by the grace of God and credit recovery classes—the choices were usually community college, fast food, or the military.
How many of us had promised to enlist, hoping to escape a dead-end career flipping burgers? How many hours did we spend at the recruiting center, doing P.T. with sergeants who hungrily eyed pretty girls and drank cheap whiskey alone in their office on rainy Christmas mornings? How many practice ASVABs and glossy, full-color pamphlets did we take? How many military haircuts did we get “just to see” how it would look when we arrived at basic? It was a phase we all went through. Only a few of us actually went through with it. I had already traded in the idea of being an Army journalist for the safe, predictable route of junior college.
No, Anthony wouldn’t enlist. This was just another phase, like his high school punk band Los Gatos Quatros, or the time he found The Anarchist’s Cookbook on the street, and got sent to summer school after his mom found the makings of several tiny, impotent bombs under his bed.

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“I ship out at the end of June. Right after graduation.” He sounded pretty serious…but he always did, even when he was full of shit. Especially when he was full of shit.
“Hang on…Aaron—no, you can’t have another Capri Sun! Go do your homework, mom said!…Sorry, back…so…leaving in June? Sure. Uh-huh.
“Stop saying ‘uh-huh,’ you fuck!”
“I mean…I would, if I actually thought that—“ Down the hall, the locks on the front door started to rattle. “Shit I gotta go talk to you later!” I ran out of my room, taking long, leaping strides to avoid any potential thumps of footfalls. I jumped past the (still rattling, but almost open) front door, and leapt into the kitchen just in time to put the phone on its cradle before my mom opened the door. I opened the cabinet above the phone, pretending I was getting a glass for water.
“Hi mom!” I smiled wide. She had a sour look on her face today. Must have been a bad day at work. Her purse was hanging from her forearm, half open from fishing out her keys, contents haphazardly threatening to tip out onto the floor. Her thinning, peroxide-blonde hair looked wild, and fried at the ends. She dumped her purse on the dining room table and shrugged off her mud-colored raincoat.
“Were you on the phone?”
“No! Nope—hey Aaron’s outside, he asked if he could go play earlier and I said no not until he finished his homework and he didn’t listen to me so he—“
“Okay, I’ll talk to him.” She wouldn’t. “I’m going to take a shower. Start dinner—I have a corned beef roast in the fridge. Follow the directions on the packaging.” As she half-shuffled, half-stomped her way to her room, I let out a sigh. At least today, she was too tired to argue.

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A week later, I sat with my mom in the living room, tracing the abstract floral embroidery on the loveseat. She was insisting on throwing me a “Good Luck at Community College” party at my favorite local Mexican restaurant, complete with formal invitations, a “wish list” for graduation gifts, and all the taquitos a dozen high school seniors could inhale.

“Honey, this is your graduation party!“ she had smiled brightly at me, brandishing a to-do list and Bic pen. “They’ll want to give you money! That’s what this kind of thing is for!
“But mom, I’m not graduating.” She shrugged off my concerns.
“Oh, lots of people throw these kinds of parties when they go off to college, whether they graduated or not! It would be weird for you not to have one! Now, you’ll want to have a guest book…”

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The day before the party, Anthony boarded the plane to San Diego. Adam, my boyfriend and eventual ex-husband, was also absent—although that didn’t really bother me as much. My party had been scheduled for a weeknight, so he was at Fort Lewis, furiously masturbating and texting me from his barracks. I’d see him next weekend. But Anthony—the Anthony I had known—was gone. Three months of boot camp would completely obliterate the guy I’d ridden home on the bus with, smelling like rain-soaked clothes and sweat.
I sat slouched in a patio chair at my favorite Mexican restaurant, half-heartedly nibbling at some taquitos and making awkward small talk with Katy. She was a plain girl—dishwater blonde hair, slender build, wire frame glasses set on a long, ovaline face with large, slightly tilted teeth that made me think of her as a rat. I hadn’t expected her to come. I hadn’t wanted her to come. I only invited her because if I left her out it would be “tacky,” according to my mom. We’d never been close in the best of situations, and here she was, and there Anthony wasn’t.

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“So…” I cleared my throat. “Did you see Anthony off yesterday?”
“This morning, actually.” She cast me a sideways glance. “He spent the night at my house last night and my family took us to the airport.”
“Oh…” I nodded slowly and took another sulky bite out of my taquito.
At the head of the table, my mother rose to her feet, clearing her throat significantly.
“I’d just like to make a toast…” Her words were just slightly slurred, and she pressed against the front of the table with her thighs for support. Earlier, my near-teetotaler mother had ordered a few rounds of margaritas for the adults—quite a few, judging by the number of empty, salt-rimmed, blue Rocco pitchers on that end of the table. I avoided Katy’s gaze with horror.
“We’re just…so proud of you, Tiffany, and…after all we’ve been through…” I slunk farther into my plastic chair, staring at my hands in my lap. I began to feel light-headed, flushed—the early summer warmth was suddenly stifling, and I felt as dizzy as my mother appeared to be.
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I heard a series of quiet hiccups from my mother’s direction—she had begun to tear up. I cut a vicious glance at the plastic, table top topiary my mother had set up as a “money tree.” Wars had been fought over that money tree only weeks before. A war I had lost. Various envelopes of cash and gift cards were pinned to its branches, and I projected every ounce of anger and embarrassment at each plastic leaf and raffia-wrapped branch. 

This was all the tree’s fault.
Several hiccuping moments later, my mother still had not managed to continue her toast. My grandma stood up, smiling broadly and attempting to save the speech.
“And we just know you’ll go on to do great things in life!” Everyone applauded except my mother, who was glowering at my grandma from the end of the table. Her moment had been stolen.
That night, after my mom and I cataloged every envelope full of cash, gift card, and Hallmark sentiment, I sat at my desk, staring at my computer with the vacant hope that it would do something to lift the vague feeling of dread that had been building all day. Suddenly, I remembered a small ray of light from earlier in the day. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the tiny slip of paper Katy had given me at the party. It was Anthony’s boot camp address.
“I know he’s going to be having a hard time, so I’m trying to get everyone to write as many letters to him as they can.” She planned to write one every day—a goal she would accomplish.
I wasn’t going to write him every day, but at least I could say hi…let out some of the stress of the day…pretend he was there to talk to, then wrap my words up in my own envelope and slip it into the apartment complex’s out box before my mom could analyze its contents.
I ripped out a piece of notebook paper from one of my many, many journals, and clicked my favorite gel pen.

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Dear Anthony,
Hey Fucker,
What’s up?
Hey. I hope you’re doing okay. Today fucking sucked.