Mr. Heartbreaker by Leander Rose
“I don’t think this is a good idea, Jane,“ my mother flippantly announced to me for the third time. "You’re making a mistake.“ She had barely spoken a word to me in the last few days, unless it was to discourage me from moving. She stood in my bedroom doorway with her arms crossed in front of her chest and her lips pressed together in a thin line, watching me take the last of my clothes out of my closet and put them away in one of the many moving boxes. She had tied her brown hair into a strict bun at the nape of her neck. Combined with the pink cardigan and the grumpy expression on her face, she looked ten years older than she actually was.
"We talked about this,“ I replied with a sigh, straightening up to rub my aching back. It was only when you moved that you realized how much junk you owned. "Charly will be here with the van in a minute and then we’ll head to New York. It’s a done deal, Mom. Let it go.“
As I said this, I turned my back on her and let my gaze slide over the room that had been my retreat for twenty-four years. My bed was just made and looked like I was going to curl up in it tonight. Most of the books were also lined up in their places on the shelves against the wall. Only the dozens of boxes scattered everywhere indicated change. I would only take what I absolutely needed. Everything else I would leave behind.
I still remembered the pink wallpaper I had had as a little girl, or the blue wall color, during my worst phase as a teenager. Over the past two decades, this room had changed faces frequently, and I had changed with it, but had never managed to escape this room or my childhood home. Until now.
Behind me, my mother sighed audibly. "I don’t understand why they didn’t accept you at the bank. Your degree is top-notch, and your father knows Mr. Lennox from his own college days. The job should have been yours for sure.“ There was a whine to her voice at the last words, and I closed my eyes in annoyance. When I opened them again, it was easy to imagine that this room would no longer be my home after today.
I turned to my mother and faked a look of regret. Over the past few weeks, I had mastered that expression to perfection. "I know, Mom. The job would have been absolutely perfect and I could have stayed here in Chicago. But it wasn’t meant to be.“
A lie. A big, fat lie. My parents didn’t know that Mr. Lennox had enthusiastically offered me the job as a business account manager. My first day on the job would have been a month ago, but just the thought suffocated me. I hadn’t majored in business and intercultural management so I could waste away behind a desk at the bank.
I wanted to get out of Chicago, see something of the world. Get away from all the bad memories and out of my mothers reach, who always thought she knew what was best for me. I was twenty-four years old and had barely made a decision in my life that I could call my own. And it would continue that way for the next twenty-four years unless I moved away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say that out loud. The consequences would be disastrous, for my mother was not a person to be criticized. Unless one wanted all hell to break loose. I had led her to believe my move was necessary and yet she hardly spoke to me. How would she act if she knew the truth?
"To think you had to apply for a job in New York ...“ my mom began, leaving the sentence unfinished. This was not the first time she had brought up this subject.
"Mum,“ I said, annoyed, stroking my sweaty forehead. "You know what employment is like nowadays. I’m lucky to have found a job at all. I can’t afford a huge gap in my resume. That’s why we should be glad I got the offer from Denton. And it won’t be that bad. Charlotte and Cosima are coming with me, so I’m not alone.“
We held a staring contest for a while before my mother nodded in surrender and left the room with a look of defeat. I sighed and reminded myself that the job was worth all the excitement.
Denton was a large corporation with offices all over the world. The company was involved in a variety of industries. Everything from food to cell phones or computers and ships. Denton literally had a finger in every pie and the owners were among the richest people in the country.
In order to get a job there, I had had to go through four stages of a month-long application process. An online intelligence test, a telephone interview with HR who had pre-selected me, followed by a Skype conversation, and all that just so that I could take part in a two-day on-site assessment center, where I was put to the test.
My parents thought I had traveled to Seattle for a wedding. The truth was that I had worked my butt off and done my best at the various tests. Group discussions and staged crisis talks were not exactly my forte. So, it was all the more unbelievable that I had gotten the job. They had chosen me out of hundreds, oh no, thousands of applicants. All the stress of the last few years, the nights of studying, the additional essays, the many tears had been worth it. I got my dream job. The kind that would open up the entire world to me. I would move to New York with my two best friends, the city of dreams, and do what I wanted for the first time. I couldn’t imagine anything more amazing. Even if it meant disappointing my mother and starting my new life with a lie.
"That’s it,“ Charly puffed after we had hoisted the last box into the rickety van together. "It’s amazing how much you can fit in a van like that.“
I laughed and wiped beads of sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand. By now the sun was high in the sky and according to our schedule we should have been on the road long time ago. There was a stretch of nearly eight hundred miles ahead of us passing through a total of four states.
"Cosima’s lucky,“ I said breathlessly, clutching my right side where a painful stinging sensation was developing. "She’s flying from Sydney straight to New York.“
Our friend, and the third roommate, was a globetrotter and had been traveling for years. While Charlotte and I had been slogging through our lectures, Cos had been visiting the most remote places and living life to the fullest. I had almost stopped believing she would return. But the prospect of living with us in New York had convinced her.
Cosima traveled light, while Charly and I moved a complete household across the country. In addition to our clothes, we had packed all sorts of kitchen utensils that we would need and that our families had been able to spare. It was not an option to transport all of this by plane, so we had decided to drive. Under normal circumstances, we could have made the trip in twelve to thirteen hours. But with an old, crammed moving van that didn’t go more than eighty miles an hour, Charly and I would be on the road for a day and a half. We planned to spend the night in a motel and hit New York on Sunday at noon. So, I had less than twenty-four hours to settle in and unpack before my first day of work.
"Are you excited?“ Charly asked, gathering her long blonde hair into a bun and tucking it under her black Nike cap. As soon as she had done so, the first strands came loose again and hung in her face.
"I’m about to wet myself with excitement,“ I confessed to my friend, "aren’t you?“
As always, Charlotte appeared composed, and her outfit accentuated that impression. Her tanned long legs were poking out from baggy basketball shorts, and on top of them she had slipped on a black shirt that completely concealed her slender waist. "Will be fine,“ she replied, shrugging her shoulders.
I had to grin. Typical Charly. She was extremely pragmatic and didn’t believe in driving herself unnecessarily crazy. She took things as they came and found solutions to problems when they arrived. Unlike me, she didn’t imagine a hundred disaster scenarios. There was no one I would rather have driven across America in a rickety old moving van with.
"Time to say goodbye,“ she said, snapping me out of my thoughts. I looked at her in confusion as she nodded toward our house. My parents stood in the doorway watching us. Dad had put an arm around Mom’s shoulder and drew her close. His gray curls stood messily off his head – I had definitely inherited the hair from him – and he was wearing his dark red track suit that he liked to wear on days off. Dad looked composed, while Mum made a sour face. Yet my leaving had to be much worse for my father. He lost his only ally against my mother. Hopefully, he would do well without me.
Smiling sadly, I walked toward the two of them. With an angry snort, my mother tore herself from my father’s embrace and disappeared into the house without even looking at me again. My father threw me a regretful look and I forced myself not to let on how hard my mother’s behavior hit me. Sure, we didn’t have the best relationship, but for her to not even want to say goodbye to me ...
My dad closed the distance between us and drew me into his arms. He pressed me against him for a moment, the scent of his sporty aftershave rising to my nose. Then he pushed me off him and patted my shoulder awkwardly. My father was not a man of great displays of emotion, but we understood each other well enough.
"Don’t forget to watch the game on Sunday,“ he said in a raspy voice, pointing to my white Chicago Bears shirt that I was wearing under my short denim dungarees. Dad was a big football fan and had taken me to the games on the weekends. It had been our thing. Our mom-free zone. A few hours without nagging and bossing around. Now he had to continue that tradition without me.
"Drive carefully,“ he cautioned me sternly. "And remember to call us as soon as you get to New York.“
"I promise, Dad,“ I assured him, squeezing his hand.
Then I headed for the car. Charlotte was already behind the wheel. I climbed the small step, and in the passenger door, I turned to my father one last time and waved goodbye before slumping into the high seat and pulling the heavy door shut.
I expected my heart to contract painfully as I left Chicago. In movies, you always saw people turn and cast a last glance at their home with teary eyes. But I felt nothing but relief. Relief and freedom.
I opened the window, sank deep into the seat, and enjoyed the cool breeze brushing through my blonde curls and across my face as Charly expertly maneuvered the huge moving van out of our neighborhood and through the city.
"Fries and milkshake at the next service area?“ Charly asked, indicating to pull onto the highway.
Behind us someone honked and the next moment we were being overtaken by a Porsche with a roaring engine. As could have been expected, our little van was slow to move. But the car rental company hadn’t had anything else on offer that could be returned in New York.
"You can count on that,“ I replied with a grin. Shakes and fries were our tradition on trips together, and we hadn’t broken that tradition in ten years.
While Charly drove, I was fiddling with the knobs on the radio until I found a station I liked.
"I love this song,“ I exclaimed excitedly, turning up the volume.
"Sweet Home Alabama? Your taste in music is appalling, Jane,“ Charly pouted, but I was unperturbed and quietly sang along to the chorus until she, too, joined in and hummed along.
Trees and the Chicago skyline zoomed past us. The sky was cloudless and the sun was shining. I let my eyes drift to my best friend and tried to capture this moment in a snapshot in my mind. Charlotte in her black cap, sitting behind the huge steering wheel of the moving truck, navigating it like it was a piece of cake. The many moving boxes that could be seen through the small plexiglass window in the cargo area. Sweet Home Alabama and the sound of tires rolling steadily down the road, carrying us to New York. I inhaled deeply, a mixture of exhaust fumes, summer heat and the vanilla air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. This was what freedom smelled like.
Here it was ... the beginning of a new life.