I am seven years old when the police link my mother to a string of armed robberies in the area, seven convenience stores in Dillon County, South Carolina. I'm not sure who ended up bailing her out of jail. The night she stares into my eyes and tells me there's a good chance she may have to go away for a while, I laugh. I think she's joking. Until tears begin to slope down her cheeks and change everything. I know fathers sometimes leave their kids behind, either by choice or something else—I was three when my dad died—but not mothers. I believe they're invincible. Nothing can happen to them. They can do no wrong.
The judge sentences my mom to six years in prison. I move in with her sister, my aunt Yvonne, whose daughter and two sons don't like that I have to live with them. We're related, but we barely know each other. We fight over everything—who gets to watch what's on TV, whose turn it is to play the Nintendo 64. I try to be nice, but at the same time, I don't want to let them run over me. I am the oldest. "I'm getting sick of you," my aunt's five year old son tells me whenever I want to watch Nick News with Linda Ellerbe instead of Johnny Bravo. "I can't wait until your mom comes to get you."
Some days, when I feel I don't know a thing about my mom, I wear to school the sneakers she left behind. A pair of white Nike Air Force Ones that flop when I walk, even after I triple-knot the shoestrings. In class, teachers look me up and down, but mostly down. Classmates whisper to each other that I'm too poor to afford shoes of my own. Meanwhile, I tell myself it won't be long before my mom comes home. Six more years and it'll all be over. By the time you comfortably fit into these shoes, she'll be back.
The halfway house resembles what I imagine prison looks like. Pale and sterile. Too much gray. My aunt and I sign in at the front desk of the lobby. We stand there and wait for my mom. After a while, she walks in. She notices us and smiles. My mom is shorter than I remember. She hugs me and holds me as if she doesn't want to let go. I'm crying too, but she's sobbing harder. I can hear the gaps in her breathing, feel her chest heave. Her tears leave wet spots on my shirt. But I don't mind.
It seems every other week my mom has found another guy for Aunt Yvonne and me to meet. Last week, it was Jihad. Now it's this guy named Chris, tall and built. He stays at the halfway house too. I shake his hand and introduce myself. Later, while we're driving back home, Aunt Yvonne asks me if I like seeing my mom that way. "She's moving from one guy to the next," she says. I tell her I don't mind. My mom is a grown woman. She can do what she wants. "Well, I don't like it," Aunt Yvonne says. "Your mom needs to open her eyes. Those guys just want one thing and if she's still that same girl who doesn't care, she's going to give it to them." I don't say anything. I just turn and stare out of my window. Even she doesn't have the right to talk about my mother.
Because my mom has a job at this place called Labor Ready, the halfway house gives her permission to sign out for up to eight hours every day. Aunt Yvonne and I pick her up whenever she's not working and bring her home with us. While my cousins are outside with their friends, we play dominos, spades, and Scrabble. Some days we just watch TV. My mom cooks dinner. She cleans up around the house and asks Aunt Yvonne afterwards if there is anything else for her to do. "Monica used to not be so generous," Aunt Yvonne says one night after we've taken her back to the halfway house. "Maybe she's changed." I go to a boarding school, so when August comes I leave. Months later, my mom calls to tell me she's been released from the halfway house and has moved in with Aunt Yvonne. I can't stop smiling after she says this. I tell her how happy I am. I tell her how proud I am.
My mom tells me over the phone that she's pregnant. She asks how I feel, and I'm not sure what to say. I'm not sure how I feel. It's not that I don't want another brother or sister. It's the timing. She hasn't been out of prison for a year. She just lost her job. How is she going to afford formula, bottles, diapers, et cetera? I try to forget what Aunt Yvonne said about her moving from one guy to the next. But I can't. "Say what's on your mind," my mom says. I think: I can't believe you let this happen. But I tell her I'm excited. I tell her I can't wait.
I come home during a school break and learn that my mom has a new boyfriend. Aunt Yvonne tells me how my mom spends more time at his place than she does anywhere else, as if I can do something to change this. Later that week, my mom returns. Aunt Yvonne suggests that she take all her stuff with her the next time she leaves, so there can be more room in the house. My mom tells her she's not moving. Aunt Yvonne asks her why, then, is she spending so much time over there? They get into a shouting fest in the front yard, something I've seen happen only once before in this trailer park between a man and his wife. I look at the windows of other trailers to see if anyone is peeping out of their blinds, if anyone is shocked that it's not another couple arguing but instead two sisters. My mom calls her boyfriend and asks if he knows anyone who can come pick her up. He sends his sister over. My mom gathers her things and I help her carry them outside. She hugs me, tells me goodbye, and leaves.
I'm at school, having lunch with my friends, when someone mentions how old their parents are. They mention it in passing, while they're telling a story, but it turns into a conversation. I learn that almost everyone's parents are either in their late forties or early fifties. Some are older. I'm reminded that my mom is a little young to be my mother. She was a junior in high school and pregnant. Months later, someone took a picture of her at graduation. It's been a while since I've seen it. It's a nice picture. With one arm, she has me, a ten month old, pinned to her chest. With the other, she is holding up high her diploma.
Before she drops me off at Aunt Yvonne's, my grandma takes me to see my mom. My mom is sitting outside on the porch when we pull up. The first thing I notice about her is that she's gotten bigger. My new baby sister will be here any day now. I meet the dad and he seems fine. His name is Heavy. He's tall too, kind of muscular. I guess that's my mom's type. My grandma and I stay for only fifteen or twenty minutes. My mom hugs me tight, hands me a five-dollar bill. "It's not much," she says. I don't care. I wouldn't mind if she gave me nothing, if she only hugged me and said goodbye. I tell her thank you. Before I go, I hug her again.
I stay a couple of nights with my mom and Heavy, and that's when I realize a few things: First, my mom and Heavy don't live alone. They're staying with Heavy's uncle Mr. Wayne, who is in his sixties and owns the house. Second, the house only has one bedroom. There is a cot in the living room and that's where Mr. Wayne sleeps. Heavy lets me sleep in the bedroom and relocates to the couch in the living room. I lay on one side of the queen bed, my mom on the other. Third, my mom, Heavy, and Mr. Wayne are broke. None of them are employed. My mom is pregnant, Heavy's looking for a job, and Mr. Wayne is on dialysis. One day, my mom, Heavy, and I decide to go to the grocery store. It's a fifteen minute walk. My mom gets food stamps, and that's how she, Heavy, and Mr. Wayne survive. On the way back, we pass this apartment complex where I've seen dime bags of weed slip from one person's hand to the next, sometimes in broad daylight. I've also heard stories about the gang fights and shootouts that have taken place there. When we see a cop car drive into the apartment complex, I walk faster. I don't want to know what happens next. I don't want to worry about my mom any more than I already do.
I find the graduation photo while I'm at school, in my dorm room, flipping through an old album my mom gave me. The book is filled entirely with pictures of my mom and me—or so it seems. I come across one that's different from the others. It is a picture of my mom standing in her front yard one Sunday morning while the sun is shining. She's on her way to church. Her hair is curled, she's wearing a white blouse and a cream-colored skirt to match, and she's smiling. This photo was taken before the graduation photo, before I was born, when I imagine my mom was the happiest she's ever been. What happened? I'm not sure. Life, maybe. We predict we're going to end up at one place or another, and really, how many of us actually get there? I don't know where my mom envisioned herself going when she took this photo. I don't know where she sees herself ending up now. All I know is that there was a bit of hope in her eyes, a sliver of it that gleamed like the sun, and if you took the time to ask me, I couldn't tell you where the hope is now.