We crept back into the living room, hoping to grab them from the windowsill and go, but Sylvia was still sitting where we had left her, staring into space. Light played over her fraying hair from the glass beads when we moved the shoes.
“Ashley,” she said, looking up, “I’m sorry.”
Startled, I turned to look at her. I had never heard her say those words.
Sylvia’s eyes went from liquid to solid in an instant, as her dominant and dominating persona regained control. “If you walk through that door, though, I swear to God, you will never get an ounce of support from me again."
Jeff and I just stared at her. "You are leaving your HOME behind! How could you do that?”
“Well I don’t want to,” I retorted, feeling my temper rise through my fear, “but Harry’s right." Jeff touched my back, and I took a breath and kept going. “I don’t have to live like this anymore. I’m tired of you yelling at me all the time. I’m tired of doing all the work and being called names. I deserve better than this.”
Her eyes softened again, and the rare vulnerability returned. “I am just so angry right now I can’t stand it. But Harry’s right. You don’t have to stay. You are winning, and I am losing the one thing...the one thing I have left of your dad. Who I really loved.”
Sylvia started crying again, and I felt a rush of empathy and sorrow. Why hadn’t she ever said this before? We had that in common. Things could have been so different. Why did she have to see it as a war? “I’m sorry, Sylvia,” I said. From the corner of my eye I could see Jeff rubbing his neck. He later joked that he got whiplash from her sudden mood shifts.
“Can you just do me one favor,” she asked, in a softer voice than I'd heard in years, since before she started taking me for granted. “Can you help me clean this mess up? I just can’t… I just don’t know how I’ll get through the day. With the girls and all. And then tomorrow…”
I looked at Jeff, whose inner eyebrows were creeping into his forehead, then looked at Sylvia, pressing her hand to her mouth, and realized I could end this on my terms. The mess she was referring to was a nicely set buffet table—with mom’s china—a few dirty dishes, and a pile of papers on the floor by her desk. I lifted my chin and said “Of course, Sylvia.” Together we stacked the plates up and put them back in the cabinet. She poured the punch down the drain and I packed it carefully back into the box, wrapping crumpled newspaper around each cup, dated from my parent’s wedding month. I folded the tablecloth—the way I wanted it folded. Jeff helped me put the plastic slipcovers back on the furniture, and bent to scoop up the piles of paper from the floor by the desk, from when Sylvia had cleared it in her fury.
“Ashley,” Jeff called out, “there’s mail for you.” Sylvia rushed towards him, laughing nervously, “You know! Maybe I should clean up my own desk! You guys can go.” But it was too late.
“It’s a letter from Castleton,” Jeff said, narrowing his eyes at Sylvia. He handed it to me and I tore it open.
“They accepted me,” I said, feeling the weight of my long and painful wait leave my shoulders. And when I got to the bottom, I shouted, “and a scholarship!” I jumped up and down. This was the dream I had been waiting for.
Jeff threw his arms around me and twirled me around and away from Sylvia. “I’m going there, too,” he grinned. That was the dream I could never have hoped for!
“I-I was waiting for Debra and Donna’s to come so I could give them to you all at the same time,” Sylvia stuttered, suddenly self-conscious. I stood up straight and looked her in the eye, trying to find some response to what I could see clearly now as bullshit. In spite of all the sincere emotion of half an hour ago, now I was just done with her. I opened my mouth up with every intention of speaking my feelings—the ones Harry had helped me articulate for the first time just two nights ago—but I couldn't bring myself to use the B-word. She probably deserved a flood of words more colorful than I could ever knit up with a tongue that had been trained to be as tempered as mine. But even Harry's words hadn't slowed her down. And I knew from experience that language like that would just fuel her fire. Plus, letting fly is just not my style.
So I took a deep breath and, permitting myself only the slightest whiff of snootiness, simply said, “Sylvia, I think you can clean the rest up yourself.”
Jeff told me later he wanted to laugh out loud. Instead, being the stud that he is, he took my hand and held it tight, drawing me gently away.
“Goodbye, Sylvia,” I said for the last time, taking that one big step out the front door and into my own life.