Smoke, Must, Dust

Peg Alford Pursell

In those days when we entered a store or a restaurant, my seventeen-year-old daughter and I, we received a variety of looks from the clerks or waitresses that ranged from cautious to uncertain to suspicious. She and I were always in opposition, barely managing to tamp down the conflict when others neared.

I scoured literature on parenting, consulted family counselors, listened to relaxation programs through my headphones.

She was a brooding beauty, who wore a graying white rabbit fur jacket that she’d found at a thrift store, with tiny skirts and thick-soled dark leather boots, and dyed her hair unnatural colors, blue, red, green. She knew that smoking cigarettes would harm her, that I didn’t want her hurting herself, but she smoked brazenly, and I didn’t say much, fearing the many other ways that she could damage herself, and maybe did.

The day she turned eighteen she was gone. I’d felt that departure coming all along, but the sight of her empty closet took the breath out of me. I fell to my knees, the carpet next to my face harsh and filling me with an amalgam of smoke, must, dust.

I lay there while the sky outside the windows passed from metal gray to dark.

When at last I learned that she’d traveled across the country to live with her father, I pictured myself curled up on her bedroom floor that day and was relieved she hadn’t witnessed my collapse. I called her father to make certain of her well-being, and in the days that passed before he returned my call, memories of him churned. Images of a man who’d set his mouth closed against anything that might seep out of it without his approval. His critical, watchful nature. The sense that there was someone inside that hard body unknowable, someone I wouldn’t take heart in knowing had I been able to.

His voice on the phone testified to the accuracy of my memories. He had no idea where my daughter was now. She’d come and gone. I’d done a lousy job with her. What a mess. Her showing up on his front step like that.

I think there’s something unacknowledged about survivors. It’s possible to want to be too good at it: survival.

When I think of my daughter now, I feel she was braver than me, never afraid to go too far.

What should we do with the rest of our lives?

What should I do?


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