Yesterday I took Taylor back to her dad. Taylor is my 13-year-old first cousin once removed, the daughter of my cousin who died early last year, but we just say we are cousins because the rest takes too long and is still too painful to explain.
I barely knew her before the funeral, but since then she has been to New Orleans three times and I’ve seen her several more on visits to my family in Memphis where she lives with her father. He brought her here last Friday and stayed for the weekend, leaving us Sunday to pick up where we last left the quilt of a relationship we are piecing together, neither of us certain who needs the other more, but both aware there’s a space inside each of us that is smaller when we are together.
Most of the time my house feels too big for just me; with Taylor and her dad it seemed right-sized, but when he left I felt suddenly crowded. I never had children of my own, but with a teenager in my charge I felt like a new mother, responsible for her every waking moment.
She was not even 12 the last time she stayed with me. She was easily distracted then, camping out in the living room with the TV for long stretches, and usually falling asleep on the couch. She was a different person this time, much more of a grown-up, and I was worried she’d be bored, so I spent the first day or so talking too much and obsessively planning.
Taylor quickly made it clear she was happy just to hang out, and soon we developed a routine: We’d have dinner around 7, hang out with my laptop and her Twitter feed, then I’d go to bed while she’d stay up till long past midnight watching Netflix. In the morning, I was up at six, locking up the house and walking the dogs for an hour, then working till around 11 when Taylor would come into my office to let me know she was up and ready for breakfast. I’d sip iced coffee while she ate cereal and fruit, then around one we’d leave the house for whatever was on the agenda.
It still wasn’t easy. Taylor didn’t know what I expected of her, and vice versa, and Tuesday, when I got a text from her dad that she’d told him she wanted to stay till Friday rather than Wednesday, I was surprised—I really thought she’d be ready to go home, but I was pleased she wanted to stay.
Walking the dogs on the bayou early Wednesday, I felt my heart soar as a breeze lifted the swollen morning air and I realized that Taylor, asleep in her room at my house, would still be there when I got home. Thursday morning I felt the same breeze, but a heaviness had crept into my heart. Taylor was leaving the next day.
Friday morning I skipped the bayou, instead walking the dogs through the neighborhood streets. The weather report said a tropical depression was forming in the Atlantic, and could become the season’s first hurricane. Great, I thought. Another evacuation plan, alone. I took the dogs home and woke Taylor to pack.
We met her dad in Jackson, halfway between New Orleans and Memphis, at the Sweet Pepper Deli, and when we walked in he enveloped her in a bear hug and called her “Buddy,” and doted on her as she pilfered the food he’d ordered while he waited for us. Even as she rolled her eyes at his affections, it was clear she’d missed him and was happy to see him; still, she tried to include me, fist-bumping me at a story I told her dad that I don’t remember now.
The drive back from Jackson was hot and long. I cleaned the house when I got home, as I do every evening, and changed the sheets and towels in the guest bedroom and bath. I usually leave those doors closed so the pets don’t wander in, but last night I left them open. Once again, my house feels too big; but with Taylor’s room opened up, I remember that, sometimes, it can feel just about right.