Breakfast in Philadelphia

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Photograph by Jeff Suwak

Hector’s mother nervously fingered her lips as she perused the menu. “Oh, this king-crab omelet looks so good,” she said. “It’s so expensive, though,” she added, eyes bulging out of her head.

“I told you to order whatever you want,” Hector said, trying to keep the edge of frustration out of his voice. “It’s all on me. Order ten crab omelets if you want them.”

She smiled and looked back to the menu. “Oh, I feel like a queen,” she said in a dreamy voice.

Tears welled up in Hector’s eyes. He pretended to be squinting in scrutiny of the menu in order to hide them. Even though no one else could see it, he and his mother had a third guest at this meal — there was Hector, Hector’s mother, and the cancer eating through his mother’s body.

After he was certain he had his emotions in check, Hector said, “You are a queen, mom.” He said it with a little laugh but didn’t find anything funny about it.

A couple weeks later he’d tell his friend Maria that the moment his mother said she felt like a queen had crushed up his heart like an empty beer can. The experience of being in a nice restaurant in a nice hotel shouldn’t have been so foreign to her.

If he’d been worth half-a-damn as a son, she’d have been eating at places like that every day. He’d sworn at fourteen years old, the day his dad died, that he’d give her and his siblings a life like that.

He’d failed.

“You’ve done better than anyone could have predicted, Hector,” Maria would tell him. “And you’re a great son. You flew across the country and gave her a weekend in a posh hotel to get her mind off her surgery. Quit being so damn hard on yourself.”

He would nod but secretly think to himself what a quitter and what a weakling Maria was, like all the other half-assed bastards in the world — like him. Winners find a way, and if he’d been worth a damn as a son or as a man he’d have had her living in the penthouse of that damn hotel year round.

The waiter came by and his mother nervously ordered a crab omelet. “Can I have that?” she asked and pointed at the entry in the menu, as though the waiter was some kind of circuit-court judge that may deem her unworthy of such an order.

His mother had a name, of course. It was Carolina. To Hector, though, as with all sons, her only real name would ever be “mom,” or “mother.”

There’s a scene in that movie The Crow where the main character says, “Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children.” Hector always liked that part. Most people didn’t pay attention to it because they wanted all the blood and ass-kicking and all that, but Hector loved that line and that subplot.

The waiter brought their food and they ate.

“So, where we going for next road trip, mom?”

“I don’t know, Hector,” she said, carefully picking out the crab meat from her omelet. “Right now I’m just thinking about the surgery.”

“You got that surgery by the cojones, mom,” Hector said. “You’ll be in and out, boom boom, dropping bombs on that surgery like Mike Tyson. I know it. I’ve seen you mad.”

She faked a little smile.

“Hey,” Hector said, ready to cut his own heart out and slap it down on his plate if it would make his mother laugh, even for just a second. “You remember that time I woke up from anesthesia and started bawling all over you?”

She did laugh now. It was the sweetest sound in the city of Philadelphia that morning or any morning.

“You always cried every time they put you out for anything.”

Their laughter trailed off and they went back to eating.

With her omelet done his mother looked up hopefully. “Before we check out do you think I could just sit up in the room for a while? I want to look out the window on the cemetery. I think it’s so cool that Ben Franklin’s buried there. I mean, he’s right there.”

“Stay as long as you want, mom. I’ll bum around down here and give you some privacy.”

“Then we’re going to go on that bus tour today, right?”

“Yep. Rocky here we come.”

She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, this is so cool.”

“Yea it is,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, though, next road trip let’s do something in the country, ha? These cities, man…too many people.”

“I used to hate crowds, too,” she said. “Now I kind of like it.”

They took the elevator back to their room and he got a book so he could go read in the lobby while she took her time alone in the room. She was already sitting on the edge of the bed and gazing down on Ben Franklin’s grave as he reached the door.

He paused to look at her. Tears again threatened to come to his eyes, but it’d take a Mongolian horde to make him cry. He’d promised himself to be her rock this weekend and through the whole cancer thing and through her whole life, if he had to. He’d promised that when he was fourteen, and he had no intention of breaking that promise.

Hector gazed on the profile of his mother’s sweet expression as she looked down on the dead of Philadelphia, and suddenly he felt absolute confidence that she was going to survive.

He’d pretended to believe that for a long time, but now he meant it. He wanted to fight all her fights. It was part of who he was. This time, though…this time he felt certain she’d win this one on her own.

She’d been no pushover, either. She just had a different fight style. Instead of Tyson, she was more like Willie Pep, master of footwork and defense, only boxer to ever win a round without throwing a single punch.

After dad died and she had to raise five on her own…she cried a lot and she was sort of sheepish and all that, but she never quit, did she? She kept right on fighting.

Not like Tyson, though. Nah, his mother was like Willie fucking Pep.

Without breaking her gaze from the cemetery, she asked, “Can you get me a coffee when you come back up?”

“But of course, my queen,” he said.

She was laughing as he closed the door behind him.

He made it all the way inside the elevator before his tears finally broke through.

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I’m not in the Matrix. I AM the Matrix.

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