Leah Mueller

Legal Age

The day after my 18th birthday
I wandered around Peoria
in twenty degree below zero
wind chill, trying to find
a hotel that would take a check
from a teenager with no luggage.

Several desk clerks turned me out
into the cold without mercy,
but the one at the Ramada Inn
took pity on me and said yes.

The room cost a fortune: $21.00.
More than I had in my bank account,
but I signed my name on a check anyway,
ripped it from its plastic binder,
got my magic key to liberation.

The room was luxurious: queen-sized bed,
wall radio, rotary dial telephone
with long distance. I called
my parents, told them not to worry.

My mother cried, screamed,
and slammed down the receiver,
so I phoned my boyfriend.
We laughed about my mother’s pain.
“I’m through with her forever,” I said.
“Good riddance,” he agreed.

Afterwards, I felt hungry, ordered
a hot fudge/butterscotch sundae
from room service, and listened
to “Year of the Cat” on the wall radio.

In the morning, I wrote the clerk
a second check for $20.00: charges
for my phone calls and sundae,
wandered into the frigid morning.

After I found the bus station,
I bought a ticket back to Peoria.
Everything was going to work out.
I’d never have to see my parents again.
Instead, I’d move to Champaign-Urbana,
get a job, work part-time in the evenings
and finish high school. I’d eat
ice cream sundaes for dinner,
and have sex without worrying
about being called a whore
by my jealous and violent stepfather.

I sat in the front row of the bus,
stared out the window and dreamed
of adventure. Adulthood stretched ahead
like an unbroken swath of highway.

When I arrived in Peoria,
my parents lurked at the bus station
with my three hyperactive siblings.
The pack had tracked me down.

Mom smoked a cigarette,
while my brother and sister ran
in circles on the linoleum floor.
“Come home,” she said.

“Just for one night,” I replied.
“I don’t have to stay any longer.
I’m an adult now, you know.”

I’d never held so much power:
comfortable hotel beds, bad checks,
ice cream sundaes, and the chance
to tell my parents to fuck off.

It would go downhill later,
but that didn’t matter now.
I was in charge of everything,
and my checks wouldn’t hit the bank
for at least a week. No one
would ever tell me what to do again.

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