“Do you want that apple now?” I ask my daughter, for the third time since boarding the train to New York City. I brought Anna’s favorite snack in my backpack, hoping that a Granny Smith might keep my temperamental teen satisfied on our trip to visit colleges.
“No, Mom,” Anna huffs, “I told you, I’m not hungry.”
As I turn toward the window, my mind wanders to a decade ago, when Anna, our fiercely independent middle child, disappeared.
She was one of those kids who would go off with a box of figurines, and lose herself in pretend play for hours. My husband or I would find her somewhere in our house, surrounded by her characters, her huge brown eyes flitting from one to the other, her wee lips muttering the voices in her imagined scenario.
But on this particular occasion, she’d been gone so long, we were concerned.
“Anna?!” I bellowed, eager to find her in a corner, lost in a complex drama involving Buzz Lightyear, Polly Pockets, and My Little Pony. Just as my mothering instinct was about to mobilize a grid search of our entire neighborhood, I heard something in the bonus room over our garage.
Sure enough, there she was, sitting in a heap of paper, pencils, yarn, fabric, and my sewing basket, dumped upside-down. “Lookit what I made, Mom,” she coughed out, her voice box sluggish from hours of dormancy.
Anna held up her creation, a full-length garment of white fleece. After making sketches in a Hello Kitty notebook, she settled on a sleek one-shoulder design with an elegant neckline and fitted skirt. Anna modeled her gown for us, and we looked on in amazement at the sophisticated silhouette and even hand-stitching. Apparently, Anna had seen someone do it on TV, and was now determined to be a fashion designer.
Ten years later, we’re on our way to The Big Apple to follow Anna’s dream.
Sitting beside my seventeen-year-old daughter, I still see her big brown eyes flitting, lost in thought. Intuitively, I know that she is envisioning what it would be like to be a fashion design student in NYC, walking city streets in stylish outfits, sketching on sunlight-dappled park benches, and hailing cabs to meet friends for lunch in Soho.
My baggy brown eyes are flitting too, but I am imagining rat-infested alleys, marauding pick-pocketers, subway stairwells reeking of urine, and catcalling ne’re-do-wells. My husband and I would much rather send our daughter to college somewhere in rural Vermont or Wisconsin, where sleepy Campus Police officers busy themselves writing citations for spitting on the sidewalk. But we know, Anna must see for herself.
Emerging from the subterranean chaos of Penn Station, we begin our two-day odyssey. Piles of old snow are melting, revealing a winter’s worth of grit, grime and garbage. Dirty water drips from scaffoldings and fire escapes above us, sometimes landing in our hair. The subway stations are a hideous cornucopia of acrid odors and filthy corners piled with discarded cigarette butts.
The housewife in me wants to spray the whole place with bleach and give it a good scrubbing. Anna, on the other hand, is mortified that I am a quintessential tourist, fiddling clumsily with my maps and subway diagrams, stopping every few blocks to mutter, “Now, which street is this?”
Despite her embarrassment, we manage to visit all the fashion design schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn in two days, using only a Metrocard, one $12 cab ride, and just under 42,000 Fitbit steps. After our last tour at Parson’s School of Design, Anna slumps over a chair in the admissions office, sore, tired, and overwhelmed with the realities of the big city college experience.
I thought I’d be relieved if Anna was disappointed with urban life, but my parental instinct to protect my daughter from danger is tempered by my need to support her dreams. “Hey, you want that apple now?” I offer, groping in my backpack. As I hand over the once flawlessly crisp Granny Smith, I see that it is now a mushy, oozing ball of bruises.
“Whaddya say we take a cab and go get chocolate shakes?” I say, tossing the fruit into the trash, “I know a great place on the upper East Side.” As we walk out into bustling Greenwich Village, I realize that, no matter where my daughter’s aspirations take her, she’ll always be the apple of my eye.