When You Leave

Sara Cutaia

You grew up poor, but if you rode your bike around your small town collecting enough empty bottles and sold them, you could make $100 a week. Sometimes you used the money to buy old records from the store a few miles away, but mostly you saved it. For what, you didn’t know. All the other seven-year-old boys would sit around counting out nickels and quarters and you would watch them, wondering why they did it – their families had money. It made you wonder about the act of bottle collecting versus what it got you: an activity or a means to an end. Maybe they spent the money when they all went on vacation to those foreign places that you had never heard of. You asked your dad about why you never went anywhere, and you remember how he had swallowed the bite of apple he was chewing and scratched at his stubble.

“They’ve just got more money to spend on fun things, that’s all,” he said, tapping your chin. “But Noah, you’re a good kid, ok?”


“Do they make fun of you?” Mom asked.


“Don’t let them make fun of you,” she said. “You tell me if they ever do, ok?”


“Hey,” Dad said again, slowly, looking you square in the eyes, “You’re a good kid.”

Your mom heard the clink of glass on glass and found you counting bottles once in the corner of your room. They were bottles you’d found around town, but also recently around the house. She sank to her knees amidst your mental calculations, her skirt billowing around her.

“Noah, what are you doing?”

“Makin’ money,” you said, and kept counting.

“Why don’t you go outside?” She checked her tiny watch on her even tinier wrist.

“Nah,” you said. “I want to finish this.”

She stood up then, a sigh escaping from her chest and drifting across your face. It smelled faintly of mint and liquor. She used a finger to push aside the thin curtains of your window, looking out at the quiet street. You could sense rather than see the sadness coming from her.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked down at you as if she was surprised she was still standing in your room. Or maybe she was surprised you noticed.

“Noah, go make friends. You’re going to end up lonely.”

When Dad would get home from the studio, you would bombard him with questions. Who did he meet? What did he play? What songs did he hear?

“Slow down, little buddy,” he said, removing his boots by the door. He looked over your shoulder as he unlaced them, probably watching Mom set the table. He only made it home every other week, because he worked at the recording studio over 100 miles away. “Here, I got you this.”

From his pant-leg he pulled out a small black notebook, slightly curved, like a mold of his calf. You opened it to find blank, lined pages. They were crisp and white and they whispered as you flipped them together.

“I know I’m away when you want to tell me things, but I got you this so you can write them down. So you don’t forget, and then you can tell me later.”

You gripped the notebook tightly, a warmth in your fingers where they touched the leather binding. It was just like your dad’s, except smaller. Like you. He squeezed your shoulder and stood up, looking at your mom silently moving around the kitchen. You went to your room to write things before dinner – whatever you could think of, as long as it filled the pages. You wrote about the time Johnny found the harmonica in a box under his brother’s bed, and you convinced him to learn to play it instead of selling it. You wrote about Landon’s lighter collection, the one he added to every time you passed a 7/11 because people always left their empty ones lying on the windowsill. And you wrote about the big world outside your town, the one you didn’t know about, and because you didn’t know, you thought you could be so much bigger than it. Bigger, better, braver.

When you made it back to the kitchen, your mom was slamming plates into the sink, scrubbing them with force, and your dad was staring at his hands at the empty table.