Mother rushed me across the country after Daddy tried to send me away to boarding school. Commit her or at least send her away for being a bad parent. Someone too open and free, he said, who talked about particular things too openly. Relationships. Homosexuality. Rights. Things he said no 14-year-old boy should know about yet.

We sped across the country in her Chevy Bel-Air, traversing hills and valleys, small towns and cities with grace and verve. Mother always asked how I was. How I really was. She said it with a kind of businesslike quality, but I knew she meant it. There was a fervency behind her clipped words.

She also asked me to call her Penelope, shed “Mother” behind. “Mother” was something too domestic, she said. Something that conveyed order. Precision. Things she despised. She even forbade the use of the word love.

“Fucking depressing,” she said, taking a long drag of her Chesterfields, blowing rings of smoke into the air. “Love is what I thought I had with your father. Caring is another matter. You care for children. You love because you’re a fool.”

I pined for love. I liked the simplicity and the weight of the term, the kind of constancy and connection it conveyed. The sensation that the world could come apart, but you’d survive, knowing that you had that connections. She used to say she loved me all the time, back at home, especially after one of Daddy’s sessions criticizing me for being too weak or sensitive.

When I brought love up, she changed the subject to politics, or would turn the radio to some jazz station, listening to artists like Erroll Garner. She’d wanted to be a lounge singer, crooning Cole Porter’s standards. Sharing rawness and longing with the world, she said. All things that marrying Dad took from her, someone who once shared her love for the artistic. The injustices of the world, the racism and all.

“He turned into a monster, Nicky,” she said. “Power corrupts. Mister Wonderful turned attorney. Now he just milks people. Including us. He just needs an excuse to look like a reactionary asshole. He doesn’t care how I raise you. And you want to count on love?”

This she said with a harsh laugh. I imagined her in some club, sharing her voice with the world. I imagined her sinking into marriage, voice being silenced. I felt sorrow and relief. Selfish relief. I didn’t want to share her, feel implicated by her. By the songs she crooned, as if I were to blame for the rawness and sorrow that filled her like some vessel.

I asked for love and she laughed, told me not to be fatuous. I felt a certain weight in her eyes, however. A desire to share something deeper; some secret, even. She looked as if she wanted to hug me, shield me from something. But she couldn’t. I dropped the matter for the time being.

She sped on; we hid out in small-town motels with neon signs, sharing small spaces. I took comfort from it, Mother in lavender nightgown in the next bed. Reading Lolita, teaching me some of its most intriguing vocabulary. Philistine. Cognomen. Nymphet, even, something that connoted the mysteries of sex and youth. I absorbed the way she moved about in the early morning, the gentle clickety-clack of feet. Even the way she whispered good night.

It wasn’t enough, though. Love lingered, an unspoken word, subordinated to pragmatism, to the weight of dollar bills and our next journeys.

I needed love and she refused to talk of it even more. Love doesn’t buy safety, she said. Daddy was on the trail, growing closer. Love became less important, but I felt all the more alone. I traveled with Mother, but I might as well have been on my own.

I wept and she told me to keep it down, albeit with gruff tenderness. We discarded our names, used aliases. Love and identities were flung with desperation. I felt sorrow and love and bitterness for my mother, all mixing like ingredients in some strong cocktail.

We sped into the world, the whirl. We ended up in some small hamlet, whose name I cannot even remember. Dad kept hunting, dropped off the grid. Rumors abounded. He ran off with another man, he went to Europe. I don’t know what’s true. I grew cynical, still held onto the word, wished for things she couldn’t give me. Even now, I think of these things: love, tenderness, connection; imagine their softness. I imagine the consistency of things, of having love to depend upon.

Penelope would tell me not to. But I cannot put the dreams aside any longer.

I need. How I need.