Eric’s T-shirt — a short story

“You can’t wear a T-shirt to a graduation ceremony!” I complain.

Eric holds his gown tightly closed, but I can see his shirt has no collar.

“And how many graduation ceremonies have you attended?”

It’s a low blow; he knows how my lack of formal education bothers me.

The year Eric turned fourteen, his father decided to trade me in for a younger model, one without stretch marks on her stomach. When I called to ask if he wanted to come to graduation, he just said, “I have another appointment.”

Actually, I didn’t want to invite him; it’s not as if he’s contributed a penny to Eric’s education.

The year Eric turned fourteen, he started listening to that music. Songs that kept on and on without any tune; all you’d hear was thug-thug-thug. Sometimes I regretted his father not taking the sound system too.

“Are you done?” I ask. “The ceremony starts in an hour and we still have to find parking.”

“Relax, I’m going to throw a few eggs in a pan first.”

“No! You’ll mess up your clothes. Just have coffee.”

And in his fourteenth year, he started hanging out with those friends. Dudes with bangs covering their eyes, who always wore black. What were the teens grieving for? For their own or their parents’ lost lives? His friends’ parents were all much wealthier than me and when he said he wanted to go to college, I panicked.

Eric wants to be an accountant. I’m proud that he’s inherited my head for numbers. Of all the debtors’ clerks at work, I’m the most accurate.

For extra money, I started baking and decorating birthday cakes on the side. Often till 2 am. Eric got a part-time job as a server. Between the two of us we only just afforded the tuition every year.

We did not fight less. About his girlfriends, about him not studying hard enough, about him not wanting to attend church, about the earring, about the tattoo.

Just like we’re fighting today.

“Don’t overdress, Mom. People might think we’re trying too hard. And do you have to wear pink? It makes your cheeks look red. “

“I still say one doesn’t wear a T-shirt under a graduation gown!”

“Shut up, Mother!”

We fight about who should drive.

He wins.

We fight about the route, about him tailgating other cars.

As we walk into the large gray building, I look closely at the other students with their black gowns. “You see, everybody is wearing a shirt with a collar.”

I easily find a spot because I’m alone; there are plenty of single seats available. Someone plays an organ as if we were in church. The people also speak as softly as if they were in church.

I look for Eric’s name in the program, find it among the Groves. I look for him among the rows and rows of students; I recognize him because, from behind, he looks just like his dad. I have to swallow to get rid of the lump in my throat.

Everyone stands when a long line of professors enters from the back of the hall. Two of them walk onto the stage. The students move up the side steps like a long row of black ants, disappearing behind the stage curtains, re-appearing one by one as their names are called.

First, they stop for the photographer and his flash. Then they walk to the professor who’s called out their names. Everyone gets a roll of paper. There are many students, but if the professor says “with honors” after the name, the people clap a little harder.

When the G’s start, I feel my stomach turn. What if Eric falls or something?

“Eric Grove!” cries the professor.

Eric waits for his picture to be taken, then walks on. In the middle of the stage he stops, and then yanks open his gown.

The people gasp. Then, one by one, they start clapping and standing up. Even the professor’s applauding.

I stay in my seat. I bite my lip until it bleeds, but the tears won’t stop.

“Thanks, Mom!” say the bold, black letters on the white T-shirt.