The cat is lying dead in the center of the living room. His skeletal remains lie limp on the rug, his rough pink tongue peeking out between white lips. I should have expected this, but I am still jarred. I loved that old cat. Regardless, I curse under my breath and swipe at the sweat on my forehead. Damn cat. He would pick the hottest, most humid day of the century to kick the bucket. And both the kids are home—no postponing the sad news. As I approach the furry corpse, however, it lifts its whiskered head and meows plaintively. Ah. Not dead after all. Just hot. I lay myself down on the rug next to him, stretching out to assume the same pose. It is cooler down here. Considerably cooler. I close my eyes, breath in deeply and feel myself begin to relax…
“Mom? Mom! Mom, what’s wrong?!”
My teenage daughter descends on me, shaking my shoulders and shouting in my face. She is looking at me with something between anxiety and anticipation. Last month she completed a CPR certification course and I know she’s been itching to try out her new skills on a real live person. I am about to disappoint her.
“What? I’m fine,” I say, sitting up.
“God! I thought you were dead or something. Why are you on the floor?”
“The cat and I are just cooling off.”
“God, mother! That’s what air conditioning is for. Can’t you ever just be normal?”
“Air conditioning costs money—money I am saving for your college tuition,” I remind her. And then I cross my eyes, let my jaw drop loosely, and stick out my tongue. “And I amb normbal! Don’ I loog normbal to you?”
My daughter is not amused, but I did not expect her to be. Whatever momentary concern she’d had for me evaporated when she realized there was nothing to fear. I am happy to accept the small shred of love that made her worry for me in the first place; I have learned, over the years, to be grateful for the small things. Still, the scowl on her face is so like my own mother’s that just for an instance I am a teenager again, all angst and anguish before her fury.
But it is only my daughter standing over me now. I sigh, and plunge into the fray.
“So did you need something?”
My daughter relaxes her face and, like a quick-change artist, transforms into a reasonable person. “Can you take me over to Matt’s house… please?”
“I suppose I can,” I reply. “Although whether or not I will…” Almost immediately I regret my smartass response. Reason falls away and I am faced again with her smoldering scowl. She responds with a huff and an impatient eye-roll. I try again. “When and what for?”
“Um, like in half an hour. We’re just going to hang out.”
“Just you and Matt?”
“No, a bunch of us.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
It is my turn to sigh. “Child, I thought we discussed this already. I need to know details if you want to go out. I enjoy these little interrogations about as much as you do, so how about you save us both the agony and just give me the specifics up front?”
My daughter has this look that can burn holes through steel, I swear. It makes me shrivel inside and creates a burning need to lock myself away in the safety of the bathroom, which, of course, is exactly what she wants to have happen. She gives it to me now, speaking to me slowly like she would to a troublesome two year-old. “I don’t know who’s going to be there. Matt, obviously. Probably Luke and Rob and Tabitha and Chelsea and Ellen and Emily, but I don’t know for sure. We’re going to hang out. That means we don’t know for sure what we’re going to be doing—we’ll figure it out when everyone gets there. I don’t know what time we’ll be done because we don’t know yet what we’re going to be doing!”
I look at my not-dead cat and he looks back at me, licks his whiskers and lies down again. I could make a break for the bathroom now. I could probably make it before that teenage laser vision burns me to a crisp. But it really is too hot to move. I follow the cat’s lead and lie back down on the floor.
I close my eyes and play dead.
“You’re so ridiculous!” she howls and stomps away. The room is mine again, but the heat remains.
“Let me know when you have definite plans,” I call after her from the floor. Her bedroom door slams in response.
For the next few minutes at least, all I have to deal with is the cat’s snoring, the hellish heat, and the endless loop of my thoughts. I do not understand my daughter. Despite my best efforts to keep the peace, she seems determined to keep our relationship heated. Is this normal teenage behavior? I try to remember what it was like when I was my daughter’s age; an exercise I do not enjoy, but where I so often end up. I, too, had been locked in combat with my mother, but the circumstances had been so different.
At fifteen, I’ll admit, I was a mess. In what must have appeared to my parents as a sudden fever of self-destruction, their well-behaved, straight-A daughter had abandoned her friends, began skipping school, and was constantly in danger of failing her classes. They had caught me in so many pointless lies that every word out of my mouth had become suspect. Their concern had turned to exasperation and finally to resentment of all the tension I was causing. I sulked while my mother raged. At night I heard her muffled sobs, and alternately pitied and hated her. She never asked me what was wrong. I could not tell her what I believed she already knew.
My mother was a busy person, involved in a variety of community groups, the PTA and the local church. She was well liked and respected, and I had grown up knowing many of her friends admired her. Most evenings she was away, attending some meeting or charity event, and I was left in the care of my father. This was something I grew to dread. When I was little I used to beg her not to go, or to at least take me with her, but she always refused. I would watch her putting on her make-up, happy to be going out. I’m sure she was looking forward to her time away from childcare duties and household drudgery. I, on the other hand, sat curled on the edge of her bed feeling cold anxiety grow. And then she would be gone, and it would just be my father and I.
He tried to turn it into a treat—“a bonding experience” he called it. He would let me stay up late so I could watch Quincy, ME or Charlie’s Angels, two of my favorite shows. Sometimes he would buy us ice cream, or order in pizza for dinner. Then together on the couch, my head on his lap, he would stroke my hair and rubbed my back and tickled my legs. Sometimes, though—most times—there were things that my father wanted in return…
I was eight years old the night my mother came home early and found us. She came into the family room where we, my father and I, were still on the couch. She must have seen what was going on—I know she did—and while part of me was humiliated, drowning in guilt, another part was thinking, Finally! Finally! Now I will be rescued. But without a word my mother turned and left me there. I heard her climb the stairs to her room, and my father followed, leaving me alone. I remained where I had been, frozen with fear and shame. I waited. When finally she returned to me, she was terrifying; bright with tears and red-rimmed, her eyes burned into me.
“Don’t ever let this happen again,” was all she said before escorting me to my bed.
And nothing changed… except that now I knew she hated me, and in turn I hated her.
It took years for the end to come. It was a day in May, but a wave of hot, sticky weather had descended on us. School was still in session, and the classrooms, lacking air conditioning, were sweltering even with all the windows open. Instead of going to class, fifteen year-old me had been hiding out in the library, pretending to work on a research paper but really just distracting myself with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I was, that day, still smarting over the most recent fight I’d had with my mother.
“There’s something wrong with you,” she had accused. “I don’t know what it is, but I can’t keep doing this. Maybe a psychologist can figure it out. Maybe you need to be sent away.”
“Do it!” I screamed, uncharacteristically furious. “Do it! Call a shrink! Send me away! You just wait and see what I tell them!”
My mother, to my surprise, responded not at all to my threat. She looked at me for a moment, fists clenched, face scarlet, and that sea of boiling hate in her eyes, and then she walked away. Full of impotent rage, I stewed.
This was what I was trying to forget when my English teacher found my hiding place. It was his class I had been skipping, but rather than looking annoyed, he simply regarded me curiously. He had been watching me that semester, I knew. Every time I looked up from my work his cool blue eyes seemed to be turned my way. At first I had found his observation of me disturbing; I was naturally self-conscious, and sure that I was beneath the notice of most people. I couldn’t imagine why he was watching me. As the year progress, however, I became less concerned with his attention. It was odd, but not unpleasant. Maybe he watched everyone that way.
That’s the question he asked me, so simple and commonplace. I hadn’t known until then that I had been waiting for someone to ask me. He pulled up a chair, and without preamble, had given me the opening I needed. I hesitated for a moment, knowing things were about to change. He seemed to understand, and waited.
“Things are hard right now,” I said tentatively. “At home.”
“Trouble with your parents?”
He regarded me for a moment, took a breath and then began. “I’ve wanted to ask you… Sometimes you seem… I’ve been wondering, is someone hurting you?”
It was my turn now.
My teacher was silent. He was being careful now, I could feel it. I waited, a cold knot growing in my stomach, knowing it was all going to come out now. The relief I thought I was going to feel wasn’t coming. I felt sick.
Quietly, he asked, “What about your father?”
“You have to promise not to tell anyone,” I said in the smallest of voices.
“Is he beating you?”
I shook my head.
And all I had to do was nod.
He had never said he would not tell—it would have been criminal if he had—but I felt betrayed all the same as he lead me to the school counselor’s office and repeated our conversation. All the rage I had been bottling poured out of me as I accused him over and over, “You promised me! You promised me!”
I remember the tears in his eyes when he took my hand and simply said, “You’re going to be okay,” and I tried very hard to believe him.
He left me in the hands of the counselor who handed me to the police who passed me along to a detective. I was taken from the school in the back of a black and white cruiser and I thought I would die of embarrassment. At the police station I waited for the rest of my world to collapse.
They brought her to me, to the little interrogation room where I had been answering humiliating questions over and over again. She was crying when she came in. I was afraid of what I would see when she faced me, and the rage was there, but also something else.
“Why would you tell them something like that?” she hissed. “Why would you tell such a horrible lie?”
“I’m not lying,” I responded, but my voice was so strange and flat that even I doubted my sincerity.
Her face was crimson, and even through the haze of my despair I was worried for her. I would have liked to take it all back, but it was impossible. Every instinct I had was telling me to run, to put distance between me and this nightmare, but I couldn’t move at all.
A detective entered the room, and spoke to her. “Ma’am, your husband is here. You can see him in a few minutes.” And then to me, “I just thought you should know, he admitted to everything.”
It was a sort of miracle, but I felt so terribly cold. My mother’s eyes never left mine. As the detective left the room I watched her change. The heat in her eyes cooled, and then I could see what I’d glimpsed before. An ember of relief glowed there. Then she spoke to me for the last time, her voice uncharacteristically low and cold. “I don’t want to see you anymore. Don’t come home,” and I knew she meant it.
In less time than I would have expected, my daughter is back, fully primped and perfumed, looking fresh and vibrant despite the heat. I hate to admit it but I am envious. How does she do that—go from red-faced and furious to cool as a cucumber in minutes?
“Can we go now?” she asks.
“Are there details?” I daringly inquire.
“Ugh! Why do you have to be so ridiculous? Like I said, we’re just going to be at Matt’s house. I’ll call you if we’re going to go someplace else, okay? And I’ll be home by… midnight.”
“Eleven,” I say, just to remind her… or maybe me… whose boss. “You have work in the morning.”
“FINE! Can we go now?”
I’m not in the mood to play with fire, but I will ask her just because I always ask, because I really want to know.
“Are you okay, my girl? Is anything wrong?”
“What’s wrong is we’re still here and everyone is already waiting for me!”
This, I know, is as good as I’m going to get for now.
“Ok, let’s go,” I say, reluctantly leaving the floor.
The cat meows as I pass and I stop to scratch his head for a moment. He purrs and resumes his death pose. Smart cat. I find my keys and follow my daughter out the door into what will likely be more unbearably hot weather.