On Love and Mothers

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Megan Massaro

Teenage relationships. Adults don’t take them seriously. I mean, I love Matt, and no one seems to believe me. There are two reasons for the lack of faith in the experience of teens, from what I can garner from the grumblings of those over the age of 20something. One argument is that I do not know what love is, because I don’t have children. Once I have kids and have to buy them cars, diapers, a college education, new shoes every six months, and weekly McDonald’s, only then will I understand the true meaning of sacrificial love, and then I can say that I love Matt. And from what I see around me, I will have been divorced for six years already when I reach this point.

The second reason adults don’t take teenagers seriously is because they are jealous, and refuse to admit the truth. The adults I know have a 45 minute commute in traffic (uphill, both ways, of course), because they’ve decided to establish their family in the suburban utopia, far from the violence, failing school systems, cultural diversity, and low tax rate, of the city. They sacrifice to send their children to public schools that are showcases of innovative learning and high standards on paper, but reek of marijuana and cheap sex after hours, since there is little to do in a town at the middle of nowhere. These adults are bitter, because they’re working long crappy hours with, like, a two second lunch break, all for us, Generation X. They have high standards for our academic success, and harbor the unspoken expectation that we will succeed in all areas of life, because we owe it to them. Just like they overwork themselves, we should too. And we certainly shouldn’t have time for the luxury of love, because from the looks of things, they don’t either.

That’s my theory. Mother is convinced that I am naïve and immature, and not applying myself in school and in life, because if I was, I wouldn’t have time for lust. (She refuses to call what we have love.) I argue that if I live my life the way she wants me to, I’ll never have time for love. Matt doesn’t agree with my theories. He thinks that our parents probably feel like they are “supposed to” tell us that having sex at fifteen is a bad idea, but that since they did it too, they probably don’t really care. It’s all just a formality. He told me not to worry, that my mom will never find out anyway.

June 15, 1996

It all went down on my Friday afternoon shift at Star*land Rec Park…

The heat of the sun was inescapable. I tried to shade my already freckled cheeks with my hand, but I thought my nail polish would start dripping. I didn’t see many kids running around, so I figured I’d be safe taking a quick break from the ticket booth. I ducked under the metal umbrella of the carousel and sat down on a white elephant who had one chunky leg in the air. It looked sad, or maybe scared, like someone was coming to get it, and it knew that wherever it was going wasn’t going to be good. I tried to pick a different circus animal every time I took a break, but I was drawn to the elephant more often than not.

Luckily no one was at Star*land because of the heat, and my supervisor was off flirting with the Clara, the girl working the slushy machine. He was a college sophomore; she was a high school senior. Clara was one of the A group girls: great soccer legs, long, straight brown hair, sparkling white teeth, straightened by her father, famed local dentist; popped collar and dangerously low tee-shirt that her breasts floated out of as if they were buoys in water. Curse Mother’s mosquito-bite genes.

Even though Clara never said a word to me, according to the unspoken rules of the high school hierarchy, she didn’t like me. I didn’t play sports. I wasn’t on Student Council. I didn’t have loyalties to any one group, which made me dangerous—it meant that I could date anyone (but at the same time, no one, safely) because I had no affiliations. It meant that I wouldn’t follow those carefully scripted, yet subject-to-change-at-the-whim-of-the-A-group, laws of social circles. The older I got, the less it bothered me, though I did hate the awkwardness that existed at work when I had to make my way to the refrigerator for my lunch, or punch out at the time clock in the kitchen, where all the A group girls congregated. They used their status, their curves, and incessant whining to convince the horny male supervisors that they needed to be together, inside, because if they worked outside at the carousel or the go-karts, their skin would burn and wrinkle prematurely. Never mind the fact that they spent their days off at the beach or playing tennis, or their winters at Tan-o-Rama. What they really meant was that it was seen as eternally uncool to be alone, at a kiddie carousel. Apparently popping frozen chicken nuggets into the industrial oven took two people. And redeeming tickets at the prize counter necessitated at least three girls to ensure that the number of tickets was counted accurately, thus securing their summertime A crew.

Star*land Recreation Center, a glorified outdoor playground for teenagers and former high school athletes, was the biggest employer in town. Everyone aged 15 – 18 that needed a job (and some that just couldn’t stand to be left out), worked here from April to October. I would rather have been a nanny, or a camp counselor with Steph. Star*land was just a mile from my house though, so Mother insisted I apply for transportation’s sake. I knew that if I accepted a job where I relied strictly on her for rides, I’d be pulling my hair out by day two. She tends to start large projects, or drive to faraway shopping malls about five minutes before she needs to be somewhere else. It drives me nuts.

Just before lunch time, while mentally preparing myself for the moment when the conversations ceased and phony smiles lit up like the girls were on one of Clara’s father’s low-budget tv commercials, I revisited the idea of idea of working with Steph. Which was worse: summer with the A group, or extended hours at camp because my mother can’t tell time? I was totally engrossed in chewing away at the sides of my thumb nail bed, spitting out chips of nail polish and bracing myself for the inevitable awkwardness that normally left me grasping for words, or worse, immediately regretting the ones I did utter. I didn’t hear my name being butchered and paged over the tinny loudspeaker. It wasn’t until I approached the ticket window, ready to duck into kitchen to steal away with my lunch, that I heard Mother’s voice behind me.

“Excuse me, young lady.” It was the icy tone of a mother on a mission. All business. Before turning around, I savored what I sensed to be the last moment of this summer’s freedom. I even let her call me again.

“Mary Theresa Mulrean. I know you heard me. Get in the car right now.” She clearly meant business. I wasn’t sure if running was the best option. I knew a short cut home through the woods, but Mother stood between the exit and me. The only other way was via route 53, but only two people actually walk along the highway: Red Man, the Vietnam War veteran who wears the same red clothes every day and lives in a perpetual state of PTSD induced hysteria, and Lani Surprise’s mother, who lives in low-income housing and doesn’t own a car. I opted to turn around and face my mother’s wrath, but to my surprise, she wasn’t the only one standing behind me. I looked at Dad’s sheepish grin, and tried to read his face. He didn’t give away anything, though I sensed his discomfort and lack of confidence immediately. He dropped his chin when I tried to question him with my eyes, and scuffed his foot in the dusty path around the carousel. I suddenly felt dizzy.

“You’re early,” I said stupidly. As if I really thought they were there to pick me up for the end of my shift.

Mother simply turned on her heel and did her fast walk to the car. Dad looked up at me once again, his expression an enigma. Was he pleading with me to make a run for it with the likes of Lani Surprise and Red Man? Or was he apologizing ahead of time, and asking me to endure what was to come? His face didn’t betray any reason for this unexpected visit. I thought better than to ask him if my supervisors were aware I was leaving. Knowing Mother, they did.

I sat in the back of the car with Dad driving, and Mother in the passenger seat. She wouldn’t turn around. Her knuckles were white during the two-mile drive home, despite the fact that Dad was driving just about the slowest I’d ever seen him drive. I think he may have been dreading the conversation that was about to take place more than I was, simply by virtue of the fact that he knew what it was about.

“Aunt Molle died, didn’t she?” I asked, hopeful. I mean, I liked her enough, but I figured better her than me.

“No, Mary. She didn’t. But your summer just did. We quit your job,” Mother started, while I wondered how one person quits another’s job, “and you’re moving down the cape for the summer. To live with Lisa.” Nail in the coffin. Shoot me now. I wasn’t moving down the cape to hang out with Anne and Tom for a few weeks, nor would I even be living with Dad, which wouldn’t have been entirely horrible.

“But she just had a…” My voice trailed off when I saw the fiery arrows shooting from Mother’s eyes. I even thought I saw her nostrils flare and puff out some steam, but I must have been delusional. I was starting to catch on. Lisa just had a baby. Dad’s baby. She was married, met Dad, got pregnant by him, and figured she could just divorce the other guy and marry Dad. Like an even exchange. But Dad refused to commit, and she’s now living one street away from him with a baby and an impending divorce. My head sank into the seat back and my posture slackened. The tears began to flood my eyes, and I knew I was done for. I wouldn’t see Matt more than once a week at this rate. I didn’t get my license until November, and things were already rocky with his car privileges because of his grades.

We rode the rest of the way in silence, Dad checking his rear view mirror religiously every fifteen seconds. To make sure I was still there? Where could I go? If I tried to jump out of the car (and the thought crossed my mind), I had a sneaking suspicion Mother would pull an Inspector Gadget and go-go-gadget-arm me. This silence gave me plenty of time to conjure up worst-case scenarios. I wondered if they found out that I stopped eating for a few months? Is this because of that stupid anorexic stage I went through? I could remedy that easily enough with a couple of double cheeseburgers and an Oreo Madness from Friday’s. Maybe they had talked to Steph’s mother and realized that she actually worked two jobs, and was serving at banquets on Friday nights while we served ourselves gin and tonics in her empty house. Did my report card come, and was there a grievous mistake on it that the guidance office could easily fix? I knew there was another possibility. To be honest, I knew there was really only one possibility, which made it more like a guarantee. But I wasn’t willing to consider it, in hopes that I was wrong.

Mother wouldn’t look at me when we got out of the car. She slammed the door and fast-walked up to the house, her anger like cords around my ankles and wrists, pulling me up the lawn, as I clumsily resisted, but perhaps only inwardly, because I found myself seated at the kitchen table. Mother and Dad sat opposite me, next to each other for the first time since their divorce case eight years earlier. Maybe they were putting on a crazy act, psyching me out, just to tell me they were getting back together.

The thought didn’t lodge in my brain for too long, as my eyes were drawn to the yellow highlighted pages on the table. Words like “sex,” “condom,” “shame,” and “virgin” jumped out at me. It was my writing. It was my journal. Someone underlined, highlighted, and almost nearly completed what looked like one of my English class webbing activities, on those pages. I stopped breathing for what seemed like minutes. Then the air came rushing back into my lungs, at which time the wave of nausea hit me. I wanted to be like Evie on “Out of this World” and stop time. I wanted to erase the moments leading up to this one. I wanted to scream and cry and run into traffic on route 53. I felt so violated, exposed, naked. I don’t think I looked anywhere but at those pages, wanting to rip them up and burn them. I hated them for being so glaringly honest. I hated myself for being so articulate and thorough.

Dad wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and I suddenly understood his role in this. Unwilling accomplice. He was the last person that would lecture anyone about the dangers or disadvantages of an early sexual relationship. I think I was ten when he told me, “Mary, no glove, no love. Let me know if you ever need any condoms.” I shuddered inwardly but thanked him politely. I would not be discussing my sexual life with my father. Ever. It was apparent though: my mother guilted him into this role, perhaps telling him that it was his promiscuity and absence that left me searching for love in “all the wrong places.”

…And now, let the games begin.

“I thought I knew you. I thought I raised you to be better than this. I’m so disappointed in you. You’re not the daughter I thought you were,” and then she proceeded to read the highlighted material on the page, starting with our first time.

“STOP! STOP NOW! I WON’T LISTEN TO THIS!” I screamed in a slightly hysterical, raspy voice.

“Oh, so you’re embarrassed? You weren’t embarrassed when you got naked with that boy.” Her tone was suddenly crisp and cool. She had the upper hand now that I demonstrated my own angst. “Were you embarrassed when he—” She picked up another entry about a recent night when I babysat for the little girls down the street and had Matt over.

“Babs, stop. Mary knows what she wrote. Let’s be reasonable here.” Dad is forever the peacemaker. It was one of the things about him she hated. He refused to fight with her. He refused to let his emotions supercede common sense. With each decibel her voice raised, he retreated inches deeper into himself. And with each part of him that disappeared, she clawed to find it, leaving only shreds of the real Ned.

Her words were directed at me again, “I don’t even know you. I can’t trust you. You always said, ‘Oh no, Mum. I’m a virgin. All those others girls are sluts, but not me.’ But you are. You’re the slut. What if you get pregnant? How many diseases does he have? If you’re pregnant, you’re not staying here. Go live with his parents. I’ve already raised three kids. I’m done.”

I wanted to say, “But I love him.” I knew it wouldn’t matter though. Like I said before, adults don’t understand. I wanted to tell her that it was wrong what she did, reading my journal. Instead, I sat sullenly, waiting for more wrath to pour down. I didn’t have to wait long.

“You’re living with Lisa this summer. You can see what it’s like to have a baby. You want to be a big girl and have sex? Now you can see the consequences. All guys want is a warm hole to stick it in, and you’ve succeeded in being just another vagina. I don’t even know you. The Holy Spirit led me to your journal, you know. God wanted this to happen before you got yourself into any more trouble.” She was disgusted, angry, seething. She started repeating herself and Dad stopped her again.

“Mary, we love you and just want to see you finish high school, go to a great college, and get to do all the things we know you want to do. We want you to be safe and make good decisions.” Notice, he still hadn’t told me that having sex is a bad, evil thing.

Mother looked like she wanted to jump across the table and yank on my hair, like she used to do when I was little. She also looked like she was going to cry. For a split second I pitied her. Her face was haggard and I knew I failed her. But I had bigger issues to deal with. Matt and I were going to be separated for the summer, and I didn’t know if we would last, especially with the conniving mind of his adoring sophomore lab partner, Jamie Himmelman, just waiting for something like this to move right on in.

“Are we done? What else can you really say to me?” I knew I was sassing, and that it wasn’t really the time or place for that, but I had no other coping mechanisms. Apologizing and admitting my wrong doing wasn’t an option, mostly because I didn’t know if I, myself, believed that what I had done was really all that bad.

June 24, 1997

Harwich, MA, at Lisa’s. Blech.

This place is amazing. I will not admit that to anyone aloud. Lisa’s soon-to-be ex-husband is the CEO of some big company, and she gets $25,000 a month in child support for her first son. That’s monopoly money to me. She lives in a three-story mansion, right on the harbor. There’s a huge yard, with morning glories, and honeysuckle, and rose bushes. The smells are intense, almost enchanting, a deep breath of air seems to clean out the lungs, and the birds sing all day. It’s so romantic. If Matt were here, we could take out his kayak right from the backyard.

I started looking for jobs as soon as I arrived. As beautiful as the place is, I can’t be here 24/7. It took me one (long) day to find work, and when I got home, I just wanted to crash. But as I reached the third floor, where my bedroom is, I could see Lisa on the braided rug in the room opposite mine, long legs splayed, surrounded by papers, envelopes, and pictures. The whole scene was surreal: the afternoon sun cast long shadows in the attic, but Lisa’s thick dark hair shone around her like a black halo. Part of me wanted to paint her, the rest of me wanted to avoid her. I forced an awkward cough to let her know I was there. I hoped her work would be so engrossing that she would acknowledge me, eyes fixed on the divorce settlement and lawyers’ bill, with just a head nod, and I’d be free to go. No such luck.

“Darling! How did it go? Did you find a job?” she asked with her perma-smile. I never knew if she was genuine, or how she was really feeling. She always had that stupid grin, as if she were the Cheshire Cat and her face froze that way. But she was beautiful, even now, sleep deprived and the single mother of a two week old, with a man who refused to be her husband, and a husband who refused to take her back.

“I got a job,” I stated without much emotion. I wasn’t giving her anything to work with. I mean, she was OK as far as I could tell, and likely didn’t need the extra burden of raising a rebellious fifteen year old along with her infant and 10 year old son, but I didn’t want her to start thinking this arrangement was fine with me. I worried she would tell Dad I was thriving and that he might actually believe her, forcing me to live out my remaining days until eighteen in this large, lonely house with another family he rejected. I didn’t trust that she wouldn’t use me in this game to get Dad to marry her. If I were doing well with her, she’d have yet another living, breathing body to attest to the fact that it is not good for man to be alone.

“Oh you did!? That is so awesome, Mary. Come in and tell, tell.”

“Yeah, whatever. It’s no big deal. It’s just at that little deli down the street. The Mason Jar. I can walk, and I only have to work Thursday to Monday.” The truth is, we had been loyal customers at the Mason Jar for as long as I could remember. Dad’s sister Anne and her husband Tom, bought a cottage in this sleepy port town when I was five. Before they owned, they rented the same place for years with Mother and Dad. This town is where all of my happiest memories were set. And yet it became my prison because I was stuck there against my will, and because there was no one there for me. Anne and Tom garden and golf obsessively in the summers, being teachers with no children; Dad, even though he was just a five minute drive away, worked twelve hour days at the office, which necessitated a three hour break at the bar afterward; and Lisa wasn’t a companion. She was the prison warden, no matter how hard she tried to prove otherwise.

“Fantastic! We love the Mason Jar! Mary and I will come visit you every day at lunch on our walks to the beach.”

“Oh, really, you don’t have to. I’ll be fine.”

“Mary,” she was starting to talk in this weird, low tone, like she was about to confess that she had just stolen my autographed Dave Matthews Band cd, “I know that you’re not thrilled about having to be here,” I coughed and pounded my chest. Were we going to have one of those adult heart-to-hearts? Because I wasn’t in the mood to do the fake-listening head nod thing. I just wanted to lie down. She continued despite my inner monologue, “But I want you to understand that I am not going to judge you or make you feel bad about what happened. I want us to be a family this summer. You’re all that Janey, Cameron, and I have. And whether you like it or not, we’re all you have.”

“That’s sweet. Really. I just don’t actually think I’ll be here all summer. Mother does this crap all the time.” Does she care if I say crap? Oh well, “She thinks I’m perfect, flips when she finds out I’m not, does something drastic that she ends up regretting, and then apologizes. It’s a cycle. Trust me. I’ll be out of here by Friday, I bet.” And I turned around and walked out of the room.

Friday

I’m still here. Part of me thought that Lisa would have my bags packed by the door because of the way I treated her. I tried to be nice. I mean I am still trying in my own way. I clean my cereal bowls in the morning. I bring in the morning paper when I come home from work in the afternoon. Last night, I heard the baby crying at 3am, and peeked into the room to see what was happening. I wasn’t necessarily offering assistance, but Lisa apparently took it as such, and before I knew it, I was nodding off, holding Janey’s bottle in one hand, and her head in my other. We were in Lisa’s king size bed.

Getting up this morning (for the second time) was awful. This is why that wonderful thing called maternity leave exists. So that mothers don’t have to go to work exhausted. I know that I made the adult decision to have sex, I have to be prepared to accept the consequences that come my way, but this isn’t the consequence that life doled out to me. So why am I taking care of someone else’s kid? Especially someone else’s crying kid? These thoughts don’t exactly brighten one’s morning. However, I did start thinking on the walk to work. Dad left Mother when she was pregnant with Kevin, which means she had to deal with a crying baby by herself, not to mention Ali, who was only one year old. I was seven, and not much help. Now, Lisa is by herself with a little runt that squawks at the lap of a wave at all hours of the night. Most of me doesn’t pity Lisa, but a piece of me does. I know she wanted to marry Dad, and that’s why she had the baby. At first I thought that was totally lame, but then I remembered that the reason I gave into Matt was because I wanted to be with him forever, and I thought sex was the only way to secure that end.

Saturday, July 3

I haven’t talked to Matt in a week. This is total torture. Mother obviously called his parents. “They needed to know what vile acts you two were committing under their roof, without their consent,” she’d said. “Fornication and lying are just the tips of the iceberg.” Oh really? I wondered what else there was, because truthfully, I didn’t know. I think those two were pretty much the whole iceberg, unless she was counting the drinking, but that didn’t really have much to do with Matt. I only indulged when I was out with Steph or the girls that worked with us at TJ Maxx, and I’m not even sure she knows about that.

Mother took away my cell phone, so it’s up to me to make contact with Matt. His private phone number is disconnected, which is making the whole process nearly impossible. There’s no way I’m leaving a message at his house, or speaking to anyone who lives there. I have no idea what his family thinks of me now, and I’m not too eager to find out. Still, I go to the payphone at the visitor information center on my walk to work every day, hoping he’ll answer so I don’t have to hang up on his father, yet again. The information center lady knows me now. I think she’s catching on that there’s something wrong, because I always walk away from the phone after about 30 seconds, furiously wiping the tears from my eyes, because I won’t be cutting onions for another few hours, and fifteen year olds don’t cry at work.

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