Authors: Trish Cook
MY COMMUNITY SERVICE ASSIGNMENTS WERE TWO
Saturdays apart because (a) I work on Sundays, and (b) oh yeah, we had to leave the only home I’d ever known on the Saturday in between.
Dad went into hyper-efficiency mode, totally focused on all the details. I had minimal possessions, so I could pack up my entire life in pretty much one evening, which left me way too much time to think.
I didn’t like what I was thinking about—like my Neilly problem. I mean, at first, I just lusted after her like pretty much any other heterosexual guy in school might. But now I appeared to be developing an actual crush on her. It’s just that I talked to her more than I talked to any other girl, and I liked her a lot. And she knew who I really was, and she seemed to like me anyway. And though this kind of thing makes girls cross guys off the boyfriend list, for me it’s incredibly hot.
But, of course, I’d gone from off her radar to completely taboo, and she was hot for Griffin anyway, even if she didn’t realize it yet, and, oh yeah, my ex-boyfriend Sam was chasing her again, too. So who wants a scrawny guy you’re sort of related to when you can have either Jocky McMoron or Shaggy McDanger? I needed to think about something else.
Except that the other thing I was thinking about was Mom, what with us actually getting ready to move and everything.
So I tried to think about other stuff. I checked out Slaughter of the Innocents’s Facebook page, their demos fed my guts through a wood chipper and had me begging for more, and so I sent Ulf Lovhammer a message just saying, like,
Hey, remember me from community service, your band rocks my socks off, when are you playing next
—stuff like that.
He sent me twenty-one tracks of devastation and a bunch of links to animal rights websites, vegan information, and other stuff. And because my alternatives were thinking about Neilly or thinking about Mom or having Dad order me to do something heinous like Bubble Wrap the champagne flutes, I spent a lot of time on the vegan websites.
And though listening to Satanic metal had never inspired me to worship Satan (the whole thing always just seemed like a goof to me—a red guy with horns and a tail. Like, why not worship Freddy Krueger or something?), the vegan metal had me thinking seriously about going vegan. I mean, I have to confess, I thought vegans were all wussy, hairy stoners, but really, refusing to eat animal products seems like such a total rejection of normal society that it’s actually badass.
That’s what I tried to tell myself anyway. The truth is actually somewhat less macho: the factory farm videos kind of did me in. The chicken stuff was enough to put me off the Kung Pao, but the footage of pig farms actually made me start crying. For, like, a half hour, I just sat there with my head in my hands—how the hell did I not know this? I just felt so bad for those pigs, raised in jail and tortured until they die, that the idea of frying them up and eating them with breakfast made me want to cry all over again.
I showed Dad, and he said, “Yeah, Dec, that’s horrifying stuff. But can we do one massive life change at a time, please?”
The hell with that. He sprang a bunch on me, so I figured it was my turn to spring one on him. I knew Dr. Gordon might ask me if the suffering I was sad about was really a nine-year-old kid with a dead mom and not a baby pig. I don’t care about the answer to that question. If ordering from the veggie section of the Chinese menu makes me feel like I’m helping either one of them, that’s cool with me.
We continued to tear our old life apart, but it was nice for me to have something else to think about.
So I was pretty immersed in learning everything I could about being a vegan until Friday night, also known as Dad-loses-his-shit night. I sat in my room calmly looking at videos shot without permission by activists breaking and entering at factory farms (How badass is that? No Satanic metalhead has ever done something that cool.) when Dad came storming in.
“Dec! Jesus! Will you get up and help me, please?” he bellowed.
“Dad, could you knock? I could have been engaged in the act of self-love in here, and that’s not something you—”
“No time to even be disgusted. I’m screwed. I started packing the attic up the other night and totally forgot to finish. Take these”—he thrust some cardboard boxes, a marker, and a packing tape dispenser at me—“and go make sure every box in the attic is sealed and ready to go, and everything not in a box gets boxed up. And label it all. Thank you. Movers arrive at seven a.m. tomorrow. Looks like I’m pulling an all-nighter in the garage.”
And just like that he was gone, and I was holding moving supplies. Well, I guess the farm videos could wait. I headed up to the attic and found that Dad, mercifully, had been freaking out about nothing. There were maybe ten open boxes up here, plus a couple of piles of stuff that would fit into about three other boxes, in my estimation. I threw all the loose crap into boxes, sealed them up, and wrote
on them within about five minutes.
And then I started sealing up the other boxes, and one of the open ones said,
being my mom’s first initial. And yeah, her name was actually Patience because her parents were big Gilbert and Sullivan fans, and I give her a lot of credit for never killing them in their sleep for that.
I assumed, stood for
Not wanting to mess myself up by thinking about Mom, I wisely sealed up the box, stuck it next to the others, and never so much as glanced at the contents.
At least, this is what I told myself I should do. What I actually did was tear into it like I was starving and it was full of cruelty free food. I mean, I guess I really was starving, because while I’d certainly gotten my fill of learning about Dad in a way that’s more than the way little kids know their parents, I didn’t know squat about Mom except that she was my mom.
And here was a box of clues to her identity.
Some random snapshots. Mom, her hair incredibly short, sporting jeans, low-top Converse, and a white T-shirt with
written on it in black. Mom, hair still incredibly short, dressed in a red-and-green sweater and a preppy kilt and standing next to Aunt Josephine. The trained eye can see that Mom’s kilt is fastened not with the same kind of gigantic safety pin that holds Aunt Josephine’s kilt together, but rather with a tiny pin that reads
Mom was so badass that Grandma demanded she wear that nice preppy outfit she’d bought for the Christmas card picture, and Mom couldn’t do it, couldn’t be normal for even one photograph—she had to have the Minor Threat pin there. Oh my God, I loved my mom so much it hurt. Which must be why I was crying.
Dammit, Mom, where the hell are you? I need you.
She wasn’t there, of course. Just the pictures, a couple of year-books (Mom had short hair when every other girl in the entire school had hair the size of New Jersey—because she was the coolest), and some of her punk rock paraphernalia, including the Minor Threat badge from the photo, which I quickly affixed to my Slaughter of the Innocents T-shirt and vowed to wear every day.
And what looked like a math notebook, but which turned out to be some kind of journal. The dead have no privacy to invade, so I dove right in.
Senior year. Big fucking deal
. Mom! Such a potty mouth!
Last night I asked Mom if she thought Dad would have stopped drinking if they’d named me Temperance instead of Patience, ha-ha. Mom screamed at me. Dad’s just got an upset stomach, he gets an ulcer from the stress of work, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
Yeah, well, I know who’s a drunk in this house. And I know who loves booze more than me. And I know who loves the drunk who loves booze more than me more than me. Can’t wait to get out—out of horrible DHS, out of Massachusetts, out of the sickness and the lies and everything that makes me hate it here.
Oh, Mom, I thought, I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a drunk for a dad, but I get the anger. Loud and clear. I flip through.
The ’Mats totally sold out
was their last good record, so why did I go? (Tommy Stinson, duh.) I was just trying to enjoy the old stuff, yelling out for “Fuck School,” stuff like that, and who comes up to me but Thomas from school
. Hey, that, unless I miss my guess, is my dad!
In a freaking Smiths shirt
. Yep, that’s Dad all right.
He was all trying to talk to me, and I was like, “I’m not talking to you with that beer in your hand, loser
.” Dad with the underage drinking! And the Smiths shirt! What a tool!
So he threw the beer at Paul Westerberg, and they nearly stopped the show he was so pissed, and I guess he thought he was being funny, but it was just such a loser move, like I’m going to be impressed that he threw a beer at the stage. Loser, loser, loser.
I felt I had to stick up for Dad here. That was a pretty badass move, considering it could have gotten him arrested and/or beaten senseless, and he did it to impress a girl. That’s gotta count for something!
Apparently not, or at least not at first. A couple of months go by until Dad’s name comes up again.
Thomas came up to me out of nowhere, like I know him only from English class and when he stopped the ’Mats from playing “Gary’s Got a Boner” in the middle, which actually wasn’t that bad of a move, and he was like, “Listen, I don’t know if you have prom plans, but I’ve got Elvis Costello tickets for prom night, and I’d much rather go see Elvis Costello with you than go to some lameass dance.”
I told him I would think about it, which I am now doing. I don’t like Elvis Costello, but I guess I like him more than prom—stupid ritual with stupid…ah, but I was kind of looking forward to being all girly. I guess that would blow my image, but there you go. I kind of wanted to get all dressed up. I snagged that awesome vintage gown at the thrift store. Plus, I don’t really get why Thomas asked me. I mean, aren’t there, like, some New Wave chicks he could ask or something? Elvis Costello, or awesome vintage dress and hearing horrible music until I can’t stand it anymore and then ditching the stupid after parties because everyone will be drinking, and if I want that shit, I’d just as soon come home where at least I can lock myself in my room.
I guess I knew how this came out, because here I am, and named after Elvis Costello, too, but I kept reading anyway. And found, to my horror, my badass mom totally wussified by the power of love. Here’s all she had to say the day after the concert.
So yeah, we went to Elvis Costello in our prom clothes, which was Thomas’s idea, and he is really sweet, and I really like him, and I guess I like Elvis Costello now, and yeah even a guy who walks around wearing Smiths shirts who turns out to be an amazing kisser.
Which is where I bailed, because if she got into any more detail about their late-night activities together, I may have had to vomit copiously.
I closed the journal, but I didn’t put it in the box.
I headed out to the garage. Dad was in a boxing-and-sealing frenzy. “Dad,” I called out. “Attic’s done.”
He raised his head. “Thanks, Dec. You rock.”
“No, Dad, you rock. You threw beer on Paul Westerberg!”
He stopped, looked at me, and took in the Minor Threat pin and the journal. “Is that what she said? It was actually Bob Stinson, and he was so shitfaced he didn’t even notice. Do you know I’ve never even read that?”
“Do you want to?”
“Nah. If she’d wanted me to read it, she would have shown me when she was alive. It’s between you and her now.”
Something occurred to me. “Did you want me to find this?”
“Duh, Dec. There are like five boxes in the attic. I could have done that myself. Yeah, I wanted you to find it. I wanted you to know that just because we’re leaving this house doesn’t mean we’re leaving her. We can’t leave her. She’s in our hearts, you know? So we can’t leave her.”
I was pissed. Pissed about his crafty little scheme, and also because he was going all Hallmark-y on me again and trying to get me to cry. So I changed the subject.
“So Dad, where’d you get the stones to pursue a badass like Mom, anyway?”
Dad just smiled. “Born with ’em, son. Born with ’em.”
Well. The next day I was moving in with Neilly Foster, also kind of a badass in her own gorgeous-popular-girl way. And yeah, it would be weird, and awkward, and all that stuff, but I didn’t care. She wasn’t my real sister, and she wouldn’t even be my stepsister until they got married. She’d just be some incredibly hot girl who thinks I’m sweet and who laughs at my jokes and who happens to live down the hall. Hell, if that scenario was taboo, nobody would ever get laid at college.
Yep. If Dad could go after what he wanted, then dammit, so could I.
I WAS STILL THINKING ABOUT SAM’S TEXT A FEW DAYS
later. I hadn’t done anything about it, but it hadn’t left my mind, either.
Don’t hate me. I miss u.
Now what was that supposed to mean?
I mean, I knew what it meant. Sam didn’t want me to hate him. Plus, he missed me. Maybe he missed how we used to meet for mochas on Saturday mornings. Or how we’d always text each other
make a wish
before going to sleep at night. Or the way I used to trace my finger around his biceps.
I was mulling over all the possibilities when I realized
wasn’t what really mattered. Whether I’d even be willing to give him a chance to explain it was. And if I did, where would that leave my complicated feelings for Griffin?
I was still debating that one in my mind when my mom pulled up a seat beside me. Her red bandanna tied as a doo-rag and baggy sweatpants made her look so unintentionally ghetto I had to laugh.
“It’s nice to see you smiling for once,” she said.
“You hoping to become a rapper in your next life?” I asked, instead of getting on her case for the annoying comment. I was just so tired of fighting with everyone.
“Yo yo yo!” my mom started freestyling badly. “I’m just a pregnant mama, who loves her only daughta, but she’s saying that I oughta get blown out of the water, for leading her to the slaughterhouse tomorra, it’s such a horror …”
I gave her a little smattering of applause. At least she was trying.
“Don’t quit my day job, huh?” she asked, grabbing the bandanna from her head and tossing it on the table. She looked completely spent, probably a result of trying to pack up our entire lives these past few weeks.
“I might, you know, once this little one is born,” she said, patting her ever-increasing pregnancy bump. “I think being a mom to two teenagers and one infant will be a big enough job without complicating matters by having to work forty-plus hours a week.”
“Mom, no offense, but you shouldn’t start thinking you’re Dec’s mom just because you and his dad are together,” I told her. “He’s really sensitive about that stuff, and besides, it’s not true. You’re going to be his sort-of stepmom at best. I mean, the guy’s sixteen already. He’s way too old to have someone new in his life trying to parent him.”
She sighed. “I know. It’s just that my heart goes out to that kid. I feel like he really needs a mother figure in his life, especially at his age, with all the girl questions he must have.”
I couldn’t help but think maybe she was right. Dec’s date with Chantelle—which, despite all my coaching, had turned into a complete and utter disaster—was the first and last time I’d ever known him to hang out with a girl other than me. And now that poor girl was terrified of him, skittering out of the room anytime she even caught a glimpse of the guy. The truly sad part was, beneath his sharp metal exterior, Dec was a total softie. I’d been trying to think of a way to help him back into Chantelle’s good graces, but so far I’d found myself SOL.
“So now you’re an expert on dating?”
“Well, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two over the years,” she said. “And I’d love to share what I know with Dec. Even with you, if you’d listen.”
“Thanks, but I’ve already got full-blown gaydar, Mom,” I told her. “I think yours might’ve been a little on the fritz the first time around.”
I expected her to get all pissed and to yell at me like she has so often lately—most of the times, I’ll admit, I deserved it—but instead she threw her head back and started laughing. “You know, when I met your father, androgyny was huge. Guyliner, glam, the works. I mean, even the football players looked more stereotypically gay than your dad, so how was I supposed to know?”
I tried to imagine my father all Flock of Seagulls, or whatever lame bands they used to love, but just could not get there. He was so…well, plain old dad-ish now. Slightly balding, a little paunch under the shirt, graying at the temples. “Maybe by the way he checked out other guys in bars instead of girls?”
“It was never like that,” my mom said, still laughing a little. This was the most civil—hell, even enjoyable—conversation we’d had since the shit hit the fan. She shook her head. “Have you ever wondered how you could be so wrong about someone?”
I thought of Dec and Lu, then Griffin. “Yeah,” I said. “I actually have.”
“Much as I love the fact that you’re actually speaking to me, Neilly, we should be getting to bed,” she said, patting my hand. “Big day tomorrow.”
I glanced at the clock and laughed. “Mom, it’s only nine thirty.”
“Okay, let me rephrase that.
should be going to bed. This pregnancy thing is exhausting at my age.”
“Night then,” I said.
She stood up and put her mug in the sink. “So, do you still hate me over all this?”
I looked up at her, startled. “All of what?”
“New baby, stepfather, house. I really threw you some curveballs, didn’t I?”
“I don’t hate you, Mom,” I told her. “I never did. I never could.”
“I love you, too, baby,” she said, echoing the words I hadn’t said but totally meant.
After video chatting with Lu practically all night—damn, it felt good to have her back in my life—I was not in the best shape to move. Yet there it was, moving day, and so I had to move my butt out of bed and into a car loaded to the roof with stuff my mom and I had accumulated over a lifetime, and then move those zillions of accumulated articles into the House of Horrors.
As I brought the first box over the threshold and looked around, I gasped. Even I had to admit Dec and his dad had done an absolutely amazing job renovating the place. I’d paid attention to the progress on my room and my room only over the past few weeks—I figured if I had a safe haven in this horror show, everything would be kind of okay-ish—but now it was like everything had changed. Who would’ve thought two scrawny guys like Dec and his dad could transform this hell house into a cool as hell house, especially so quickly. I mean, the place was still creepy, but in a very MTV
kind of way. My friends were gonna freak over it.
I was still staring around in awe when Dec came shuffling into the foyer with a steaming hot mug of what looked like solid black mud. “Want some?”
“Not unless you can make me a grande skinny vanilla latte,” I said with a smirk. Dec hates girly coffee drinks.
“Coming right up!” Dec’s father piped in from the kitchen.
“He’s kidding, right?”
Dec shook his head, his eyes blacker than his coffee. “Unfortunately, no. Dad has broken the man code and gone and bought a fancy espresso machine for the chicks in the house.”
“That’s so cool!”
“No, it’s not.”
“Oh yes, it is!”
A minute later, Dec’s dad appeared with the most perfect latte in the world. Foam white as snow topped off the beautiful, creamy, caramel-colored liquid. I took a sip. Way better than Starbucks. “I’m beginning to think I might not totally hate living here.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Neilly,” he said. “Your mom and I have been pretty worried about how hard you two took the news.…”
Dec and I shared a look and a nod.
“I think we’re cool now,” I said, almost believing it.
“Maybe,” Dec added.
“So you know what I think we should do to celebrate maybe not hating it here once we get settled in?” I didn’t even wait for an answer. “Have the most kickass Halloween party ever.”
The dark clouds broke up, and Dec actually smiled. With his teeth showing and everything. “Now you’re talkin’. Maybe my friend Ulf’s band could even play!”
“Well then, kids,” Dec’s dad said. “Let’s get moving. Halloween is just around the corner.”
By the time Monday night rolled around, I was still totally exhausted from hauling and unpacking all those boxes. Youth group was the last place I was interested in going. Really, my bed was the only thing calling my name.
But Dec insisted. “I cannot watch those two play goo-goo eyes for another second this week,” he said, referring to our very-much-visibly-in-love parents. “You gotta get me out of here for at least a couple of hours.”
And so I dragged my butt into the shower, got dressed, dried my hair, and went for a totally-adorable-without-trying-too-hard kind of look. Downstairs, Dec was waiting for me.
Giving me the most bewildered look ever.
“What?” I asked.
“Then why are you looking at me like that?”
“I guess I’m still getting used to the fact that we’re living together now,” he told me.
“Ooo-kay,” I said. “Let’s not make this weirder than it already is. We are going to youth group now, and I’m driving, since your permit doesn’t allow you out after dark unless a parent is in the car with you. Got it?”
Once we got there, I realized I probably should’ve just stayed at home. Nothing Aunt Sarah was saying about our unique gifts and talents, trusting in them, and not keeping them a secret from the world was sinking in. It was all just a big huge blahblahblah, no offense to Aunt Sarah.
Plus, Griffin wasn’t anywhere to be found, and even though that should’ve made it easier for me to concentrate, it just made it harder. I couldn’t help wondering if he was off teaching ESL again or just plain old avoiding me. And then when he finally
slide into the packed room five minutes late and smiled at me, I couldn’t stop obsessing over whether it had been a friendly smile or just a cordial one.
The first sentence Aunt Sarah said that actually registered with me was this: “So, here’s a surprise. I’m not going to be blindfolding you guys in pairs this time.”
I should have been relieved—that meant no awkward one-on-one time with Griffin. But instead, I found myself kind of disappointed. Because I guess I’d kind of been looking forward to some awkward one-on-one time with him.
Then Aunt Sarah added, “Tonight you’re actually going to meet the person you’ve been partnered up with over the past few weeks. And you’re going to take a big leap of faith, trusting him or her with your thoughts face-to-face. The topic is this: your proudest moment and your biggest regret, and how these relate to the special gifts given to you by your Higher Power.”
Now she was talkin’.
“Sooooooo,” Griffin said once we’d sat down.
“We meet again.”
“That we do.” I was totally grinning at him by this point.
“Want me to start?” he asked, matching my smile with an even bigger one of his own.
While that would’ve been easier, I was slowly gathering my Nerves of Steely Neilly to be used in a kinder, gentler manner than I usually do. “No, let me,” I said, getting serious. “My biggest regret, at least lately, is being so harsh on you without even knowing you. It was really unfair and mean of me, and I’m really sorry.”
“I already told you. Forgiven. You know my theory.”
“I know, but it’s still really nice of you. I’ve been holding on to so many grudges for so long, not forgiving even the people closest to me, and you don’t know me from a hole in the wall, yet you’re willing to give me a break. It’s, like, I can’t believe what a good person you are.”
“Here’s the thing, Neilly,” he said softly. “I haven’t always been such a good person. One of my biggest regrets is actually what a fuckup I used to be.”
“Really? In what way?”
Griffin took a deep breath and dove in. “When my parents announced they were getting divorced, and then my mom took a nosedive, I was enough of a wreck—”
“I was just completely pissed off,” I interrupted.
“And then when people found out why—”
“Were they just as brutal to you as they were to me?” I asked, wondering why I’d never realized what an ally I could’ve had in Griffin this whole time. I mean, we’d been through the same stuff. Things no one else could begin to understand.
“Yeah, it really sucked. I was trying to take care of things at home, getting in fights a lot at school, and lots of my so-called friends wouldn’t even talk to me. So I started hanging around with kind of a rough crowd, got a Mohawk and dyed it blue, smoked pot all the time, drank in between classes…I don’t know. I was just a mess.”
“I dealt with it by shutting everyone out except my best friend, Lulu,” I said. “I wouldn’t hang out with anyone else. For a while, I wouldn’t even go out on weekends because I just couldn’t deal with what kids were saying. On the plus side, my grades got even better than they already were.…”
Griffin nodded. “So there I was. My mom was completely depressed, I’d stopped talking to my dad, and then my girlfriend Camilla broke up with me—she’d been kind of my rock up until then, but she couldn’t deal with a guy who could barely communicate with her anymore because he was so wrecked all the time. I’d never felt so alone in my life, so I went ballistic, punching in a row of lockers until my hand was bloody and I’d broken two bones. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why all these shitty things were happening to me. Now, of course, I can see how I was responsible for a lot of what went down.…”
“You can’t beat yourself up over the past,” I told him.