Colleen Bradley hung up the phone—a tiny beep at the push of a fake on-screen button, as opposed to the satisfying slam of a good old plastic receiver—and rubbed her eyes in exasperation.
An hour and a half.
An hour and a half she had just spent on hold with that stupid hold music playing, and then the second she got a real person and not a robot, she was transferred, heard half a hopeful ring, and the call got dropped.
In front of her lay a pile of bills and papers. The satellite TV contract was up, and she needed to reup their service, after she first checked to see if there were any unadvertised specials. Last month, their phone bill was higher than it should have been, and she’d had to call and talk to them about it. The dryer was barely working, and she would have to schedule an appointment for someone to come look at it. And to top it all off, the basement carpet was all messed up from her son not letting the dog out before going to sleep, even though Colleen had warned him about that: If he didn’t let him out, the dog would ruin the carpet. Lo and behold … Her life felt like a series of single steps forward and being shoved back three.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love and want her son—of course she did!—but maybe she’d spoiled him and created her own problem. (“Monsters are created,” her mother used to say.) Maybe she’d made it too easy for him not to keep up his end of things, like letting the dog out, and now she was paying the price for the “laziness” of constantly telling him, “Forget it, I’ll just do it myself,” and then not following through in time.
Then again, Jay was the reason she had the life she did. She would never, ever forget that.
She took a deep breath and—determined to clear her in-box and knock at least that one thing off her to-do list—opened her e-mail.
Coupons for Pottery Barn. As if she could afford that, even with coupons.
They always lured her in with their beauty, but who could pay that much for a sofa?
An e-mail from her father. She’d read that later.
An e-mail from … Jay’s vice principal?
She hoped it was a group e-mail, school spam, but as she feared, it was addressed to her alone, and about Jay specifically. His lack of motivation, bored attitude in class, failing grades even though he had the intelligence—they all knew that—to be doing much better and excelling in AP classes.
How many times had they had this conversation? A hundred? Two hundred? She felt her own frustrations with the school’s increasing expectation of parental involvement in homework—she herself had always skated her way through junior high and high school doing her homework on her bed, usually while on the phone—but she was still willing to do what was necessary. Yet every time she asked Jay if he had any homework, he said it was done and she believed him.
Maybe it was just easier to believe him.
The truth was, she felt like his poor grades were her own fault. That is, Jay was responsible for his own laziness, but if she’d been hearing this story about someone else’s kid, she’d be saying the mom had to be on top of things, no matter what. Kid failing? No more computer. No more Xbox. No more privileges until he got his grades up. It was obvious.
But what was he doing now? Playing games on the computer with his friends over Skype. She could hear him. She hated the nonstop gaming, but it was easier to pretend she didn’t notice than to have the fight about it.
It was one more ball she was dropping. At this point, she’d dropped so many that in her mind, her life looked like a tennis court after group tennis lessons for ten first-graders.
She had to get her act together and start doing what needed to be done.
Now Vice Principal Richards wanted to meet with her and Kevin (she already knew he’d be too busy at work to show) and all Jay’s teachers before the end of term, which was two weeks away.
“Jay!” She yelled down from where she sat and just waited, too tired to get up and summon him for yet another Unpleasant Talk.
After a longer-than-necessary wait, the tall, lanky fourteen-year-old came sauntering in. “What’s up?”
“Got an e-mail from Vice Principal Richards.” She gestured at the computer screen as if that would put the fear of God into him.
He quirked a smile. “How is he?”
“Not funny. You’ve got D’s in two classes and an F in one.”
“A’s in the other three.”
“You think that makes up for it?”
“It averages out to a mid-C.”
“Jay.” She put her head in her hands for a moment, then looked back at him soberly. “Now I have to go in and talk to every one of your teachers, your guidance counselor, and Mr. Richards.”
“Just don’t go.”
“I can’t just not go. That’s the attitude—that right there—that’s getting you in trouble. Do the work, Jay. Do. The. Work. It’s almost summer vacation, you’ve got, like, three days to turn this stuff in. Being a student is your only job—can you just get it done?”
“Okay, okay. I’ll try.”
“No. No trying—just do it. Or you won’t be going to Cooperstown with Dad.” Empty threat; they both knew it. There was no way in the world she could cancel that trip now.
But they both pretended to believe it.
“I’m forwarding this e-mail to you, it’s got your missed assignments on it. You can still pass without having to go to summer school. Go work on whatever isn’t done now.”
He went back downstairs and she waited tensely for a few minutes, then heard exactly what she expected: the sound of the computer starting up again.
So it wasn’t that she was just being a persnickety old Felix Unger when she went into the kitchen and saw the mess; it was that she had completely had it with feeling like she was constantly taking one step forward only to be shoved back fourteen.
“Jay!” she yelled, eyeing the sink, the precarious pile of Fiestaware she’d gotten piece by piece off eBay and in antique and thrift stores, according to what she could afford at any given time. Some of the plates were chipped, one of the bowls had the mold-green remains of what was probably once Life cereal—and that was the one on top, so God only knew what the ones below looked like.
She didn’t want to know.
“Jay!” she yelled again, then went to the top of the basement door and added, “Get up here. Again.”
Her son responded with something muffled and indistinguishable from down and behind the rec room door.
“I can’t hear you, come here!” Usually she had to go to them when she couldn’t hear them, Jay or even Kevin. The onus was always on her to go hear, rather than on them to come be heard.
She waited about thirty beats and was half ready to go stomping down when she heard the door creak and saw Jay coming into the kitchen.
“What is it?” He blinked eyes reddened by what a more paranoid parent would have suspected was drug use, but which she knew were irritated because he’d just been sitting in front of the computer with the lights out.
“I brought them up.”
Seemed like such a small thing. She knew it seemed like a small thing. Maybe to another person it would have been. Maybe to her it should have been. But she was weary. Couldn’t do his schoolwork, couldn’t do the dishes, couldn’t do laundry if someone offered to pay him, had no interest in playing organized sports or being in any other way organized. And all of it was a reflection, she feared, of her own laziness.
Or, not laziness—exhaustion.
“Okay, one, you have sworn to me for a week that you didn’t have any dishes down there, so I’m not going to have a parade because you brought them back as science projects; and two, I told you not to eat downstairs at all. We’re going to get bugs and maybe critters down there!”
Jay gave a laugh, and even she knew she sounded like a cartoon mom. “There’s nothing down there.”
“How would you know? You were okay ignoring this”—she gestured toward the sink—“atrocity for days!”
Never good advice for someone who is angry, by the way. No pissed-off person ever calmed down because the object of their rage told them to. “I don’t need to calm down—you need to listen and do what I say the first time. I shouldn’t have to tell you things twenty times.” Just talking about it again was starting to feel aerobic. “It’s not fair for you to pile extra work on me like this.”
“Fine. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to do the dishes and stop ignoring the very few things I actually ask of you.”
“Fine.” He emphasized the n. “Jeez, you don’t need to go off about every little thing. You could get the same point across by being calm instead of yelling, you know.”
This was something he had said before, and something that bugged her every time. Not because it was true, exactly, but because it wasn’t the typical fourteen-year-old line that the script called for. She wished it were true. She wished he really would listen when she spoke calmly, but he didn’t.
“Apparently not.” This was far from the first time she’d called him up to do something that actually would have been a lot easier for her to do herself. But she kept thinking that if she were consistent, he’d get so tired of always having to come back and do the thing he hadn’t done, he’d just do it right to begin with.
So far, that strategy hadn’t worked at all.
He turned on the sink and lamely rinsed absolutely nothing out of the bowl—the crud was going to need physical labor as well—before putting it into the dishwasher.
“Oh my God, Jay, do you see what’s wrong with that picture?”
He actually looked at the walls, confused. “Huh?”
She pointed at the bowl, her words coming out with exasperated breath. “That. What do you think is going to happen to that in the dishwasher? Do you think there are tiny elves with trash bags in there who are going to go chisel that stuff off the bowl and carry it out to the trash so that bowl comes out sparkling clean?”
“That would be cool.”
Of course it would be cool. But eventually the dishwasher elves would probably just end up sitting around, eating cookies, getting crumbs everywhere, and she’d be in charge of them too.
If she’d had another child—perhaps the daughter she’d hoped for after Jay until she’d finally faced the fact that she wasn’t able to have more children—might she have had more support in the house? Could that longed-for child have made the difference that kept Colleen feeling like herself rather than a bland working machine that everyone took for granted?
“I want clean dishes to come out of the dishwasher,” she said. “Not clean food.”
“Okay, okay.” He gingerly poked at the glued-on mess with a plastic straw he’d left in one of his drinking glasses (another of her pet peeves—it was like when her dad used to put his after-dinner cigarettes out on the plate, leaving it for the wimmin-folk to deal with). The straw bent feebly against the dried piece of Life cereal he was attempting to dislodge.
And suddenly it felt to her like this scene was never going to end. She just couldn’t afford to stand here all night instructing him, moment by moment, on how to be a civilized human being.
“Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little,” Kevin would say. Unfairly.
Because what that amounted to was everyone perceiving her as a henpecker. Why was it so hard for them to comprehend her objection to their creating extra work for her? She’d work to clean the kitchen, just so she could get it out of the way and go on to do her own thing; then she’d come back and find this unsanitary mess. No one with a civilized bone in their body could have just left it there (one would think). So she then had to address it, one way or the other.
She watched for a few minutes as he limply rinsed the caked-on food, dislodging nothing, and stuck the dishes into the dishwasher, one after the other. Finally she couldn’t stand it anymore—the impulse to just push him aside and say Forget it, I’ll do it myself! was too great—so instead she turned and walked out of the room, onto the back porch, and into the cool June air.
It doesn’t matter that much.
In a hundred years, none of this will matter.
What was going to become of her son if he couldn’t clean dishes and pass high school? Was he just going to be one of those creepy loser guys with a ponytail pulled back into a thin snake down his back, bald on top, and willing to argue to the death about Doctor Who theories while rats crept through the kitchen, wiping bubonic plague germs all over torn bags of Doritos and opened cheese gone hard and dark on the sides and edges?
It’s because of his mother, people would say. She couldn’t even teach him the basics.
This used to be one of her favorite times of day. The pale blue twilight in the early summer. Almost warm, but with a lingering cool breeze. She had so many memories of this time of day.
She remembered being young and playing outside until dinner when the sky looked like this and her parents and their friends would sit out on their front lawns and drink—she suspected now heavily spiked—coffees. Sometimes she and her neighborhood friends would be allowed up past their bedtime on these nights because the parents were having so much fun.
Playing football on the beach when she was seventeen on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Ocean City. It had been cool enough then for jeans shorts, bare feet, and sweatshirts. And once the sun was completely gone, the sweatshirted arm of her hunky but ultimately unimportant boyfriend. That was the summer before college, and the weekend she’d had beer for the very first time.
Then the memory of standing in front of Kevin almost fifteen years ago, giving him the News: She was pregnant. After a shell-shocked moment, he’d told her it would be all right, but there was tension in his voice, and she knew the truth. They both did, and for just a split second, their eyes met and she knew everything she needed to know.
He didn’t want this.
This was a catastrophe for him.
If she could go back, would she do it all the same way again?
Copyright © 2014 by Beth Harbison
BETH HARBISON is The New York Times bestselling author of Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger; When In Doubt, Add Butter; Always Something There To Remind Me; Thin, Rich, Pretty; Hope In A Jar; Secrets of a Shoe Addict; and Shoe Addicts Anonymous. She grew up in Potomac, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and now shares her time between that suburb, New York City, and a quiet home on the eastern shore.