MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THERE IS NO ONE TO BLAME HERE
It’s Christmas Day, we’ve just finished playing our annual post-lunch game of Scrabble (bonus points if you play a word with a Christmas theme), and Dad says we need to talk. He’s using his Bad News voice, and I figure he’s either going to give me another lecture about getting my driver’s license or tell me he’s reactivated his Twitter account.
“Natalie, this is really hard to tell you, but we’re, uh, we’re separating,” he says.
“Your mother and I.”
“Separating.” The word feels strange and heavy in my mouth.
“Breaking up,” Dad says, because he can never resist hammering a point home once he’s made it.
Mum walks into the room then, eating an apple. She vowed fruit would be her only dessert at Christmas this year because she wants to lose two kilos before January, which makes more sense now that I know she is prepping for single life.
“You’re breaking up?” My tone is friendly, giving them the space to say, Just kidding! in case it’s an elaborate prank, even though we are not a household that is open to pranks of any kind, most especially unfunny, emotionally scarring ones like this.
Mum looks startled at my question, and spends a long time chewing every last bit of her mouthful of apple before speaking.
No, they’re not breaking up, present tense, verb. They have Broken Up. Past tense, capital letters. This isn’t new information. I mean, it’s new to me, but they’ve known for ages. Ten months, to be exact.
“What do you mean, ten months?” I slam my laptop shut for emphasis. I would like to pretend I was doing something profound in the moments before this life-altering conversation, but in truth I was watching a video of a cat getting scared at the sight of itself in a mirror.
Mum is rattled. This wasn’t her plan, to tell me right now, like this, she says. Well, of course it wasn’t her plan. It’s Christmas.
“Remember at the start of the year, when your father went overseas?” Mum says.
“Vaguely.” I want to hurry to the part of the story where they explain the fact that they lied to me for the better part of a year. Or to the part where they explain when, exactly, they stopped loving each other and how I missed it.
“Vaguely? Natalie, I was gone for a month!” Dad looks insulted. He’s sitting on our old beanbag, which needs more beans, so he’s awkwardly sunken right down onto the floor, with his knees almost touching his chin.
“Yes, of course I remember.” He went to London and bought me an ugly tourist T-shirt with a slightly distorted picture of Prince Harry’s face on it because we have a family tradition of buying each other tacky tourist items whenever we go anywhere. That T-shirt is now my second-favorite thing to wear to bed, after my green Slytherin pajamas.
“Well, we used that time apart to think about our relationship, and when your father got back we decided—mutually—that we didn’t want to be romantically together anymore.” Mum’s eyes are shiny with emotion, but then she ruins the moment by biting into her apple again with a loud, cheerful crunch.
It’s all so disgustingly civilized and casual. I can’t stand it. I want screaming, tears, drama. I want someone, other than me, to feel like their chest is being stomped on by a giant.
“No one is at fault here,” Dad says, which is exactly what someone at fault would say.
“And you made this decision at the end of February?” I’m still hoping that I’ve misunderstood this part.
“Yes,” Dad says.
“Ten. Months. Ago.” Saying it more slowly and loudly doesn’t make it feel any more real.
“Correct.” Dad nods encouragingly, like I’m grappling with a tricky math problem.
“But you’ve been living together all year.”
“In separate bedrooms,” Mum says.
“You said it was because of Dad’s snoring.”
“Well, it was, in part. And in part because of the separation.”
“But … but I just bought you both matching aprons and you said they were exactly what you wanted.”
“Well, we can still wear the aprons, sweetheart.”
“No, you can’t!”
There are so many reasons why this is not okay.
We might be a small family, but we’re a great one. An enviable one. Take today, for example. We do a cozy, three-person Christmas so well. We have stockings with our names on them, we watch Die Hard, play Scrabble, eat Dad’s homemade mince pies, and open our presents one at a time to great fanfare. We listen to carols, wear Santa hats, and take silly photos. And now they’ve gone and poured vinegar all over our sugary sweetness.
Ten months. They’ve been lying to me for so long I am momentarily dizzy trying to comprehend it.
“Your father and I are still friends, Natalie. Good friends. We are going to stay in each other’s lives. We just don’t want to be married anymore.”
Mum seems to be under the mistaken impression that I consider their friendship a worthwhile consolation prize.
“But it doesn’t make any sense. And why did you wait so long to tell me?” I wish I were hysterical and crying, but their calmness is a blanket dampening my angry fire. It’s probably a part of their strategy. Don’t let her make a scene. If we stay calm, so will she. Things are only as big a deal as you let them be. Mum, in particular, loves to throw around that last line, especially when I’m having a bad-skin day and she wants me to go outside.
Unbelievably, Mum goes to bite her apple again, but I snatch it out of her hands.
“Can you stop eating for one second, please?” I’m getting much closer to shouting.
Mum moves and sits next to me on the couch. She puts her arm around me and smooths my hair down, like I’m an animal that needs to be calmed. I want to gnash my teeth, struggle out of her grip, and run howling down the street.
“We wanted to wait until you were finished with school. We didn’t want to disrupt your studies during such an important year.”
My last exam was in November, and it’s been almost two weeks since I received my final results. They’ve had plenty of time to bring this up before today.
“We love you, honey,” Dad says, scooching the beanbag closer. It makes an unpleasant farting noise against the wooden floorboards, which we all pretend not to hear.
“So, you’ve been lying to me all year?”
“Not lying. Pretending a little. Omitting details.”
“Avoiding the inevitable,” Dad says.
“Your father and I have grown apart.”
“We wanted to be completely sure before we told you.”
“It’s just one of those things.”
“The guilt of not telling you has been eating us up inside.”
I can tell they’ve rehearsed all these lines. Written them down, maybe, practiced in front of a mirror. Read it off a piece of paper like a script. Do I look sad enough? I imagine Mum asking Dad. Speed it up to sound more natural, I imagine him saying back. And don’t forget to tell her we’ll still be friends.
“No one is to blame here.”
Dad has got to stop saying that if he wants me to believe it.
“We love you,” Mum says.
This is no comfort. I’m their only child. They have to love me.
“Who am I going to live with?” I ask. What I mean is, Are you at least fighting over me?
“You can live with whoever you want,” Dad says, voice bright, as though he’s handing me a present.
That’s not the plan, though. The plan was for me to keep living at home, in this house, in Melbourne, with both of them, when I go to university next year, and after that. I would remain here for the foreseeable future. There was no end date on our situation. That’s our plan. That’s been our plan from the beginning.
“I don’t want to move.” My voice shakes a little, and I sound whiny and pathetic instead of firm.
“Honey, no matter what happens, you’ll always have a home,” Mum says, which is the kind of vague wording designed to comfort but only raises more questions. No matter what happens? What else is going to happen?
“You’ll have two homes,” Dad says, in his most upbeat voice.
I don’t want two homes. Who wants two homes? Home only makes sense in the singular form.
I look at them both, with their identical please-adjust-quickly-to-our-terrible-news fake smiles, and I feel a sense of dread.
This is the end of life as I know it.
MY FACE AND OTHER PROBLEMS
I was a cute child. I don’t say this as a boast, but as a matter of truth. A woman once came up to my mother and asked if she had thought about getting me into child modeling.
“Your daughter would be perfect for our catalog. She’s got the right look.”
The woman was talking about a catalog for a chain of discount supermarkets, and the “right look” probably meant ordinary, gap-toothed, and relatable, so we’re not talking high glamour, but the point is that my face was once considered photogenic. I had shiny dark hair. Chubby, unmarked cheeks. Twinkling brown eyes. (Okay, I don’t know if they were ever actually twinkling, but it’s certainly possible that they were, in the right light.) My favorite clothes were my purple glitter sneakers and a T-shirt with a unicorn on it. I even have a name perfectly suited for a pretty child: Natalie.
Puberty is treated by adults like it’s a big joke. Any mention of it seems to be accompanied by humor and knowing smiles. There’s talk of voices breaking and hair growing. If I thought much about it at all beforehand, I assumed I would start wearing a bra and have to figure out how a tampon works. But puberty, as it turns out, was an assault. My body changed fiercely and terribly, and I didn’t know how to handle it.
I went from being a straight-up-and-down stick figure to a scribble of hips, stomach, breasts, thighs, and stretch marks. I didn’t even know stretch marks were a thing. I truly did not know they existed until they appeared on my body. When I googled them, all the information was geared toward pregnant women. I felt like a freak, with angry red lines slashing across my hips and lower back, and down my inner thighs, like a graffitied wall.
Once, a girl from my class saw them when I was changing for PE, and she said, “What happened?” and pointed at my hip, and I said, “My cat scratched me,” and she widened her eyes with horror, but she believed me because that’s what my stretch marks looked like—savage claw marks from a monster cat.
But the stretch marks were nothing compared with the pimples. A regular scattering of pimples at first, and then more, and more. Then pimples that turned, almost overnight, into deep, cystic acne. Thick, hard, welt-like lumps formed under my skin on my back, shoulders, neck, and face. That’s not a cool story, or a tragedy that people want to hear about. It’s gross. I was gross. I woke up thinking that every day for a long time.
My period was heavy and really painful, and managing it felt like a full-time job. I obsessively checked my school dress, my bedsheets, my underwear, my jeans, the couch, the car seat, the train seat—anywhere there could be a hint of what was happening to me. I looked at the back of myself in any reflective surface I could find. I was paranoid about leaving a trace of evidence. The pimples on my shoulders would sometimes burst and leave stains on my top. I was messy, leaking, uncontained.
My body was a shameful disaster. I was too embarrassed to go outside unless I absolutely had to. No, it was worse than that. I was too embarrassed to exist. I hunched down and inward, trying to hide every part of me. I hated how much space I took up, because I got taller too. I was huge and hulking. I felt like everywhere I went, I was being seen and noticed in a way I didn’t want to be seen and noticed. Even now, on my very best skin days, I’m uncomfortable with people looking at my face. Eye contact makes me feel exposed.
Copyright © 2019 by Nina Kenwood