My father is home. I find his jacket and his cane and his wool hat piled at the door. There is a melted snow path that leads into the house. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen him, but I feel a sense of happiness that he was able to take his morning walk. I feel encouraged that he might be feeling a bit better. And then I figure that he must have heard me come in the door, because before I can reach the kitchen, I hear him say, “I think that sweet son of mine is finally home.”
This is a message. This means my father wants me to go find my mother and talk with her. I find him there, in his chair, in the kitchen, leaned on back and watching the History Channel. His notebook is open. He’s doodling. He’s drawing tanks and helmets and rifles. There is an elaborate circle doodle around a military base. He says without looking up, “I think it’s best that you fall on your sword.” He says, “Sometimes, losses are the real victories.”
Last semester, my history teacher explained to us that the History Channel has nothing to do with actual History. What he’d said to us made sense to me. What he’d taught us, he backed up with news articles and films and insightful essays. The information was collected by people who study the subject. It was presented by people who travel and talk and learn from those who witness the world change. We were introduced to people who are normally left absent from the conversation. What he’d said, my teacher, I took to heart.
But it was after that class that I learned an important lesson. I learned that conversations with my father that centered around certain things, say for example television channels that he believes to be imbued with facts and authenticity, didn’t stand a chance at civility, would go nowhere, and now I like to think that there are some things that children and parents shouldn’t share. Factuality being one of those important things.
My father starts to rattle in his chair. He puts on his sunglasses. He says, “One more for the road.” His glass is nothing but ice. I take it. I set down my bag and unlatch the liquor cabinet. I pour him three fingers instead of two like he likes, like he instructs. When you are in the midst of a full-scale insurrection, it’s best to fight back with whatever weapon you can find. Dull your adversary. Kill him with kindness. But win at any cost.
“Your mother found something,” he says.
I hand him his drink. He studies it but shrugs off the obvious excess of the thing.
He says, “If you admit to it, then you might avoid the talking portion of your punishment.”
I pat him on the shoulder. I say, “I admit to nothing.”
He grins and then takes a long pull. He lowers his sunglasses. There is scotch in his moustache. He says, “You probably don’t remember, but when you were in the seventh grade, you pinned Robbie Mauler.”
“I remember. It was a big deal.”
“For me, it was.”
“It was for the both of us. Robbie was a prick even then.”
My father tilts his sunglasses back over his eyes. He says, “He’s headed to Iowa State with a full ride and two State Titles under his belt.”
I say, “I read the paper. I live here. I know about it.”
I shoulder my bag and start the long process of approaching my mother.
As I leave the room, I hear the ice rattle in his glass. I hear him sigh. I hear him say to himself, “Robbie fucking Mauler.”
* * *
There are three options. Three things I might be questioned about. Three things I may or may not have had in my possession. The first is easy: it’s a small bong. I say it’s easy because I know for a fact that my father smokes marijuana from time to time. He listens to Pink Floyd regularly and he thinks the Rolling Stones are the greatest of humans. My mother will not like that I bring this up but it’s a slam-dunk in the world of rebuttal. The second thing might be a bit more complicated but can be remedied. I did not use it, but I have a term paper that I borrowed from my friend, Eva. It’s stamped with an A+ and while I did not extract her perfect prose word for word, I did use it as a reference for my own work. I do not feel good about this; in fact, I promised myself that I would never again borrow someone else’s work in order to help write something. Especially because I enjoyed creating my own paper and I was annoyed that her writing kept creeping into what I was trying to say, what I wanted to convey so desperately.
That brings us to the third thing. This is hard to admit to, so I don’t think I will, because, honestly, whose business is it anyway. Certainly not my mother’s and certainly not my father’s. I am not a child. I am eighteen and on the way to community college. My father is a functioning alcoholic, devastated that he had to have his knee replaced and angry that he isn’t able to coach what he loves so dearly, wrestling. My mother is kind but judgmental like her mother and her mother and her mother. That old strand of guilted German-Irish. She can’t help it. It is who she is. Stern. Religious. Unquestioning. She implies your guilt in her questions, in her silence, in her support of you. And so, I find her in their bathroom. She is in scrub mode. She is furiously scrubbing the tub. She is literally in the tub. In her bleached jeans and my father’s wrestling shirt. Her blonde hair held high and tight. Her makeup missing. She is smiling in a way that frightens me.
I say, “Hi, Mom”
It takes a moment for her to register that I am standing in the doorway.
I say, “I don’t think you missed a spot.” I grin. I tell myself to take a breath.
She stops smiling and clenches the green scrub pad. She is squatting. Squatting in her tub.
In that moment, I feel that I may have mischaracterized her. I feel suddenly sad for her. I feel that I may not be a good son to her. This woman who has trapped herself in her own tub.
This woman who I must share a world with. This woman who I must appease until she passes on from it. I can see that she is not in control of herself. I can see that there is a real, raging fire inside of her, and in that moment, I can’t help but feeling, well, busted.
“Did you speak with your father?”
“He told me to talk to you.”
“Ok, so talk then.”
I know this road. I tell myself to surrender to the moment, so that I might fight another day. There are bigger battles to win, bigger struggles than pot, and borrowed papers, and…
I say, “I looked over the course catalogue. I think I’m ready to pick my classes.”
My mother relents a bit. She sits in the tub. She puts her hands on her knees and then drops the green pad. She says, “That’s good.”
She says, “This is the start of something for you.”
She can no longer look up at me. The tub is reflective and white beyond anything I’ve ever seen in there.
I ask, “What is it then?”
There is a small mirror. It’s suction-cupped to the wall. My mother struggles at first but un-cups it from the tile. She looks in the mirror. She says, “I need you to tell me the truth.”
I watch her as she touches her cheek and then taps under her tired eyes. I watch her as she rubs a finger across her lips.
She says, “There is only the truth between us.” She says, “We have to trust one another in this house. Or, we will be forced to change our course. To deal with each other in unpleasant ways.”
I feel like her son in that moment. I feel like I could be her friend. I feel like we could share so many things, and then it occurs to me. I remember what I’d read and learned in that History class, how the French authorities in Algeria relied on informants and friends to give up the opposition for assassination. How they’d relied on family members to turn each other in because some of them couldn’t hold out against the crippling poverty any longer. For some it was far worse, the fear of what freedom might bring to their country. I found myself thinking about how the Americans fighting in Vietnam were hurt by well-placed booby-traps, how when you think those in power are your friends, are interested in your well-being, that you’re very much risking your freedom, your independence, your acquired agency.
My mother hands me the mirror.
She asks, “Do you steal my makeup?”
I look into the mirror.
I hear her ask, “Do you wear it?”
I don’t want to answer her. I don’t like how I look in that mirror. I don’t want her to tell me I’m bad, or irresponsible, or worst of all, that I’m silly. I think to myself that it’s hard enough not knowing who I am, yet, that I might be more than she will ever understand or even know. More than I understand or know.
In that moment, I feel like I’m losing, that I’m finished there, ready to throw it all in and leave them behind. And then, I tell myself this: I say, we stand when we need to stand, we become who we are when it’s time. That is why we fight for ourselves.
And so I fortify myself. I decide to try and grow up in that moment. I decide to take a chance at trusting her. Trusting in what we have. I decide to trust that if we come to the table. If we sit to talk as equals. If we speak of who we are and what we need, then maybe this thing between us works in a way that was otherwise impossible. We become something different. Something important for the both of us.
And then I look into my mother’s eyes. I try to become her mirror. I try to remind her that I am a reflection of her. I try to convey that I’m not her but we still share so much. But I can see that she is flashed with her fears, and concerns, and her hurt. I don’t want to but I can’t help but understand what I see boiling over there in front of me and then I think to myself: maybe we don’t change all at once, maybe it’s harder than history tells us, even though we’re taught that it’s possible, inevitable. But how long must we wait? How much should we endure? How long until we live as we want to live?
I think about that, and then I say to her, “Mom, I wouldn’t steal from you, but I’ve borrowed your things before.”
I smile and I smile and I smile and then I say to her, “I buy my own makeup now and it’s important that you understand who I am.”