I always go first to the kitchen these days. It used to be my room in the attic, but these days it’s the kitchen and it’s high school and it’s just me in there, sitting at the head of the small rectangular table – unpolished wood -- , my back to the swinging door and facing so I can look out the window. My mother stands at the counter, almost out of sight, making sandwiches, the radio plays classical music and somber announcements and the floor is dark brown. The stove is electric and there’s a small round fan just above it, built into the wall. You lean up and over the stove to pull the string of little metal balls to get the fan going or to stop it.
My mother and I don’t talk much, just maybe a few practical things – dress warm, it’s going to go down to 25 today – mostly, I am quiet. I am not a quiet person, like my sister. I am talkative, but something has come over me the last few years – a gag or something – and it makes it hard to say anything.
The only things that come easy to say is when my mother is in a good mood and I am making jokes to make her and my sisters laugh – I can do that. I can be a good clown. I don’t do it when my father is home. When he is home I mostly strain to get away. I stay up in my attic room – out of his sight as much as possible, because if he sees me he starts to talk to me and it is always about something I want to get away from. His questions are always about how well I am doing, as if he is asking questions and watching me at the same time, checking me as if if he didn’t watch me closely I will disintegrate into the wrong kind of person, a failure like my mother, which I am afraid is happening anyway. Either his conversations are mini-exams that I can’t help but fail, or they are requests for help: help with yard work or paper work, or (unspoken) help with my mother who irritates and makes life hard for him.
I never say no when he asks. I am afraid of him. I have never said no, so it’s not like I know what would happen, but I know he’d be mad and I’d be at fault. So I have to keep my end of the bargain and say yes. My yeses though are unenthusiastic. I also feel sorry for him.
Last night I overheard a man say how every generation complains about kids today.
My parents banded together and refused to allow me to wear my beautifully patched and tattered jeans into the city when that was the whole point of going, to walk around with Cyndi attracting attention in my favorite clothes, the ones who told you who I really was.
I didn’t smuggle my jeans out of the house. I didn’t think of that. I obeyed.
Both my parents scared me. Their anger was terrifying. I did what I could to keep them quiet.
I hitchhiked across the country by myself the summer I was sixteen and did not tell them. They wouldn’t have allowed me, I knew that. So I suggested to them that I visit my grandmother in British Columbia and travel by Greyhound. They bought me a month-long pass. It cost $150. It pained me that they should have to spend all that money on me. I wanted to get on the road like all the hippies I saw standing by the inter-states, holding signs, in their lovely worn-out jeans and lovely long hair. I wanted to be standing with them instead of looking from the passenger seat of our green VW station wagon.
So I had the ticket and I started by bus, wondering how I’d get out there on the big highways. It seemed harder now that I was this close.
I did it though. I did get out on the highway, though it was comforting knowing the ticket was in my back pocket, until it wasn’t. I knew before it happened that I would lose it. I hadn’t been careful and I’d noticed I wasn’t being careful and sure enough about fifty miles from my grandmother’s ranch – after I’d found out that sleeping in a bus station isn’t as fun as it looks and that they come around and ask you to move – the ticket is gone and I know I will have to get rides not only to the ranch but all the way back to New York because I cannot tell anyone that I have lost something worth $150. I couldn’t bear my parents to have to find that money again. It’s too painful. I know we don’t have enough money anymore. We used to have more, but even then I never felt rich.
I always felt poor with my mother. Even in fancy stores or restaurants because I could always feel how awkward and out of place she felt – just being with other people, but especially if we were someplace fancy. She liked being outdoors best where she could look at plants and point out birds. My father liked the fancy restaurants, the pretending of great wealth, the flourish, the luxury.
But there wasn’t much of that anymore. Not much money. I knew not to ask for anything. If I wanted something, to do without or find a way of getting it myself.