The following story is an extract from my novel, Less than Kind.
It was late Friday afternoon, the very beginning of the weekend. Sixteen year old Jess and her father were sitting reading together. A brief island of calm.
He looked up from his magazine. “A banana is a kind of berry. Did you know that?”
Jess did not, but she knew that his interest in this fact was more linguistic than botanical. Words were a link between them.
“And raspberries and strawberries are not berries,” he added.
“No way!” she protested. “Raspberries and strawberries are.paradigms of berries.” She liked words like paradigm. “How does the meaning of a word like that get fixed, anyway?”
“Good question.” In the pause while he thought about it Jess noticed that her mother, had entered the room and now moved about, pinching dead blooms off dahlias, straightening gold cushions on the gray suede sofa, frowning at Jess’s sprawling jacket and books.
She glanced between Jess and her father. The girl stiffened.
“You should spend more time with people your own age,” her mother said. “How about having some of the girls from Prescott here for a sleepover?”
An innocent enough suggestion. Sleepovers were supposed to be fun. “Sure. Maybe,” Jess said, determined not to be the one to start a fight. “Sometime. Not this week. I have a ton of work,”
Her father closed his magazine, slipped it into the basket under the coffee table, and left the room.
“You haven’t made any friends,” her mother said. It wasn’t a question. “Have you even tried?”
Jess shrugged. If she hadn’t tried, she’d be guilty of arrogance; if she had tried and failed, that would mark her as .. well, as a failure. Whatever she said would damn her in her mother’s eyes.
Candace scrutinized her daughter. Jess looked back. Candace Badger reminded her of a cheetah, with long, lean limbs honed by hours of exercise each week, high cheekbones, short hair perfectly cut, lips and nails deep red, as red as claws. Jess knew that she presented a very different vision to her mother.
“If you’d just lost thirty pounds,” her mother said finally, “got a decent haircut and shaved your legs, they might like you.”
Absent-mindedly, Jess put her thumbnail in her mouth.
“And stopped biting your nails.”
“Then I’d make friends?”
“You’d have a better chance of making friends, yes.”
Jess felt the hectic in her blood. “Why would I want to be friends with people who were that superficial?”
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. Jess had an idea of what was coming.
“Are you calling me superficial?”
“No,” Jess said. Not in so many words, she added in her head. She didn’t like lying.
Her father had retreated to the kitchen. She found him there, preparing dinner. She opened the fridge and cut herself a hunk of gouda.
“Hungry?” he asked.
“Not you too?” she said fiercely.
He drew back slightly. “I didn’t mean to criticize.”
Jess looked at the cheese. “I guess I’m not really hungry,” she said. “I eat when I’m upset.” She took a small bite and tossed the cheese in the trash. “It’s ironic. She wants me to lose weight and then she bugs me so much I have to pig out.”
“There are other ways of dealing with stress, you know,” he said.
She rolled her eyes. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, but I can’t guarantee I’ll have the answer.” He found a large pot in the cupboard under the sink.
“Why is Mom always so angry with me?”
He waited till the water had filled the pot before replying. “She isn’t always angry with you.”
Jess dropped the lid on the pot with a clang. Why was he always such a pedant? “Well, often enough so as to make no difference.”
He poured a tablespoon of olive oil into the blender. “I don’t think it’s chiefly about you. She has some hard things in her past.”
“Personal things.” He shook his head “Not my secrets to tell.”
“Why does she have to take them out on me?”
He moved to the family computer, punched a few keys and turned the screen towards her. “Read this.”
She joined him eagerly, imagining that he was about to show her something that would help her understand her mother. But the newspaper article was about a young Syrian boy who’d been tortured for criticizing the government. After he ran away, his father was arrested and endured terrible torture rather than reveal his son’s hiding place.
“Brave man,” Jess muttered. “Brave boy.”
“When I read a story like that, I realize that our troubles …”
“Don’t amount to a hill of beans,” she added, in her best Bogart accent.
“Yup!” He smiled sadly and put his arm around her waist. The article had been his odd way of trying to comfort her, she realized.
After her father returned to the living room, Jess headed up to her bedroom, and took in its imperfections. Unmade bed, disordered bookshelf, posters hastily attached. Posters of pigeon-toed Flannery O’ Connor, and scowling Bobby Fischer. Both were misfits. But misfits who had made their mark. She thought about the NYT story she’d read. Her father was right: her troubles were trivial by comparison to the Syrian boy’s. But then again… Her fingers strummed the desk. There must be a counterargument.
Could she make her misery more respectable by shoving her hand into the garbage disposal? That would get their attention.
She opened her stapler and idly touched the tiny metal teeth. She didn’t have courage for the garbage disposal. Instead, she pressed the two sides of the stapler against the fatty underside of her arm, and squeezed until the steel pierced her skin. Her eyes watered, her mouth opened, but she kept the yell in. Like she always did. Then she put hand sanitizer on the wound and winced. For a few minutes she didn’t think about her mother.
She’d hurt herself before with bits of glass and scissors, and she hadn’t understood why. She would briefly feel better and then feel stupid. Her mother hurt her and she responded by hurting herself? Where was the justice in that? Then Jess had seen an episode of House, M.D., in which Gregory House, super-smart, super-rational doctor, had smashed his hand to distract himself from the pain in his leg. Apparently the brain can focus on only one pain at a time. One hurt blocked out the other. What she was doing had a medical explanation. It wasn’t just stupid teenage girl shit. She hurt herself to block out the pain her mother caused her. And doing that proved that the pain in her soul was worse than the physical pain – proved it to herself and to anyone who cared enough to find out.
She felt a brief flare of glee at this realization and thought of running downstairs to share it with her father. But then the glee cooled to ash. She knew that he wouldn’t react to her revelation by praising the excellence of her reasoning.
It wouldn’t do to show him her wounds. She’d better keep this secret covered up. She applied a Band-Aid and pulled on a long sleeve pajama top. Then she pulled out her homework and tried concentrating on vectors.