High School Ultimatum

“Were you sitting next Shelby on the bus?”

“Yeah.”

“Why would you want to sit next to her? You know they suspended her for smoking pot, right? She’s not the kind of friend you should have.”

I can’t stop my eyes from rolling, and I gotta speak before Mom starts in on me about that. “I wanted to get her side of the story. I’ve only heard rumors about it.”

“And?”

“Yeah, she did it.” Mom makes her I-told-you-so face. “But everyone’s treating her like she murdered someone. That’s just stupid.” I grab my backpack from the floor, deciding homework will got a lot faster in my room than in the kitchen.

“I don’t want you hanging out with her.”

“I don’t do drugs, Mom.” I’m out of the kitchen and heading up the stairs. Mom isn’t following me, which is a little surprising. This is the kind of thing she usually digs her teeth into. I pass the framed homecoming picture of Dad and her, not King and Queen but part of the court.

In my room, I slough off my grey hoodie and notice a ketchup stain on my left boob right over Darth Vader’s face. Great. That was probably there when I shoved that football player into the lockers for crowding Tina and stuck my finger in his face and told him exactly what kind of asshole he was being. Everyone knows she’s claustrophobic. A laugh snorts out of my nose while I dab what I can of the mess. He wouldn’t even know how to expect something like that from a 5 foot nerd. He even apologized to her.

The textbooks get heavier every year. We won’t even get through half of this biology monstrosity. It lands on my bed. Start with art. I should save what I love for last, but whether food or work, that’s never been my style.

The polite knock comes as I finish the sketch of the tree outside of my window.

“Lilith, you got a sec?”

I teenage sigh, “Yeah.”

“Can you come downstairs, please?”

“Fine.” I cover the picture with my Pre-Cal book.

Mom is sitting at the table, arms crossed. She had too much time to think about how I won that last conversation.

Dad started, “We’re concerned about your behavior lately.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means your mother and I would like to see you … tone it down a little bit.”

“What is ‘it’?” My eyes haven’t left Mom. She returns the favor.

“Well, your attitude.” Dad is letting that sink in while he grabs the cookies from the pantry.

“No, she doesn’t get cookies. This is not a cookies conversation, Stan.” He puts them back, sighing. Time for him to exit this stand off. He sits down at the other end of the table and just waits.

We glare at each other. Dad coughs once or twice, sighs a few times, and pulls his Blackberry out. He leans down into the chair, legs stretched out and rolls his eyes as he logs in.

“I think my attitude is just fine.” Mom thinks she’s won because I spoke first, but I’ve now set the rules.

“Well, I – we – disagree.”

“So?” Two letters hit her, and she adjusts.

“So, if you don’t figure out how to be a nicer person, you’re going to spend the rest of your high school life grounded.” I smile. Mom’s face turns red.

“Okay.” I get up to leave.

“Sit. Down.” I look at her. How much ground does sitting concede? “Sit down or no more internet.”

I hesitate but sit. Hint of a smile at the corners of her eyes. Damn my Achilles heel!

“I am not going to spend your high school years miserable in this house. Your uncle made us miserable, and you are not going to make me go through that again.” I look at the ground. “So figure out how to act normal or we’re going to -”

“What? Send me off?”

“Maybe. You and your grandma get along.”

“Wait, so I sit next to some girl on the bus, and you are READY TO JUST KICK ME OUT OF THIS FAMILY!” Dad is back up, hand on my arm. I throw it off.

The timer dings on whatever healthy casserole is supposed to be dinner tonight. Mom gets up, “You know that is not what this is about.” Her back to me, I storm out of the kitchen and try to stomp through the stairs. She’s yelling at me to come back, and I slam the door on her voice. The door slows my slide to the ground, and I drop my head into my hands. Maybe grandma’s would be better.

The Kitchen

The kitchen should have looked different after she left. There was no teenage daughter grating the cheese, sitting on the counter, even though she knew her dad hated it. The off-white counters imperceptibly scratched by her jeans. Mom ran her fingers over the marks only she could see before wiping them down before bed. Eighteen years in this kitchen with Julie at her feet, at her hip, at the stove, and on the counters. The kitchen wasn’t changed without her, it would wait patiently for Thanksgiving when new stories would fill it.

The air in the kitchen was bubbly. Mom wondered if Julie was remembering to breathe as she talked through the first semester. The phone calls hadn’t been enough to really capture it. The friends, the seasons, the air, the classes. Julie rolled out the pie crust over her scratches, grinding the dusted flour in. Mom shared her stories at the stove, making the filling, but left a few key details out.

She scrubbed at the counter-top. Grimed of some form had settled into the seams and scratches. They couldn’t afford to replace it while Julie finished college. Elbow grease and stubbornness would get it looking like new. Julie han’t come home for the summer, like Mom had hoped. Her internship was in a different city, a different state. Thanksgiving was out as well. She was heading to a professor’s house or doing a dorm meal. Something. College was supposed to be exciting and new experiences, but Mom wanted her little girl home. Just for a few days. Mom ran her right nail into Julie’s scratches, coaxing out whatever green gunk had gotten in there.

Julie sat on the counter over her scratches, kicking the cabinets, eyes glued to her phone. Mom’s attempts to get a story or some help were met with mild acknowledgment of her existence. The vegan sausages, carefully separated from the others, started to smoke, asking to be turned. “Julie! Please put the phone down and make a salad for dinner!” Julie’s parents-are-so-whatever sigh harmonized with scraping across the counter as she slid off. “Watch the counters!” “Why? Their gross, Mom. That looks like mold.” Julie’s scratches had turned black.

Mom hadn’t been able to stop sliding her hands across the new granite counter-tops. They were unbelievable smooth. She ran her fingers over it mindlessly as she watched her daughter, trying not to stare. Julie sat at the kitchen table, phone down, looking out the window. No sitting in jeans on the counters this time. “That’s okay, Mom, I can just sit here.” She’d been home for a month, not talking more than yes and no and I don’t want to talk about that right now. Mom ached to fix whatever had happened. She’d somehow thought just getting her baby home would do it.

The nicks in the counter were from wear and tear but had ended up on the same piece of counter-top real estate where Julie’s had been. She was home from her new job in the city. Close enough to visit but far enough to be separate. Mom sat at the table, as Julie made dinner. Still quiet in the kitchen, but the job was there to ground her, to give her something safe to discuss. She was doing well, getting back on her feet, planning for what was next. Mom listened.

Julie wiped down the kitchen counters and looked around at the boxes. Mom finished labeling them and surveyed the space. Julie’s partner and son were out in the yard, staying mostly out of the way and out of trouble. Mom opened the fridge and pulled out last thing left. She tossed the wine cork into the trash bag, hopped up on the counter, scratching her jeans along it. After taking a long swig, she patted the space next to her, and Julie jumped up. Julie leaned into her mom and rested her head on her shoulder. “I’m gonna miss this place.” Mom handed her the wine bottle. “Yeah, me too.”

 

Story inspired by this prompt.