Let's say someone had waltzed up to me six months ago and asked for my definition of love. I wasn't so naive at fifteen and a half to presume that love, or luv--as my best friend, Kitty, always ends her e-mails--only applies to sex-crazed teenagers, pressed against lockers, feverishly grinding groins in between classes. I'd probably have rambled on about the bond between mothers and fathers, parents and children. No doubt I would have sprinkled in choice phrases like "unconditional support," "mutual respect," and "considering the other person's feelings."
Pull me aside now and quiz me about those same four letters, and I'd blankly stare at you, my jaw ajar, like those guys who sat behind me in biology all year. Kitty would say I'm jaded. I would say that's a major understatement, seeing how my entire life has been blown to smithereens. Unconditional support has gone the way of the pterodactyl. Mutual respect? Only exists in the pages of the self-help books on Mom's bedside table. And my feelings definitely weren't being considered when Dad dropped the bombshell on that Sunday afternoon in early May.
I'd just returned from sleeping over at Kitty's, where we pulled an all-nighter because her boyfriend, Jack, called from his cell phone at three a.m. to report that he and two friends were on her back porch. Kitty had answered on the second ring, before her parents woke up, so we slipped into sweats and sneaked out the sliding glass doors. They were all wasted; I could smell it on their breath. And moments after Kitty and Jack disappeared into the pool shed, both guys conked out on reclining chairs, a gesture I tried not to take personally. I almost crept back to Kitty's room, but then I remembered an article I once read about an inebriated frat boy choking to death on his own puke. So I held a vigil until pinkish light accented the sky and the luvers reappeared on the deck: Jack's T-shirt inside out, three nickel-sized hickeys dotting Kitty's neck.
By the time I got home the next afternoon, my eyelids were drooping and my throat felt scratchy and dry. All I wanted to do was take a hot shower and burrow under my covers, but an eerie stillness permeated the house.
"Mom's in bed with a migraine," Dad reported in a hushed tone, pressing his outstretched pointer finger against his lips, steering me into the family room for A Discussion.
As I perched on the edge of our leather recliner, I tugged at the frayed strings on my cutoff jean shorts. Upon retrieving them from a bottom drawer on Friday afternoon, I'd discovered to my displeasure that they were snugger than last summer.
"Sammie." He paused. "Mom and I have been talking a lot these past few weeks. . . ."
Dad's voice trailed off. I noticed that the creases that have been cutting into his cheeks all spring were obscured by a weekend's buildup of stubble.
". . . And we've decided to get a trial separation."
Trial separation. The term hung in the air between us, like humidity before a thunderstorm. I began wrapping a thread from my shorts around my finger.
"What about our plan to go to California next year?" I asked. Dad is an English professor at Cornell, and Mom and I were joining him on his sabbatical to Stanford at the end of June. Aunt Jayne, Dad's younger sister, just sent a photo of the half-of-a-house she'd found for us in Palo Alto.
Dad began gnawing his fingernails, a habit he kicked five years ago, in solidarity with Mom, who was becoming a vegetarian because of her high cholesterol.
After a long silence, Dad somberly replied, "I'm going out there alone after all."
My face froze. Alone? Maybe he means alone, as in alone without Mom, as in alone with me. That had to be it. It's no secret that Dad and I are close, much closer than I am to Mom.
If the trial separation announcement was an atomic bomb, an obliteration of the belief that Mom and Dad were the 7th Heaven, we-have-problems-yet-we-gleefully-work-them-through type of parents, what was about to come was nuclear devastation. Armageddon. To quote that REM song, "the end of the world as we know it."
Dad got up from the couch, affixed his arm around my shoulders and delivered the final blow: "I'm sorry . . . it's just something I have to do."
I was stunned. Utterly, completely stunned. So stunned I couldn't speak, even though I was aching to scream, to rant, to demand an explanation for how he could desert me like this. All I could do was repeat, over and over in my head: Don't feel a thing. Don't feel a thing. Don't feel a thing.
It was only as I wriggled away from Dad's arm that I noticed my finger was red and bulging. I'd twisted the thread so tightly it had cut off the circulation. Yet still, as I unwound the tourniquet to discover purplish grooves in my skin, I didn't feel a thing.
There was this time last summer when Kitty and I rode our bikes all over Ithaca, ending up at Stewart Park. As we unlaced our sneakers and waded into Cayuga Lake, a motorboat whipped by, towing a small boy on an oversized yellow inner tube. The kid, both hands gripping the plastic handles, had a frantic expression on his face as his pleas to stop were swallowed by the rumble of the horsepower. The spotter was consumed with smearing on sunblock, the driver consumed with two bikini-clad women capsizing a Sunfish. Which left the boy two options: to catapult himself into murky waters, or to get dragged along, completely out of his control, until the powers-that-be decided to terminate his joyride. He chose the latter.
I kept revisiting that image over the next few weeks, as I watched my life being disassembled, one familiarity at a time. I avoided Dad assiduously until his late-May departure, as soon as Cornell let out. And I only talked to Mom when absolutely necessary. Like when the conversation swung to the looming question at hand: next year.
Mom had already taken a leave of absence from her job as an art teacher at the middle school. And in a matter of weeks, a faceless family who'd agreed to sublet from us back in February would be pulling into the driveway, stocking the cupboards, peeing in the toilets of the home I've lived in since I was two years old. This is all I know about them, from the realtor's letter that lay open on Mom's dresser:
1. The man's name is Dr. Oscar Mueller.
2. He's going to teach statistics at Cornell and his
wife will work at the vet school.
3. They're from Cincinnati.
4. They have one teenager.
Because of the father's name, I call them the Oscar Mayer Wieners. The worst part is knowing that the kid is going to curl up in my bed. Especially if it happens to be a boy, in light of what I recently read on this "let's-get-teens-to-chat-about-sex" Web site:
I'm a fifteen-year old guy, joeshmoe wrote, and I spank the monkey once a day, my morning ritual.
Excerpted from Love and Other Four-Letter Words by Carolyn Mackler. Copyright © 2002 by Carolyn Mackler. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.