Apparently, I cared, because a week later, I had become practically obsessed with Porter Creed.
“You know, I think you may have a problem,” Eli said.
“Shhh.” I hushed him while we both sat unable to even pretend to eat the spongy macaroni and cheese that the cafeteria had the audacity to serve.
“Why shhhhh? It’s not like he can hear us from here.”
It was true: Porter couldn’t hear us halfway across the room and over the voices of every other senior at Roosevelt High. “I’m not worried about him hearing us, I just want you to be quiet so I can think.”
“Right.” He nodded and dared to take a bite. “Ugh,” he spit the mess back into its styrofoam bowl. “It is totally not fair that the powers that be decided to close the campus just as we were coming into our own.”
For years, Roosevelt had been combating an ever-increasing dropout rate—closing the campus at lunch was just the latest in their many, many desperate attempts to help the half-brain-dead plebes here to “STAY IN SCHOOL!” Basically, because twenty percent of these people were dying to fail so badly that they felt the need to hasten the process along by spending their lunch hour hanging out in each other’s basements and frying what little brains they had with uncontrolled substances, the rest of us were all made to suffer through the Monday Mac&Cheezie special.
As he had every day since my monumental failure to make conversation with him, Porter was making his move.
“Look,” I said, grabbing Eli’s arm. “There he goes again!” I sat back in my chair, exasperated by this blatant rule defiance. I glanced over at Henry, who yet again seemed clueless that Porter was taking off. It was unbelievable! “How does he get away with it? I mean, what, they haven’t figured out he sneaks off campus every day and doesn’t come back?”
“How do you know he doesn’t come back?”
I tried to change the subject. “You’re still coming over after school, right?” I asked casually.
“You didn’t answer my question. You’re totally stalking him.”
My face contorted into what I hoped was a believable mask of annoyed disbelief. “I am not stalking him. The mere observance of ‘hey, this person is at school,’ and then later, ‘hey, that person is no longer at school,’ does not constitute a valid stalking.”
“Okay, fine.” Eli raised his hand in surrender. “Have you found out anything about him online yet?”
“Nothing!” I said exasperated. “He doesn’t seem to have a profile anywhere.”
Eli jumped sideways in his seat. “AHA! Stalker. I told you,” he gloated.
I ignored him and rolled my eyes while he smiled, self-satisfied, and nodded at his own brilliance.
Later, at my house, while Eli rummaged through my refrigerator, I sat cross-legged at our coffee table with my laptop and turned my attention to Caged Karen. It had taken me a while to decide what angle my paper would take. Then, last week when I was helping out again in room 233, midway between the Peppermint Forest and Gumdrop Pass, it hit me.
“Maggie,” I said, “I’ve got it!”
She was busy counting out the squares between her first purple square and the next, so she didn’t answer me—but I didn’t take it personally. Instead, I got up, grabbed a sticky note off the teacher’s desk, and jotted down my epiphany.
My paper would be a comparison study. Karen was the perfect example of what happened when someone with a cognitive disability was denied the same life experiences and educational opportunities that Maggie and everyone else here in room 233 had had. Sure, Maggie wasn’t going to Harvard, but thanks to her work-study classes, she would one day be able to hold down a job.
Maggie would one day be a contributing member of society, while Caged Karen, lacking any sort of educational opportunities for most of her life, would be living in a hospital or mental health care facility.
It was perfect! Especially considering that I had firsthand, direct knowledge and experience with one half of my argument—Maggie.
Now, all I needed was Karen.
While Eli pulled out some salami and the loaf of bread from my fridge—“Do you want a sandwich?”—I moused over my email icon and hoped for good news. “Sure,” I said. “No mayo.”
“Extra mustard . . . I know,” he said annoyed that I should dare to remind him.
“Then make it right for once.”
My email opened: spam, ads, Viagra . . . yes. An email from the assistant to the director of Harmony House, the care facility one hour’s drive north on I-95 where Caged Karen was now a resident. Now please, please, please let it be a yes.
My eyes scanned the initial blah, blah, lovely greeting, thank you for inquiring, until—“YES!” I exploded from my sitting position into a victory stance.
A loud clang erupted from the kitchen. “What the hell?” Eli said turning toward me, a huge glop of mayonnaise sliding down the front of his sweatshirt. “You scared the crap out of me,” he complained as he reached for a paper towel and wiped at the oily mess staining his favorite garment. “Shit, that’s not going to come out.”
“Sorry,” I said reading the important part of the email one more time, just to make sure I had in fact read it right, before getting up and holding out my hand. “Give it here, I can get it out.”
Eli lifted the hoodie over his head, exposing his ripped abs for a second before his T-shirt dropped back into place. I had thought it before and I thought it again, Eli was going to make some boy very happy someday.
“It’s not going to come out,” he whined.
“Yes it will, stop being a baby.” I put my hand inside the sweatshirt underneath the stain and opened up the cupboard under the sink.
“So what’s all the excitement for?” he asked as he returned to the open-faced sandwiches waiting to be finished. I noticed he had, again, put mayo on both of them.
“I just heard back from the institution where Caged Karen lives . . .” I rooted around among the hundreds of half-empty cleaning supplies until I found what I needed. “They said I can come for an observation. They just need about a week’s notice and a letter from my dean verifying that the purpose of my visit is strictly educational.” I handed him the bottle of Goo Gone. “Here, open this for me.”
Eli twisted the top off and handed it back. “Well, that’s good news.”
I squeezed the toxic smelling liquid onto his beloved sweatshirt. “That is excellent news. Want to come with me?”
He hesitated by pretending to be busy making our sandwiches. “Um . . . maybe. When are you going?”
“Oh, come on.” I put the bottle of Goo Gone down and picked up the bottle of dish soap. “It’s only an hour away; he can totally make it.” I squeezed a giant puddle of blue soap on top of the Goo Gone and the stain and began rubbing the fabric together. “He” was my 1984 Buick Grand National GNX, aka, Vader.
As he piled the salami on the bread, Eli’s expression was doubtful. Ever since that time I was driving him home from his church retreat and Vader’s brakes went out, Eli has had zero faith in my classic car.
“There has been nothing, nothing since that one time.”
“Yeah, well, I think I have my gay camp thing that day.”
“I didn’t even decide on a day yet!”
“Well, whatever day you’re driving anywhere that’s a two-hour round trip in that death trap, I’m busy. Here,” he said, sliding one of the sandwiches across the counter to me. “It’s done.”
I turned on the sink, put in the plug, and started filling it with warm water. “You used mayonnaise.” I observed.
He looked at the plate, then looked at me. “That’s what you said you wanted!”
In the living room, my phone chimed. Someone had texted me. I pushed Eli’s sweatshirt into the sink to soak and dried my hands as I went to check. I figured it was my mom letting me know she would be working at the school late again, and to not worry about her for dinner. Other than Eli she was pretty much the only person I ever got messages from. But when I reached down and picked up my phone from the table, the name on the screen made me stop.
“It’s my dad.” I turned toward Eli, unsure of what to do. He looked as shocked as I felt.
“Does he think it’s your birthday or something?”
This was totally a possibility, so I didn’t say no. I wasn’t entirely sure my father could tell you what month I was born in—never mind the exact day. “Maybe someone died?”
“Maybe he’s dying,” Eli added around a mouth full of salami and bread.
“Maybe it’s not bad? Maybe he won the lottery and he’s going to give me some money.”
“Now you’re just being silly.” Eli swallowed and took another bite from his sandwich.
It could be anything—but Eli was right, it was highly unlikely that it was good. I had often wondered what would be worse, having no father at all, or having one who forgot you were alive ninety-four percent of the time.
Whatever the reason he was texting me now, it was apparently urgent enough to warrant a follow-up call because my phone was now ringing loudly in my hand. I just stared at it, not wanting to answer, or talk to him, and not feeling like I could just ignore him either.
“Ruth,” Eli said from the kitchen. “You have to answer it. What if something is wrong?”
He was right, of course. “Shit,” I whispered, and answered the damn phone.
“Ruth?” I heard my father ask. Of course he would have to ask. It had been so long since he used this number, he probably wondered if it was still good. I wouldn’t even begin to think about how sad it was that the man couldn’t even recognize his own daughter’s voice.
“Yes, this is Ruth,” I said, completely unable to keep the sarcastic edge out of my voice.
“Ruth, hello!” he announced. “This is Dad!”
His excitement immediately put me on the defensive. “And this is Ruth!”
He had definitely heard the icy edge in my tone. The last time we had spoken, like six months ago, this is what our parting argument had been about: my “crap attitude.” He actually had accused my mom, not to her face but to me, of “poisoning” my mind and opinions against him. Which had totally made me ballistic and launched me into anger space because, for one, my mother never, ever says one bad thing about my dad—even though there are so, so many things she could say. And two, as if I couldn’t come to the conclusion that he was a complete asshole all by myself? Please, that was just so insulting.
As the silence between us stretched, I could tell he was fighting the urge to get into it with me. Usually he would just bite my head off for being “snotty.”
He sighed and cleared his throat instead. “Well, hey,” he started again, completely faking a good mood. “I’m glad I caught you. You must be really busy finishing up your senior year.” This was his lame-ass way of trying to say without actually saying that the reason we don’t ever talk is because I’m really busy, and it has nothing at all to do with him.
“Yes, really busy,” I nodded and rolled my eyes.
“And Princeton! Wow, I mean . . . although you were always . . . I tell everyone, my girl’s going to Princeton. Did I ever tell you that I went to Harvard?”
I clenched my teeth to keep myself from saying anything because the only things my lips were dying to say were, My girl? Really? And, You’re seriously going to try and take any credit for my academic accomplishments? And, No one gives a shit where you went eighty years ago, especially considering it doesn’t even matter because whatever potential you did have was completely drowned in gallons and gallons of beer.
“Not that I could have kept going,” he chuckled uncomfortably. “Pretty hard to support a wife and a newborn and go to Harvard.” He laughed again, as if this was all ancient history that no longer bothered him—as if he was clearly so over having all of his life’s dreams shattered by an unwanted pregnancy and being unfairly yoked to a woman and a child.
It was some kind of miracle that I managed to not say any of this; my mother and therapist would be so proud and use words like progress. But in reality, there were just so many things I wanted to scream at him about, it was too difficult to choose a single angle to attack him from. It wasn’t progress in my emotional maturity; I simply conceded defeat in the face of too many acerbic insults flooding my brain all at once. It was impossible to choose just one.
“Harvard? Impressive,” I offered flatly as if this were the first time I had heard this story instead of the hundredth.
“Well,” he ventured again. “I suppose you don’t need to hear any of that from me now. You’ve always known how smart you are. Even when you were six. Just don’t go getting yourself pregnant and throw it all away.”
My face felt like it wanted to explode and I realized I had stopped breathing. I closed my eyes, tipped my head back, and filled my lungs with as much air as I possibly could. I wanted to slam my phone against a brick wall and watch it shatter into a hundred thousand splintery pieces. I considered it a great testament to my ever-growing self-control that I somehow managed to exhale, inhale, then ask a simple question.
“Is there something you want?”
“Well, actually I was calling to invite you to dinner.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Why?”
“Does there have to be a reason? Can’t I just take my girl out for dinner?”
I could actually feel my heartbeat pulsing in my temples. “Don’t call me that.”
“My girl . . . don’t call me that.”
He sighed, as if the problem was me and he, once again, was having to deal with my unreasonable crap attitude and he was completely the victim here. He was the long suffering estranged father whose reputation had been sullied by the toxic efforts of his embittered ex-wife—he just knew it.
I in no way wanted to have dinner with my father, but I said, “Fine.” There was no use trying to dodge it. The embittered ex-wife, would just make me go anyway. In truth, she had been begging me for years to try and “mend fences” with my dad. Without putting it in these exact words, she held out hope that I would one day learn to forgive him for being him.
She completely believed this was possible for me because, apparently, she herself had managed to forgive him—eventually.
“You know, I’m not the evil incarnate you seem to think I am,” he said.
Just then, I heard the door to our garage open; my mother was home. I didn’t want to get into with him in front of her. “When and where?” I asked.
“When and where what?”
“Dinner,” I tried really hard to keep the knives out of my tone. “Where do you want me to meet you and when would you like me to be there?”
“Oh.” He was surprised I was letting the I’m-not-evil comment go so easily. “How about next week? Thursday? I can make reservations at Tony’s.”
My mother walked into the living room, leaning to one side to counterbalance the weight of her overloaded computer bag. She let it slide to the floor as she eyed me with a questioning expression. She saw Eli was standing in our kitchen stuffing his face, so she was trying to figure out who I was talking to.
“Sure, whatever. Just text me the time when you’ve made the reservation,” I said and pushed End before he could say anything else.
“Who was that?” my mom asked.
“Dad.” I stared at my phone in my hand, still unsure of what had just happened. Was I seriously going to be suffering through a meal with him, alone, in just over a week?
“Oh!” my mom said, and busied herself unzipping her bag and taking out her laptop. “Well . . . so it sounds like you’re meeting him for dinner?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
She didn’t say anything at first, just kept digging around in her bag like there was something super important in there that she just couldn’t find. When she finally stopped and stood up, she took a deep breath. “That’s good. . . . Did he have anything else to say?” She was trying to sound casual, but her lips rolled between her teeth, a sure anxiety tell.
“No.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “Should he?”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, no. Just . . .” She looked to the kitchen. “Eli, are you staying for dinner?” She turned back to me. “We could order from King Luie.” It seemed to me like she knew something, something about my father that she wasn’t telling me.
“Sure,” Eli said, even though he had just finished both his sandwich and mine. He was a bottomless pit. “I’m always up for the King.” Eli, the traitor, had also sensed something wasn’t quite right with my mom. He was clearly helping her change the subject—I could totally tell. There was something not right about your best friend and mother teaming up against you. Lucky for them, restraining myself from unloading on my father had completely exhausted me. I didn’t feel up to interrogating her about what was going on—not right now, anyway. I would get it out of her later anyway. She was a total sucker for the, Mom, I really need to talk to you about blah, blah, blah. It was an occupational hazard of working in mental health—she always wanted to help. Everyone.
I reached down and picked up the remote. “It’s almost time for Jeopardy.”
“Perfect,” my mom said, relieved to have dodged whatever is was about my meeting with my father that was making her squirm. “Eli, you call your parents, I’ll order the food.”
Thank you for reading chapter four of Affective Needs. A new chapter is posted every Wednesday. If you don't feel like waiting for updates, here is the link to my book page and all the vendors that carry my books. Happy reading!