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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Affective Needs--Chapter Eight

**New chapters posted here every Wednesday**

Not until five o’clock on the Thursday I was supposed to be meeting him for dinner did my father finally get around to texting me with the reservation time.
See you at 7:00!
Seriously? How was it possible for a grown human being to be that inconsiderate? Mostly I was just pissed because I had been holding out a huge hope that he had forgotten he’d asked me to dinner altogether. No such luck.
For about ten minutes, I considered texting him back. So sorry. Since I NEVER heard from you, I made other plans.
But I soon realized it would only postpone the inevitable and give my mother that disappointed look she gets when she doesn’t like a “choice” I have made.
Grudgingly, and with my brow furrowed so deep it was actually bringing on a headache, I texted him back.
Fine.

At 7:17, I was sitting in Tony’s, at a table for two—alone.
No surprise. He hadn’t even booked the reservation right; the hostess had us down as a party of three before I corrected her.
I reached, again, into the bread basket, took out another one of the long, hard, flavorless breadsticks and began at one end breaking it into half-inch segments, adding more crumbs to the growing pile on the small white plate in front of me.
Five minutes. I glanced at my phone sitting face up on the table next to my water glass and noted the time. He had five more minutes, and if he wasn’t here by then, I was out.
I sighed, popped the last piece of breadstick into my mouth, and glanced at the door.
There he was, in one of his stupid patterned shirts with the weird pointy collars that only looked even halfway decent on guys that were both fifteen years younger and pounds lighter than my father. His round, protruding belly made the shirt hang lower in the back than the front. He thought they were cool because they were made by a designer. He thought he was cool because he knew who the designer was and could afford them—once they moved onto the clearance rack.
I hoped that sometime during our meal, he spilled marinara sauce all down the front of it.
The hostess grabbed some menus and began heading my way. When my father saw me, he ducked his head, shielded his eyes and waved with his other hand like I was a castaway on a far off island.
Crap. I picked up the last breadstick and broke it in half. I really, really, really wished I could just go home.
“Ruth!” he said too loud when he reached the table, but then a confused expression came over his face and he turned to the hostess. “There’s a mistake. We need a table for three.” At this, he reached behind him and put his arm around a woman I had assumed was just trying to make her way through the restaurant behind him.
While the hostess explained that she was sorry, that I had told her it was only two, and she would move us right away, I stared at my father and the woman he had his arm around.
The woman who had a belly just as big as his but who had clearly acquired it in a very different way than he had.
“Well,” he smiled while the hostess did her best to encourage me to stand. “I was hoping this would be a little more smooth.” He chuckled. “But . . . Ruth, this is Derry. Derry, meet my daughter, Ruth.”
My mouth felt like it was filled with the entire plate of crumbs piled in front of me. I completely ignored Derry’s outstretched hand and stared long and hard at her enormous belly before lasering my focus back on my dad.
“Is it yours?” I blurted.
Derry retracted her hand and placed it protectively over her stomach just as my father’s expression lost all of its forced good cheer. He pulled Derry a little closer and shook his head at me. “Please, Ruth.”
Please, Ruth? Please, Ruth! What the hell was he thinking?
Completely pissed, I grabbed my phone and shoved the plate of crumbs so hard it clattered against my water glass. Without a word, I stood up and motioned to the hostess to lead the way. My tone and behavior were clearly making her nervous because she started to look around for some help as soon as she saw that there was a “situation” unraveling at table six. But when she saw that I was coming, peaceably, to the larger table, a table that sat more than two, a table that could accommodate three people and an unborn child, she ducked her head and led us away while she clutched the laminated menus to her chest.
My brain throbbed against my skull. My father had a girlfriend, and his girlfriend was pregnant. Every fiber of my body felt like flipping over all the tables in the restaurant. This was going to be the most painful meal I had ever endured.

When I got home, I made sure to slam the garage door behind me. I stood there in the dark, waiting for my mother to come and see what all the noise was about.
But she didn’t.
She knew, I just knew she knew. She knew my dad had knocked up some hippie, earth-hugging deadbeat, and my own mother hadn’t bothered to warn me. Not even a Hey, I think your dad might have something to tell you tonight. NOTHING.
“MOM!” I shouted from the bottom of the stairs.
“You’re home,” she called. I could tell from the direction of her voice that she was in her room.
“Yes, I’m home.” I thundered up the stairs and headed straight for her door, ready to start a tirade of epic proportions, but when I pushed her door open, I stopped.
She was standing in the middle of her room, her hands turned backward on her hips in that way that made her look so much older than she really was, already wearing her I’m-sorry expression.
Just looking at her, already prepared for my anger, took some of the wind out of my storm.
She shook her head and whispered, “It wasn’t my place to tell you. Even though I desperately wanted to, your father wanted to tell you himself . . . in his own way.”
“Pretty crappy way. He ambushes me and waits until his love child’s about ready to burst . . . that’s his way?!”
My mom stared at me, not saying whatever was really on her mind, which I highly suspected was exactly what I had just said out loud.
“Why are you so fair to him? He doesn’t deserve it! He’s never deserved it and you’re always, always letting him slide.”
“Because I love you.” She closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. “If I’m fair to him, it’s because I love you, Ruth.”
I shook my head. It was so hard trying to fight with a psychologist. Her words completely deflated my anger, and my slumped shoulders gave me up as defeated. She was a master, literally, at emotional disarmament.
If my therapist had tried this shit on me, I never would have let her get away with it.
But my mom? It always worked because she always meant it.
Then she came in for the finish. With her eyes on mine, she moved closer until she pulled me, half-grudging, into her arms. I only held stiff for a few seconds before, with limp arms, I hugged her back. It was the scent of my mom that I was mostly powerless against. When she hugged me, the security of being eight replaced the insanity of being eighteen.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into my ear.
I huffed, “He’s the one who should be sorry.”
She pulled me away and kissed my forehead. “You’d sooner see Santa Claus in the flesh then get an apology out of your father.” She twisted her mouth into an evil smirk.
This was the closest thing to an insult I had ever heard her fling at my dad, and I loved it. I knew she couldn’t possibly be that perfect. “You are human!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, well,”—she turned back to her bed—“that’s all you’re going to get out of me. Divorce is hard enough without succumbing to my every petty whim.”
“So there’s more?” I clutched my chest in mock horror.
She climbed back up into the middle of her giant king-size bed and sat in the middle of a wide spread of manila files and papers. Before I got home, she had been working.
In her comfy pants and ratty college sweatshirt, my mother would look like a young woman sitting there cross-legged, with her thick brown hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun—if you didn’t look at the bags and dark circles under her eyes. Every one of the files spread around her, some of them practically exploding with paper, was an actual kid. Documentation of their life, their problems, the plans in place for them.
I moved closer to the bed and watched my mother’s face as she turned pages and read, then turned some more. Every few seconds she would type on her district-issued dinosaur-size laptop. My mother spent her whole life helping people. Every hard case that came across her path—even me.
But never herself.
I leaned forward until my elbows rested on the bed. “Did you eat?” I asked, even though I knew she absolutely had not.
She raised her eyes and looked at me with a confused expression, as if I had asked a strange question or pulled her from a deep dream. “Dinner?”
“Yes, Mom.” I fingered the edge of the file near my hands. “Dinner, food, sustenance? Everyone does it now.” I flipped the folder’s cover open and closed, open and closed. “Food is pretty popular these days.”
She gave me her look.
I smiled.
She sighed. “No.” She reached over and closed the file I was messing with and held her hand on it so I wouldn’t start annoying her again. “I haven’t eaten yet.”
“I brought home leftovers. After the big reveal I didn’t have much of an appetite.”
This got her attention. “From Tony’s?”
I nodded. My mother was a fiend for the lasagna there—exactly what I had ordered.
“Lasagna?”
“Yep.”
Her shoulders actually wilted with joy. “Would you heat some up for me?”
“Sure.” I glanced again at all the work. “But don’t you want to take a break?”
She sighed again. “I would love to. Unfortunately I think if I did, I’d never come back.” She rubbed her hands over her eyes, pressing the bags and purple circles in a way that made me wish it were already summer break and my mother could actually get some sleep. “I still have two reports to write before tomorrow, and an entire case file to catch up on for a new student.”
I stood up, fairly certain I knew exactly who she was talking about. My eyes scanned the files around her more closely now. “Okay,” I said trying to sound as casual as before. My eyes finally found it, the file right in front of me, the file I had been fiddling with. “I’ll bring it up here.” On the small tab, his name was scrawled in blurry blue ink.
Porter Creed
My heart thundered so hard inside my chest, you might have thought he was actually in the room with us.
I stared at the file—it was huge. Three times as thick as any of the others.
“Can you grab me a coffee too?” she asked, not bothering to look away from her report.
Normally I would get on her case about drinking caffeine this late, but I nodded instead. “Okay,” I said, and kept staring at Porter’s file. What on earth could be in there? Why was it so huge?
I looked at my mother, completely engrossed in work, then back to Porter’s file. There was no way, not in a million years, not under any circumstances she would let me read that file.
And would I even want to?
I stepped away. “I’ll be right back.”
She nodded, but I could tell she hardly registered that I was still in the room.
In the kitchen, I pulled a plate from the cupboard and opened the small cardboard box I’d brought back from Tony’s.
I hadn’t seen Porter since that day in the library. His jacket was still hanging in my locker at school. Every day I had waited in calculus for him to show, scanned the cafeteria for him at lunch, but he never came.
I grabbed a fork from the drawer and shoveled the heavy brick of lasagna onto the plate.
He had been absent for three days straight.
I opened the microwave and put the plate inside, remembering at the last second to cover the food with a paper towel so my mother didn’t have an aneurism the next time she used the microwave and there was sauce and cheese exploded all over the inside. I keyed in the time and hit Start.
Was Porter sick?
While the lasagna rotated around and around, I took a mug from the cupboard and put it under the coffee machine, inserted the single-serve coffee pod, and hit Start.
While I waited, I leaned back against the island in the center of the kitchen. Porter’s file was upstairs. In my house.
So what? You can’t read it.
The microwave beeped so I moved to take the lasagna out.
No, I absolutely couldn’t read his file. That was wrong, on so many levels. Possibly even illegal. Not that anyone would know, of course. But if my mother found out?
I placed the plate with the now-steaming lasagna on the counter and waited for the coffee to finish brewing.
And really, did I want to know what was in that file anyway? Was that file really who Porter was? Could a pile of paper, a series of reports, reports made by other people, really explain Porter Creed to me?
Granted, it was a huge pile of paper.
The smell of fresh-brewed coffee filled the kitchen as the last of the boiling-hot liquid dribbled into my mother’s cup. I ripped a piece of paper towel off the roll for a napkin and headed back up the stairs to my mother, and Porter’s file.
A file I had almost 100 percent concluded I would not be reading. Besides, did any of those reports explain why when I watched him working the math problem my insides turned upside down? Maybe what I needed was not so much an explanation on Porter Creed, but an explanation about myself.
With the boiling black coffee in one hand and the plate of steaming, gooey lasagna in the other, I used the toe of my shoe to push the door open. When it swung inward, I could see my mother still sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, but now she had her cell phone pressed between her shoulder and ear while she typed on the computer in front of her.
I took a deep breath and sighed. The food would probably go cold before she got around to eating it. Carefully, I placed the coffee on her bedside table and the plate of food on the bed with all her files. Maybe if it was close, the aroma of spicy Italian sausage, melting mozzarella, and tomato sauce would remind her to eat.
She looked at the food, then up at me. Thank you, she mouthed before turning her eyes back to the screen in front of her. “Yes, three days and we’re concer . . . I see,” she said into the phone. She reached over, began flipping through the open file next to her, and pulled a sheet from somewhere near the middle.
I glanced down at where Porter’s file had been, but it was gone. The one she was using, the open file with all the pages—his name was on that file.
“Mr. Creed, I assure you . . . well, will he be at school Monday?”
She was on the phone with Porter’s father. I should leave, turn around, walk away—instead, I stood transfixed while my mother’s forehead wrinkled and her mouth set into that flat line that showed how angry she really was even if her words didn’t.
“Hello?” she asked and pulled the phone from her ear for a second before checking again. “Hello? Mr. Creed?” She sucked air through her nose and let out a giant sigh while she put the phone down. “He hung up on me,” she shook her head. When she turned her head to me, she smiled with her mouth but I could tell from her eyes that she was completely irritated with Porter’s dad. “Thank you,” she picked up the plate but didn’t take the fork. She just held the plate in front of her like she was trying to figure out what to do next.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
She nodded, but her mind was somewhere else. I considered asking her a question, directly, about Porter. Did she know he was in my class? Yes, he is, also . . . he’s my partner for our year end calculus project. I would skip over the whole ditching school, taking a pass off her desk, and forging her name so I didn’t have to sit in detention the next day thing, but she might like to know that I knew Porter Creed.
“He’s in my class,” I blurted.
My mother turned her head to face me. “I’m sorry?”
“Porter Creed,” I pointed at the open file lying next to her. “He’s in my Advanced Calculus class.”
Her brow furrowed again and she narrowed her eyes. “Really?” Her hand moved and closed Porter’s file. I could tell she was thinking about what she had said in front of me, how much confidential information had I heard.
“He seems nice.” I shrugged.
“You know him?”
“Well there’s only six of us in the whole class; it’s kind of hard for us to not know each other.”
She nodded at this, but I could tell her brain was still trying to wrap around several things at once. She picked up her fork, paused, then put it and the plate back down on the bed. She pursed her lips the way she did when she was preparing to say something but still working out exactly how she should say it.
I jumped in before she had the chance to shut the topic down. “He’s really smart.” I shrugged again, hoping she would think that Porter was nothing more than a curiosity to me. “Super smart . . . you don’t really expect kids like Porter to be in special education.”
My mother stared at me. She looked like she was both processing what I had said and trying to be really careful about how she responded.
She took a breath. “It’s difficult.” Her words came out as a whisper. “Doing what I do, at the same school you go to . . .” She shook her head. “There were a lot of people in the district who said I shouldn’t.”
“Why?” I asked.
“And maybe they were right. I thought I wouldn’t have any problems, at least not any I couldn’t handle by being professional, and open with you. In your four years at the school, you haven’t had any friends who have needed to see me.”
Because I don’t have any friends besides Eli, I thought to remind her—but didn’t.
“And you’ve turned out to be a huge help in the severe needs room,” she added, but then went silent again.
I could guess what she would say next.
“Is Porter Creed your friend?”
I did my best to look incredulous—friend, was she kidding? “I hardly know him.”
My mother watched me. It felt like an examination, a lie-detection review. She pulled Porter’s file onto her lap and glanced at her screen. “I don’t like to tell kids who to be friends with . . . especially when one of those kids could really use some friends.”
I realized she could have just as easily been talking about me even though I knew she meant Porter.
She returned her eyes to mine. “But my gut tells me I need to address this as a mother, not the school psych. I’m asking you to keep your distance from Porter.”
“There’s only six—”
“I’m not saying you have to ignore him completely. But don’t . . . get close to him either, okay? I have a feeling this one is going to get a lot more difficult before it gets any better—if it gets any better. And I can’t risk dealing with the ethical entanglements of a dual relationship.”
Meaning, she couldn’t ethically be the psychologist for someone who was also my friend. “I told you, I hardly even know him.”
She nodded. “Okay, that’s good then. Just make sure it stays that way—okay?”
“Fine.” I raised my eyebrows like I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was in the first place. “No problem,” I added for emphasis, and turned to leave as if this conversation meant nothing to me. “Make sure you eat that.”
“I will, and thank you.”
I nodded as I left her room. It wasn’t until I was across the hall, sitting at my desk with my piles of homework spread all around me that I stopped and considered the huge lie I’d just told.

I didn’t want to stay away from Porter Creed. 

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Thank you for reading chapter eight 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!