Thursday, July 27, 2017

Affective Needs--Chapter Twenty Five

**New chapters posted Wednesdays**

I got home before my mother, but only because she was working late again. I had prepared myself to tell her the truth about where I’d been all day, to explain why I wasn’t here when she got home.
But I didn’t have to, because the house was still empty when I walked in.
I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning. Starving, I opened the fridge and stood staring at all the things I couldn’t even imagine being able to stomach. My whole body was shaky and weak, strung out from the intense electric vibration that had rattled my nerves ever since I had decided to go to Tennyson and see Porter.
I closed the fridge and went up to my room to lie down.
Flat on my back, my neck arched and my chin pointed high, I stared straight at my ceiling. There was a single glow-in-the-dark star left up there that no longer glowed in the dark.
For my eighth birthday, Bella Blake, at the time my best friend in the whole world, had given me a ten-pack of flavored ChapSticks, a Hello Kitty diary with a tiny silver lock and key, and a package of twenty-five glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars.
I had hugged her, sat shoulder to shoulder with her on the floor of my bedroom while we tasted every flavor of ChapStick. She was the only friend who slept over that night. We jumped on my bed, the stars in our palms, laughing and giggling until every star was stuck in a messy clump on the ceiling above my bed, then fell asleep way past the seventh time my dad came in to tell us to “knock it off and go to sleep.”
When my twelfth birthday came around, Bella didn’t come. The week before, Ashley Evans had invited her to spend the weekend in New York with Ashley’s mom at the Plaza Hotel.
And even though Bella and I had been inseparable since we sat next to each other in Ms. Newman’s kindergarten class, Bella went to New York with Ashley.
And I spent my twelfth birthday at Tony’s with my mom, eating lasagna, pretending to not be heartbroken. That night, alone in my room, I balanced my desk chair on my bed, the legs digging deep into the soft mattress, and scraped every glow in the dark star from my ceiling.
All except one.
I didn’t know why.
Did I not see that star?
My eyes blurred by thoughts of Bella and Ashley, New York, hotel pools, and laughter that left me out.
Had I left one on purpose?
One left for stupid hope?
One remaining for a single wish?
My heart had bled for Bella.
I had missed her friendship like nothing I had ever known.
And then, waiting for her to come back, watching her and Ashley grow closer, then giving up on ever getting her back—my heart had eventually coagulated in its own love.
I had spent the last six years making my love-turned-to-hate of Bella, and everything she did, an occupation.
Stupid stars.
Hot tears pooled in my ears.
And now—now I had also lost Eli.
And now, now I was losing Porter.
I closed my eyes to that dumb broken star. The whole world was a confused and broken place. A place filled to overflowing with lost and broken people.
My body, flat, stuck, still in the middle of my bed, at the edge of my room, in the corner of my house, at the end of my street, on the edge of my town, on the fringe of a landmass, a single point on the Earth—a small blue dot at an unknown location in the never-ending expanse of a universe that didn’t seem to know anything about the dark bottomless hole in the center of my soul.
A hole shadowed by the fear that none of this really mattered at all.
A fear that none of us mattered.
Downstairs, a door closed and my walls shook.
My mother was home.
I pulled my eyes from that plastic star and rolled onto my side until I faced my open bedroom door. I could hear my mother’s feet coming up the carpeted stairs.
“Ruth?” she called.
I didn’t answer her, but when she got to the landing she glanced toward my bedroom and our eyes met. She stopped where she was, her shoulders dropped and she frowned.
“Have you been there all day?” Her voice was soft and concerned.
She came into my room, pushed my legs over, and sat on the edge of my bed. Her hand brushed the hair away from my face. “Are you okay?”
I didn’t even know what that question meant anymore. “I’m not sure.” I rolled onto my back and sat up, my knees pulled tight against my chest. “I don’t think so.”
This answer must have made sense to her because she nodded.
“Do you want to talk now?” she whispered.
I looked at her from over the tops of my knees and shrugged.
She sighed, “How long?” she asked.
“A couple months . . . almost since he started at Roosevelt.”
“Are you two serious?”
I shrugged again. “I guess.”
“Have you slept with him?”
The question annoyed me, but I answered her anyway. “No. Not that it matters.”
She could tell I was getting defensive, she waited a few moments to continue. “Do you love him?”
“I said I did.”
“But do you?”
“I think so.”
“And he loves you?”
This I didn’t know, I let my silence answer the question.
My mother sighed again, “You know, when I imagined your first boyfriend, Porter Creed is not exactly the picture that came to mind.”
I gave her a quizzical look, “You’ve imagined a boyfriend for me?”
“Well . . . sort of, I suppose.”
“And . . . on a good day, he was like a straight Eli.”
This made me smile in spite of everything else. “And the bad days?”
She twisted her mouth. “The bad days . . . The bad days I envisioned you in the middle of some scandal with an older university professor during your freshman year.”
She shrugged and chuckled. “So I guess I’ve always worried about the whole ‘daddy’ thing rearing its head in that predictable way that it does with some girls who don’t have the best male role models. College just seemed like the most likely environment.”
“I cannot believe you’ve thought that.”
“It sounds much worse now that I’ve said it out loud.”
I shook my head at her. “Although I can see your reasoning . . . I don’t exactly have the best father figure.”
She stared at the space of bedspread between us.
“What did you ever see in him?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows as if the question surprised her, then settled her focus somewhere near where my wall met the ceiling, like she was trying, really, really hard to think of what she could have ever possibly have seen in a man who would one day comb his thinning hair back into a ponytail. She sighed. “Your father”—she actually smiled—“your father was very, very handsome.”
My face must have looked like I was about to throw up because she said, “I’m serious! You’ve seen pictures!”
Actually, I didn’t know if I had seen pictures of my dad when he was younger. At least not that I could remember.
“And besides that, and more importantly, your dad was—is—a very intelligent person.”
“A very intelligent person who wears ridiculous shirts.”
She smirked. “Well . . . he didn’t wear stupid shirts when I met him.”
I hugged my knees tighter. “Why did you get divorced?”
She took another deep breath and tilted her head to the side, “I always swore I would never badmouth your dad. It was important to me that you develop whatever sort of relationship with him the two of you were going to have without me poisoning the well.”
“He pissed in the well.”
Her mouth flattened. “Maybe, but I still wanted him to have a chance to not do that.”
“I’m not eight anymore. I’ve formed my own opinions now. Why did you hate him?”
She thought about this for a second even though I was pretty sure my mother could have answered much, much quicker. “I have reasons I left him . . . but I never hated him. I still don’t.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because I’ve seen your father at his most vulnerable. I know his fears, his regrets. I know exactly why he hides behind tasteless shirts, long hair, and a younger woman. Why he wants desperately to be thought of as important. Your father is very intelligent . . . he just never happened to do anything of consequence with that intelligence.”
I lifted my head off my knees and looked her in the eyes.
She sighed. “Wasted potential. Your father is full to overflowing with that. He has been practically choking on it for the last eighteen years.”
“Since he failed out of Harvard because of me.”
For the first time, I saw her eyebrows knit together and her face darken. “No. Since he dropped out of Harvard after we had you.”
“But because he had to. Because having a wife and a new baby—”
“And this is what he’s told you?”
I shrugged. “Basically.”
She nodded. “You asked why I left your father. I left because I was not going to spend a lifetime being blamed for something that was his choice. He didn’t fail out, and he didn’t have to leave. It was hard, extremely hard . . . yes. But we were making it—barely, but still, he didn’t have to drop out.”
“Then why?”
“Because your father was that kid who graduated at the top of his class in high school and when he showed up to Harvard, he saw for the first time in his life that there were lots and lots of other high schools with kids who graduated at the top of their class. And, in that environment, he was no longer the top of anything. He was surrounded with other people who were just as smart, or smarter. He was getting C’s, a D even, for the first time in his life. He didn’t know how to not be the best of everyone, so he stopped trying to even be the best of himself. It was his decision to leave. The plan was to go to another school, finish his degree somewhere good, but less competitive.”
“But he didn’t.”
“No. Harvard killed his confidence, damaged his ego in a way I don’t think he’s ever gotten over. He just threw up his hands.”
“You left him because he gave up.”
“No. I left him because at your first birthday, we had lots of friends over. Most didn’t have kids, but they came anyway. Your dad was standing with a group of his Harvard friends and I happened to overhear him tell them that the reason he left was because of me . . . because of you. That was the first time.” She shrugged. “Then I heard it again at dinner with his parents, and again when he was on the phone with his uncle. Suddenly, his entire personal script was the guy who had to give up his dreams because of a wife and a kid. When we started fighting, and he started throwing Harvard at me like a bomb, I realized it wasn’t just the excuse he was giving to save face in front of his family and friends. It had somehow become something that he believed even inside his own head. There was no way in hell I was going to subject myself to that for fifty years.”
“Why did he give up?”
“Because it wasn’t easy for him anymore. He was going to have to work for it, actually put in some effort. He didn’t know how to do that. Because he had always been so bright, he’d never really struggled with school before. He’d never learned how to persist in the face of something that didn’t happen the first time he tried it. So no, don’t let him tell you he failed Harvard because of you. The world is full of people sitting on goldmines of potential, but because their environments are hard, they throw up their hands in defeat. Your father is just one of many.”
I bit my lip. My brain, having just visited with both Karen and Porter, had jumped tracks. “But sometimes”—my voice was quiet, shaky—“sometimes things, the things around you really are too hard.”
My mom, hearing the tears in my voice, seemed to realize where our conversation had led me. “Yes,” she sighed. “I would also say that sometimes a person’s, a person like Porter, their living situation . . . you’re right. It’s not like you can just apply the same thinking to his situation. And I don’t. I know that Porter, and lots of the kids I’ve worked with, have been dealt a pretty shitty hand . . .” Her voice broke on the last words. “Some are much worse than Porter’s.”
Karen. Karen’s was much worse than Porter’s.
“And I would add, sometimes the most amazing people are born out of the worst kind of shitty life you could ever imagine.” She reached over and held my hand. Her fingers were warm and solid, a sure anchor in the middle of an unsure universe. “And sometimes life is like a goddamn tsunami that drowns a person before they’ve ever even had a chance to learn how to swim.”
“What’s going to happen to Porter?”
My mom shook her head. “I don’t know, Ruth. And it’s that not knowing if Porter learned to swim 
that makes me very afraid for you.”

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