Fiction/Drama (Graduate)

in #12.1/Blog/McKinney 2012 Winners


by Nicole Zumpano

Centereach is located, exactly as it claims, smack dab in the center of Long Island.  Drive twenty minutes in one direction and you’re at the North Shore, twenty minutes in the other and you’ve reached the South.  Walk twenty minutes in any direction, and you’re going to get sloshed.

Try as we might to pretend that we’re discriminatory in our targets, it’s rarely anything personal.  I mean, it goes without saying that if you don’t give Drew a decent tip when he delivers your fried chicken or something, you should be prepared for a bit of appropriate retaliation, but most of the time, the factor deciding your fate is entirely arbitrary.  There could be something slightly irritating in the way that you’re walking; a noteworthy sort of you-wouldn’t-dare-slosh-me arrogance in your step.  Maybe we hate kids that dress the way that you’re dressed, since that automatically implies that you listen to the type of music they listen to, and thus act the way that they act.  Perhaps it’s just because you’re standing on the sidewalk at that perfect curve in front of Loews theatre, looking completely innocent and unaware, that we’ll swoop by and lob the wet bomb straight into the back of your head.  Don’t take it too personally.  We’re not honestly trying to teach you any lessons.  No matter how we justify it, our primary motivation is and always has been the pure rush of the quintessential teenage shenanigan.  We are socially useless and that in itself gives us our kicks.

Don’t misunderstand me, though.  We haven’t wasted the entirety of our high school years launching water balloons from car windows at unsuspecting passersby.  No, we chuck half-empty sodas and burgers from nearby Wendy’s, McDonalds, White Castle, Burger King, and Checkers, toss rejected Slurpee flavor concoctions from 7-11, fling cartons of chocolate milk from the school cafeteria, pitch countless dozens of eggs, heave entire expired ice cream cakes that Nick gets free from Coldstone onto the streets in our wake . . . and even, in more extreme assaults, fire zip-locked bags of dog shit and balloonfulls of our own piss.  We drive fast and sing loud the whole way, feeling the ska in our limbs as we whale our inspired arsenal at pedestrians: “I’m su-perrr, I’m a nuh-thiiing, I’m a no-ooone going nowhere fast . . . and I don’t care, and I don’t care!”

            And when I bang through the front door of my home, one arm sunburned from hanging out the window, throat dry and sore from shouting our Catch-22 anthem into the salty air, I have come to terms with the fact that I really don’t care.  Certainly not enough, anyway.  My parents’ desktop computer blazes the same blank document that it has every night for the past month.

“Sit down right here, you ungrateful little–,” Ma says.  She pulls the imminent curse back into her lungs with a long breath.  “Write your college essay.  Just–”, she’s twitching now.  She should go sloshing sometime, I think.  Then she wouldn’t ache so desperately to throw cassette tapes and picture frames at my head in daily crises such as these.  “Just write, please.”

I’d like to, I really would, if only to detract from the transient stress that’s agitated the entire household since September began.  I mean, it’s totally normal, expected even, for the interactions of a five-person family to be reasonably charged with frustration and anxiety.  We kids are by nature contrary, rebellious; we go out of our ways to disagree if our parents act too pompous, flaunting that “I’ve been around so much longer than you, I know how the world works” garbage.  It doesn’t help the harmony of the family, but our pride remains intact.

Typically the rage of Ma can only last a few hours before she needs someone to run into Stop&Shop for her, or a buddy to gush with over the addictive drama of reality television.  Tempers subside shortly after the reprimand is made; presumably, a lesson has been imposed on us, and we have integrated it into our behaviors accordingly.  So what’s the point in staying hostile?

But this college stuff- this is something different entirely.  The onset of the future has allegedly been plaguing her for months, and in response, she has been plaguing me.  Have I been on yet?  Have I spoken to Ms. Nespoli about a letter of recommendation?  Have I thought about a topic for that unfathomably decisive essay, probably the most important piece of writing I’ll ever produce in my life?  I, “Chrissy”, have gotta do this stuff!  Life doesn’t just fall into my lap!  She’s on about it every day, with increasing urgency.  But, God, it’s almost beyond me to keep up with my Yes Moms, I know Moms, Yeah Ma I wills, and Relax Ma, jeezes.  I can hardly conceive of actually doing all of the preparation she’s so impassioned over.  As each day passes, it seems my prospects thin and I drift further from Mom’s favor, the bands of our family ties stretching painfully in warning of their limited elasticity.

It’s not that I want to save this crucially determinative paper for the last minute, to write it the day applications are due for some sort of sick masochistic thrill.  It’s just that it’s all so far in the future, and the assignment is so absurdly vague . . . 500 words on the topic of my choice?  How is Brown University going to judge me if I write about the night that Peggy and I glued Jenna’s hideous collection of pig statuettes to our roof and, while she was immersed in dually balancing and prying up little porcelain swine, locked the window and went to bed?  Should I really tell Columbia about Darryl Banana, a live lobster purchased at Pathmark and spray-painted gold, who had accompanied me and my friends to school?  Am I truly to believe that U Penn, Amherst, and NYU are genuinely interested in the grisly details of my sloshing career?  And yet, these are the matters at hand.  This is my reality.  I don’t know what else I could possibly write about.

“Chrissyyy.”  My dad is home from work.  He glances around and sneaks me a Slurpee under the table.  I accept.  I already bought one of these today, but I didn’t exactly drink it.

“Your mother is angry.  Can’t you just write this thing already?”

“Dad, I—“

“Op!  Op!”  Dad often interrupts statements that may complicate his concept of a situation, especially if they make Ma seem less right.  I open my mouth in one more attempt–

“Ajaja!  Shh!”  I am being insolent, and that’s all that matters.  “You write that

paper!” He grins at me and heads for the couch, singing some Disney Channel theme song to himself along the way.  My ma will be exasperated at his half-baked attempt to discipline me later.

I double-click iTunes, as I so often do when attempts to focus are moot, and switch on Catch-22’s “Supernothing.”  From the tinny speakers of the computer the recording sounds shittier than usual, and for this I love it even more.  I sing along with the lyrics composed by a fifteen-year-old boy and wonder how many third graders I could take on if we were all trapped inside the mall, and could use any object in any store as weaponry.  Something like twenty-five or thirty, I think, though Mike, Drew, and Mark each had estimated at least a hundred for their selves . . . although, if I were able to close off a small area, a little alley or strip, they could only come at me to be beat down one at a time, and then my count would be nearly infinite . . . that is, until one of them gets hold of a chainsaw. . . The screen is as bright and blank as ever, but I don’t care, but I don’t care.

*           *         *

Dinner becomes terribly awkward when Mom is angry.  Everyone knows who is in charge of this house, and everyone knows when she is not happy.  We pass our peas and potatoes in silence, each prickling with self-awareness, so as not to send skittering that innocent pebble which will spur the impending avalanche.  We have by no means abandoned our insubordinate temperaments, no.  We are simply aware of our dependence, and can tell a time to strike from a time to lay low.  A series of jarring cracks sound as Ma smacks silverware onto the table with inordinate force.  She tosses a salad with frightening rapidity and enthusiasm, rending three or four of the crunchy green leaves from the bowl and sending them freewheeling in all directions and onto the floor.  Teddy, ignorant of the danger, scurries over to sniff, lick, and reject each piece of shrapnel.  Ma stumbles backward over him and releases an inhuman roar, instilling in the tiny animal a degree of terror and shame mandating hours beneath the couch.  This is clearly an instance for keeping quiet and out of reach.

Dad, as Ma’s second in command, is automatically held responsible for collecting information about our days in the event of her inability to do so.  If this methodical prying is not practiced regularly, Ma insists, meetings with teachers will be missed, projects will go uncompleted, friends will not be called back and thus too offended to attend our next barbeque—utter chaos.  Acquiescing, he asks the questions, or at least, his impression of what the questions she would be asking was she in her normal state of mind.

“D’jou get any tests back today?” he asks Kellie across the table.  She shakes her head, staring down at her dish.  She’s obviously lying.  Mom’s upper lip twitches; she knows it too, but doesn’t trust herself to speak.  Dad is oblivious.

“Jenna?  What about you?”

“I didn’t go to school today.  I’m sick.”  Her eyes are downcast also.  Though not the

cause of the fury, she is likely to be assaulted if she wears a wrong look or speaks in an offensive tone.  I feel guilty for subjecting her and Kellie to this, but we’ve all been the cause one time or another.

“Sick?”  Dad jumps out of his seat.  Apparently this is good, this is wonderful; what a beautiful, irreproachable opportunity to escape this arena of scrutiny and animosity.  He hastens to the medicine cabinet.  “What’s wrong with you, Jen?”

“I’ve got a headache,” she shouts through the walls that separate the kitchen and bathroom.  We have all exhausted interest in our plates, and are acutely aware of the cabinet’s wheezing hinges, the chalky rattle of pills behind walls.  I risk eye contact to sip just a small glance at my sisters’ bowed heads; together we are but three healthy bundles of ashen brown hair dipping dangerously close to gravy pools, surveyed by a red-eyed, blood-thirsty watchdog at the end of its temper.  I look down again, watching the furious stagnation creep closer to my plate.  Dad yells in.

“How old are you again?”

*          *         *

Tonight, Ma and I are scheduled to attend some sort of college fair in Selden.  I’ve been to many of these things before, and found not one even dimly interesting or useful.   Mom deems them a cost-effective, hassle-free way to sample schools and assist in the most important decision my life has offered so far, and thus has changed into one of her work suits.  I head outside as I am, in a simple pair of jeans and a lime green tee-shirt.  My hair is knotty from the 40mph winds careening through Nick’s car window all afternoon, and the brisk evening has set my nose streaming.  I don’t hesitate to sniffle audibly and wipe with the side of my hand.  At this point, it’s hopeless.  I have been cornered, trapped in the car with my mom.

It is this position which all of her victims dread; for the twelve minutes it takes to drive from our house to Newfield High School, Ma will be performing sans filter.  No longer must she take into account the sensitive ears of the dog, the possibility of a phone call, the mood of the house.  It is only she and I, hurtling forward in the family Rav4.  She is nearly overcome with the excitement of this moment.

The onslaught is immediate.

“So, Christine, I know that I’ve asked you more than once today, but how far exactly are you on that essay of yours?”  My neck and shoulders press into the seat as she bears down on the gas pedal.  Her voice is a controlled quiet, with a falsely sweet tinge that infuses me with fury.

“Not.”  I deliver this syllable with staunch determination.  How dare she talk down to me like I’m some sort of complete idiot, like I don’t realize that this needs to get done, like I haven’t heard her the tens of thousands of times she’s brought it up before.

“Not what?”  I think what Ma’s attempting is some variety of naive Bambi look, but her head is tipped too far, her blinks too deliberate, her stare too wide.  She continues beaming this freakish gaze in my direction while tugging and tapping instinctively at the gear shift and signal switch, weaving in and out of lanes at her leisure.  We are moving far too fast for insanity to be tolerated behind the wheel . . . but if we do crash, it will prove that she, my mom, was the one at fault in our situation; that I have been unjustly suffering under her tyranny.  This realization makes our potential destruction worthwhile.

“Not anywhere.”  The delivery is perhaps too much.

“God fucking damn it Christine, when the hell are you going to start actually doing something with your life?  There aren’t always going to be people pushing you along, doing everything for you, you lazy little shit—.”  Ma is shrieking now.  But my adrenaline is rushing as well.

“Jesus Mom, I’m going to do it!  I’ve told you a million times I’m going to do it, so relax and just let me!”

This does it.  The car lurches to a halt, knocks us roughly forward and back.  I can hear other brakes squealing in protest as they too are forced into instant stillness.  Behind us, horns yelp out in panic.  She can look me face to face now.

“Get ouuuuuut!”

“Ma, I—“

“Ouuuutttt!”  She has more muscles than most mothers, and they are all tense and shivering with anger.  Her face is hideous; nose pinched, teeth bared, anger wrinkles wrought deeper than eye sockets.  Unbuckling my seatbelt requires far more dexterity than I recall.  I practically tumble from the car.

Ma stretches in what must be a relieving exertion of energy to shut my door before I can think to lift my arm.  A blast on the ignition and she is zooming away, the traffic jam behind her steadily unwinding, passengers shamelessly staring out at me in wonderment.  But Middle Country Road restores itself to its natural order, and within a minute nobody notices the teenaged girl standing dumbstruck on the disordered sidewalk blocks before CVS Pharmacy and Dunkin Donuts.  I awaken slowly and realize that there is nothing to do but walk.

I’m like a thermos of boiling hot soup; all of the chemistry, the thrashing and writhing that’s taking place inside, is in stark contrast with the cool evening air.  I stumble blindly across cracked paving stones in the vague direction of home, rejecting incoming images and sounds to reverberate Ma’s eruption in the hollow amphitheatre of my head.  How could she, my mother, just drop me on the roadside to fend for myself?  No money, no phone, no keys . . . I was entirely unprepared for this.  She really is insane.  And when she comes home without me, everyone in the family will know.

No way am I really all that lazy.  I get good grades, take on a few hours a week at Boston Market, play sports, avoid hard drugs . . . she could be stuck with way worse kids, definitely.  She probably should have worse kids, juvenile delinquent kids who deserve the agony I’ve been enduring throughout the past few months.  It makes me feel better to rationalize this way; my instant reaction to discipline is, of course, shame, but this solemn journey back to my homeland has given me time to sort my story out.  I am almost glad she dumped me here.  I can form an alibi for the storybooks, to tell all of my friends tomorrow, to repeat to myself until it’s true.

Traffic has thinned now, and I’m aware of each set of headlights, the low buzz of an individual car’s passage.  One slows as it approaches, shining what I think is white in the low light of neon signs and streetlamps.  Is it the Rav4?  Could my mom be coming back?  I’m on my tiptoes, squinting to get a better glance, hoping desperately for this joint treaty-signing and rescue-mission to be real.  The car pulls toward the curb, but is still moving far too fast.  A form leans out the passenger side window– a boy, certainly not my mom, or anyone in my family.  He swings his arm forward; an object hurtles toward me—shit.  Fantastic.

I’ve been sloshed.