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There are two problems with being the daughter of a best-selling etiquette guru. The first one is that everyone assumes you know how to do everything right. The second is that 99 percent of the time, you live with the fear you're doing everything wrong.
"You can't be serious!" I yelled when my parents broke the news to me. From the look on my mother's face, there was no doubt that yelling was the wrong thing to do in this situation. I did, however, resist the urge to fold my arms defiantly across my chest. It was one thing to stand my ground. It was another to look like a spoiled brat doing it. "There's no way I'm going."
My dad sat on the edge of my bed rubbing his knees while my mom waited for me to calm down so she could continue.
"We realize this isn't the best timing," she tried again, but I wasn't going for it.
"It's not just bad timing, it's halfway through my senior year. You can't expect me to leave my friends and everything right before graduation. I'm supposed to be the class valedictorian, for God's sake!"
Apparently my academic achievements weren't as important as the fact that my father's company was transferring him back to Boston, because my mother didn't even skip a beat. It almost made me wonder if she'd written a chapter on this in one of her books: Breaking Big News without Breaking a Sweat.
"I think you're making this out to be worse than it is," she went on, and then started rattling off all the wonderful, exciting things about moving "back to Boston." She kept saying "back to Boston" instead of "leaving Chicago," like somehow her choice of words would make it better. As if the fact that we used to live there made it easier.
"It's like going home," my mother insisted.
"No, it's like moving," I told her, and then added, "It's even worse than moving." At least if you moved somewhere new, you had an excuse for people not liking you -- they didn't know you. But when you were moving back to the same town you lived in for most of your life, going back to the same school you once attended, the possibility that people you once liked, and who once liked you, might not want anything to do with you anymore, was slightly horrifying to say the least.
I glanced over at my dad, who was still sitting on my bed staring at his khaki-covered knees as if they were infinitely more fascinating than the conversation taking place around him.
"This isn't fair," I told him, and he looked up at me with an expression of total innocence. Like none of this was his fault, and yet, he was the reason we were having this conversation in the first place. He was the reason the rest of my senior year was going to suck.
"Can't you tell them you'll move in May after graduation?" I pleaded, and for the first time since he came into my room my dad decided to speak.
Only instead of telling me what I wanted to hear, he shook his head. "Can't do that, Em."
"Look, it's all decided. We'll move right after Christmas." My mom laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed lightly. I'm sure it was supposed to reassure me, but it just made me even angrier. While my mother said all the right things as usual, my father just sat there like none of this was fault. But it was. All of it.
"Maybe I could stay with Jackie or Lauren until school's out," I suggested in an attempt to try and rectify what was left of my senior year. "It's just a few months."
"Absolutely not." My mom shook her head and didn't even bother looking to my dad for agreement. She was handling this because obviously Patricia Abbott knew the right way to handle every awful, unpleasant situation. "Come on," she chided, giving me a smile that I knew I was expected to reciprocate. "Everything's going to be fine. Promise."
She "promised," as if that was supposed to make me feel better. It didn't. And looking back on it, it just goes to show that even America's number one syndicated etiquette columnist isn't always right.
Six weeks later, our cab pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the United Airlines terminal. We probably looked totally normal, a family of four heading off on some warm tropical vacation right after Christmas. But even though four people exited the taxi, only three of us had our luggage. And the person who was responsible for ruining my senior year wasn't holding a plane ticket.
"Looks like that's everything," my dad told us as he placed two suitcases and TJ's Nike duffel bag on the sidewalk.
The cabdriver must have known this wasn't going to be a typical heartwarming family moment, and was smart enough to slip back into the driver's seat after closing the trunk.
" 'Bye, Dad." TJ was the first to say it, which figured. He seemed to be totally unscathed by all of this, completely oblivious to the fact that my father had single-handedly wrecked everything. My younger brother was always the problem child, so how did I end up being the difficult one in this situation? "I'll miss you."
While they shared a touching father-son moment, complete with hugs and manly pats on the back, I hung back by the sliding glass doors, grateful for the bursts of warm air that escaped every time a passenger entered.
There was no way my father would be getting a hug from me. And I wasn't about to tell him he was going to be missed.
When my dad told my mom he'd decided to stay behind in Chicago for a while, she actually thought he meant he'd decided we should all stay behind in Chicago for a while. Forget that we'd already sold our house, bought a new home in Branford, sent our transcripts back to Heywood Academy, and had a moving truck scheduled to haul all of our earthly possessions away in less than fifteen days. What bothered my mother the most about his news was that she'd already mailed the We're Moving! announcements to everyone on the Abbott family's Christmas card list. Apparently my dad had cleared it with his company and was going to stay in Chicago for a few months before making the transition. Too bad he hadn't cleared that with the rest of us.
"Emily?" My mom gave me a look that meant I was next in line for this Hallmark moment. I was expected to wrap my arms around my dad and act like all was forgiven. And I just couldn't do that. I couldn't pretend that the three of us were simply taking a trip instead of acknowledging what was really going on -- my father was ditching us.
"It's cold, I'm ready to head inside," I told them and then grabbed the handle of my suitcase and picked it up before my dad could reach for a hug. My dad didn't deserve hugs and teary good-byes. " 'Bye, Dad."
Maybe he felt guilty about leaving us or maybe my mom had trained him well enough to avoid a scene in front of the skycaps, but whatever the reason my dad didn't force the issue. TJ, on the other hand, looked like he wanted to kill me. It had been that way ever since the second big announcement -- TJ just didn't get it.
Finally my mom stepped forward and I waited for the explosion, the argument, or pointing of fingers that I knew was supposed to happen in a situation like this, but that, for some reason, never seemed to happen. Instead I watched two people have a conversation that seemed as civilized and rational as every other conversation they'd had over the past six weeks. And it annoyed me to no end. Was I the only one who wasn't willing to act like this was okay?
"Call me when you get in," my dad instructed us one last time before opening the cab's back door to get in. And then he looked directly at me. "Have a safe flight."
My mom, TJ, and I watched as my father pulled away and waved to us from the backseat of the cab. And because I'm nice, because I am my mother's daughter, instead of telling him what a shitty thing he was doing, I did the polite thing and waved back.
Our flight was delayed -- of course. Was it too much to ask that at least one thing go right this morning? Wasn't it enough that I had to be frisked by a stranger wielding a beeping black wand after I set off the security alarm? Or that the female security officer waved the wand around my right boob so many times the line of passengers behind me must have thought she was casting a magic spell on my 34Bs? If I'd have known my underwire would be mistaken for a national security threat I would have worn a running bra and saved myself the humiliation.
"Want a mint?" my mom asked, holding out a roll of peppermint LifeSavers. My mother was strictly old school when it came to fresh breath. No tins of atomic Altoids for her.
She probably assumed the frown on my lips was due to a mild case of bad breath. Unfortunately, peppermint wasn't going to help my situation. Besides, with a lump in my throat, I wasn't sure I'd be able to swallow.
I shook my head slowly, fearing any vigorous movement would release the tears that were currently blurring my vision.
"I know this is hard on you, all of it, but we'll get through this," she assured me. Just like she did when our cat, Snickers, got hit by a car and we discovered her on our front steps whimpering and licking a broken leg. Or when TJ needed stitches after falling off his bike and I was convinced he was going to die (I was eight at the time and still relished my role as the big sister -- I was over that by the time I was ten). Or even when I received the deferral letter from Brown and thought I might hyperventilate right there in the kitchen. My mom was always assuring me. Maybe that's a mother's job, but I had to wonder how, after all that had happened, she still managed to believe we'd get through this. Or maybe she didn't. Maybe she was trying to convince me as much as she was trying to convince herself.
"Come on, don't look so sad." My mom pushed my bangs off my forehead so she could look straight into my watery eyes. "You might actually discover you like being back in Boston."
I highly doubted it, but I didn't tell her that. I also didn't tell her about Sean.
One of the reasons I didn't tell my mother about Sean's driveway confession is that I knew what she'd say: "That boy needs to learn some manners." It was pretty much her cure-all for all societal unpleasantries, from people who tried to cut in front of her at the grocery store to children who cry in restaurants while their parents pretend they can't hear them. She truly believed that we'd all get along just fine if everyone knew the proper way to behave. So, while I knew she would have felt bad for me and offered a sympathetic hug after finding out about Sean, I also knew that she'd be planning to write about the correct way to break off a relationship for her next column, perhaps adding that a cotton hanky should be on hand (Polite Patty, as TJ and I once nicknamed her, hated paper tissues). It was just easier to let her believe that I was a mess because we were leaving Chicago.
My mother's nationally syndicated etiquette column runs in newspapers all over the country, which means no matter where I am, I can always get advice from my mom. I used to wish she wrote under a pseudonym instead of her real name, Patricia Abbott. That way, nobody would expect me to know the right way to eat an artichoke or ask me which fork to use for the endive salad (just for the record, you start with the utensil on the outside and work your way in). But, having a mother who knows exactly when you can wear white, who can teach you how to deposit a lemon pit discreetly in your napkin so nobody notices, and who gives you monogrammed stationery every year for your birthday (for thank-you cards, of course) does rub off on you. Which is why, instead of sobbing into a snot-soaked Dunkin Donuts napkin at gate B13, I used small puffs and folded it in half after each discreet blow.
The middle seat. In the last row. The row that doesn't recline, but does put you up close and intimate with every single flush taking place in the lavatory on the other side of the cardboard-thin wall. Not to mention the postlavatory smells emanating from passengers who sat in the gate area for two hours wolfing down bratwurst and burritos with a Cinnabon chaser while the woman behind the United Airlines desk announced yet another delay due to the snowstorm in Boston.
Yes, the middle seat in the last row was the perfect ending to a perfectly crappy morning. The fact that I was stuffed between TJ and a woman who had obviously never been taught to share the armrest, but had learned that chewing Big Red gum as loudly and rapidly as possible will reduce the effects of cabin pressure, was just the icing on the cake.
"Why do you insist on wearing that?" I asked TJ, my eyes not actually looking at him. You'd think that we would have become allies through this ordeal with my dad, but instead the opposite had happened. It almost seemed like the angrier I felt, the harder TJ tried to see my dad's side in all of this, almost protective of him. TJ didn't get it at all.
"What?" he asked.
I couldn't bring myself to say "my sweatshirt." But it was my sweatshirt, emblazoned with BROWN in capital letters across the front. Only now it should say FAILURE, or LOSER. Or maybe IDIOT, since I'd believed the guy in the admissions office when he'd told me I was a shoo-in (okay, those weren't his exact words, he'd actually said something like, "you'd make a wonderful addition to the class of 2011," but the implication was the same).
"You know what I'm talking about," I told him. "Don't tell me it's a coincidence that you've found a new favorite sweatshirt."
"What, this old thing?" TJ pointed to his chest. "It's just comfortable."
He wasn't fooling me. I knew the sweatshirt was his way of rubbing it in. It was no secret in my family -- I was the good kid and TJ wasn't. Not that he was bad. TJ didn't hotwire cars or skip school or spray-paint gang signs on little old ladies' homes. My brother just wasn't like me. Nobody expected him to be perfect. And they certainly didn't expect him to get into Brown.
"Whatever." I flipped the page in the catalog on my lap, indicating our conversation had come to an end.
During a two-hour delay that seemed to last six days, I'd burned through the thirty dollars' worth of magazines I'd bought for the trip, and had even, in utter desperation, resorted to reading my mother's Smithsonian and the ingredients of my third Snickers bar. So when we finally boarded the plane and my seat front pocket offered 112 glossy pages of SkyMall glory, I grabbed it. And was thankful. Finally I had something to take my mind off what was happening -- and what was happening to me.
But somewhere between the cat-friendly self-cleaning litter box and the digital camera/spy pen, my window seat neighbor decided that chewing gum at a rate ten times the speed of the jet engines outside her window wasn't enough. She wanted to carry on a conversation, as well.
"Is Boston your final destination?" she asked me, as if, after listening to gate announcements all morning, airport-speak had rubbed off on her.
I nodded, and waited for her to ask if my carry-ons were properly stowed in the overhead compartment.
"I was visiting my son in Chicago for Christmas," she told me. "And my new granddaughter. She's just one month old."
I smiled and told her what I figured she wanted to hear. After all, I was nothing if not well-mannered. "That sounds like fun."
She smiled back. "What about you? Did you have a nice holiday?"
I should have just said "fine" and stopped there. I should have just given her the standard answer everyone uses for seemingly innocuous questions like "how are you?" and "how's your day going?" I should have just said "good" and left it at that.
I knew that was the polite thing to do. But I was tired of being polite and I was sick of being nice.
Maybe it was that I'd had my fill of recirculated air or that I'd reached my tolerance for the constant rattling of the beverage cart, but more likely it was that I'd been up since six o'clock that morning and had already eaten my way through the top row of the candy counter in the Hudson newsstand. And so, even though I knew I was expected to say something courteous, I told her the truth.
"My holiday sucked."
"Oh." For the first time since we sat down, she took her elbow off the armrest. "I'm sorry."
She was sorry. Funny how a complete stranger can be sorry, yet a guy I'd known for two years and dated for four months didn't even think to apologize after he told me he didn't think we should see each other anymore. It would just be too hard. Who was Sean kidding? What he really meant was, I'm a lazy shit who will forget you the moment your cab drives away.
In psychology class we'd learned about the five stages of grief. Of course, Sean wasn't dead (even though the idea was becoming more appealing by the minute), but those five stages also happened to fit my current situation perfectly. In the four hours between leaving Sean in my driveway and hearing the captain tell us we'd be traveling at thirty-seven thousand feet, I figured I'd gone through four of the five stages, and added a new one that Kübler-Ross forgot.
- Denial. I kept telling myself that there was no way Sean just broke up with me. There was no way my boyfriend would dump me at eight o'clock on a Saturday morning in my very own driveway while my family watched from an idling cab. There was just no way. There had to be a mistake. Sean never was much of a morning person.
- Anger. I hated him. More than I'd ever hated anybody in my entire life. Even more than I hated Curtis Ludlow after he told our entire sixth grade class I was the one who stepped in the dog crap and wiped it off on the front steps of the school.
- Kübler-Ross called it grief, but I'm going to call it what it was -- my heart breaking. Sitting there in gate B13, I swear I could feel my heart shriveling up inside my chest. I could feel everything Sean ever found lovable draining out of me onto the coffee-stained carpet. Even with hundreds of passengers swirling around me in the gate area, I felt completely and utterly alone.
- Bargaining. Maybe if I let him think about it for a few days he'd realize he'd made a mistake. Maybe if I hadn't insisted he come over this morning to say good-bye, he'd still be at home in bed wishing he could give me one last kiss. Maybe if the plane suddenly plunged toward the earth at mach speed and Sean came thisclose to losing me forever, he'd realize he couldn't live without me.
- Kübler-Ross claimed the fifth stage was acceptance. Acceptance, my ass. The fifth stage is Fury (capital F), coupled with a seething desire to physically harm him, cause him emotional anguish, and make him regret the day he ever thought he could break up with me right after eating a sesame-seed bagel with cream cheese. The fifth stage was wrath. Rage. Resentment. That woman who cut off her husband's penis and tossed it out a car window? She was clearly in the fifth stage. And, now, so was I.
"Are you okay?" the woman on my right asked, and pointed to the wax-coated bag tucked in front of her own SkyMall. "You don't look so well."
"I'm fine," I assured her, even though I was the furthest thing from fine.
She didn't press the issue. "Well, it sounds like a change of scenery is exactly what you need."
"Change is exactly what I don't need," I told her. "What I really need is for everything to be the same."
Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer O'Connell