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It all starts to go wrong one perfect, early summer evening on the Hempstead Turnpike. That's when something pulls on the secret thread that holds my life together, and starts the great unraveling.
I don't know it at the time, of course. I think all is well, that I'm holding things together, as always. Okay, Kelly and I have been fighting a lot lately, but that's what happens with teenagers, right? All I have to do is stick to my guns, keep on being an involved parent, paying attention to my willful daughter, and everything will come out fine. Right?
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Normally I try to avoid the turnpike at peak traffic hours, but this time there'd been no choice. Mrs. Haley Tanner wanted a third fitting for the wedding party, and when Haley calls, you drop whatever and respond. She and her new husband are hosting her stepdaughter's very lavish wedding nine tents, two bands, three caterersat their Oyster Bay estate, and she's worried the bridesmaids may have put on a pound or two. Despite her obnoxious habit of summoning people at the very last possible moment, Haley is actually sort of likable, in a nervous, insecure, please-help-me way. So worried she's going to do the wrong thing, make a mistake, and demonstrate to Stanley J. Tanner that he chose the wrong trophy wife. Turns out she's his second trophy wife. Stanley, CEO of Tanner Holdings, ditched the original trophy wife not long after Haley served him broiled cashew halibut at Scalicious, a trendy little fish café in Montauk. At the time Haley was "staying with friends" while she waited tables, which meant she was paying two hundred a week to sleep on the floor. So nabbing Stanley Tanner was a very big deal. Haven't had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Tanner in person myself he seems to live in his Learbut just looking at Haley, you know he's a breast man. Which is fine. A man has to focus on something, right? Why not something that reminds him, however unconsciously, of his mother? As my friend Fern always says, what's the harm?
Anyhow, poor Haley was melting down about the gowns not fitting and had summoned all five bridesmaids. Turns out two of them had actually lost weight and the very slight alterations were, to everyone's relief, no problem. An hour later I'm thinking, as traffic inches along, that for all that money I wouldn't trade places with Haley Tanner. I'd rather work my butt off as a single mom with a mortgage. Don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous, the newest Tanner mansion, tastefully furnishedone of five homes they own, by the waybut Haley never seems to have an unnervous moment or a peaceful thought. And no children, not yet. Maybe never, unless Stanley gets DNA approval.
Second trophy wives aren't about kids, they're about decorating.
Nope, I'll stay plain Jane Garner, Kelly's mom, the wedding lady. The go-to woman for custom gowns. The one driving the very nicely detailed, seven-year-old Mercedes station wagon. Classy but reasonably priced, if you let the first owner take the depreciation. Anyhow, I'm cool with being a working mom who balances her own checkbook, who is socking college money away for her daughter, and who thinks she has, at this precise moment, no regrets, no regrets at all.
Lying to myself, of course. Lying big-time. I've been lying for sixteen years, not that I'm counting.
Thing about living a lie, if you do it really well, you sort of forget you're lying.
That's when the crotch rocket went by, scudding dirt and pebbles in the brake-down lane. Actually beyond the brake-down lane, right up on the grass. I know it's the type of sleek Japanese motorcycle called a "crotch rocket" because Kelly told me. Pointed one out as it shot by us in, where was it, somewhere around Greenwich? Greenwich or Westport, one of those towns. See how they bend low over the fuel tank, Mom? That's to reduce air resistance. And how did my darling daughter know this, exactly? Everybody knows, Mom. That's her answer lately. Everybody always knows but you, Mom.
It's not like I'm ancient. I'm thirty-four. Kelly thinks I'm thirty-four going on fifty or sixty. Which drives me nuts, but there it is.
What catches my eye isn't the motorcyclemotorcycles cut and weave through traffic all the timeit's the girl on the back, barely hanging on. One hand clutching the waist of the slim-hipped driver, the other hand waving like she's riding a bucking bronco in the rodeo, showing off her balance. The girl on the back has no helmet, which is against the law in the state of New York, and also very stupid and dangerous, but that seems to be the whole point of motorcycles, right?
Something about the girl reminds me of Kelly. Similar stylish mop of short dark hair, frizzed by the wind. Similar petite, gymnast-type figure in tight, hip-hugging jeans. Kelly has jeans like that, but not the tattoo just above the cleft of her buttocks. What Kelly calls a "coin slot." Not the tattoo, but the cleft, you know? Anyhow, Kelly doesn't have a tattoo of angel wings spanning the small of her back, because her totally square mom has forbidden tattoos until the age of eighteen at least.
And then the girl on the crotch rocket, the wild and crazy girl on the crotch rocket, the girl who is undoubtedly destined to die in some horrible wreck, or from tattoo-induced blood poisoning, that girl turns her pretty head and looks directly at me as the bike careens back onto the highway.
Looking a bit startled actually, the girl on the bike. A bit surprised as she makes unintentional eye contact.
I scream. Can't help it, I open my astonished mouth and scream like a girl.
It's Kelly. My daughter Kelly. No doubt about it.
2. Sleep With The Poodles
My friend Fern, who knows most of my secretsnot all, but mostshe says the only way to win an argument with a teenage girl is to shoot her in the head. That's just how Fern talks, like she's related to the Sopranos, very tough in the mouth but soft in the heart. Even looks a little bit like that crazy sister on the show, the one who shot her boyfriend. Not that Fern's ever shot anybody, certainly not her own daughter, Jessica, who finally went off to college upstate and is doing great. A sweet kid, basically, even though she and Fern can't discuss the weather without arguing. Jess had her moments I'm thinking specifically of an all-night prom party in Garden Cityand at times managed to put Fern over the edge, into psycho-mom territory. You know, threatening to chain her daughter to the radiator, things like that. My favorite was her plan to put a special collar on Jess, the kind for invisible fences. She wants to go Goth, wear those stupid spikes around her neck? Fine! She can sleep with the poodles!
Sleep with the poodles. That's my Fern.Always funny, even when she's anxious or angry. Even so, she thinks I'm too hard on Kelly, that I am, in her words, projecting. Fern watches a lot of Dr. Phil.You're projecting your own teen time on Kelly, Fern says, your bad old days.You gotta wrap your brain around the idea she's not the same as you. She's her own person and this isn't the 1980s, this is a whole new century out there.
Yadda, yadda. I know. Really, I know. But still I worry. Every day kids get in really bad trouble in this world. They do stupid things with their stupid boyfriends and ruin their lives. They take drugs, wreck cars, have unprotected sex, fall from speeding motorcycles. They think they'll live forever and throw away the miracle that gave them life.
Kelly got her miracle at age nineactually on her ninth birthdaywhen all her tests finally came back clear. No more chemo, no more radiation, no more needles in her spine. After four years of pure hell, she was cancer-free. Unlike some of the less fortunate kids in her clinic, kids who never came back for the remission parties. Empty pillows, Kelly called them, or fivers, because one out of five didn't make it.
Is this why she survived and others didn't, so she can risk her life showing off on Hempstead Turnpike? Riding without a helmet? One-handed?
As you might guess, we've argued about risk taking a few times. More than a few. Last time she actually had the nerve to tell me I was being ironic. Ironic. What did that have to do with snowboarding at night, or hitchhiking? What did ironic have to do with deliberately disobeying my orders? Was ironic what made her roll her eyes, treat me with such withering contempt?
No, Mom, ironic isn't what you are, it's what you're afraid of. Sixteen-year-old cancer survivor killed crossing the street. That's ironic.
Stopped me cold, that one. Of course she's right.
But I do feel that she's been given a gift and should treat it reverently. But Kelly doesn't do reverence. Not for herself, not for me, not even for the dead grandmothermy own semi-sainted momshe used to worship as a kid. Reverence would be so uncool, and for a sixteen-year-old being uncool is way worse than death.
Despite being trapped in traffic for another twenty unbearable minutes, I still manage to get home long before she does, and I'm in the kitchen, waiting. Boy, am I waiting. Arms crossed, feet tapping, blood pressure spiking. I'm so anxious and angry at her out-of-control behavior that I don't even dare leave a message on her cell. Can't trust myself not to wig out and say something that can't be taken back, something that will drive her further away.
I'm working over all of this stuff, rehearsing, ready to let loose with major mom artillery. As soon as she gets her skinny, tattooed butt inside the door, there will be massive inflictions of guilt. There will be bomb craters of guilt.
It isn't just the boy or the motorcycle or the tattoo. That, unfortunately, has become typical Kelly behavior in the past year or so. What really whacks me is that my daughter is morphing into someone I don't know. Someone who has no respect for me, who all too often doesn't even seem to like me very much.
It's scary when that happens. Scary enough to make me want to cry, mourning my beautiful little girl. The one who was so strong for me when she was ill. The one who looked up from her hospital bedshe was so sick that night, so sick!and said, Don't worry, Mommy, I'm not going to die. I checked with God and he said not to worry, I'll be fine.
And she was. From that day on Kelly got better. Little by little, day by day, every test showed she was going into remission. Eventually, on that marvelous ninth birthday, that wonderful wonderful birthday, all the blood work, all the scans showed her cancer-free. I thanked God, I thanked the doctors and the nurses, but mostly I thanked Kelly, because she's the one who never gave up, who never let the disease take over.
Anyhow, so that's my state of mind. We live in the house in Valley Stream I inherited from my mom, the one she bought after she and my dad divorced. A divorce I always figured was partly my fault. All the stress I caused for them when I was Kelly's age. Guilt, guilt, guilt. The mortgage happened when Mom needed money for a hospice. I told herpromised herI wouldn't put a mortgage on the house, that was her gift to me and Kelly, but what can you do?
My dad, a New York state trooper, he used to have a saying when he was about to deal with something important: I'm loaded for bear. Well, I thought I was loaded for bear, or at least loaded for Kelly. But when she finally did come home what did her mother do?
Mom burst into tears.
Because Kelly is smiling that impish smile, the one she first learned moments after being born. That smile I hadn't seen for a while, not directed at me. A smile that breaks my heart because I miss it so.
"Mom? Why are you crying? Did something happen?" I'm shaking my head. Can't get the words out so I point to my lips, and then to her.
"You want to talk," Kelly says. "Sure, yeah. You saw me on the bike. It was really dumb, me not wearing a helmet. I know that and I'm sorry. Seth was wearing his helmet, did you notice? He gave me a hard time, said it was so retarded, not wearing protection for your brainpan. Isn't it weird he'd say 'brainpan'? But that's Seth. And the tattoo, Mom?"
Kelly swings around, lifts her little midi-blouse. "It's a fake. Body art. Got it at this place in Long Beach, on the boardwalk."
I wipe my eyes, blow my nose, very nearly speechless. "Oh, Kelly."
My daughter plunks herself on the stool next to me. With her amazing eyes and her amazing smile, she looks five going on twenty. "You've got to get over this worry thing, Mom. I'm okay. Really. The helmet? Won't happen again."
"People get killed on motorcycles," I respond, my voice husky.
"Yeah, they do. They get killed by lightning, too. And by worrying themselves to death."
Kelly looks at her fingernails. "You're going to ground me, right?"
"Then I better go to my room," she says, and flounces away, as if it's fun to be grounded. As if being grounded was her idea.
She stops on the stairway, looking back at me in the kitchen. "Don't worry, okay?" she says. "There's just totally no reason to worry about me."
But there is. Big-time. And, as it turns out, for a much bigger reason than I ever imagined.