Taken that spring.Like a lot of kids from the suburbs, by the time I was a senior in high school I diagnosed myself as terminally Over It. I was over class changes and pre-dawn alarms and my hometown's flat, gray complexion of vast parking lots and big box retailers. My boyfriend was older and he had friends that were older still, and through them I was able to be a tourist in the world that waited for me after graduation. I helped loading amps from musty vans into downtown dive bars, thrilled at my own usefulness, my ability to pass. Band girlfriends would sneak me lukewarm tallboys from the bar and I would think, oh man, so many squalid establishments and foul-ass drinks await me if I could just finish high school!
Unlike other kids though, I couldn't just stick it out for the year. Remember how a year of high school was never-ending? Every day was an army crawl through monsoon-drenched mud back then. I couldn't bear it. By late fall, I'd been accepted to several colleges and I just started doing whatever I wanted to do and lying about it to my parents.
My parents were kind of strict. I couldn't socialize weeknights, my weekend plans were scrutinized, I could never stay out late, and I couldn't skip church. My curfew was an unyielding 11 p.m. I favored loud threadbare menswear from the '70s bought at charity shops and plastic bracelets stacked halfway up my wrists. One at a time, my mom would make my weird clothes and accessories disappear from my room, and when I found the box of my things hidden in her closet we had the most primal, ugly argument of my life to this date. My friends, other college-bound "good eggs" either had proved to their folks by this point that they had earned a little freedom or had been entrusted with it all along. Our brand of mischief seems like the best a parent could hope for now: smoking bad weed when we could get it, safe sex, out-of-town concerts, and drinking coffee all night at a 24 hour townie donut shop called Bill's. We didn't even drink, because how would we get home?
I would get home at 11 p.m. on the nose then have my friends pick me back up at 1 a.m. I would say I was spending the night at a friend's and drive an hour to see my boyfriend at his dorm. I forged illustrious sick notes, becoming so cavalier I stopped really trying to fake my mom's signature. I'd skip a class because I hadn't studied for the test, then drive into downtown Dayton and buy myself a bagel sandwich and eat it on a patio. A real person eats on a patio at 10 a.m., I'd think. I would feel relieved for a moment ("I'm getting away with it!") but soon I'd be flooded with leaden self-loathing. I invented clubs and projects on school nights so I could go watch my friend DJ at a club downtown. My grades sank like stones though I reasoned my high test scores and Max Fischer-esque résumé would keep me in the clear for college. I still struggle with avoidance and procrastination, but I now know it's about anxiety, and hey, there's even medicine for it.
One day in early spring, Mom took me out to dinner after school. We tucked into a little booth by the fireplace at Panera and before our sandwiches arrived, she handed me a stack of papers. They were all of my sick notes in a tidy pile. How many were there even? At least fifteen. She told me to start reading.
I would be grounded until graduation. I felt undone but I was also relieved. I wasn't cut out for this take at sociopathy, the emotional exhaustion made me lethargic all day yet unable to sleep through the night. That whole school year my dad had been commuting to a grim job an hour away in Cincinnati at an inpatient facility for teens with severe mental illness, having limited his employment search to our area so that I wouldn't have to go to a new school for my senior year. You know, at the high school I couldn't be bothered to show up to. That night was the one time he's ever shouted at me. Understandably, I wanted to both die and have never been born.
Being grounded for the spring of my senior year was a tonic, to my surprise. I'd let them down deeply but they didn't like me any less. With the youngest of their three stairstep kids nearly 18, they were testing the waters of empty-nesting. They took a ballroom dancing class, and would try to recreate the moves for me in the family room as I respectfully muted "The Daily Show". They took an Italian class and I would actually miss them when they were gone. The minute they'd walk in the door, I would serve them little dishes of ice cream at the table like they were my kids. I took long walks in the neighborhood with my mom, the sort of thing I would have been too cool to do just months before.
I helped my dad clean out the gutters of our crumbly Tudor by holding the ladder as he flung rotting muck down toward me. I laughed. I was covered in shit looking up his dad shorts as I braced the ladder and I had never been so goddamned amused in my life. My mom heard about a band on NPR and bought the CD for me, not knowing they were part of the Omaha scene I followed closely at that time. I was humbled; this business of feeling "misunderstood" was by my own hand. All my power had been in keeping them out of the know for years, and I had prevented them from knowing me at all.
The commencement crowd for my class of 550 filled a hockey arena. The valedictorian tearfully spoke of her parents escaping the Khmer Rouge and fleeing to the United States to make a life where her accomplishments could be possible. I spoke, too, as class president. I'm sure I didn't thank my wonderful parents, I just wanted to be funny. I think it was funny, too, though I'd rather die than watch the tape that surely exists somewhere.
This week holds both of their birthdays, and every year when I call, I want to apologize for playing them the way I did all those years ago. It could have been much worse but they didn't deserve it. That spring and summer was the last time I lived at home and I'm glad I had that time to get to know them as real people, even if I was technically their hostage.