“Later, I’d wonder what would happen if I hadn’t spilled the milk that morning in my haste to pour it into the cereal bowl. I wouldn’t have to have taken a detour on the way home, and I wouldn’t have discovered what I did.”
Later, I’d wonder what would happen if I hadn’t spilled the milk that morning in my haste to pour it into the cereal bowl. I wouldn’t have to have taken a detour on the way home, and I wouldn’t have discovered what I did.
I had overslept, and so I spilled milk as I rushed to pour myself cereal. As I wolfed it down, I was treated to the “this is how you kiss, in case you were wondering” show, performed by my parents, which made me roll my eyes, but I clapped when they were done. Still, I was an hour late to school, had to argue with the secretary about whether or not my absence was excusable, found out that my best friend, Amanda, was angry at me because I forgot to call her, and, by the time three o’clock rolled around, wanted nothing more than to sink back into my welcoming bed.
But I couldn’t yet. I had homework, and, as I was driving home in the Toyota I’d gotten for my sixteenth birthday, I got a text from my mom, which I pulled over to check (no one can say I wasn’t responsible when driving). The text instructed me to swing by the grocery store and perhaps purchase some milk, because apparently I’d spilled out the last of it this morning, and my mom was too busy to do it.
As I pulled up to the neighborhood Kmart, I was thinking about how annoying it was that I’d managed to make myself even more delayed. I needed to finish that history paper, and apologize to Amanda for whatever I’d done. I sighed in a mix of self-disgust and impatience as I plunked the milk (nonfat — I was trying to lose weight) down onto the checkout counter.
I lugged the shopping bags back to the car (they weren’t that heavy, but I was both chunky and unathletic) and jammed them in the trunk. As I walked around to the front of the car, my eye caught on a couple kissing a few yards away. The woman was leaning back against the wall of the supermarket, and the man was pressing up against her. I rolled my eyes — ever since the breakup with my most recent boyfriend, I had been on a crusade against PDA — and swung into the car.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I passed the couple who were (still!) kissing against the wall.
My foot slammed on the brakes.
No. No, it couldn’t be. No, it wasn’t.
But the back of the head that was now just a few feet away had the crumpled brown hair. The old gray sweater was unmistakable. The man was my father. And he was kissing a young blonde like he was married to her. But I knew better. He was married to my mother, and they were very much in love.
Only seconds had passed, but all my breath had whooshed out of my body in one swift gasp. I looked closer. The woman was wearing a name tag. Hello My Name is Zoe. She was one of the checkout clerks.
Several cars were now lined up behind me, waiting to exit the parking lot, but I couldn’t move. Or breathe. All I could do was stare as my father took his hands off Zoe’s hips and put them on his chest.
With shaking hands, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of them kissing. I have no idea why I did that, but the only thing that came to mind later is that I was once told that if we saw a crime being committed and we couldn’t do anything to help, we should record it. This was definitely a crime.
A few horns honked. I tried to make myself move, but I was still frozen. A man got out of the car behind me and walked up to my window. He stood between me and the couple, who before I had thought was annoying but whom I now realized was the worst thing that would ever happen to me. “Why the hell aren’t you moving?” he shouted angrily at me.
I rolled down my window. “I’m sorry,” I said slowly, and I saw my father break away for the first time from the hot blonde who was not my mother, “but I’ve just discovered that my father is cheating on my mother.”
My father turned around, an expression of the most extreme horror and shame that I have ever seen. My heart twisted. “Sammi,” he whispered.
The driver of the other car looked at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked him.
I closed the window and drove away.
I dropped the milk at the doorstep of our house, but I didn’t go inside. I couldn’t face my mother with what I knew. I couldn’t ruin what had probably been a normal day for her. I couldn’t ruin what had been a normal life.
So instead I walked to Amanda’s apartment. At first she refused to let me in, but when I told her what had happened — with tears running down my face like they had been since I had discovered it — she forgave me promptly and told me that of course I could stay over.
“But Sammi, I don’t understand,” she said later, as I lay on her bed, eating a cookie (I was on a diet, but screw it, I needed comfort food). “I always thought that they would stay together.”
I rolled over and stared at her. “So did I,” I said honestly. “They were big about kissing, gooey love notes, Valentine’s Day…”
Amanda looked at me with nothing but sympathy in her eyes.
“And, I know it’s horrible to say, but if he had to cheat, he could have cheated for mind, not body.” Amanda understood, because she’d seen my mom. My mother was petite and had short brown hair, and smart glasses. She had the kind of appearance that screamed intelligence, and she is very intelligent. I always felt proud that my father was smart enough to pick my mother not because she was beautiful, but because she was wonderful. But now all of my father’s suppressed shallowness had come rushing up to the surface, I guessed, and all of my respect for him had vanished.
Several seconds passed in silence. Amanda had never been very good at consoling me (when I broke up with Jack, the only condolences she had for me were “Well, it was bound to happen someday”), but this was one area that she had absolutely no experience in. Her father had died before she was born, and her mother had never even started dating again, so she had no idea what it felt like to see your parents’ relationship implode. “Well,” she said finally, “at least we might have something in common soon — single mothers!”
As you can imagine, that did not do anything to make me feel better, but I appreciated her effort. “Oh, Mandy,” I said. “Let’s paint our nails.”
“Okay,” she said, pulling out her bottles of nail polish.
“No, wait,” I said excitedly, grabbing her hand. “Let’s get our nails painted at a nail salon! I’ve always wanted to have them done professionally!”
Amanda thought that was a great idea, so we grabbed money and set off.
As we talked about school and our friends, for the first time since I’d saw them earlier today, my father and that horrible Zoe disappeared from my mind. I was thinking about other things — at least, until I saw my father sitting alone on a park bench, looking absolutely dejected.
Again, he didn’t see me, but, again, all the breath was taken out of me in one quick gasp. “Amanda,” I breathed.
“C’mon, Sammi,” Amanda whispered urgently, dragging me around a corner until my father was out of sight. We tried to continue talking lightly like we had been before, but it wasn’t the same, and when we got to the nail studio, it was filled with middle-aged women, all looking tired and worn out, like they’d just discovered that their husbands had been cheating on them. I didn’t know if looking like that was just a part of being in your forties, but I knew that my mother was in her forties, and she’d always looked lighter than air, especially when she was with my father. I didn’t want to see her reduced to looking like these women, sad and pathetic and worn out, with all their youth left behind, unable to be reclaimed. She had always seemed young when she was with my father. Had my father always seemed young when he was with her? Or had he just been looking for a woman who was actually young, who would make him feel young? I’d had boyfriends before, who I had at the time thought myself in love with, but I never felt any different than I usually did with them. I had felt like myself. But my mother once told me that she fell in love with my father because she felt like a whole new person with him. Now that I thought about it, it was always my mother who would leave little notes on the door, who made a big deal out of Valentine’s Day. Had I just imagined that it was my father too?
All this was running through my head while I was sitting in a chair watching yet another middle-aged woman paint my nails. I was so distracted by everything that was going through my head that I didn’t notice until I was paying that I had had little decals of hearts glued against a baby-pink background on my nails. Exactly the opposite of my current mood. A cracked heart against a black background would have been more expressive of my feelings.
“Nice!” Amanda said appreciatively as we compared the finished products.
“No,” I told her. “No, it’s not nice.”
We went back to Amanda’s house, where we informed her mother that I was going to be staying over. Amanda’s mother was concerned, and said that I should call my parents to make sure that they knew where I was, but I wasn’t sure that I would be able to talk to my mother. But I had to, so I called her.
“Hey mom,” I said when she picked up. “I’m gonna be staying over at Amanda’s house tonight.” Did my voice sound different than normal? Was it weighted down with the knowledge that I now held?
“That’s fine, honey.” My mother’s voice was exactly the same as usual, if just a tinge worried. “But do you know where your father is? He’s not home yet.”
I tried to make my voice as normal as possible. “No, I don’t know. Probably stuck in traffic.” Of course he wasn’t home yet! How could he face his family after what he had just done? I wouldn’t be able to, but then again, I would never do such a thing in the first place.
“You’re probably right, sweetie.” My mother sounded relieved, like my theory was truth just because I’d said it. “Oh wait… I think that’s him right now.” She hung up, but not before I heard my father’s unmistakable deep voice say “Sorry I’m late.”
I stared at the phone after I put it back in its charger, wondering what was going on at the other end of it. Was my father confessing to my mother? Was he pretending that nothing had happened, that everything was fine, that life would go on the same as always? Had he done this before? How often had he and Zoe kissed against the wall of a supermarket and gotten away with it? The thought made me sick.
“Everything okay?” It was Amanda, appearing in her pajamas.
“Yeah,” I replied. But it wasn’t. But I couldn’t tell her this, so I just sunk back into my sleeping bag and fell asleep listening to Amanda talking about comfortable mundane events.
Sometimes when I wake up, there’s this brief period where I’m just exiting my oblivion, feeling the light press onto my eyelids, in a stage between being aware and unaware, where I know I’m awake but I don’t know anything else. Today I didn’t even get that relief. The very instant that I was jerked out of sleep by Amanda, I remembered everything. But there was nothing I could do, so I just put on a smile and turned to look at my best friend, who was still shaking me.
“Sammi, I know what we’re going to do today!” she said in her best Phineas impression.
“Oh yeah?” I asked her, smiling.
“We’re going to get haircuts!”
“Um… I got one last month.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t really change anything! You just shortened it a bit! Don’t you want to try something else?”
I contemplated this. It would be strange to look in the mirror and see something other than the long, straight, black locks that had been my companion throughout most of my life. I liked my hair, and I didn’t feel the need to change it. It seemed kind of unnecessary.
I would have thought that Amanda would have said the same. She, like me, had had one hairstyle that she’s had for as long as I’ve known her: chin length wavy brown hair. But now she wanted to change it. I couldn’t think of a reason for why she would want to change up her hair, so I guessed that she thought that it would make me feel better. But I wanted one constant in my life, one thing that would not change at the same time that everything else did.
“Not really,” I told her. She rolled her eyes.
“Sammi, you are so boring.”
“That may be,” I acknowledged, “but boring can be fun.”
“No, boring is the opposite of fun.”
“Well, if I find it fun, I guess I’m not boring.”
The conversation continued like this all through breakfast, with Amanda telling me that I was a scaredy-cat. I denied this over and over, but as she kept making fun of me, I realized that maybe this was true.
I was afraid. I was afraid of change. I was afraid to tell my mother about what I had discovered because I knew that so much would change.
But so much already had.
Amanda watched the grin slide from my face as quickly as it had been plastered on that morning. “Sammi, what’s wrong?” she asked, and then closed her mouth quickly, realizing that that was a somewhat stupid question.
“What isn’t wrong?” I replied, then put my head down on the table.
While my eyes were staring into the carved wood, I realized something. I realized that my mother needed to know, no matter how much it would hurt her. She needed to know so she could react, and then she would start to heal. Maybe she and my father would break up, and my father would marry Zoe, and that thought caused a lot of pain. But maybe after they broke up, my mother would marry a devoted man who put her above everything else in the world. Maybe she’d be happy again. Or, maybe she’d forgive my father, and they’d start to work out their problems, and by the time they brought up the cheating thing again, they would be able to talk about it, and my father would learn to put his family before anything else. And I realized that either option would be a lot healthier for my mother — and, probably, my father — than this twisted relationship that they had going on now. My parents needed to know where they stood in each other’s minds.
So I said goodbye to Amanda, thanked her for being there for me, and walked home, my mind spinning about how best to say it, and wondering, hoping, that my father had already told her.
I stood outside my apartment door, staring at the milk carton that apparently nobody had bothered to pick up. A really foul smell was coming out of it. Sort of a metaphor for what might have been going on inside.
“Dad,” I said quietly, dropping my bags on the floor. Because there my parents were, laughing, my mother sitting on my father’s lap with his arms around her.
“Honey!” he said, sounding happy, but the smile was gone from his face, and my mother looked at him in confusion.
“Scott?” she asked him, smoothing her hair down. “Hey, sweetie.”
I didn’t waste time. With what I had decided this morning at Amanda’s house, I knew that if I didn’t say it right away, I would never be able to. And no matter how much it hurt my mother, she had to know the truth.
“How could you?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. “You’re disgusting.”
“Sammi, please,” my father said, his voice cracking with pain. “Let’s talk about this in another room.”
I said, “No. No more secrets.” Then I turned to my mother, whose eyes were already wide with confusion and fear. I hated doing this to her. But she needed to know. “Yesterday, I saw dad making out with another woman at the supermarket.”
My mother didn’t gasp, and she didn’t burst into tears. She didn’t even make a sound. She just stared at me. If you just saw her reaction, you would not have been able to guess that she’d been given bad news at all.
“Jennifer…” my father said, and his expression nearly broke me.
My mother was quiet. She was still staring at me. Her eyebrows lifted, then settled, as she turned to look at my father. “Just tell me one thing,” she said at a normal volume, her voice perfectly steady but monotonous. “Was it Zoe?”
“Jennifer…” repeated my father. Tears were running down his face. I looked away, upset that his expression was upsetting me. Why should I care if he was in pain, after what he’d done to our family?
“You know who Zoe is?” I tried to ask, but my throat was closed. It actually hurt, this lump in my throat, and my eyes were welling up, and my face was scrunching, and my fists were clenching, and everything inside me was getting tighter like I was trying to hold myself together as my family unraveled before my eyes.
Nobody knew what to do. It hurt, to not be able to do anything. I closed my eyes to stop the tears. My head was roaring, but the apartment was silent.
“Jennifer, please.” It was as if my father thought that saying her name, instead of “pookie” or “honeybun” or any of the pet names that he usually called her, would bring her back to him, would somehow prove how serious he was about her. “Zoe was just…”
“A distraction?” my mother interrupted him. “Ooh, was your work overwhelming you and you just needed to clear your head and since I was so busy you just went to Zoe for comfort?” I was shocked by the biting sarcasm in her words. That was not how I thought she would have handled the situation.
“Jenny.” It was a statement this time, but whatever the rest of the sentence was, it was swallowed by sobs.
“No,” said my mother. “Go.” Then she chuckled. We both stared at her.
“Jenny, it was all a mistake, I can explain!” My father sounded nearly desperate. “Or I can’t explain, but all I want is for you to forgive me. Please give me a second chance.”
“More like a fourth chance!” My mother didn’t sound angry. In fact, she sounded kind of amused.
“You… don’t seem that angry…” my father wavered.
“Oh, I’m not angry. Yet. I’m sure the anger will catch up to me. But right now I’m just amused. It’s so funny, isn’t it, that I ignored all the signs. When I was buying groceries, that checkout woman, Zoe, was always hinting that something was going on with you two. ‘Your husband is so nice! He’s so charming, really makes a girl feel special.’ And I just ignored it! Isn’t that funny?”
“No, it’s not funny,” my father started to say, but my mother, raising her voice for the first time since I’d told her, yelled “GO!”
Then she turned around and hid her face in the pillowcase until my father turned around and walked out of the door. He didn’t even look at me.
After he’d left, my mother raised her head. Her face was stained with tears. “Sammi,” she whispered, opening her arms, and I fell gladly into them.
“Are we going to be okay?” I asked her, raising my head finally.
“Are you mad at me?”
My mother turned to look at me. “Of course I’m not. I’m so glad you told me. I probably wouldn’t have believed it if anyone else told me. I’m mad at your father, but it’s going to be okay.”
And because I was with her, my sweet, fragile, strong mother, I believed it.