Chapter One chapter one
We’ve been dropped by so many family counselors that I pack snacks for the long drive out to the last therapist willing to referee my parents without demanding hazard pay. I nibble the edge of a homemade potato chip while Mom mutters under her breath, rehearsing whatever opening speech she wants to make.
Our version of family therapy is a lot like court, except for the ways that count. No matter how much Dr. Porter agrees with our side, she can’t bang a gavel and fix it. There are no damages here—only damage.
“I’m going to scream if he keeps interrupting me again,” Mom mutters, her hand drifting to the envelope tucked beside her, as though it might vanish if she put it in the back seat.
I let another chip sit on my tongue and turn soggy while I think about what happened at last month’s session. It feels like I’m trapped in some inescapable time loop where it always goes wrong regardless of what I do. “I’m sorry.”
Mom stares ahead with half-seeing eyes, her breath held. The car jerks a fraction as she turns her head to peer at me sidelong. “Did you say something?”
“No.” I resume staring out the window, tracking the exits, the towns where Mom and I could start over, if only. If. If. If. The two little letters that have dominated our dinnertime conversations and kept Mom awake at night for weeks, poring over old files and free legal websites.
“Are you okay?” I ask as we turn onto the street of the therapist’s office. I keep thinking if I make enough of these openings for her, she’ll eventually tell me the truth. But instead, I’m just full of holes.
“Of course,” Mom says, pitching her voice higher and smiling automatically, her lips like a curtain drawn along a track. “This stuff is never easy. We’ll work it out.”
I’d believe in her optimism more if I didn’t often hear the involuntary choke of a stifled sob over the sound of the shower or see the gleam of concealer beneath her eyes in the harsh lighting of the kitchen.
She accelerates a little to reach the next open parking spot. Like usual, we’ve arrived well ahead of Dad and LeAnne, who insists on lording over my mother that she can attend now that she’s officially married into the family. Mom opens her door and steps out before I can think of a response.
I follow her inside and hover over her shoulder until Dr. Porter waves us into her office. Unlike the dated waiting room, this room is modern and polished, with glass-top tables and plush carpet that gives away exactly the kind of reputation we have here—I look down at the imprint of where one of the chairs used to be, noting the increased distance between Mom and Dad’s usual seats.
Dad and LeAnne arrive five minutes late, which is ten minutes earlier than usual, I guess. He takes off his ball cap and sets it on the table, nodding to Dr. Porter, whose ears move slightly when she clenches her jaw. “Hey, Doc. Sorry. Gym was busy. We had to close late.”
“You could just ask people to leave,” Mom suggests.
Dr. Porter taps her pen on the top of her knee. “Nice to see all of you again as well. Now, I know that last session there was some discussion about selling Julia’s half of the gym. Julia, do you want to open today?”
“Discussion” is a nice way to phrase it. It’s not like Dad was finger-in-face screaming at Mom while she batted him in the chest with a copy of their joint owners’ contract. No, that would be ridiculous.
To my left, Mom takes a deep breath and exhales through her nose. She fixes her gaze on Dad. “I understand that you don’t want me to sell my stake to any random person, but don’t you think it’s a little strict to require mutual approval? That couple who was interested before would have done a great job, and they had a lot of business experience.”
“You agreed to the terms when we bought the gym to begin with,” Dad retorts, holding up a hand when Mom tries to protest.
“Rick, it’s Julia’s turn to speak,” Dr. Porter reminds him.
“She was finished.”
“No, I wasn’t. You cut me off.” Mom pulls out the envelope she stuffed to bursting this afternoon. “I have another solution. A compromise. You could just buy out my half and take full ownership. That way, it wouldn’t matter about the mutual approval clause.”
LeAnne scoffs, then covers her mouth and coughs when we look over.
“If I wanted full ownership, I would have suggested that already.”
Mom puts a knee down to support herself as she spreads the paperwork out onto the coffee table in a disorganized jumble. “But look at it. I’ve already done the math.” She points to some figure, her hand shaking. “If you just break it up into payments, it wouldn’t even be that much per month.”
Dad stands and gestures at the documents, his shadow falling over Mom. “I’m not just going to change all my personal plans because you realized that you can’t manage your money. You knew all along that we had a prenup.”
“Don’t act like you’d be doing any better in my shoes without your rental property. We didn’t all get college funds so packed that we had money left for two houses.”
“You obviously should have tried harder for scholarships, then.”
Dr. Porter raises her voice. “I’m sensing some hostility. Rick, do you think you could sit back down? We should talk through this from the beginning.”
Mom pushes herself up and tilts her head back to glower at Dad. “Oh, I’m sorry that I didn’t foresee getting served with divorce papers while you were sitting in the living room acting like everything was fine!”
“Your shortsightedness isn’t my emergency.”
“Would you just stop?” I call out, shooting a pleading look at Dr. Porter. “Yelling isn’t going to fix anything.”
But they don’t hear me.
“I know you have the money!” Mom swipes at the tears spilling over onto her cheeks, leaving wet streaks through the dark blush of her anger. “This is just another ridiculous power play because you can’t stand that we’d leave if we could! You don’t own us, Rick.”
Dad reaches over to the nearest table to get a box of tissues. While he’s turned away from Dr. Porter and he thinks no one else can see, he locks eyes with LeAnne and smiles.
Everyone always talks about how incredible it is to fall in love.
No one ever talks about falling out of it, how lost love sours once-happy memories like some creeping rot that preys only on the past tense.
I could have used software to cut Dad out of all the family photos, but stabbing them with scissors is so much more satisfying. In the middle of the night after therapy, I hack apart everything from my T-ball pictures to the commemorative photograph of that roller coaster ride where Dad barfed pieces of hot dog onto a complete stranger. The only thing I don’t defile is Mom’s wedding album. She deserves to do that herself.
I thought I was okay with it all. The cheating. The leaving. The loss.
But now, over a year after he left, on this otherwise random Monday, it descends like an avalanche sparked by a single errant step.
Still, making paternal-face confetti is probably not a Dr. Porter–approved coping mechanism.
I stand and stagger to the desk by the front door, kneading my knuckles against the chewed edge of the particleboard. I fire up Mom’s laptop and pull up my SeeMe page, opening the screen for a private journal entry. I want a record of this feeling for the next time Dad makes some pathetic attempt to smooth it all over, as if letting me pick the pizza toppings is atonement for destroying our entire life.
I glance at the door leading to Mom’s bedroom and tuck a pair of headphones into my ears to minimize the noise. With a shaking breath, I press record, watching as a grainy rendering of me appears on the screen.
“Dear Journal,” I say, hesitating as I attempt to translate the burning ache in my chest into actual words. “I feel like I’m stuck. I know it’s been a long time, but I still can’t believe he’s gone. And over what? Why? I mean, Mom is such a badass.” Just for emphasis, I lean over and pick up a picture of her crossing the finish line of the Winter Sprinter 100-Mile Relay. I show it to the camera. “Woman ran twenty-five miles in subzero weather!” Even Dad hadn’t attempted that race, letting three of mom’s friends go with her instead.
Before I came along, there were more pictures of them together, hugging at the finish line or sharing a beer with marathon numbers still pinned to their chests. “Did I not give them enough alone time? I’m not one of those annoying kids, right?”
I sigh and lean back in my chair, groaning. “I wish I knew why Dad was being like this. Working together is so awkward. People are always like, ‘It’s so cool you have a family business,’ but that goes out the window when your dad starts banging some lady from yoga class. And now he’s totally different from how he used to be. I don’t get it.” The most terrifying part is that I can’t tell if this is Dad’s new persona or if he was this way all along.
I take a deep breath, but it does little to calm the sense of panic I feel sneaking over me. I pull my hair away from my face, twisting it into knots behind my head.
“Hey,” Mom calls, emerging into the living room in an overlarge T-shirt and old athletic shorts. “What are you doing up at this hour?”
I pick up some of the cutouts, holding them up to the desk lamp for Mom to see. “Just giving Dad a face-lift,” I say, tossing our Father-Daughter Dance portrait into the nearby trash can.
“Cara.” Mom sighs, leaning her head back until the ridges of her throat bulge against her skin. “This isn’t healthy.”
“Oh, it’s so healthy. You should try it. Watch.” I pinch the jagged edge of another picture between my fingers and hold Dad’s face in front of mine. “You’re a jerk and no one likes you.” I crumple it into a ball and move onto another one. “Your ‘famous chili’ tastes like jalapeño dog crap.”
I could do this for hours.
I finally goad Mom into joining me. At first her voice is low, but she gains confidence as she berates the pictures of Dad for everything from snoring to standing her up on their third date. She sorts through the various albums, enumerating his worst offenses with an energy that far surpasses the droning, slothlike manner of her second-rate divorce attorney. Maybe she should have represented herself.
“Do you remember that time he left me at a truck stop while I was in the bathroom?” I ask, laughing as I recall his screech of pure shock when he answered the phone. For the next few years, whenever we were going somewhere together, Mom would always say, “Hey, Rick? Did you remember to pack your offspring?”
Mom scoffs. “It was only funny because you were already home safe by the time I found out. Good to know that he’s always been clueless.”
“Yeah,” I say. “He sure is if he left you, Mom.”
And just like that, I burst out crying until I can hardly see past the tears blazing down my cheeks, blending with the snot and the spittle and the overall grossness spewing out of my face. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It just hurts all of a sudden.” I smack my hands against my cheeks to clear away the tears like a pair of windshield wipers fighting against a downpour.
Mom wraps her arms around me and pulls me from my seat. She squeezes me until I can feel the clasp of her bracelet digging into my shoulder blade. “It’s going to be okay. It has to be.”
“I don’t believe you.” I hiccup my way through the words, my forehead bouncing lightly against her collarbone. “I just want to start over, Mom. I don’t want to have to see him all the time. He didn’t want us.”
And he took more from me than he’ll know. When two of my classmates asked me to the junior prom this spring, I turned them both down. It’s like the magic is gone. What’s the point of romance if it’s all smoke and mirrors, and when the smoke clears, you can’t stand to even look at yourself anymore?
Thanks to Dad, whenever I think of flowers and late-night phone calls, that high-flying rush of love, all I can see is the crater from impact.
“You’ll feel better after you get some sleep,” Mom says, guiding me back toward the couch. She squints at the laptop. “Are you recording this?”
“Sorry. I was in the middle of a journal entry. I kind of forgot about it.” I end the session and turn off the lamp, hoping that the ambient light from the kitchen is enough for Mom to navigate back to her room.
She plants a kiss on my cheek. “I love you. Sleep tight. We can talk more in the morning if you want to, okay?”
“Okay. I love you too.”
I don’t even bother clearing the photographs off the couch. I fall asleep with them crinkling beneath me, surrounded by soured memories like a bird’s nest built of old bread ties and straws and the debris of a different life.
I don’t know why people say they slept like the dead. I slept the way only the living can, the exhaustion burrowed into my bones, my eyes gummy with last night’s tears. I would have kept sleeping too, if it weren’t for the hideous racket coming from outside the door.
I drag myself to a standing position, waving Mom away as she pokes her head out into the living room. “I’ll get it.” It’s too loud to be the mailman, too sporadic to be the police. Maybe Mrs. Abernathy lit her kitchen on fire again in the first-floor apartment below us.
I wrench open the front door, my nose scrunched in annoyance even after I spot my best friend. Vanessa folds her arms as she waits on the open-air walkway outside. “Hey. What gives? I texted you fifty times.” She points at the internal wall separating our living rooms. “I even knocked on the wall.”
“Oh.” I turn back toward the end table that I use as a nightstand. “Sorry, I put my phone on ‘do not disturb’ before I passed out. What’s up?”
Vanessa shoves her cell phone so close to my face that I have to lean my head back to avoid hitting the screen with my eyelashes. “Uh, you’re internationally trending right now,” she says, her voice a mix of bewilderment and awe. “That’s what’s up.”
I scrub my eyes with the edge of my sleeve and blink until my vision clears. I see my recording from last night, the video paused with Mom hovering over my shoulder in her improvised pajamas. I scan the rest of the page. People are already calling it Crybaby’s Hot Mom. There’s even a dubstep remix where my face has been replaced by a gigantic cartoon baby. “Wait a second. This is really on the internet?”
“Yes!” Vanessa exclaims, shaking her phone for emphasis. “And it’s viral!”
“That’s impossible,” I mutter, trying to remember the previous night, the settings I selected before starting the recording. “It was a private journal entry.” This can’t be happening. All those personal stories.
But the number at the bottom of the video doesn’t lie.
Viewers: 1.3 million.