The Teenybopper Zen Master
By D. E. Fredd
The trauma in her life is that Denise, her mother and my ex, recently became engaged. Zack will be moving in permanently (not that he doesn’t spend most of his nights there now). When he and Dee began dating two years ago it wasn’t a big deal to Kim. Because he was in the Cable TV installation business, she enjoyed the enhancements to her media-centered world. He installed a DirecTV dish, high speed internet access, and state of the art phone services. As of a few months ago, however, (and probably at Dee’s request) blocks and locks have been placed on her TV and computer. “What good are all the cool music channels if you can’t watch them? How fair is that?” Plus, she reveals in a sotto voce whisper, Mom and Zack have the porn channels big time on their 40-inch bedroom set.
Between 11:00 PM and midnight Zack’s flaws are enumerated. He’s a slob, never takes stuff out of the dryer, wants her to take his last name, and expects more help from Kim around the house now that Denise is full time at Stillman’s. He only wants to get married because Mom has a big garage and some land so he can park the stupid cars he buys while he tries to fix them up. And he’s cheap. When they go out, Kim is allowed one Coke unless there are free refills. He thinks restaurant desserts are too expensive. “He says we’ll stop for ice cream on the way home, but he pretends to forget or complains that The Big Dipper is on the wrong side of the parkway.”
Then I’m privy to the bedroom reports. Aside from the TV porn, she thinks Zack likes blowjobs, “especially when mom has her period.” She had a sleepover two months ago. Her friends listened to the muffled bedroom noises and came to the same conclusions.
I tolerated to her harangue until just after one. It’s now officially Monday morning. I usually get up at six to make the eight o’clock class I teach on The American Political Novel. If I go to bed now it will take me hours to fall asleep and, by that time, I’ll have to get up and begin the hour drive to the Burlington, Vermont campus.
Dee let me know months ago that she and Zack were serious. I wished her well. We’ve been divorced for over 10 years. The wounds have healed. Kim visits me for two weeks during the summer. When she was little it was a treat to spoil her. But for the past two years, it’s as if she’s joined a cult led by the goddesses Britney and Paris. Jewelry, makeup, and the right label jeans are the holy sacraments. She is eternally plugged in to an iPod and is sure to interrupt every conversation with, “I just love this song.”
She likes to use “fucking” as an adjective as frequently as possible. In her mind I’m the liberal parent, the college professor who is around young people and know how they speak. She wants to go to beauty school but can’t decide whether to specialize in hair or nails. She will talk for hours on the pros and cons of either. She enjoys parading her new-found sexuality. She tells me she and her fellow nymphets go to the mall, take off their panties and ride the escalator in their shorter than short skirts; a trail of young boys whoop from below when they see flashes of their landing strips or “undersmiles.”
During last summer’s vacation she came downstairs each morning with a different hair color. She claimed she was expressing her individuality. Her mother reports that part of her individuality during the school year was to fail three major subjects and garner a week’s suspension for calling the principal a dickhead when she was asked to remove an offensive tee shirt (“Life Sucks the Big One and So Do I"). Given all this, however, I was on the verge of tears when, just before we hung up, she, choking on the words, begged, “Please help me, Daddy, you’re the only one I’ve got left.”
Her grand solution to the remarriage problem is to move from New Jersey up to me. I live in an old farmhouse in Brandon, Vermont. The nearest store specializes in several varieties of beef jerky. I am used to my freedom. In bad weather I sometimes stay over in Burlington after a late class. Another reason for Kim staying put is asleep upstairs. Mitsu is a visiting scholar from Japan. We’ve been together for about a year. This summer she will go back for three months or longer. There have been discussions of my going with her.
Kim says that if Mom does marry Zack she will be nice at the wedding to make her happy, but right after that, she will run away (to Vermont, but it doesn’t really matter). She knows a kid who can start cars without a key and who has the hots for her. If that won’t work, she’ll hitchhike. Tiffany Eddings went all the way from Dover, New Jersey to Disney in Orlando last Christmas and only one trucker did anything to her.
I sometimes wish children were like magazines. You could drop your subscription and then, a few years later, take the half price re-up offer that is too good to pass on. Kim was a delight until puberty. If she were to drop out of my life now and come back at 20, it would be ideal. At that stage we’d renew our relationship as adults. At least the histrionics and misuse of the English language might have toned down.
If I don’t take Kim off their hands, Zack and Dee’s relationship is undoubtedly doomed. Dee has e-mailed me with “Kimmy out of control” stories. I suspect that Zack is a nice guy, but it takes the patience of Job to handle Kim. He could throw money at her and that would stem the tide a bit, but she is like flesh-eating bacteria that would soon strip him to the bone.
Kim thinks that Zack, since he has no kids of his own, “will probably knock Mom up as soon as he can. Then they’ll pawn the creature off on me to take care of. That’s all I’ll ever be to them, a free babysitter.” Needless to say she and her ninth grade Algonquin Roundtable support group have speculated on every possible scenario on their cell phones night after night.
My quandary then is whether I own up to being a parent for once in my life, take Kim in, or do I let Dee and Zack cope with her. Vermont is the right location for deprogramming those who worship Mammon, but she may have been tainted beyond salvation by life in New Jersey’s fast lane. Up here cell phone reception is spotty, my woodstove needs constant attention, and at night the upstairs bedrooms require a hearty constitution during all but July and August.
Mitsu, wrapped in a quilt to keep off the March cold, appears at the top of the creaky stairs and wonders what is wrong. I tell her I won’t be up. She trudges down, wondering if it is something she has done.
“It’s Kim; the black hole that comprises her world is collapsing and I’m being sucked into its wake.”
I’m not certain Mitsu, a non-native speaker, understands the reference. She is 42, a painter and art historian here on a Fulbright. Through her I have grown to admire Japanese art, its delicate simplicity. My life has always been like a Dutch painting, something on the order of Vermeer, a canvas glutted with objects both as status symbols and hidden meanings. My mid-life crisis strategy is to unclutter things. I want the elements in my life to be as pure as the trees and blossoms Mitsu paints. They don’t represent anything, they are just there, fragile, evanescent, and beautiful.
I wouldn’t exactly say I’m in love with Mitsu. I value her companionship. I know she was hurt last summer when I suggested that it might be better if Kim didn’t know about us. She stayed in Burlington for two weeks. In hindsight it was an error as Kim, knowing Mitsu was in the picture, might not be thinking of me as an option to her current dilemma. I have tremendous respect for Mitsu as she’s never brought the matter up and waved me off every time I seek to apologize.
She begins making me tea. I don’t want any, but decide not to stop her. There are many people who need to talk about their problems, the modern talk show mantra. I do not fall into that category. When depressed I usually take to the hiking trails behind my house, like the old sports adage of walking off an injury. It is too dark to do that now so I recap Kim’s virtuoso performance to Mitsu.
Whenever I talk to her, she sketches. Often it is something inanimate. In restaurants she likes the shape of salt and pepper shakers. She has a collection of 50 or so drawings which may make a book some day, though I don’t know who would buy it. Tonight she draws my face while I talk. I leave nothing out. Indeed, it is close to a confession. I was never a good father. I enjoyed playing with Kim until she was about two. Then Denise discovered my affair with an undergraduate student. It was as if I had a communicable disease. She moved out and kept Kim from me for months. Yet the divorce decree’s limited visitation was fine by me—two weeks a year and a “pop in” during Christmas or semester break. As time went on, I did enjoy showing her off around town, but then Madison Avenue and our nation’s consumerism took over, and I found myself drifting away. Every commercial on the channels she watched added another “must have” to her list. I no longer knew this young lady. She was someone else’s offspring whose language, values and native dress were more alien to me than my Japanese housemate.
Mitsu’s advice, as I slowly run out of angst, is to follow my heart. I resist a sarcastic Charlie Chan allusion. She really wants to be helpful. Little does she know that I have no heart (and possibly no soul). What I need are statistics, percentages, and computer models just like the meteorologist who puts forth two scenarios as to whether the storm will be a classic Nor’easter or bypass Vermont, slip further south and pummel Connecticut instead.
Mitsu takes tiny sips of tea. I gulp mine. She is looking over towards the large kitchen window which, during the day, has a wonderful view of Branbury Mountain.
“You could let her make the decision, Kim that is.”
“And what if she chooses to come up here?”
“Then, after a few weeks, you let her make another decision—stay or go somewhere else.”
“But what if the ultimate decision is wrong and she wants to remain in Vermont; she is so filled with poison now that neither of us is safe. I almost got the impression that she was willing to accuse Zack of molesting her just to take him out of the equation. Imagine what she could do to us.”
“If she were here now what do you think she’d be doing?”
“Complaining about the lack of central heat.”
“And what about any friends or the high school she’d be attending?”
“That everyone here is a hick even when compared to the Australian Outback. And that the worst strip mall in New Jersey is far better than the Price Grabber store out on Route 100, and that Zack is more interesting than her introverted father whose idea of a good time is reading the latest presidential biography or researching his manuscript on the Cornish Art Colony escapades.”
“When is the wedding?”
“Denise said they were thinking of late May.”
“Then she could be on your doorstep when school lets out in June.”
“But what about Japan?”
“It will still be there whenever I go.”
I got up, went to her side of the table, bent down and kissed her forehead. “Do you think it’s stacking the deck too much if we cancel the cable TV?”
“What is ‘stacking the deck?’”
“It’s an American expression about enhancing the odds of getting what you want when you want it; for instance, my calling in sick this morning and spending the day in bed with you rather than lecturing on John Dos Passos’ views of Woodrow Wilson and The Great War.”
Mitsu took a final sip of green tea, stood on her tiptoes and kissed me. I called the University’s answering service and left a theatrically hoarse message. She rinsed the cups. I followed her upstairs. I wanted a quick shower, but she had begun running a bath in the huge claw foot tub, filling it with an herbal mix that had a slight anise aroma and ridding herself of the kimono she usually slept in. I made no protest. For the foreseeable future I, acolyte that I was, had had it with decisions. Life is a river; a warm, blossom strewn, highly naked river.
D. E. Fredd has had fiction and poetry published in several journals and reviews, including the Boston Literary Magazine, Connecticut Review, The Pedestal, Storyglossia, SNReview, eclectica and Menda City. His poetry has appeared in the Paumanok and Paris Reviews. He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005 and was a 2006 Ontario Award Finalist. He won the 2006 Black River Chapbook Competition and received a 2007 Pushcart Special Mention Award. A novel, Exiled to Moab, published by Six Gallery Press will debut in 2008.
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