Jane: “It’s so quiet…”
Jane: “I guess I’ll use the coffee machine for myself… that’s all it’s good for now.”
Jane: “Jalen’s working late… Janie’s with her friends…”
Janie: “By the Creator, Mom, stop looking at me!”
This is not what I wanted for my life.
In the aftermath of your father’s ultimatum and my decision, the house was quiet. We rarely spoke to one another. You spent all your time with your friends. We didn’t eat together. We weren’t living-we were cohabitating, living side-by-side, more like distant roommates than a family.
I hated it. This was how I had grown up-in houses where no one spoke, where there was no affection, where things happened and no one noticed because they were too busy with their own grudges and business and lives.
But it was better than the alternative. Jalen could have left. That would have been too much of a blow, for me-so many people in and out of my life, I couldn’t let Jalen be one of them. He was permanent.
And it wasn’t all bad. Though you still despised me, Jalen and I kept up appearances, for your sake. I even threw him a birthday party. I feel like I looked appropriately cheery, as my nearly-estranged husband aged into full adulthood. And, inside, I was a little cheery. Maybe he would find some maturity inside of him now. Stop trying to be such a child, and instead pursue his career with more vivacity. Maybe even discover a bit of empathy.
Jane: “Jalen, honey? Do you want a white or chocolate cake?”
Jalen: “Ew. You’re making my cake?? Can’t you just buy it at the store?”
Janie: “Happy birthday, Daddy!”
Jane: “Can I give you a hug, Jalen?”
Jalen: “I guess this cake looks edible… it’s a very important birthday, but I guess if this is the best you can do…”
Jane: “Happy birthday, love!”
Jalen: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!”
Jalen: “I’M AN ADULT! I’M THE COOLEST!”
Jane: I hope you start behaving like an adult soon…
My hopes that the maturation would be instantaneous were crushed rather violently. But with time? I still held out the hope that we could restore our relationship to what it once was.
In the meantime, I couldn’t bare to sit in a house that cold doing nothing. I debated with myself for a while-try to restore balance? Try to make an effort, make things a little better between Jalen and I, or myself and you, Janie?
I did try.
Jane: “I feel like we never talk anymore. I miss you.”
Jalen: “Ugh. Stop hugging me! And I can’t talk now, I’m about to go out with the guys.”
Jane: “Hey there, darling! You want to come sit with me?”
Janie: “Ew, no.”
But, rebuffed at every turn, I didn’t have the tenacity to continue my efforts. I’m attached, Janie, but I’m not a fool. I know when something is a lost cause, at least for the moment, and I definitely know when I’m not wanted (I had been taught to recognize that sentiment throughout my childhood).
So I buried myself in the work that Jalen would permit me to do. I wrote.
Jane: “I guess you’re my only friend now, computer.”
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote some more. When you and your father were home, I wrote. When you were at school, I wrote. When your father was at work, I wrote. While you told Samuel how much you hated me, when you came home after school just to tell me that you’d be spending the weekend with a friend. I couldn’t take my reality, so I wrote.
It helped. A little. That is, it helped me. It helped me cope. It helped me survive. It certainly didn’t help my relationship with your father.
Jalen: “I thought we talked about this! You were going to cut back on your writing!”
Jane: “I’m busy. Let’s talk about this later.”
He didn’t understand. He worked longer hours, he went to bed early, he slept late. He went out drinking at night with buddies from work.
It was starting to take a toll on me. And, apparently, on you. I should have noticed sooner that we weren’t being as stealthy as we thought.
I had gone to bed early one night. Jalen wasn’t home. I wasn’t sure where he was, exactly. I had only received a text that said “Don’t wait up. Be home late.” Queries as to his location and company went unacknowledged. I didn’t let myself acknowledge the possibility of what that meant. He wasn’t… No. He was out with friends. With buddies from work. Working off some steam. There’s nothing else going on…
Regardless of the strength of my denial, my mind was spinning with the implications of his absence, and I went to bed early, even before you, Janie. I needed to quiet my mind, one way or another.
I don’t know exactly when you climbed in bed with me that night. You were always quiet, soft footed. You had woken up early and sent yourself off to school enough times that you knew how to move without disturbing my sleep.
Janie: “Mama? Are you awake?”
Janie: “Good night, Mama. I love you.”
I might not have noticed it, honestly. I think you didn’t intend me to notice. The next morning, after all, you were just as cold to me as ever. And you came home from school that afternoon, said you were going to Stacey’s, and left. But, it was impossible not to notice your father’s tall figure, crammed into your tiny twin bed.
He woke up grumbly.
Jalen: “By the Creator, this bed is so uncomfortable.”
Jalen: “Jane’s going to hear about this in the morning… unacceptable.”
Jalen: “JANE! Are you completely worthless? Making me sleep in that tiny bed and now leaving this water all over the floor?? What is wrong with you? You’re such a useless bitch.”
He’d never used language like that before. I was astonished. Hurt. Devastated, the longer I thought about it.
Jane: “I’m so sorry, love! Here, I’ll clean it up now. Don’t you worry about I thing!”
Jalen: “Yeah, I guess I’m sorry for calling you a bitch. You know I love you, right babe? Just stop messing up and it’d be so much easier on you.”
But it was undercut by no small amount of joy. You hated me, that was certain. But you still loved me. I had never understood that dichotomy before. Unconditional love. Universal acceptance. That you could simultaneously want to break someone’s legs, but also want to climb in bed with them at night and be near them. That you could despise someone, but still miss their presence.
We weren’t good, Janie. But it was a start.
The next day, when you came home from school, you started to suggest that you were going to Leah’s house.
Janie: “Mom, I’m going to Leah’s-”
Jane: “I don’t think so, young lady.”
You were, quite literally, rocked by the news. You swayed back and forth.
Jane: “You heard me. You will not be going anywhere this afternoon. I received another call from your teacher.”
Janie: “Not this again. By the creator, Mom, why won’t you just let this go? I’m not going to do my homework!”
Jane: “Fine. I can’t make you do your work. But you won’t be going to Leah’s today either.”
Janie: “You’re the WORST!”
You stormed off to your room. Slightly dismayed, I retreated back to the computer. Well, that hadn’t worked. Apparently your slight good will toward me was not going to extend to the daylight. But then, I looked up…
You were seated at the dining table, homework out in front of you. You were scribbling away, a look of half frustration, half focus on your face. I looked away, before you could see me watching, and smiled to myself.
As time went on, I noticed that your scribbling had slowed. Rather than mostly focused, you instead looked mostly upset. Hmm. I stood, walked over to you slowly, like I was approaching a startled animal.
Jane: “So, you know how it’s been a while since I was in school, Janie darling?”
Janie: “Yeah. Like, an eternity.”
Jane: “Right. So, I was wondering… I’m writing a book about the fifth grade, and I don’t remember what kind of homework they get. Can I work on yours with you?”
Janie: “Are you serious?”
I stayed far away from the word help. But you still looked at my suspiciously. For a long, long time, you looked me in the eye, trying to find the lie.
Janie: “Fine. Whatever.”
We were getting somewhere.