The grocery store line edges forward and my daughter and I step in synch to the last of the blue tape circles adhered to the blacktop. The September sun beats down. At the table before the store’s entrance, a yellowjacket flits between a jug of hand sanitizer and a fishbowl filled with clear food-grade gloves. As the bee lifts and zags, my daughter flinches but says nothing, firmly committed to her silent treatment toward me.
It’s just one of those days, I try telling myself. It will pass.
She is 13, trekking the bridge from childhood to adulthood, and has just made the case on the car ride over—as we argued about my involvement in her decision to move from hybrid learning to full remote—that she’s sick of hearing from me about the loose planks and wobbly handrails.
“I also know what’s good for me,” she yelled in a pitch that still has my ears ringing. “Stop.”
But I didn’t stop—I couldn’t. Not after reading this morning’s headlines of polarized politics, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, stranded whales mysteriously dying on the Australian shore—not to mention Carole Baskin debuting a Pasodoble on Dancing with the Stars. If these are the signs of an impending apocalypse, then there’s little I can do for anyone. But if we are to survive this, pointing out potential pitfalls is all I can do.
Still, this was not what I had envisioned for us today, I think as we shuffle inside and make our way to the deli counter. Today was supposed to be a fun mother/daughter day, even if ala pandemic style.
Her becoming a teenager was supposed to be a fun mother/daughter milestone in our relationship.
The moment I found out I was having a girl, I saw the chance to live out all I had missed growing up motherless. We would shop and do lunch and have deep, meaningful conversations. We would support and mirror each other and be best friends. We would laugh together.
We would never be the duo who couldn’t figure out how to communicate with one another without arguing.
“Mixed roasted vegetables,” she tells the clerk. Then eyes me. I can practically read her mind. Happy?
I eye her back. And somehow she hears my telepathic voice from the past: Vegetables and protein.
“Mom, stoppp,” she whispers under her mask.
“I didn’t say anything.”
She crosses her arms and stares straight ahead.
This one is not my fault, I decide—though I do try to take advantage that she’s broken the speaking seal.
“Those mixed vegetables look good,” I say. “I wonder what I should—”
She plucks her container from the countertop and goes in search of a fork.
And that’s when the terrible feeling takes hold. What if this doesn’t pass?
I stand there, trying to catch my breath. What if this isn’t just one of those days—or a phase—but . . . the beginning of some kind of end?
I’ve heard countless stories of mothers and daughters who don’t speak. Women who tell of the intense arguments and doors slamming that never get better, of emotional injuries that cannot be undone, of separating across continents. I had never understood it—and never been able to imagine that ever happening with my daughter when she was 8, 9, and 10. But now?
I find her at the register, sorting through gum. “You want that?”
She puts the pack down.
I pick it up and buy it for her anyway. She rolls her eyes.
I say nothing, fearing it will be the wrong thing and we exit the store. Sunlight glints off a fender and blinds me. I squint, further disoriented in the cocoon of my mask, and stop to dig into my purse for sunglasses. The line shifts, and so does the atmosphere as people leapfrog off their circles and voices carry.
Excuse me. Watch it. Where’s your mask?
My mask is falling, that’s where, and I’m trying to pick it up as the light continues to blind me, my sunglasses dodge my grasp, and my food bag digs into my wrists, as I keep saying and doing the wrong thing and can’t figure out how to connect with my own daughter and not lose her.
“Mommm,” my daughter scoops her arm into mine and yanks me forward.
It is then I see I am not the cause of the commotion.
An unmasked man is zigzagging through the line. People are literally leaping aside to avoid him. And for good reason.
He is drunk and loud, filling the air with a sour stench and yelling unintelligibly. His blonde-gray straggly hair is unkempt and filthy. His pale and sallow face suggests nights slept outside. But that is not what I first notice.
What I notice is that he has soiled himself. His once white cargo shorts are weighted and discolored in the back by feces and yellowed in the front by urine and dirt.
Although, truthfully, as he turns, the soiling isn’t even what I first notice. What I notice is that his penis is hanging out.
Adrenaline snaps me into a protective bear and it’s my turn to pull her arm. I lope toward the car.
Inside, doors locked, I turn to get a better handle on what is happening. The man still sways and jerks but makes his way to the adjoining parking lot where I hope someone braver and nobler than the stunned customers—than me—can figure out a way to help him.
Though it is 2020.
“That poor guy,” I say.
She pulls down her mask, “How about poor me?”
“Did that really have to be the first penis I ever saw?”
A giggle escapes my lips.
“ . . . And—’where’s your mask?’” she continues.
“Someone said that, didn’t they? I thought they were talking to me—that was ridiculous . . .”
“Uh, yeah. How about where are your pants? Or why are you even wearing them? Isn’t the job of pants to cover your privates?”
Now I can’t help but laugh. “I’m guessing you don’t want your vegetables now?”
“Uh, can I have a minute? I kind of lost my appetite when I lost my innocence back there.”
“Of course,” I say, unable to suppress the laugh. Which makes her laugh.
And in that instant—following a pitfall I couldn’t possibly have foreseen—my worries wash away.
And somehow I know, so long as we can see each other and keep up the humor, regardless of online learning or remote, regardless of headlines, catastrophes, and maybe even Carole Baskin potentially winning the trophy, that she will be fine—and we will be fine.
Also, she is further along that bridge than I thought.