Beneath the Screen’s Fold
It’s quarter to 6 a.m. and Kim and I are fighting already. Every day, it seems like. It could be for any reason, but today it starts when I tell her not to take such a long shower; other people want hot water too. Her brother wakes up smelling like a gym sock and won’t take a shower if the water is cold. Does she want to ride to school with his rancid armpit in her face?
Sarcasm is exchanged. Mostly benign.
To make amends I whip up scrambled eggs and toast but by the time Kim’s done blowing out her hair and applying too much mascara, the eggs are cold, and since I forgot to add butter, the toast is basically crusty and flavorless. Kim asks if I’m being difficult on purpose.
I can’t even. “Room,” I say. “Just go.”
Kim slams her door which jars something loose in my brain so that I realize David hasn’t rolled out of bed yet. I head up stairs to rattle his cage when from behind Kim’s door I hear her going off to one of her amigas about how much of a bitch I am. She’s not even modulating her voice. In a blink I’m in her room, cheesed as hell. My coffee’s getting cold downstairs, David’s not out of bed, I’m running late, but rather than deal with those issues I’m in Kim’s face, telling her the only bitch in this house is her, and to give me her phone because she’s grounded. Kim drops the phone on the floor so I have to stoop and pick it up, and then she barricades herself beneath a bunker of blankets and pillows.
“I hate you,” she says in a matter of fact tone, and I respond with a “right back at you, babe” which I immediately regret but cannot take back.
David lopes out of his room. He looks like a wrung out washcloth that’s dried in a funny shape. When he asks why I didn’t wake him sooner, aren’t we going to be late, I feel a blood vessel burst in my right eye. I start some breathing techniques I learned from Lamaze back when I was getting ready to give birth to these darlings who are nothing but pain about ninety-one percent of the time. And it is while I perseverate on that ninety-one percent that David pecks me on the forehead with his dry lips and epic morning breath, rubs my back and says how I look nice this morning. What a doll.
At school drop off I pull my old Volvo wagon too far right and the front passenger tire rides up the curb. We sit idling there while Kim and David’s classmates swarm in around us, bumping and jostling their way toward the main vestibule. The school campus consists of both Junior and Senior High, but the layout is such that I can make one stop and both kids can vamos.
David exits the car already slick with sweat and half blinded by the sun. Whatever Kim says comes out in a series of guttural intonations that are mostly consonants from what I can tell. She refuses to look in my direction and loiters over to a group of carbon copied friends with their shredded jeans, navel exposing tops and glamour shot makeup. Kim has no care for pretense. First she points at me over her shoulder with a very aggressive thumb. Then she takes that same hand, transforms it into an imaginary gun, and places the barrel against her temple. Her arm kicks upward and she mimes the spattering of brains against the wall with her other hand. The carbon copies laugh and laugh. I see Kim’s face on them all. Laugh, laugh.
No one tells you how easy it will be for your kids to make you feel like shit. I shift the car into gear, roll off the curb. In the rearview mirror I see Kim laughing as she throws her arm around the shoulder of one of her friends whose face I don’t recognize. The whole pack of them swirl and mingle and shuffle positions so that Kim is lost to me.
For work I investigate payment issues and provide small talk to supremely pissed payables clerks trying unsuccessfully to cut checks using our financial software. Tech support, basically. Also, therapist. And to make matters worse, they recently moved my desk from an office where I got to listen to my own music to the middle of an open, shared work space with no walls, and glass everything. You can’t even itch your butt crack in private. I have also gained a new cubemate, Rita, who self identifies as a “smoke stack,” like that’s maybe taken the place of her gender or something. I can actually believe it too. In addition to Rita’s regular breaks where she sucks down approximately half a pack of Camel Lights, she chews nicotine gum and wears one of those low dose arm patches. Without these measures I feel confident she would bite my head right off.
Just the same, I chance to fill her in on the Kim situation. This proves to be a mistake though, which is obvious when Rita starts in hardcore about “kids today” and “what a bitch” and “I hope you introduced her to the backside of your hand.” All of that feels like a step too far and I'm verbally back peddling when she lobs over, “You crack open that phone and give it a good snoop?”
“Oh, I couldn't. That would be such an invasion of privacy.”
Rita wafts an imaginary cigarette through imaginary smoke.
“She got a boyfriend?”
“No, she does not,” I confirm, though not with certainty. I've heard vague references to some kid she calls T, but when I have pressed for more information I have been met with sarcasm and vague remarks about hanging out or whatever. I have actually lost sleep thinking about the or whatever stuff but recently decided to let her own her autonomy until she proves to be untrustworthy.
“She's fucking somebody. Guaranteed. How old you say she is?”
“If you aren't snooping then you're enabling. Kids will hump anything that moves. And record themselves doing it. I know. My boy Brent got suspended for getting a blowjob in the locker room. Got caught texting that shit to his friends.”
“They're kids. What do you expect?”
“Don’t be so naive. You were doing it too when you were her age.”
“No, I actually was not doing that stuff when I was her age,” I whisper. “I was too busy being ignored by boys and reading Anne of Green Gables.”
Rita’s fingers fly over her keyboard while she smears on a Grinch-like smile.
“Maybe it was just me then who behaved like that. Can you imagine?”
I can and am flooded with unsolicited thoughts of Rita’s Kool Aid man body gyrating over the haunches of some ill-prepared boy.
Lunch arrives not long after which feels like a much deserved mercy. Rita dismisses herself with a cigarette clenched between her lips, and I slide my finger across the Gorilla glassed Rubicon of Kim’s iPhone screen. Her phone wears a pink, jeweled case that feels superfluous, but it's her phone and who am I to judge? The screen has gone dark so I press the home button to wake it. The picture on the screen is Kim and her friend Synia. Their heads meet at the temples, their lips are puckered, and a matching pair of peace signs are flashed at the unseen photographer. I slide my thumb across the unlock bar, but I'm stopped there by a passcode prompt.
Out of luck.
I return the phone to my backpack and try to forget about it, but before long I’m YouTubing a video that shows how to unlock your kid’s iPhone and am taking down notes.
“Find anything useful?”
I jump. Being so engrossed in the video means I missed the telltale scent of smoke, marking Rita’s return.
“Not particularly, no.” I close down browser tabs to appear as though I'm focused on work, but I’m caught off guard right then and there as my eyes spill over with tears.
I already know this is a culmination of many converging anxieties: the fear of discovering something horrible about Kim, our new, but regular spats and arguments, David’s general cluelessness, a host of my own personal shit that usually leaves me feeling like a clogged gutter. Suddenly, Rita places her hand on my shoulder and hugs the crown of my head into her matronly bosom. I cannot help it. I shatter like potato chip crumbs in her firm grasp. She rubs my shoulder with her callused hand and says softly so that only I can hear, “I know, honey, I know. Kids are such assholes.”
For dinner, salad with blackened chicken, sliced grapes, feta cheese crumbles, vinaigrette dressing, toasted almond shavings, and for me, some White Zin to take the edge off a long afternoon of conference calls. Kim moves lettuce around her plate. Her lips turn up and down, chewing on words as much as food perhaps. Does she want to say something? Change anything about the way she’s been acting? She wants to come back, I think, not with little relief. Her phone is still stowed away in my bag, but it would be so easy to return it to her, and conversely, her to me.
I decide to extend the olive branch and be the adult in this scenario when I hear a buzzing cell phone go off nearby. My hand slips to my back pocket, but my phone isn’t there. Either this is a phantom vibration or my phone has navigated itself into a hidden crevice whose longitude and latitude I cannot pinpoint. I’m about to stand up and search when Kim reaches beneath the table and returns with her glittering, pink-cased phone in hand, a rabbit drawn from the proverbial hat. She presses the phone to her ear.
“Hey bitch,” she croons.
My pulse revs hot. This creature of my loins, for whom I have spilled tears and sacrificed all, is about to be snuffed out, my body seems to say, through some sort of undetermined violence. I point at the phone. Kim’s smirk exudes a noxious pheromone which seems to be the perfect alchemical concoction to incite a primal rage inside me.
“Who is it?” I say, but that's wrong. What I'm thinking is who do you think you are?
Kim scoffs and turns away from the table. David leans as far away as gravity will allow. His whole aura emanates a sense of high alert.
Kim continues to laugh and talk in a foreign, mumbled dialect.
“What are you doing?”
That scoffing sound again before she says, “Hold on, my Mom’s flipping out.”
She puts her hand over the mouthpiece, looks at me like I'm some kind of inarticulate fungus and says, “What do you want now?”
I lunge across the table and grab the phone, with a little bit of her hair, and yank both. Kim lets out a howl for her pulled hair and concedes the phone, involuntarily. For a moment there is the name of Kim’s comrade standing out on the enlivened screen.
T, it reads.
Then Kim stands, screams, and propels her arms to claw at my face.
“I hate you, I hate you!”
David exits scene upstairs.
“Sit down,” I command over and over as I dodge blows, though I feel a trickle of blood run down the side of my nose where one of her nails has caught me good.
“That's my phone, give it back!”
I hold the phone aloft.
Once she settles on the futility of this struggle, Kim stomps away so that a series of seismic tremors rock the floor before she slams the door to her room.
“You're grounded,” I shout as I dab the blood on my face with a napkin.
Hours pass. The day has thinned to mist, and all of its endless permutations have dwindled away, leaving only this singular, inevitable outcome. I spend the adjacent hours bottling enough composure to do what must come next. The code on Kim’s phone has to be bypassed. I have to know who T is and what Kim’s relationship is to him.
I set the phone down on the desk in my bedroom and slap my work notepad, which has the ins-and-outs of bypassing an iPhone’s passcode, down beside it before taking a seat in the stiff, wooden chair. I feel like a criminal breaking into a safe as I start the tedious process of swiping, opening, contact creating, image adding. I can imagine an analog where I have a glass pressed against a metal safe door while I slowly rotate the combination dial one number at a time, listening for the subtle click of the lock. I'm half convinced the video is a ruse, the equivalent of a teenager’s middle finger to the kinds of parents despicable enough to try and sneak into their child’s private business. But then I punch the home key, and like magic the phone is alive again, opened and unprotected. I take it back to bed and crawl under the covers. Discomfort fills me like a bee hive fills a hollow tree trunk. I know Kim hasn't always been this kind of child, that I have not always been this sort of parent. Yet the cognitive dissonance I feel weighing upon me in this new, misguided reordering of the world feels cataclysmic and revolting, the way an unfortunately discovered tumor must feel rolling beneath one’s skin.
One deep breath, then two, and I tap into her messages where I find a host of unanswered texts waiting for review from the infamous T.
T: sup??? weard u go
T: you mad bro?
T: may b this will make u feel btr
The next text is a picture of a female teenager’s exposed breasts.
The image is captured through the looking glass of a bedroom wall mirror. They appear to be young breasts, attached to a tan, trim-body, though an unidentifiable teenager because her head is not included in the picture. She seems to have taken the photo while sitting beside a pile of rumpled clothes on her bedroom floor. She wears an oversized school t-shirt which she has lifted with one hand while taking the picture with the other hand. In the foreground is the back half of a black cat with white paws passing beyond the right side of the shot, and in the background is a blurred bed with disheveled sheets all in a mound. The picture denotes a level of familiarity between sender and recipient, facial identification not required, no explanation necessary, so matter-of-fact.
T: wut nutin ??? usually gets me a standing O lol
T: guess I send u 1 of my V next...lol
How long I stare at this text, I cannot say. It is a mercy beyond comprehension that the revealing portion of the accompanying picture falls beneath the screen's fold.
What now, I wonder. What would a sensible parent do?
I can't even fathom the order of what should come next. The idea that I have never, even for a moment, wondered about my daughter's sexuality seems like the logical launch pad, but where do I begin? Should I have been more aware in the first place? Can I express my relief that at least this means she won't get pregnant? Can I even acknowledge that I know she’s gay? Do my dubious methods of discovery mean that I've deprived Kim of some significant “coming out” experience that will drive an even larger wedge between us?
I press the phone against my forehead and moan slowly, quietly, like a sick animal. With the phone still held close, I curl into a ball and slip beneath my covers, head and all, to think more on all of the impossible things tomorrow will usher in.
I feel some sense of pride at having survived the night; I’m proud that I did not burst into Kim's room, shake her awake, and smother her with questions and regret. It is Saturday after all, and any unnecessary rousing would turn the whole weekend on its side. Who needs that mess? The daylight is still dim and bleary, as if the day itself is having a hard go at waking up. I wander into the kitchen and make a pot of coffee.
When Kim slinks out of bed an hour later it’s a relief that she remains a stoic wall of indifference. She keeps her back turned while she pours herself a generous helping of Kix. Cold judgment emanates from her in luxurious waves.
I hold off while she eats, but when her bowl is secured in the dishwasher and I sense her heading back to the confines of her room, I ask that she join me on the couch. Kim lets off the most effervescent sigh I've ever heard in my life, but at least she doesn't ignore me outright.
“Do we have to do this? Now? I was going back to bed,” she says before flopping down beside me.
Another colossal sigh.
I remove Kim’s phone from my sweatshirt pocket and place it in her lap. The phone’s pink case stands out against her black sweats.
“I'm giving this back to you with a condition attached. Care to hear this or should I take the phone back?”
Kim eyes are buried beneath heavy lids, but she nods the affirmative.
“Good. Here's the deal: you get the phone, I get to talk to you and you won’t yell or shout or try to knife me. Agree?”
Her silence is answer enough.
This feels monumental, like the orbit of two planets permanently shifting so that they will pass both farther from and closer to each other for ever and ever.
“I read some of your texts last night. From T.”
Kim brings the phone to life right away and is about to call up the messages in question.
“Let me finish first.”
I place my hand over hers and try to project the most Zen-calm stare, and it seems to work because Kim holds my gaze and even refrains from one of her patented eye rolls.
I take a deep breath. “Thank you, honey. I just wanted to say that I support you. I love you. Nothing has to change between us…” I take a deep breath, “now that I know.”
Kim’s face doesn't move. She is a statue.
“I'm only sorry I didn't make it more clear that you can tell me anything, and that I wouldn't care who you love any which way. Love is love, right?”
I smile and pat Kim's hand.
“What are you saying?” Kim holds the phone up. “What did you see?”
“Well, I don't know how you want to label it, but, you know, you’re...being gay.”
I say the last part in a near whisper, and follow with what I hope Kim interprets as a supportive shrug.
“It doesn't matter.”
“What?” Kim interrupts.
“Sweetie, come on. It was pretty clear from those texts.”
Kim doesn't wait for me to finish. She has the texts open and she stares at the pictures on the screen, her mouth hanging open.
“Oh my god.”
Surely this is not how Kim envisioned me learning about her lifestyle. I want to be sensitive to her confusion and anxiety, to allow for as blank a canvas as I am capable of sharing. This is her story, after all, she gets to fill in the ‘whos’ and ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ in her own time and season.
“I don’t mean to force the subject,” I say. “I understand if you aren’t ready to talk yet. I can only imagine what you must be feeling. So I want you to know that I am here for you if, and when, you want to talk.”
“Oh my god,” Kim says again.
She looks away from her phone, up at me.
“You think I like the cooch?”
“That’s really crude, Kim.”
“Is that what you think?”
“God, Mom, no. Just, no.” Kim stands up, starts pacing.
“That’s just something we do,” Kim says. “Me and my friends.”
“Those pictures don’t mean anything. They’re just a joke. Synia started it. She was getting these texts from this guy. All these pictures of his dick. And she was annoyed and started texting all of us these pictures, pictures of herself. Like, mocking this other guy or whatever. That’s all. It’s just funny. Or it was funny.” Kim trails off. All this time she’s been burning a hole in the carpet, unable to meet my eye. When she finally turns to me the look on her face is grave and shadowed.
“You’re saying you, all of you, send pictures like this? To each other?”
Kim shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess.”
“And you’re not gay?”
“Ugh, Mom. I don’t even know what that means. Okay? None of my friends even say the word gay. You like who you like. As a person. That’s all.”
“Yes, OK. But the mechanics of it actually are a bit different, so.”
Kim puts a hand on her hip. Her eyes are stony, and her lips are pursed and set like the cool petals of a rose.
“For the record. Today, I am not gay.” She uses air quotes. “Maybe that will change. I don’t know. Here's what I know I am. I am a feminist. I own my own body. No one tells me what to do, OK?"
I nod so fast it’s as though I’m agreeing with not one idea, but a multitude, those that exist now and a myriad that may come to be in future iterations of this ever-changing, ceaselessly evolving human being daughter person of mine.
“Then who is T?” I ask.
“He’s the guy I like. I thought you knew that.”
“Yes, but your texts say they’re from T, so.”
“Oh. That’s another joke. T doesn’t even know I exist. I changed my friend Clair’s name in my phone to T. You look skeptical.”
“That sounds ridiculous,” I say.
“Honey, don’t feel embarrassed. I don’t care if you’re gay, straight, diagonal.”
“That’s a stupid joke.”
“Well, I don’t care.”
Kim shakes her head again. “It’s very endearing of you, I guess. But I’m not gay. I’m not. I wouldn’t care if I was. I know you wouldn’t care if I was. But I’m not. Now can I please go back to bed?”
I have no idea how to answer, or what any of this even means now, but I can see that any further questioning will be useless and confusing.
“Yes,” I say. “Just, please don’t send any more boob pictures to your friends?”
I have raised a daughter who will question even this, but I can’t be mad now.
“It’s a bad idea,” is all I say.
“Fine.” She drags her feet, her whole body, back upstairs.
I am alone again as her door closes as gentle as a purse clasp.