You are not the enemy. You’ve told yourself this many times but still can’t help but feel that you have been miscast, that this role of ombudswoman and authoritarian is very contrary to the wild girl you carry inside you.
“Watch the road,” you tell your daughter and grip the armrest on the passenger’s side so hard that one of your nails bends. It’s painful. You bite your lip and release your fingers trying with everything you have not to say see what you are doing to me.
“I am watching,” she shouts. “I always do.”
But she doesn’t. You’ve seen how she checks her makeup in the rearview mirror, how desperate she is to pick up her cell and see who has texted her, to learn the moral imperative that her friend Leah has picked to declare at this moment as more important than anything her mother could possibly say. A new place to get her brows shaped? A random shout out to some jerk kid who told a teacher to fuck off? An announcement that everyone—yes everyone in the world of these youthful “I” people—iPhones, iPods, iEverything is about me—what is so damn important, Leah? Another gathering at Maroni’s for pizza? To die for.
She plays with the buttons on the radio and you want to slap your daughter’s hand. Doesn’t she get it? Driving is life and death. It is the real to-die-for. It is very very important that she drive carefully because if something happens, some god awful I’m-so-sorry-I-didn’t-mean-to accident happens, it will be your fault. Not hers. Yours. You know it. People will blame you. What kind of mother were you? Didn’t you know she had to drive with you, with you, with you, at least 60 times, more if possible, no one else in the car, especially no friends? She needs to signal at every corner. No friends. And that includes you. You are not her friend.
“Use your signal,” you almost jab the words at her. But you hold back because it’s not her fault, it really isn’t, even when she yelled last week “fuck you mother, I hate you,” and you knew she did not mean that. Did she? Is it possible she could hate someone who maybe the truth is she doesn’t understand that you were just like her? You were as awful, as wild, as angry as she is. But if you tell her she’ll say ya, right, Mom, and roll her eyes in that way that tells you how out of touch you are, where you can almost hear her chide oh god really, like getting your period in the middle of your company’s beach party picnic and there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to go but the horrible bathrooms near the life guard stand. It’s the worst thing in the world when she says ya, right, Mom, because with those words you feel the cramps again, you feel old, you know you are decades older than she, and yet you understand less and less each day. The word feeble races through your head feeeeeeeeble and for a second you freeze, you’re lost, why am I doing this, why this now? Oh right, cause you’re the mom.
“Signal,” you say again louder. “You have to let people know what you’re doing.”
“I did signal, Mom.” She sighs. So blasé. Her life is the easiest in the world, isn’t it? She makes the left turn, rotating the steering wheel with one hand, a move that makes you cringe, and she does it without effort, her way of saying see Mom, fuck you, left turns are easy.
They are not easy! Left turns are never easy. A car can come out of the blue, no time to brake, a bill you didn’t pay, you come home and the lights won’t turn on, the gas bill you accidentally tossed, the stove won’t light. She, the voice of wisdom, the little girl grandma, so smart it pours from her, she taunts, “Just a second, Mom. What’d you do now? Didn’t you pay the electric bill? Are we that poor?”
She knows what she’s doing. She can’t stop it. Her words hurt like hot iron pokers, like she is actually capable of burning her mother with an iron stake, like does she not know that every word she says, every single word, will live in you far past her days of learning to drive, past when she turns to you from the front walk with bags in hand and says, “don’t worry Mom, I’ll be okay,” and goes to college and one day surprises you with a call to say, “thank you Mom.”
But it is the awful words that will always live in your heart, your soul, to remind you of your failure of spirit when you forgot to pay the electric bill, when you, you horrible cardboard cutout of a mother did not pay the bill that would have kept the lights on. That day when your daughter had to hear you on the phone with Lillian at the gas and electric company and you begged, “Please, please, turn it back on, we cannot go through the night like this,” and somehow that was worse than when you said, “I’m so sorry, so sorry you don’t have a dad to teach you how to ride a bike” and “I’m so sorry, so sorry you don’t have a dad to teach you to drive” and “I’m so sorry, so sorry that I am only what I am and that is not enough.”