My dad didn’t bother looking up from his paper the next morning. “Did you finish your civics homework? You’ve gotta educate yourself, Janie. You need to understand what’s going on out there. It’s your generation who’s going to have to fix this world.”
Just like my father. Creating messes and expecting someone else to clean them up.
“Yeah, I did it. Had to write an essay on the Electoral College. Did you know you can lose the popular vote and still become president?” It got a smile from my mom who set a plate of scrambled eggs down in front of my dad.
“That’s wonderful, honey,” she said, turning the ketchup so the label faced the plate—the way he liked it.
“Hasn’t happened since 1888. Grover Cleveland,” my dad said, flapping his paper to the next page with a rattle. “You’d have to be a total idiot to win the election and lose the popular vote.”
My folks had been too young to be part of the World War II generation and too old to be hippies. That left them in this in-between space, surrounded by other suburbanites who were into Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles—early 60s Beatles, not Sergeant Pepper Beatles, not that they’d ever admit it. My dad wore thick-rimmed glasses and combed over his thinning hair. He had an entire closet full of starched white shirts, black ties, and black pants. He spent eight hours every day at some office building in Highland near the Raritan River, sitting in a cubicle while on the phone talking with other traders on the floor of the Stock Exchange.
If I’d had to live his life, I would have killed myself by jumping off the GW bridge so fast that I’d just be a blur to the cars passing by.
My mom, though, was even more pathetic. I loved her, of course I did, but she was weak. She pretended not to notice the pressure my dad put on me and my brother. She walked around the house in an apron—even on the weekends. I think my mom might have been hot at some point, but my dad drained her spirit, and now she looked like every other stay-at-home mom in northern New Jersey, right down to her feathered, curled hair and Mary Kay cosmetics. She looked like she was just sitting around waiting to go out of print.
If I had to live her life—nah. It wasn’t even worth thinking about.
My younger brother Gerry raced through the kitchen and grabbed an Eggo from the toaster before dashing to the entryway to lace up his Air Jordans. He was a total dweeb but a sweet kid. He was in eighth grade at Highland Junior High, and he was the type of student everyone loved being around—smart, good-looking, popular. All the things my dad wished I would be.
“See you after school.” Gerry swung his backpack over his shoulder, shot a fast finger-gun at dad, and planted a kiss on mom’s cheek before darting out the door to the bus stop at the end of our street.
Dad grumbled, “Shouldn’t you be on your way, too?”
I looked at my mom and avoided eye contact with my dad. It was definitely easier lying to her. She barely listened to me, anyway.
“Yeah. Betty is picking me up at the Circle K this morning. I’m going to meet her there, grab a pork roll and a coffee.”
Dad took a mouthful of his own coffee, the Maxwell House junk from the can that my mom made about sixteen times too strong for anyone but my Dad to swill. “That’ll stunt your growth.”
If my dad only knew about all of the things I did that would stunt my growth, he wouldn’t have been worried about a Circle K sixteen ounce java, light and sweet.
“I’ll get a small coffee.” Once you start with the lies, more come. It’s almost inevitable.
Mom twittered in my direction. “Remember that it’s Tuesday, honey. I’ll be at bridge, and your father stays late on Tuesdays, so make sure Gerry heats up the leftovers in the microwave. Don’t let your brother eat Pringles for dinner. And if you could pick up your room, honey? Hang some clothes? You know I don’t like having to do that for you.”
That wasn’t true. She loved picking up my clothes and rifling through the pockets for contraband. Once I’d lost a joint, and I swear she took it and never told my dad. I liked to hope she smoked it, but she honestly wasn’t cool enough, probably never had been. “Okay, mom.”
I kissed my mom on the cheek and finally dared to make eye contact with my dad. He didn’t seem any more disappointed in me than he normally did, so I grabbed my backpack and headed for the front door, pretending this would be just another school day. With my mom out and my dad working late, I had a little extra time to figure out how I was going to tell them about my suspension.
Heading east on Country Court, I walked two blocks until my street intersected with Main. The Circle K had been there since I was born and had always been owned by a family from the Middle East—Pakistan or Afghanistan, one of the stans. The place reeked of motor oil and garlic most of the time, but they sold cigarettes to minors and had some of the best pork roll sandwiches anywhere east of Rutgers University. They sold a drink called falooda, which was some ethnic milkshake, right next to the coffee and the Coke machine. It cracked me up—the place in Highland with the most culture was the friggin’ Circle K.
Because Highland was nothing but a blank, boring slate. It was situated halfway between Philadelphia and New York, which meant it lacked an identity, like the rest of the Garden State. Philadelphia had their beloved Eagles (yawn) and a million awesome small music venues that I’d give my left boob to get into. New York had everything else. Most of the people in Highland worked in the shitty factories of Newark or took the New Jersey Transit into Manhattan. Highland had a water tower, two stoplights, and three miles of scuzzy strip malls. The kids at Highland High were almost all white and fans of the most boring mainstream music you could imagine. They gathered around boom boxes jamming out to Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Tiffany. Gag me, losers.
As I turned the corner off of Country Court, I heard my name.
Betty’s mom. Shit. She sat in their Dodge minivan, and Betty was in the passenger seat.
“Do you need a ride to school?”
I looked past her mom and saw the look of confusion on Betty’s face. News travels fast at Highland High. She totally knew I’d been suspended the day before. Luckily, it appeared as though she’d kept that from her mom. I couldn’t go to school, so I did what had to. I lied. Again.
“Oh, thanks so much, Mrs. Pearson. But my dad is going to drop me off before he gets the train. You know, daddy-daughter bonding time.” I gave what I hoped was a wholesome smile through my black lipstick and prayed my eyeliner wasn’t too terrifying.
“Okay. If your mom is around when you get home this afternoon, tell her I’ll see her at bridge tonight. Bye!”
I waved cheerily.
I had to go home and tell my mom everything, or wait for the letter to arrive which would be much worse. My dad was going to lose his mind when he found out, and I knew my mom didn’t have the strength to keep it hidden from him.
I turned around and walked home. I didn’t even get my pork roll and coffee.
I let the door slam the way my dad hates when he’s home.
My mother chirped into the room. “Honey? You okay?” I swear, she’d freshened her lipstick. For who? No one at all? Just to dust her Precious Moments collection?
“I got suspended.”
“But you just left.”
“What did you do?”
“Kneed a jock in the balls.” For a second, I allowed myself to feel the zzzsttt of that moment—the way his eyes had rolled back into his head right before he doubled forward, gagging so hard I thought he was going to puke. I’d do it again, too. Fucker, always trying to pick on the little guy.
My mom only shook her head. “Why?”
“Because he was an assh—”
But I was answering the wrong question. “Why would you do something that’s going to make Dad so angry?” She ordered me to my room to wait for my father, which meant I had about eight hours until he got out his leather belt.
Some days, I fantasized about strangling him with it.
At least I’ll get a day on my computer . If I could manage to block out the visions of my inevitable beating, I could crack open my HyperCard stack and work on New Wave Soundz, the electronic fanzine I decided to create. But after I fired up my Apple IIc and read the mysterious last card, I instantly realized my life would never be the same.