My mother cannot even look at me without snatching up a business document first. My father, who’s cradled only his cellphone instead of me when I was a baby, talks only to his boss, clients, customers and co-workers.
My parents are workaholics. Before I was old enough to deduce the reason for their constant absence, I’ve always wondered why they were never around for me. Then it hit me.
I’m not their child—their work is. They work nonstop. Maybe I should just show up at work and break Dad’s cellphone. Or shred Mom’s document. Or if I call repeatedly, or scribble on the paper.
I come home to an empty house. They leave me voicemails of or text me the grocery list. I read sticky notes reminding me to get the mail, take the recycling and trash to the curb and clean the house. Maybe if I vanished from the earth, they’d never know. They talk only to their co-workers, bosses, work schedules, appointments, meetings, business trips, banks, paychecks and work clothes. They only love something or someone they’re working for or with.
So I’m sitting here in a black, metal chair outside a coffee shop, my headphones in my ears, sending lyrics to my brain. Something with which I match pitch and tone. Because I’m a singer. I sing while I am vacuuming, mopping, sweeping and dusting the downtown movie theatre in my scrubs from nine-thirty every morning to five-thirty at night on Saturdays and after school on Fridays. I sing in the shower to myself before and after work and school. I sing while washing my hands in the bathroom. I sing to help myself fall asleep and then again while I’m making myself breakfast. At the bus stop, down the grocery store aisles, down my high school’s hallways and then when I’m walking into my house to read more Post-It notes or listen to voicemails.
Once I change my scrubs for a fancy dress and that mop for a microphone, music will hopefully wrap me up in its beautiful arms of sound, pitch and volume, embracing a lonely, neglected, unloved, unwanted person.
Coming to this little shopping center, I escaped the stale smell of Ramon noodles, breathing fresh air like no tomorrow. I’m reading other words than just my parents’ scribbles. The Sunday sun shines down on my evergreen umbrella, warm and bright. My singing’s not really muffled anymore—
I just remembered: I actually forgot my mask when leaving my house this morning!
I sighed, wishing it was here. Wishing I remembered. Maybe my parents should get it. Take a break from work for once. Take a vacation. Ya know?
Unmasked people walk to and fro, visiting and then exiting stores, some absorbed in their cellphones, newspaper or coffee sipped from cups of this famous refresher. For others, masks and social distancing may be a thing of the past—for people are hugging, kissing, thumping each other on the back and even accepting coffee without skeeving the germs.
I’m still positioning myself six feet apart from others. I don’t touch public property without a napkin or tissue, and still wash my hands and use sanitizer enough to make others think I have OCD. I still try to convince my voice teacher I might breathe germs on her if I don’t cover my mouth with a mask. But she assures me by asking whether I want my singing to be muffled forever. I agree and remove the mask, neglecting it until the songs are sung.
Maybe I’ll remove it forever. After reading the email congratulating my acceptance into one of Disney Channel’s upcoming music videos, I went, sang my worries away and returned home—with the promise of another audition hopefully leading to a big part in a famous musical or as a backup singer in a famous song. Once another congratulatory email spread a wide grin on my face, I returned to Hollywood to make my very first music video. With my name out there somewhat, my parents were going to recognize it, too.
She wears headphones and a hoodie. Snaps at waiters to just get her meal and then watches them scurry off towards the kitchen to have the chef whip up something fancy. Purposely steps in mud to feel the warmth beneath my toes.
I used to sing to my basset hound. We had a great time—I sang at the top of my lungs. He howled and yelped right along. He sang right up to his deathbed.
I’m going to take a break from the writing. My hand is starting to cramp. So I set the journal down on the table and let the pen drop onto it. I looked up at the coffee shop, the delicious waft of brown coffee infiltrating my nose, imaginatively sending a waterfall of hot liquid down my thirsty throat—
I whizzed around. A guy was reading my journal! I lunged for it and then retreated to my spot, hugging my precious item to my hoodie chest. Walking into the café, I sat down and continued writing in my velvet book.
At least I don’t have to worry about things like when Ryan and her cousins pay for our movie tickets in return for me cleaning the movie theatre. Oh, and I forgot to mention: I’m flying out to Hollywood for my very first music video next Sunday! I’m staring in a music video! I’m so excited. I can’t wait. Another one. I’ve already done two—one of my own and another of someone else’s. But it’s just the start. I’m going to get signed permanently and start my singing career one day. Faster than you can imagine.
Now I’m really thirsty. But I have no money. I’ll go home and get some.
I walked out of the café, but someone called to me. I looked around and saw the same guy. I furrowed my eyebrows and walked up to him just as he was ordering at the counter. I waited until he got his order and then asked what he needed.
“I saw you writing.” He slid a hand in one of his jean pockets, letting a thumb stick out. “Are you a photographer or journalist? Because,” he grinned widely, “I love a good story!”
“Uh…” I laughed, shrugging. “I’m not an investigative journalist if that’s what you’re talking about. I’m just a high schooler who’s making her dreams come true.”
I watched him walk towards my table. He set down his coffee and huge muffin opposite my journal and sat in the chair. I pointed out that I was going home to get my purse and then join him, explaining I needed my money to buy coffee—much less a muffin as big and delicious as that lemon and blueberry one waiting for the guy to enjoy one savory bite at a time.
“No worries!” He waved a hand and pulled out some dollars from a back pocket. I crinkled my face, wondering how that money wasn’t stolen already, or hadn’t blown away. He proceeded to step out of the way of my flying hands and loud, raspy voice begging him to stuff them back. But he insisted. So, before I knew it, I was sitting back at the table with a muffin and coffee. I grabbed the drink and started downing it. I wished he’d disappear so I didn’t have to explain my rudeness. He was just smiling, his hands folded onto the table. When I was done forcing him to watch my immaturity, he nodded towards my journal, asking me what I really wrote.
“Nothing in particular. I just don’t really write anything.”
It didn’t matter—the Mom and Dad stuff was pointless to discuss. If I didn’t matter to them, why should I ever bring it up with a complete stranger? It’s not like he could ever help me—who would make us hug or kiss again? I made a mental note to burn my words about my parents the minute I got home. Rip the pages right from the journal and set them ablaze with a stove burner’s fire. If they were home, they’d panic and try to stop me. But they’re not. So who’s to stop me?
“Sure you do. I’m sure it’s important.”
I shook my head. Not anymore!
I wanted to go home. Getting this attention was only like pouring gasoline on an open wound and igniting it with a match. So I stood up, thanked him for the treats and then took them and my journal, walking out of the café. As I smiled at the fun of eating the muffin, I put it and the coffee on the kitchen counter and then locked the front door. I tore open my journal and ripped the sheets right out. I then grabbed my journal, opened the cabinet with the trash can and threw the velvet blackness into it. No more journal meant no more parents.
I turned the front left burner on Hi and then fed the papers into it. The black and white lines filled with ink slowly leaked into the flickering, hungry flames. I watched as my parents’ lives—on paper—slowly turned into ashes. The kitchen started to smell like burnt paper. Once they had disintegrated, I switched the stove off and scooped the charred mess into the trash can with a metal spatula. The burnt smell clogged my nostrils, so I hurried and chucked the bag in the nearby dumpsters…
No. It must be gone forever. So I took off in the opposite direction around my neighboring apartment’s brick wall corner. Some trash cans were overflowing. No one would care whether I put a pile of former paper on top of everything else. So I stacked it. Then I ran back home. I was free! I went for my muffin, my stomach rumbling with hunger.
“Having a good night?”
I jumped and whirled around, staring straight into the face of a woman who looked…familiar.
“Oh.” I crossed my arms loosely. “Hey.”
“Hi, honey.” She came up the stairs, but I blocked the doorway. She stopped when her left high heel reached the top of the porch stairs. “I…” She blinked like she was going to start to cry. I rolled my eyes.
“I’m Muddy, not Honey.” And tore away, running as fast as I could towards that guy who had bought me the coffee and muffin. Finding him a little later, I tried not to let my anger interrupt my apology for my snarky attitude, but he forgave me. We sat down at the bench and talked. I told him I had to do some extra cleaning at work. He understood, and I returned home, got my purse and walked to the movie theatre. After ridding the place of dust bunnies and mothballs, I plodded home, trading my scrubs for pajamas and then just fell into bed, falling right to sleep.
The next night, my mother was standing there in the kitchen with a pathetic smile on her face. I bet she had been checking herself out with her million-dollar mirror but obviously failed to pull off something she was working so hard to use to win this war. This war between my parents and me. Between real love and love of finances. Like she’d be the one to convince me tonight—of all nights—that I was the daughter she finally came back for and would wrap up in her arms from now on.
She was so vain and self-absorbed. Just like Dad. I needed my mask. Like now.
“Mom, I didn’t want to replace you with my journal. So why did you ever replace me with your work?”
“Honey,” she attempted, “I don’t see what’s wrong with work, but…” She went over to the front door and opened it, looking at what looked like my parents’ shiny new Mercedes Benz pulled up to the front curb with Dad waving limply while a small smile tugged at his lips. “I’ve been talking to your father. I—”
“You have?” I widened my eyes. “Or should I just keep raising myself until my grave?”
Dad honked the horn. “Come on, honey. We’ll be late for…” He gestured. “the party.”
“Yeah.” I glared back at my mother. She looked even more helpless. “Go on. Since you belong in the office.”
“Go back to your life.” I stormed away, my dinner looking pretty appetizing. As I bit down into the steamed, crunchy broccoli, I heard the door close softly and slowly. Like my mom was thinking of making me her child now. As if!
I wouldn’t adopt anything or allow anyone or anything to adopt me anymore. I was free.
My cleaning job at the movie theatre would disappear in a snap. Then maybe my parents would come home to a rich, famous woman too consumed by her fans to notice the very person they ignored. Maybe then they’d see that money doesn’t buy happiness. A child called Work doesn’t bring joy.
Maybe then they’d see me for who I truly am—
My cellphone rang.
I chatted with my best friend, Ryan, and we decided to go to the movies tomorrow night. After I checked out some self-help books about singing and voice lessons, I joined the other sixteen-year-old and her cousins. We talked all night at the bench and then laughed away as Sadie relayed episode after episode of hysterical SNL comedy. After we waved her cousins goodbye, Ryan turned to me.
“So you think you’re going to finally apply to college?”
She shook her head as she munched some popcorn. “You can’t keep procrastinating!”
“College isn’t for everyone.”
She gagged and then coughed. “What? Getting a real education is not something you ignore!”
“Ryan. I’m working, okay? I don’t think someone at a prestigious university is going to love a resume with ‘Movie Theatre Janitress’.”
“And you know these things?”
“Get a degree in Theatre. You’re starting to get out, but Hollywood wants trained singers. At least proof they can use you.”
“So you’re saying I’m not good.”
“No.” She flipped her long blond hair backward and leaned forward. “I’m saying they’ll be more likely to hire a college-educated singer. You can improve in the music industry with a big degree.”
“I’m already wasting time in high school. I’m so smart the teachers are bored grading my assignments and homework because they know I only made yet more A+s.”
“But you can stand out.” She sipped her coffee. “What’s the harm?”
“The harm is that I don’t need to waste any more time in a classroom. I can just succeed in Hollywood.”
“Okay…” Ryan turned to a trashcan and was about to dump it when I told her I’d finish it. she handed it to me, and I munched away, thinking.
Maybe because Ryan’s telling me, I will.
I did. And Ryan was happy.
But, I reminded myself, I did it for Ryan.
I lived in Hollywood, ignoring Ryan and my parents completely. I played a bar singer in a commercial for some restaurant I’ve never heard of. Then I rejoined some backup singers in a big-budget movie a few years later. While off-set one day, Ryan came to mind. She was still my best friend. So I called her and apologized for pretending she wasn’t there. She didn’t take my confession too kindly.
“Wow. You’re ignoring me. You’re ignoring your parents. Thanks!”
She hung up when I was mid-sentence. I had another staring contest, with my cellphone. Only this time, I was glowering. I apologized!
Why couldn’t she see that?
I thought. Long and hard. Best friends don’t just give up on each other. I called her back and told her I was wrong to angrily abandon her. I said I was distancing myself from my parents so they could return to me.
Silence reigned for a long time. I waited, and blinked, so as to not make a scene in front of the producers and director talking in front of me. One looked over and motioned for me to get on-set in five minutes, and I nodded.
“Ryan?” I attempted.
“Muddy. You must care.” Click.
I looked up at the set. I looked down at the cellphone. I sighed, wishing Ryan could watch me perform. Maybe she could be there when no one else would (save her cousins).
I nodded. And then continued, performing not for my parents’ approval, but for myself. However, I didn’t feel separated from my parents. A frown sat under my nose for years. I wasn’t happy.
I invited my parents to see my music videos at my apartment. They loved them. But they immediately went back to work, calling only their bosses and talking only to their co-workers. I was infuriated. But one of the directors told me to write down my feelings. Something devoid of bitterness, anger and hurt. I surprised him by agreeing, and returned home one day to write a kind letter to my parents.
They wrote back. I asked them to prove themselves. They never responded.
Although my career and fame became my life, I still wrote, kindly encouraging Mom and Dad to love me more than their jobs.
They once watched me sing and dance alongside even more backup singers.
I kept writing to them, hoping they’d see me for who I am. Their daughter. Their child.
They kept showing up. But they slowly started to drift off to their own worlds of work and money. Still, I kept writing them and even left them voicemails. Because these were the only things I could do.
Soon, I gave up on them. I realized they only cared about their work.
So I stopped convincing my parents, and only cared about my career.
And Ryan and her cousins.
And the guy—Ethan.