The daughter is 16 and never in one place for too long—especially not at home. Today, though, her bedroom feels exceptionally claustrophobic. Her chest heaves with another muffled sob.
The mother is exhausted. It's been the longest week, shuttling her youngest to gymnastics and staying up way too late to hear her oldest get home safe. It's already 6:30pm and she’s barely started dinner. She can't remember the last time she cooked for fun, like she used to when it was just her and her husband in their sorry excuse for a first apartment.
The daughter thinks back to Saturday night, just like she’s done again and again since she woke up Sunday morning. She can practically feel the blast of air conditioning on her arms, see the faint glow of the city traffic in the rearview mirror, and she can pinpoint the exact moment he told her it wasn’t working. After running over the conversation in her mind for what feels like the thousandth time, she sees it now. There: the subtle tension between his brows. That miniscule expression is almost worse than “I love you, I love us, but I just can’t do long-distance my first year of college.” It’s the warning sign, the fire alarm going off in her brain and her heart, this deep and eroded cave in her that senses the flood that's coming.
The mother rubs her eyes and takes comfort in the temporary relief of stress the action brings. The headline she read this morning, “PHOENIX PREDICTED TO BE INHABITABLE IN 30 YEARS,” floods back behind her eyelids and sticks to her sinuses as she lowers her hands and fishes for ibuprofen in the drawer. She’s so scared. All the time. Scared of what kind of world her children are going to inherit, what kind of world her grandchild will have (if grandchildren will even be an option then), and mostly scared of how she can possibly protect her children against the world when she often feels like its biggest pawn. She preheats the oven and begins cutting the vegetables. She does the dishes while the chicken is in the oven and the vegetables are in the steamer. She’s tired.
The daughter hears her dad come home downstairs. She can always tell he’s home from the way her mom cries, “Hi honey!” like it’s the most spectacular sight of her life, every day, without fail. She rolls her eyes out of habit, but she knows she’s smiling too. She cleans up the watery mascara on her cheeks. It will be good for her to go out tonight, she thinks. She’s not done mourning yet (she’s certainly not done taking advantage of her sister being less annoying than usual, one of the perks of being heartbroken) but she’s sick of crying in her bed. Plus, next week is finals week and the anticipation of summer break is impossible to fight off.
The mother leans against the counter as her husband goes to their room to change. She sees her daughter come down the stairs, laughing and yapping away on her phone about the end of the school year and where she and her friends are going to go for dinner tonight. She watches her daughter rifle through her purse and apply a sparkly little thing of lip gloss without missing a beat in her conversation. She remembers what that was like. She can almost feel the freedom of 16, the leather seats in her car that would burn her ass but it didn’t matter because she was always going to one friend’s or another’s; the belly button piercing she got behind her mom’s back; the excitement of the future and the youth of the present. There was a joyous simplicity to that part of her life. She lets herself wish for one moment that she could go back to that carefree girl she was before she grew up. She gives herself permission to want for her life before Life, before the bills and the slamming doors and the never-ending loads of laundry.
The daughter feels the plastic eiffel tower keychain in her purse, but hovers her fingers for a second longer as she hesitates at the doorway. She sees her father enter the kitchen and grab her mom by the hand, twirling her around in front of the stove. Her mom’s telling him to stop but she’s blushing and dancing in time with him. She sees her parents wrapped up in one another, the timer for the chicken just a minute away from going off. She can hear her sister watching Stranger Things in the living room and when she looks back at the kitchen, her mom is resting her head on her dad’s chest, eyes closed, and he’s rubbing her back. The reel from Saturday tries to play again but the daughter chooses to focus on her parents. On the sounds of the family, the home, the life they built together. She can’t wait for that. She can’t wait to find someone who wants to be with her and wants to raise a family with her. She can’t wait for the spaghetti and meatballs on Mondays and the family game nights and the stability of marriage. She can’t wait to have it all figured out.
The mother smiles as her husband strides over to their daughter, hugging her tightly and offering to kick her now ex-boyfriend for the third time that day. Her daughter yells goodbye, but turns before opening the door and runs over to her, wrapping the mother in an embrace not unlike the ones they used to share when her daughter was younger. It feels so intimate and precious, it sparks tears in her eyes.
“I love you, Mom.” The daughter gives her mom one more squeeze before skipping out the front door. Her friends are waiting for her.
After the mother hugs her daughter goodbye, she reminds herself to call her own mom tonight. The timer goes off. The chicken is done.