Growing Sideways

Submitted into Contest #139 in response to: Start your story with the words: “Grow up.”... view prompt

78 comments

Coming of Age Middle School Contemporary

“Grow up.”

“Get out of my room.”

I cross my arms. We stare at each other.

“$275,” I say. “It’s going to cost $275 to replace your retainer.”

“So?” 

“So? So—do you have $275 to replace your retainer?” I ask my son, exasperated at his indifference.

“No,” he replies, dismissing me. He begins to shove his earbuds back into his skull. 

I slap them out of his hands.

“HEY,” he protests, snatching them off the floor. His fingernails are painted black, the nail polish chipped around the tips. 

“I’m talking to you,” I explain, growing more infuriated because I have to talk to him in his filthy room. “Tell me, son. How many more times are you going to throw away your retainer? It just sits on your lunch tray. When you’re done eating, pick it up. Put it back in your mouth.”

He glowers at me.

“And if you accidentally throw it away,” I pause for dramatic effect, “then fish it out of the trash.”

“I’m not going through the trash!” He’s offended at my suggestion.

“You need your retainer to keep your charming smile, big and straight and white.”

“That’s how you like your men,” he mutters. 

I pretend I don’t hear him. If I process that last remark, it might be his last. “I don’t wear my retainer anyway. Who gives a shit.”

“I do,” I say as evenly as possible. “I give a massive hairy shit. And so does the bank that loaned us $4,000 to pay off the orthodontist.”

“I didn’t even want braces.” 

I walk out of his bedroom. I slam the door. I stand outside of it.

I have no words for this gangly wreckage of a person—this middle schooler—this pile of lanky bones, his mouth set in a perpetual sneer, his eyes baleful, rolling in disgust. What happened to my sunny baby, my precocious toddler, my delightful little boy who brought me dandelions? 

I feel his closed bedroom door with my hands, a door now pulsating with a jackhammering technobeat. He’s playing the latest video game. Headphones on. Hunched over his controller. Room dimmed around a ridiculously large monitor. In moments, he will be screaming at friends he’s never met in person. This passes for a social life: to creatively curse while murdering make-believe zombies in digital alliances.

I lean against the wall outside his closed bedroom door and listen to his invective. 

The words coming out of his mouth are shocking. Did he pick up that language on the bus? If not the bus, then most likely at middle school. Its hallways were full of Dr. Seuss characters, necks and legs too long, odd clothing on the fringe of fashion, round faces poxed with acne, voices shrill and crackly. 

At drop off, I had seen the packs of 7th grade boys bray with laughter over idiocy. Someone stepped on a ketchup packet! Someone crushed up Smarties and snorted them! The 8th grade girls look as feral as Floridian divorcées, filing their nails, searching for someone to verbally eviscerate. 

No wonder my son preferred spending his time with faceless friends in an online apocalypse. 

I slide down the wall and sit on my heels.

I don’t know what to do with him.

I hear my father’s voice in my head. Teach the boy consequences. Teach him to take responsibility for himself. Teach him how to be a man.

“Sure, dad.” I say out loud. “I can’t even get him to use deodorant.” 

🜋 🜋 🜋

Fighting. 

I’m embarrassed at having to leave work early. 

“I have to pick up my son,” I say. 

My boss understands. Kids, what can you do? 

In elementary school, I picked him up when he had pink eye or head lice or threw up after eating too much Play Doh. 

But now—fighting

“The principal will see you now,” an administrative assistant says, in a gentle voice that I feel I do not deserve. I am a mother of a brawler. A son who has no self-control. A son who cannot verbalize his thoughts, choosing brute force instead of using. his. words. 

We walk into an office. The principal stands, greets me, shakes my hand. 

My son is there, slinking further into his plastic chair.

“So what’s this about?” I ask gamely, hoping I come across conciliatory and respectable. 

“There was an incident at lunch,” the principal says, not wasting time in formalities. There are a lot of parents waiting in the lobby.

“Oh?”

“A scuffle by the trash cans. A few of the kids were pushing each other. But your son won’t tell me what happened.” The principal frowns.

“Son, what happened?” I ask.

Silence.

“We’re going to have to suspend your son for three days. As fighting is a serious infraction, the altercation will be noted on his permanent record.”

“I understand,” I nod. “Three days is the school district’s zero tolerance policy. I get that. But let’s be clear here. There is no such thing as a permanent record. Don’t make my son think his future is in jeopardy.”

I stand up as the meeting is over. My son looks at me, then the principal, then back at me. 

“Let’s go,” I say. 

He picks up his backpack and follows me closely out of the building. 

🜋 🜋 🜋

“Burgers or chicken tenders?”

“Chicken tenders,” he replies.

I queue up in the drive-thru. 

“It wasn’t my fault, Mom.”

“It’s okay,” I say. “It wouldn’t be middle school without a little pushing and shoving. Try to stay above the fray. There’s a lot of hormones percolating in the hallways.” 

“Yeah,” he agrees. 

“You want a milkshake, too?”

“Yes!” he says, authentically smiling, wide enough for me to see he’s wearing his retainer.

“You still have your retainer,” I remark, paying the cashier, handing him a bag of hot greasy food.

“I almost lost it again,” he says, eating a long french fry. “I threw it out with my lunch tray, and when I reached into the trashcan to get it, Ronny Anderson dumped his tray on me.”

“Did he do it on purpose?”

“Yeah, Ronny’s an asshole.”

“Indeed.”

“Why do they call it a retainer, anyways?” He takes a long pull from his milkshake. I resist the urge to warn him about brain freeze.

“Well, a retainer is a thing that holds something in place.”

“Like you. You’re a retainer.”

“I hope I’m not an overpriced piece of plastic.”

He laughs, downing a chicken tender in one bite. 

“Besides,” I continue. “I’m not supposed to hold you in place. I’m supposed to help you grow. So grow. Grow up.”

“I’m trying to,” he says. “It’s not like I’m growing down. Hey, you could buy us another milkshake and we can grow sideways…”

I laugh. Then to his delight, I circle back around to the drive-thru.


March 30, 2022 21:01

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78 comments

K. Antonio
00:47 Apr 02, 2022

Awn that ending was hella cute. I could have read paragraphs more of about the mother-son dynamics. As an adult who still wears braces, I felt seen. 🤣 Jokes aside, I really adored the mother-son banter. The descriptions of the middle-schoolers were pretty on point (why is it that the cliques never change?).

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01:08 Apr 02, 2022

Especially those cliques in the teachers' lounge. Those people suck. Can I read your book now??? P L E A S E

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K. Antonio
01:28 Apr 02, 2022

I wish! But, if you want to read the first scene (Shea's read it) I would happily show it to you. I'm long-handing the first draft, so I really haven't typed anything. But I can say that I definitely (at least for now) have grown attached to the story/idea I'm playing with.

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01:40 Apr 02, 2022

Let's go. Email please. I adore your writing. My 80,000+ word novel is done. Scott Pack (Reedsy editor) made amazing suggestions. It's in the hands of a line editor now. Exciting! Russell is doing illustrations and we're hoping to get it out on Amazon by fall.

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K. Antonio
01:50 Apr 02, 2022

Oh, this current project I'm working on is my second manuscript. Letters to Undine was put on the back burner, haha. My first project has already hit around 20,000+ words, but it's a five part novel so I know it'll take some time before its near finished.

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01:58 Apr 02, 2022

Ambitious! Always happy to be a reader. You are an extraordinary talent. :)

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Jay Mc Kenzie
01:03 Apr 01, 2022

Oh this is lovely. I love the end and the narrators description of her son as a "gangly wreckage of a person—this middle schooler—this pile of lanky bones, his mouth set in a perpetual sneer, his eyes baleful, rolling in disgust." As a teacher, I know this boy! Also, I laughed out loud at '“I give a massive hairy shit. And so does the bank ..."' Brilliant line. Really great. I'm thoroughly enjoying your lovely writing.

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16:11 Apr 03, 2022

Fellow teacher! We have a bond, sure and true. Trust me. My seniors have all regressed at this point in the year. Lots of sneers, lots of eyerolls. (And mostly from me.) Any chance Russell and I can get you on the podcast? Check us out: https://www.readlotswritelots.com/previous/

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:20 Apr 03, 2022

Oh wow! That would be very exciting! I would love to be on your podcast. Thank you. Funny story: on joining this site, I have reconnected with a former student who I haven't seen in years and he is a stunning writer!

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21:39 Apr 03, 2022

Ooo. Who? Spill the tea. Email me @ lovegren.deidra@gmail.com to set up a date. We also have a website for authors to read their works in their own voices :) https://bluemarblestorytellers.com/

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Hen Neralany
12:52 Mar 31, 2022

I connected with this story immediately because I had retainers before! Except I was fine with wearing them. (I just hated having to maintain them. Laziness.) I would actually play with it and position it in a way that made it look like I had metal teeth, and other students in my school who'd pass by would stare at me. Oh this just reminded me of the fear that washed over me when I realized I had lost my retainer. I lost them only once I think? After the first time, never again. I cried so bad just searching for it in the trash, looking un...

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17:50 Mar 31, 2022

I wish I owned stock in a retainer production facility. I've personally bought a few dozen for my own children.

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Delia Tomkus
11:53 Mar 31, 2022

Haha perfect. Some people can't seem to accurately define the insane things that occur in middle school hallways, but you definitely did

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17:51 Mar 31, 2022

Open up any book by Dr. Seuss. It looks like a middle school yearbook.

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Delia Tomkus
19:37 Mar 31, 2022

This is very true haha

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Jules Davis
04:34 Mar 31, 2022

This story is perfect. I have a daughter this age and she's about to get her braces off. She's already fighting me over wearing the retainer! I love how even though the son was irritated he listened and remembered the retainer. A beautiful ending to an oh so relatable story. Thank you for sharing!

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17:52 Mar 31, 2022

Get a chain for her retainer -- like the ones they sell for reading glasses.

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Shea West
22:51 Mar 31, 2022

Teeth bifocals if you will🤣🤣

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❀Leo Fall❀
00:52 Mar 31, 2022

Wonderful story yet again Deidra!

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17:52 Mar 31, 2022

Thanks, Leo :) What did you think of Russell's reading of your story? My youngest son read your story and could only make it half way through without crying.

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❀Leo Fall❀
18:00 Mar 31, 2022

Of course! I loved it, his voice was wonderful with the story. My heart- ack

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Shea West
22:18 Mar 30, 2022

Blessed are the middle schoolers of the world🤣 I've got a 6th grader, pray for me if that's something you do. I like that the mom gave him grace, because we all need it right? And moms do retain things, but I never do it with a lisp😂😉

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22:24 Mar 30, 2022

I pray for all middle schoolers and their long-suffering teachers who go straight to heaven. You are a year or two away from the Puberty Forest. After that? All bets are off. As for me, I retain nothing these days. Complete tabula rasa -- every day, I'm like, "Huh?" I'm going for plausible deniability.

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Mike Panasitti
17:02 May 11, 2022

Great coming of age story. I agree with all the accolades. I was wondering, I've written two pieces on a 20-something who is having difficulties growing up. He seems to believe that rap music is the end-all of human fulfillment. Would you mind perusing "Enter the Darkside?" I'd be grateful for the effort.

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00:37 May 12, 2022

Off to read and comment :)

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Lainey Levens
01:30 Apr 30, 2022

I am still struggling to understand how you are able to grasp concepts WITH SUCH EASE!!! This is fantastic (and awfully relatable). As someone who VIVIDLY remembers middle school years, I FEEL this story. This actually reminds me of the time I threw my own retainer out...TWICE. First time I barely remember, since it wasn't that big of a deal (found it immediately) but the second time...me and my dad had to DIG THROUGH DAYS' OLD GARBAGE IN A HOUSE THAT WASN'T OURS...we were renting a house near the beach, and at the beach, we ate lunch. I cou...

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08:23 Apr 30, 2022

You comment was a much better story than mine :) hahahhaha Your dad is amazing :)

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Niveditha S
10:43 Apr 13, 2022

Beautiful...Beautifully finished...Makes me want to read it again and again

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13:53 Apr 13, 2022

That's quite a compliment. YAY Thanks :)

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Steve Uppendahl
07:40 Apr 11, 2022

As a middle school teacher, and parent of a couple of middle schoolers, your descriptions of seventh grade (exactly what I teach) girls and boys are spot-on (and hilarious). The only thing that bugged me a bit was the mom calling her son "son" instead of his name. But, that's just a small complaint that is probably just me. Keep up the great work. Write on!

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17:15 Apr 11, 2022

Thanks for the kudos. :) As for "son," I picked that up from my Texan father. He called all my brothers "Son." Odd that none of his daughters were called, "Daughter." We got stuff like "Little dear" or "You." I also like to keep my characters as anonymous as possible. That way, people can imprint their own hellish puberty ghouls. I would read "son" as ROB or TOM or JACK since those are my children's names that I have screamed for years (occasionally all three names at once.) I usually like to keep gender out of my stories if possible too ...

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Steve Uppendahl
00:18 Apr 12, 2022

I was wondering if there was a personal connection. Makes total sense. Ditto for wanting the reader to get a more personal connection to a character by a being just non-specific enough that he/she/they can input their own names and genders. Well played. I probably tend to be too specific at times. I like giving my characters names and some physical descriptions. But, that can alienate the reader at times if there's no personal connection. Good call with the common names. I remember one class in high school that had five Jennifers. Our te...

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Andrea Doig
18:31 Apr 10, 2022

Yes, I loved this one. I have an 11 year and 8 year old and I am really not looking forward to the teenage years. I just want my babies back! BUT do I? Each stage is so different and so rewarding and this story was really relatable. I loved the way the whole energy and tone changed from the principal's office. So heartwarming. YAY for mothers and sons and their love that conquers all.

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19:47 Apr 10, 2022

Always forward -- agreed. Babies are nice (but scream). Toddlers are adorable (but exhausting). Tweens are charming (but whiny). Teenagers are ... well, you got me there. Love really is the answer. And hot, cheesy carbohydrates.

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Phoenix Osborne
01:04 Apr 09, 2022

I love this story!

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16:03 Apr 10, 2022

Ironically, this story loves you, too.

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22:51 Apr 07, 2022

Your writing brain is a katana. I de-aged thirty years in the opening passage; I had that same conversation with my mom. In an instant, I was an adult, rooting for the protagonist. I am not a parent, but your words sliced my heart and surgically altered me into a dad shouting, “Listen to your mother!” at the text. Loved this!

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18:25 Apr 08, 2022

*googles katana* Thanks for hanging out with every mother and tweenage son screaming at each other. :) And as an American, I can attest that a huge bag of greasy fast foods solve most problems.

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Rachel Snider
19:04 Apr 07, 2022

As a mother of a 7th grader, I could feel this story in the pit of my gut. He hates me. He loves me. He thinks I'm cool. He walks all over me. You perfectly captured those feelings and added a little humor, to boot.

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19:11 Apr 07, 2022

Humor is the only way to get through adolescence, the first or second time :)

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L.M. Lydon
21:45 Apr 06, 2022

This is charming. As a prior reader said, I love the "I have no words for this gangly wreckage of a person—this middle schooler—this pile of lanky bones, his mouth set in a perpetual sneer, his eyes baleful, rolling in disgust. What happened to my sunny baby, my precocious toddler, my delightful little boy who brought me dandelions?" paragraph. It's awesome that the turn is where we would think the narrator would become completely exasperated with her son over fighting; instead, she stands up for him a bit with the principal and "chills ou...

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21:54 Apr 06, 2022

Tremendously insightful comment. I had no idea that I structured it that way, but fortunately for me, serendipity happens on occasion! God bless all parents with tweenagers. Ages 11-14 are rough. Then again, so is 15-25. Then again, 25-death isn't a cakewalk either :) We all kinda need double-milkshake days on occasion.

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L.M. Lydon
00:44 Apr 07, 2022

I've got a 6 who feels like she's already going on 11 so I'm terrified in advance!

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Kaoli Chona
22:03 Apr 05, 2022

Being called to the Principal's office happens alot. I like the way the parent was unjudgemental and bought a snack for the child after they were in trouble. It was a good ice-breaker. A wonderful story with a great flow. It teaches us parents alot of things.

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23:30 Apr 05, 2022

Thanks, Kaoli. I appreciate the read.

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Phil Manders
19:47 Apr 05, 2022

I’m on a Lovegren binge. This was so good. You know I have teenagers camped out in their bedrooms! Headphones on, shouting at each other. . . I’m hiding in the shed.

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21:08 Apr 05, 2022

They never leave! You'll have twenty-year-old teenagers like myself. Just as obnoxious :)

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Teresa Renton
11:30 Apr 05, 2022

I loved this so much (I have a 15 year old son so can relate). This is a perfect portrayal of a lioness with her cub lol

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12:43 Apr 05, 2022

Yep. Mama Bears. Always.

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Zelda C. Thorne
08:59 Apr 05, 2022

Lovely, so many great little lines - "What happened to my sunny baby, my precocious toddler, my delightful little boy who brought me dandelions? " "The 8th grade girls look as feral as Floridian divorcées," Loved the end too, very heartwarming.

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12:49 Apr 05, 2022

Thanks, Rachel -- I hope you are carving out time for yourself and your great writing. That is always the bugaboo: t i m e. We should go back to the patronage system, like early modern Europe. Ideally we should be in a castle tower with lots of quills and ink and a servant to bring up cheeseburgers on occasion.

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Zelda C. Thorne
13:04 Apr 05, 2022

That sounds awesome. I will be in the palace grounds, in a hammock, with some hunk handing me grapes and gin.

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