(finding parenthood painfully funny)
Photos by: Cathryn Farnsworth
The other parents hate me. It’s official. I am not welcome in the house of my daughter’s best friend anymore. And I can’t blame them. I’ve grossed myself out. How could I have said what I said? Let the flogging begin. But first, before I tell you what I said, you need to hear the backstory. There is always a backstory. And this one goes way, WAY back.
I’m 12 years old (I warned you). The summer after seventh grade. Week two of drama camp. I get my braces off. I soar from a 2 to a solid 5 on the tween hotness scale. I can’t stop smiling at my reflection in the mirror and sliding my lips over my gummy teeth. I’ve morphed from beast to beauty. My smile is perfect. For reals perfect. I had no idea my bare, braces-less teeth would wield so much confidence in me. And just in time for a hot summer fling. I’m saved by the bell! I’ll find my Zack Morris. Step aside, Kelly Kapowski.
I bike to and from camp daily, licking the wire on my brand new retainer as I pedal. I love my purple retainer, complete with silver sparkles. It holds my perfect teeth in place, like a trophy holder. I can snap it in and out with my tongue on command. My mother barks at me to stop playing with it, “Nicole, that retainer is $200 dollars. It’ll be the end of me if I have to replace it. I just spent a fortune on your mouth. Enough is enough. Stop fiddling with it.”
My mother, the single, overly hard-working mother that she is, always pinches pennies. GAP is not in the budget. Our knockoff Keds and Hypercolor shirts must be purchased annually at the indoor valley swap meet. We live in an apartment south of Montana Avenue. South. Not North. SOUTH. Which means we are on the apartment side of the tracks. Montana Avenue is the strong dividing line that separates the incredibly wealthy homeowners from the middle-class struggling apartment dwellers. Most of my friends at our local public school live on the north side. Which means I spend endless summer hours in their pools while their nannies bring us sliced peaches and crudite.
I love my rich friends. I really do. But secretly, I always feel bitter, jealous and unlucky. My backyard is an alley. My front yard: a walkway filled with overgrown ferns and 45 mailbox slots. My father never gives my mom any money or child support; he is busy chasing his dreams as an “artist” and driving in circles smoking schwag pot. My mother works 60 hours a week to make ends meet and busts her ass to get a home-cooked meal on the table every night by 6 p.m. But I am embarrassed, and angry, and all I want is a house north of Montana. One day, I dream. One day …
Back to my perfect teeth. Day three of my purple sparkle retainer. At lunchtime the retainer gets mixed in the folds of my trash and disappears. My stomach drops. My ears begin to ring. I can hear my mother’s shrill voice in my head, losing it over the trashed two hundred dollars. I might as well have taken a crap on the face of Ben Franklin himself. Twice. I frantically look in every trash can. Nothing. I bike home that afternoon, tears flying off my face. I can’t possibly find the courage to tell my mom I am this irresponsible. I slink into our apartment, shaking and hyperventilating.
“Nicole, what on earth is wrong?” She soothes me. I collapse in her arms. “Honey, are you okay?” I beg her to not be mad at me. She hesitates. But agrees, seeing how distraught I am. I confess that I accidentally threw away my new retainer. I look into her eyes. She swallows her triggered disappointment and looks gently into mine, “It’s okay.” My body relaxes. Just as I am about to take a breather and cuddle up on the couch for afternoon reruns of The Jeffersons, she grabs my hand and leads me to the car, “Let’s go find it!”
We stand in an alley behind the drama camp. My mother casually offers to pay a homeless man to jump into the giant, industrial sized dumpster and find my retainer. Peaked by the prospect of some cash, he hops in. Buzzing flies scatter toward the sky. My stomach sinks. I watch this man rummage through pounds of leaking Capri Suns, moldy sandwiches, and rotten bags of fruit. He sticks his hand into every single sticky, brown-bag-sack lunch. After 43 long, grueling minutes of him bathing himself in the city’s waste, he gives up. Defeated. Drenched in sweat and God knows what else. He sees my tear-stained face.
“My daughter smiles. I stare at the giant hole, front and center in her mouth. Her top front tooth is half gone.”
“I basically threw up 35 years of my own money trauma into her lap.”
“So sorry, kid,” he says, assuming I’m crying over the retainer.
My mom digs into her purse and hands him four dollars. FOUR dollars. He doesn’t flinch, nods, and walks down the alley, quickly ducking into a liquor store.
“NO!” I bark at my mother. “Give him more money. Give him what he deserves!”
“Nicole, it was either the four singles or a whole twenty-dollar bill.”
“Give him the twenty!” My hysteria is at an all-time high.
“If he had found the retainer I would have given him the twenty. Besides, what does it matter? Didn’t you see him go right into that liquor shop?”
I was out of control. I could do nothing to help this man. And I was too linguistically unsophisticated to explain to my mother how incredibly inhumane she was acting.
Cut to today. I leave my apartment, oddly a block and a half away from the apartment in which I grew up. (So much for “movin’ on up.”) I pull out of our alley, you know, our backyard, and head to pick up my eight-year-old daughter from her best friend’s house. (And by “house” I mean villa. Complete with guest house, pool, yard, and house staff.) North of Montana. Go figure.
I walk in on the whole family sitting down to a home-cooked meal. (Courtesy of Mr. Belvedere. Obviously.) My daughter greets me with a tight-lipped smile. The mother jumps right in, “So, there was a little accident today, and your daughter cracked her tooth on the pool wall.” My daughter smiles. I stare at the giant hole, front and center in her mouth. Her top front tooth is half gone. This is no baby tooth. This is the tooth she needs to hold onto for the rest of her life.
“I, uh, I…” I’m speechless due to the rage that is consuming me.
“It’ll be fine,” the dad jumps in. “Just a little fixer-upper.”
“Nope. Not really.” I snap. “That’s going to be a very expensive tooth.” I can see the thousands and thousands of dollars spent over the next twenty years as the caps keep falling out. My daughter’s eyes swell with tears. I continue to berate her in front of the Keatons: “This is not okay! What were you thinking? We can’t afford this.” I keep repeating myself, just like my own history seems to do.
The parents see my humiliated daughter. The mother rushes to her aid. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry, honey.”
“Actually,” my voice reaches the highest decibels, “It won’t be fine. We can’t afford little fixer-uppers. Some of us don’t live north of Montana.”
And with that—silence. Even Mr. Belvedere puts down the carrots he was julienning. I grab my kid from the table. “I hope your pool is okay.”
I march out, my daughter in tow, and collapse into our 2008 hand-me-down Hyundai. She is crying so hard she can’t see clearly enough to fasten her seatbelt. I take a breath. See my crying twelve-year-old self in her. I feel like shit. I lean back to help her with the seatbelt. Something I haven’t had to do for her in years. I stop and stare at her face. Still round with youth. I touch her cheek reassuringly. We drive home in silence.
Hours later I text the mom: “So sorry you had to witness my meltdown over the financial stress I’m under. So embarrassed your family had to be subjected to my neuroses.” I couldn’t even be direct in my apology. It was too hard. She sent a nice text back the next day, saying she understood. But nothing has been the same since. Pick-ups and drop-offs with the girls are terribly awkward and strained. I don’t blame her. I basically threw up 35 years of my own money trauma into her lap.
There is only one thing I can do. I talk to my daughter. “I’m sorry I embarrassed you. I was out of control in front of your friend’s family. I have issues with money. And perfect teeth. My issues go way back. WAY back. I’m 12 years old. The summer after seventh grade. Week two of drama camp. I get my braces off. I soar from a 2 to a solid 5 on the tween hotness scale. I mean, I’m no Kelly Kapowski …”
“Nevermind. What’s important is that we don’t live south of Wilshire Boulevard. God Forbid.”
For more information on Nicole Blaine or to see her perform stand-up: www.NicoleBlaine.com