“I don’t want to eat turkey meatballs. It’s Sunday. I have grilled cheese for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. Meatballs are on Wednesday and they’re regular meatballs. Tell her, Mom. Made with beef, Katie. Not turkey.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake … Katie. Can’t you just … put whatever that is away and make your brother a damn grilled cheese sandwich? Can’t you see that I’m busy here.” Candace hissed as she practically twisted her ankle from all that strutting across the kitchen floor, barely balancing herself in the most ridiculously tall stilettos I’d seen her attempt in a very long time.
Click clack, click clack.
Tossing an assortment of items—car keys, house keys, cell phone, a huge wad of paper napkins—into her latest designer handbag, Candace barely even looked over in my direction. “Don’t worry, Parker. Katie’s going to make you that grilled cheese,” she promised.
“No way, I just made this,” I protested, slapping a pot holder against the granite counter top for emphasis. “You have got to be kidding me, Candace. Someone could have said something this whole time. You’re both acting like you had no idea I’ve been in this kitchen the entire—”
“MOM!!! Make Katie cook grilled cheese! NOW!” Parker howled up towards the ceiling, completely immersed in his own world. “Grilled cheese is Sunday lunch food. Today is SUNDAY!”
My mother sighed. “See what you’ve done, Katie? Parker, I just told her!” Her eyes softened with a slight hint of compassion often reserved just for Parker, for a moment, before they grew harsh and cold as she glowered in my direction. “Katie. Do something!” she snapped as if I should have known better than to rattle’s Parker’s cage.
I wanted to tell her that she was grossly underestimating Parker. He had been working very hard to extinguish some of his more attention seeking behaviors—especially now that he was being mainstreamed this school year. The world wasn’t made of people willing to swap turkey balls for grilled cheese, just because he wanted it that way, and he was capable of handling that fact.
Utterly frustrated, I looked away from the platter I had decorated with perfectly rounded bits of ground turkey seasoned in peppercorn and teriyaki sauce and tried my best to shoot Candace the most disapproving, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me look that I could possibly hope to muster.
If my words hadn’t appealed to her better self, maybe a death-stare would.
But unfortunately, my attempt at non-verbal communication seemingly failed to launch. Candace was far too preoccupied toying with the heel of her left shoe. “Do you think these give me too much height?” she asked, absentmindedly. “I don’t want to show up to the club looking like a God-awful giraffe!”
Typical. Candace was too preoccupied to notice that my fifteen-year-old brother was on the brink of a full-on nuclear meltdown, one that could have easily been avoided, had she at least made a better effort to work with him on anything. How could he truly learn all that his teachers and BCBA were trying to help him with if Candace just gave in to every one of Parker’s hiccups all the time?
Or if, at the very least, she had warned me that Parker was having one of his rumbly days, I could have done my part to work with him.
“Parker, we have these very tasty … very delicious meatballs,” I restated, my tone lowering to a deeper—and hopefully more authoritative—register. “I cooked them extra crispy, just how you’ve always liked them—”
“Wednesday meatballs are made with beef,” he replied with the same deadpan tone and exactitude, unwilling to budge just the slightest and meet me halfway.
“And they’re crispy with teriyaki sauce too,” I said, trying to smoothly gloss over his dismissal. “Parker, we talked about flexibility. Sometimes we need to deviate from the plan, and that’s okay. Besides, it’s not okay to waste food. You understand that, don’t you? Wasting food is not okay. There are children, all over the world, who wish they had food just like this.”
“You don’t know any of those children definitively. Mom, tell Katie that she doesn’t know that. That’s conjecture. You have no empirical evidence—”
“You wouldn’t want to waste food that poor children would just love so terribly much to eat, would you?” I asked again, only this time losing control over the pitch of my voice.
“I … DON’T … WANT … MEATBALLS!!! IT’S … SUNDAY!!!” he bellowed.
It was so angry, deafening and terrifying, that I instinctively cowered, digging my fingernails deep into the palms of my hands to keep myself from screaming back at him in return. I then watched, speechlessly, as he began to rock back and forth, balanced precariously on the balls of his feet, in a rash, unstoppable frenzy.
“GRILLED … CHEESE! IT’S SUNDAY!” Parker repeated his angry mantra, over and over and over again, his rocking becoming angrier. More violent and unpredictable. I had to do something, fast.
I looked to our mother for some semblance of guidance, support, but was met only by her silence. At least she was no longer fixated on the heel of her shoe. She shrugged her shoulders helplessly, and I knew she really didn’t know what to do.
“Katie,” she pleaded.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I took a deep breath and silently counted to ten. This was not going well at all. 10 … 9 … 8 …
Peeking one eye open, I glanced back at our mother who just stood there helplessly.
4 … 3 … 2 …
After I reached zero, I promptly embraced Parker, taking him completely into my arms as I bore the bulk of my weight against his body. Pressure always soothed him, and even though he absolutely despised receiving hugs from most people, I was one of the only few that Parker would allow to hold him in that manner. Sure, it was risky when he was trapped inside of himself like this. I could have easily ended up with a fat lip, black eye, or worse. But I had to do something.
I breathed a short sigh of relief the moment Parker burrowed his head into the nook of my shoulder, humming softly to himself. Gently, I rocked us both back and forth in a much calmer, much smoother, motion, both feet planted solidly on the ground. Meltdowns like this rarely happened anymore. And something about Candace’s evasive behavior told me that it may have had more to do with our recent family problems, and less to do with the contents of his lunch.
Still holding Parker tight, my gaze gently wandered over to the nearby kitchen window.
The eldest son, Jude Bergeron, of our next-door neighbors, slowly paced up and down their front yard (all six-and-a-half-feet of him), hunched over a leaf blower, as he tended to the lawn himself.
I smiled a little bit.
Candace often made derisive comments about the Bergeron family and how they always DIY-ed their own household chores, never hiring outside help. But I thought the Bergeron’s were very nice people, especially Maggie, Jude’s mom. I specifically remember this one time a couple of years back, when Parker was lost in a similar meltdown on our front yard. Maggie saw him from her window, ran over, and managed to calm him instantly. She then invited us both over for ginger snaps and lemonade, Parker’s favorite snack. He must have told her that detail at some point and Maggie had remembered it, saving the day.
She was so full of it—we weren’t even that rich. When I told people at school where we were from, they automatically assumed our home was some sort of twenty-first-century palace—like one of the mansions you might drive past on North Street or Round Hill Road. But we lived near the center of town, closer to the train station, and our home more closely resembled a middle-class street, complete with middle-class homes.
Well, to be fair, maybe more upper middle class.
Noticing that I was watching him, my arms still firmly wrapped around my brother, Jude smiled and waved over at me.
“Oh for God’s sake, Katie!” Candace spat, finally able to say something comprehensible now that Parker was noticeably calm. “Would it have killed you to make your brother a grilled cheese sandwich? You could have avoided all of … that.”
“That?” I let go of Parker who quietly walked over to sit at the table, by himself. “It’s called a meltdown, Candace.”
“I really don’t need to hear about all that ABA stuff.”
“ABA stuff? Well, it’s not all that technical. What I just did over there had little to do with a set program. You know you could do a bit more to get to know and understand your son.”
“It’s Blanca’s day off,” she interrupted, completely bypassing anything I had just said. “Something about a visiting niece from Mexico. Now Blanca’s somewhere off in, oh I don’t know, Port Chester. Or Stamford. One of those places. I’ve told you all this! She usually handles it. You don’t have to stand there, looking at me all judgmental.” Candace then paused in mid-sentence, as if she had suddenly remembered something so incredibly significant, that none of what she had just said mattered. Delving deeply throughout her handbag in a terrible frenzy, she began murmuring, indecipherable, under her breath as she flung the bag’s contents onto the kitchen table.
“Candace. Are you okay?”
She suddenly looked up from her handbag, then at me, disoriented. Almost as if recognizing for the first time that I had been standing there. “I left my pills over there on the counter. Oh, darn it. Katie, be a dear and hand me that bottle. It’s right next to the fruit bowl.” She laughed. “Of all places! And to think I almost left this place without them.”
More pills? I sighed, crossed over to the opposite end of the counter from where I stood, and retrieved the orange plastic bottle that sat beside a bundle of bananas and lone peach. “Port Chester and Stamford are in two completely different states. And Blanca’s Peruvian, not Mexican.” I corrected. “Not everyone who speaks Spanish is Mexican, that’s just so racist and you ought to know better. Blanca’s been with our family for years now. Don’t you think you should have a little more respect for her culture and who she is?”
Candace shrugged. “I didn’t realize I was getting a visit today from the PC police.”
“Really? Come on, you’re better than this.” Bottle in hand, I scrutinized every word printed on its label, and then I looked back up at her. “Should you even be taking these?” I asked. “Aren’t these painkillers? Didn’t the doctor give these to you when you were suffering from those back spasms? That was over two months ago.”
She let out a sudden sharp laugh and shot me this positively incredulous look—as if I had fallen and hit my dumb little head on the marble-tiled kitchen floor. “Katie. It’s just a little something I take from time to time. Never mind what they’re for. That’s between Dr. Madison and me. Doctor/patient confidentiality.”
“If they’re just something you take from time to time then why were you on the brink of having a panic attack when you couldn’t find them just now?” I asked pointedly.
When would she ever learn that happiness can’t be found at the bottom of a bottle, regardless of its size?
“Hand them over. I’m already running late.” She snapped her fingers, twice, demandingly reaching out with her open palm.
There was no point in arguing with her. There never was. Reluctantly, I handed over the pills.
“Thank you,” she curtly replied. “Don’t wait up for me. I have a dinner thing later, after the club.” She said the club with such smug bravado. We weren’t members. But on the rare occasion someone she was dating happened to be a member, my mother carried herself around as if a larger-than-life diamond encrusted tiara had been permanently cemented onto her head.
“Don’t worry. I won’t wait up.”
“Hugh is taking me to Shippan. On his boat,” she continued to brag. “If your father calls about anything—which is doubtful from Germany, but you never know with him—don’t tell him about Hugh. Ugh. Your father is such a hypocrite. It’s perfectly fine for him to have that … that under-age Euro-trash at his side.”
“Aliana is a speech pathologist. She isn’t trash. You shouldn’t be referring to anyone as trash.” I never thought I’d find myself defending the new girlfriend, but Candace was clearly going overboard. “And she’s an adult.”
“Fine,” I grumbled. “I won’t say anything.”
“One more thing. Drop Parker off at Andrew’s house later, by six. They’re having a get-together. Andrew’s mom is all autism awareness obsessed. Danica can come across as so obnoxious sometimes, but your father seems to think it’s good for Parker’s morale to have friends, you know, like him. If Danica’s willing to put up with that crew, who am I to stop her? And again, if your father calls, just tell him … I don’t know, that I’m asleep. Or just make something up. That would be wonderful. Okay?”
“You got it.” I folded my arms defensively against my chest.
“Well, I’m off.” She paused. “How do I look, Katie?”
Her eyes widened as they looked directly into mine, expectantly. I took a few moments to look at her—really look at her—and admittedly, Candace appeared flawless as always. On the outside. Her chicest (and most expensive) little black dress clung to her seamlessly, and her eyes, piercing and blue, would have appeared so impossibly beautiful and striking, had they not always looked so impossibly mean.
“You look very pretty,” I complimented. Now, if you could only work a wee bit on the inside.
“These meatballs aren’t so bad after all.”
Finally breaking his block of silence, Parker, who was at that point incredibly serene, was still sitting at the kitchen table and working on what looked like his fifth meatball.
“Pretty?” The word fell from her mouth like something putrid and undesirable that managed to cross paths with unwilling taste buds. “That’s the best you can come up with? Not stunning? Gorgeous?”
I remained silent, refusing to feed any more into my mother’s inherent vanity. That did not sit too well with her. I could tell.
“Well. Don’t wait up.” She huffed, obviously miffed by my slight. She then spun around on her heels and headed out. But just as she reached the doorway, Candace abruptly paused, as if something had unexpectedly amusing had occurred to her. Glancing over one shoulder, glaring directly at me, she added, “Oh, and Katie?”
“Yes?” I hesitantly asked. Candace always had to have the final word.
“There are veggies in the fridge, in case you’d like to prepare a salad for dinner.” Her lips then twisted themselves into an almost sinister, grin. Motioning toward her own flat abdomen, she continued. “I noticed you’re getting a bit … fat in this section. You may want to pay attention to that. It’s unbecoming. Maybe your graduate school friends are fine with it, but that type of thing won’t go unnoticed here in Greenwich. Keep going in that direction, and some the neighbors might start mistaking you for a nanny. Or cleaning lady.”
I held my breath and counted, again, before responding. There were so many wrong, dysfunctional implications within that statement. I couldn’t let it slide this time.
“You know what? That’s not an insult. And I’m proud to work and pick up the slack where you and Father couldn’t even bother—”
But she was gone before I could finish, slamming the back door behind her for emphasis.
I kept my arms still folded across my tightening chest and sighed. I didn’t even know where to begin.
She hadn’t always been like this. Not that my mother was exactly what one might call a compassionate, empathetic person. But I could still remember a time when hers was a voice much kinder, more human, not one drowning in perpetual anger and prejudice. There was no doubt about it. Candace had gotten worse. Much worse. And I was starting to believe that there might be no end to it in sight.
It had all started to spiral out of control within the last year, right around the time my parents finally decided to divorce. Well, not divorce, technically. Separate. Which was fine, considering neither one of them seemed to believe in being basically civil toward one another while they were together. I couldn’t remember an argument between the two of them that didn’t involve hurling the most vicious of insults at one another. And during one particularly volatile altercation, a crystal vase, an antique that had once belonged to my great-grandmother, was sent flying across the living room. I can still recall the deafening sound of it crashing above the fireplace—narrowly missing my mother’s head—before shattering into hundreds of pieces.
When my parents had finally decided that it was time to literally place the Atlantic Ocean between them (my father moved to Munich for work-related purposes), both Parker and I were incredibly relieved. Not that my father ever hurt either one of us, his children. Father’s anger had always been clearly directed at her. Still, the unmistakable unhappiness that had pervaded our home for years had inevitably taken a toll on each one of us. So even though Candace was arguably in a better place without him, she still couldn’t seem to find peace. If anything, everything that had transpired post-separation seemed to have made her even angrier. And Candace often dealt with her anger in one of three ways: drinking, pills, and shopping.
For as far as I could remember, my mother had always been an incurable shopaholic. She had one of those tragic tendencies to mistake accumulating objects for obtaining actual happiness. She just had to fill her inner void, somehow, with the latest in designer shoes, handbags, cosmetics, jewelry, wall décor, throw pillows … anything one could ever want. With each swipe of the credit card, you could literally see the adrenaline rush throughout her hundred-pound body, pulsating throughout her veins, setting her bulging eyes on fire.
Within the last six months or so, all that untethered turmoil and rage had boiled over to an almost perilous degree. It seemed as if her unchecked penchant for self-medicating, shooting rapid-fire disparaging comments, and ostentatious spending displays had spiraled to epic proportions.
The more Candace spent, the more bills poured in. The more she reached for a bottle of anything.
Money problems followed.
The first real clue that we were headed for some seriously uncharted territory had occurred about a week earlier when I’d been called into the bursar’s office. My first-semester grad school tuition payment had declined, and both of my parents were going out of their way to evade the school’s phone calls and emails.
“I don’t understand,” I weakly offered the assistant bursar as I stared helplessly at the unpaid bill, overwhelmed by the extensive amount of numbers that looked back up at me. Four, five month’s rent worth of numbers. “There should be plenty of money in both their accounts. We … my family … doesn’t have money trouble.”
But there wasn’t enough money for my tuition, and we did have money trouble. My father ignored all my emails, calls, and texts. Later during the week when I confronted Candace to find out what was going on, she was completely evasive. She rushed me off the phone and claimed to be late for one of her dinners (if you could call a bottle of red wine paired with a side dish of mesclun greens drizzled in lemon juice dinner).
So, I did what any quick-thinking, self-respecting new graduate student would do. Since any loan I could apply for wouldn’t kick in until the next semester—currently leaving me on the hook for owing close to nine grand—I answered an online Nanny Wanted ad for a spot located way up in the Hudson River Valley and hoped for the best.
It was the secret no one talked about. When my father finally stopped avoiding me, he never addressed the topic—not once. And the last thing Candace wanted was for her friends to find out that her MBA-bound daughter was a babysitter, hence her biting fat nanny comment. And I knew she wouldn’t have even asked me to come back home for the weekend, had Blanca, or even Patrick (Parker’s BCBA) been around. Even earlier that day when I had reached the Greenwich train station, I had kept my eyes averted, silently praying that no one would recognize me. I had made sure to arrive early enough in the morning so that my mother’s friends would most likely either still be asleep, or off at spin class. With the very little cash I had in my wallet, I rode a taxi home, even though our house was only a ten-minute walk away from Greenwich Ave.
“Well?” Parker asked, finally snapping me out of it.
I sadly looked away from the empty kitchen doorway and refocused my full attention toward my brother. No longer sobbing or glowing several shades of purple and red, he stared up at me in serene silence. Whatever storm had been brewing in Parker’s inner world had dissipated completely as he finished off those meatballs. Or perhaps all his strife had simply sailed beyond and right out of that house, with her.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Are you going to make grilled cheese, or not? I finished the meatballs, which were good by the way, but I’m still hungry. Still hungry.” At that point, it was more of an earnest whimper of a question on his part, more than anything else. “I still like beef meatballs better, but these were good and you should be proud of yourself for not screwing them up.”
He can’t help it, I reminded myself. This is just how his mind works. There was no possible way I could even begin to imagine what the world must have looked like through his eyes. The chaos and anger. Complete disappointment and frustration. And to think, I had been away at school for almost an entire month. What else had Parker seen and heard while I’d been away?
“Well I’m very glad to see you finished the meatballs for lunch because we don’t waste food,” I firmly reminded him, clearly stating each word slowly for emphasis. “But, Parker, look.”
Immediately, maybe because she was no longer there to distract me, I knew exactly what to do. I ran over to the fridge and unhooked the mini whiteboard Blanca kept attached to the freezer door, just for moments like these. It was for one of many strategies that Patrick had taught her. I had learned a lot just by watching them both.
Taking a green dry erase marker, I quickly scribbled down some simple, step-by-step directions, drawing a box next to each one.
“First eat the meatballs.” I checked off that box. “And you just did that. But look. You’re still hungry, so we can be flexible. First meatballs, then we can have a healthy snack, like yogurt, instead. That will be second. After the snack, you can play video games. Then dinner—I’ll make us grilled cheese sandwiches. With bacon slices, just how you like it. That’ll be fourth. We’re going to do a switcheroo, just for today. Sunday grilled cheese for dinner, instead of lunch. Then sleepover. That’s the last box. Here,” I handed Parker the marker. “You can check off each box after we complete each step. You can even hold onto the marker, throughout the day if you want. You know? To keep an eye on it. Got it? Does that make sense?”
Parker blankly stared down at the whiteboard, as if absorbing, processing, the familiar and logical system. First/Then. Maybe not so neat and tidy, but I also wanted Parker to be able to organize his activities in a series of multiple steps. Anxious, I bit down hard on my lip, silently praying he’d respond to the checklist.
Nodding his head in agreement, he finally said, “Okay, Katie.” And he even attempted a small smile! “Grilled cheese for dinner. But you have to use American for the grilled cheese. Not Swiss. Okay? American. Okay? And … don’t burn the bacon. That tastes bad. It should be crispy, but not burnt.”
I quietly smiled at Parker in response, allowing myself a few seconds to take it all in. It was the kind of moment where I just wanted to give my brother a huge and loving bear hug, or playfully ruffle his thick tresses of wavy black hair. But I knew better. The sensation of touching his hair bothered Parker, immensely. Even a simple trip to the barber for a haircut often turned into a huge ordeal. And I could tell by his stiffening posture that we had already reached our Katie/Parker hug-quotient for the day.
“Okay, buddy,” I finally said, reaching into the cupboard for Parker’s favorite bowl and spoon combo—souvenirs purchased several years back at a Pennsylvania train museum. “We have blueberries and that gluten-free granola you seem to like. Now, what flavor yogurt should we go for? Strawberry or vanilla?”