Imagine the relief your feet finally feel when they nail that complex tap sequence. Or the relief you feel when ‘we need to talk’ doesn’t spell the end of your relationship. Or maybe your blood test has just come back and it turns out your life isn’t in any immediate danger. Add it all up and you might come close to how I feel leaving my last high school exam.
But, as always, there’s a downside: the feeling won’t last long. A quick lap of my cardiovascular system, and then bam – the illusion of success is shattered.
You see, Mother Dearest has always thought me to be a disappointing daughter, on account of how I’m kind of lacking in the Department of Scientific Aptitude. As such, I struggle with what she terms ‘the simple scientific basis for the conditioning of the universe’ – what your average person calls ‘science’. The phrase ‘simple scientific’ seems oxymoronic to me. As for ‘the conditioning of the universe’ – that’s just moronic.
She claims she just wants me to have a promising and successful future, so maybe it’s a tad unfair of me to ignore the splashes of colour that make her human. She has a very narrow definition of ‘successful’, though, and funnily enough, the criteria are basically everything she’s ever done. It’s difficult to separate her selfless aspirations for me from her selfish desire for a clone.
Her voice swirls out of her bedroom as soon as I step onto the upstairs landing after arriving home from my last exam.
‘Hi, sweetie,’ she says in a tone of vague condescension. ‘How was your exam?’ ‘Not great,’ I say, dropping my schoolbag inside my bedroom door and kicking off my T-bars. I use the side of my foot to kick them further under the bed, into oblivion. ‘Chemistry and I don’t mix well. But it’s over now.’
I figured she’d be waiting for me to return so she could follow me into my bedroom and interrogate me about the exam. Which she does.
‘What do you mean, not great?’ she asks, her feet planted on my shadow’s head. She leans on the frame and folds her arms across her chest. ‘What did they test?’ Without fail, she’s asked that question after every exam I’ve ever taken. I sit on my bed and rattle off a few of the questions I’ve memorised for this exact reason. ‘Oh, but that’s easy,’ says my mother after one of them. ‘That’s just asking about the molecular structure of different carboxylic acids. It was the first point on the syllabus.’
‘I know the question,’ I say. ‘It was the answer I didn’t know.’
‘Watch your attitude, please, Jennifer. If you had actually applied yourself, you might not have had this problem.’
And what ensues is her usual lecture on how my scathing remarks need to be toned down, how I should treat people with more respect, how frustrating it is that I don’t use the brains God has given me, blah, blah, blah. To be honest, I’m just assuming that’s what she’s talking about: once she mentions ‘applying myself’, I tune out. Excuse me for not working my arse off to study things I don’t care about. I mean, I could, but I’d rather focus my time and energy on stuff that either a) is interesting or b) I could feasibly use outside of an exam.
Instead of listening, I focus my energy on trying to decide which book I’ll read first in my new-found free time. I have three weeks to relax before they release our results and I find out how poorly I’ve done. And three months to work out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.
An eternity later, Mother Dearest finishes ranting and suggests I go to help Dad set up the new TV cabinet. As unappealing as the idea of physical labour is, it is infinitely more interesting than hearing about the downfalls of my existence.
I trot down the stairs and head into the front lounge, where my dad is sliding a TV unit against the wall.
He turns to smile at me. ‘Hey, Jen. How was the exam?’
‘Don’t even talk to me,’ I say.
‘That bad, huh?’
I raise my eyebrows and he laughs.
‘Help me with the TV, will you?’
I can’t see why he bought this new cinema system in the first place. Apparently there’s nothing better to spend thousands of dollars on. And because the new TV won’t fit on the old corner unit, he spent a further three hundred on a new wall unit, just to top it off.
My dad crouches at one end and grasps the edge of the screen and I mirror him at the other. The television is almost taller than me, but I manage to lift it with relative ease.
‘I don’t know where you get your strength from, my girl,’ my dad says.
I’m actually not that strong, it’s just relative to my height. I’m a good four inches shorter than Dad – and he isn’t exactly André the Giant. ‘Well, it certainly wasn’t from you.’
‘How dare you!’
My dad is one of those weird parental specimens capable of being your friend without being condescending. He knows how to draw the line between authoritative and authoritarian, and he earns respect and trust without demanding it. He’s a dork, but a superstar.
We put the TV on the unit and shift it until we’re satisfied that it’s centred. Dad sighs and wipes his brow as though he has just run a marathon.
The front door opens and my brother Aaron bounds into the room. He’s fourteen years old and looks a lot like me. We both have Dad’s pale, rounded face and Mum’s blue eyes. But Aaron’s ash-blond hair tapers around his ears and neck whereas mine is chestnut brown and sort of swirls in these little curls down to my collarbone. Aaron was less than an inch shorter than me for a long time, but he’s just started his latest growth spurt and is starting to get away from me. ‘Nice of you to join us,’ I say.
‘It’s an absolute pleasure to be here,’ he says. Sarcasm is contagious. ‘That’s not centred,’ he adds, nodding towards the TV.
‘You fix it, then,’ I say. And – I’m not even kidding – he pulls a tape measure from his schoolbag and says the TV is off by about an inch. Seriously, who cares? His attention to detail does, however, aid his exceptional artistic ability. He spends most of his time painting or drawing in his room. Some of his portraits are hanging in the dining room. They’re regularly mistaken for photographs.
Aaron uses his tape measure and some complicated-looking mathematical formulas (though it’s equally possible they are very simple equations) to find the perfect location for the furniture – ‘We need to maximise attractiveness, symmetry and floor usability’ – and finally finds a layout he is content with. While all this is going on, I curl up on one of the couches to read, my arms aching. I assume that once Aaron is done we have finished, but Dad busies himself with the tangle of cables and plugs that make the sound system work. Aaron grabs a palette from his bedroom and starts mixing paints.
‘Aaron,’ says Dad slowly. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Well,’ says Aaron, ‘the new cabinet is a different colour to the old one, which throws off the artistic balance of the room.’ I roll my eyes. ‘I’m trying to make the walls match the new furniture.’
It takes several hours but finally, the speakers, TV and Blu-ray player are all functional, and our budding interior designer has decided on the exact shade he wants to paint the walls: a kind of silvery blue. ‘Blue Fox,’ he calls it.
After telling Aaron he’d discuss the painting idea with Mum, Dad grabs a beer from the fridge and sinks into the vacant space next to me, proud of his work. I love my dad but after any form of physical activity, nobody wants to be near him because a pungent sweat stream invariably soaks his skin. He turns the TV on to the evening news and stares at the screen, his smell making it difficult for me to concentrate on my book.
The front door opens again and my mother enters. I hadn’t even realised she’d left. She comes into the lounge room, kisses my Dad and ruffles Aaron’s hair on her way past. Aaron grimaces; his hair is off limits – he puts a lot of effort into his ‘just got out of bed’ look.
‘The room looks great,’ she says to nobody in particular, and then turns to Dad. ‘But you need a shower.’ As his sweat dried, the smell slowly faded, but the room still has a far-from-pleasant odour. He salutes and heads upstairs.
‘Where did you go?’ Aaron asks Mum as she sits in the now-vacant space beside me.
‘I had to go and fill out some paperwork,’ she says. ‘One of my patients was taken off life support today.’
‘Are you okay?’ Aaron says. ‘Are the family?’
She shrugs. ‘These things happen.’
‘But they shouldn’t,’ Aaron mumbles.
I’m kind of glad I’m not directly involved in this conversation, because I’m not really sure what I’d say. It’s really sad. Mum’s probably used to it, though. As used to it as you can be, at least. She’s a trauma surgeon in this huge hospital in the city, so often her patients wake up in the morning with no idea that by the end of the day they’ll end up in hospital, half way between life and death. And when they don’t pull through, it’s usually pretty devastating. I guess that’s one of the reasons she gets so frustrated with me: if she can’t make everything okay, what chance do I have?
Before I started VCE, my marks were pretty good. Not so great that I was winning any academic awards, but I was comfortably passing all of my subjects. Mother Dearest was so proud of her little family: Dad’s a litigation lawyer, so he’s also a brainiac; Aaron is incredibly artistic and has a brilliant mathematical mind; and I showed ‘so much potential’. But once it came time to pick VCE subjects, Mother Dearest apparently forgot that a) I am not her and b) I do not share her interests, so she made me study English, because it’s compulsory, and the four nightmare subjects: Maths Methods, Chemistry, Biology and Physics. My problem with this course is not so much that it’s too difficult, but that the subjects themselves are about as interesting to me as counting the blades of grass in a field. Well, admittedly, I quite like English, but according to Mother Dearest, a decent mark in that does not balance out mediocre results in my other subjects.
It’s not like I pride myself on not meeting her standards of intelligence. I don’t think I’m dumb. But maths and science, the things my mother values, just don’t interest me. I don’t see the purpose of learning how electrons interact with each other and outside the classroom there’s no point in me knowing how to derive logarithmic functions. Sure, they might be useful in some jobs, but they’re not likely to be jobs that I’ll ever have because that kind of stuff just doesn’t interest me, which makes it hard to find the motivation to ‘apply myself’. So instead I just aimed to pass my other subjects and focused the majority of my energy on English. There’s no rigid structure in English – there’s room for interpretation and creativity and critical thinking. It gives my brain a much better workout than memorising formulas and rules.
I tried explaining that to Mum a few times during the year, but apparently I was taking the ‘easy way out’ and being lazy and not letting myself reach my full potential. ‘You used to be so good at school!’ she’d say.
Dad orders pizzas for dinner and Aaron gets them from the delivery guy. Dad grabs another beer and I pour myself a glass of orange juice. I fully intend to spike it with a shot or two of vodka to celebrate the end of my exams, but I’m interrupted before my fingers have even closed around the bottle.
‘Excuse me, young lady. You don’t need to be drinking alcohol.’
‘I’m eighteen,’ I say. I just finished my exams – surely I can have one drink. ‘Why not?’
‘It’s not a good example to be setting for your brother,’ she says coldly.
‘Do you know how many teenagers come into the ER with alcohol poisoning?’
‘It’s one glass . . .’
‘Your brain is still developing. Didn’t you study the effects of alcohol on brain cells in class?’
‘Yes,’ I mumble.
‘Then you know the damage it can cause. I know you think I’m being harsh, but it’s really in your own best interest. I see it far too often in people far too young. Your future is too bright to throw it away for a quick buzz.’
Aaron is picking at his nails, trying not to laugh, having far too much fun at my peril. We’ve both heard the lecture a million times before. He’s fully aware that if he cracks and laughs out loud, the attention will be on him. Mum gives him a sideways glance, a warning, and continues with a case study of a teenager she’d treated for alcohol poisoning. I remain silent as I hear all about stomach pumps, catheters and IV drips.
‘Is that something you’d really like to experience?’ she demands.
Eventually, Mum ends her lecture and thanks the Lord for our meal, so I grab two slices of pizza, put them on my plate and announce that I’ll be in my room with my pizza and vodka-less juice.
As I trudge up the stairs, I hear Dad say, ‘You don’t think you’re being a little harsh on her, Lauren?’
‘No, I don’t. She needs to . . .’ But exactly what I need to do, I’m too far away to hear. I’m sure it’s something along the lines of me changing my personality or accepting that she is always right. ‘Jen needs to apply herself’ is inevitably the tagline.
I just want to stay in my room for a week, now. I had planned to spend the evening with my family, maybe playing a board game or watching a film or something. It seems kind of odd to say, since we live together, but a catch-up seems long overdue. In the lead-up to my exams I was a bit of a hermit; I read over my English notes every day, read a bunch of books about India’s political system to give myself the best shot at a brilliant essay on The White Tiger and wrote a million practice essays. I want to make more of an effort with my family over the summer, now that school is done. Maybe help Mum get to know me a little better . . . She has this idea of Jen, Her Daughter in her mind and I want to show her that I am much more than just her DNA.
I want to be strong, show her that I am going to be okay. That I am still a good daughter. That I still add something to the family. I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling. Maybe gravity will keep the tears in my eyes. It’s only crying if the tears actually fall, right?
But the effort to keep myself from crying only makes it worse. What should have been silent streaks of emotion slipping down my cheek quickly turn into sobs that convulse my entire body. I shift to the edge of my bed and push my brow into the heels of my palms, staring between my knees. Desperate to keep quiet, I watch a few tears drop onto the carpet, but my vision quickly blurs and the blockage in my nose distracts me.
Eventually, I know, I’ll have to put in an effort – I can’t hide in my room forever – but tonight I am far too tired, far too teary and have heard far too many slights for one day. To be fair, I don’t think Mum means to upset me. I don’t even think she realises how I feel.
Nothing she said was particularly harsh. And she didn’t say it with contempt; she spoke very matter-of-factly.
And I think that's what hurts the most.
For the next hour, I cycle through a loop. I calm myself down, wipe my tears and remember to breathe. A minute or two passes before I remember how disappointing I am, my facial muscles tremble trying to keep it in and I end up back in a sob.
Maybe I actually am a disappointment. I can’t see a how high school English will get me a job. Will I ever have a satisfying career? Will I be able to support myself? On my bed, my phone buzzes, interrupting my self-pity. The text message reads, ‘Look up.’
A face peers at me through my bedroom window, framed by the furious glow of the sunset. I allow myself a little smile, wipe my eyes once more and slide the window open. Elliot Carter pushes the flyscreen from the frame and climbs into my room. He doesn’t say a word, he just hugs me tight.
Elliot has lived two houses down for as long as I can remember. He started school a year later than most people, so though we were in the same classes all through high school, he is nearly a year older than me.
He breaks the hug and moves me to arm’s length. ‘You need to talk about it?’ He stares right into my eyes, his gaze unfaltering.
‘It’s nothing you haven’t heard before,’ I say. ‘Just me being a pathetic human.’ I lower myself onto the edge of my bed and Elliot sprawls himself in the centre. ‘What did she say this time?’
‘That’s the thing – nothing unusual. Just more of how I’m terrible because I don’t like the things she likes.’
‘Did she say that?’
‘Not in as many words.’
Elliot murmurs thoughtfully, as though trying to figure out what to say next. ‘What exactly are you worried about, though? She thinks the arts are lesser than the sciences – so what?’
‘I’m worried she’s right.’
He sits up rigid. ‘You know that’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said, right?’
‘Not really. Think about it: I’m not going to make enough money to support myself with what I want to study, even assuming I get really good marks. It’s pretty hard to be a successful, self-reliant adult if you can’t afford to live.’ I pick at my thumbnail as I speak, avoiding eye contact.
He puts his hands on my shoulders. ‘You’re overthinking things.’ His voice soothes my anxious jitters. ‘You’re tying your self-worth up in a few little comments. Which aren’t even accurate, for the record.’
‘I just feel like I’m destined to be a burden on anybody stupid enough to love me.’ Elliot removes his hands and crosses his legs. ‘You’re not a burden on anybody.’ By this point, I have stopped crying, which is lucky on account of how my door swings open and Mum enters the room unannounced.
‘Jennifer, you have a . . . Oh, hi, Elliot. I didn’t know you were here.’ She shoots me a Look of Doom, which says a million different things all at once. ‘This door should be open.’
‘Sorry, Dr Janson, I closed it. Won’t happen again.’ Being the smart boy that he is, Elliot often addresses my mother with her honorific title. It regularly earns him brownie points.
‘Yes, well. Jennifer, Dylan is here.’
I look past her and see no sign of him. In the silence, I hear his obnoxious laughter booming from downstairs. Mum stares at me.
‘Are you going to go and greet him?’
‘Just tell him to come up here,’ I say. I’m kind of annoyed he’s here, to be honest. Mum gives a little sigh and heads back downstairs.
‘I should go,’ says Elliot, already on his feet. ‘Leave the two of you to it.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ I say. ‘I don’t want you to go.’
‘It won’t end well if I stay.’
But Elliot can’t reply. Dylan stomps up the stairs, and he calls out to me before he’s even reached the landing.
I force a smile as he enters the room and presses his lips to mine. Yeah. Dylan’s my boyfriend. True, annoyance is probably not the healthiest of responses to your boyfriend showing up, but cut me some slack – he is hard work. A few months ago, over champagne, my mum and his decided that Dylan and I should date each other, whether we wanted to or not (I know, really romantic, right?).
Dylan did want to, incidentally. I hadn’t been immediately opposed to the idea – I’d thought he was cute for a while and he was always really nice to me.
‘Elliot, my man,’ says Dylan, clapping Elliot on the back. ‘What brings you here?’ ‘Just came to say hi,’ says Elliot. ‘Y’know, last exam today and all. A bit of celebration. I was just heading off, anyway.’
‘Elliot, seriously, you don’t have –’ I begin, but Dylan interrupts me.
‘Well, good to see you again, man. See you later.’
Elliot makes a minuscule move, as though he’s about to hug me, but he shifts his gaze across towards Dylan and settles for words. ‘See you, Jen.’
I give him a helpless smile as he hops out the window. I miss him instantly. ‘What’s his deal?’
‘Huh?’ I divert my eyes away from the window. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Climbing through your window? It’s a little weird.’
‘It’s just what he does. He’s done it for years.’
‘Well, I don’t like it.’ He says it as though his opinion makes definitive decisions. Dylan doesn’t like it, therefore it has to stop. ‘It’s no wonder everyone thinks you guys are banging.’
It’s true. The rumour mill, always full of quirky and original tales, has for years suggested that Elliot and I are together, despite both of us being in relationships with other people.
‘Good thing I don’t care what people think.’
'What’s up with you today?’ It is more accusatory than caring.
I tell him a disjointed version of the truth wherein my mother isn’t the reason I’m questioning my entire future, because a) I neither want nor need his sympathy, and b) we met through our parents so I don’t want to say anything that he might repeat to his mother, who might then repeat it to mine.
I don’t know why I bother telling him this, because I doubt he even registers what I say. He sits himself next to me and his hand brushes my hair behind my ear as he stretches his arm around my shoulders, allowing him to whisper into my ear. If he were any good at it, I’d say he was whispering seductively, because that’s his intention, but there’s nothing remotely alluring about it.
‘So . . . Did you miss me?’
It’s only been a week since I last saw him and he does even less with his time than I do, but I decide to do the girlfriendy thing and show an Active Interest in his life. Mum would be proud.
‘Of course,’ I say, straightening my dress. ‘How was your week?’
I half-listen as he talks about the meals his eaten, a joke his brother told him and a Canadian customer he served at work. His hand leaves my shoulder to aid his speech. He talks with his hands a lot.
‘Canadian accents are so weird,’ he says. ‘They’re, like, American, but not.’
His observations don’t get much more insightful than that.
‘Anyway,’ he says, putting one arm back around my shoulders, and the other on my thigh. I can feel his breath in my ear. ‘Enough of that. Did you miss me?’
I shift my body away from his. ‘You already asked me that. I said I did.’
‘I missed you too.’ He closes the gap between us again, his hand drifting dangerously close to the inside of my dress.
‘Dylan, please don’t make me say it again. I can’t.’
This is one of the few ways my strict Catholic upbringing works in my favour: I manage to avoid physical intimacy without giving honest reasons. In truth, Dylan just doesn’t seem like the right guy. We saw each other most days after we started dating, but we began seeing less and less of each other as my focus shifted to my English exam. Now it’s painfully obvious how little we have in common and it’s safe to say my initial butterflies have faded. Contrary to Mum’s advice, absence does not make my heart grow fonder. It just highlights how self- absorbed and slightly sex-crazed he can be.
‘Your parents won’t know,’ he whispers. ‘I know you want to. Don’t let them stop us.’
‘It’s not about my parents. It’s about my own values,’ I say, which is true enough. ‘I don’t want to corrupt myself. I really want to wait.’ That part, not so much.
I know he is disappointed, so I feel slightly guilty. But it takes me about ten seconds to get over it.
‘Your dad was showing me your new TV just before,’ he says. ‘Maybe we could go and watch a movie instead?’ It’s perhaps the least original euphemism he has ever come up with. ‘Watch a movie’ clearly means ‘Cuddle, make out and completely ignore the movie’.
‘I don’t know, it’s kind of late. I think I just need to go to bed.’
‘Bed, you say?’ He punctuates it with a wink.
I fight the urge to gag. ‘Dylan, stop. I’ll show you the TV next time, okay?’ I kiss his cheek in farewell, take him downstairs and show him to the door. Mum and Dad come out of the lounge to say goodbye to him. I breathe a sigh of relief as I closed the door behind him.
‘You’ve done remarkably well for yourself, Jennifer,’ says my mum. ‘Such a lovely boy.’
I murmur something like an agreement and return to my bedroom. I’m not sure being stuck in a relationship because I don’t want to upset her or hurt Dylan qualifies as doing remarkably well for myself. I’m a terrible human sometimes.