Accidents Can Happen
“When dealing with sensitive parenting issues, ask yourself two simple questions.
What do I want my child to take away from this experience and is that what I am accomplishing?”
—Rachel Berman, Perfect Parent Magazine
Rachel set her coffee on her rickety nightstand and reached for her morning reading material. Accident reports. These varied from day to day, week to week. Some days she studied accidents by vehicle, other days she looked at accidents by appliance—it had been no small decision to haul a mini-bar up to her bedroom to store cream for her morning coffee. Rachel weighed the risks, but of all 29,964 estimated refrigerator-related accidents in 1998, very few resulted in hospitalization or DOAs. Most victims were treated in Emergency and released. Some might say an accident report over ten years old could hardly be considered accurate, but Rachel was no fool. Recent statistics could only be more ominous.
As the publisher of a not-quite-leading parenting magazine, Rachel felt obligated to stay on top of injury statistics—unintentional injuries being the fifth-leading cause of death in general and the leading cause of death in children between the ages of one and 21.
The exact age group into which my children fall. She froze, nervously clicking her pen. I shouldn’t say fall. Lie. Exactly where my children lie. Janie was 14 and Dustin had just turned 12. She stared at the blank wall across from her bed. That was nearly ten more years of worry.
Before she was three sips into her ritual, Janie thundered into the room, chasing Dustin onto the bed where she tackled him, sending him crashing down onto the mattress and very nearly spiking this year’s statistics.
“Guys! Cut it out,” Rachel said, settling her coffee back onto the nightstand. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”
“It’s mine, you little scab!” Janie hissed, standing up and trying to yank something out of Dustin’s hands.
Lying on his back, tangled in sheets, Dustin held tight. “You think your gigantic troll toes could fit into this tiny sock?” He glanced down at her bare feet and laughed.
Janie whirled around to face Rachel, her long, nearly black hair sticking to her flushed cheeks. A tiny silver stud glinted from the side of her nose. “Did you hear that? He said I have troll feet!”
“Troll toes,” Dustin said. “There’s nothing wrong with troll feet. They’re kinda cute. It’s the troll toes on human feet that really scare the boys.”
“Dustin,” Rachel said. “Your sister has long human toes, not troll toes.”
“Mom!” Janie’s mouth dropped.
“Sweetheart, long fingers and toes are quite elegant.” Rachel gathered up her reports. “If you tried, you’d probably play the piano beautifully.”
“With your feet!” Laughing, Dustin raised his legs in the air and wiggled his toes.
“Assface!” Janie dove on top of him and they rolled across the bed until the bedside lamp crashed to the floor.
Rachel shot up. “That’s it! I’m warning you. You can get yourselves to Triage by bus!”
Both kids broke into laughter and Janie pushed Dustin off the end of the bed with her feet. “Ugh! I’ve been touched by the toes! I’m melting…” Janie leapt on top of him and they both shrieked as hair was yanked and fists flew. In the fury of flailing body parts, Janie’s knee whacked Dustin in the chin, causing him to bite his tongue.
“Ugh. I’m totally bleeding!”
Rachel inspected his tongue, which had nothing worse than a tiny scrape, and muttered, “Hm. Very superficial.” She glanced at Janie, who was standing over her brother and straightening her nightie. “Janie, get to your room and get ready for school. Now.”
“You’re mad at me?” she squeaked. “He started it!”
“Dustin, you go get ready, too. Just rinse your mouth first so you don’t bleed on the carpet.”
They both stood up and stomped from the room, grumbling and elbowing each other.
“And keep your hands to yourselves—” Both doors slammed together. “Or you’ll both get weekend lockdown!”
“Our whole lives are in lockdown! What’s another weekend?” Janie shouted from behind her door.
Rachel picked up her coffee and blew. They’ll thank me when they live to see 21, she thought. Prevention is always the way to go.
Twenty minutes later, having showered, dressed for work and combed through her wet hair, Rachel hurried along the hallway to Dustin’s room. She found him in his pajamas, pale blond hair gelled into an artful mess, squatting on his padded window seat, gawking through binoculars at fourteen-year-old Tabitha Carlisle, who was getting dressed next door.
“That’ll be enough of that,” Rachel said, fighting a smile. She took the binoculars from his hand and tossed him a shirt. “We do not spy on the neighbors. Get dressed. The bus will be here in fifteen.” She left the room. Leaning against his door, she exhaled. Dustin was right on track. Twelve-years old and expressing a healthy sexual curiosity. She had written an article about this very topic for last month’s issue.
With a polite knock on Janie’s door, Rachel waited before entering. Parenting a teenager required equal doses of respect and intrusion. She pressed her ear closer to the door panels to hear a series of muffled thumps before Janie called out, “Come in.” Rachel found her daughter standing in the middle of the room, dressed in tank top, underwear, and army boots, her hands clasped behind her back, brimming with far too much purity for an adolescent girl. Innocence, Rachel always told her readers, should never be taken at face value during the pubescent years.
“Hey,” Rachel smiled, scanning the room for clues. “What’s with all the thumping and bumping?”
Janie shrugged. A chain of paperclips hung from her neck. “Just, you know, cleaning up.”
Cleaning? Janie? At eye-level, with Janie’s pine sleigh bed snuggled under the window, the room might make a charming photo for a B & B. But the floor was a rumpled mosaic of fabric—Janie insisted that clothing was far simpler to manage when spread out across the rug—and the ceiling was covered, plastered, every inch of it, in posters—The Sex Pistols, Circle Jerks, The Misfits, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Buzzcocks, The Ramones, Dead Kennedys. Some had song titles markered across them, such as, “Too Drunk to F*&%,” “Anarchy” and “World Up My A&#.” Janie had blacked out the worst of the obscenities, at her mother’s insistence.
The absolute dearth of modern-day punk bands on the ceiling was no mistake. Janie considered herself a purist, refusing to listen to anything but punk music from the 70s and 80s on the grounds that the further away from the Ramones one got, the weaker one’s devotion to true punk philosophy. Though, as far as Rachel could tell, Janie’s anarchistic tendencies surfaced primarily in her choice of clunky black footwear and her refusal, for a three-week period last winter, to accept her allowance. Apparently, making her bed and taking out the trash for $15 a week represented a gross affront to punk ideology—a true punk would never prosper from mainstream’s mindless quest for purity and order.
“If this is about Dustin’s slimy tongue, he started it.” Janie pushed a limp strand of hair out of her eyes.
Rachel forced a smile, noticing Janie’s desk drawer wasn’t fully shut. What was she hiding? A diary? A joint? Email from an Internet predator, God forbid? Of course…it could be nothing more than Janie sneaking a candy bar before breakfast. The important thing was to catch teen problems early. That’s what the experts advised. Stay involved in your children’s lives through constant communication.
Rachel sat on the bed. “This has nothing to do with Dustin. Just wanted to tell my girl that I love her.”
Janie narrowed her eyes. “Yeah, right.” Pushing her head through the neck of an oversized gray sweater, she tugged it over her heavy chest. Adolescent hormones, in the last couple of years, had transformed Janie from a nimble tomboy into a self-conscious woman-child bound up by a Herculean bra. The child went to bed some nights with red welts on her shoulders. Of course, with this physical change came unwanted attention—unwanted by Rachel, at least—from males, young and old. Although Janie could outrun her mother, she’d never seemed more vulnerable.
Rachel reached out and took her daughter’s hand, pulling her down onto the bed and laying an arm around her shoulders. “Is there anything you want to talk about? Because you know I’m always here for you.”
“I need some new socks. Mine all have holes. It’s totally embarrassing changing into gym shoes.”
Socks. Not quite what Rachel was aiming for. “No, I mean life stuff. Anything bothering you?”
“I don’t even have one pair left that isn’t holey.”
“We’ll get you some socks, Janie. That’s not what I’m—”
“You know Olivia Kaplan? She has socks that match every single outfit she owns. She has toe socks, socks with ruffles, knee socks. All I have are tube socks.”
“That’s not true! I bought you the red pair, the pink pair…”
“Uh, Mom? Have you ever seen me wear pink?”
Rachel sighed. “I don’t want to argue about socks—again.” I want to make sure you’re not stashing ecstasy in your desk. That some sexed-up 11th grader isn’t talking you into having intercourse with him. Unprotected. That some 58-year-old pervert isn’t posing as a skater boy on MSN and making plans to meet you at the mall. “I just want you to know I’m here for you. If you need anything. Advice. A friend…”
“Oh God.” Janie rolled her eyes and slumped. “The bus is coming in, like, 10 minutes.”
Pulling her daughter closer, Rachel squeezed her arm. “If my daughter needs me, I’ll skip my morning meeting.”
Picking at the palm of her hand, Janie said nothing. She looked up, her brown eyes huge, searching her mother’s face. This is it, thought Rachel. She trusts me. It was their mother-daughter moment. The kind that Perfect Parent magazine solicits from readers, then sets in lovely type surrounded by oversized quotation marks on page 12.
Janie stood up and groaned. “Don’t get all bent with your super-parenting, Mom. I’m like the magician’s assistant. I know your tricks. All that empathy crap is lost on me.”
No page 12 today.
Janie waved toward her bare legs and widened her eyes. “A little privacy please?”
Rachel let out a long breath. It looked so easy in the magazine.
Downstairs in the kitchen, all was silent except the clinking of spoons against cereal bowls and the rattle of paper bags as Rachel scraped together lunches from a nearly bare refrigerator.
Dustin half-yawned, half-roared before saying, “My friends all get Lucky Charms for breakfast.”
“Lucky for them,” said Rachel.
“How come you buy this cereal anyway?” asked Janie, drowning her Apple Cinnamon Cheerios in the milk one by one.
Rachel sniffed a package of strawberries from the fridge, recoiled, and pitched it into the trash. “Good price, whole grain oats,” she said.
“This is the one Dad used to buy,” said Janie. “Only not anymore, since Babechick Cheryl doesn’t like the smell of cinnamon.”
Hunched over his cereal bowl, Dustin said, “I still don’t know why he likes her. She has all these dark bits of hair before the frizzy blond starts. It’s freaky.” He shivered out loud.
“Those are called roots,” said Rachel. “She’s just too busy managing Daddy to make it to her hair appointments, that’s all. And by managing, I mean ‘taking care of.’” And by taking care of, Rachel meant fucking. She launched a moldy orange into the trash.
She hadn’t been prepared for it. One morning David was stretched out in bed braiding her hair and telling her he loved her. The next morning he was scrawling his new address on the back of a bank statement and instructing Rachel to forward his mail to Cheryl’s apartment. Cheryl was her ex-husband’s bookkeeper. Now his Chief Operating Officer at work and at home. In a wild departure from the traditional boss-leaves-wife-and-children-for-secretary scenario, David plucked Cheryl from behind an adding machine. But then, he’d always been something of a maverick.
What other husband would be willing to sneak out of his own son’s tonsillectomy to go “solve an accounting crisis?” Or, as Rachel later found out from a neighbor, sneak his little number cruncher into his marital bed while his wife chooses her father’s casket?
By the time Dustin and Janie, then seven and nine, came tumbling into the kitchen, David was long gone. The kids plunked themselves down at the table, still wearing their pajamas and drunk with sleep. In a daze, Rachel poured them each a bowl of cereal and herself a cup of extra lusty coffee. Absolute honesty had always been the keystone of her parenting beliefs, so, she decided after a few fortifying gulps, to answer Dustin’s casual inquiry, “Where’s Daddy?” with the truth.
“Your father doesn’t live here anymore.”
Janie scrunched her nose. “Why?”
Rachel drained her cup, scalding her throat. “Because he’s living with another woman, that’s why.”
“Why?” asked Dustin.
Be careful how you answer this, Rachel warned herself. After all, he was and would always be their father. Her own father, the founder of Perfect Parent, was constantly quoted, posthumously, in the magazine as saying, “If it feels good coming out of your mouth, it’s probably wrong.”
Rachel drew in a deep breath and looked at Dustin and Janie, both poised, motionless, over their cereal bowls waiting for an answer. Finally she spoke. “Because her tits are the size of medicine balls, and from what I’ve seen of her hips, she’s got a vagina big enough to land a 747 inside.”
Dustin’s spoon dropped into his Bunnikins bowl with a clatter. Of course it was wrong. But, damn it, it had felt great. Besides that, it was true.
Now, pulling a magic marker from the drawer, Rachel scrawled an “J” on one lunch bag and a “D” on the other. Janie stood up, peered inside the bag marked “J” and pulled out a rotting banana. She groaned and tossed it into the trash before heading out the back door.
Dustin grabbed his own lunch bag and followed his grumbling sister out the back door. Halfway outside, he stopped, looked back at Rachel. “Mom, can I go to skate camp at The Grid this summer? The place has a snake run and a bowl with real pool coping. Cooper’s parents said yes.”
Cooper’s mother and father wore matching leather jackets and showed up stoned to Parents’ Night last year. Not only did they allow their 12-year-old son to roam the neighborhood until midnight, they let him study in his bedroom with his girlfriend, door shut. Hearing they endorsed skate camp was not helping Dustin’s cause. Rachel ran her fingers through his shaggy hair. “You know how I feel about skateparks, sweetie. You can skateboard on the driveway, but tricks are too dangerous. Children have died from it.”
“I can’t skate on our driveway. It’s not paved!”
It was one of the things she loved most about the house she inherited from her parents—a weathered, ivy-covered Tudor high up on the bluffs of the Hudson River. The pea gravel-covered driveway, overgrown trees and peeling brown shutters gave it the faraway and bucolic feel of the English countryside. In recent years, however, her home had begun slipping out from underneath her. Recent riverside development had had a destabilizing effect on the land and the resulting erosion meant Rachel was losing nearly two inches of waterfront property each year. Her once settled world was tumbling down a deep chasm forming between the old Tudor and the house next door.
“Why don’t we look into basketball camp?” she asked. “Or what about archery?”
He pulled away, stomped down the steps onto the gravel drive, his untied skate shoes kicking up dust. “My life sucks.”
“We’ll find a camp we’re both happy with,” Rachel called, following him outside. She leaned on the peeling railing of the wraparound porch and waved. “Janie, keep an eye on your brother on the way to the bus stop. I’d like you two to arrive home in one piece later.”
Janie looked back at her mother and rolled her eyes. “The stop’s practically next door,” she said. “I think you’ll see us again.”
If only Rachel could be sure.