PARENT TEACHER CONFERENCE NOVEMBER 15, 1997
STUDENT: MACKENZIE ADAMS
EDUCATOR: LUCY WILSON
PARENTS: ELIZABETH JAMES AND GERALD ADAMS
ROOM NUMBER: 406
Teacher Summary of Student Progress: Mackenzie Adams is a gifted student who shows promise in most every subject. She has far exceeded third grade levels in both spelling and reading, and shows tremendous improvement in her math and science proficiency. If there is one concern, I have about Mackenzie it is her attitude. She often misbehaves in class, by talking to friends during lessons or talking back to both myself and my teaching assistant Ms. Diana. I worry that Mackenzie is not challenged enough by the second grade material and that this is the source of her “troublemaker” behavior.
Teacher Notes from Conference: Mrs. James and Mr. Adams were a full half an hour late for the conference. Mrs. James was most apologetic. It was quite evident that Mr. Adams was heavily intoxicated. I attempted to discuss with them my concerns about Mackenzie. Mrs. James seemed unsurprised that her daughter was exhibiting these behaviors in class. Mr. Adams slurred several expletives and referred several times to their daughter as “that little bitch”. I found all of this to be very concerning. Mrs. James continued to apologize for her husband’s language, and assured me that he does not use this language at home or in front of their daughter, which would, of course, constitute an abusive home environment. I did my best to continue on with the conference, and suggested that Mackenzie might be well served by transitioning into a Ms. Dorothy’s 2/3 split class, so that she might take on some of the 3rd grade level material, which would be more at her speed. Mrs. James seemed altogether hesitant to relocate her daughter, explaining that the child doesn’t handle change well. Mr. Adams laughed loudly at this and then banged his fist down on the table. He then leaned toward me, and took my hand, saying- and this is a direct quote - “My dear, that little bitch doesn’t handle anything well. JUST LIKE HER MOTHER!” This was followed by more hearty laughter from Mr. Adams. It was at this point that Elliot Pollock’s parents arrived for their conference, and I was forced to cut the James-Adams meeting short. If I had concerns about Mackenzie prior to this meeting, they were in no way assuaged by her parents. I would suggest that the school keep a close eye on Mackenzie’s development and offer her as much help as possible in the coming years. Future educators should be on the look out for signs of defensiveness or aggression from Mackenzie, as this could be a result of worsening home conditions.
Basically everything is closed on New Year’s Day except for this one 24 hour diner that’s never closed. I’ve never been to this diner on principal, but Neil pulls into their parking lot. For a while we just sit in the car together, not moving. He is staring at me like I might start crying, but I don’t. Finally he puts his hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t really like breakfast,” I say. Which is true, even though really I am starving thanks to the hangover and the dead parent situation.
“What kind of person doesn’t like breakfast?”
“Well. Still. They have other stuff. Burgers and stuff.”
I look at him and he shrugs.
“If they don’t have anything you want we can leave.”
“Do you want something?”
“I like their waffles.”
So we go inside.
The inside of the diner is like a time capsule from the 90’s. There are a lot of concert posters on the walls, signed by various guitarists and drummers. The waitresses are all over 40, but wearing a lot of dark eyeliner and saftey pinned band tees. It’s a completely ridiculous vibe for a diner, but I can’t remember ever being more comforted by anything. Smells Like Teen Spirit is coming softly through the speakers. Of course.
One of the waitresses, carrying an armload of dirty plates and a carafe of coffee notices us. “Happy new year, kids. Sit wherever you want.”
“Booth?” Neil points at a table under a Red Hot Chili Peppers poster, and I nod.
Neil is waiting for me to talk about my dad. I can feel it. I avoid eye contact and pick at a piece of dried food that’s stuck to the table. It looks like a little island on the black laminate surface. I think it was oatmeal once.
“Kenz?” Neil is talking in this hushed voice that makes him sound like exactly the kind of person you’d want to talk to if you were wanting to talk.
“I wanted to-- I know this has been a big morning for you. I- A difficult morning. And I know-- I mean, I know we don’t know each other that well. But I just-- if you wanted to- If you want to talk. I’m here.” I look at him, and notice that he’s leaning toward me, across the table in a very caring sort of way.
“I actually thought your name was Ben until about an hour ago,” I blurt out. “So, um. Thanks, but no thanks.”
The problem with me sometimes is that I’m a huge bitch. I don’t like to think of myself as one of those girls with a lot of daddy issues. But I suppose I am one. And I imagine that a therapist would tell me that my daddy issues make me act like a complete bitch sometimes. Especially to people who are trying to be nice to me, because fuck everyone.
Regardless, I can see that I’ve hurt Neil’s feelings. He doesn’t say anything else and busies himself with searching the menu. Even this I find annoying, because we both already know he’s going to order the waffles. And then I’m annoyed with myself for being so hard on him when he’s been so fucking nice to me all morning.
And then I remember my dad is dead and for some reason I start to laugh.
“It’s not funny.” Neil looks at me, his wounded ego still throbbing visibly. Suddenly, for no reason, I want to hug him forever, but the moment is interrupted by our waitress.
She’s a heavier set women, wearing a grimy The Offspring tee shirt. It’s got an x-ray of ribs printed on the front underneath big letters that read “The Offspring”. Inside the chest cavity she has safety-pinned a patch with a dead baby graphic on it. Her hair is stiff and dried out from being dyed too often, most recently a platinum blonde, though her roots have grown in and are an almost moss-colored brown. Her ears are each pierced at least 5 times, and she’s got a scar above her left eyebrow from where it used to be pierced as well. Her name tag reads “Hi, I’m Martha.”
“What can I get ya? Or do you still need a few?”
“Coffee would be great,” says Neil, “and then, well. Do you know what you want, Mackenzie?” He stares blankly at me. I make a super fake polite face at him. I know he’s using my full name because he’s mad.
“I’ll have the Pearl Jamburger, without mayonnaise,” I tell Martha. “And can I have tartar sauce with my fries instead of ketchup?”
“Sure thing, sugar. Well done, okay?”
“Um, medium well, if that’s possible?”
“Medium well. I’ll ask for ya. And for you, handsome?” Martha leans her hip against the table, turning her attention to Neil. She’s flirting.
“You know, I can’t decide. If you had to choose your favorite, between the Kurt Coberry pancakes and the Sublime Waffles, which would you go for?”
“You said you love the waffles. Just get the waffles”
“Mackenzie, calm down. I just want to get Martha’s opinion.”
I have this urge to say to Martha that Neil is being a jerk because I made him feel bad, when really my dad is dead and I should get a free pass, but even I don’t really believe that.
Martha giggles all over herself and comes up with an extensive pro/con list for both the pancakes and the waffles. And after much deliberation, Neil orders the waffles with a side of the Limp Biscuits. Gross.
“He was an alcoholic and an asshole my whole life,” I hear myself saying as soon as Martha leaves the table. I don’t know if I mean to be telling Neil this, or if it is just something I need to tell someone. “So. I’m just saying. It’s not really the same as if your dad died or something.”
“You don’t know that,” he counters, which is annoying. Because I sort of do know that. His reaction at the Holiday Inn Express was hardly that of someone who has seen a lot of shit. But being mean to Neil has proven to be more work than it’s worth, so I let it go.
“No, I guess I don’t know that. I guess I just mean, most people are-- a lot of people are close with their dads.”
“So you weren’t close.”
“No, we were. Kind of. Just not like most people,” I am realizing that this whole thing is more complicated than I feel like explaining. “It’s just a weird circumstance.”
“He’s still your dad,” Neil says after a pause. And for some reason this feels like a revelation to me. Like this is the smartest thing anyone has said or thought all morning. “So. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. Thanks... Thank you.”
The food is okay. Surprisingly okay, actually, though Neil says his Limp Biscuits were a little dry, which makes me feel gross when I think about it. We don’t talk about Gerald again. Neil tells me a joke he heard from someone at work about waitresses that’s pretty sexist. And then we talk about feminism and he asks me about bra-burning and I tell him he’s being a pig, and he looks like he really just doesn’t actually know anything about feminism and I feel a little bad for calling him a pig, and change the subject. I find out that Neil is actually going to start working full-time at Mel’s gym as a trainer soon, that he’s just finishing getting his certification. Then we talk about how I majored in American Studies and how it shouldn’t even be a major and what am I going to do with it, and how I don’t know, maybe teach kids or collect weird shit and hope it becomes culturally relevant and valuable at some point so I can turn my sad hermit’s apartment into a museum for hipsters. He laughs at a lot of the things I say, which I like because he has a fantastic smile and it makes me feel like I’m super hilarious. Which is great.
We talk about people who were at the party last night and I ask him about Lego-Man, and find out that, in fact, Lego-Man is his house mate. And that his nickname is actually Leggo-Man not Lego-Man because he’s always the asshole at every party who yells “Leggo!”(a catchy if not idiotic slang form of “let’s go!”) in an attempt to get people to drink more, or dance more or get more naked. I ask Neil if this carries over into Leggo-Man’s sex life, and he says that he isn’t sure because their bedrooms are on different floors, but he can only assume so. Neil then tells me that Leggo-Man’s given name is Herman and it is no longer surprising to me that he allows himself to be called Leggo-Man. By the end of all this, he has finished his waffles and I’ve finished my burger. He pays for my lunch, because he says it’s sort of the least he can do given the morning that I’ve had.
“Thanks,” I smile, and then wonder if really he thinks this was a first date.
“So, what are you doing now? Do you want to hang out?” We’ve pulled up in front of my building, and the car is idling because I guess Neil thought it’d be too presumptuous to park. And it sort of would have been.
“It’s kind of a weird day, I think.” I’m not sure why I have to explain this to him. “I’ll probably have... you know, stuff to figure out. I should call my mom, and clear my head or something.”
“Sure, right. Yeah. Well, um. Maybe I’ll call you sometime?”
We are having the awkward morning after chat. Now. Which just goes to show you that it’s the kind of awkward thing you can do absolutely nothing to avoid.
“Yeah, you can call me... Or not call me. Or-- I guess, whatever you want.”
“Okay.” There is a very long pause, and I can’t figure out what’s happening, really. I need to get out of the car. ”So, I guess-- thanks for the ride, and you know, everything.”
“Sure, of course. I, um-- sorry. About your dad.”
“Oh. Yeah, thank you. Thanks. And you know, sorry you had to see all that.”
“No. It’s fine. I mean... it’s not fine, but I guess I don’t mind. Or I guess-- what are you going to do, ya know?”
“Right, well. Okay, then. Have a nice afternoon, Neil.”
And finally I get out of the car. It takes me forever to find my keys and get in the front door, and Neil waits until I’m safely inside the entryway before he leaves.
“People who are that nice make me nervous,” I say aloud to no one.
When things are weird and terrible, I find one tiny, miniscule aspect of the thing that’s particularly weird or terrible and dwell on it. My brain doesn’t seem to be able to handle the big picture.
So I walk into my apartment thinking, he was naked. Why on earth was he naked? How completely unnecessary is that? Couldn’t he have been decent enough to put some clothes on before having a fucking fatal heart attack?
And for hours this is all I can think. That I’ve just been forced to see my father’s penis first thing in the morning, before I’ve even had a fucking cup of coffee and how that is entirely inexcusable.
In Seattle there are a lot of naked households. By that I mean, there are a lot of homes where the parents think it’s very important for the children to grow up without shame about their bodies, and so they encourage them to be naked, and honest and free. That’s the kind of city that Seattle is. This concept has always made me a little twitchy. I’m pro-honesty and freedom, but I also don’t like forcing strangers to look at my vagina. And I don’t feel like this is a problem.
Mel grew up in a naked house. She loves to be naked. But she does a lot of hot yoga and drinks a lot of green juices and consequently looks terrific naked, which I think contributes to her love of it. Even still, when I’m home I insist that she put clothes on. We share a couch, I explain to her and for some reason that always makes her laugh.
My family, in case you hadn’t guessed, is not a naked family. We don’t get naked together ever. I am surprised that my parents were naked together long enough to conceive me, that is how little we get naked. I don’t know that I have a lot of shame about my body because of this. But I certainly have, what I consider to be a normal level of weirdness about seeing my parents naked.
Then I can’t stop wondering, why? Why was he naked? He wasn’t wet like he’d just come out of the shower. Was he just about to take a shower? Was he just naked in his pathetic and disgusting hotel room alone? What was he doing? Just ordering room service, naked? And why wasn’t Beth more mortified that he was naked? Was he usually naked with Beth? Oh dear god, was he sleeping with Beth? Is that why she was crying so much? Why did she stay so long after I got there, cradling him like that?
Love Train starts playing again. It has been approximately 13 hours since I purchased that ringtone and I promise myself I’m going to delete it.
It’s a doctor from Harborview. He tells me that they’ve declared my father, and sent him for autopsy. This can take anywhere from 3 to 5 business days he says, maybe longer because of the holiday. It seems there’s something of a backlog. Unless I need him to rush it, he asks, as though he’s shipping me something via Amazon. After the autopsy is done I am welcome to stop by and retrieve the remains and the death certificate. “Delightful,” I say. This was the wrong thing. We hang up.
I sit down on the edge of my bed. I should make a to-do list. Things I need to do: I need to wash my sheets, and do some dishes from last night and then I need to call my mom. These are the only things on the list, so I don’t write it down. I can’t make myself stand up, so I don’t. I am staring at my feet, spreading my toes wide on the rug, and then scrunching the tall pile between them. I should paint my toe nails. That would be a nice thing. I add it to my list. Maybe I’ll shower first, and then I could soak my feet for a while, and then paint my nails. Or I could go to a salon, and pay someone else to paint them. I should put the laundry in before I do that. But I don’t want to be running the washing machine and the shower at the same time, because there won’t be enough hot water. So maybe I should put the laundry in before I go to the salon.
An hour goes by like this.
And I haven’t moved. I know I am avoiding calling my mom, because I don’t know what to say to her. But this doesn’t change anything. I can’t not call because I don’t know what to say. Then I think I should have made Beth call. Or Al. I’ll be so bad at this. I don’t know how to tell someone their ex-husband is dead.
Jesus Christ. I have to get up.
Flex. Scrunch. Flex... Scrunch.... Flex.
My foot starts to cramp. At first I think it’s not so bad, and then it’s immediately the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It’s not just my foot anymore, but my whole body. I fall back onto my bed, screaming, “motherfucker!!!” at the top of my lungs. I clutch my foot in my hand and try to work the knot out, but then my fingers feel tense and achy too. A shiver crawls up my spine, and into my neck. Everything is cold, and tense and crackling at once. I can feel every inch of my body twinge. I let go of my foot and roll, desperate, onto my stomach. I scream into my comforter. I can’t breathe. I claw at the sheets, lift my face. My throat feels like someone is sitting on it. I grab at my ribs, trying to pull them apart and make room for air with my hands. The room seems huge, with my bed this tiny, desert island adrift in the middle. I must look like a fish flopping around on a dock, gasping and writhing like this. I choke out another scream of pain, but my voice breaks off mid-way. All the blood rushes to my face, and I’m cold and too hot at once. I am aching, and can’t feel anything all at once.
The loud kind of crying comes. Everything else is complete stillness, and I am just melting. Flailing and falling. Inconsolable.
When I was a little girl I was the queen of temper tantrums. Gerald called me a drama queen. I slammed doors and threw things. I was a nightmare. It wasn’t until after I’d hit puberty that I learned that there was a way to cry without wailing audibly and overnight I went from temper tantrums to being a secret crier. Now I cried like I was in a music video: alone, and often in front of mirrors. I basked in the sadness, wallowed in it. Indulged myself in a silent, secret cry as a sort of punctuation to major events, good and bad.
I started to hone my skills, got so good that I could control it. I could decide to cry and I could decide not to. It instilled me with this sexy kind of Zen of which I was stupidly proud.
In a burst of ego, I once told Mel that it’s wonderful to be so in control of your own emotions. “I never feel overwhelmed this way,” I explained to her.
“It’s one of the perks of being truly in touch with yourself.”
“I guess. But what about when things catch you off guard? Doesn’t that ever happen?”
“Even still,” I said, “I can stomach it in the moment, and sort through the details later when I have the time and energy.”
“Huh. That sounds a lot like repression,” she said, and then, “Anyway, do you want a smoothie? I’m making berry-kale-banana. Super good for you.”
By the time I get around to calling Mom, it’s almost eight o’clock. I’ve been laying in my bed all afternoon just staring at the ceiling, thinking about how what I really want is some cheap, out-of-the-box macaroni and cheese. I make a deal with myself that I’ll call mom first and then I can go to the corner market and buy a box of Kraft mac and cheese. This is the best time to eat it because Mel is out of town and not home to look at me disapprovingly and threaten to read me the ingredients list.
So I dial.
My mom is a very sweet and very delicate woman. I sometimes think she is disappointed I didn’t turn out more like her and that instead I got much of my father’s indelicacy. Them having ever been married to each other still gives me hope that even the most absurd and improbable things can happen.
Of my two parents my mom is the artistic one. She has a kiln in the basement for throwing pots when she has the time, though during the day she works as a bank teller. She has just the right amount of eager-to-pleaseness for this, and she’s always been one of those people who makes friends with everyone because she just loves “a good chat and a half.” I think she stifled a lot of her creativity when she was married to my dad, but her second husband, Jimmy, really encourages her to embrace her “inner artist”. Jimmy grew up in a naked house.
“Sweetie!” This is how she always answers my calls, with exactly the same amount of enthusiasm. “I was hoping you would call today. Happy new year! I was just thinking about you. Tell me you did something fun last night! I was saying to Jimmy this morning that I hoped Mackenzie was having just a lot of fun for New Year’s Eve. Oh, tell me you were. Did you have a New Year’s kiss?”
“Oh, well, you know. Dad’s dead.” I breathe out and look at my toes. I should have made conversation first. I should have said anything else. I shouldn’t have called. I should have done this in person. I decide not to cry right now.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, what’d you say? I think your phone is breaking up.”
“Um, I said, Dad’s dead.” She doesn’t respond and I think maybe my phone really is breaking up. “Gerald? My dad? He died this morning. Or, I guess he was found dead this morning... Mom, can you hear me?”
“Oh god, I can hear you. I hear you! Just stop it. Stop. My god. My god! What do you mean he’s dead?”
“I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“So you decided on over the phone, Mackenzie? Oh my god.” I can hear her trying to process this information. “I need to sit down.” In the background I hear Jimmy coming into the room. He asks her if she’s all right and I hear her say, very softly to him, “It’s Gerald.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“How did this happen? I mean, where-- how did this happen? He was looking so well the last time I saw him.” I wonder why she said this. Why does everyone insist on how well he looked. It’s a load of shit that he looked well.
But then I get a flash of my father naked in Beth’s lap. And, even though I know I’m talking to the one other person in the whole world who has seen him at his absolute worst, I don’t want to tell her what I saw.
“A heart attack. They think. They think it was a heart attack. But the autopsy won’t be done for another week or something, and then I guess we’ll know for sure.”
“Well, there’s a delay sort of. Because of the holiday.”
“Good lord... Good lord!” I hear her starting to cry, and I hold the phone away from my ear and close my eyes. I tuck my chin to my chest and whisper “I’m sorry” over and over. When I bring the phone back to my ear I hear Jimmy’s voice.
“Mackie? Mackie, you still there?”
“Yeah, hi, I’m here. Sorry, Jimmy.”
“Your mother needs a minute,” he lets out a sigh. I hadn’t thought about what this would be like for Jimmy.
“I’m sorry to do this to you,” I hear myself say.
“You lost your father today, Mackie. There’s no good way to do it. I’m sorry.” I’m tired of thanking people for being sorry, so I just don’t say anything else and neither does he. We both just sort of breathe into the phone at each other until eventually he says, “Maybe we should talk another time,” and I agree that that’d probably be best.
“I’m going to make macaroni,” I say, like it fixes anything.
“That’s a nice dinner.”
“Will you tell Mom that I love her, and I’ll call again?”
“Of course. Listen, maybe we could all have dinner sometime this week.” I can’t imagine seeing either of them right now. Seeing the look on my mom’s face. But Jimmy sounds so hopeful.
“Yeah. Sure. Maybe. Just tell her I’ll call. Goodnight, Jimmy.”