Rebellious Teenager + Writing Prompt = Angst-Filled Memoir -- creative nonfiction by J
Since birth, I’ve carried the weight of my mother’s love. It’s like a tangible object in that I experience its manifestations with my five senses, day in and day out. . . .
I stood rooted to the floor, my mother’s uncomfortably warm embrace around my waist. She took a deep breath in and out, eyes shut serenely, but I couldn’t relax as she did. I was hyper-aware of the cramps in my fingers laced behind her back, and the unnatural angle of my neck as my head rested—just barely—on her shoulder. Staring straight ahead, I waited patiently for the hug to be over.
After what felt like an eternity, my mother sighed and released me. As per the usual routine, she gave me a quick back massage, and I allowed myself to be prodded by her too-rough hands for a couple seconds. Out of courtesy, I extended the same offer of a massage back to her. She declined—as per usual. And just like that, our almost-silent “dance” was over. We parted ways and went about our days.
In the past year or two, my interactions with my mother have steadily decreased in frequency and intensity. A stranger in her house, I maintain a perfect composure of distant politeness at all times. We don’t speak unless absolutely necessary. I wear headphones at home practically 24/7, usually lost in the digital world of my phone. And I stopped eating dinner with my family long ago. I told them I wasn’t hungry at the same time as them, but in reality, I couldn’t stand to have my eyes meet my mother’s across our dinner table, the inevitable silence so thick, you could cut it with the massive butcher’s knife she kept in her car. . . .
The fracture between my mother and I was due to many such “artistic differences,” as I like to call them. Leaving her home country for America did something to her, I think. She never really assimilated, never recovered from the loss of the comfort and security that comes from familiarity. As a result, she became paranoid and angry, lashing out at our neighbors and acquaintances. Filing lawsuits. Late-night 911 calls. Therapy visits that never went anywhere. (She refused to take the meds prescribed to her.) Her behavior left me befuddled, but in a way, it made sense—in her home country, she had trusted everyone; in America, she trusted no one . . . with the exception of her family, who she clung to tighter than ever.
I slumped tiredly in the back row of car seats while the monotonous drone of my mother’s words floated in one ear and out the other. She was giving me her usual spiel, listing off the top-tier colleges that she wants me to apply to: Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Brown . . . in that order. In my mind, I tried to drown her out with the ambient sound backdrop of the whirring car engine, my father’s snoring, and the radio on low volume.
As the song changed, my mother’s tone shifted, too, from commanding and authoritative to jarringly flowery as she described the immigrant’s American dream she had planned for me. She told me I’m a smart kid with lots of potential, and she’ll be relying on me to take care of her once she gets old. The saccharine statements felt like intrusive vines creeping into my ears. I knew she had nothing in retirement savings. And thinking of school made me sick to my stomach—I hadn’t turned in a history assignment on time since the start of second semester, but my mother was blissfully oblivious. I didn’t know what to do about my future, but I was sure that I couldn’t break the news to her just yet.
My mother feels the need to steer me on the right path with an iron hand; it’s only natural that I chafe against her rules. “No boyfriends,” for instance, is one of her strictest ones. Relationships are troublesome situations, and anything that distracts from college is strictly prohibited. All roads lead to college, and from there, every door to high salaries, luxurious lifestyles, and self-actualization is thrown wide open. In America, education is an opportunity, and the ambitious immigrant must be certain not to squander it.
Thus, as I struggle and flail my way through high school, I live my life always slightly on-edge, like a tightrope walker who’s taken a spill and can only hope desperately that the audience somehow won’t notice. But of course it’s just a matter of time. . . .
I sat rigidly in a chair at the doctor’s office, my mouth clammy, trying not to look at the clear tube drawing blood out of my arm. Off to one side, my mother was in a state of dismay. She was aware that I was underweight, but after the blood test, the official lab report declaring my condition had worsened to the point that I was medically deficient in something-or-other was stunning news to her. Then, the words “eating disorder” were uttered by the doctor, possibly the first time she’d ever heard them. My throat felt dry, so I stayed silent, knowing the doctor was right.
After all, how could I explain it to her? The home-cooked meals she lovingly prepared for me tasted like guilt and regret and too much salt. The restaurant takeout she brought me to buy my affection contained portions that were too big and too heavy with emotional baggage. I wanted to be skinny, pretty, and independent, somehow convinced that depriving myself of nutrition was the solution. It was not my mother’s fault, but I’d developed an awful relationship with food, which led to hungry nights, fainting in the shower, and a couple months later, this trip to the doctor, which ultimately let the cat out of the bag.
Despite my mother’s controlling nature, I must admit I’m fully aware that I was given free rein over many facets of my childhood. I had completely unsupervised internet access, a rarely-enforced curfew, and unlimited usage of my parents’ money for even the sketchiest of purposes. I took advantage of the fact that my mother rarely checked in on me to conceal all sorts of secrets from her, which is why she didn’t find out about my missing assignments or my old eating disorder until much too late.
She loves me, she loves me, she tells me this all the time and it hurts like a knife wound because it’s the truest thing in her life but not the same for me. In some aspects, she takes helicopter parenting to the extreme; in others, she is neglectful and uninvolved. Who am I to nitpick, though? Do I tell her she cares too much or too little?
I crouched low to the ground, breathing in the strong smell of my mother’s latest and greatest impulse purchase: a small, floppy-eared little puppy. Apprehensively, I reached out a hand to pet him while thoughts buzzed around in my head, wondering how we were possibly going to take on the responsibility of a live, breathing pet.
In just a couple hours, my misgivings proved true as the new puppy left his mark on our lives. The musky scent of kibble, the pungent odor of wet dog fur, and yes, fecal matter, all become staples in the household. It is true that my father and I often bemoaned my mother for inflicting this upon us without warning, but she always assured us that she knew what she was doing. She’d tell us how she had owned many dogs in her childhood, a faraway look descending upon her eyes. By the time she arrived at this point of reminiscence, we understood our efforts to make her see sense were futile.
Always the impulsive one, my mother, leading to much agony from my father over their shared bank account. She always proclaims that she knows what she needs, and by God is she determined to get it. However, as a budding armchair therapist, it is true that I’ve wondered about the psychological root causes of her nature.
For instance, when she arrives home with a haul of more groceries than we’ll ever be able to finish, I can’t help but think of her childhood experiences with food insecurity. When she buys those awful weapons and knives, I’m reminded of her instinct to defend herself and her children. And when she lugged in that smelly puppy, I imagined her clinging to the scents of her youth, her home country and her old household filled with happy dogs.
I stand rooted to the floor again, meeting my mother’s wide-eyed stare for what feels like the first time ever during an argument. Her raven-black hair frames her round face just like mine. I continue to watch her wordlessly while she threatens divorce, homicide, and suicide within the span of minutes. She’s a blur of violent gesticulations, pacing slightly, advancing towards me. I notice that her eyes water ever so slightly, on the verge of tears; that’s another first.
Once upon a time, her threats would have bothered me greatly. At this point, though, I’m just tired. I’ve heard it all before. And as the realization dawns upon me, it’s like I can see my heart splintering inside myself. So I stand, and I watch, and I don’t say a word because I fear that if I do, I might totally break down; wouldn’t that be a sight?
My mother’s love is a complicated, multifaceted thing. I guess I’m grateful that she loves me at all, but I can’t help but struggle against her as we both cope with unfamiliar worlds. I know that I need to work on my secretive, reclusive habits around her. In return, I would love to see some character growth from her.
But I don’t know what to tell her, and I can’t express myself articulately when faced with the sensory explosion that is my mother. Hence, here we are, stuck in a rut. I stay silent, watching, listening, sensing, trying to understand, trying to adjust, trying to carry the burden of her love without letting it crush me in its embrace.
J is a sophomore at a high school near Boston, as well as an aspiring writer and poet. They aren't very creative, but sometimes inspiration arises while they're unable to fall asleep, or daydreaming on a long car ride, or listening to their favorite album on loop. And at those times, writing is a cathartic means of self-expression for them, since they are of the opinion that nobody listens to your problems quite like a blank document.