Chapter 19 SMS

It is fall.

We are spending more time in Syracuse, and my parents are fighting. A lot. My father goes away by himself for the weekend, up to the River, and my mom lies in the bathtub for hours. When he comes home she tries to cook his favorite dinner but has left piles of laundry on all the sofas in the living room. So they start to fight.

“I’m having a nervous breakdown.” She keens in a high sobbing moan, “Why don’t I just kill myself?”  She lies on the floor, her wide, soft body made repulsive by the distortions of her mind.

“You’re nothing but a useless, fat, stupid cow,” he tells her.

Then she peels herself off the floor and starts to throw her other pair of fat pants into a suitcase.

“I’m leaving, I’m leaving!” she screams. She has said this many times before, but this is the first time that she’s dragged a suitcase downstairs. And this is the first time Rufus and I think she might really go. As she pulls her suitcase behind her through her front hall, Rufus grabs her leg and screams, “Mommy, Mommy, don’t go Mommy!” She drags him across the floor towards the door to the front porch as Jake ridicules her.

“You’re not going to get very far.  You’re fucking psycho, just like your mother.  You can’t even drive.”

“I’ll take the bus,” she says. I always thought I wanted her to stay, but tonight I just want her to get away from Jake. The coat closet is right in front of the door. She pauses there to pull her ugly thrift store coat off its hanger, and put it on. It is greenish brown with a huge weird collar and a strange plaid pattern. It is the ugliest coat in the world, and I love my funny sad mom and run across to give her a little hug and hold Rufus’ hand while we stand on our little porch watching her walk halfway down the block into the dark towards the bus stop dragging her suitcase. Then she is gone.

I let go of the breath I’ve been holding, and step back inside. I can’t look Jake in the face; instead I start to pull Rufus upstairs to go to bed. But before we get to the first landing, she stumbles back into the house, falling defeated just inside the door again.

“You’re back, fat cow.” Jake says. She walks past him.

I hesitate on the landing, looking down at them…three, two, one, they are on the floor fighting, the house is shaking and I turn the corner with Rufus and take him to his room. I put on one of his records to block out at least some of the noise.

The next day, I come home from school, and the house is quiet. I walk through calling softly, “Mom. Mom?” My insides clutch as I walk into each room: living room, sewing room, bedroom. I keep thinking I will find her, that I will walk into the room where she is hanging by her neck, swinging slightly, her face unrecognizable. I sit alone on the love seat in the living room watching the room get darker and darker. When she comes in and cheerfully tells me she’s been at the neighbor’s, I am angry with her because I was so worried. Whenever she is a little bit happy, I’m mad at her about it.

After dinner, the phone rings. “I’ll get it!” my father calls out gaily as he takes the stairs three at a time, up to his attic. He picks up the line, then runs back down the attic steps and slams the door to his study shut, just across the hall from my room. I can hear him run back to pick up the red phone at his desk. “Hello, how are you?” I hear the intonation through the heating vent that connects our rooms. I curl up on the floor near the vent, realizing that the mumbles of what sound like a long tender conversations have become a pattern this fall. His sweet voice continues and I stare at the pink gingham wallpaper my mother chose for my room in the new house. Jake’s voice comes through the vent soft and loving. I close my eyes and pretend he’s speaking to me.

Now it is the third Saturday in October. We are at the Island. It is so cold, Jake even says maybe we won’t come back for Thanksgiving, but I know we will. Mom is far in the back of the house, in the kitchen. I am bundled up, sitting at the bar in our living room, drinking my own little glass of sherry that Jake has given me while he tries to help me have some friends:

“Making friends gets a lot simpler when you’re old enough to drink.” I watch him as he looks out at the gray water through the window.

“You just have to say, ‘wanna go for a beer?’ and that’s it, people either go or they don’t.” I’m optimistic about this strategy because it’s working already. Here I am sitting up at our bar and Jake is talking to me. I spin on the spinning bar stool while he is talking, then I see it: it is a silver lighter. Like a Zippo lighter, the kind army guys have in movies. I pick it up and open it, while Jake says,

“If they don’t want to be your friend, fuck ‘em.” The manly lighter has very girly fancy engraved initials on it: SMS. Who would spend money on that? Who is SMS? And how did SMS come to leave a lighter on the bar of Bluff Island?

“What’s this?” I hold up the handsome brushed stainless steel into the dirty late afternoon light of the room. I expect him to walk over to me, look at it in my hands, and shrug maybe. Instead, he lunges at me, moving faster than he runs up the stairs for the phone, and grabs the lighter from my hand.

“Give that to me.”

I look at him. What he has done has told me everything. Suddenly I know.

“Who’s SMS?” I ask.

“A guy from the marina,” he lies. I know the guys from the marina. Guys from the marina don’t have girly shit on their Zippos. The voice on the other end of his phone is SMS and he is bringing her here. We look each other in the eye, and he realizes I know. He has a big secret and now I know it. As he stares at me, he does not say, “don’t tell your mother.” He doesn’t need to.

I look him in the eye. I slide down from the bar stool and walk through the dining room, down the scullery hall, towards the kitchen. Towards Mom. I can feel him watching me. I am willing him to tackle me, to take me down, then I can start screaming. Mom will come out of her fog in the kitchen, and his injustice will enable me to tell all. But still, I don’t hear him behind me. Not yet. The warm air hits me as I push open the heavy swing door into the kitchen. Mom is sitting in front of the heater, wearing a sweater and a coat, huddled over a thick Daphne DuMaurier novel as if that’s what’s warming her. She squints up from it, pushing her glasses up on her nose to see me. The door closes behind me,

“Hi, honey,” she says. Her hair is sticking out.


Now that I’ve come all this way there is something I must tell her.

Daddy talks on the phone. Daddy grabbed a strange lighter from me.

I cannot say that, he would ridicule that away.

Mommy, Daddy brought someone here who left a lighter and I know something is going on.

How am I supposed to talk about something I have no idea about except from movies?  Instead, I say it again—


Now I hear Jake’s footsteps sounding down the scullery hall. His footsteps stop just on the other side of the kitchen door. I feel the lighter in his pocket through the door. Telling her about it would help her finally leave him.

She smiles at me. I love her crooked smile. I don’t want her to go away.

“D’you want something to eat? A snack?” she asks me.

I want to tell her now, but I am afraid. I am afraid of her darkness, afraid of what Jake will do to me, afraid that saying anything will cause one last fight, will cause everything to change forever.

“What have you got?” I ask her even though I know there are three chocolate-covered grahams in the freezer, and two bananas on the counter.

“Well…” She puts a little scrap of yellow paper in the DuMaurier, and stands up, pulling her coat around her, and goes to the refrigerator. I know he can hear me now, but I will not be afraid of him, I will not be afraid that he will hit me. I do not care, because it would be so wrong.

“Mom…” I start again, talking to her butt, which is sticking out from the refrigerator.

“Um, Mom…”

Jake pushes the swing door in like he and the lighter haven’t been listening. Mom starts talking, half to herself.

“How about some potatoes. Is it too early for dinner?” She looks across our heads at the clock on the wall.

“Hey why don’t we get started on those steaks?” Jake says, the most cheerful ever. “Let’s make a fire.” He smiles and holds open the door for me into the hallway to the dining room. Cold air rushes into the kitchen as I hesitate. I turn back to see her pulling tomatoes out of the fridge. She is happy we are getting along. I pass under my father’s arm, out into the cold little hallway. I walk back into the dining room and kneel in front of the huge fireplace. I pull apart a newspaper from the summer and start scrunching up reviews of films we didn’t see, scores of games we never knew about and listings of events we’d never consider attending. My dad surprises me by kneeling down next to me.

“It’s nice when your mother’s in a good mood, isn’t it?” I nod. By not saying anything, I can keep them both happy. The tension in me pushing me to tell gives way to a weakening wash of gray betrayal that flows into my stomach. So what if I don’t tell my mother? So maybe my mother won’t know he’s making a fool of her. I turn and look at him. He is pulling logs off the pile, logs we chopped together that summer. Did he know SMS then?

I ball up a story about Nixon and throw it into the fireplace. My father hates him. Then I ball up a picture of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. My mom loves them. As every second passes that I don’t tell her, the gray seeps into me deeper and deeper, convincing me that acquiescing is the better course. When the wood and paper are stacked according to our scientific configuration, it is time to light the fire. I lean back on my heels, and look at the weight of something, the lighter, in Jake’s jacket pocket. But he doesn’t reach into his pocket. Instead, he reaches up, over my head and pulls down the cardboard tube of long matches. He hands them to me; he thinks I’m grown up enough to light the fire. Even though I used to beg him to be the one to light the matches, today I don’t take them. Not at first. Then I do.

I stare into the flames as I light the fire: first here, then there. In an hour or two we will all sit and chew on our steaks, and they will taste good. Mine will taste different, because now I’m holding Jake’s secret. Mine will taste different because now I’ve done it; I’ve picked a parent. I should never have to do it, but now it is done. There is no going back, and really, no matter how many times I do think about it, I can’t let myself think twice about it. I must be ruthless. Besides, if mom ever really finds out, it will push her over the edge, and I don’t want that to happen.

Maybe SMS is just a guy from the marina.

End of Part One

About The Author

Stephanie Hubbard

Stephanie Hubbard is an award-winning documentary film editor based in Los Angeles.  Her work has been shown on PBS, History Channel, Discovery Channel, and at the Sundance Film Festival. She’s had plays produced at Sacred Fools Theater and won awards for her poetry and short form memoirs, one of which was made into an award-winning short film that won best short film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was screened as part of Sundance.

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05 2010

3 Comments Add Yours ↓

The upper is the most recent comment

  1. s.p.marcus #

    Thanks Stephanie! I look forward to reading the rest.

  2. Wendy #

    I am part of a bookclub in SD to which you are coming! So excited to hear more about your life and the book. Can’t wait!

  3. 3

    I’m so excited to be coming! In two weeks right?
    Looking forward to it!

    Thanks for your comment!

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