“I hate you!”
“You’re not too high on my list of favorite people right now, either,” Tessa argued as she cranked up the volume on the radio and hummed along as frustration thrummed through her limbs. Taking her rage out on the gas pedal as she drove them home, she slammed her foot down on the accelerator. She wasn’t going to fall for it. At seventeen, Nova loved to push her buttons and often had a penchant for the dramatics. Instead, Tessa kept her thoughts to herself, clamping her lips together to prevent a negative torrent of them from escaping. She knew words said in anger cut the deepest scars and could never be taken back, but containing them at the moment was proving a monumental task.
“I’m going to go live with Dad!” Nova shouted to her mother over the music.
Appalled by this declaration, Tessa yanked the steering wheel hard to the right to pull off on the shoulder and slammed on the brakes. Forcing the car into park, she turned toward her daughter’s petulant face. Dressed in black from head to toe, wearing six-inch black platform boots and copious amounts of smudged black eyeliner, Nova’s recently favored style was gothic punk. Of all the versions of her daughter she’d experienced through the years, it was Tessa’s least favorite. During the last few months, Nova’s chosen armor was sharp edges and dark colors, a physical look that matched her daughter’s often melancholy and combative mood. A spiked choker circled the porcelain skin of Nova’s throat, and black fishnet gloves encased her delicate wrists.
As a budding artist, Nova adored theatrical clothing and dramatic makeup that made a statement and turned heads when she was in public. Nova relished the attention from random strangers, their long stares and shy compliments, but Tessa’s boyfriend, Jason, did not. He became flat-out embarrassed to be seen with Nova in public when she segued from concert t-shirts and jeans into a full-blown gothic costume. It was one of many bones of contention between Nova and Jason that had made living under the same roof lately an arduous task. Nova and Jason faced off from opposite corners of the ring, reducing Tessa to referee their frequent arguments. It was a draining dynamic Tessa fought her way through daily.
“Let me get this straight. You’re talking about going to live with the same dad that moved a thousand miles away last year without so much as a goodbye?”
Nova wrapped her arms around her middle, huffed her displeasure, and stared out the window. There was an impenetrable wall that they’d both erected between themselves when Nova turned thirteen. They’d constructed it brick by brick without even realizing they were doing it. Now, it was a hundred feet high and unscalable, and they each stayed on their own sides, firing shots at the other from behind it. No one had ever told Tessa that raising a teenager was like waging a war every day and, after four years, she realized she had been woefully unprepared for the battle.
“He still has half custody of me, you know.”
Tessa turned away to roll her eyes so her daughter wouldn’t see. It was true; he did have fifty percent custody, but she knew he would never exercise the right. It was the only reason she hadn’t taken him back to court. Now that Nova was seventeen, it would be pointless to spend thousands of dollars to win a judgment that accomplished nothing. He wasn’t a father. He’d deserted his only child without so much as a second thought, leaving Tessa to pick up the pieces when he’d left. Tessa would never admit it to Nova, but she was relieved when he moved several states away. She had hoped his physical distance would help Nova settle down, but she could see now his absence had only increased her desire to spend time with him.
“I’m going. There is nothing you can do about it,” Nova declared boldly, her voice level.
“Over my dead body,” Tessa finally muttered. “If he’d wanted to see you, he would have made you a priority.” Now that she was practically an adult, Tessa was willing to be more forthcoming with the truth where Nova’s dad was concerned. She’d locked it away from Nova for almost a decade because that was what the expert told her to do in the Children in the Middle course they forced her to take to earn her freedom when Nova was eight. But now, when her immaturity and innocence accepted the lies he force-fed her to save his own face, she found she couldn’t continue to be complicit in it.
“Dad said he was busy getting his affairs in order and ran out of time, but we talk on the phone all the time now, Mom, when you’re at work.”
Nova’s admission was another dart to her heart. “You do?” Tessa was shocked. It was the first time she’d ever mentioned it.
“Yeah,” Nova said with a smug smirk lighting up her features, delighted to one-up her mother. “And he said I could come visit any time I want. In fact, we’ve been talking about enrolling me in school out there.”
Fresh rage flooded Tessa’s entire being, and she saw red. “He had no right to have that conversation with you without me being present.”
“I’m going to be eighteen next year anyway, and then I can do whatever I want. You won’t get to decide for me anymore.” Technically, Nova was right, but Tessa couldn’t give up the good fight.
“So, you’d want to start all over your senior year? At a school filled with people you don’t know, a thousand miles away?”
“Maybe,” she answered with a tight shrug.
Tessa wanted to scream in frustration. The tension was building, and she was sick of it. Tired of the combative nature their relationship had devolved into and her patience was wearing thin.
“Running away from your problems will not solve them. What do you think you’re going to accomplish out there?”
“He’s going to take me to museums, and we’re going to tour art schools.” Her tone was wistful, filling her blue eyes with naïve hope.
“Right,” Tessa said, the word filled with all the sarcasm she couldn’t contain anymore. “The man who couldn’t be bothered to visit when you lived in the same town is now going to become father of the year four states away? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Oh, you’re going to see it,” Nova asserted. She leaned forward, and her straight black hair obscured Tessa’s view of her pale face. Her roots were just showing. It had been a shock when Nova shunned her strawberry blonde locks two months ago in favor of stark black. As if she couldn’t bear sharing a single physical characteristic with her mother. Tessa sat in silence, awash in conflicting emotions. A few seconds later, she heard Nova sniffle. Seeing her daughter’s thin body begin to tremble had shame welling up in her center.
“I’m sorry, Nove,” Tessa started in, feeling guilty, wishing the harsh truth she’d shared with her daughter didn’t have to hurt her so much. Although she always tried to be honest with Nova, Tessa usually tried to keep the more hurtful words to herself. Addressing conflict this way felt dirty and underhanded, but sometimes teenagers were so infuriating and pushed you to the brink of insanity. And Tessa was there, right there, on the brink of it. She reached out a hand to Nova’s shoulder, and Nova jerked her body away before Tessa could touch her.
The obvious dis stung, and Tessa sighed. They were at yet another impasse. Tessa waited a few moments in vain, then shifted to drive and eased the car toward the street, heading home. Their argument had sucked all the oxygen out of the confined area, and she knew they both needed space away from each other to breathe.
Ten long minutes of silence later, Tessa pulled into the driveway of their home. She parked in the garage and walked inside, looking for her boyfriend, Jason, leaving a fuming Nova still out in the car.
“Babe?” she called out. In his home office, carved out of their spare bedroom down the hall, she heard him talking to someone on the phone. She paused to listen and give him quiet in case he was on a conference call. It was the tone of his voice that filled her with unease. The timbre was warmer than usual. She couldn’t make out the words he was saying, but it was the tenderness she heard that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. He chuckled and continued to croon softly into the phone with the deep voice she’d fallen in love with two years prior. Warm and engaging, it was one of the many characteristics she found attractive about him. Her insecurities were cueing up as waves of panic and fear crashed over her. Who was on the other end of that phone?
She tiptoed down the hallway, closer to his office. Standing outside the door, just out of his line of sight, she focused on his words, holding her breath as her heartbeat hammered in her ears. A deluge of guilt crashed over her. This wasn’t the woman she thought she was. A weak, untrusting shrew who listened in on her boyfriend’s private conversations. Yet there she was, pressed up against the wall, listening in, unable to stop herself.
“It was great to hear from you, too,” he murmured into the phone, and Tessa’s heart dropped. She rifled through the list of options of who could be on the other end. His mother passed away over ten years ago. His sister? She couldn’t remember the last time he had anything nice to say about her. “I have to go. Tessa just pulled in.”
Hearing her name, Tessa slid down the hallway silently, desperate to put space between them. She would die of mortification on the spot if he caught her stooping low enough to eavesdrop on his conversation. On stockinged feet, she rushed to the kitchen. Behind her, Jason whistled as he walked down the hall, every step bringing him closer. To hide her momentary lapse of judgment, Tessa turned toward the refrigerator and tugged the doors open, glancing through the meager ingredients, trying to come up with a plan for dinner.
“You’re home early,” Jason said over the expanse of granite separating them.
“The principal called. I had to go to the high school for a meeting. Nova got in-school suspension,” Tessa admitted, needing to vent and unburden herself. She shut the doors and turned to face him, hugging her arms around her middle.
“Again?” His eyes were wide. “Isn’t that some sort of record?”
“Not the kind any mother wants her kid to break.” Still exhausted from the conversation in the car with Nova, she changed the subject. “Who was that on the phone?” she asked, unable to help herself. Frustrated, she needed answers to soothe her fears and push down the insecurities that welled up during the call.
“The help desk. They’re struggling to get my new phone on the network,” he answered, running one hand through his dark hair that was trimmed close to the back of his head but full on top. At almost fifty, he was a catch. She knew it the second she laid eyes on him. His bald-faced lie made her eyes sting with tears.
“And then she dropped another bombshell on the way home,” Tessa added.
“What now?” His expression morphed into complete exasperation that matched hers.
“She wants to go live with her dad.”
He was silent for a long moment as he considered it, but then his next words stunned Tessa. “Maybe you should let her.”
“Are you serious?” Tessa’s voice pinched, and she couldn’t keep her shock at the absurdity out of it. “You want me to willingly deposit her into the arms of the man who deserted her last year?”
“Come on, Tess. Would it be the worst thing?” he asked. “We could use a break around here. I know I sure could.”
Tessa didn’t disagree. Parenting Nova had been getting increasingly difficult as she acted out at school and balked at household rules. She often left bowls of milk in her room, drawing ants and growing mold. Nova refused to keep her bathroom clean and left streaks of black hair dye in the sink and on their shared towels without a care in the world. Her typical teenage laziness infuriated Jason, and Tessa often found herself wedged in-between them as the peacemaker.
“I’m sick of all the drama that seems to swirl around her life. She invites it in, snuggles with it, and makes everyone around her miserable.”
Tessa took a seat at the island, hoping to close both the physical and the emotional distance between them, and asked, “Is that it? Are you miserable?”
“We both are!” He swiped his hands over his face and let out a long, exasperated sigh. His frustration was palpable. It was a recycled exchange they seemed to have nightly, where nothing ever got resolved. The dynamic was draining them both. He pulled out a chair and sat down next to her. “I haven’t been happy in a long time, and if you’re honest with yourself, you have to admit you haven’t been, either.” His voice was softer, barely above a whisper.
She turned toward him. It was a conversation they’d been avoiding for months, skirting around it, and pushing it away to the corners of the room. Now that they were acknowledging the facts, an alarm went off in her heart. It was like walking on a frozen lake in the early spring. She’d been hearing the hairline cracks for months, but the plunge into those icy depths now felt inevitable. Tessa slowly brought her blue eyes over to meet his brown ones.
“That wasn’t the help desk, was it?” Her voice barely registered over a whisper, and he recoiled like someone had slapped him. “I heard you.” It wasn’t an accusation; it was just a painful statement of facts.
Caught in a lie, he was taken aback. His eyes dropped to the floor, and his firm jaw clenched. She saw the beginning of his five o’clock shadow darkening his cheekbones and chin. He scratched his long fingers at the emerging whiskers as a hot breath escaped his lips.
“I don’t know if this works between us anymore. I’m sorry, Tessa.” His voice cracked, and her heart followed suit.
Tessa’s eyes darted around the townhouse they’d rented together. There were still nine months left on the lease. “She’s almost an adult. I know the last two years have been hard, but it’s almost over. We’re almost free.”
“Are we?” he asked sadly, his words tinged with regret. “I don’t know if I see it the same way. She’s going to need your focused support and attention for the next several years.”
“She’s my daughter. I can’t just pack her bags and change the locks when she turns eighteen.”
“I understand that. Believe me, I do.” Resolved, he stood to his full six foot four inches. His eyes met hers. “I think we both could use some time apart. Don’t worry, I’ll help with the lease since I made the commitment.”
“Gee, thanks.” She wanted to tell him to take the lease and shove it, but she was stuck. She couldn’t afford the townhouse without him. His minor concession made her heart hurt. After a multitude of short-term relationships, she’d pinned all her hopes on Jason. She thought she was done dating, that she’d found her person. If she was honest, she’d admit to herself he’d been pulling away and taking on more business trips in the last two quarters. Now, she saw the last few months as they truly were, a long goodbye. She brushed away warm tears, squared her shoulders, and stood.
“I’m going to stay at the corporate townhouse for a while. Give you guys some space.” It was all so easy for him. To turn his back on the two years they’d spent together and all the plans they’d made. She wanted the hate to come in, but at that moment, she felt alone and unlovable. He tried to take her in his arms, the place she always went for comfort, but this time she refused.
“Don’t,” she said, holding up her hand as a barrier between them. She knew if he pulled her to his chest and she breathed in the scent of his aftershave for the last time, she would fall apart. She knew little, at that moment, standing in their shared kitchen, but she knew he didn’t deserve a gateway to her heart anymore.
A few moments later, he left, shutting the door behind him quietly. That’s when the tears flowed. She made popcorn for dinner and chased it with a margarita and was grateful that even Nova knew enough to stay away.