Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Chapter 2, part 2: Fix-It Mom

I groaned at the sound of the alarm the next morning. A mind swirling with guilt and worry had made sleep elusive. Sore from the accident, I hesitated to get out of bed.

Mom knocked on my door and came in. “Gigi, honey, how are you feeling this morning?”

“Not that great.”

“You look exhausted. How about you stay home from school today? We can talk about what happened, and then I’ll drive you over to Blessed Redeemer. I set up an appointment for us to meet with Pastor Jim.”

“The youth pastor? Why? Do we have to?” I looked up to Pastor Jim and his wife. They were always telling me what a great girl I was, that they hoped their toddler would turn out as well as me one day. It was flattering, but it made me uncomfortable too, like any second they would find out how wrong they were about me. If we went to his office with a real problem, he’d see me as just another one of the troublemakers. He’d start asking questions and then he’d find out my most shameful secrets.

“I’m worried about you, sweetie. Taking the car like that was so unlike you. You’re smarter than that. I’m concerned it was a cry for help.”

Mom went to help Kirsten and Ruth finish getting ready for school.

After they left, I drew a hot bath to soak my aching muscles and think. I slid down, letting my hair swirl around me in the water. The water covered my ears, blocking out all noise. I closed my eyes, imagining that I were floating in space.

Why had I taken Daddy’s car? Maybe it was a cry for help after all. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been truly happy. There was so much pressure to conform, to measure up, to excel but not stand out too much. No matter what I did it, it was never enough. I wasn’t enough.

I wasn’t pretty enough. I’d never be a model. My breasts were too small. My hair too frizzy, my glasses too nerdy, my zits too disgusting.

I wasn’t friendly enough. I’d never be popular. I was too quiet, too serious. Too much of a goody good. The popular girls intimidated me and fascinated me at the same time. I stammered and froze up whenever I tried to interact with them. Except for Alicia and my lab partner Quan, I didn’t have any real friends. I’d never been to any of the school dances. I wanted to at least go to senior prom, but no one had asked yet.

Academics were my strong suit, but lately even that had been a disappointment. Mom said as smart as I was that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be the valedictorian or at least salutatorian. I studied as hard as I could, but graduation was closer every day and I was still only 7th in my class.

And then there was church. The word grace was preached from the pulpit and taught in the classrooms of the Lutheran elementary school I’d attended, but in real life it seemed meaningless. If we were saved by grace and not by works, why did youth group feel like a competition to show who was the most “on fire” for God? Faith seemed measured by how regular your quiet time was, how much you prayed, how much you witnessed, or how many mission trips you had been on. Part of me wanted to do those things, but I never could keep up with it, and every time I missed a day, I felt like a huge failure. What kind of Christian was I to break one of the ten commandments and disobey my parents?

The water drained out of the tub, leaving me cold. I lay there shivering, feeling like I deserved some sort of punishment. What was wrong with me? Was I depressed or something? How pathetic would that be. It’s not like I had any real problems. What did I have to be depressed about?

I threw on jeans and a plain black tee shirt and headed downstairs, hair still dripping. Mom walked into the kitchen from the garage just as I sat down at the table with a bowl of cereal.

“Black again? Never mind. Ready for our talk?”

I nodded. I’d rather skip this part, but there was no getting out of it.

“First of all, I need you to apologize to me for lying to your father last night.”

“It was all a big misunderstanding, Mom. You’re probably not going to believe me, but I didn’t lie to Daddy. At least not intentionally. I was trying to explain that you were gone, that’s all.”

“I see. He assumed you were trying to say I gave you permission. I’ll clear that up with him when he gets home. Now, the real issue: why did you do it, honey?”

“I don’t know.” The pity party I had in the bathtub didn’t seem relevant anymore. Besides, Mom would never understand.

“What is really going on with you, Gigi? Is this about a boy? Are you having sex?”

“What? Where did that come from? Don’t be ridiculous!”

“I didn’t think so, but I just had to ask. Of course, girls just don’t have the sex drive that boys do at your age. I used to hope my first child would be a boy, because I had so much fun having an older brother growing up. But these days I’m glad not to have a son. Did you hear about the Jacobs’ oldest boy? Got a 15 year old girl pregnant.”

Failed again, on two counts. Not only not the boy she’d hoped for, I was one of the freakish girls who did have a sex drive. I may not have had any opportunities, but I sure thought about it a lot.

I listened to her lecture and gave the responses I knew she wanted to hear, something I’d been doing all my life.

“I’m glad we had this talk,” she said at last. “It’s time to head over to the church office. Is there anything else you need to talk about?”

All my bathtub reflections came rushing back, but I couldn’t find a way to put them into words. All I could manage was, “Mom, what if I’m not the good girl you think I am?”

“Oh, honey. It’s not about labels. I’m sorry that you think in those terms. I wish I had learned all this positive parenting stuff when you were small—I would have done things so differently. I used to say ‘good girl’ to you all the time, didn’t I? But you need to know right now, there’s no such thing as a ‘good girl.’ You can make good or bad decisions, or really I guess I should say healthy or unhealthy choices, but it doesn’t change who you are. You’re my daughter and I love you. Always.”

“Aw, mom. You have to say that.”

Mom stood. “I don’t have to. In fact, I should say it more often.” She glanced at her watch, stood and put a hand on my shoulder. “C’mon. We really do have to go now. Let’s not keep Pastor Jim waiting.”

Chapter 2, part 1: Confession

All too soon Mom and I were winding our way through the hills toward our home. As we walked in the door, the old grandfather clock in the entryway struck midnight, echoing in the cathedral ceilings of the living room. Further beyond, the flicker of the TV dimly lit the sleeping forms of Kirsten and Ruth on the leather sofas in the family room.

Mom led me to the living room and pressed her cell phone into my hand.

“It’s so late. Can’t this wait until morning?” I asked in a last ditch effort to put off the inevitable.

“It’s only 10 in Honolulu. Enough excuses. You need to make this right tonight.”

“Do you have to stand there and watch me do it? You’re making me nervous.”

“Fine. I trust that you’ll tell him the whole truth. I’ll give you some space. I’ll be helping the girls to bed. I want you to come find me when you are done. We still have a lot to talk about.”

I trudged up the stairs and down the hall to my room as though going to my execution. I sat on the edge of my four poster bed, then stood again. I couldn’t say something like this sitting down. I found Daddy’s cell number in the list of contacts and hit send. While it rang, I paced in front of the window, studying the twinkling lights of the city below. Just when I was getting my hopes up that he wasn’t going to pick up, I heard his voice come on the phone.

“Millie? Why are you calling so late? Is something wrong?”

“Daddy, it’s me, Giselle.”

“Giselle, what a nice surprise to hear your voice! Miss me?”

“No. I mean, yes, I do miss you, but that’s not why I’m calling.”

“What’s up, kiddo? You sound upset.”

“I was driving to the beach with Alicia—”

“On a school night?”

“I did my homework first. We were almost there when someone ran a red light and hit me.”

“Oh my God! Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Daddy. But …”

“But what?”

“Your Miata.” The tears edging my voice finally spilled out.

“What about my car?” He said warily.

"That’s what was in the accident. I’m so sorry, Daddy. I wanted to drive it, and Mom—”

“I don’t want to hear anymore. Let me talk to your mother. Now.”

In the hall outside my room Kirsten and Ruth stumbled past me to their shared room, still half asleep. I found Mom tidying up in the family room and handed the phone back to her. I sank down onto the couch, hugging knees to chest. Mom took the phone around the corner into the kitchen. She was speaking too low for me to make out any words, but it didn’t sound good.

After a few minutes, Mom returned the phone to me with a scowl. She sat in an armchair opposite me, arms folded.

“Daddy? I’m so sorry.”

“It seems to me, Giselle, that you’re only sorry that you were caught. Not only did you take my car without permission, but you lied about it, trying to blame your mother.”

“I didn’t!” No wonder Mom looked so mad. She trusted me to tell the whole truth, accept responsibility, and now it looked like I tried to weasel out of it.

“Don’t you dare argue with me. I heard you with my own ears. Your mother and I have decided that you will need to pay $500 toward the repair of the car. I really should make you pay for all of it, but then you’d be in debt the rest of your life. Instead you will pay for the difference in my insurance premium this year, and work in my office this summer. Two hours a day. For free.”

“Where am I going to get that kind of money?” I protested.

“Get a job, sweetie. I’d already had one for two years when I was your age.”

“I was planning to get a job this summer to help pay for college.”

“Well, then just think how nice it will be to already have one.”

When I hung up with Daddy, Mom said in a steely voice. “Go to bed now, Giselle. I need to sleep on this before I can talk about it calmly.”

Chapter 1, part 2: Aftermath

Finally the car stopped moving. Alicia slumped in her seat, oddly still.

Warm liquid trickled down my face. I cautiously felt for the source and winced as my right hand found the gash from where my glasses had smashed into my brow bone. I unlatched the seatbelt, ignoring the ache in my left arm. I had to help Alicia.

I couldn’t see any obvious injuries. But that didn’t mean there weren’t any. What if her neck was broken? Had I paralyzed my best friend, or worse?

I gently touched her forehead. “Alicia?”

Her eyelids fluttered, and she straightened up in the seat.

“Thank God!” I said. My whole body started to shake.

“Giselle? Why didn’t you speed up?” Alicia’s voice was as shaky as I felt.

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone knows that when a car is heading for you like that you floor the gas to try to get away. Didn’t you see it coming?”

I hadn’t, at least not until too late. I’d been too busy with my pathetic fantasies. I’d endangered Alicia’s life, both our lives. How could I have been such an idiot, such a careless driver?

“I don’t know, I don’t know. Oh, Alicia, I’m so sorry.” I started to cry, as condemnation rained down on my soul.

I was an awful driver. I shouldn’t even be allowed on the roads. And I was a thief to boot. What a rotten miserable selfish daughter I was, sneaking around and taking what didn’t belong to me. Mom always prayed each morning before I left for school, that God would keep me safe from reckless drivers. And now I was the reckless driver. God hadn’t kept me safe this time. But why would He, when I had done everything wrong? And when Daddy came home …

I groaned. “How am I going to face my dad?”

Sirens signaled the arrival of an ambulance and California Highway Patrol car. Suddenly we were at the center of a whirl of activity. EMTs helped us from the car and assessed our injuries. I caught my first glimpse of the damage to the Miata. The left back side was smashed in, the rear axle bent. Where was the other car, the one that hit us?

As the EMTs worked on us, the CHiPper interviewed several witnesses about the crash. All too soon it was my turn. I was going to be found out.

The CHiPper introduced himself as Officer Green. “Miss Gottlieb is it? I don’t want you to worry or get nervous. Given that this is a hit and run, it’s pretty clearly not your fault. But I have to ask a few questions just as procedure.”

“I’ll do my best. It all happened so fast.”

“You look pretty shaken up. Tell you what, I’ll follow up with you at the hospital. We need to start clearing the road anyway.” Officer Green put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Just try to remember, these things happen. It’s not your fault.”

Not my fault? He might believe that, but I knew better. He didn’t know I had taken the car without permission, or that I slammed on the brakes just when I should have been speeding up.

At the ER, they quickly confirmed that Alicia and I had no major injuries and sent us to the lobby to wait for our parents to pick us up. Officer Green came and went. He phrased all the questions as statements with a “Isn’t that right?” at the end, so that all I had to do was say yes or no.

Mom walked in, looking regal with her long silver hair flowing in soft waves down around her shoulders. “I came straight here as soon as I got the call.” She hurried to me and enveloped me in a hug, then pushed me away and shook me by the shoulders. “How could you scare me like that?”

“I’m so sorry, Mom,” I said and fell into her embrace again, sobbing. “The car, it’s totaled. I don’t know how I’m going to face Dad.”

Mom stroked my hair back from my forehead like she always did when I was upset or sick. “It was just your grandfather’s old beater. I never liked you driving around in that heap anyway,” she soothed, tipping up my chin to kiss the wispies at my hairline.

“No, Mom. Opa’s car is still at home.” I pulled away and hung my head. “I was in the Miata.”

“The Miata? But how did—”

“I took it. I snuck in your room and found Daddy’s keys. I thought I’d have it back before anyone found out.”

“Giselle Gertrude Gottlieb! That’s not like you. You’ve always been my good girl. No, wait, that’s shaming, and I don’t do that anymore. Sorry. Can I try again?” She took a big breath and let it out slowly. “Thank you for being honest now, that took courage. But I’m not the one you wronged. You have to call your father and confess.”

“Can’t I wait until he gets home next week?” I whined. Up until a few months ago, it might have worked too. But ever since Mom started taking some positive parenting courses to help her deal better with Kirsten, she had a new backbone.

"Kind and firm, Millie. You can do this,” she said to herself. She handed me her cell phone, her green eyes glittering with determination. “You will make the call now. It will be better if he has time to process all this before seeing you.”

I shuddered wondering what would happen if he didn’t have time to process it. I’d seen Daddy angry before, but never at me. I knew he held grudges, gave the silent treatment. Would he ever forgive me? “I can’t. I don’t know what to say.”

“Very well. You can think of what you’d like to say on the way to drop off Alicia.” She turned to my friend, comfort in her smile and a hug in her voice. “Sweetie, your mom couldn’t get off her shift at the diner, and she asked me to get you home. She really wishes she could be here.” Her demeanor hardened again as she turned back to me. "And as soon as we get home, young lady, you’re going to call your father in Hawaii and tell him what you did.”

Chapter 1, part 1: Joy Ride

The black convertible sped down the freeway toward Newport Beach. Exhilaration and fear mixed in my stomach as I gripped the steering wheel. Would I get away with this?

“Wow! I can’t believe your dad let you borrow his new Miata!” my best friend Alicia said from the passenger seat next to me. Her silky straight black hair whipped around her face. “I feel like we’re on a joyride!”

“Yeah, well … he did!” I lied.

Though I’d begged, Daddy wouldn’t even let me take the car for a test drive around the block, let alone a drive to the beach on a school night. But he was out of town at a sales recognition event and it was Mom’s Bible study night.

The keys to the Miata had been just laying there on Daddy's dresser. You’d think if he didn’t want anyone driving it, he’d have put them away somewhere safer, right? I couldn't resist.  I figured we’d be back before Mom got home, and neither of my parents would be the wiser. My sister, Kirsten, just one year my junior, was sworn to secrecy, and I had made sure nine-year-old Ruth had no idea what was going on.

“You’re so lucky, Giselle,” Alicia said. “You have like, the perfect family. I think you’re the only one in the whole school whose parents are still together.”

“I guess.”

No family was perfect, I knew. Mine definitely wasn’t, even if from the outside we met all the standards of a happy Christian family. Daddy was hardly home, and he pinched every penny when he was. I didn’t see why, he was getting his Top Sales award this week in Hawaii and we seemed to have plenty of money for things HE wanted, like this Miata or our new house in the hills above Citrus Valley.

Then there was Mom, always nagging me about everything. If I got a B, she’d wonder why it wasn’t an A. If I wore my hair up, she’d say how much prettier it was down. Kirsten and Mom bickered constantly, and Ruth was off in her own little dreamland half the time. And me … well, I had a few private habits I wasn’t too proud of. The Gottlieb family was far from perfect, but that wasn’t the kind of thing I talked about with anyone. Not even my best friend.

“What do you want to do when we get there? How about a walk around the FunZone?” Alicia asked.

“Don’t know if we have time,” I said. It was already 7:45. The drive down had taken longer than I had planned. Mom usually got home from Bible study at 9:00, but I wanted to be back home by 8:30 just to be on the safe side.

“What do you mean, no time? I thought your curfew wasn’t ‘til ten on school nights?”

Alicia didn’t have a curfew. Her mom worked two jobs to keep the two of them in an apartment in the Citrus Valley school district. It seemed like Alicia could do whatever she wanted.

I scrambled to think something plausible to tell Alicia. Studying to do? No, we both had the same classes and she’d know there wasn’t much homework assigned today. What a tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive, Mom’s voice rang in my head.

“Um, actually, my dad doesn’t really know about me using the car.”

“So this really is a joyride! Look at you Giselle, taking a walk on the wild side for once.”

We passed a yellow “End Freeway” sign, and I took my foot off the gas and let the car coast in anticipation of the traffic signal ahead. I deeply inhaled, enjoying the unmistakable salty tang in the air. Soon we’d be at the beach.

The light turned green before we reached the signal to cross Pacific Coast Highway. Though there were a few cars waiting for the light, my lane was clear. I pushed the pedal to the floor and shifted into gear, sailing into the intersection. I’d imagined the Miata would be a blast to drive, but this beat all expectations. I felt like a beautiful babe from an action movie, the one the hero falls in love with. If only the boys at school could see me now.

Who was I kidding? They’d see frizzy brown hair made wilder by the whipping wind, and a body that was nothing to write home about. I’d never even had a boy notice me, let alone had a boyfriend. They all just thought of me as a pal. Why couldn’t I have inherited Mom’s big bust or Dad’s fair Austrian good looks?

Alicia grabbed my arm. “Giselle, look out!”

A car on Pacific Coast Highway was running the red light. By instinct, I slammed on the brakes, but we were going too fast. Slowing down put us directly in the car’s oncoming path instead of keeping us out as I thought it would.

Tires screeched. Brakes squealed. Airbags deployed on impact, and the Miata spun sharply left. Alicia’s screams fell eerily silent. Would we ever stop spinning? White powder from the airbags stung my eyes.