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Fiction #315
(published February 1, 2007)
by Kristy Athens
You unlock your car door, about to drive your daughter home from her flute lesson. Reach across to unlock her side, slump behind the wheel. Close the door, careful to collect the edges of your coat.

She is waiting for a response to what she just said to you. Some kind of advice.

The engine takes some coaxing, but finally fires up. You concentrate on backing out from your space, outlined in yellow, and maneuvering down the narrow lanes to the exit.

How did this happen? The two of you had just been talking about school, nothing heavy, just What's new? The next thing you knew, your daughter had divulged a great tear in her soul. With an air of impatience, of Everyone knows this, Mom, why are you so slow to catch on?, she said, "Nobody in school likes me, Mom."

Your daughter takes her lesson in a music store in a shopping mall, so you usually poke around the shops while she plays. You avoid the shoe store; the people there stalk you like used-car salesmen: "Hi! You look like a seven. Can I fit you into these great new pumps?" They act like your long-lost friends.

Though you could be getting a hundred other things done, you don't mind squandering this time once a week. Your daughter is in the sixth grade, small — not sick or anything, just a shrimp. Crooked teeth, bushy brown hair and glasses since kindergarten. Your husband argues privately that the lessons are a waste of money: Is she going to be a professional musician? But you've always hoped that the flute might give her something to be proud of, a little confidence. And just today, the tutor told you that she's a very competent student.

You carefully exit the parking lot. They built this mall before the avenue became a full-fledged highway, so you've got to merge aggressively. The cars whizzing by don't bother to make room for you.

Of course, the teachers love your daughter, send home nice comments on every report card, right below the list of As. This probably makes the other kids hate her even more.

She hasn't spent her whole life at this school. Your husband's been transferred once or twice, nothing extreme, just a hundred miles at a time. But now that you think about it, she's never lived in one place more than three years.

You signal and switch lanes to pass a slow-moving car. Your daughter pretends to review the sheet music in her lap.

Moving here after the third grade was the worst. You waited until June so it would be less traumatic, but still she bawled in your arms. Wet, hot mouth sobbing, "I miss Terri!" into your neck.

"Don't worry honey," you had consoled, rubbing the sweaty back softly. "You'll make new friends."

What else could a parent say? Or anyone else for that matter. You had already consoled yourself the same way for the friends you had to leave behind. You'd wept into your husband's neck too, at night while your daughter slept.

"Well," you begin. She looks up at you expectantly. You read the speedometer and ease off the gas; must have been pressing too hard on the pedal.

There was that trouble recently about the bully at her bus stop. But that girl seems harmless, tossing age-old taunts to the wind. Hasn't punched her or anything. Your daughter should know better than to take it personally.

You speed up to re-enter the right lane; the exit's approaching. Check in your rearview mirror to be sure it's clear.

You could tell her about the neighborhood "wars" you had when you were a kid. Dixon Street and Main Street factions lined up on either side of the creek, threw rocks and traded insults. The enemies shouted at you and your cousins, "Your mother wears army boots!"

Dixon Streeters returned, "Your daddy screws sheep!" You never felt personally implicated by those battles. That was just kids being mean.

Since becoming a grown-up, you're amazed at just how mean kids can be — countless pint-sized stand-offs on playgrounds and in front of convenience stores. Once, you saw a ten-year-old twisting a kindergartener's arm behind his back. Without a thought, you barked, "Hey, knock that off!" from across the street. The big kid stared at your pointing finger, then conceded the power of an Adult, pushing the younger boy away in disgust. You left before he changed his mind, because you didn't know what you would do if he defied you.

You want to tell your daughter that what she just said doesn't matter, that all the popular girls end up being face-lifted multiple-divorcees anyway. But you know that it does matter. Good grades are not the only thing. You consider the circle of executives who fill the reception area of your office every morning. Coffee cups in hand, they chat and exchange jokes under the pretense of being regular folks. As you pass by, it is understood that part of your job is saying "Good Morning" to them first. Cheerfully.

You know that your daughter's future success is going to require the ability to make a good impression. To be likeable. To schmooze. Your mind races. This problem isn't, "My shoelace broke, Mom."

"I can't find my music folder!"

"Linda ate the last cupcake!"

This is a real problem. You have never found an answer to this problem for yourself. For some reason, the grown-ups are still at war; they've just found more discreet ways to fight.

Finally, it is too late to reply. You had your chance to make it better and you failed. Your daughter stares out at the approaching pavement, sheet music draped unevenly from her knees. She will learn.

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