©2012 by Richard S. Crawford; 2,902 words
“Ow!” Jenny squirmed and glared at Eleanor. “What did you do that for?”
Eleanor grinned. “You’re all nervous. You needed a poke in the side to get over it.”
Jenny rubbed her ribs. “Did you have to do it to be so hard?”
“Yes, Jen,” Eleanor said, nodding solemnly, “I did.”
Jenny shook her head and looked back at the front door. The two of them had driven for over an hour to get here. She was tired and irritable, and she didn’t have the energy to put up with her friend right now.
What was taking her parents so long? She’d rung the doorbell already.
Eleanor apparently had read her mind. “Maybe you didn’t push it hard enough.” She reached in front of Jenny and pressed the doorbell, hard enough to make the skin around her fingernail turn white. The doorbell made a lengthened “Ding… Dong.”
Jenny tugged Eleanor’s arm. “No, they’re not home. Let’s go.”
“No, I want to meet your parents! Just a few more minutes.”
Before Jenny could protest again, the door opened. Her father, all three hundred pounds of him, wearing a too-small T-shirt with an X-Files logo on it, loomed in before them. He peered at the two young women through thick glasses and rubbed his shaggy beard. “Hi. Can I help you?”
For a moment Jenny could say nothing. Her own father hadn’t even recognized her. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?
Eleanor came to the rescue. “Mr. Grist?” she said. “Hi, I’m Eleanor.”
Jenny’s father nodded. “Hello Eleanor.” He turned back to Jenny and stared closely at her. “Do I know you?”
Jenny cleared her throat. “Dad, it’s me. Jenny.”
Jenny’s father peered at her for a moment longer before recognition spread over his face. “Hey! Jennifer! Wow! Frak, I didn’t even recognize you!”
Jenny winced. She wasn’t surprised her father used a curse from Battlestar Galactica, but she’d hoped he wouldn’t.
But he didn’t notice her discomfort. He turned around to look back into the house. “Hey Meg! It’s Jennifer!” He turned back to Jenny and pushed open the screen door. “Come on in, Jennifer. We were just about to sit down and watch a few Classic Trek episodes.”
Jenny hesitated. On the one hand she needed to get her computer from her parents’ house; on the other hand, the idea of watching a few episodes of Star Trek while her parents argued, again, about whether Picard was a better captain than Kirk (her mother favored Picard, her father was unflinchingly a Kirk fan), made her queasy. Especially with Eleanor here as well. “Actually, Dad, I’m here to get my computer. That’s all.”
Her father’s crestfallen look was undeniable. “Are you sure, sweetheart?”
Jenny nodded. “I’m sure.”
“Well, how about dinner, then? We haven’t seen you for such a long time.”
“Actually Eleanor’s got an appointment, so we can’t…”
Eleanor interrupted. “Dinner sounds great, Mr. Grist! What time?”
Jenny’s dad grinned again. “Great! Why don’t you guys show up here at six then? We’ll have something really special.” He stood there, stupidly, holding the screen door open, blocking the door with his bulk.
Jenny cleared her throat.
“Oh! Sorry, Jennifer. Come on in.” He stood aside, and Jenny stepped into the house, followed by Eleanor.
Jenny’s father followed the two of them as Jenny went into her old bedroom. “I knew you’d be back for it. Jennifer Grist just couldn’t leave her computer behind.”
“Yeah,” said Jenny. She glanced over at Eleanor. “Everyone’s supposed to have one.”
“It’s in your old room. I went ahead and upgraded your whole system for you. Threw in some more RAM, gave you a new graphics card, that sort of thing. I also fixed up your boot loader, it was having some troubles. You’ve got the newest version of Slackware on it now, but I recompiled the kernel so that Enlightenment could work with it. I know that’s your favorite desktop environment.”
Jenny’s heart skipped a beat. She couldn’t have him talking like this, not in front of Eleanor. “Dad…”
“Oh, don’t worry. I kept your dual-boot and hardened down your Windows partition. I know you need your games. I loaded up Starcraft, World of Warcraft, the latest Civ, all your favorites. Honestly, Jen, I don’t know how you lived without them.”
Jenny swallowed hard. “I… I wanted to concentrate on my studies.”
“Well, you were always smart. Your mother and I are very proud of you, but we were getting worried. Here, I’ll take your computer to the car.” He grunted and lifted up the huge monitor. “Why don’t you go say hello to your mother?”
“No, I’ll help you with this,” Jenny said.
Eleanor chimed in again. “No, go see your mom,” she said. “I’ll help your dad. He can tell me all about what you were like in high school.”
Jenny bit her lip. There was no way out of this one. “Fine,” she said.
As her father and Eleanor struggled with the various components of her computer, Jenny wandered into the living room. Her mother was sitting on the floor in front of the sofa, a stack of thick reference books in front of her: Star Trek concordances, mostly. She wore a denim skirt and an X-Files T-shirt, just like the one her dad wore. They always wore matching T-shirts. If it had just been a couple of years earlier, Jenny would have been wearing an X-Files shirt as well.
“Hi, Jennifer. Sorry I didn’t get up, I was just looking up something.”
Jenny said, “Hi, mom.”
“Just a sec.” Her mother scanned the book in front of her, and finally let out a huff of frustration. “Your father and I were having a disagreement,” she said. “He insists that the mek’leth is longer than the bat’leth, but I’m positive I saw it listed the other way around in one of these Klingon references.”
“The bat’leth is longer, Mom.” The words startled Jenny. They were out before she could stop herself. Beside her, Eleanor giggled.
“Are you sure?”
Jenny nodded, her cheeks burning.”It’s canon, Mom.”
Her mother sighed. “You’re probably right. You worked so hard to learn Klingon.” She looked her daughter up and down, as if noticing her for the first time. “Look at you. You look beautiful. You’ve lost so much weight, I didn’t even recognize you.”
“I’ve been through a lot of changes.”
“Where are your glasses?”
“I’m wearing contacts now.”
Her mother smiled. “Well, you just look so healthy. I’m so proud of you.”
The two sat in silence for a few moments. Jenny hugged herself, feeling awkward. Her mother looked… greasy. Just like her dad. Her hair was long and stringy, absolutely lifeless, drooping over her shoulders like damp spaghetti. The skirt she wore was, she could tell now, just a cheap denim from some big box store, Bullseye or S-Mart. Her mother had obviously just thrown an outfit together as she crawled out of bed, just like always. It was her parents’ way; any time they had a paycheck, it would go to books, movies, games, or toys. To them, these were staples, as necessary to a healthy life as food or water or medical care. Clothes just hadn’t been a priority.
Jenny had changed her own priorities. It had been a struggle, but she’d done it.
“So,” her mother said. “Have you been keeping up on Stargate: Universe?”
Jenny shook her head. “I didn’t know it had started, actually.”
“You didn’t? Oh, Jennifer! Well, we’ve been Tivo’ing all the episodes. I’ll burn a disk for you before you leave, okay?”
“No, mom, you don’t have to do that.”
“Are you sure? It’s no trouble.”
Jenny sighed. She didn’t want to get into any sort of… discussion. “Okay, mom. That would be great. Thanks.” She could always leave the disk behind, sort of on accident, and pretend to be so caught up in her studies that she’d just not noticed she’d forgotten it.
She heard the front door open and close again. “Jennifer!” her father cried. “Your computer’s loaded into your friend’s car. ”
Jenny stood up. “I have to go Mom. But Dad said something about dinner?”
“Oh! That would be great! You know we’ve been planning something special in case you showed up for dinner like this. You’re going to love it.”
“I’m sure I will, Mom. I’ll see you later, okay?”
Her mother circled her thumb and forefinger and held it in front of her eye for just a sec. “Be seeing you.”
“Oh my God,” Eleanor said as they were driving away. “I had no idea you were such a nerd! And your parents are white! I wasn’t expecting that.”
“I was adopted.” Jenny looked at her friend and furrowed her brows. “And I’m not a nerd.”
Eleanor laughed. “Oh, you were a nerd when we first met. Remember? You were so weird. But thank God you found me, and you’re on the way to recovery.”
“Yeah. Thank God.”
“I mean, really. Look at you. Compared to how you were? I mean, you were so chubby, and your hair was a mess and your skin… Ugh! I mean, who knew there was such a pretty girl underneath all that?”
Jenny nodded. Eleanor was right, of course. “Who knew?”
“Well, you’re just going to love Chris, I can feel it. And she’s going to love you too. Everyone needs a personal stylist, and I know the two of you are just going to click.”
The sun had already set by the time Eleanor and Jenny — completely made over, with her hair softer and more vibrant than it had ever been in her entire life — got back to Jenny’s parents’ house. This time both her parents answered the door, side by side. And Jenny groaned inside; they were dressed in their Jedi robes.
“Wow, Jennifer, you look great!” her mother said. “You look just like… Um… Hon, who does she look like to you?”
Her father’s response was almost immediate. “Like Valkyrie,” he said. “From the Thor movies.”
“Oh, yes! Tessa Thompson, right? Jennifer, you look just like Tessa Thompson. Here, take this.”
Jenny looked down to the bundle of cloth that her mother had in her hands. It was her own Jedi robe.
“It probably won’t fit you,” her mother said. “You’ve lost so much weight and I haven’t had time to get it altered. But go on, put it on! And Eleanor, I think we’ve got one that will fit you as well.”
Jenny stared at the robe. She reached out her finger to touch it, tentatively.
Next to her, Eleanor took a quick breath.
Jenny dropped her hand. “No.”
Her mother’s mouth dropped open. “What?”
“I can’t wear that, Mom. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” Her mother shrugged. “Well, that’s okay. Come on in, you too.”
Jenny and Eleanor followed her parents into the house. And gathered in the living room were half a dozen men and women, people Jenny hadn’t seen for months. They all wore Jedi robes or similar outfits. In the center of the room was a table set out with rulebooks, notepads, and dice. From the kitchen wafted the scent of curry.
Her father had always insisted that the people of Tatooine would eat Indian food, if they only could.
“Jennifer!” the guests all cried out in unison. They were her parents’ gaming group.
“Surprise, Jennifer!” her father said. “Eleanor said you guys would be here for a few hours, so we gathered up the gang and we’re going to play Star Wars. We dug out your rebel leader for you.”
Jenny was stunned. Walking into this room was like jumping into a sauna after a few laps in a cold pool. It was a shock to her system. She felt the way she’d always imagined a sword would feel as it was being tempered, submerged alternatingly into hot and cold water. Except breaking underneath the shock, and not getting stronger for it.
Out of her peripheral vision she could see Eleanor covering her mouth and shaking her shoulders with laughter. Her parents would think Eleanor was delighting in the surprise. They’d never know that Eleanor was laughing at them, at her fat nerdy parents and their role-playing games.
Jenny took a breath, found she couldn’t breathe in deeply enough. The room spun. “Excuse me,” she stammered. She turned, and made her way through the front door.
She was still leaning against the wall when she heard her mom come and stand next to her. “Are you all right, Jennifer?”
Jenny tried to answer, and realized she couldn’t. She realized she had been crying. How could she have been crying without even realizing it? She lifted her hand to rub at her face, but her mother stopped her. “Here,” she said, pressing a tissue into her fingers. “Use that. You’ll spoil your makeup.”
“Thanks.” Jenny took the tissue and started to wipe at her eyes.
“No,” her mom said. “Dab. Don’t smear.”
Jenny nodded. She should have known that for herself.
“Your father and I were talking,” her mother said. “We’re pretty worried about you.”
Jenny sniffed. “I’m okay,” she said.
“I know. Of course you are. But, Jenny…” Her voice trailed off.
“Well, Jenny, it’s normal for young women to separate themselves from their parents when they go away to school. To try to form their own identities. I’ve always known that you would go your own way, become your own person. Like when Deanna Troi went off to Starfleet, remember how Lwaxana disapproved?”
“Sorry, Jenny.” For a few moments, her mother was silent. “But, Jenny, I’m afraid you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to turn yourself into something you’re really not. You’re going to lose the best part of you, and become… Well, someone who’s hollow. And that’s just going to hurt.”
Jenny found herself clenching her fist, crumpling the tissue into a tiny ball. “That’s not going to be what hurts mom. You know what hurts? What hurts is going to school every day for my whole life, being a nerd, being someone who’s so different from everyone else. I was laughed at every day. I was always made fun of.”
“But you seemed happy.”
“That’s just it, Mom! I seemed happy but I wasn’t. I was miserable. I mean, I was fat, I was ugly, I was just… Just a nerd. I just got so tired of people laughing at me. People like…”
Jenny looked at her mother. Had she actually seen that Eleanor was finding the whole evening not charming but ludicrous?
“I know, Jenny,” her mother said. “Believe me, I know. Eleanor was laughing at us. You don’t have to pretend.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Jenny, do you think I became like I am overnight? Believe me, I’ve been me my entire life. I know what it’s like to be teased at school. I know how hard it is.”
Jenny studied her mother’s face. There was genuine compassion there, Jenny could tell. But who did she think she was kidding? Her mother wasn’t sad, or hurt. Her mother was happy. Her mother had found her place in the world. She wasn’t like Jenny. There was no place for Jenny.
She was a square peg. She wouldn’t fit anywhere, not as she was. She had to make sure that she could, which meant changing herself. Reshaping herself. Her parents just weren’t able to help her do that.
“Mom, you wouldn’t understand.”
“I can try. You could let me.”
Jenny’s mother sighed. “Your father and I will always be here for you Jenny. Whenever you need anything, just ask. Okay? Will you promise?”
“Promise me, Jennifer.”
Jenny sighed. “Okay. If I ever need anything that you can provide, I’ll ask. I promise.”
“Well, I guess that’s good enough. Oh, and here’s Eleanor.”
Eleanor stepped from the shadows, as if she’d been lurking there. “Hi, Mrs. Grist. I wasn’t listening in, I promise.”
“Are you guys headed out?”
Jenny nodded before Eleanor could intercept again. “Yeah, we’ve got to get back to the University. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”
“Well, give me a hug at least. I can demand at least that much from you.”
Jenny glanced at Eleanor, caught her friend’s bemused look. She sighed inwardly, and gave her mother a brief hug. “I’ll see you later, Mom.”
Her mother gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Goodbye, honey.” She went back inside, her Jedi robe swirling around her.
Eleanor came and leaned against the wall next to Jenny. “Wow,” she said. “That was really something. Star Wars. Indian food. No wonder you were so fat. Oh, and your makeup’s a mess.”
Jenny looked down at the tissue in her hand, the one her mother, whom she had never seen wear makeup in all her life, had given her. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. If I’d known you were going to be so emotional I would have helped you find some better mascara.”
Jenny forced herself to smile. “I’m not that emotional,” she said. “But, you know. Parents and all. They bring out the worst in all of us, right?”
Eleanor laughed. “You’re so funny, Jen. Come on, let’s go.” She started toward her car.
Jenny crumpled up the tissue and dropped it on the ground. She didn’t need it. She was going to be happy. Happy, dammit. “Yeah. Let’s go home.”
This isn’t a story so much as it is a character study. Jenny Grist is one of the main characters in a novel that I’m working on. I thought it would be fun to examine a little bit of her history.