Jeff isn’t in a hurry to go home. Grace has been texting updates throughout the game about the fight she has been having with their oldest daughter, Eliza. The last text had simply been a gif of an erupting volcano. He isn’t sure who it represents, but either way he and Bobby should stay a safe distance away, particularly since the sight of her little brother would be sure to upset Eliza.
Last night, Bobby had asked about Carissa, one of Eliza’s friends, “Why does she have poison ivy on her face?” Jeff had explained it was acne because the girl had been going through puberty, and Bobby had replied, “I’m never going there.” What should have been a cute moment had enraged Eliza, who had railed, “Oh my God, could you get any more stupid?” Bobby had ignored this, which had enraged his sister even more.
Lately, not just Bobby, but everyone in the family irritated Eliza. On good days. On bad ones, they infuriated her. Since she was going through puberty herself, most days were bad days. Jeff or Grace only had to walk into a room to elicit eye rolling, sighs, and high volume complaints. The surprise of parenting had been to discover so many of the clichés were true, or at least clichés for a reason. Teenagers were different beasts, and it happened fast.
Jeff had always resolved never to be that parent who bemoaned the passage of time. He constantly heard people say how they missed the littleness of their children and to tell their kids “stop growing.” That seemed to him like regretting the tides or the phases of the moon. Shouldn’t the changes be celebrated and appreciated? He knew so many parents whose houses were full of kindergarten photos even though the kids were in college or long gone. The places felt like mausoleums, but families were evolving, living, organisms. Eliza and Bobby weren’t toddlers anymore. Those children didn’t exist, and Jeff wanted to enjoy the people they were now. That was the theory. In practice, Eliza was making that difficult. When he would ask her a question about school or friends, she would say, “What’s the point telling you anything? You don’t really care and I’ll just have to tell you again because you never listen.” It was frustrating that his daughter wasn’t letting him be the parent he wanted to be. As he complained to Grace after yet another fight, “She is making me into an asshole!”
Jeff could pinpoint the moment of the latest big change. One breakfast he had walked by Eliza, and as he had done hundreds of times before, he had reached over and given her a squeeze, his arm crossing her chest like a bandolier. Except this time, his arm didn’t lie flat. His hand came to rest on a bump, a bud, and he realized he was groping his daughter because suddenly there was something to grope. He had recoiled, walking from the room with his hand and face burning. Eliza had kept eating her oatmeal, not having noticed anything, but he knew that everything was different. The world had changed. From then on there were new house rules. Bathroom and bedroom doors had to be closed. Bobby had to give his sister privacy. They all did. It was like she was in lock-down or solitary confinement. No wonder she was angry. His attempts to stay close in other ways were met with scorn. No, she didn’t want to walk the dog. No, she didn’t want him to take her to school or pick her up or go for a smoothie or come close to her anywhere outside the house. He felt like if she could, she would have gotten some kind of restraining order to keep him away, except, of course, when she wanted him to drive her to the mall, or her friend’s house, or Starbucks, or a school event, or …
When Jeff and Bobby had left this morning — “sneaking out like cowards” is how Grace put it — Eliza had been in the shower. Again. She would be in the bathroom for hours, sometimes taking a shower in the morning and another before going to bed. So much steam had been filling the hallway that the photos hanging there had warped. After she had finished and eaten breakfast, according to Grace’s first text because they updated one another on their daughter’s status like she was a major weather system, Eliza had wanted to “have a talk.” Grace had put a warning emoji with this. Eliza wanted to talk to her mother constantly even though, Grace assured Jeff, she too apparently never listened. If she repeated back exactly what Eliza had said to show that she was listening, it would turn out, “THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING. YOU HAVE ZERO UNDERSTANDING. ZERO!” Neither she nor Jeff had realized puberty was going to be so loud.
“I always thought this was going to be a special time, talking and bonding with my daughter,” Grace had said. “I was going to be different than my mother. She never said a word to me about my body. I guess she thought my sisters or friends would fill me in. They didn’t. I literally went and looked up things in the library. But I’m done talking. I am done. I don’t want to talk about anything anymore, especially since I UNDERSTAND NOTHING!”
Jeff couldn’t imagine talking to his parents the way Eliza talked to them, but then he only vaguely remembered going through puberty. He had monitored a line of hair sprouting below his belly button, and, yes, he had thought people around him were stupid, but that was because he had been surrounded by people who were stupid. His dad certainly hadn’t been as cool or as tolerant as he was. Eliza had no idea how lucky she was to have him as a father, and, frankly, he was resentful that she didn’t. When she yelled, “YOU ARE HORRIBLE. I HATE YOU” or some variation of the constant refrain “YOU NEVER YOU ALWAYS YOU NEVER” he felt like responding, “FUCK YOU! FUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOU!” It wasn’t fair. His mother had been a hard woman with a short fuse, who thought nothing of shouting at him. Now Jeff had a daughter zeroing in on him. When would it be his turn to yell? Would he have to wait for the retirement home when he wouldn’t have the breath to do it?
Jeff doesn’t admit it, even to Grace, but he has begun to scrutinize his daughter’s face for pimples. He wants to see them. He wants her to get zits. A nice case of teenage poison ivy. It would serve her right. If she is going to act ugly, then she should look ugly. Acne was nature’s way of issuing a warning about danger, like fangs or horns or rattles. “Be careful,” pimples on a teenager say.
Jeff knows this is a horrible thing to think. He knows he needs to be careful because he was right. His daughter is making him an asshole, and he has zero understanding how to keep it from happening.