Essays - Autumn 2018

Present Tense

Even in this interminable drugstore line, my daughter’s last summer before college is slipping by far too quickly

By Laura Bernstein-Machlay | September 4, 2018
Photo-Illustration by David Herbick

Cooling her heels in the jammed-up CVS line, the mother calls to the daughter loitering somewhere behind us, “Girly, enough with the Cosmo or Glamour or what-the-eff-ever. Go grab me some Hershey’s. Get the Kisses. You know I love the Kisses.” The mother shifts leg to pale leg, crooks her fist on her hip beneath the midriff-baring red shirt. More of a glorified bra, really, now that I happen to notice. “Get all the kinds they’ve got,” she half-shouts, “the dark chocolate, the caramel. But not the ones with nuts. I don’t do nuts.”

While Girly trudges toward the candy aisle, the mother uses her palms to adjust her breasts in the bra-shirt to maximize cleavage, and dozens of braids shiver and shimmy like wild things over her naked shoulders.

“What were they thinking?” she asks, and at first I think she’s speaking to my daughter Celia and me. Then she spreads her arms wide to indicate she’s talking to the whole world, or at least to all us trapped rats, us line dwellers, shoppers so desperate for prescribed pills and lotions that we’re willing to waste this sultry June afternoon. My queue mates glance toward her, then look away. They huff and mutter over the perpetual lack of staff in this busy Detroit pharmacy. “Can’t we ever catch a break?” moans a big guy near the front, but the mother is stuck on the injustice of nuts added to chocolate.

“Nuts!” she says. “I don’t think so. You don’t get this from nuts, from seeds and squirrel food,” and she slaps her short-shorts–encased butt for emphasis. “This doesn’t come from goddamn kale.” She swings her head, and the crazy braids—lemon-bright beneath brown roots, with the odd purple or pink or electric blue mixed in—set to swishing about her back like Medusa’s snakes.

Serpents on acid, I think, before mentally poking myself in the eye because I’m trying to be less judgmental. But honestly, what middle-aged mother goes around like this? Who’s got time to maintain such glorious extravagance?

I’ve got long minutes to mull over these questions because I’m sixth in the unmoving line, dead last. Because 17-year-old Celia, though planted at my side, is ignoring me with everything she’s got.

Up at the counter, an elderly woman excavates several pill bottles from her cavernous handbag and sets them upright before the bored clerk. Behind her comes the Big Guy who, like so many Detroiters, can’t seem to catch a break. When he turns to inspect us poor souls trailing him, his belly juts like a nine-month pregnancy beneath a Hawaiian shirt populated with flamingos. An unfortunate fashion choice, I quick-think, then mentally flick myself again.

Next up, two near-identical businessmen—one black, the other white—pose like besuited Greek statues. Behind Misters Corporate A and B, there’s Braid Lady, No-Nuts Lady, waiting just in front of me, her hips twitching like she’s set to bust a lambada move. Though I never saw the daughter she sent on the chocolate run, I figure the girl must be a teenager like my Celia, what with the Glamour and Cosmo magazines she was supposedly looking at. I heard recently that some stores have now removed Cosmo—with its half-naked models and its headlines urging us to Contort Into Sex Positions Like a Pro Ho!—from the checkout aisle. I wonder if Celia has ever leafed through an issue, and hope, if she has, that she hasn’t taken the messages to heart.

Celia—this only, beloved child—who’s currently stuck like the rest of us line denizens beneath flickering fluorescent lights, her fingers with their chewed-to-nubs nails jabjabjabbing at her phone. I want to nudge her, make my eyes big and round as we silently consider (okay, judge) the mother in front of us with her rainbow-bright braids all a-quiver, with the teeny shirt, the tattoo sprawled across the white landscape of her back—a rising phoenix, wouldn’t you know, its face slightly lopsided and a lot demented. But Celia might as well be wearing a Do Not Disturb sign, so instead I lean in closer to examine the raised moles surrounding Braid Lady’s tat. Automatically I check them for cancer, as I learned to do on the Internet—can’t be too careful.

Then, in spite of my best intentions, my eyes slide back to Celia as she hard-focuses on her little screen. I get it, I do, how she’s intent on stretching the space between us as she practices for what’s to come. The Unbearable Upheaval. The Terrible Schism to occur at the end of this summer. Celia heading off to college, to her own life—as she must, of course. And me, I fear, condemned to long days of weeping with our dog, Donna, in a dark room. Yes, there’s Celia’s father, my husband, Steven, and he’s well and good, but I worry that this forthcoming wound will be deeper, more primal, than his cheerful presence can soothe.

But, enough. I give myself a shake, shove all these thoughts into the bulging drawers in my brain labeled Later and Dangerous.

Up front, the clerk informs the old woman and her legion of empty pill bottles that Medicare no longer covers one of the meds, and she wails in distress.

“I don’t understand,” she says over and over, her voice quavery, silk ribbon rubbed between fingertips. The rest of us in line—Big Guy and the Misters Corporate and Braid Lady and me and Celia—shuffle, inhale and exhale, subtly stretch necks and flex fingers, though Celia’s fingers are probably limber enough already from all her fancy phone work.

“This always happens to me,” harrumphs Braid Lady. I shrug in commiserate feeling. Celia looks up then and throws me a quick, surprising smile—perfect straightened teeth, bluest of blue eyes. The lashes—O lord, the lashes—and for no reason, she inches closer. She leans into my arm for just an instant and gives me a small slice of her weight, which makes me happy in a bone-deep sort of way, before she gets back to the business of texting.

“Joliet, Joliet! It’s been ages,” comes a woman’s voice to my right. She’s talking to Braid Lady, which takes me aback because she’s as precise in her appearance as BL/Joliet is not. In her late 30s at least, with blond hair brutally bobbed at her chin, with skin so tight, I imagine smiling hurts and straight-up grinning is probably out of the question. She’s plucked and polished just right, sporting a yellow pantsuit that matches the majority of her friend’s braids, its dark cuffs and collar coordinating nicely with Joliet’s roots.

“See what I found wandering the other side of the store,” says Pantsuit Lady. “Jeez, look at this kid, look how she’s changed in the last year.” She hauls over the kid I assume to be Joliet’s daughter and gives her a little shake, as if the girl had matured just to spite her. The girl, whose arms are heavy with bags of Hershey’s Kisses, lists on her pointy heels like a sailboat in rough water.

Now that I’m openly staring—because really, this is occurring an arm’s length from me—I notice that the girl sports the same wild braids as her mother, though hers are plain nut-brown. What’s also obvious is that the girl, definitely girl and not woman, is enormously pregnant, so pregnant, she balloons neck to crotch. I glance sideways at Celia, narrow as a sapling. Celia, still attuned to me in spite of her best efforts, who catches my movement and glances up before returning to her mad texting, maybe to Archer, the boy she just started seeing, a white kid from the suburbs. Honestly, I always figured I’d end up with a black or brown daughter-in-law one day. Celia’s barely dated at all, and only girls at that. Pretty girls, dainty as Celia, favoring flouncy, flowery dresses. Girls I want to hug, so I always have to hold myself back.

And, too, “Caucasians are the least attractive of humans,” Celia’s told me often enough. Even as I responded with some platitude about all people being beautiful. Or maybe I just told her the truth, that Celia with her crazy mermaid’s hair and eyes like lake water, with her poet’s words and soft soul, is the most gorgeous of all. So that she rolled those lake-blue eyes just the littlest bit and responded, “You’re the most gorgeous, too, Mom.”

So far as I know, Celia’s kissed no more than a handful of people romantically. Still, with Archer in the picture, I figured better safe than sorry and offered to make an appointment with the gynecologist to discuss birth control. But Celia gently declined. “It’s okay, Mom,” she told me in the kindest of voices, and neither of us has mentioned it since.

“Joliet, you’re gonna be a grandma!” says Pantsuit Lady, who’s decided to linger and chat, a bumblebee hovering alongside the stem of this hopeless line.

Joliet waves her arms, and the braids writhe. “Don’t I know it,” she whisper-shouts so everyone can hear. “The things this one’s put me through since I saw you last,” she says, using her thumb to indicate her Hershey’s-laden girl. Then she sighs and deflates just a smidge. “It might be a little soon for this to happen, but we’re making the best of it.”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t put your own mother through precisely the same,” responds Pantsuit Lady. “They do say what goes around comes around.” Joliet grimaces.

“Can I grab a snack?” asks Celia. I peer around Joliet & Company to check the progress of the elderly woman up front, see she’s just now given up her battle and has settled heavily into a chair beside the counter, perhaps to wait for the prescriptions still covered by insurance, or to rest up before starting her walk of defeat to the parking lot.

“Next,” calls the clerk unnecessarily, and everybody shambles forward. Big Flamingo Man approaches the counter, squares his linebacker’s shoulders. “I was overcharged for my last two prescriptions,” he says and pulls several receipts from one of a hundred pockets in his cargo shorts.

“Yeah, we have plenty of time,” I tell Celia and watch her meander toward the chips. On any other day, I’d have long ago quit this ridiculous line, stomped off with my annoyance in tow like a fussy toddler, with a “Forget this!” growled under my breath. But I’m off to a conference tomorrow and want Celia to have her new eczema cream before I leave, before she scratches her kneecap clean off. Steven could pick it up, of course. He’s perfectly capable and willing, but this has always been my job and I’m doing it while I can.

With this thought comes the too-familiar wrench behind my eyes, the locomotive chugging into the station before I can divert it—will Celia remember to eat in college, to bathe, to stop drinking this or that alcoholic brew before she dies, to choose kind friends? Or—and this comes tangled with sick-yellow dread—what if she does too well out there without me? Will she simply disappear forever into the wide-open world? Never mind that, as parents, we’re meant to be working toward this very outcome, at least I assume so. We’re told to dream big for our children, and such bigness can hardly be accomplished with the kids affixed in their childhood beds, eternally snug in the always-messy room with the basket piled high with Mount Laundry, with the Yoko Ono and Los Campesinos! posters on the wall. With the tattered plush toys and the eight fuzzy blankets.

But, never mind. I produce the mental broom and sweep all this into the brain drawer of terror. How much better to watch my line neighbors—the two women, the hugely pregnant daughter—having their reunion.

Joliet’s talking and moving even quicker now, like someone’s dialed up her speed setting. “You’re damn right I’m gonna be a grandma,” she says to Pantsuit Lady. “I’m gonna be the best effing grandma there’s ever been,” and she swings her hips like an exclamation point on her sentence. “The doctor says this one’s a boy. I’m getting a grandson.” She pats her daughter’s great belly while she speaks.

I look square at the girl’s face, little face, with a rounded chin, round button eyes, the too-red lipstick. I watch as she starts to lose her balance and teeters on her high heels. Before I can even think to take a step, she catches herself, dropping only a single bag of Kisses in the process. It lands draped over her left foot and remains there.

“Isn’t that true, Little Girl?” says Joliet, who’s missed the near-disaster. “We need some testosterone around the place. It’s been too long.” The girl ignores her mother, tries to retrieve the fallen chocolates, but her spiky heel is planted to the floor and her arms are full of more crinkly bags, all of them perched precariously on her belly. She soon enough gives up, throws back her head and sighs like her mother did earlier. When she catches my gaze, her face folds into a Stay Away expression. I stay away.

Around us, customers wander with their Flonase and boxes of Kleenex—the pollen count being particularly high this year—with sunscreen and condoms, Durex or Trojan, ribbed for her pleasure, or not. From behind me I feel the annoyed breathing of more desperate dawdlers who’ve joined the queue, but I don’t bother turning around, having finally settled into a comfortable groove.

So I loll here, alone for the moment in the permanent present tense of this CVS line, and it occurs to me that these long minutes are themselves droplets in the bucket that makes up this last summer—the final three months when things will be as they’ve been for much of the past 18 years. How, for this entire span of time, I’ve been suspended like an acrobat on a tightrope stretched between Before Celia Came to Us and After She Left. In this way, I, too, have been floating in a kind of present tense—the tense of Having a Child at Home.

And then another thought comes, sharp as any spike through the chest—when Celia leaves, when Steven and I drop her off at East Quad at the University of Michigan this September, after Steven assembles the loft bed, after we’ve made it up with the new sheets and quilts and pillows we’ve yet to purchase, after I recheck her stash of Nutella jars and protein bars, after the final long, long hug, I wonder if I’ll go home and, à la Dorian Gray, watch nearly two decades worth of crags and age spots erupt in the mirror for all the years that didn’t pass because Celia was within arms’ reach.

Never mind that she’ll return home, for summers, for a while. That she’ll come back for holidays, first with laundry in tow, then without it. Because she’ll return different, reshaped by girls and boys I’ll likely never meet, by a thousand other people’s opinions, chock-full of more secrets than I’ll even know to ask about. This is as it’s supposed to go. It means I’ve done my job right, say well-meaning friends. And it sucks. Like a punch to the sternum, hard jab right in the windpipe, so for a hot second, blackness climbs behind my eyes, and I can’t breathe.

At the counter, Big Flamingo Man is still having big words with the clerk. A manager appears from behind a screen like the Wizard of Oz, and gesticulating occurs. Misters Corporate A and B glare at identical phones and grit their identical shiny teeth. Behind them, I wait for Joliet or her pantsuited friend to remove the bag of Kisses from the daughter’s foot, where it still languishes, but they’re deep in conversation about someone named LuEllen who never pays her share of the tab.

So I lean over to grab the errant Kisses, never mind that the girl doesn’t want my help. My arm’s outreached, hanging there in air. Because suddenly Celia’s swooping in like a gull. She nabs the chocolates and, without fuss, perches them atop the pile atop the girl’s belly.

“I like these,” says my Celia of the almond Kisses she’s just set in place, though I know for a fact this isn’t true. “They’re my favorite kind,” Celia says.

“Yeah,” says Joliet’s daughter.

I guess that’s enough because they stop talking after that. Celia returns to my side, clutching her sack of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The big man takes his receipts, and he and his flamingos depart. Mister Corporate A takes his place at the counter and settles in to stare down the exhausted clerk.

The line moves forward by one. Everybody steps into the future.

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