February 26, 2007
“What do you mean, they won’t let you out of the vaccination program?” Charlotte set down the dish of Cherry Garcia ice cream she’d been eating — a comfort food neither her body nor her budget could afford, but that her jangled nerves ached for. “Of course they’ll let you out.” She looked up from the recliner chair.
Jennifer … Paris … whoever her daughter was this week, stood gazing into the new mirror over the couch. It wasn’t as nice as the one that got accidentally broken last week. The girl twisted a lock of her bronze-streaked hair around her finger and pouted at her image.
“Listen to me, Jennifer. I’m talking to you,” Charlotte continued. “I said of course they’ll let you out of the vaccination program. For health reasons.”
“They said no. And anyhow, I don’t want to get out of it.”
“Of course you want to. You know how vaccines sometimes affect you. They say this one’s safe. But it’s just not worth taking the chance. Not for something you don’t need.”
“You want me to get cancer?” Jennifer demanded, shifting her mirrored gaze from her own image to her mother’s. “It’s a shot against cancer, you know.”
Now Charlotte thought she understood. “Oh, honey. I think you’ve misread the situation. First of all, it’s a relatively uncommon cancer. And second … well, you know, the shots actually protect against a virus you get only from … well … from having sex. You’re still years away from making that decision. So you can’t possibly need …”
She halted abruptly. Something in Jennifer’s suddenly tense posture and something furtive in the girl’s mirrored expression alarmed her. Mother and daughter met each other’s gaze in the mirror.
“No,” Charlotte said. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
“Okay, then,” Jennifer shrugged defiantly. “I won’t. But you don’t want me to get cancer, do you?” She made a comically witchy face, “Or a bunch of horrible old warts. Eeew.”
“You and Shawn. You’ve …?” Charlotte went on, disregarding her own desire not to know.
Jennifer, caught between the guilt of being found out and delight at making her mother squirm, cast an even more defiant look into the silvered glass, straight into her mother’s reflected eyes. “Yeah. And me and Jordan before that. So you don’t want me to get cancer, right? Or ugly old warts?”
Some moments in a mother’s life get carved into the heart. Very slowly. As if by a dull knife. Charlotte knew this was one of those. Her 14-year-old daughter. Her baby Jen …
Somehow, she found herself clutching the bowl of Cherry Garcia again. The scent of the melting ice cream wafted up, desperately tempting. But now it almost nauseated her. She put the bowl back down on the end table and this time shoved it away. She took several deep breaths. “Jen. Come over here. Sit down.” She waved toward the other big chair, just across the coffee table. “We need to talk.”
Jen rolled her eyes, but slouched over to the chair and sunk down on it. She picked at an invisible bit of lint on her blouse.
“Jen. Listen to me. Cancer and warts are the least of your worries. What happens if you get pregnant? Have you thought of that?”
“Quit worrying, Mom. I’m on the pill. You know?”
“You’re …? How did you get birth control pills? Did you steal them? Did you take them from a friend’s mother or older sister? Did you …?”
“That’s stupid, Mom. I got them the way everybody else does. From a clinic.”
“Jennifer, you’re too young for this. For any of it. For birth control pills. For sexually transmitted diseases. For shots against them. For …”
Jennifer just shrugged. So what? It’s done.
“How did you get any doctor to prescribe you pills? At your age?”
Jennifer twisted another lock of her hair and frowned at the ends, critical of splits and frizzes.
“How? You tell me or I ground you.”
Shrug. “School nurse told me about the clinic. Made the appointment.”
Charlotte had thought she was already as stunned as she could be. Now the dull knife dug further into her heart. And nobody ever mentioned anything about this to me? She gulped another deep breath.
“Jen, I want this all to stop. Now. The pills. The sex. The vaccination. None of it’s good for you. Not at your age.”
“I’ll do what I want, Mom. You can’t stop me.”
“If you won’t agree to stop on your own, I’ll ground you. I’ll ground you until you’re in college. I swear I will.”
“So I’ll sneak out.”
“I’ll flush your birth-control pills down the toilet.”
“I’ll get more.”
“And I’ll flush them down the toilet, too.”
“I’ll get pregnant, then. So there. Then what’ll you think? Your can raise your grandbaby while I go out and party. And if I get warts and cancer and all that stuff, too, it’ll be your fault. All of it. Your fault.”
“Get over it, Mom. The school nurse has no problem with it. The clinic has no problem with it. The government has no problem with it. I have no problem with it. What’s your problem?”
* * *
And Charlotte Carolina, increasingly desperate mother, begged another day off work to deal with her children.
She went to the school nurse at Alexander Hamilton High, who told her, “Mrs. Carolina, your daughter is already sexually active regardless of what you think of it. Be practical. Our job now is to protect her. Birth control pills are part of that. Safe sex is part of that. And now we have the opportunity to save her from a deadly virus — if it’s not already too late. If she hasn’t already been exposed.”
When Charlotte continued to protest that, at the very least, she wanted to wait and learn more before anyone gave her daughter the vaccine, the nurse said, “Mrs. Carolina, experts have determined that this vaccination is perfectly safe. Why don’t you just accept the word of people who know more than we do? For the sake of your daughter.”
Charlotte went to the county health department whose staff would administer the vaccinations, this time carrying a fat file of Jennifer’s medical records. “There’s a health exemption,” she insisted. “I want it for my daughter.”
After a cursury perusal: “There’s nothing in her records that indicates that this vaccine will be a problem to your daughter.”
“But you don’t understand,” she protested. “See? Here. There may be a connection between …”
“Ms Carolina, it’s true that there’s an exemption in the new federal law for legitimate health problems. But we must caution you: Child Protective Services is very interested in parents who try to deny their children basic health care. Now, extremely knowledgeable people have determined …”
Toward the end of that desperate day, Charlotte Carolina called the office of Congressman Ted O’Day, whose idea the Hamilton High vaccination program was. A young aide whose name she didn’t catch assured her again that experts had determined that the vaccine was perfectly safe. “Ms Carolina,” he said, “Just think how many lives can be saved if other schools follow the example of Alexander Hamilton High and Alexander Hamilton Middle School and ensure that every single girl is protected. Full participation in this initial effort is vital. You don’t want to stand in the way of saving thousands of lives, do you?”
But before his comment was finished, Charlotte heard another voice coming through the telephone. It was a familiar voice. One she’d never heard in person, but that she certainly knew from TV. It boomed, from somewhere near the aide’s telephone, “Carolina? Carolina? Isn’t that the last name of that boy who’s making all that trouble for me down there?”
* * *
Resignedly, Charlotte dropped the phone back in its cradle. Numb, and with an enormous headache pounding between her eyes, she dragged herself into the bedroom. Her body demanded a long nap — even though she knew she’d only wake up with the same old problems.
Sitting down on the bed, she opened the nightstand drawer and pawed through it for something stronger than aspirin. She pulled out a couple of empty prescription bottles and tossed them aside. Nothing.
Her eyes fastened on the dog-eared notepad on which she’d written down The Lunatic’s bizarre words. “Learns to dance” “opens perception’s gates” “befriend … travels from darkness into light” she read. “Hardest choice opens widest horizons.” Total nonsense. Pointless garbage. Why’d she even write it all down, let alone save it? Maybe, she thought, just to remind myself that it would be nicer being A Lunatic than to keep fighting a losing battle for sanity while raising teenagers.
And tomorrow she had to take even more time off for an appointment with Tonio’s lawyer. The throbbing in her head suddenly felt like a jackhammer cracking her skull wide open.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.