March 5, 2007
“Seems they want this over quickly.” The lawyer smiled confidently across his desk at Charlotte and Tonio. “Guess someone doesn’t like all the publicity you’ve generated, young man.”
When Tonio didn’t smile back, the lawyer consulted his notes and cleared his throat to continue.
Charlotte’s headache had lasted all night. It finally quieted down to dull thunder shortly before lunch hour. She hoped this meeting would be over soon and this whole mess would be settled so she could get back to work. One more look like that from the boss and …
“They’re offering a decent deal,” the lawyer said, to Charlotte’s relief. “Take the test. Do six months probation. And that’s the end of it. Oh, and no more protests. Quite an offer, Tonio, considering the alternative could be a pretty good chunk of jail time, even for a juvenile offender.”
Charlotte sighed with relief. “Good. What do we have to do? Can we just sign …”
“I want a trial,” Tonio interrupted. “No plea bargain.”
Charlotte swiveled in her seat and glared at him. “But you have to take the plea bargain! Be sensible! You can’t be so selfish as to …”
“Mrs. Carolina,” the lawyer gestured her to calm down, then went on to back her point. “You see, Tonio, maybe you don’t understand. This is actually a win-win situation for you. You take the test … but you know, you monkey it all up. Give dumb answers. Lie. Make yourself look like something the Army would never want and the Marine Corps would wipe off their boots. Then you’re scot-free. And you’ve still outfoxed ’em. Now, all we have to do is …”
“No test. No plea bargain if there’s a test in it.”
“You are just being stubborn!” Charlotte bellowed, lunging up from her chair and looming over her son. “You are doing this to spite me. Just to be irritating! You will take this plea bargain. And you will take that test! Because I say so!”
Tonio turned to her, expressionless except for some unreadable pain behind his eyes. “You can make me take the plea bargain, Mom, because I’m underage and can’t afford my own lawyer. But you. Can. Not. Make me. Take that test. I won’t.”
Charlotte drew back her arm to backhand him across the face. For a moment, mother and son froze, locking gazes with each other.
The lawyer made a palms-down quieting gesture, putting Charlotte back into her chair. Then he turned to Tonio. “Do you understand that if you accept this plea bargain then don’t take the ASVAB, you’ll be in contempt of court? And when you’re in contempt of court, there’s no telling how long you have to stay in jail? As long as the judge wants you in there, you’re in there. Now you’re a juvenile, so maybe …”
“I won’t take the test. And as long as I can talk, I’m going to tell other kids out there, anywhere the media can reach, that they should ask questions. That they should get true answers about why the government wants ’em to take it. Kids have a right to decide for themselves — based on the facts.”
They left the office with no agreement — and with Charlotte’s head pounding so fiercely she could only spend the afternoon sitting at her desk, pretending to work. Even the occasional beeping of her computer and the footsteps of her co-workers outside her cubicle were enough to induce nausea.
Saturday. But there was no relief. Nobody in the Carolina household was speaking to anybody else. Jen was locked in her room, sulking and grounded. Tonio was working silently on his computer, also closed in his room. And Charlotte was just … distraught. And that Victorian word hardly described her frantic state. If she could have bromidically torn her hair and beaten her breast, she would have. As is, she did some actual hand-wringing. Along with much consuming of chocolate.
But finally, she could stand only so much. She knocked on Tonio’s door and got a mumble in return that at least wasn’t “Go away!” She opened the door wide enough to stick her head in.
“Tonio, can we talk?”
“Don’t start in on me again, Mom.”
“No, I’m sorry. I won’t. This time, I really do want to know why. I want to understand you.”
“It’s too late, Mom. You wouldn’t. You’d just end up yelling at me.”
“No. This time really, I wouldn’t.”
“That’s what you say, Mom. But that’s not what happens. It’s always…” he raised his voice in a crude parody, “‘Why are you doing this to me you awful boy?’ Well, I’m not, Mom. I’m not doing one thing to you. What I’m doing and why has absolutely nothing, not one thing at all, to do with you. So it wouldn’t interest you. It would bore you. So why bother?”
“But Tonio, I want to …”
“Forget it, Mom. You’re not my friend. You’ll never be my friend. I don’t expect you to be. Just leave me alone, okay?”
Saturday night. Charlotte tossed once again in a wretched tangle of sheets and blankets and nightgown. No position was comfortable — nor was any thought. “You’re not my friend,” she heard her son telling her. “You never will be.” She heard herself: Me, me, me, me, me.
She looked back on the job she’d done as a mother. And hated herself. Sure, she could blame the schools or Tonio’s stubbornness or Jennifer’s defiant nature. But the truth was … well, Tonio was telling the truth. She could blame her absent husband or her own mother and father. She could blame the government, the media, Planned Parenthood or for that matter the spirits, gnomes, gremlins, fairies, or gods. But it wouldn’t change a thing.
It’s your fault, you stupid woman. Your fault. Not just for how they’re turning out and how much trouble you’re having with them. Your fault for your own stupid, worthless life. Your fault for ruining your health with smoking and using pills to get you through the night. Your fault for Cherry Garcia. But most of all, your fault for putting your own kids in second place to your own big, fat ego — your own big, fat ego that isn’t even pretty or clever or smart or witty. It’s just all blown up with hurt and anger and me, me, me, me, me.
It’s all your fault. Every bit of it. And now it’s up to you — and you alone — to undo a whole lousy lifetime’s worth of stupid damage. No more excuses.
She sat up. The light of the waning gibbous moon streamed in through her window. She hoped it wasn’t a bad omen to begin a new venture during the waning moon. (And wondered from what ancestral peasant memory that superstition arose.) But there was no question. Her life was rotten. Completely rotten. It had to change. Starting now.
But where to begin? What to do? And how to get past all the opposition there was certain to be — from everybody else and her own weak self?
She slid the drawer of the nightstand open, drew out the dog-eared old pad with The Lunatic’s words on them, and she read, “In narrow strait, hardest choice opens widest horizons.” Yeah, tell me about hard choices, she thought. Then …
“Will you befriend bold spirit who travels from darkness into light?”
And of course it was perfectly obvious what she had to do.
Charlotte and Tonio sat in the conference room at his lawyer’s office. It was the only good place she could think of when she called — she could hardly believe she was doing it — her news conference.
“Before I begin,” she said, “I want to tell you that I am with my son — not just physically, here today, but in the decision he has made.” She knew the next part of her statement would seem cryptic to the reporters. “You also need to know that my daughter Jennifer, who is 14, is not with me. Not in person and not in agreement. But that doesn’t matter. I am her mother, and she is not yet mature enough to make certain life-altering decisions for herself. Tonio is.”
“So. That said, I guess I’ll just tell you what I have to tell you. And then you can ask me and Tonio whatever you want.” She took a surprisingly calm breath and continued.
“I’ve asked you here today to inform you that my son, Tonio Carolina, is not going to take the Pentagon database test. And he’s not going to take any plea bargain that requires him to do so. That’s his free choice. The school has no right to make a decision that will turn him into a ‘prequalified military recruiting lead.’ Furthermore, he’s going to go on informing other students that they have a right, and even a duty, to ask questions and get honest, complete answers. And you know what? He’s right to do so. One hundred percent right. If he gets put in jail, well, then I’ll carry on his work of informing other students. And their parents. Especially concerned mothers.
“In fact, I may just form a group against this test — and against other aspects of using schools as military recruitment centers. Mothers Against Militarized Education. MAME. What do you think of that?”
The reporters made a pretty respectable hubbub. Camera operators crept in closer and pencils rushed over paper. A few journalists started to call their questions.
“But. That’s not all I’m going to do,” Charlotte went on smoothly. “I’ve also asked you here to tell you that my daughter is not going to receive the anti-HPV vaccine at her school. If at a more mature age she chooses to get it, that’s entirely her business. But there is no casually contagious disease involved. Nothing you can get from sitting next to a stranger on a plane or in a restaurant. Because of that, the government has no business trying to force anybody to get protection from it.” She took a quick sip of water and went on.
“The particular vaccine we’re addressing may have its place in the world. It may be good medicine for responsible women — and men — to choose once more questions are answered. But in high school and middle school students, HPV could be controlled by behavior — by 14 year olds and 16 year olds not having sex. Neither Representative Ted O’Day nor any county or school bureaucrat is going to tell me that I have to allow them to put some problematic and unnecessary substance into my daughter’s body. And that is that. Period. Do you have any questions?”
Charlotte felt her face flushing. Even two days earlier, she would never have imagined saying such things in public. Now here she was and her statements felt … right. Awkward. Foreign. But right. And all because of Saturday night and Sunday morning. And one Lunatic.
The morning after Tonio’s dismissal of her, when she had looked into the mirror of her own mind and despised what she saw, she had knocked on Tonio’s door. Once again she had found him at his computer, this time in his pajamas. But this time, she had arrived bearing cups of hot chocolate topped with melted marshmallows. Pulling up a chair next to him, she had said …
“Show me some of these web sites you’ve been looking at, Tonio. The ones about that test. And explain to me. What’s true? What’s false? What makes you so determined?”
She would never forget his first words — not exactly high-minded — as he took her to the first site on his cyber-tour. “You see these jumping morons?” he said. “Well think about instead if they were getting blown sky high by roadside bombs. Because, Mom, that’s what this test is about. And that’s the only reason the government wants us to take it. Not for career aptitude. Not because they giving it to us as a public service. That’s just the cover story.”
“For kids who want to go into the military … the test is okay. But Mom, they’re conning the rest of us. Just to get us into a database.”
He went on to show her many things. And she looked at other web sites on her own, in late evenings at the old family computer, or in unobserved (she hoped) moments on her job at CYACorp. And the more she looked, the wider open her eyes became. She would never see her government in the same way again.
And now she was here. While there weren’t quite as many reporters as there had been just after Tonio’s arrest, there was still a respectable number. They loved her when she was, as they saw it, ‘anti-military.’ But after her comments about the mandatory vaccine, most of them were now staring awkwardly at her.
She knew what had happened. In the time it took to utter a handful of sentences, Tonio’s Crusading Left-Wing Hero Mom was replaced by Jennifer’s Right-Wing Nutjob Mom, the sort of crazy who thinks vaccinations pollute our precious bodily fluids and doesn’t want her daughter having sex until she’s 30 and married.
The reporters’ questions were thereafter a mix of ardent curiosity about Tonio’s stance, polite avoidance of any discussion of what the mainstream media regarded as wing-nut issues, and a marked desire to get this conference over with. A few, however, couldn’t resist tossing out snide questions like, “Do you think girls should wear chastity belts?” or “Do you believe the Arabs are behind the plot to fluoridate our drinking water?” And a few even asked something like real questions about both Tonio’s and Jennifer’s situations.
Half an hour later, it was over. For good or ill, it was done.
Charlotte staggered away from the little press conference, leaning on Tonio’s arm, as exhausted as she’d ever felt. She knew the news coverage might be disastrous. But she didn’t care. She had said what she had to say to begin getting right with her kids. And herself.
That’s all that mattered.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.