You’re five. You’ve stayed up late waiting for your dad to come home from the bar and read you a story. It’s already past ten.
Mom tries to get you to go to sleep. You stand there in your pajamas holding a Berenstein Bear book.
The phone rings. Mom answers. She’s angry. You ask if Dad is coming home soon.
“No, because apparently your father would rather spend the night in jail.”
What you don’t understand at the time is that your father is 23 years old. He watched a Knicks game at a bar, drank too much, and was pulled over by the police. Except, well, he tried to get away. Your dad ended up crashing into a fence. There will always be a little hole where a nail went through his cheek.
Aside from the one night in jail, there are no other ramifications. Your dad has a good lawyer (his dad’s).
Up until you’re about seven, you’re being shuttled between your grandma, your aunts and your mom. Your dad is sporadically in the picture, but, of course, he’s a young man and needs to be free to have fun and go to college.
Your mom does not go to college. Her days of having fun are over. It’s a fact that is understood and not questioned.
Grandma always has a needle in her arm. She complains about pain. She introduces you to a man you don’t trust and tells you to call him ‘grandpa.’ You don’t, and she hits you.
You’re eight. You’ve been spacing out. Dad slaps you because he thinks you’re daydreaming. Your teachers put you into ESL classes because they assume you don’t know English. Mom begs you to be good, but you can’t control the episodes.
After a few smacks and changes in schools, you’re finally brought to a doctor and diagnosed. You have epilepsy. You’re having over 100 seizures a day.
The doctor tells your parents that they should have noticed your symptoms around age three or four. But who would have noticed? You were being shuttled around like a hot potato.
Your parents squirm in their chairs as the doctor asks questions about your childhood that they don’t know the answers to.
You end up answering them.
You’re older now. You get your first period when you’re 12, and it’s like your fate has been sealed. Your dad only says, “Don’t make me a grandpa before I’m forty.”
Family members start to look at you with a sad foreboding. They look at you like you’re already dead. Soon they will talk about you the way they talk about your mother:
“She was so smart. She had so much potential. But that’s how life is.”
No one has noticed that you learned to read when you were two, that you tested out of second grade, that you’re in advanced courses in school, that you were named one of the brightest in your class and asked to study abroad in Cambridge for a summer (an opportunity you could not take since your parents are broke).
Dad turns 30. Mom gets him a nice watch. They still haven’t gotten married, and hope is running out for her. She still hasn’t gone to college. She works two jobs.
You’re still on your seizure medicine. It’s up to you to take them. Your parents don’t keep track. Sometimes you take too much, or none at all, just to see the effects on your body. Hiccups, nightmares, auditory hallucinations, stomach pains, suicidal thoughts, etc.
Mom is sick. Dad is angry at her. She cannot drive anymore, she does not eat. She quits her job and they can no longer pay the bills. Dad doesn’t know what’s wrong. The doctors don’t know what’s wrong. They prescribe things and shrug.
You know what’s wrong. Her soul has died.
Dad starts emailing his high school girlfriend, the one he cheated on to get mom pregnant with you.
You are a fly in a cup of coffee. You are a strand of hair in someone’s pasta. Look at the lives you’ve ruined just by existing. Look at them. Look at them. Look harder. Look at all their failed potential like blood on your hands.
Mom has lost fifty pounds and dad is in denial. He stays out all the time. He yells at mom for acting strange but has no concept of how he has caused her pain.
She smiles at him, a faraway smile. She’s finally found a place he cannot touch. She looks at you and somehow you still bring her joy. This mother’s love thing is truly terrifying.
Your best friend is hospitalized for anorexia. You write letters to her. You bathe your weak mother. You don’t have time to party. You want to get out of high school as fast as you can, and you don’t want anything to distract you from that goal.
You graduate high school at 16 and move to New York. You come back ‘home’ after a year and your parents sit you down by the fireplace. You already know what’s coming.
Your parents are breaking up. Not divorcing, because they were never married. Dad wants to move to Costa Rica, and Mom doesn’t want to, and it’s a non-negotiable issue for Dad.
You want to scream, but you don’t make a sound. You want to say, “Of course you’re breaking up, you were only together for me anyway. Dad was never going to marry you. I shouldn’t even be alive.”
You don’t say any of those things. You just smile and nod and hug them and say you understand.
You graduate from NYU with a BA in Philosophy. You’re not a teenager anymore, and you feel the curse has been lifted off you.
Your family is still looking at you like you’re going to join a commune, get knocked up and fuck up your entire life.
A week before your graduation ceremony, your mom calls you in tears. She tells you that her mom, the grandma with the needle in her arm, has been blackmailing her for years.
“Grandma wants a ticket to your graduation ceremony. She wants me to give her mine.”
You tell her that that’s ridiculous. Why would your own mother give up her ticket to your graduation?
She tells you that, as a baby, you were put into foster care. Mom wanted to give you up for adoption, but grandma fought her on it, and she got custody of me. Mom finally got custody of you back when you were six.
“Grandma has been hanging it over my head since we got you back.”
She’s crying and you tell her it’s okay. It’s only after you hang up the phone that you realize the full gravity of what she said.
Your grandma got you back to punish your mom. She wanted you in a better situation and your grandma couldn’t have that. Because then your mom might have gone to college. She might have found someone who would really love her. She might have had a chance. And it doesn’t matter how well you do or what schools you graduate from. Your existence will always be a burden, a punishment.
You confront your grandmother and the weight of all the wasted potential falls off you. You tell her you don’t want to speak with her ever again. Everyone wonders what happened to the nice, sweet, non-aggressive you. You proudly proclaim that that bitch is dead.
This is your fucking graduation, and something that happened 20 years ago isn’t going to ruin it. The past isn’t going to ruin it. All of that stops now. The sad looks, the laments, the chatter about wasted potential—it all stops with you, right now. You were the one who graduated when you were 16 and somehow paid for college by yourself. You worked and participated in medical experiments and starved and took out loans. You kept going to school even when your parents said you should “take a semester off.”
And fuck everyone who said “it will be fine.” Things aren’t just fine on their own. They’re fine when you make them fine. And you did it. You don’t know the odds against a girl with teen parents, against a girl who was in foster care and had epilepsy, but whatever the odds are, they’re certainly not good. You not only took care of yourself, but you were strong enough to take care of mom when she was weak, and your best friend when she was starving herself. You have strength to spare.
You’re not going to feel bad about existing for the rest of your life.
You’re brilliant and strong. You’re not a fly in a cup of coffee. You’re a tiger in a cup of coffee. You can’t be ignored. And the next time someone tries to treat you like an uncomfortable seat cushion, you’re going to bite them in the ass.
You may not have been planned, but you’re here now.