Black Death smirked on the sofa next to my daughter. A strange mixture of young boy, black greasepaint and safety pins. I tried to imagine him primping for this date, standing in front of a mirror, blackening his eyes, inserting the adornments into his pierced skin. My cesarean scar began to ache, just thinking that someone would choose to rip themselves up like that.
My daughter’s eyes were fixed on my face in a one sided dare-off. My smallest reaction was under scrutiny and I dared not flinch. Show fear? And catapult Black Death to hero status? Show concern? And face her indignation? No, not me. I’ve sat where she’s sitting — and though it was years ago — it gave me the advantage, but even that I dared not let flash across my face. I could win this battle and send Black Death away, of that I was certain.
I knew the way these situations worked. Banning, ranting, raving, and throwing ultimatums to my teenager about a love interest might end up with that love interest as my son-in-law. I saw the road fork before me. Me changing gothic diapers and covering the painted, anemic couple’s rent while Black Death found himself? Not. Ever.
Black Death had mesmerized my daughter. All it would take to seal the deal would be for me to send him packing. No, I would not fall into that trap because one thing I was sure of beyond any doubt… I could outsmart Black Death and I would do it right here, right now. Lesson one, Little Daughter. Watch this and remember, for one day you too will face a Black Death.
“So, Black Death, how about a Dr. Pepper?” I calmly handed him the icy glass. He grunted thanks and squirmed. I was in.
“Black, do you like brownies?” Muffled laughter from the “in the know” teens.
“There’s a pan on the counter, just help yourself if you’d like one. We want you to feel at home here.” His eyes diverted to the floor as he stood and sauntered to the kitchen then back to his seat, the brownie inhaled. I watched him and when his eyes met mine, in a split second I saw the piercings behind his eyes, the ones he wasn’t proud of.
Had no one shown kindness to Black Death before? How uncomfortable he seemed.
He was only used to fear and disgust from adults, and didn’t know how to react to something normal. My daughter leaned away. The beginning of the end. It bolstered my already swollen confidence.
Our cat flipped into the arena.
“Oh look Black Death, here’s Black Kitty.” With a swoop I had the cat onto his lap. “Black K, meet Black D, or maybe I’ll shorten you both to BK and BD. That’ll be easier for my old brain to handle. Is it alright if I shorten you to BD, Black Death?”
Daughter centimeters away. Victory near.
Black Kitty curled up to sleep in the welcome of Black Death’s lap. The two comforted each other. Black Death was melting away and becoming the very thing my little girl did not want to see him become. Normal. My daughter remembered something she needed from her room. I knew from her face that she wouldn’t be back. It was over.
Black Death had been defeated.
“My real name is Jeremy, Mrs. Dunn. I live with my grandma and she’s allergic to cats. This is the first one I’ve been able to hold in a long time. Thanks for the brownies. You must use cocoa instead of melted chocolate.” His abrasive front was completely gone, leaving ordinary teenage shyness. “I’d like to get the recipe. I make them for Gram sometimes.”
Black Death/Jeremy and I sat and talked of brownies, grandmas, his goal of becoming a teacher and how hard it is to be the new kid at school.
And what you sometimes do to make people leave you alone.
His cell phone beeped with a text message from my daughter, now safely ensconced upstairs in her room, saying that a powerful headache was preventing her from going out with him. This motherless child put his bad boy persona back on and was gone from our world, Black Death protecting him until it would be safe to be Jeremy.
I paused by my daughter’s bedroom door. “How’s the headache?”
Her reply was a perfect glare that only a fifteen-year-old girl can give. I blew her a kiss which was immediately batted away. I knew the look on her face because I had worn it so often. She was torn between asking for a brownie and milk and wishing a giant hole would open in the Earth right under my feet.
“When you’re ready to hear it, I’ll tell you about my Black Death.”
“GO AWAY, Mom, you could not possibly understand in six gazillion years.”
“He had this blond ‘fro, at least three feet across, that bounced and rested on his tattooed shoulders. Oh, and a gold medallion around his neck that said Love Machine.”
She started to say something, SHUT UP, I’m quite certain, then remembered that she wasn’t speaking to me. She disappeared under her pillows.
Late in the night I was fifteen again, squeezed against Tumbleweed on my Mom’s sofa. He was fine and he was bad. Way too smart for school so he quit. Oh so current in his green muscle shirt and plaid pants, the outfit made perfect by platform shoes. Bathed in Brut. My cat ran from the room sneezing.
My outdated, out-of-it Mom had an archaic rule concerning my dates. No honking the horn out front so I could dash out, long hair flying, to jump into his car and smiling we would drive away, like a Coke commercial, just almost too cool to exist among mortals.
No, in my horrible world the guy had to come to the door, then come in and meet my Mom, make polite conversation, before we could go. I decided to unleash the ultimate punishment on my Mom by choosing the most shocking male I could find. So there we sat. Tumbleweed smirking on the sofa next to me while my old fashioned Mom brought out a tray of oatmeal cookies.
I could have died of embarrassment, for just then it meant everything to me what this strange, wild boy thought, and nothing to me what my Mom thought. I only wanted to see her squirm in her discomfort and disappointment, to show her who held the real power in our little splintered family.
“Tumbleweed, or can I call you Weed for short?” she asked and we almost blew a gut trying to hold in our laughter over my Mom’s ignorance of everything in our world. To my horror, she persisted, and the next thing I knew Tumbleweed had eaten five cookies and was following Mom into the kitchen for a glass of milk.
“Yes Ma’am,” he was saying, “I do like butterscotch bits in oatmeal cookies. You’re the only person besides my Mom that puts them in.” Blah, blah, blah between those two and next thing I knew Mom was inviting him for Sunday dinner and he was thrilled about the idea. Too bad no one could see me roll my eyes. I had perfected that, had practiced in the mirror and knew it was a cool move of mine.
The final killing blow was hearing Mom scoot us out of the house with her usual “drive carefully” or “call me if you get into a fix you can’t get out of” or any of her impossibly dated mutterings, and Tumbleweed turned to her, “Mrs. Strickland, my name is Paul, and thanks for the cookies. They were boss. I’ll see you Sunday.”
A vow blinked across my brain. Years later I learned that the very same vow was marqueeing across my Mom’s brain. Our smiles never gave away what we silently promised Tumbleweed. “No. You. Won’t.”
The date with Paul lasted less than the length of an eight-track tape. I told him that I’d started my period and had to go home and cramp. How could he have let me down by being so normal when I needed him to be so bad? It wasn’t until I was home in bed, wrapped in my soft robe and a well needed pout, when Mom stepped into the doorway to say goodnight. I saw something funny in her eyes, like she was doing some kind of victory dance without moving a muscle.
“You’re home so early, anything wrong?” Then she didn’t even stay to hear my answer, as if I were even speaking to her.
“Mom vs. Black Death” first appeared in Country Roads 2005 Annual Fiction Issue.