How did this happen to us?
“He’s nice,” I reply. Because it’s the truth and reassuring enough. “He seems cool, I guess. And Conor says good things about him, so that’s something. How’s his hand?”
“Not too serious. It’ll heal in a few weeks.”
I hate this. Neither of us saying what we mean to say—that I don’t know how to like the guy my mother is dating, and that she, in turn, will be broken-hearted if Chad and I can’t find a way to be friends. Or if not friends, then at least something that looks close enough from a distance, because the alternative would be some awful feeling of incompleteness every time the three of us are in a room together.
I’ve never needed a father. Mom was more than enough, and if you asked her she would say the same thing—that I was enough for her, too. Yet I feel like there’s this programed patriarchal voice buried deep inside her, maybe the remnants of the society that raised her, saying she’s a failure as a mother and a woman if she doesn’t have a man in her life or can’t give her only daughter a male role model.
“Do you like him?” I ask awkwardly. “Because really, that’s more important. I saw no glaring flaws in him other than maybe don’t let him near an oven again.”
“I do like him,” she confesses. “I think he was nervous last night. Chad’s a private guy. He likes simple things and not a lot of fuss. I think getting you two girls together for the first time, having all of us together, was a lot of pressure for everyone. He was worried you might hate him.”
“I don’t hate him. And I’m sure he and I will find a way to get along if, you know, this is going to be a thing.”
Although I suppose it already is a thing. Wasn’t that the point of last night? Why we all nearly burned to death for a pot roast or whatever that blackened mess was?
My mother has gone and gotten herself into a thing with a Chad. A hockey Chad, to boot. What the fuck is it with us and hockey?
Did my dad play hockey? Isn’t it also a huge sport in Russia?
Has this been festering in my DNA this whole time like a dormant virus?
Am I going to be one of those fucking clichés who grows up to marry her dad?
Did I just insinuate I’d marry Conor?
“How will it work long term, though?” I ask. “I mean, if long term is where this is headed. Are you going to keep commuting or—”
“We haven’t discussed that,” she cuts in. “At this point it isn’t—”
It’s my turn to interrupt. “Because you realize you can’t leave MIT, right? For a man. I don’t want to be a snob or a bitch or whatever you want to call it, and I’m not trying to be mean. But you’re not leaving MIT for him, okay?”
A flicker of panic tears through me, and I realize that maybe this new development is getting to me more than I’ve been willing to admit. It’s not like MIT and Briar are that far apart. But for a moment there, I imagined Mom selling our house, my childhood home, and—another jolt of dread hits me. Yeah, I definitely haven’t quite processed everything yet.
“Taylor. I need you to know something,” she says firmly. “You will always come first.”
“Always. You’re my daughter. My only child. We’ve been a team your whole life, and that’s not going to change. I’m still here for you above anything else. And anyone else. If you decide—”
“I’m not going to tell you to stop seeing him,” I blurt out, because I can see where she’s going with this.
“No, I know—”
“I want you to be happy.”
“I know. I’m just saying, if it came to it, I’m always going to pick my daughter over anything and anyone. It’s not even a question. You know that, right?”
But there were times she didn’t, and we both know it.
There were times when she was competing for tenure and promotions, writing books and touring campuses for speaking engagements. When she spent all day on campus then all night locked away in her office or hopping from one plane to another. Forgetting what time zone she was in and waking me up in the middle of the night to call me.
There were times when I wondered if I’d already lost her and that’s just how it was supposed to be: your parents get you walking and talking and able to heat up your own Hot Pockets, and then they get to go back to living their own lives while you were supposed to start creating your own. I thought I wasn’t supposed to need my mom anymore, and I started taking care of myself.
But then it would change. Get better. She would realize we hadn’t had dinner together in months; I’d realize that I’d stopped asking when she’d be back or for permission to borrow the car. She’d notice me coming home with my own groceries while she was eating a pizza on the couch and we’d realize neither of us had even considered checking with the other one. That’s when we’d realize we’d become roommates, and it would get better. We’d make an effort. She’d be my mom again and I’d be her daughter.
But to say that I have and will always come first for her?
“Yeah, I know,” I lie.
“I know you do,” she lies back. And I hear her sniffle as I’m rubbing the blur out of my eyes.
“I liked Conor,” she adds, which makes me smile.
“I do too.”
“Are you taking him to the Spring Gala?”
“I haven’t asked him yet, but probably.”
“Is this serious, or…dot, dot, dot.”
That’s the question everyone wants an answer to, Conor and me included. The question neither of us have wanted to look directly at, instead catching it in glimpses and flashes out of the corners of our eyes. The moving target floating in the periphery of our vision. What does serious mean and what does it look like? Do either of us have an idea or would we know it if we saw it?
I don’t have a good answer, and I’m not sure Conor does, either.
“It’s still new,” is all I can think to say.
“It’s okay to try things, remember. You’re allowed to be wrong.”
“I like things the way they are for now. And anyway, it’s probably not a good idea to put a lot of expectations on each other right before finals, and then it’s summer break, so…dot, dot, dot.”
“That sounds like an exit strategy.” She pauses. “Which isn’t a bad thing, if that’s what you need.”
“Just being realistic.” And reality has a way of smacking you in the face when you least expect it. So, yes, Conor and I might have something good going right now, but I haven’t forgotten how this whole accidental relationship started. A dare that turned into a revenge plot that morphed into a full-blown situationship.
I have a feeling that someday, many years from now, Conor and I will cross paths at an alumni banquet and, squinting at one another from across the crowded room, remember the semester we spent in each other’s pants. We’ll laugh about it and share the amusing anecdote with his statuesque supermodel wife and whomever I wind up with, if anyone.
“I do like him,” she repeats.