Love Levels

I feel her iron stare boring into the back of my skull. I slowly swivel my head around to meet her glassy eyes. 

“I worry about you, you know,” my mother states emotionally. I can tell she is being sincere, but I question her reasoning. Usually, she points out a fault in my mind, body, or soul and blames it on Dad. I wonder what she has up her sleeve today.

“Why?” I don’t really care for or need a response because I can think of a thousand reasons to worry about a person without adding her paranoia to the mix. However, I feel obligated to continue. “You know I’m fine, Ma. When you worry, you suffer twice.”

“Well, I know you’ve been under a lot of stress lately. I can tell because the bags under your eyes are so dark. I guess you can’t help that. Your dad gave you such thin under eye skin.” I almost don’t want to continue this conversation because I already know where this is going. Ever since I hit my teens, my mother started using her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy to diagnose and therapize me. My dad’s side of the family has a short, yet consistent history of bipolarism amongst the women. At least one woman from each generation for the past three have had it to some degree. She’s just waiting for the signs to arise to prove that this curse is true.

Practically begging, I say, “Ma, I’m fine. Can we just eat dinner together?” Stress isn’t even half of it. I know her fears are legitimate because I share her same worries. The rubberband that I call my mind has been pulled so taut that I just hope no one’s in the way of the backlash when it snaps. I know that I won’t be able to protect anyone from the pain, especially not those closest to me.

Obama had just left office and Trump was on his way in. My parents were losing their minds over this. In utter disbelief, my mom ruffled her feathers and cocked her head from left to right as my father grunted angrily upon hearing the election results. I just stared blankly at the screen. I had lost all interest in politics after Trump was chosen as the Republican nominee. Now that Trump and Biden are the main nominees, I’ve reached the pinnacle of my apathy towards all presidential campaigns. I only care about my local elections at this point. However, that doesn’t stop my parents from ranting.

I would go into detail about these rants, but I don’t think anyone really cares, least of all me. However, I care for them, so I listen to them with a facial expression of vague interest. The worst part is when my mother asks me a question.

“It’s insanity, right?” my mom asks forcefully. 

That’s when I realized I hadn’t been listening at all. Instead, I had been imagining what interdimensional surfing would be like. I sputter, “I know! I can’t believe it.” I guess it answered the question well enough for her to continue. She settles into her rant and I prance back to my daydream land. Lately, conversations with her tend to go this way: she lays down a subtle yet cutting comment, I play a defensive spell that whisks my mind into a state of aloofness, she continues to berate the every fiber of my being, I unconsciously hear all of it and internalize it, and she ends every conversation the winner whether it was a debate or not.

I gaze out the car window and imagine being a bird in the lush forests we pass on the way downtown, being anywhere but here. I used to try to stand my ground, arguing my point until we’re both red in the face. Now that it’s my last year living at home, I’ve kind of given up. Maybe it was the hope that one day she’d listen and see the validity of my opinions that kept the fire stoked. All that’s left are the embers, slowly smoldering in my stomach. Coursework has never been that difficult for me. I was a casual straight A student that spent her free time doing activities that would boost my college scholarship application to, hopefully, exemplary status. How disappointed I’d be when I realized that all those hours of community service, sports, and student council would be better spent actually enjoying my life.

It wasn’t until I moved away that my mother would call me to actually talk rather than scold or remind me of all my shortcomings. Supermassive Black Hole blares on my iPhone 5C to notify me that “Mama Bear” is calling. I pick up on the third ring. “Hey, Mom… what’s up? Everything ok?”

“Of course… Is everything okay with you?” she asks with a twinge of worry in her tone.

I try to respond back with what I know she wants to hear. “Of course,” I state pointedly, “why wouldn’t it be?” I feel as though she’s fishing for something to get angry about, so I try to be as vague as possible. “I love it here and my classes aren’t too difficult,” trying to placate her unsettled mind.

“I worry about you, you know,” she whines into the phone. I can feel her anxiety rising through the speaker.

I sigh, “I know.” So I decided to give a few specifics that would make her feel better. “My roommate is really nice. She’s from Shanghai and said I could visit her anytime she’s back home.”

Her voice lightens as she says, “Wow, that’s lovely,” and deepens ever so slightly as she continues, “but, tickets to Shanghai are really expensive. Maybe she should come visit you in Hawaii.”

What a party pooper, I groan in my head, but say to her, “Yeah, maybe.” Silence settles between us that I’d rather not break. Usually an uncomfortable silence is enough for her to say the real reason she called.

“Well, I just wanted to see how you were doing and talk a little bit,” she states cheerfully.

“Oh,” I squeak in surprise, “ok.”

“I gotta get back to work. Love you. Bye.”

“Love you too. Bye.” I hang up the phone and all I can think is What the fuck was that? Having a normal conversation with my mom felt like one of the most bizarre situations in the world. But, it was also… kind of nice? There was no animosity between us, just genuine curiosity. Then it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, she missed me. Just before I started packing my bags for college, she’d say how she couldn’t wait for my “ungrateful ass” to finally move out. Now, here she is calling me as if those words never passed her lips. The bite of each insult she ever spoke upon me still stung. I had come to believe that all she described me as was true. I really am just a dumb, disrespectful bitch with no common sense.

Then why am I smiling right now? I should be furious! The very thought of my own mother should make me want to run my fist through a wall. Yet, here I am smiling, forgiving her, and hoping we can talk again soon. As 2016 flew by, we had the chance to talk on the phone every week or so. Each conversation was led by the more or less the same questions: “How’s school?”, “How’s work?”, “Has the weather been ok?”, and “are you ok?” The last was an unspoken question that I attempted to answer with my response to the other three questions. I basically tried to convince her that I was mentally stable when I had given no indication that I ever wasn’t. I mean, sure, I’m a bit of a crybaby, but I’m sensitive, not questioning my sanity. 

When summer break rolled around, I had decided to move back home. We just couldn’t afford to send me to Kansas State University anymore even with my partial scholarship and in-state tuition rate. Being back in my childhood home, despite only being gone for a year, felt surreal. The house looked the same. The garage filled to the brim with random tools, bits, and bobs. Shoes scatter the floor before I walk through the door. The scent of curry and Yankee candles linger in the air as I step in. After I moved out, my little sister had stolen my old room and left me with hers, which was approximately the size of a shoebox. I felt like my reality had been downgraded, as if my Wifi speed dropped so low that one can only expect to wait at the buffering screen forever. 

I was living back home and going to community college. It was actually really nice. I loved my classes and professors because I could understand their accents and had way less homework. I also could hang out with my friends and family. I guess the year away did some good. It showed my mom an alternate reality where I’m not always physically there for her. Her main love language is physical touch; whereas, mine has always been quality time. I hated being near or touching people and my mom never had the time. It was a dance I had known the choreography to for almost all my life, but suddenly all the steps had changed and rearranged.

Now I can talk to my parents calmly about things. Now I can let my guard down every once in a while without fearing that what I say will be used as ammo against me. Now I can look her in the eye. Now I can breathe. Now, I know that love levels eventually.

© 2021 Writings by Z

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