Fiction: Tenley’s Apology
By Marie Anderson
Mary is searching in the fridge for an unblemished apple for her daughter when she hears Tenley scream from upstairs. Mary sighs, finds a perfect apple, and drops it into Tenley’s lunch bag. “Mother!” Tenley shouts. “Come here! Hurry!”
Mary looks at the clock on the microwave. Her heart sinks. In thirty minutes, Tenley must leave for school. Already this morning, her fifteen-year-old daughter has had two crises. What new problem looms?
Menstrual cramps? A forgotten homework assignment absolutely due today? What problem might Tenley manufacture to avoid going to school? If she misses one more day this semester, they’ll have to get a doctor’s note to confirm illness. The school allows only seven parent-requested absences each semester.
* * *
Earlier this morning, Tenley had complained of swollen eyelids.
“Hot or cold cloths on eyes?” she’d asked Mary.
Tenley, slim and beautiful in just a tee shirt and shorts, was standing in front of the big mirror hanging in the hallway outside her bedroom.
Mary remembered how she and her husband had carefully carted the mirror home from T. J. Maxx, hung it, and then had fun in front of it. Sixteen years ago, when Mary was still young (thirty-six) and arrogantly confident. The mirror had witnessed Tenley’s beginning.
Mary stood next to her only child, gazed at their side-by-side reflections in the mirror. She saw the wrinkles and graying hair that she usually didn’t notice. The glow from Tenley’s smooth young body was a brutal spotlight.
“I don’t know what’s better for swollen eyelids,” Mary said, “but your eyelids look fine.”
“They’re not fine! Look at them! I can’t go to school looking like this! I hardly slept again last night. I’ve got insomnia, but you don’t care. I’ve been asking you and asking you to make a doctor’s appointment for me. I can’t sleep! I wake up tired! I need pills!”
“Your eyelids look fine,” Mary insisted. “But I’ll Google to find out if you should use hot or cold on them.”
“And I need a private tutor for ACT prep like all my friends have!”
“You don’t need a private tutor for the ACT. Have you even opened that book of practice tests I got you last month? Plus you’re signed up for those after-school prep classes your school offers for free. That starts soon, next month I think.”
“I have insomnia! You don’t care!”
In the mirror, their reflections scowled at each other.
“Have you turned off your laptop and cell phone at night like your dad and I told you to? Are you texting or Facebooking when you should be sleeping?”
Tenley marched to the bathroom. Mary followed. Tenley slammed the door in Mary’s face. “You don’t know anything,” Mary heard Tenley mutter. “What good are you.”
And then, most awful, “Old lady, you are such a be-yotch.”
Mary sighed and returned to the kitchen to make a deli sandwich for Tenley’s lunch. “Old lady,” she muttered. “Nothing wrong with being a fifty-two-year old lady.”
She resolved to battle if her daughter wanted to stay home from school today because of the imaginary swollen eyelids.
But the other battles could be postponed. She opened a drawer at the kitchen desk, took out her to-do list.
There were three items still active on her list.
P-$, code for pay bills.
Sch Col. That item, schedule colonoscopy, had been on her list since her fifthieth birthday two years ago.
Ph-M. She grabbed a pen and crossed that item off. She’d phoned her mother yes- terday, left a message on her answering machine. That counted, Mary decided.
Underneath Ph-M, Mary wrote: Dwt, DoA, code for Discuss w/Tenley, the dignity of aging.
That would have to happen at a more peaceful moment. There was a lot Mary could tell her daughter about why aging should be honored. Why were their only good conversations the ones that took place in Mary’s imagination?
She added a final item to the list. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology. She resolved to make her daughter apologize for calling her a be-yotch. But after school, not before. Best to avoid before-school drama.
“Mother!” Tenley yells again. “Where are you?”
Mary pours herself another cup of coffee, takes two sips, longingly eyes the two newspapers waiting for her on the kitchen table. Maybe, Mary decides, she’ll just ignore this latest mom-shout. Maybe Tenley’s cell phone will warble a text from a friend and that’ll distract her daughter from whatever the current problem is.
“Muhhhhther!” A screech.
“Tenley!” Mary screams. “What’s the problem!” She slams down her coffee mug, feels the strain on her throat. Screams had ripped her throat during labor fifteen years ago. She’d had no voice for the first four days of Tenley’s life. Was important bonding lost because she couldn’t murmur love or sing lullabies during Tenley’s first days of life?
Mary gets along great with the children who swarm around her at the library where she works as head of the library’s youth programs. They draw pictures for her, tell her long, involved stories about squabbles with friends or triumphs on the soccer fields and sometimes heartbreakers about sick siblings or divorcing parents.
She’d said as much to Tenley during one of their fights, how the library kids like her, talk to her.
“Well,” Tenley had replied, “they don’t have to live with you.”
* * *
Tenley’s next shout has nothing to do with illness or angst.
“There’s a dead mouse in my room!”
Mary smiles, relieved. Not a Tenley crisis. Just a dead mouse. Taco must have caught and killed the mouse.
Taco is their fat white cat who prefers Tenley over Mary, though it’s Mary who feeds Taco every morning. It’s Mary who tends to Taco before the coffee is brewed, before the newspapers are fetched from the curb, before the husband is kissed goodbye. It’s Mary who kneels daily before the litter tray.
Taco has apparently caught a mouse, chewed it to death, and deposited the prize in Tenley’s room.
Somewhere Mary remembers learning that a cat considers it a sign of respect when it offers its kill to another. Mary feels a bit resentful that Taco hasn’t deposited the dead mouse in her own bedroom.
From the kitchen, Mary shouts, “pick up the mouse and throw it out!”
From upstairs, Tenley shouts back, “are you kidding me? You do it! It’s too gross!”
“It’s too gross for me, too!”
“You’re the adult!”
Mary rolls her eyes, sighs. As she gathers plastic gloves, a plastic bag, and paper towels, she mumbles all the adult claims Tenley frequently makes.
“I’m almost sixteen! My curfew should be midnight!”
“Stop checking my grades on Edline. School is my business, not yours! I’m old enough to take care of school without you getting so involved. You and Dad are such obsessive helicopter parents!”
“You don’t trust me!”
“I can wear what I want!”
“Why can’t I see R-rated movies with my friends?”
“Everybody in high school drinks. Everybody. You and Dad are the only parents so weird about it. That’s why I never have my friends over…As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m moving out!”
Mary marches upstairs to Tenley’s room.
Her daughter has fled the room. “Ten-ley?” Mary shouts.
From the bathroom, Tenley shouts back. “Tell me when it’s gone!”
Mouse is supine on the carpet by the bed.
Thank you, Lord, Mary thinks. Thank you that mouse is not on the bed, not on the $300 white down-filled comforter from Macy’s which Mary knows Tenley would no longer be able to use if it had been contaminated by dead mouse.
Four tiny legs spike from the mouse’s body, as though it were trying to swim away from death. Its torn belly is a red lumpy mess, like Mary imagines her own belly must have looked after the unplanned C-section that released her daughter into the world after thirteen hours of hard labor had failed.
“Just get it out!” Mary had begged.
Wisely, mouse has closed its eyes to the mess, like Mary closed her own eyes when the squalling frightening slimy creature was placed near her breast, just for a few moments for that all-important bonding.
The mouse’s whiskers, delicate white silk, droop gracefully. Its tail is curled into the shape of a question mark.
How did that squalling frightening slimy creature turn so quickly into a beautiful young girl?
How could such a beautiful young girl be so brutally contemptuous toward her parents, to the two people who love her most?
Except often Mary feels no love for her daughter. Fatigue when she was a baby, boredom when she was a toddler, and now, now when she’s a teen, a simmering soup of anger, bewilderment, frustration, impotence.
She’d been a surprise. Mary had not wanted children. Too risky. Bad genes. Both her parents were alcoholics. Her husband had reluctantly agreed they’d remain child-free.
But accidents happen.
Mary holds her breath, grabs the mouse with a gloved hand, drops it light as nothing into the plastic bag. She hurries downstairs, outside, and throws it into the garbage bin by the garage.
Back in the kitchen she squirts anti-bacterial soap on her hands and scrubs them under the hottest tap water she can tolerate.
She returns to Tenley’s room and sprays carpet cleaner on the spot where the mouse had been, though nothing visible stains the beige carpet.
Ten minutes later, back in the kitchen, Mary hears Tenley telling her two girlfriends about the mouse. The three teenagers sit around the kitchen table, eating cereal. The girls walk together to school every morning.
“You picked it up?”
“Mais non! C’était la mÃ¨re qui a touche la souris!” Tenley says in French.
Mary decides not to feel hurt that Tenley said “it was the mother who touched the mouse,” instead of “it was my mother who touched the mouse.”
All three girls take French. When Tenley was in fourth grade and still sought Mary’s opinions, she told Mary she had a big problem. The grade school was offering foreign language instruction during lunch twice a week. “Everyone wants to take Spanish,” Tenley had said. “They’ll have to do a lottery. I probably won’t get into Spanish. I need to get into Spanish, Mama!”
“Well,” Mary had replied. “I minored in French in college. French is cool because in upscale French restaurants you’ll be able to impress everybody when you order in French. Plus, Paris visits are so much better when you can speak the language.”
Later, Mary was driving her fourth grade daughter and a minivan full of girl scouts home from a meeting. Behind the wheel, Mary was invisible the way chauffeur-parents are. The girls talked freely. Tenley explained to her Girl Scout friends why she was signing up for lunchtime French instead of Spanish.
Mary’s reasons had become Tenley’s. The next day, so many fourth graders signed up for lunchtime French, the school had to use a lottery to see who could get into the sessions. That was the first time Mary realized how much influence Tenley had over her peers. And how much influence Mary herself could wield.
Until it stopped.
* * *
“Tell them, Mom,” Tenley says. “Tell them about the mouse.”
For the next several minutes, Mary has the three teens’ attention as she describes the ordeal of the dead mouse.
She makes it funny, scary, gross. The girls laugh and groan. “Bravo, Mama!” Tenley exclaims.
A warm glow heats Mary’s belly.
For a few minutes, the dead little mouse is making things right, is restoring the proper balance.
Daughter is loving child.
Mother is respected adult. Mouse is martyr.
Taco appears, mewling. “Taco!” Tenley shouts. “Come to us, Butcher Boy! My friends want to smell your mouse breath!”
The friends shriek their protests.
Taco ignores the teens. He stays by Mary. He rubs his fat white head against Mary’s legs.
The friends head for the front door. Tenley doesn’t follow them. She kneels and pets Taco, still rubbing himself against Mary’s legs.
Tenley looks up at Mary. “What’s for supper, Mama?”
Instead of saying baked tilapia, which is what Mary had planned and which she knows Tenley doesn’t much like, Mary hears herself offering, “How about spaghetti and meatballs?” (Which she knows Tenley loves.)
“Bruschetta, too?” Tenley asks.
Mary hesitates. That’ll mean a trip to the grocery store on her lunch hour to get the tomatoes, garlic, lemon, basil, bread.
As if reading her mind, Tenley says, “I can pick up the ingredients after school.”
“Okay,” Mary says. “Will you help me make it?”
Tenley stands. “Okay,” she says. She heads to the front door where her friends are waiting.
“Have a good day,” Mary shouts.
“Thanks, you too, Mom!” Tenley shouts back.
The girls leave. Mary goes to the kitchen desk, removes her to-do list. She looks at the last item. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology.
She crosses it off.
Marie Anderson is a married mother of three in La Grange, Illinois. Her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of magazines and periodicals.
Illustration by Christine Juneau