When Mom’s minivan pulls up into the high school parking lot on Monday we arrive promptly before our seven a.m. meeting with Mr. Hicks, Principal from Hell. Mom has a determined look on her face as she scoots Keith off to class. Dad slouches with his hands in his pockets, probably reliving in his mind his own days on a high school campus. I’m wearing a totally cute (and clean) outfit which helps me feel a little better about the early birds on campus who are staring at me while pointing and whispering.
Mr. Hicks’ office is cold as he unlocks it and escorts us in, having just arrived himself. Mom and I sit down on the couch and Dad takes the chair by Mr. Hicks’ desk. Mr. Hicks takes the large latched envelope that Dad hands him and checks off my homework assignments.
“Today you have an opportunity to begin your life fresh, Jessica,” Mr. Hicks begins. Dad clears his throat.
“Jessie just wants to get an education at this school, and she’s entitled to that,” he says.
“Yes, and here she is, messing up her life and the lives of our other students . . .” Dad raises his hand to stop him.
“Jessie has not done one thing wrong on this campus,” Dad says in a level voice. “And you would not have even known about the incident involving Jimmy Becker if Alex Becker wasn’t an old college buddy of yours. It was completely inappropriate of you to suspend her, Mr. Hicks, and I feel you owe her an apology and I request that her suspension be removed from her permanent record.”
Mr. Hicks’ mouth opens and closes. “She is completely out of control …” he sputters, pointing at me.
“Jessie’s behavior regarding Jimmy Becker happened away from campus and not during school hours, and it is a matter of parental concern, not something the school should have been involved in,” Dad presses on. “I’m sure the school board would agree with me if it came down to it. It’s a simple matter, Mr. Hicks. You made a mistake and you owe my daughter and my wife and I an apology. We will let the matter drop if you do as we have asked.”
Obviously Mr. Hicks’ morning isn’t going as planned. I look up and see Jimmy and his dad standing outside the principal’s office waiting for their back-to-school meeting.
“Jimmy’s suspension too,” I pipe up as he looks away from me. “You need to take it off his record.”
Mr. Hicks turns red and looks embarrassed. “Suspensions stay in the school records only and don’t go on the permanent records, but you should know I’m only trying to help you with your girl. She’s obviously a very troubled kid and I thought I might be doing her a favor, to have her face the consequences of her actions.”
“We’ll handle the discipline,” Dad says firmly. “And Jessie is not any more troubled than any other kid. Yes, she made mistakes last year. Yes, she’s paid for it. But she’s grown as a person since then. You need to remember she has had to come back here day after day after attempting suicide. Every kid at this school talks about her or has an opinion about her. Every teacher too. And still she’s managing to keep her grades in the B and C range, and she’s trying to have a social life. And then people like you are out gunning for her, waiting for her to mess up again. You may as well just give her a nudge toward the cliff while you’re at it, Mr. Hicks. You’re making it that much harder for her to be okay.”
Dad has an edge in his voice like when he flipped out on me the other morning, and Mom looks surprised to see Dad in his action-hero suit, welding his light saber against the bad guy to protect me.
“I don’t mean to,” Mr. Hicks says, looking up and noticing his friend, Jimmy’s dad, standing outside the glass door. He nods toward him. “All right, then, I apologize,” Mr. Hicks says breezily. “I will let you handle the discipline of Jessica, and I expect you to allow an open line of communication between yourselves and the school should anything come up that I think merits a warning.”
“We came here last April when Jessie returned from the hospital and told you we were available to discuss any problems,” Mom says. “We meant it. We need to stay informed.”
“Very well,” Mr. Hicks says. He shakes Mom and Dad’s hands and we go.
“Alex,” Dad says to Mr. Becker.
“Hello, Greg,” Mr. Becker says back. Mr. Becker pushes past me and I end up face to face with Jimmy. He looks at me and then looks away and follows his dad into the office. When he lowers his eyelashes my insides give a sigh but I walk on.
The rest of the day doesn’t improve. I’m now the school’s biggest Slut of the Week, and my story has escalated into we got suspended for having sex at school in the girl’s locker room during lunch. I keep my head down and try to avoid eye contact. Molly and Cristabelle already cornered me once in the hallway and I got right in their faces and told them to leave me the hell alone. It embarrassed them so they backed off. Suddenly the punk girls from school have a new interest in me and they are actually nice and invite me to sit with them at lunch, although I kind of find their nose and eyebrow rings distracting when they chew. I sort of know one of them, the T.A. from my science class. Suzi is a little more mellow and a little more friendly and a little less pierced than the others. She’s a punk-rock science geek and I like her.
“The science club is doing a project, you should check it out,” she says, handing me a goldenrod sheet from the stack in her backpack. It’s a flier for the club’s school-wide science fair. I shrug.
“You get extra credit for science. It’s an easy way to raise your grade.”
Science is my worst subject, worse even than math, and Jimmy was the one helping me through it. I look more closely at the paper. The clip art is of microscopes and magnifying glasses and a caption that reads E=MC2. I wonder about what that means, what it really means. That buzzy Granddaughter feeling hits me and I stare at the flier with renewed interest. Someone is giving me information. There is a reason for it. E=MC2 has something to do with it. This is part of the path. This is The Granddaughter’s gift, in action.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I say to Suzi. “Can you help me get started, though? I have no clue about this stuff.”
Suzi smiles. “Sure. Meet me today at the science club meeting after school in room 214 and I’ll give you the entry packet.”
I nod, in wonder at myself. What the hell? Science club, me? I would never in a million years have looked twice at that flier if The Granddaughter hadn’t given me her gift. I wonder what I’m in for as I try get through the rest of my day, incident-free.
After school Suzi and I hang out. She’s super short and she’d hate it if she knew everyone thought she was cute. Her science geek friends seem happy to see her when we show up at the science club meeting. We’re the only two cool looking people there but everyone else is nice to me, so maybe they don’t know about my sordid story or if they do, they don’t care.
“So this is all you need, to fill out these forms. I’ll give you a hand with your hypothesis and stuff like that since it can be intimidating if you haven’t done it before,” Suzi says as she hands me a thick packet of papers. I notice she wears a silver ring on every finger. “Do you know what you want to do your project on?”
“What do you mean?” I ask, pulling my fingers through my blue-black hair. I’m starting to wonder what I’m doing here again and I remember The Granddaughter feeling so I try to focus.
“Your project. Any ideas? You’re only about a week behind . . . you still have time to put something great together.”
“It will come to me,” I say, hoping it will be true. I point to the E=MC2 on the cover page. “What is this, anyway? Can I do a project on that?” For some reason it still hits a chord with me.
“That’s Einstein’s theory on how the speed of light is constant so that means time and space can change,” Suzi says thoughtfully, as if explaining to a kindergartner. “It opens up a theory that time travel is possible.”
“You mean, like in Back to the Future?” I reference that old movie my dad and I used to watch together all the time, but I’m thinking of The Granddaughter’s voyage here from her ‘lifespace.’
“Yes, sort of like that, except that the theory is that you can only go forward in time, not back.”
“Not yet,” I mutter, wondering what The Granddaughter would say if she could hear that. I get the sense that we are truly in the infancy of our scientific development here on Earth.
“Well, Einstein is pretty complicated. You might want to start with something simpler. Even Newton’s law. . .”
“Is that the one that says that for every action there is a reaction?” I ask, wondering how I know that. Maybe information sort of leaks into you when you are sitting in class, even if you aren’t paying attention.
“That’s the gist of it,” Suzi says with a laugh. “Even that one would be easier to do a project on. You’re just joining in, so stick with something you know. Try to come up with something that you care about.”
I think about that for a second as Suzi gets broadsided by a tall skinny-armed kid who picks her up and swings her around. I hear him saying her name and her laughing and I think of my plants, my garden at home. Maybe I can do something with the plants? I gather up the information and look at the clock. I suddenly remember that I have a four o’clock appointment with Michael.
“Oh my God, I have to leave,” I tell Suzi. “I forgot about a doctor’s appointment!”
“You had a whole week off and you have a doctor’s appointment now?” she asks with a grin.
“You know about that?” I ask, blushing.
“Everyone knows about that,” Suzi says, and the few kids nearby who are eavesdropping nod. My face turns even redder.
“Well . . . don’t believe everything you hear,” I finally say.
“I never do. That’s why I want to be a scientist.”
“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Call me tonight and we’ll talk about your project.”
“Okay!” I hand her my cell and she enters her number. I put the cell and the packet of papers in my backpack and head out the door toward the bus stop.
I’m ten minutes late to Michael’s office. He looks surprised to see me somehow. I think he thought I wasn’t coming. He pulls my folder from under his desk blotter and takes the cap off his pen.
“Hi,” I say, and I am glad to see him in that “hey homey” kind of way.
“You look great, Jessie. I see you’ve been working on that tan. Have a seat.”
I sit in a different chair, the one right across from his desk usually reserved for those intense family meetings. His eyebrows shoot up a tiny bit but he doesn’t say anything.
“So how have you been coping with everything?” Michael asks, pen poised.
He leans in, waiting for me to elaborate. “Good. What issues have been coming up for you in the last week?”
“All kinds. Everything. It’s been a real ride, being suspended and now going back to school.”
“I’m sure it has,” Michael agrees, settling into his role as shrink. “Tell me more.”
I look at him, his buttoned up Izod shirt and cashmere sweater, and I take in his dark and oppressive leather and wood office, those high windows and short lamp cords. I just don’t feel up to this at all any more. This guy really helped me come back from the dead, but now I want to be at the science club meeting with Suzi, I want to do homework tonight with Kara, and I want to get back to my garden to water my plants and write in my journal and talk to The Granddaughter before she leaves me forever. I can do none of those things in this office. Talking is not living.
“There’s a million things we could talk about, Michael. I had sex for the first time . . . with Jimmy, and then I broke up with him. It was like something I needed to get out of my system, but my dad found out. We had to go through this huge emotional thing and I feel bad for letting my dad down. But I also had a week off to discover some things I didn’t know about myself, and I am starting to take charge of my own life. I had clean clothes for school today because I did my own laundry. I made some money selling my stuff I didn’t want anymore. I met a new friend and joined the science club. Mom and I hung out and actually had fun together. But most importantly, I just lived my life for the first time, without thinking every second about what I would tell you. Without always thinking about what I did last year.” I pause and Michael’s poised pen hovers over my file.
“That’s a good start, Jessie. Just living your life is a healthy approach, but you need to be able to watch for signs of a setback. You know we’ve gone over it . . .”
“. . . And over it and over it, and you know what? I’m not depressed. I’m not sure I ever was. It was just like I couldn’t stand being myself anymore. Or like life wasn’t interesting enough, or I didn’t care enough to be here. It was like this fog of apathy, not ‘oh I hate myself I’m going to kill myself.’ It was just — something to do. I can’t explain it, Michael. I’m sick of living almost a year of my life regretting what I did. It’s my label now and that’s punishment enough.”
“Okay, I can respect that.” Michael stops and scribbles some notes. He flips a few pages, stops at one, squints at it, and taps his pen on his desk before looking up at me again.
“Once we discussed something I’d like to revisit. You said you were approached by a time traveling being who claimed to be a descendent of yours. What is happening there? Have you experienced any more of these visitations?”
I hesitate. I have never lied to Michael. I have exaggerated to shock him or push his buttons back when we played the Therapist Game, but I have never lied. But I can’t give up The Granddaughter. She has given me so much, and has guided me on a level that brought me a new understanding of who I want to be.
“I know I said that. And I sort of believed it at the time. But that happened after I woke up from a nap, before I was really awake. I’m pretty sure I dreamed that. It seemed so real but now I think it was just one of those dreams you can’t wake up from.”
“You showed me a mark on your arm where you said the being touched you. . .”
“I was confused. Like I said, it seemed real at the time.” I drop the subject as Michael writes.
“I see,” Michael says. Again he flips through the notes in my file. He peers up at me.
“So you had sexual intercourse with your boyfriend.” He sounds disappointed.
“I wish I hadn’t, but I did.”
“Your father found out?”
“Yes, but like I said, I wish I hadn’t done it. Now we’re broken up anyway. Permanently.”
“Did you see a doctor about potential pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases?”
“Yes, and I’m fine,” I lie, thinking, how do I know The Granddaughter isn’t a doctor? I’ve never actually asked her what her profession is, if they even have healing jobs like that in the über-future. Michael scribbles furiously in the file.
“Uh — you referred to your mother as ‘Mom’ earlier. You have only called her Mother in our sessions since we began. Is there a reason for the change?” Michael asks.
I’m surprised. “I did?”
“I hadn’t noticed that. I guess I like her better now. Like I said, we’re getting along,” I say, feeling uncomfortable about Michael’s pre-conceived ideas about my relationship with my family. It seems so invasive, that this man who we pay all of this money to holds in his mind a twisted version of our family dynamics. It kind of creeps me out.
“Look,” I say as he writes, a habit that’s now starting to bug me. “We agreed, and you even suggested, that I fly solo for awhile, right? And then mom set up this appointment for me cuz she thought I’d have trouble my first day back at school. But I didn’t ask to come back here, Michael.” I take a deep breath, wondering how to say the words that are jumping to the surface. I blurt it out. “In fact, I only agreed to come here to tell you that I’m done with this place. I want to quit therapy, as of right now. For good. No more checking in, monthly appointments, none of it. Just done.”
Michael puts down his pen. “I see.” If he’s disappointed I can’t tell. If he’s happy for me I can’t see that either. He’s a stone, calm and serene and great at hiding his emotions when he has to. Right now he has to.
“Do your parents know this decision you’ve made?”
“They’ll support me on it,” I say confidently. “But I don’t think I’ll be needing you anymore.” I decide to shut up now because I meant that to sound like he was successful doing his job because I’m okay, but it came out more like ‘screw you’.
“I’m going to support you in your decision, Jessie,” Michael says stiffly. “And if you want to stay longer today and talk, that’s fine with me, you still have some time left on the clock. But if not that’s fine by me too. I want you to do what you feel like doing.”
I stand up quickly. “You’ve been great for me, Michael. You were totally there when I needed you. But I really want to get home and take care of my new garden and get my homework done. I have a science fair project coming up and I want to get a jump on that too.”
Michael stands up and reaches his hand across the desk. I come around the desk and give him a hug.
“Thank you so much,” I say. When we part I see a tiny spec of emotion in his eyes. He’ll miss me too, I know.
“I’ll contact your parents and let them know your decision. And if things get intense for you feel free to call me.”
“Things are intense for me right now. But that’s just life.” I pick up my backpack and hurry downstairs. When I hit the sunlit sidewalk and hear the roar of traffic off Santa Monica Boulevard I feel free. I put on my shades and hurry to the bus stop, hoping I won’t have to wait too long.