Serena rolled her would-be engagement ring between her knuckles and palm. She examined the single round-cut diamond and gold band. I don’t know much about karats, she wondered to herself, but this is gorgeous. As soon as she heard Silas turn the shower off she dashed over to his suitcase and put the ring back in its box. On the night of the barbecue while Silas slept, Serena searched through his luggage for the ring. It wasn’t very well hidden which made Serena feel bad for looking because it meant he trusted her enough to know she wouldn’t do what she was doing. But Serena needed answers; it had been two days since the failed family gathering and Silas only kept to himself. Nothing she did was enough to get through to him; his ego was in deep recovery. I understand, Serena thought. But to cut me out like this is cruel. My parents are divorcing and he hasn’t even comforted me. Is that someone I want to spend the rest of my life with? So what if Daddy hurt his feelings? She grew angrier by the minute with these thoughts running through her head and unzipped Silas’ suitcase to take out the ring.
“What are you doing?” Silas exclaimed with a towel wrapped around his waist.
“In case you even cared? My answer is no,” she announced as she threw the ring at him.
“Serena. What are you doing? And why are you even in my bag?” He picked up the ring from the ground and frowned.
“That’s the question on your mind right now? You haven’t said shit to me in two days! You left me in this fucking room when I needed you the most. You want to marry me but don’t even discuss it with me? What do you do? You ask my father, a man you only knew for like two hours. But you know what I’m glad he said no to you because he might have been right. For you to be punishing me like this is absolutely unfair! I have been nothing but a pillar of strength for you but when I need you the most – when I find out my parents who have been married for damn near thirty years are getting divorced out of fucking nowhere – what do you do? Mourn your own self and disappear on me.”
“I do feel bad Serena! I just had no idea how to even confront you about a) your parents divorcing b) me wanting to marry you and c) how humiliated I was, no am, about your father ruining my proposal. I’m mad, I’m confused, and I’m embarrassed. I’m in this foreign town and I can’t seem to snap out of being sad. I don’t like to be sad around people.”
Silas slumped into a chair and put his face in his hands. He wasn’t comfortable being this vulnerable with Serena. Although she couldn’t help but take pity for him, she felt that her anger was justified and she refused to show him any sympathy. She stared at him like a warden overseeing his prisoner. He continued:
“Look, I am sorry. I knew this blow out was coming but I didn’t know how to go about it, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care now. You take all the time you need honey.” Serena threw her suitcase onto the bed and abruptly started to pack her shit up. Let me drive this point home, she said to herself.
“Where are you going? You can’t leave!” Silas ran over to her side of the room to unpack Serena’s suitcase but she pushed him away and wagged her pointer finger at him.
“Don’t! Do not act like you care whether or not I’m here now. I’m going home.”
“No way! What about us?”
“Fuck us! It has been forty-eight goddamn hours of silence. Daddy was so right.”
“Right about what Serena? What the fuck was he right about?”
“About everything! About us needing more time and needing to live in the real world. Oh yeah I made him tell me whatever he said to you to set you off like this. I had no idea that you’re this coward. I’m disgusted.” She struggled to lift up her suitcase and headed for the door.
“So that’s how you feel?”
“Go then. Maybe it’s good we be apart for a while.”
“God you won’t even fight for me”
“…What the hell do you want from me?”
“Not one single solitary fucking thing. Bye.”
Serena slammed the room door to cement her dramatic exit, leaving Silas alone in his literal as well as emotional half-nakedness. He picked up the engagement ring as if he was about to chuck it across the empty hotel room, but remembered how much it cost and controlled himself. Instead, he held his head in his hands and began to beat his temples with his fists. What do I do now?
Clara knocked hard on Wallace’s bedroom door but there wasn’t an immediate answer. Unwilling to wait for an invitation, she let herself in.
“Serena’s coming back,” she revealed to a half-asleep Wallace.
“Here?” He said waking himself up.
“Where is she going to stay Clara?”
“Well this is her old room –’’
“Stop. If you’re suggesting we actually share the same bed to keep up some charade then you’re crazier than I thought and that’s quite a feat.”
“I don’t like the idea of having to look at you either but it’s either that or the couch. Judging by your bad knees I don’t think you can do that.”
“So Serena asked to stay here and you didn’t think to ask me if that’s alright? Especially since I’m staying in the last vacant room?”
“You could move out,” Clara said snidely with her arms crossed. Just get the fuck out, she thought to herself.
“As long as I’m paying the mortgage I’m staying my black ass right here. You could have – and should have – told Serena no. She’s choosing to leave a hotel just to stay with us when there’s no space? To hell with that.”
“Then you tell her. Tell your child that she can’t stay here after she got into a huge argument with her fiancé – excuse me boyfriend – or maybe even worse! Her ex-boyfriend since you completely sabotaged Serena’s relationship with your madness. It’s bad enough you did that to us but to your own daughter? Because of you she’s got nowhere to go. And you want to abandon her?”
“She is a grown woman. How long am I supposed to be taking caring of you all? If she wants to stay here for a few days to visit, then fine. But this isn’t some kind of indefinite situation where she gotta move back in to her bedroom. Since she is a guest, Serena can stay on the couch. Now close the damn door and let me sleep. I have a patient in labor.”
Wallace abruptly turned his back on Carla, leaving her alone in the doorway. She kissed her teeth as she closed the door loudly causing Wallace to re-awaken in a half-second fright.
“Fucking bitch,” he grumbled to himself but loudly enough to hope Carla overheard it.
As far as Carla was concerned the conversation was over. Serena might be coming as a guest but she can stay for as long as she wants. Wallace isn’t going to throw my baby out on the street, Carla thought. He’s always got to feel like he’s in control of something. Asshole.
Maxine felt trapped in the worst-case scenario. She saw it often enough as a teenager to learn to fear life after college. She knew she had to prepare herself if she was going to avoid the bleak future that her sisters seemed to be living. She needed to get a career that would create a return on her academic investment immediately. Maxine saw Serena’s grief after she graduated college but only qualified for dead-end jobs in retail. She saw Serena’s spirit wither whenever she came back from long days of plastering a fake smile and pretending that selling clothes was as important as breathing air, only to still be criticized daily by weasel-esque store managers for not having enough “company spirit” although that same company failed to give her a living wage with benefits. It seemed like retail companies lacked “employee spirit.”
Alas, everything Serena dreamed of doing with her degree in communications could only come to fruition in the long term. Entry-level positions were almost unattainable without three to five years of experience, but the only way to gain said experience was through that very employment. Serena fell victim to a corrupt job market and was forced to move back home and work part-time while at several internships until she decided to work abroad and let life take the wheel. Or whatever her philosophy is.
With Valerie, Maxine witnessed the acclaim she received growing up and the promise she had artistically. Carla wanted her to be a doctor like her father because she believed she couldn’t make a decent living as an artist. To Carla (and Wallace low key) it was just a hobby with no value after childhood. Valerie’s case to prove her parents wrong only got harder as Serena continued to struggle like Carla had predicted. I told you so was always the pink elephant in the room when Valerie was with her family. But she didn’t have a choice because she wasn’t good at anything except the arts. She lacked the patience required to work with colleagues and clients. Her impatience bled into anything analytical or mathematical. Valerie could only express herself and find a way to make a living from it. She did everything people say to do in order to be successful. She went to the name-brand art school that came with the name-brand price tag.
She did well, but not well enough to get a full-ride scholarship. Valerie’s debt was great after she graduated; it was even more than Serena’s. Wallace had to work like a dog to help pay off the debts of his first two daughters. Although he supported anything his children wanted to do, he made sure to be fiscal with Maxine. Carla was on the same mission but believed in sterner tactics. While Wallace spoke highly of state colleges, and those alone, Carla blatantly informed her youngest to not even bother asking them to pay for out-of-state school. But whether or not Carla and Wallace intervened on Maxine, she was not going to make the mistakes her older sisters made. She had every intension of hitting the ground running. Maxine would go to college on scholarship, graduate on time, work full-time directly after, pass the MCATs, go to medical school, graduate, attend residency, graduate again, become whatever doctor had the least demands, and work for a hospital. All while sticking her tongue out to her entire family.
Maxine witnessed the mistakes of her father as well. He was wise to become a doctor but foolish to have his own private practice. Wallace wanted the power of autonomy, which he thrived on but it came with constant responsibilities and killed his family time. Medical treatment and patient care combined with running a business proved to be overwhelming for Wallace, and he kept it to himself to remain strong for the women in his life. He withdrew in order to keep his career afloat and his family taken care of. Everybody understood his intentions yet each of them felt his detachment, especially Carla. To Wallace’s children, he was the playful and affectionate giant with the superpower to launch them into dizzying heights while they laughed in the face of death as he reclaimed them in his embrace. Daddy: the literal safety net. He could be gone for days but all would be forgiven when he came home with pizza, a toothy smile, and dancing fingers ready for tickle fights. But as the years passed, Carla became more of a partner then his lover. And then demoted from that to his subordinate. There were no tickle fights to placate her because she was his wife and her duty was only to keep the Norrington home and estate afloat. In time, her yearning for her husband’s emotional reciprocity morphed into deep resentment for the man she no longer recognized.
Maxine kept thinking about all of this family pain as she lay in the bed, in the room she grew up in. All of the things I’ve seen, she thought. All of the mistakes they’ve made and that I’ve made. How could I avoid what they did wrong and still end up in this position? Look how far I’ve come just to end up in the same I house I grew up in. Every night it’s the same thing with them. Bickering for no fucking reason. Just leave each other already! Why be so messy about it? I’m so tired of waiting and being here. I’m too young to be living this kind of life and I’m too old to be up in here! I’ve totally outgrown this environment and Mommy and Daddy don’t get that. I’m twenty-five but if I go out it’s like I have to ask permission. God forbid I go out on a date. Forget that. Christ I need to get of here –
“Maxine!” Carla yelled as she walked from Wallace’s room to Maxine’s. Maxine heard her but didn’t answer anyway. Here we fucking go –
“Max!” She yelled as she opened the door.
“What? Why are you yelling?”
“Did you take out the garbage?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Then why didn’t you put a new garbage bag in the garbage? Come put a new one in now.”
“You couldn’t just put the bag in Mommy? I took the trash out. I’ll just do it tomorrow I’m already in bed –“
“No because you’ll forget!”
“I won’t forget! Goodnight!”
“Don’t talk to me like that! You never have any respect!”
“I’m trying to sleep! You came in here busting the damn door down trying to start an argument! Don’t take it out on me whenever you have an argument with Daddy!”
“I’m not arguing with anybody! Nobody has any damned respect in this house.”
“Just go to bed.”
“Do not talk to me like that!”
“Will you get out? I’m not getting up just to change the trash, you’re yelling for no reason.”
“What the hell is going on out there?” Wallace yelled down the hallway.
“Because she’s mad at you she’s taking it out on me –“
“Tell your daughter to stop being so absent-minded and put the garbage bag in the trash!”
They said both statements simultaneously.
“This is about some damn trash? Just take it out Max!”
“I already did! She wants me to change the bag because I forgot.”
“Then do it! What’s wrong with you?”
“You know what no. She’s screaming at me like I don’t do shit around here and it’s only her misplacing her anger she has with you on me. I’m so sick of this bullshit.”
With that yelled statement Wallace emerged from his room.
“Who do you think you’re talking too?”
“Listen! For Christ sake neither of you ever listen! You’re both the most miserable people on Earth! Don’t get divorced, please. I wouldn’t want an innocent person to be exposed to your crap. You two deserve each other.”
Instantly, Carla smacked Maxine right in the face and Wallace gasped. Maxine stared at her mother in disbelief as her eyes welled up. There was a faint look of regret in Carla’s eyes that quickly faded as she maintained her posture, certain in her decision. Every inferior emotion Maxine suppressed in the pit of her stomach bubbled out of her in rage and she pushed her mother against the wall with everything she had.
“Don’t you EVER touch me! I hate you! I hate the both of you!”
“Maxine get off your mother! Please!” Wallace yelled while breaking them apart. Carla instantly squared up and lunged for her daughter but Wallace grabbed and shook her.
“Carla! Control yourself!”
“Wallace you better get the fuck out of my way because your ass is next!” She said as she started to beat him with closed fists, but he absorbed each blow and maneuvered through her hits as if he was Ali.
“Goddamn it Carla! Stop it!” He exclaimed and pushed her away. Unfortunately, whatever deep-seeded tension he held with his wife he took out on her and was too excessive with the gesture. He only realized this as Carla hit the ground. Just as he was about to help her up, Carla flinched and slapped his hand. She looked at her daughter and her husband as if she was about to spit on them. Maxine rubbed her freshly smacked cheek and looked down at her mother, still on the floor. She pitied her but was too angry to show it. Carla refocused her energy back on Wallace and pierced him visually as if she bore witness to every injustice on Earth personified.
“You make me fucking sick. I can’t stand to look at you. I wish I could burn this house to fucking ground with all of you in it and start over. I wasted my blasted life on you.”
Maxine’s heart sank and she began to feel her eyes overflow with hot tears. With a scratch of her nail on her tear duct and a sniff of her nose, she held back the tears from falling. She could hardly breathe due to the lump in her throat, and if she did she would surely sob. And her pride, inherited from her father, could not let that happen.
Wallace backed away and dropped his head. He could see the distress on Maxine’s face and he became flushed with shame. He looked down at his wife, the shell of a woman he once felt that he wasn’t good enough to obtain. He silently wished that he could console her but knew that that time had passed long ago and with that, Wallace submitted to his helplessness.
“I just can’t… do this anymore,” he said dejectedly and shuffled back into his bedroom, turned the light on, and went into his desk.
“What did you do exactly? In the past ten years what the fuck have you been doing that you can’t seem to do anymore?” Clara screamed from the hallway.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” An exasperated Maxine went back into her room, grabbed her bedding and headed to the basement. As she walked past the front door, in walked Serena with her luggage.
“Where are you going with that blanket?” Serena asked.
“Welcome home, sis,” Maxine said wryly, “I’m going downstairs where it’s quiet and abuse-free.”
“Oh my God. What happened? Is that them?” Serena overheard her parents’ continued argument with shock.
“Open those bright eyes up darling! Mommy and Daddy are divorcing. At least I hope.”
“You hope? What kind of shit is that?”
This bitch is dumber than I thought, Maxine said to herself. She dropped her linen and focused in on her naïve sister.
“Five days. I give you five days with them. I can’t take this shit anymore Serena! You’ve been gone too long so you musta forgot. But those two? Are beyond miserable. They aren’t improving each others situations so they need to just end it already!”
“Sign it! Sign it Clara!” They heard their father yell from atop the steps. Startled by his volume, they run up to see what’s happening.
“See,” Maxine said to Serena while running upstairs.
As they made a turn into the hallway, they could see Wallace forcing Clara to grip a pen while he held down a contract for her to sign.
“Wallace stop it! Yah gon mad!”
“Daddy what are you doing!? Oh my God!” Serena screamed.
Recognizing Serena’s voice instantly, both parents turned around. They each look like they wanted to say something, something totally different from what the other wanted to say, but the words didn’t come out. They just stood there frozen in the scene they created. The raw chaos of Wallace and Clara’s doing made them feel nude and exposed to their most prized child.
“Serena,” Wallace manages to say as he caught his breath, “You can sleep on the couch.”
“Fuck the goddyamn couch Wallace,” Clara said with twenty-six years of built-up tension dripping from each venomous syllable.
“What are you talking about? You’re not making sense! Why are you two acting like this?” Serena asked totally confused.
Clara yanked the pen from Wallace’s grasp and signed the divorce papers so hard that the document ripped as she completed the loop in her signature. Serena looked on with continued astonishment and Maxine was actually just as surprised; this is the first time someone actually listened to her. But she wished this wasn’t the circumstance where they finally took her advice.
“I can’t believe this! And in front of us?” Serena exclaimed.
Clara shoved the crumpled papers into Wallace’s chest and stormed into her room as searing tears raced down her cheeks and escaped out of her nose.
“I don’t buy it until someone moves out.” Maxine said without thinking.
“How the fuck is this a joke to you?” Serena said as her voice cracked. Maxine tended to mask her pain with humor, and felt like her sister refused to acknowledge that she was in fact hurting deeply. Not everything was about Serena’ dough-eyed pain, Maxine thought.
“A joke Serena? You know maybe I’ve had to laugh to keep from crying but ain’t shit funny about seeing those two play out, day in and day out. Daddy just works and sleeps like he’s been doing except now he’s utterly miserable because he’s finally realized he’s become a zombie. Mommy yells at me all day every day for any and every fucking thing because she can’t stop her marriage from spiraling down the toilet like it has been. So she wants to compensate control by making it a living hell to stay here. They’re both fucking dead on the inside Serena.”
Maxine felt relief as she spilled those truths to Serena. She could tell that Serena wanted to interject, but Maxine cut her off. This was not a conversation; it was a lecture. And somebody was finally going to hear what she had to say goddamnit. She continued to unpack:
“It’s easy to not notice all of this when you’re not here or don’t see them often. Valerie must come by like twice a month and even she doesn’t even have a clue. So for you to not be around for two solid years you have the audacity to be mad at somebody because you wasn’t updated? That’s the joke right there. You either stay here and get a front row seat of the bullshit and deal with it or leave and pretend it doesn’t exist. That was your options and you chose the latter. You chose to run away and now you’re mad all of your problems are now hitting you in the face? Poor baby. That’s what happens when you postpone shit! Problems don’t disappear, it grows until it’s big enough to slap you in the face like Mommy did to me just a few minutes before you graced us with your presence. And you’re only here to avoid your problems with Silas! Stop being so predictable!”
Serena could not understand where this was coming from. Is she mad that I didn’t know the depth of Mommy and Daddy’s problems because everybody chose to tell me nothing? Is she serious? And I don’t run! Even with her conscious assuring her that she was not the problem, Serena couldn’t help but feel like their was weight to what her little brat of a sister was telling her. But she’d never give her the satisfaction of being right. Serena never liked hearing the truth of her situations before she was ready and always reacted – well like a Norrington. And honestly, neither did Maxine.
“Okay but let me process this I just got here! You always act like you’re two steps ahead of the game and wanna get mad when people aren’t on your supposed level. Like you got it all figured out. Make all the plans you want too baby sis, that’s cute. But judging from your current living situation it seems like the plans you love to throw in our faces as proof of you having all the answers isn’t happening accordingly? How can you and Mommy be so at odds when you’re the same damn person? Even as you tried to read me right now you don’t even see your own problems. That’s why Mommy smacked you in the damn face. I could punch you my damn self for talking to me like that. Like you know what’s going on with me and Sy. It’s so easy fixing other people’s mistakes huh Max? Parents are arguing? Just get a divorce! Just throw away thirty years of marriage! Suck up those feelings Serena that’s why you’re messing up now! Thanks Max! Thank you for coming into my one-dimensional life and leading me toward the path of righteousness. Stop avoiding my problems? Simply genius!”
“Alright, bitch. I’m over everybody with my last name tonight.”
“Well you just go ahead and get some sleep. I’m sure you tired yourself out trying to teach the people.”
“All I wanted to do tonight was fall asleep to some bullshit on Netflix. That’s all I wanted to do!” Maxine screamed as she marched down the basement steps with her linen trailing on the floor.
Serena instinctively thought to call Silas; she missed him now more than ever. But like Maxine, she refused to give him the satisfaction of crawling back to him. He’d never learn if she rescinded this soon.