Your 16th birthday was almost a week ago, and I’m still trying to recuperate from the cheesecake. I was hoping you’d go for the vanilla Wal-Mart cupcakes with the ridiculously sweet icing like last year; but alas, this time around, you didn’t hesitate to tell me exactly what you wanted or to express an opinion that was entirely different from my own. You aren’t a cake kid, and you’re not all that nuts over ice cream, either, so I totally understand your choice. But far more than that…I’m grateful for your decision, because the fact that you made it indicates a level of trust between us that I don’t think existed at this time last year. I think it must’ve finally sunk in (after a couple years of me consistently buying your makeup, paying your allowance, cooking your meals and making you eat your vegetables) that maybe I’m actually going to stick around and be here for you whether you think you need me or not.
Of course, you don’t say that, and neither do I.
Ours is not really a “feelings” sort of family. Actually, that’s not really true. What we aren’t is a schmaltzy or gratuitously emotional family. We don’t say sweet things to one another at the times when other people do. Instead, they come out when they aren’t expected–like in conversations with other people–so that whoever is being praised can pretend not to have heard. It’s hard for us to accept compliments. Maybe it’s even harder for us to take them when they’re laced with love. So, while I’ve said “I love you” to you, Step-daughter, you’ve only ever heard me say it when it can be played down as something less than it is. For example, I say it when you’re funny enough to make your father and I both grab our stomachs, before the laughing has even had time to start. I say it when recounting something you’ve said to Mama or your aunt or grandma. I say it when I hear myself (or your aunt) come out of your mouth and I feel–suddenly–like I’ve known you forever.
I can’t wait to keep knowing you.
You send me text messages when you’re away from home that let me know you wish you weren’t. Usually, they’re about how much people suck, and while I wonder if it’s maybe a little bad that a 16-year-old is a reclusive misanthrope, it also makes my heart smile because obviously you’re among the right people. We’re as disgusted, disgruntled, and worried as you are about the trajectory of the country/world, and since we can’t sit around screaming or crying all day, we primarily choose the same path as you, and spend the darkest moments making highly informed and intellectual, dry-witted jokes at the expense of The Powers That Be. Not a one of us will go quietly into that good night, and we’re all of us raging from light till dark.
I rage a lot against your mother, lately, though I don’t tend to do it around you kids unless I’m just piling on to something that you’ve already said. Yesterday, you saw her for five minutes out in the driveway so she could pass off one of her hideously sparkly dresses for your Vegas-themed Homecoming dance, and that 300 seconds was almost more than you could take. I expect she’ll want the dress back when you’re through, and this absolute minimum of participation on her part is just the latest in a long line of things she’s done (or not done) to piss me off. Yes, you choose not to see her at all (and haven’t since Christmas, to my best recollection), but I can’t for the life of me understand how it is that she’s okay with that. How is she not jumping through every single hoop both you and your brother put in front of her? Why won’t she do what she needs to do to get her life in order so she can do what’s best for you? I’m a nice person, but there are an awful lot of moments wherein I catch myself wishing she wasn’t around to hurt you. But then I realize that she’ll still be hurting you (and your brothers) even after she’s dead because none of you will ever be “enough” to motivate her to change her behavior, and that’s a particularly painful kind of pain for anyone to bear.
Let me just say this: it’s her who’s not enough. You are amazing, and absolutely worth every moment I spend with you. Moreover, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel the same way, especially now that you’re past that troublesome 12-15 age range. You’re good company, even when you’re taking 500 selfies or watching Supernatural on your phone for the tenth time on the couch next to me. I think you must get that from your dad: the ability to sit quietly and occupy the same space as another person is a rare gift, the value of which I don’t think can be overstated. Then again, I’m speaking from my firmly entrenched position here in misanthropic hermit-land; maybe other people wouldn’t find you quite so amazing.
Never mind. Of course they would.
I have big dreams for you. You’re a sophomore now, and you’ve started to get college spam in the mail. Yesterday, your dad and I were looking at a flyer from a community college, and I went off on a ten minute tangent about how I really hoped you’d go to a four year school, even if it was out of state. You should have the on-campus living experience at 18. It wasn’t the same for me at 25, and I’ve regretted not doing it at the “proper” time for the last quarter century. It’s really something to be responsible for yourself, to be able to decide that today you’d rather watch the rain from your 10th floor window than trudge through it to go to class. And there’s nothing like french fries at midnight from the after-hours cafeteria, or discovering that–after a couple dozen early mornings in a row–you actually kind of find your roommates hard rock music appealing in some impossible-to-explain and entirely disconcerting way. But mostly, I think you’ll love college (and you should absolutely do it) because there are people there like us, and finding them will make you feel so much less alone in the world. This is true to such an extent that I fully expect you to trade in your misanthrope’s hat for a coffee (or tea) mug during all the years you spend there. Academia is home for all the misunderstood smart people in the world, dear step-daughter, and the sooner you realize that, the more you’ll treasure the experience.
As for me, I’m just trying to treasure this experience. For a 16-year-old from an entirely different historical moment than I, you fill the “friend” shoes pretty well. I love that we have that now, and I wish we hadn’t wasted a year fighting against it. You know more about me than most people on the planet, and I think I know more about you. Of course, I make it my business to know everything I possibly can about you and your brother, (otherwise, no one would have any idea what to get either of you for your birthdays or Christmas), but this is something different. Certainly, I love you–you are my step-daughter and everyone should have two parents in the world who love them no matter what stupid shit they do. But I choose you as my friend (and love you as such) because we complement one another in much the same way as your aunt and I do: We bring totally different gifts to the table, and yet we still manage to see the world in much the same way.
Anyway. You’re 16, and you’re growing up and moving on far too quickly for my taste (even as you seem currently to be stagnating downstairs in your love affair with your bed and our Netflix subscription). I wish I could make you slow down and enjoy this time in your life before the adulting begins, but I know I can’t, and so I do the only things I can: I screenshot our text message exchanges because they almost always make me smile–even months later. I buy every single (cheap) maroon item of clothing that I can find and I give it to you joyfully, because I know for certain that you’ll wear it until it falls apart. I keep you stocked in makeup wipes, granola bars, and bananas, and I clean your bathroom every once in a while out of the blue, just because I love you and I know tidy-ness is contrary to your nature.
All I will ever ask in return for my love and friendship is this: keep me company on a few more pointless and penniless road trips, and always remember–always–that you come from people who love, understand, and value you regardless of the fact that you leave dirty dishes, crumbs, and stickiness everywhere you go.
❤ you, Boo.