The Hating Game
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He is making a mark with his pencil, a straight single tally, when he notices me.
“What are you smirking about?”
I think he makes a mark in his planner when we argue.
“I’D BETTER GET to bed.” I’m talking to my parents. I’m also gently cleaning the two-dollar eBay Smurf I got a few weeks back with a baby’s toothbrush. Law & Order is on in the background and they are currently pursuing a false lead. I’ve got a white clay mask on my face and my toenail polish is drying.
“All right, Smurfette,” my parents chime like a two-headed monster. They haven’t worked out they don’t have to sit cheek to cheek to fit onto the video-chat screen. Or maybe they have, but they like it too much.
Dad is dangerously suntanned, bar the white outline of his sunglasses. It’s a sort of reverse-raccoon effect. He’s a big laugher and a big talker, so I get a lot of glimpses of the tooth he chipped while eating a rack of ribs. He’s wearing a sweatshirt he’s had since I was a kid and it makes me ridiculously homesick.
My mom never looks properly at the camera. She gets distracted by the tiny preview window where she can see her own face on screen. I think she analyzes her wrinkles. It gives our chats a disconnected quality and makes me miss her more.
Her fair skin can’t cope with the outdoors, and where Dad has tanned, she has freckled. We have the same coloring, so I know what will happen if I give up the sunscreen. They dapple every square inch of her face and arms. She even has freckles on her eyelids. With her bright blue eyes and black hair, tied up in its usual knot on top of her head, she always gets a second glance wherever she goes. Dad is enslaved by her beauty. I know for a fact, because he was telling her roughly ten minutes ago.
“Now, don’t worry about a thing. You’re the most determined person there, I’m sure of it. You wanted to work for a publisher, and you did it. And you know what? Whatever happens, you’re always the boss of Sky Diamond Strawberries.” Dad’s been explaining at great length all the reasons why I should get the promotion.
“Aw, Dad.” I laugh to cover the leftover bubble of emotion I’ve been feeling since the blog meltdown in front of Joshua. “My first act as CEO is to order you both to bed for an early night. Good luck with Lucy Forty-two, Mom.”
I caught up with the last ten blog entries while I ate dinner. My mom has a clear, factual style of writing. I think she would have been working somewhere major one day if she hadn’t quit. Annie Hutton, investigative journalist. Instead, she spends her days digging up rotting plants, packing crates for delivery, and Frankensteining hybrid varieties of strawberries. To me, the fact she gave up her dream job for a man is a tragedy, no matter how wonderful my dad is, or the fact that I’m sitting here now as a result.
“I hope they don’t turn out like Lucy Forty-one. I’ve never seen anything like it. They looked normal from the outside, but completely hollow on the inside. Weren’t they, Nigel?”
“They were like fruit balloons.”
“The interview will go fine, honey. They’ll know within five minutes that you live and breathe the publishing industry. I still remember you coming home after that field trip. It was like you’d fallen in love.” Mom’s eyes are full of memories. “I know how you felt. I remember when I first stepped into the printing room of a newspaper. The smell of that ink was like a drug.”
“Are you still having trouble with Jeremy at work?” Dad knows Joshua’s actual name by now. He just chooses to not use it.
“Joshua. And yes. He still hates me.” I take a fist of cashews and begin eating them a little aggressively.
Dad is flatteringly mystified. “Impossible. Who could?”
“Who even could,” Mom echoes, reaching up to finger the skin by her eye. “She’s little and cute. No one hates little cute people.” Dad seamlessly agrees with her and they begin talking as though I’m not even here.
“She’s the sweetest girl in the world. Julian’s clearly got some sort of inferiority complex. Or he’s one of those sexists. He wants to bring everyone else down to make himself feel better. Napoleon complex. Hitler complex. Something’s wrong with him.” He’s ticking them off on his fingers.
“All of the above. Dad, put the Post-it note over the screen so she can’t see herself. She’s not looking at me properly.”
“Maybe he’s hopelessly in love with her,” Mom offers optimistically as she looks properly into the camera for the first time. My stomach drops through the floor. I catch a glimpse of my own face; I am a clay statuette of frozen horror and surprise.
Dad scoffs all over the place. “Ridiculous way of showing it, don’t you think? He’s made that place a misery for her. I tell you, if I met him, he’d have to do some groveling. You hear that, Luce? Tell him to shape up or your dad’s gonna get on a plane and have a few words with him.”
The image of them face-to-face is weird. “I wouldn’t bother, Dad.”
It’s the segue Mom needs. “Speaking of planes, we could put some money in your account so you could book a flight to visit us? We haven’t seen you in so long. It’s been a long time, Lucy.”
“It’s not the money, it’s getting the time,” I try to say, but they both begin talking over me at once, in an unintelligible combination of begging, pleading, and arguing.
“I’ll come as soon as I can get some time, but it might not be for a while. If I get the promotion I’ll be pretty busy. If I don’t . . .” I study the keyboard.
“Yes?” Dad is sharp.
“I’ll have to get another job,” I admit. I look up.
“Of course you would. You would never work for that jackass Justin. “It would be good to have her home though,” Dad tells Mom. “The books are not adding up. We need some extra brainpower.”
I can see Mom is still fretting about my job situation. She’s a penny pincher, and she’s been living on a farm long enough that in her imagination the city is a heinously expensive, bustling metropolis. She’s not far off. I make a good wage, but after the bank sucks my rent payment out, I’m stretched pretty tight. The thought of getting a roommate fills me with dread.
“How will she . . .”
Dad shushes her and waves his hands to dispel the mere thought of failure like a puff of smoke. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be Johnnie unemployed and sleeping under a bridge, not her.”