This short story was inspired by a vignette written by nora over at Finding Strength in my Submission
If parental discipline for adults is not your thing, then please avoid.
Just Enough Rope
Two students stood talking under the sun in the parking lot at Valley College. One reached into her bag, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and held it up as an offering. “So how bad did you do?” she asked.
Not wanting to smell of smoke when she got home, Emily refused the offer from her best friend. She and Larissa had just left their Psychology of Learning class and were leaning on Emily’s Wrangler. Glowering at an unspecified point in front of her, she back-handed Larissa her exam paper.
“Oh, wow. Not good …not good at all,” Lissa made the clucking sounds of a mother hen, then turned her head to give her friend a smile short on compassion.
“It’s not funny.” Emily’s focus had not shifted. “I need to pass this stupid class.” She was having the familiar feelings. Cars were starting up in the busy lot mixed with the animated conversations of other students passing by, all probably taking their studies seriously. So cramming again at the last minute when it was already too late wasn’t such a good idea. Something floating in her stomach suggested she not go home today.
“It’s not the end of the world. You can make it up next time.”
“Easy for you to say” Emily glared. “Lemme guess. You got another friggin’ A.”
Larissa winked and pulled out her exam.
“A ninety-effin’ three.” Figured. It sure looked sweet compared to her own forty-five. “You must’ve cheated.”
“Seriously, if you need help, I’m available for tutoring,” her friend said with an irritatingly straight face.
“It’s your fault. I just needed to study harder.”
”You’re blaming me?” Larissa laughed. “Oh, that’s rich.”
The girls liked to party. Just normal college kids. Emily had to have a social life, and her father had loosened up on the restrictions. So with her best friend’s encouragement, maybe she was developing some bad habits. How Lissa was acing the tests, Emily did not know. They had both been getting pretty hammered.
“You need to handle your business, girlfriend,” said Lissa. “I’m not your babysitter.”
Emily felt the warmth on her face, more than just the afternoon sun. “You know I can’t refuse the Razz.” She had managed to find her sense of humor. Her drink was Bacardi and Coke.
“You’re such a lightweight.”
“Yeah…,” Emily countered. “Who did Colin have to practically carry to the car cuz she got wasted on two Hurricanes?”
Larissa appeared to have no comeback for that, but made a face Emily reluctantly found endearing. They had met in class the first day and, being new to the area, Emily was thrilled to make a friend. A year younger, Lissa was living in the parental home in which she had been raised while attending college. Emily had, just last summer, moved across country to live with her father after a two year separation due to her parents’ divorce.
“This ain’t funny.” Emily wished her friend could somehow fix the mess.
“It’s cool. Just pick a few days, stay home, and study your butt off. If you want, I can stop by your house and whip your ass into shape.”
Emily waved her off. She didn’t want right then to be reminded of her house, and this problem was a house already on fire. Another bad test was not going to go over well, and if any of the drinking and stuff ever came out …and then she remembered …the date she had with Colin that night.
“Can I keep this?” Emily looked again at her friend’s exam. She had an idea.
Jack Martin carried another stone across the yard for the path he was laying. Manual labor usually had a calming effect on him, but on this day he was a little anxious. The feeling was remembered from childhood, an attack of nerves the result of having messed up at school …a note sent home, a bad report card or maybe worse. This wasn’t the first time he had come to the conclusion that a parent gets no free ride in the drama. His daughter’s big test score was due, and it had reached a point where a poor exam could no longer be tolerated.
The day was a beautiful one as days go. In the valley where he settled after the divorce, he had discovered the summer can persist like a stubborn fever before it relented to a fairly friendly winter, and this late November sun was a welcome warmth on his broad back. He placed the flat stone in front of the new shed he was building, his ear on the distant sounds of a bustling neighborhood. Over on Sherman Way the traffic was stirring up the beginnings of rush hour where Emily’s Jeep should soon be rumbling somewhere in the mix. He would hear it coming up the drive. Their place was on a fairly good sized piece of land, setting it apart from most other properties in this area of town.
Jack hated waiting. If something was nagging the dark part of his mind, he wanted to pull it out into the light. Thinking about Emily and how much she had grown up in the short time they had been apart, he turned to fetch another rock off the back of the pickup. Since she had come to live with him while attending college, he had resumed the role of parenthood and, unlike his ex, he grasped that responsibility with a firm grip. His daughter was to have a modicum of structure imposed upon her to see that she was both safe and meeting her responsibilities. Other than a weekly review of her classes, which had revealed several bad trends, it was with reluctance that he had decided it time to allow her more space. He had to start accepting the fact that she was a college kid now. Since the start of school in September, he had backed off, despite his parental intuition, which was a warning light that for weeks had been flashing yellow to orange and bordering on red.
He heard the Wrangler pull in out front, then moments later a head was seen at the back door shouting that she was home. Before he could say a word, said head had disappeared back inside. It wasn’t the greeting he had expected …and did she think he was going to forget? Emily had not seemed concerned. Maybe everything had turned out well.
“Do you have something to show me?” He had given her time to get settled before tapping on her bedroom door. He found her laying prone on her bed, hair and feet up, cell phone in hand. She looked like a girl without a care in the world.
“I’m on the phone,” she informed him, hand covering where she had been having a conversation that should not be interrupted.
“Yes, I can see that. I’d like you to get off the phone.”
“That would be rude of me. Can’t it wait?”
“No, it cannot.” He didn’t think it a good sign that she was stalling.
Before making her apologies to the voice at the other end of the line, she produced a sigh, one that a parent of a teenager should recognize as heroic tolerance. Jack waited, arms crossed, and with equally dauntless patience.
“This is fantastic.” She had handed him a paper bearing a proud ninety-three.
“It’s just a little test.” She snatched it back, crumpled and tossed it deftly into the wastebasket by her desk.
“Your best in that class.” He was both pleased and relieved. “Sweetie, I’d think you’d be ecstatic.”
“Ecstatic? It’s not like I won the freakin’ lottery.”
She fell onto her back in bed and lay there with eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Jack fumbled for words. “You’re in a mood today.” He thought she should be happy. He had warned her that another failed test would mean grounding and a loss of the privileges he had been affording her.
“I’m fine, really,” she turned her head and smiled.
“If you keep this up, that GPA’s going to start looking good.”
“Yeah, I’m stoked,” she gave him a thumbs up. She wasn’t being sarcastic; he was pretty sure.
“You don’t seem yourself tonight.”
Emily was trying to enjoy her big date. She had to admit to herself that Colin was perceptive. It wasn’t like she wanted it this way. Their relationship was still in the development phase, and she wasn’t ready to show him her moody side.
“I’m fine.” She flashed a convincing smile. This was the first time she had been out on a real date since arriving in town. Every meeting so far with Colin had been either at home or over at the park in the sober light of day. Evenings, they were always part of a group. “Just really messed up on a test,” she sighed.
“Which one this time? That psychology class again?”
“Yeah.” She was thinking about how to change the subject.
“What do you find so hard about it?” he asked without making his question sound too much like an accusation. Emily felt her defenses rise, but Colin Black had nice eyes, a fact she’d been dwelling on from across the candlelit table. The restaurant was quiet, considering. Friday night at The Odyssey could be a mob scene, but they’d gotten an out-of-the-way spot on the terrace overlooking the valley below. It was just too romantic to be talking about her freakin’ schoolwork.
“Not that hard… I just need to buckle down and study.”
“Doesn’t seem you’ve had much time for that since you met Lissie.”
“Lissie? I’ve never heard you call her that before.” Emily worked at cutting her prime rib, avoiding those dark eyes.
“I’m just saying she’s not the best influence on you.”
Emily looked up to see that he didn’t have that grin on his puss she liked so much. “What makes you think I’m not the one directing the show?”
“I don’t know… you’ve changed. I didn’t even know you drank til we started hanging out with her.”
“Well, I did.” She played a little with the food on her plate.
“In Boston. I like to have a few drinks. So what?”
“Nothing… forget it,” he grunted dismissively. They went back to their food and to a heavy silence.
He was being serious. She was being moody. The date wasn’t going as she had hoped. Colin was usually easy going, and his sense of humor gave her just the right tickle. The paternal tone in his voice tonight had unnerved her. She snuck another peek over her dinner to see what he was thinking.
“So what do you really think of Lissa?” She made it sound like an innocent question.
“Think of how?”
“Do you like her?”
“That little brat?” he chuckled. “Yeah, I like her.”
She thought, okay, not a big surprise there. At least he’s being honest. “I think she likes you, too.”
“I guess we’ve become pretty good friends,” he said. It appeared he wasn’t much interested in elaborating. Playing it cool, and she hated the not knowing.
“She’s a big flirt.”
“When?” Colin said as he chewed on underdone broccoli.
“I don’t know… like all the time?”
”Do you want to hook up with her?”
He stopped chewing. The look he gave her made her feel two feet tall. She wasn’t being fair, but there had been no good judge to restrain her. “I’m sorry. I have no right to ask you that.”
To the soft breeze of evening and twinkling lights of the valley below, they ate in silence.
“I think you have the right,” he said.
Startled by his voice, her heart beat a little faster.
“Since you moved here… we get along really well, right?” he continued with hesitation, two meals on their table for the moment ignored. “I know it’s usually just goofing around. I was kinda hoping we’d have a chance tonight to talk more serious.”
“Okay.” She could see he was floundering. “Like what?”
“You know…like how we feel about each other.”
She took a breath. “How do you feel?”
“I feel like I really don’t want to be seeing…”
“Can I refill that Coke?”
Emily watched their waitress reaching for Colin’s glass …another pretty girl he might be attracted to. She didn’t know where all this shit was coming from tonight. The insecurity wasn’t like her.
“So what do you think?” The waitress had left. He had waited patiently.
“I’m not sure what you’re saying, exactly.” Her face felt warm while she kept her cool.
“You’re trying to make this hard for me, aren’t you?”
Well, yeah, maybe she was.
“I’m not interested in Lissie. I’m trying to say I like you. I want you to be my girlfriend.” He was leaning back in his chair, arms crossed, ready for her answer. She smiled, the first one of the evening to make an appearance without first requiring her permission.
There were a million stars in the valley. Letting go of the railing, she leaned back, surrendering her weight to her boyfriend, enjoying his strong, warming arms around her middle.
“Our houses are down there somewhere,” she thought out loud. He had brushed her hair back, had kissed her gently on the ear.
“Over there, he pointed southwest, and she tried to judge the distance.
He wouldn’t understand, she was sure. Colin had started doing work for her father months before her arrival. He knew that she was staying with her dad while attending college, and that he took an active interest in his daughter’s education. Emily was expected to work hard, and Mr. Martin did not approve of smoking, drinking or such vices, and blah, blah, blah. That was the truth, at least as much as Colin needed to know about it.
One of those lights, she sighed. She wondered what her father was doing, the man who owned the house under whose roof she lived. Likely thinking of his daughter, she admitted to herself. That would not surprise her, and she sighed again.
She would tell her dad about the exam. Yeah, that was the only right thing to do …wasn’t it? So he’d be disappointed. She grimaced. Confession would bring salvation …and no more screwing around. It was time to crack the books. If she thought about it, wasn’t life but a series of ups and downs?
“Whatcha thinkin’ about, baby? He kissed her neck this time.
“It’s such a beautiful night.”
She wished it could last forever.