Fresh Air

Carol Tobin

It’s my fault again. As the rain smashes down on the windscreen of our old Fiat, I can tell it’s my fault because of two things. The first is my mother’s silence as she drives me to school. The second is her chain smoking as she fills the car with blame. If she liked me now, then she wouldn’t have time to smoke because she would be too busy using her mouth to fill the car with rants about neighbours she hates and friends she can’t stand. But instead it’s filled with deathly silent smoke and this morning it’s my fault that she is giving herself cancer. I can smell that I’m liable. The stale stench is gripping my school uniform. I can see that I’m guilty as I sit wearing an oversized cloak of smoke, barely able to make out the passing cars.

If I get cancer from inhaling her secondhand smoke then it serves me right. She told me this on our last trip to school before the summer holidays. She abandoned her silence and flirted with some words for a few seconds as if she had slipped out of character. If we do get cancer she will probably still be giving me the silent treatment in hospital as we lie in beds opposite each other, both of us dying, me lying there trying to figure out why she is ignoring me this time, wishing that silent treatment was a way to cure our terminal illness.

Two things make her smoke. The first is me, but I never really know why. The second is my dad, and I think I know why from piecing some of the clues she mutters together. He seems to have tricked her into marriage. He’s not the man she thought he was. He’s not who he pretended to be, whoever that was. I don’t know how he pulled that one off as he’s a terrible actor. I’ve seen him try at home, his fake laugh, one of the worst I’ve ever heard. And real laughter shouldn’t be followed by panic.

When she is not using her mouth to talk to us, then it’s free to partake in this cancer-causing habit. She has pulled the shutters down and is closed to us. Some girls in my class smoke because of their parents. I have a parent who smokes because of me.

As we turn onto Malton Road, I can just about make out a stream of traffic that is going to prolong this morning’s misery. The first day back is always the busiest with cars full of mothers more excited than their children, delirious at the thoughts of being rid of their kids for a few precious hours a day. I bravely catch a glimpse of my mother and see that she is desperately lighting one cigarette off the end of the previous one, as if she can’t bear to be without some nicotine for a second. She looks different when she smokes. Her strong striking face has faded. Her addiction is making everything smaller. Her eyes are squinted, her lips seem to have halved as if eroded away with every drag. Her lifespan is shrinking too, that’s the part she probably likes.

Sometimes to try and call a truce during these awkward journeys, I will pull a lighter from the pile in the glove compartment and offer her a flame. She always ignores these efforts, and I quickly make a mental note to never do this again. But I always persist, forced by the awkwardness of these car journeys.

During the summer holidays, I always make grand plans to start cycling to school so that I can avoid playing the mobile version of the ‘What Did I Do Now’ game with myself that I never win. But today is my first day back, and I am bikeless. I asked for one for my fifteenth birthday a few weeks ago, but she didn’t see any point in me having one, even stating morosely, “I love driving you.” She left out the word “crazy” in that statement.

I didn’t get the bike that I would have made use of. Instead, I got a dress that doesn’t fit me and some shoes I needed for school anyway. This is the first year I got gifts I didn’t like, and I was playing the ‘What Did I Do Now’ game on my birthday. She insisted I wore the dress that day. As it pinched my arms, I was convinced that she was trying to make me look fat.

I read somewhere that mothers are the cause of anorexia in their daughters. It may have been on the back of a toilet door in school that I read that. I think mothers are the cause of obesity too. I can see it with my chubby friends who insist they are carrying puppy fat. I think it’s mummy fat. Unhappy mummy fat. “You do the comfort eating for me child. I’ve got to keep trim so your daddy won’t stray again.”

The car indicator is broken, and it sounds like a bomb ticking. She turns on her classical CD, and I am grateful for the sounds that normally terrify me. This music usually sounds like it’s giving out to me. Maybe it is. Just as I am taking comfort in her chosen tune she turns it off. Now she must truly hate me. She is emphasising the silence. “Get that silence into you. Push it right into your ears and into your eyes and up your nose and absorb it in through your pores.”

I bet the rain is my fault too. It falls onto the windshield, landing like exploding bullets. I wish some of them could penetrate their way in here and kill the tension. The downpour is preventing me from opening the window and letting some toxic out. Today will be the day I get cancer. I can feel it. I pull my diary from my school bag and on today’s date I write the letter C and draw a large red circle around it to remind me of this day in case I get diagnosed anytime soon.

As I look out into the rain, there is a momentary relief that I didn’t get my bike because I would be drenched, my uniform stuck to my scrawny body. I get that comforting feeling you get when you know you’re somewhere safe, like snuggled up in your bed at night, doors locked in your home, protected from the world. This relief only lasts a few seconds, and I am back to wishing I was anywhere but in this car. I want to be in maths class with Sr. Ursula humiliating me in front of everyone because I can’t grasp the subject. I want to be sitting in German class terrified that Mrs. Doyle and her hairy chin will ask me something that I couldn’t possibly have the answer to. I want to be wandering the cold corridors, pulling my skirt firmly past my ankles so that Charles the perverted caretaker doesn’t get a glance at my bony legs.

On days like today, I’m always in such a hurry to get into the school that I detest. I try to speed up the car as I sit in the passenger seat, putting my foot down on the imaginary accelerator and gripping my imaginary wheel.

As we’re driving past the park, her smoke clears, and I notice a magpie perched on a railing. Great. One for sorrow. She notices it too and we both reel off, “Hello Mr or Mrs Magpie, How is the Mrs or Mr One Two Three Four Five Six Seven Eight Nine Ten salute.” Then we salute. Her with a cigarette in her hand, I with chewed nails clinging to mine. I hope that when we finish saluting that there may be a smile on her face, but there isn’t and I go back to fantasising about the bullies in my class commenting on my lack of boobs. I study my chest. I hoped they would grow this summer, but nothing seems to have changed since birth.

I grab another glance at my mother. She aged over the summer. I haven’t seen her smile in so long that I worry it has passed away. Grey is now clutching the top of her bleached blonde hair that she usually takes better care of. Pink spatters of polish remain on her nails from the last time she cared. Why didn’t she get me a bike? We wouldn’t have to pretend like this. She can’t be enjoying this. Another school year of lifts and tiffs and spending my whole days wondering what I did wrong and what face will greet me when she picks me up.

I decide to start the ‘What Did I Do Wrong’ game earlier today because I have time with the traffic. We were OK last night as we sat in the kitchen talking about my first day back. Then dad arrived in from his work week away, and the temperature dropped. His eyes were bloodshot, even his suit looked tired. I have an awful feeling that he looks forward to coming home to us, no matter how hard he works or what mood she was in when he left. There always seems to be a hopeful spring in his step.

He arrived into the kitchen walking past me his daughter who has an endless supply of love for him, and he went to kiss my mother on the cheek. She moved away and rejected his lips, and he kissed some air. I wanted to cry. Her face looked disgusted, and I wish I hadn’t seen it. It was as if some pervert uncle had kissed her at a family wedding, a face of utter revulsion. When he reached back to me for a hit of affection, I hugged him hard. I was hugging for two. And I wished he could have hid his rejection from my grasp. He felt weak in my arms, and I was disappointed. I wasn’t sure why I felt this way. Was it because, at this stage in his life, he should be used to her cold shoulders yet he still hasn’t found a way of warming to them. So he looked pathetic in my eyes. I’m pretty sure in the guide to raising well-rounded and balanced kids it says that fathers should hide any emasculated feelings and that you should not look pathetic in front of your kids because they need to respect you. Dads are supposed to be sturdy and strong. He felt limp in my embrace, like a damp rag-doll. My hugging wasn’t enough to revive him, and he left the kitchen like a bold child who had been sent to the bold step. Then I felt awful. I was sent to bed earlier than usual out of sheer awkwardness, wondering if I would see my dad sitting on the stairs as I climbed it.

Lately, I never know whose side to take in these situations, the boundaries have become blurry. I wish it was as clear as it used to be. Mom was mean, take dad’s side. Dad was frustrating, and “bloody useless,” take mom’s side. But as I lay in bed last night wondering, I hoped I would come to a conclusion fast as I didn’t want to be tired in school again. Should I be angry at my mother for her cold humiliating rejection of him or mad at him for not being the man she wants, the man he pretended to be? Maybe he was there when they met, and she is trying to revive him with tough love. I chose my dad’s side after hours of analysis. Then I could finally drift to sleep.

When we arrive at the school yard, the relief is overwhelming. I plan to kiss the ground as soon as I get out of the car like the Pope does. She bends in to kiss me goodbye, our usual routine, and for the first time I pull away from her. She kisses the air, and as I am walking away, I feel awful for doing that. I want to chase the car and run after her and kiss her back, but the guilt has crippled me. I hear the first bell and skip towards the school door, embracing the fresh air as I do.