Separation Anxiety- Six
I took a deep breath, trying to push back my desire to scream at the top of my lungs.
“Calm down,” I told myself but I could feel my face heat. It was like fire spreading from my fingers tips, across my chest, and up my neck. If I were in an old cartoon show steam would be coming out of my ears and nose.
It’s not like I haven’t dealt with little kids before.
Bennett sat, legs spread out in front of him, beside my duffel bag. Plastic wrappers lay all around him, and if that wasn’t proof enough, chocolate Debbie was smeared over his mouth and cheeks.
He looked at me, with huge guilty eyes, his chocolate covered fingers hovering dangerously over my purple bag.
“BENNETT!” I hissed, stepping forward and yanking my duffel bag away from him. He reached out and grabbed the pocket of my duffel, the chocolate on his fingers smeared into the fabric. This time I did scream, pulling my bag roughly away from the toddler.
Bennett, fell to the floor and started wailing.
I turned the bag in my hands, clothes falling out and onto the floor, along with the empty Debbie’s box. I muttered a curse under my breath at the sight of the chocolate stain and threw the bag on the floor. I glared at Bennett, who looked up at me with accusingly tearful eyes.
Feet thudded up the stairs and Kate hurried into the room, looking between us with questioning eyes. She picked Bennett up and rocked him, despite him being half her size.
“What happened?” Kate demanded patiently.
I grabbed my bag again and thrust the stain into sight, “He stained my bag, and he ate my cupcakes! I’ve had this bag forever,” I practically yelled. I start to pace the room, clutching my hot forehead, “And he totally went and ruined my private property!”
“What are you gonna do?” I jumped in surprise to find Seth in the doorway, “Sue a three year old?”
I waved a fist at Seth, too angry for words, “Shut up!”
Seth stuck his tongue out.
“Riley,” Kate reprimanded softly.
I turned, close to tears. Frustration filled me to the top with anger and hurtful longing to be back in New York.
“Listen, Riley,” Katie saied soothingly, bouncing the gluttonous demon child on her hip. “I know you’re upset. I’m sure Bennett didn’t intentionally stain your bag—”
“And I am sorry that he got into your stuff. Sometimes that happens with little siblings—”
“I’ll help you get the stain out, and from now on, maybe you could put your bag up where Bennett can’t reach it.” She smiled soothingly but it only made me angrier.
I shut my mouth, glaring at her and Bennett. “Fine.” I examined my bag and poked out my lips, my eyes welling with tears as I allowed myself to become more and more upset. Before I could get an apology from either one, Kate walked over and wrapped an arm around my shoulder, leading me out of the room.
“C’mon, Stella and I are just finishing up lunch. We’ll have a nice lunch and then wash your bag. Then your dad thought we’d go out , so you can spend some time in Atlanta.”
“I’m in Atlanta,” I argued grumpily, being led down the stairs.
Kate didn’t seem to hear, or chose not to give my comment any attention because she let me go, set Bennett down and hurried into the kitchen. “Stella?!” She called, disappearing into the kitchen.
I slumped, standing on the bottom step and brewing in the unfairness of the situation.
“You’re such a brat.” I jumped and turned to see Seth.
I pushed him angrily, “Stop scaring me! And I am not.”
He raised his eyebrows at me with a short disbelieving laugh, “Only brats whine, brat.”
“I am not a brat!”
“Yes you are.”
“No I’m not!”
“Yes you are!”
Avery thudded down the stairs, and stopped to part us with the backs of her hands, “Ugh! You too are like a couple of seagulls fighting over a leftover tuna sandwich.” She rolled her eyes and walked away like she was so much better than us.
Both of us stuck our tongues out at Avery’s back at the same time. We glared at each other for a minute and then I decided to be the bigger person and walked away, tossing my hair over my shoulder to signal that the fight was over and that I won.
I could practically hear Seth roll his eyes at me, but I ignored it.
“What are we having for lunch?” I asked walking into kitchen.
Katie and Stella both stood by the stove, where Stella ladled out bowls of tomato soup and Katie plopped grilled cheese sandwiches onto plates. Bennett was on Katie’s hip, Gracie at Stella’s elbow, Avery was walking out of the kitchen with two bowls of tomato soup calling out to Gracie and Bennett.
Seth came into the kitchen and bumped me with his shoulder, grabbing a bowl from the counter and handing it to his mom.
“Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches,” Stella answered my question distractedly, taking the bowl from Katie and ladling soup for Seth. “Here, Seth.”
“Thanks,” Seth took the bowl from her, turning his face to me with a smug expression.
I rolled my eyes and sneered in a “whatever” way.
Katie set Bennett down, who promptly ran into the dining room looking as giddy as… well, as giddy as a three year old. “Would you like some, Riley?”
“Obviously.” I felt annoyance take over. Sure I had planned to be upbeat and cheerful today, but Bennett’s vandalism and Seth’s constant picking had rained on my parade preparations.
Stella looked over at me with a small scowl, “You okay?”
I shrugged and pretended like I wasn’t interested in anything going on around me, finding more interest in the spice containers and jar of spatulas and serving spoons, “Eh, fine, just tired. I think I’m finally feeling the results of yesterday’s flight.”
I looked up to see Stella studying me.
“Well, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” I shrugged again.
Katie held out a plate with a rather brown grilled cheese. “Here, sweetheart.”
Sweetheart? Despite myself I could feel my nostrils rise in a disapproving sneer. “Thanks,” I said dryly. I turned to Stella for soup, but she was already walking into the dining room with two steaming bowls of tomato soup.
“Here,” she called out.
I followed her into the dining room where everyone sat, eating and talking. I sat beside Gracie, the only person who hadn’t ticked me off yet.
Gracie’s curly auburn hair stuck out in all directions, as if she just got out of bed. She turned to me, tomato soup dribbling off her chin onto the table. “Why are you mad?”
“I’m not mad,” I prickled, unsettled by Gracie’s question. “Do I look mad?”
“Yeah. You look like Stella.” I looked up quickly to meet Stella’s expression, mirroring my own surprise. This was something knew. No one ever said we looked alike, no one. Gracie nodded matter-of-factly, turning back to her soup. She took a bite of her sandwich and continued to explain herself, “Her ears turn red when she’s mad.”
“Yeah,” Avery butted into the conversation, “And her nose does this thing.”
I turned to see Avery dramatically breathing through her nose, making her nostrils flare in and out.
“Avery!” Stella exclaimed, the tips of her ears turning pink.
“What?” Avery said with her mouth full of grilled cheese, “It’s true.” Wet crumbs flew out of her mouth, half way across the table.
I wrinkled my nose, “Gross, Avery!”
Seth snickered, “Careful Avery, the princess hates filthy commoners getting her precious pedicure dirty.”
I glared at Seth.
“See,” Gracie said beside me, “You’re mad.”
“Gracie,” Stella chided softly, “Stop.”
“But she is.”
I covered my ears with my hands childishly, “No I’m not, and I do not look anything like Stella.”
Stella looked at me as if she were hurt, “You say that like it would be a bad thing to look like me.”
I blushed, “No… not bad… just… ugh.”
Gracie leaned over the table to pat Stella’s hand, smearing tomato soup in between her knuckles, “I think you’re beautiful.”
“I didn’t say she wasn’t-- I mean, that you aren’t,” I said, shrugging and feeling uncomfortable. I cleared my throat and looked down and my soup, “You are.” I don’t say anything more, feeling a sudden and unexplainable jealousy. She was always so pretty, so naturally beautiful. I had wanted to look like her for the longest time, I still wanted her natural beauty.
“Thank you,” Stella said softly.
The table fell awkwardly silent, everyone looking into their bowls of soup as if they had all done something wrong. It didn’t help the awkwardness when Seth glared at me from across the table.
“What?” I demanded.
“Shut up,” Avery exclaimed in exasperation.
“Avery,” Stella chided softly.
It was like watching a tennis match, the ball kept being hit back and forth between my dad and Katie as they tried to figure out who was going where and in which car.
“But if you go in the Camry with the two girls, we’ll still have three extra seats in the van,” Katie argued, “It doesn’t make any sense for you to take the Camry when we’ll all fit in the van, and we’re all going to the same place.”
“I’m not worried about seating,” my dad said bending down to tie Bennett’s shoes, glancing up a few times to see Katie’s face. He stood and glanced at me and then leaned in to say something in a low murmur.
“If you want to spend time with the girls,” Katie said exasperated, watching my dad kneel again and finish tying the littler blue shoes, “Then we should plan for you three to go out together.”
“Well I want to include the whole family, I don’t want to exclude anybody.” He stood up and took Katie’s hands, talking now in a low tone.
I turned disinterestedly to Stella, “Are they always like this?”
Stella looked up distractedly as she tried pulling on her shoes and fixing Gracie’s wild hair. “Who? Dad and Katie?”
Stella shrugged, “They’re like any other couple.”
“Are you like that with your boyfriend?”
Her face turned pink and a silly grin slid across her face. I blinked in surprise, having never seen this look cross her face before. How much have I really missed?
“Well… I mean, yeah, sometimes… maybe,” she grinned and shrugged again, “We bicker sometimes, playfully, of course.”
“Aw…” I nodded as if I understood. “Cute.”
She blushed again and shrugged again, “It’s silly, I know, sorry.”
I waved the subject away, seeing that she was uncomforting. “Whatever. I don’t have a boyfriend, but you know that. Gah! I wish I did… like, I wish I did all the time.”
Stella knelt to pick up a toy that had dropped, looking at me with concern, “You don’t need a boyfriend, Riley. You know that right?”
I shrugged dismissively, feeling a tug in my gut, “Yeah, sure.” I turned, to look at Dad. He was rubbing Katie’s arms, from the shoulder to the elbow, up and down to calm her.
“No,” Katie said shaking her head, trying to keep back a smile. “Listen, you’re being completely illogical.”
“If you take the Camry, the kids will be fighting and arguing to see who gets to ride with you-”
Avery cut in with an excited exclamation, “Can I ride with Dad?”
“I want to go! I want to go!” Gracie started jumping up and down.
Seth groaned and snapped at Gracie, “Only say it once!”
Katie turned her face from the growing excitement to glare at my Dad pointedly. He shrugged guiltily and stepped away from her to calm Gracie who had started chanting.
“We’re taking the van guys!”
“What?!” Avery exclaimed indignantly.
“We’re just taking the van, okay. Let’s head out the door,” he patted Gracie’s head, “Do all y’all have shoes on? Shoes, clothes, hair…” He corralled Ben, Gracie and Avery out the door, looking like a sheep herded.
Stella touched my arm tentatively to get my attention, “You ready?”
“Yep!” I chirped cheerfully, slinging my new rhinestone peach purse up on to my shoulder. The color was horrendous, but for the sake of Katie, I wore it proudly upon my shoulder. Thankfully it matched perfectly with the flowery baby-doll style shirt and white shorts I had decided to wear. Sadly I forgot to bring my little white sandals, and the blue flip flops I had brought instead clashed terribly with the outfit, but it couldn’t be helped. “Where are we going anyways?”
Stella smiled apologetically, “Sorry, I don’t know either.”
“Well, I wish I knew where we were going,” I said stepping out the door, making sure to talk loud enough that Katie or my Dad could hear. “I mean, I might need to bring an extra pair of pants or something. Why do you have a sweatshirt in your purse anyways?”
I pointed at the grey sweatshirt stuffed into Stella’s purse as we walked down the pathway to the van.
She widened her eyes at me, “Do you not have a long sleeve shirt with you?”
“No,” I shrugged indignantly, “Why in the world would I need one? It’s Georgia?”
The van doors opened, and it was like watching national geographic when ants all crowd back into their ant hole. Everyone had their assigned seats.
“Well,” Stella drawled. She always talked so slowly, as if every word had to count. “Because it’s so hot all the time, restaurants and stores always turn up the air condition. It can get really cold.”
Seth, Avery and Gracie sat in the back, while Bennett climbed into his booster seat. Stella motioned for me to get in beside Bennett, squeezing in beside me and then shutting the van door.
The heat inside the van was excruciating, it hit me like a heat wave and insistently turned my pale cheeks a bright crimson.
“Oh, trust me,” I said, breathing heavy with the heat closing in on every side of me. “air conditioning will be super welcome, the colder the better.”
Like mine, Stella’s cheeks were a rashy red as she reopened the car door to let the slight breeze in.
“It’s usually not this hot in the winter.”
“I knew global warming was real,” I threw my head back against the head rest.
I watched, out the windshield, as Katie and my dad walked out of the house holding hands. Katie was smiling like the teenage girls at my school usually smile when they’re with their boyfriends.
What is the secret? I wondered, thinking it must be something to do with physical contact. When I think about it, I would do anything to touch Michael. Michael… Riley… Richael? Rilael? Michely…Miley… Oh my goodness Miley is so cute!
My dad, like a true gentleman, opened the car door for Katie, and then walked around the front to his own seat. Katie turned in her seat to look at all of us.
“You guys okay? Did everyone have a lot of water today? Oh honey,” Katie reached around her seat to stroke Bennett’s pink cheeks, “I’m sorry.”
My dad climbed into the car with a loud round of “TURN ON THE AIR” from everyone, including me.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” my Dad muttered under his breath, fumbling with the keys. The mini-van roared to life, hot air blasting out of the vents, Christian music blaring out the speakers. The windows rolled down to release the heat, Stella closed the door and we rolled out of the driveway.
“Where are we going?” I asked, trying to turn so as the hard plastic of Bennett’s car seat wouldn’t dig into my side. The loud voices from the back of the car, the music playing, and Bennett’s incomprehensible shouting drown out my question, “Dad!” he didn’t turn or answer, “Dad! Dad! Daaad! Where are we going? Dad!”
Katie nudged him, “Stella’s trying to ask you something.”
“Oh?” he asked her in surprise. He raised his voice and looked at me through the rearview mirror, “Wotcha want, darlin’?”
I tried not to laugh at his accent and raised my voice to reply, “Where are we going?”
“He is great, He is good! He is ahhhhh-mazing!”
“Seth, give it back!”
“Why should I?”
“He is ahhhh-mazing!”
“Oh just give it back to her, Seth!”
Bennett reached out and grabbed at the flower pin I had stuck into my ponytail. He waved it in front of me in victory and yelled something about flowers growing in tea cups.
I rolled my eyes, becoming frustrated with the over-all craziness and commotion, yanking the flower back from Bennett.
Katie turned in her seat to look at me, but her words were nearly all drowned out by the noise. “We thought it would… to go…dinner... sound nice?”
My face must have conveyed my utter confusion because Stella touched my arm and said into my ear, “We’re going out for dinner.”
“Where?” I yelled over the wind.
“GIVE IT BACK!”
Bennett tugged at my flower again. I placed a hand firmly over the flower in my hair, my elbow pointing straight into Bennett’s face. He started to whine, and tried prying my hand off the flower, screaming in frustration when he couldn’t get my hand to budge.
Stella reached over and took Bennett’s hands in hers, “I’m sorry, Riley. Bennett, no! Leave the flower in Riley’s hair, okay?”
“I know, I know,” she crooned.
The windows rolled up as the air condition turned cool.
“GIVE IT BACK, SETH! Mom!”
“Seth!” Katie snapped, turning around in her seat to look back at Seth. “Please, just give it back.”
“It’s mine though.”
“Bennett you can’t have Riley’s flower, but maybe you could look at a book?”
“Seth, how old are you? You’re thirteen, please be the bigger person in this situation-“
“Mom! He’s still not giving it back!”
“Fine, have you’re stupid spy glass!”
I threw my head back against the head rest, an ache in the back of my skull building with every new sound.
“Hey, hon? Do I turn left?”
“No! Want! Want! Want!”
“Riley,” Stella looked apologetic, “Could you take your flower out until we get out of the car?”
I ripped the stupid flower out of my hair and passed it to Bennett, “Just have it, gah!”
“I’m really sorry, Riley, for all the craziness,” Stella apologized, seriously looking regretful. “I’m sure it’s never this loud in your car.”
“I don’t have a car, I mean Mom doesn’t have a car. We take taxi’s and the subway everywhere, or we just walk. New York is a very gas efficient city. Just last year I did this study in school on-”
“Stella! Stella! Stella!”
“Just say it once,” Seth snapped at Gracie who was bouncing up and down in her seat.
“Stella! I need to go potty!”
Stella pursed her lips, “Sorry, Riley, one second.” Stella reached forward and touched Katie’s arm, “How long is it till the restaurant? Gracie has to go potty.”
“Only a few more minutes, could you ask if she can wait?”
Stella turned in her seat, “Hey Gracie, can you wait a few more minutes?”
“No, I really, really, really have to go!”
“Just hold it,” Avery demanded, “And don’t pee your pants.”
“But I really have to go,” Gracie whined.
Seth gave an incredulous grunt, “Right, and I really have warts.”
“You do have warts,” Avery argued.
“I do not!”
“Yeah, I’ve seen them.”
“No you haven’t, I don’t have any.”
“Seth has warts!” Gracie yelled gleefully, “Ooh… I really have to pee.”
I looked back to see Gracie holding herself and making a face.
Stella touched Katie’s arm again to inform her that Gracie really couldn’t wait. “Maybe we could pull into McDonald’s or something.”
“Honey, Gracie has to pee,” Katie told me dad.
He sighed in exasperation, “Okay.”
“I do not have warts!”
Dad turned into a McDonalds and pulled up to the curb.
Stella turned back to me, “What were you saying?”
I groaned and threw my head back again, “Forget it!”
“Who’s taking Gracie in?” my Dad called out.
I raised my hand as fast as I could; I would do anything to get out of that car. “I will! Let me.”
Katie looked back at me in concern as my Dad called for Gracie to unbuckle herself.
“You sure, Riley? I could do it if you like,” Stella offered, opening the van door.
“No!” I quickly exclaimed and took off my seat belt, squeezing past Stella and out the door. Gracie jumped out and ran to open the door. “I’m good! Be right back.”
I had expected Gracie to pee the second she sat on the toilet, instead I stood outside the stall listening to her hum to herself. It took two rounds of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” before I could hear her tinkle. When I say tinkle, I mean tinkle, as in a few drops.
“Gracie,” I tapped my foot on the floor and started pacing back and forth, the chill of the bathroom making my arms crawl with goosebumps. “Are you done yet?”
“Not yet,” she said in a singsong voice. She started singing again, some version of “On Top of Old Smokey” that included the meatball rolling into another meatball to make a meatball snowman.
“That’s not how the song goes,” I rolled my eyes impatiently.
“Yes it is,” she argued sweetly.
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it’s not. The meatball rolls onto the floor then out the door and then across the street.”
“That’s not what happens,” she sings out.
“Yes it is,” I argued, becoming annoyed.
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is!” I shook my head quickly, “Never mind, whatever! Are you done yet?”
There was a long thoughtful pause then a matter-of-fact, “I’m done.”
I waited for a few more seconds, straining my ears to hear the toilet flush.
“On top of old smokey, covered in meatballs, there was an old meatball, who rolled into another, they made a big snowman, covered in cheese, then the meatball snowman, rolled into the peas….”
“Gracie!” I snapped, stomping my foot in annoyance. “That’s not how it goes!”
She started laughing hysterically, as if this was the funniest prank to pull on someone ever. “Yes it is,” she squealed gleefully.
“Gracie, wipe your butt, flush the toilet and get out here.”
“Gracie!” I warned, I marched angrily up to the stall door and looked through the crack at her. She was standing with her pants pulled up, grinning and giggly. She looked at me through the crack and waved. “Flush the toilet, Gracie.”
“I don’t want to,” she said in her deceptively sweet and innocent voice.
I knocked roughly on the door, “Let me in.”
“Let me in!”
The bathroom door opened and Stella stepped in to come to my rescue. I sighed in relief and stepped forward.
“Stella, you’ve got to do something,” I motioned angrily at the stall, “Gracie isn’t listening to me. She’s done but she’s not coming out of the bathroom, and she’s been singing On Top of Old Smokey all wrong.”
The stall door swung open quickly, Gracie scrambled to wash her hands at the sight of Stella.
“Gracie,” Stella scolded softly.
I put my hands on my hips in exasperation, looking between Gracie and Stella. “Great!” I threw my hands in the air. “Just great. You don’t listen to me when I tell you to get out, but Stella doesn’t even have to ask and you… ugh!” I exhaled in frustration and stormed out of the bathroom with Stella calling an apology after me.