Watch your tone (Day 11)

“If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to me, you wouldn’t have any friends.”

My mother is washing and drying the Corningware, sliding it back into its drawer, the lids  making that rattling Corningware sound (a sound unmistakable from any other). The counters are wiped down, and a half empty box of Lucky Charms sits like an idiot out on the table. Breakfast cereal is ridiculous, I think. Doesn’t it know how ridiculous it is?

Fact is, I wouldn’t talk to my friends the way I talk to my mother, because my friends don’t ask me dumb questions like “What does Kelly’s mom think?” or “Aren’t you going to be tired if you go on a school night?”

Besides. What I say to my mother in the kitchen has nothing to do with my friends. Also, I am not my mother. I’m 17, and I know everything.

“Why can’t you just answer a question without rolling your eyes?” And that in itself triggers an eye roll, though I am trying hard not to do it; it’s like trying to avoid a dead animal in the middle of the street, while keeping the car steady, steady.

But I can’t. I turn away so I can roll my eyes in peace, that full, satisfying upward yawn of the eyes that says, You just don’t get it and the world agrees with me.

Since I got my driver’s license, I have a low tolerance for everything. I also have free and singular access to my dad’s ‘86 Nissan, the model that talks to you, Knight Rider style, when you “leave a door ajar,” or when “fuel level is low.” Once you have the option to turn the key and just go, it’s hard to stay put. It makes sense that you get your license at 17, because it’s about when you were thinking about leaving, anyway. And you do, you practice at it, leaving just a little, every day.

I try not to think about that, actually. The creeping realization that I’m going away next year is like a slow paralysis; my entire body seizes up around the idea, and parts of me have stopped working—namely, the parts that are easy and relatable and connect me to things. It’s like the ligaments have gone stiff, and I drive my sister, now a freshman, to school every morning without turning my head or saying a word. I don’t realize I’m doing it, but my sister certainly does, and will years later chide me about it—“the year Terri stopped speaking”—when I was so terrified about leaving my family that I acted as if I wasn’t there at all.

My behavior though is largely unassailable: Good grades, good behavior, good friends; I don’t drink or cut class or stay out late. I got in early acceptance to Boston College, where I’ve already decided I want to go. Everything is ticking along and going according to plan, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

It’s almost 8:00am, the evergreens outside the window are thick and bristled and still. The kitchen was redone a few years earlier—all blonde formica and blown-out flowers, six wide, slouchy leather chairs on wheels that look like the seats on a Tilt-A-Whirl. (“I hate regular kitchen chairs,” my mother said. “Why shouldn’t we be comfortable?”)

I push one of them with my toe so that it slides back into place.

“I didn’t say anything wrong,” I say, my arms crossed.

“It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it,” she says. “Watch your tone. I don’t like it.”

My tone. I say it’s just how I sound. She’s not buying it. She knows I’d never allow the edge of it into a conversation with Liz or Mary. There is a tone you reserve for your mother, and sometimes it’s the only way to say what you really mean, without saying it at all.

We like to think that words stand on their own merit. But that isn’t true. Tone is slippery, evasive, works around the edge of a word, all the while with its hands up, denying its existence altogether, leaving an undeniable scent.

Years later, in my 30s, I’ll snap at my boyfriend in the middle of Whole Foods. We’ll be standing by the stacks of sparkling water and racks of truffled popcorn, and whatever he says will strike an old familiar nerve, setting my old habit in motion: the audible sigh, the roll of the eye, the barked order to “Just stand there, will you? I’ll go get it.”

It was so automatic that I almost missed it, a passing thought like a tail slipping through, unnoticed.

And it wasn’t until after we’d made dinner and eaten it that my boyfriend said, “I didn’t like how you talked to me today.”

I kicked back a knee-jerk defense— “What did I say? I didn’t say anything. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” And then, “Look, you’re bad at food shopping. I knew what we needed and it was just easier if I got it.”

But as soon as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true. My insides squirmed, a mollusk of self loathing twisting in its shell.

He said, “I think it would be hard for me to be with someone who talks to me like that.”

And that’s when I apologized, a real apology, and promptly burst into tears. Not because he was so hurt, but because of how often I’d wielded my tone about loosely, like a rifle with the safety off, my mother at the business end of it. And yet, she let me off scot free, time and again, with little more than a warning. This wasn’t just about her, but about who I was and could become, if I wasn’t careful. And also, because while her love might be unconditional, most arrangements were not.

Everything was ok now. He kissed me and we got up to scrape our plates into the trash. I offered to wash them, and it felt good and right, the hot water rushing over my hands, the steady effort it takes to work and work at making something clean again.


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