When I asked my mother why I couldn’t go over to Patty’s house, my mother was refreshingly honest. Critical, but honest.
‘Why not?’ she said, ‘Why not? Because I don’t like Patty.’ My mother doesn’t mince words. ‘And because she’s a troublemaker and bad influence on you.’
‘A bad influence.’ I heard that a lot. I wasn’t allowed to watch the marathons of Pippi Longstocking movies that KTL.A. broadcasted on the weekends for this exact reason. My mother wanted a sweet, bowl-cut haired Annika, not a ragamuffin Pippi for a daughter and she feared prolonged exposure to the Swedish imp’s antics would awaken my desire to be more independent. Sort of like Castro’s attempts to keep the Cuban population unaware of capitalistic freedoms. But, you know, with a polka-dotted horse and pet monkey.
In a voice that screamed you’re going to want to live by what I’m about to say for the rest of your life my mother offered me a final word of advice. ‘Nobody wants to be friends with a troublemaker. The only thing a troublemaker is good for is getting good kids like you in trouble. You’ll see that I’m right some day.’
Patty’s house had cable television. I knew this not because I had seen it firsthand, but because she frequently called to tell me that her favorite music video was, at that moment, playing on MTV and I just had to watch it myself. Up in the hills, where we both lived, cable television was rare in the mid-1980s; you paid the city to connect the cable to your house and, one jackhammered sidewalk later, you hopefully had something interesting to watch on television. My family didn’t want to pay the hefty fee to have the honor of corrupting my innocent eyes with cable television, so, when Patty called, I had to remind her that I couldn’t just turn to MTV. She said she forgot, but I knew differently: I could always hear the smile in her voice, a smile that was rooted in her uncanny ability to be kind and cruel simultaneously.
Patty was my closest friend, not because we particularly liked each other: she lived up the street and was always allowed to come over to my house to play. This was an important prerequisite for a friend since my parents, following Dr. Spock’s guide to raising socially inept children, discouraged me from playing at other children’s houses.
I didn’t know about divorce until I met Patty. And even then, the concept was still unclear. Through her accounts, I surmised that divorce had something to do with fathers, Club Med vacations, and women named Nicole and Kristen. Oh, and there was something about receiving two Swatch watches instead of one on birthdays. She felt it was her responsibility to teach me about how the real world functioned, and lessons on infidelity, greed, guilt, and overcompensation were part of her syllabus. Since we were only nine years-old, these words hadn’t yet entered our vocabularies; I believe Patty’s exact words were ‘I get more gifts than ever.’ But I knew what she meant.
Patty often offered me hand-me-downs from the dysfunctional family compensation overstock. Most of the time, these gifts were corporate tchotske: a bag of golf tees, a keychain, a bottle-cap opener, a promotional magnet. Through these gifts, I learned that her father was an executive at All State Insurance; everything that passed from Patty’s dad to Patty to me was branded with the company’s logo, a pair of open hands. And although I couldn’t resist a free anything, I was tortured by these gifts, or more specifically, the company’s branding. For the longest time (and I blame the nuns at St. Mel’s), I was convinced the open, embracing, outstretched hands had something to do with Jesus, and, at any moment, perhaps when Jesus was disappointed in me, they would bleed. So, to shield myself from possible miracles, I hid my All State goods in the back of my sock drawer.
In good hands, indeed.
This was the sort of thinking that made me different, and Patty knew and exploited it. In class, she took delight in recounting all my odd habits and assumptions to our overly amused classmates.
The day after my mom offered her troublemaker theory, I realized that I finally possessed the means to stand up for myself.
‘…So then I say to Mena, ‘The band’s name is Erasure, not Eraser.’ What a dummy!’
Everyone laughed as I crafted my masterful comeback.
‘Patty, you’re just a troublemaker.’
‘A troublemaker.’ I was confident, reassured. ‘My mom says that you’re a bad influence and that nobody really wants to be friends with a troublemaker because they only get good kids like me in trouble.’
‘She called me a troublemaker?’ Patty’s tone suggested she took offense to my mom’s assessment.
‘Yeah, and she’s right.’
There is an unspoken rule that anything a mother says about a child who does not share her DNA is said in confidence. Apparently, I wasn’t given the memo.
‘My mom says you’re a spoiled brat.’ Patty, too, was apparently not informed.
‘Well, at least my parents are still married.’
So there are things you don’t say and then there are things you really don’t say. The resulting gasps and, then, silence from my peers indicated that this was one of those things.
Later, when my mother came to pick me up from school, I told her what had happened. When she hit the steering wheel with her fists, I realized my response to ‘how was your day at school?’ was a bit disappointing.
‘Jeez Louise, Mena. I told you not to say anything to Patty.’
‘No, you didn’t!’
‘Did I really have to? Come on, you should have known better!’
‘But what does it matter if I told her?’
Seriously, if nobody wants to be friends with a troublemaker, then what did it matter if you offend the troublemaker? My mother explained it was a matter of parental politics; passing judgment on other people’s kids was something done in the privacy of one’s home.
‘Patty told me that her mom called me a spoiled brat.’
‘Oh. That’s good. When Patty’s mother calls me, which, I might add, she’ll inevitably do, I’ll at least have some leverage.’
‘Well, when her mom does call,’ I whined. ‘Tell her we don’t have cable.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
As expected, Patty’s mother called that night. I answered and heard a terse ‘Mena, put your mom on the phone right now.’ Not that she would have greeted me in any other way; Patty’s mother was an abrasive woman, the kind of person who jingled into a room with too much jewelry and not enough taste. Like her daughter, she projected herself in a manner that was supposed to say ‘I don’t care what you think,’ but instead said ‘I’m insecure and like to bully people to feel better about myself.’
I hoped the phone call would escalate into an all-screaming, bedlam-raising, vindication of my honor. I eagerly awaited phrases like…spoiled brat? I think you’re confusing Mena with that little shrew you’re raising,’ or ‘Patty has an evil soul,’ or even an affirming ‘my Mena is an angel.’
Instead, I heard this:
‘Wait, let me explain.’
‘Oh, Mena has an active imagination.’
‘I never called your daughter a troublemaker.’
‘Patty’s a good kid.’
And then, I heard the biggest lie of all.
‘We’d just love to have Patty over for dinner tomorrow. Would that be all right?’
After final pleasantries, my mother hung up the phone and looked me straight in the eye. ‘That’s all straightened out, now.’
For a moment I was speechless.
‘Why did you lie? I didn’t make that stuff up.’
‘I didn’t lie. Not exactly. I just told her mother what she wanted to hear. This was the best way to resolve the situation.’
‘I’m going to have see her mother at parent-teacher conferences, fundraisers…yard duty. Think about that. When you’re an adult, you’ll see why I did this.’
‘And what about dinner? Why did you have to go and invite her over?’
My mother explained to me that the purpose of the dinner was twofold. First, it was supposed to diffuse the parental tension between our two families. Secondly, it was to be held as an attempt to mend Patty’s and my ‘scarred friendship.’ I didn’t see the point. To say that our friendship was scarred implied that it was once something beautiful or flawless. Our friendship had always been based on nothing more than convenience—to not play with the kid next door seemed a waste of resources.
Reluctantly, I agreed to do my part.
The next evening, as we sat on my bedroom floor, playing Battleship before dinner, Patty did the unthinkable: she put her feet, shoes and all, on the pristine, white, George Washington bedspread that covered my bed—a bedspread even I wasn’t allowed to sit on.
‘Please take your feet off my bed.’
‘I don’t have to.’
‘Take your feet off the bed.’
‘What, are you afraid your mom’s going to get mad?’
My cheeks flushed with frustration. ‘This is exactly what a troublemaker does,’ I thought.
I looked again at Patty’s feet and then at the smile on her face. I considered, for a second, that maybe the bedspread rule was a bit unreasonable and that I, simply going along with my mother’s decry, was being a bit of a tyrant myself. But then again, rules were rules and guests needed to respect them. Patty fidgeted, and for a moment, I thought she was going to give in. Instead, she just repositioned them and called out ‘D-4.’
As if I could focus on Battleship.
‘She’s going to get me into trouble.’ My mind raced. ‘I suppose I could tell my mom that Patty refuses to listen to me and won’t take her feet off my bedspread. It’s not like my mom would take Patty’s side. Or would she? Or maybe, I could just ignore Patty’s insolence.’
Instead, I pulled out a butcher knife and insisted that Patty take her feet off the bed.
‘Take your feet off the bed,’ I said.
And she did.
The next day at school, I learned that my mom’s advice was incorrect. It turns out that being a troublemaker isn’t the best way to turn off friends.
Nobody wants to be friends with the kid that pulls a knife.