As a mom, I've lived the endless hours of careful nurturing that go into raising a child, which help your kid develop strong self-esteem. I also know how quickly a few nasty comments can cause all that to crumble. Bullying is all too common these days — sometimes so bad that it ends in self-harm or worse. In this scene from Life and Other Inconveniences (available Aug. 6), Emma, mother of 16-year-old Riley, takes charge like a boss when she learns her daughter is being bullied and goes to town like the mama bear she is.
I put my arms around her and smoothed her thick red hair, panic kicking up in my chest. For a minute, I just let her cry, selfishly savoring the fact that my daughter was seeking comfort from her mommy, and I could breathe her in and hold her close.
Then she pulled back and dashed her arm across her eyes. "What happened?" I asked again.
"They're just . . . b*tches, Mom. That's it, in a nutshell." "Who?"
"Annabeth and Jenna and Mikayla," she said, her eyes welling again.
Those were her three best friends since they were teeny. Her only three friends, so far as I knew. Group friend dynamics were so hard — it was heady stuff to belong, and hell when you didn't.
"What did they do?" I asked.
She shook her head and used Blue Bunny to wipe away her tears. "Apparently, they all went to a party this weekend. A party I wasn't invited to. And they all . . ." She gave me a look. "They all hooked up with boys from a fraternity at Northwestern! And got drunk. Now it's like I don't even know them anymore. They sat there at lunch today, practically high-fiving each other because they're not virgins anymore."
"Are you kidding me?" Like Riley, Mikayla had started school a year early. She wasn't even sixteen yet, and in Illinois, the age of consent was seventeen. If she'd slept with a college boy, he'd be criminally liable for statutory rape . . . and if Mikayla's parents knew what she was up to, they could be charged with child neglect or abuse.
"They said they did it. Or they almost did it. I don't know. That's not the point. The point is, they're sluts all of a sudden!"
"What did you say?"
"I said, 'Why would you do that?' and they just looked at me like I was a stupid little kid."
"I'd have the boys arrested, drawn and quartered and dragged through the streets."
I would have to call the girls' mothers, of course. Which wouldn't help Riley, but my God, if my child was being given alcohol and being taken advantage of at frat parties — raped, let's call it what it was — I'd have the boys arrested, drawn and quartered and dragged through the streets. Then hanged, then disemboweled, then burned.
"I don't understand why they're doing this," Riley said. I took a slow breath. "Sex, you mean?"
"Everything! I didn't know they wanted to have boyfriends or hookups or whatever! It's like all of a sudden, no one's talking to me, and I'm totally left behind." She burst into fresh tears. "They're having sex! I mean, they're just too young! And drinking? At a frat party? They were so proud of themselves. Are they idiots?"
"Yes," I murmured. "Most teenagers are at one point or another."
"Last week we were friends. We had so much fun at the coffee shop the manager asked us to quiet down, we were laughing so hard! Today, they just froze me out. Talked about what they were doing this weekend and no one even looked at me, and when I reminded them that they were sleeping over here and we were going to the movies, they just kept talking like I didn't say anything, and I wanted to get up and walk away, but I didn't. I just sat there like an idiot."
"Oh, sweetheart," I said, putting my arm around her again. "I'm sorry. That must have felt horrible." Was she not included because they knew I wouldn't let her go? Because she wasn't into boys yet, or maybe ever? Was this somehow my fault?
Her shoulders shook. "I thought we were the same, you know? Like we weren't in a rush to get into all that boy stuff and drinking and drugs. Annabeth was talking about trying E! We belonged to the Clean Edge Club! We founded it! But I guess they all quit and didn't even talk to me about it, and, Mom, I feel like such a loser."
Damn it! Why did girls have to do that to each other? The primal, maternal part of me wished I had those girls in front of me so I could slap their smug little faces. It seemed like no one's adolescence was complete until a friend turned on them or, in this case, the whole group.
"You're not a loser, Riley," I said, hugging her tight. "You're the best kid I know."
"Said my mother. Sorry, I know you mean it, but that means next to nothing right now."
When your child is little, you are their everything, able to solve just about any problem, make everything okay with a little talk or kiss or snuggle. Now I was impotent.
She sat up and wiped her eyes again. "So now everyone's talking about summer, and guess what? Mikayla's not working at the ice cream shop this year. Guess where she got a job? Genevieve London Designs, right there on Michigan Avenue. And when I said, 'That's my great-grandmother,' Jenna gave me this look, then the three of them looked at each other, and I could tell they'd talked about this and they didn't believe me."
Clearly my fears had come to pass more quickly than I had expected. "I can say something to them if you want."
"No! That would make it ten times worse! So now my summer will be spent totally alone. The three of them are planning a college visit to Purdue and Notre Dame, and guess who's not invited? I'm the one who always wanted to go to Notre Dame!" She grabbed a wad of tissues and blew her nose.
"Why do they have to be so mean, Mommy? What did I do wrong?"
The Mommy got me right in the heart. With her puffy eyes and red nose, she looked like she was about four years old.
"You didn't do anything wrong, sweetheart. They did. They're treating you like crap because . . ." Yes, why? asked my therapist brain. "Because sometimes people can only feel good about themselves if they make someone else feel bad."
"Add to that a sense of isolation, stressful events and impulsivity, plus the rise of teenage suicide . . . and my family history."
"Well, it worked. I feel horrible. I wish I could just . . . go away. Go to sleep and never wake up." Riley put her head in my lap, and I stroked her coppery hair, but my heart froze in terror. I read into everything, but an indirect statement like that could be a hint of suicidal ideation. Add to that a sense of isolation, stressful events and impulsivity, plus the rise of teenage suicide . . . and my family history.
Riley heaved herself up. "I have to study for finals. We were all going to get pizza at Jenna's house and study there, but I guess I'm uninvited to that, too."
"Well, their loss. You're great in chemistry, and they aren't." She gave me a damp, grateful look.
"Honey, I'm really sorry. I have to call their mothers."
The grateful look fell to the floor with a nearly audible thud, replaced by more tears. "Thanks, Mom. In case I wasn't enough of a pariah today. Can't wait for tomorrow."
"You know I have to, sweetie. They're underage."
"I know. Go. Ruin my life even more." She yanked a thick book out of her backpack. "I have to study."
I was dismissed.
Yes. Once upon a time, watching Animal Planet and eating late-night snacks with my arm around her could cure any blues my daughter might have. I ached for the days when I had the power to make her happy.
With a deep sigh, I went downstairs and called the girls' parents. Got the expected response of "not my daughter!" followed by shock and fear. Each thanked me — we'd known each other for years now, but because of my oddball situation of living with my grandfather, being in college all through my twenties, working at the same grocery store where they shopped and, let's not forget, being single, I'd never really become one of the group.
Like mother, like daughter.
I texted Jason that Riley was going through a bit of a rough patch with her friends, and he texted back immediately, soothing my heart a little.
I'll call tonight. Or now. You tell me when. Tonight is good, I wrote back. Thanks. Of course! I love my girl! TTYS.
At least there was that. Riley adored Jason, though maybe that, too, had been waning in the past year. He came out twice a year for father-daughter time, and they did all the fun things I could rarely afford — saw The Lion King, went shopping, had dinner at swanky restaurants. Sometimes I was included, though less and less as Riley got older. But he never forgot her birthday and Skyped with her at least a few times a month.
When Riley had been conceived, Jason and I loved each other. She was not the result of a one-night stand or an unhappy relationship. At least there was that. But he wasn't here, and he had two other children. And a wife, even if he was separated.
For the next two days, I waited to see how the friend drama would play out. Stalked Mikayla, Jenna and Annabeth's social media. Just as Riley thought, they'd frozen her out. Snapchat showed pictures of the three of them with captions like Besties 4evah!!! and 3 musketiers. (They couldn't even spell.)
Then came the redhead comments. Emma Watson looks SO MUCH better without that stupid red hair.
Riley's hair was glorious, even though she wore it in a ponytail most of the time. The kind of hair science couldn't replicate.
LOL I know! I would kill myself if I was a ginger!!!
Right??? Plus what if you had albino skin and those freaky eyes!!!
My daughter, like me, was very fair. Her eyes were far from freaky . . . they were pure sky blue. They were exquisitely beautiful.
And freckles! Dude, you can laser those off. Just sayin.
My daughter had freckles.
Or use acid LOL.
And so I made more calls, to the parents, to the principal. This time, the parents weren't quite so nice. "You know how girls are," said Mikayla's father.
"They weren't specifically talking about Riley," said Jenna's mother.
"We'll keep an eye on it," said the principal.
Every day for the rest of the week, Riley came home with her eyes red, shoulders tight, and went to her room.
As a therapist, I knew she couldn't run away from her problems. She'd have to tough it out, make different friends, develop coping mechanisms. Most teenagers went through this kind of thing.
As a mother, I was furious and terrified.
Then, on Friday, I got a call from the school. Riley was in the nurse's office; Mikayla had shoved her in the girls' room and held her down, then stuck a wad of gum in her hair.
My heart went ice-cold. I canceled my appointments from the car, raced to the school and took her in my arms.
She pulled away instantly. "Not here, Mom," she hissed. "It's bad enough."
The principal stood by, his professionally sympathetic face on. "I'm so sorry this happened, Ri—" he began.
"Save it," I spat. "If anyone touches my child again, I will sue this school and see you fired. Do you understand me?"
"There are four days left in the school year. Things will settle down over the summer."
"That's your answer? You'll hear from an attorney by the end of the week. Shame on you for not shutting down this situation, you limp d*ck."
"I know you're upset," he began.
"F*ck you, George," I said. "You screwed up. Fix this."
As we walked to the car, Riley's shoulders were slumped. "You okay?" I asked.
I drove her straight to the most expensive salon in town, where they teased out the gum and gave her a shampoo and blowout. I told them to bill Jane Freeman, Mikayla's mother, who was a frequent client there. Then I dropped my daughter home. "Be back in ten," I said, then went to Mikayla's house. Tore into the driveway with a screech.
Jane answered. "I hear there was an altercation at school," she said. "I'm filing a restraining order against your child," I said. "Keep her away from Riley, or she'll end up in juvie. You think I don't know how the system works? Watch me, Jane. And take a look at yourself while you're at it. A nasty, bullying little sh*t doesn't appear in a vacuum."
I got back in my car and reversed onto their lawn, leaving ruts in the perfect green.
Pop was waiting at the kitchen table when I got home. "How is she?" I asked.
"She's okay. Are you?"
We looked at each other. He ran a hand through his white hair and sighed. "Guess we're going to Connecticut," he said. "I'll start packing."
From Life and Other Inconveniences, published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Kristan Higgins. Available August 2019.