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Rated: E · Fiction · Family · #1933837
College-bound Santi is afraid to leave his younger sister w/parent's toxic relationship.
After making a fake membership ID by taping the logo of the store that he had cut out from an ad onto his school ID, and adding a little black marker,  Santi flashes it to the door person and smiles as he enters the warehouse-store with his girlfriend, Farrah, who is already climbing into the extra-large grocery cart. They load the cart with everything and anything, mocking each other: “Here you’ll need these!” She snares as she dumps women’s underwear into the cart.  When they reach the baby isle he tells her she’ll need these for her fourteen babies and dumps all of the baby-wipes off the shelf into the cart.  People stare; for-real grocery shopping, while they goof.  With the cart completely full, over and under, they leave it parked in an isle and run away, hands held tightly, shrieking in laughter across the parking lot.

Santi was quiet and introverted, but extremely witty once he was comfortable with his surroundings.  He could start an intimate conversation with anyone.  He felt destined for greatness and this made him confident and daring and he is encouraged by the way people responded to the things he says.

The sun is setting by the time they head home. It’s obvious when he tries to go out of the way to avoid the street he lives on. Farrah notices and asks if they are not stopping by.  “If you’d like to..” he suggests;  she knows why he is so reluctant to go home.  She wants to demonstrate that she doesn’t mind his parents’ bickering and shrugs “why not?”  When they arrive Santi makes sure that his father is not home; his  mother, home from work, is exhausted and sitting in the kitchen watching a frozen pizza that will not thaw in time for dinner nods “no” when he asks.  In the kitchen he prepares a peanut butter sandwich quietly; not wanting to make his mother to feel guilty.  He places it on a plate for his younger sister to think that she left it for her, for when she gets home from school.  His mother doesn’t make conversation; she asks if they’re hungry with her eyes closed.  “When is dad getting home?”  His question is intended to let her know that he knows that it is because of her toxic relationship with his father that she is too tired to prepare dinner, but it also lets her know he doesn’t want to be home, especially with a guest, when his father arrives and they would be together.  Her response surprises Santi, “I’ll leave when he gets here.”  She bares the guilt just fine.

Santi is in his last year of high school, it never dawned on him that he would have to make a decision about school until recently.  He listens attentively the next day as the admission counselor talks about colleges and applications and visits and deadlines.  It seems like a lot to take in but he can’t wait to start his life, his independence, and his identity.  College would be a great way to see more of the world. Some of his classmates seem as interested as he is, and some, you could tell, feel overwhelmed and out of place.  Santi had tested very well on an aptitude exam and gathered that he would be a desirable candidate for most schools. He received a good amount of mail from schools he had never heard about. He especially liked studying the faces of students on the brochures.  They were doing exactly what they were supposed to he thought, and that is what was so appealing.  Even if it was all fake and they were actors, they were still doing something exciting and struggling toward a personal goal.  Santi had no idea what he would study for, his dream was to struggle for his own personal goal. He had never thought about scholarships or admissions, or any of this until now as every teacher forced it upon them.  Later, during lunch he meets with Farrah, not listening as he interrupts her.

“Did you have the college guy?”  She frowns and he can’t tell if it’s because he interrupted what she was saying or because he brought up a sore subject.  Santi realizes it is probably a sore subject so he tries to change the subject; “or are you going to wait for the army guy visit?” 

The next morning Santi is in bed, awoken by his parents’ shouting at each other.  He is usually able to adapt and deal with their explosions, but his alarm clock hasn’t even gone off yet.  He angrily gets ready for school and just leaves.    Neither ever backs down, perfectly realizing they are fighting over something trivial that has boiled over.  Neither believes they any longer love each other, instead wait for the other to back down.  He is accustomed to the hostility and no longer feels sorry for either one, only for his little sister JB, who only eight, is not as resilient as he is.  Arriving at school, Santi regrets that JB will have a tough day at school today and then realizes he is grinding his teeth, in his dry mouth, with his heart accelerated and his stomach empty and nauseous.  He is still uneasy later during his college admissions class.  The guidance counselor asks about his applications and admissions essays, and Santi shrugs his shoulders avoiding eye contact.  After class he asks Santi to stop by his office after school. Santi nods ok.

         When he arrives later, the counselor reminds Santi that he did very well on his English exam.  “You know this is great for scholarships and a fast track to get admitted anywhere.” “Just apply and get admitted and decide what you’re going to do later.”  Santi remains quiet, thinking about how he used to look up words out of his own paperback dictionary to escape the chaos in his house. It seemed serendipitous now that this defense mechanism is now making it possible for him to get the hell away. 

“Hey! Are you listening to me?  What’s going on in there?”  He couldn’t think of anything to respond, the counselor had just caught him at a really bad time, when he didn’t have the energy to conceal his distress.  Santi was too ashamed to disclose that he was hurt and worried about his little sister, and that he was worried about himself.  He felt tears begin to collect and panicked and rambled about having a generally tough time, but the counselor interrupted him.

“Is it a girl Santi… are you worried about a girl?” 

“Yes!”  He jumped at the chance to escape this.  He smiled, with a hand on Santi’s shoulder the counselor advised, 

“Listen you are worrying about something you don’t have to worry about, you’re going to love and be loved by several woman and maybe even a guy!”  They laugh at his joke and he continues,

“Really man, get your school plan in order, everything else, the girl, will fall into place ok?” 

Santi doesn’t respond and the counselor adds,

“Listen I have a friend at the community center that can help you not stress about this, do you want to see?”  He scribbles the number and Santi takes it. 

At dinner that evening, at home, Santi analyzes his parent’s interaction looking for motives.  But not while they sit at the table and go through motions, rather as each individually serves themself, limiting conversation, afraid to set anyone off.  When he speaks, his father resentfully forces every word upon his wife, and she lets him know she doesn’t care.  The television is on but nobody is watching.  The noise of it fills an uncomfortable silence, and perhaps even discouraging anyone from disturbing the level of noise.  All the while his father glowers, his mother scowls.  Santi can’t tell what they get out of it, forcing each other to submit or to recede temporarily seems suffice.  When his father finishes eating, he washes his own plate and escapes to the basement.  His mother would have readily chased after him, but she seems relieved this time and turns her attention to the television.  Santi playfully raises an eyebrow at JB, who eats with perfect manners.  Santi later goes to serve his father a cup of coffee in the basement and is surprised to see find him sitting with his eyes closed.  Santi closes his eyes and imagines draining the anguish he feels, the sadness, frustration and anger from his body into the hot cup of coffee in his hand.  He imagines it, like a drain emptying the room of the lingering sadness.  The he took a deep sip of the coffee; happy to bear the sadness in his stomach where he could contain it rather than on his shoulders.    Santi is confused by his parent’s stubbornness.  They never talk about it, and approaching the opportunity to escape to college, he can’t afford the distraction. Still he can’t help but think of JB; she doesn’t deserve this.  If he worked very hard in college and graduated early by taking summer classes, he could then get a job and could come for her, and take her to school and piano classes or whatever she wanted.  He needed a plan to make my parents tolerable while he was away at school.  That evening Santi fell asleep dreaming of making lunches and dinners for JB.

The next day Santi surprises Farrah when he shows up at her door with JB.  Farrah kisses her on the head and doesn’t ask any questions, but offers Santi the subtlest smile.  JB is beaming; they visit the park, and have hot chocolate, silently pretending JB is their daughter and comment on random strangers; guessing at their ages, or jobs, or peculiar secrets.  “That guy has a collection of farts in jars” Farrah is so loud, and JB shocked with surprise.  “That man is Farrah’s sister in disguise!” Santi announces.  “That guy ate a rotten tuna sandwich with crap in it!” JB overdid it because not only did the guy hear her, but she used a word she knew she wasn’t supposed to.  Farrah could not catch her breath from laughing, and watching her struggle, Santi resolves that as long as he has someone like this to make happy, who enjoyed his company, he would preserve them, and punish himself to maintain the balance.

When they arrive home, Santi’s father is outside helping the neighbor with his car.  They say hello and go in.  When he was younger, Santi used to hand him tools and ask countless questions.  Later, Santi could change spark plugs, flush a radiator, change front and rear brakes, and much more, but mostly Santi could trouble- shoot and work under greasy, difficult conditions.  In the house he hopes strongly that his mother would have coffee on to take out to him but she is asleep in front of the TV.  Santi snaps the coffee pot on, simply to reheat the cold coffee that is in there.  “Is that for your father?” she asks. But Santi doesn’t answer.  His mother gets to put JB in the bath.  Santi can hear her asking about where “those crazy kids” had taken her.  She comes to life as JB excitedly recounts the trip. 

On Monday at school a classmate encounters Santi,

  “Do you have my essay Shakespeare?” 

Santi hands him a folder with an admission essay neatly typed and he hands him $30.  There isn’t any risk here Santi calculates, he simply wrote it typical for a high school senior, and his friend is happy with a complete application.

“This better get me in!” 

“You should have paid me more!”

Farrah joins and exclaims,

“Look at you, hustling!”

“I can write one for you too!”  Santi lets her know.

She rolls her eyes and continues

“Let’s go to the store today!”

“I can’t I have a thing I have to do”

“A thing you have to do? Are you writing your essay?”

He can’t think of a good response so he kisses her quickly.

“You dingbat” she calls as he runs away.

After school he keeps the appointment at the community center with the counselor.  He seems like a relatable person. He looks like a healthy and busy person.

“Santi?” Is that your full name?

“Well my full name is Santiago, but I go by Santi, I guess I use a nickname.”

“How do you sign?”

“Santi” he nods and continues, “I know Picasso just signed Picasso.” 

“It’s fine, anyway who says your signature needs to reflect your birth certificate?

“It doesn’t change who I am.”

“It doesn’t change who you are.” Agrees the counselor

“I could sign Santi BMF”

“BMF?”

“Bad Mother f’er”

“I don’t think you could do that.”  “Now tell me you are here because of a girlfriend?”  “Boys your age tend to work these things out, tell me what’s going on”

“Uhm..I don’t know, I mean, I don’t think we’re right for each other, but I mean we are..”

““How long have you been together?”

“Just a few… a long time.”

“Let’s forget about the girl for now what are you doing next year?”

“Well I really want to go to a big school, far away; I applied to a few places.  I want to work in English, maybe an English teacher, or a writer or theatre...”

“Great, what does your family think?”

Santi had no idea but answered: “I guess they’re happy, I think my little sister is going to miss me the most.”

“Ohh.”

He soon wanted to empty on him about how he felt stuck, wanting to leave for school but not wanting to abandon his girlfriend and younger sister.  The only time he didn’t subconsciously think of leaving them is when I actively thought of them in any other fashion.  It constantly ate at him. He could not abandon his sister with their parents, and his girlfriend seemed a consolation prize for staying.  He wanted to confess his ridiculous fantasy about getting an apartment, and raising JB, and how foolish it made him feel for day dreaming.

“What’s wrong with you?”  His question catches Santi off-guard

“Nothing.., everything.”

The counselor smiles sympathetically.

“Just go, everyone will be all right.”

He hated that he said this because he knew very well what would happen and felt childish not mentioning it.

“If you love something set it free…” began Santi but

“Stop” the counselor interrupted coldly.

They talk about communication patterns and breathing exercises to help one relax, but the counselor assures Santi that these are not necessary and only intended to make him feel better.  He said the pain is part of a growing process and unavoidable.  The counselor talks about a return visit, and it dawns on Santi that he is becoming a patient, a mental patient.  He didn’t want to return and decided right then that he would leave for school and spend the time until then preparing his parents for it. As he exits, he signs out:  “Santi BMF.”

Later, at home, JB enters his room and waits for Santi to acknowledge her.  He is writing at his desk but pauses. “JB, will you be ok if I leave?  She is clearly startled, and looks for an explanation to the question.  It was painful to watch her process this so Santi tries to change the subject,

“For school I mean..” but she chimes in, 

“If you leave,” began JB, “I’ll be all right, and then I’ll leave too just like you did.”

He raised his eyebrows at her,

“You’re so smart; I should have you fill out my college applications.”

Santi sits that evening in his parents’ car, parked outside a factory where the employees take cigarette breaks.  It is well past midnight and he couldn’t sleep at home. He notices that the factory itself includes a large cigarette-shaped tower venting steam, and underneath the workers echo the image with their cigarettes.  He writes this and other notes in a notebook. He keeps a notebook per month filled with completely random and independent ideas that reflect his life that month. Tonight he includes poetic notes about what he may include in his admission essay. 

When he arrives home, he is semi-determined and fills out a college application, purposely writing it out rather than typing it like he knows he is supposed to.  Part of him wants to be rejected.  He writes about the only thing he can think may impress the admissions officer, literature.  He includes how he tried to read every book in his small library’s fiction wall;  how he used to look up words and scored higher than he was supposed to on his exam, and how he scored average to below average on everything else, how just his vocabulary stood out.  In the morning he can’t remember where he left off, but mails it anyway.

At the next session with the community counselor they get into it right away.

“So how are things?  How’s the girlfriend?”

“She’s good.”

“Did you tell her you’re leavin’?”

Santi wished he could move forward past this part of the conversation but didn’t answer the question.

“You know” continues the counselor,

“this is only going to last as long as you choose to allow it.”  “It is very important that you consider letting go of your attachment to this conflict. I could tell you that you know don’t know what tomorrow will bring, or that you should live in the present, but you already know this. You just aren’t ready to let go.”

Santi listened; comforted that he was understood, but afraid he’d next have to take action.

“How is she holding you back, your girlfriend?”

“I’m afraid of what may happen if I leave.”

“Would she hurt herself?”

“No, she’ll hurt someone else”

“Who? You? Is she physically or verbally abusive?”

“No!”

“Does she make you do things you don’t’ agree with?”

“No!”  “Just a lot of yelling, constantly, and I know it’s not going to stop I just want a way to get her to pause and realize what she’s doing.”

The counselor looks very confused and tries to make sense of what he just said.

“Well I would try positive reinforcement, let her know how you feel when she yells at you and let her know how you appreciate it when she controls herself, but honestly I think you are trying to resolve a toxic relationship, why?”

“Can I get back to you on that?”

After the community center, Santi stops to fill the tank of his parents’ car.  It is dark already so the headlights of cars zooming in opposite directions on the highway ahead mesmerized him.  Where are they going, how far away? To do what? Would they ever pass this place again? Would they remember?  The questions continued in his mind until the loud snap of the pump having filled the tank brought him out of his trance.  Taking a deep breath he watched the cars a moment longer and got in the car.

At home Santi imagined his parents communicating and validating the way the community Dr. described.  “Say thank you dad, tell mom thank you for dinner.”  He imagined himself coaching.  “Pick your battles mom, let him be.”  Thoughts like these occurred whenever he saw them pick at each other.  He knows they are too far gone, all the flowers and validation would never be enough to save this calamity. Gradually he is convincing himself that he is ready to take a stand, ready to begin removing this heavy emotional armor.  He yearned for an alternative to the anguish and sadness.  And the relief Farrah brings convinces him that there is more to hope for and that he is doing the right thing.  JB would have to get help or forgive him.  Could his parents get along just well enough to take care of JB?  Could JB find an escape like I did? Were his parents any better now?  Farrah’s name comes up on his phone, she’s just making him aware that she’s close by, and as he answers excited to share his thoughts, he begins heading out and runs into his parents in a full-blown conflict.  Santi quickly back out of the kitchen with the phone, as if Farrah might see rather than hear the confrontation. 

“I’ll see you in a few,” he tells her, hoping to buy some time.  In the kitchen JB watches her parents yelling at each other, unobstructed.  It’s hard to tell what they’re fighting about to even try to help them.

“What’s going on now?” He tries anyway and they ignore him.

“Farrah’s coming, JB is right here, why do you always have to do this?  Why can’t you act like normal people?”

They continue, ignoring and fighting. It doesn’t seem to be a logical end they’re looking for, rather a vengeful one, intentionally holding hostage what each desires; peace and silence for my father, and validation for my mother.  They don’t hold back, profanity, criticisms, fatalistic rhetoric. Santi tries desperately to reach either one;

“Dad, just apologize, it’s not worth it.”  “Mom, let it go. “You guys aren’t even listening to each other!” His mother responds, “He knows what I’m saying!”

His father at least leaves the room, but his mother follows after him.

“JB, go to Leslie’s, I have to go.”

JB nods no.  The phone lights up again, it’s Farrah, she must be outside, but he has to ignore it.

Santi tries his mother again, shouting into the living room,

“Mom I have to go, are you ok with JB” but she is profoundly angered, no longer shouting but she would not be good with JB now.

“JB go watch TV in my room!”  he shouts.  She weighs her options, processing, and looks incredibly sad, then his phone lights up again,

“Let’s go.”

Farrah and JB hold hands as they enter the ware-house store.  Santi is furious, unable to shake the anger. He doesn’t want to be in the store, he doesn’t want to play this game, and he doesn’t want to be here.  Santi remains particularly silent, remorseful and angry at his parents for putting him in this situation and then at himself for the guilt he’d face leaving JB alone to refuge in school.

“Hey you bastard, get me of these!” Farrah tosses a box of cookies off his chest into the cart and slaps JB five. 

“Can you give me a second?” Santi pleads.

“I’ll give you a second!”  And she tosses a second box of cookies at him.  Santi appreciates that Farrah knows something happened, but she doesn’t ask and comforts him anyhow.

“I want chocolate chips!” JB plays along.

“Get her chocolate chips dingbat!’

They are unaware the community center counselor is for-real grocery shopping with his wife and unbelievingly watches the whole act, he looks right at Santi, who is appropriately embarrassed, and nods hello.

         Santi is consumed by this conflict and it begins to surface in his routine.  He can’t sleep, doesn’t do any work, and fixates on JB and Farrah.  He expects he’ll reach a point when someone eventually intervenes. Meanwhile Santi is approached by the school counselor about helping him at a fundraising event his wife is in charge of.

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