The Secret Life of Prince Charming
When it came to love, my mother’s big advice was that there were WARNING SIGNS. About the “bad” guys, that is. The ones who would hurt you or take advantage or crumple you up and toss, same as that poem I would once try to write for Daniel Jarvis. The wrong men—the psychopaths, cheaters, liars, controllers, stalkers, ones too lazy or incompetent to hold a job, to hold their temper, to hold you properly, to hold anything but a joint or a beer bottle—well, there were RED FLAGS, and you had to watch for them. If you were handling love correctly, it should go the way of those Driver’s Ed videos, where things were jumping out at you right and left and you had to be on alert—a swerving truck, a child’s ball rolling into the street. The important thing was, love was dangerous. Love was that dark alley you were walking down where your purse might be snatched.
Love was also an easy word, used carelessly. Felons and creeps could offer it coated in sugar, and users could dangle it so enticingly that you wouldn’t notice it had things attached—heavy things, things like pity and need, that were as weighty as anchors and iron beams and just as impossible to get out from underneath.
“They ought to make people apply for a permit before they can say they love you,” Mom said once. I remember this—she was in our big kitchen, holding a mug of coffee in both hands, warming her fingers against an image of Abe Lincoln embossed on ceramic, the oldest mug in the house, from when my father once went to Springfield, Illinois, home of our sixteenth president.
Mom was talking to me and Gram and Aunt Annie, who both lived with us, and the sound of cartoons was coming from the living room, where my little sister Sprout was sitting cross-legged on the floor in her pajamas.
“Yeah. Make a man pay fifty bucks and take one of those mental tests,” Gram said. She was fishing around in the kitchen drawer as butter melted in a pan for scrambled eggs. “Quinn, help an old lady find the damn whisk,” she said to me.
“Cynics,” Aunt Annie said, but she did so with a sigh. “You’re both cynics.” She tightened the sash of her robe around her. She’d just started seeing Quentin Ferrill at the time. We knew him only as the Double Tall Chai Latte No Foam guy, who gave long looks at Aunt Annie when he asked how her day was going across the counter at Java Jive, where Aunt Annie was a barista. Looks that shared secrets, she had told us. “Looks that are trying to get you into bed, is more like it,” Gram had replied.
The favorite lecture of some mothers was Don’t Talk to Strangers or, maybe, Look Both Ways. My mother’s favorite was All Men Are Assholes.
I tended to side with Aunt Annie that they were cynics. I was only seventeen—I wasn’t ready to be jaded yet. I was just at the start of the relationship road, where lip-gloss-love ends and you’re at that Y where if you go one way, you’ll have flat, easy pathways and everlasting happiness, and if you go the other, the rocky and steep slopes of heartbreak—only you have no idea which way is which. I liked to think I was already heading in the right direction, determined to prove my mother wrong by making Good Choices. I was sort of the queen of good choices, ruled by niceness and doing the right thing. Good choices
meant asking that weird, solitary Patty Hutchins to your birthday party even when you didn’t want to. Good choices meant getting your homework in on time and being on the volleyball team and sharing a locker with someone who played the clarinet instead of someone who drank their parents’ Scotch. It meant liking math because it makes sense and liking your family even if they don’t make sense and driving carefully and knowing you’d go to college. It meant taking careful steps and being doomed to be someone no one really remembered at the high school reunion.
I think “good choices” also meant other people’s choices to me, then. I could feel hazy and undefined, even to myself. Was I going to be amazing, the best, the most incredible—win a Nobel Prize in mathematics, achieve great heights, as Dad would constantly tell me? Or was I going to be someone who would only continue to stumble and flounder and search, which is what I really felt would happen, since Dad’s words sounded as shiny and hollow as Christmas ornaments to me? Maybe I would be simply ordinary. What would happen if that were the case? Just ordinary? And how did you get to a place where you knew where you were headed and what you wanted? I hate to admit this, I do, but the fact was, if most of my friends wanted hamburgers, I wanted hamburgers, and if the whole class kept their hands down during a vote, I would not be the single raised hand. No way. Too risky. When you went along, you could be sure of a positive outcome. A plus B equals C. When you didn’t go along, you got A plus X equals a whole host of possibilities, including, maybe, pissing off people and ending up alone. I badly wished I could know my own truths and speak them, but
they seemed out of reach, and it seemed better to be sure of yourself in secret.
And in love? Good choices so far meant my boyfriend, Daniel Jarvis, whom I’d been dating for over a year. Dating meaning he’d come over to my house and we’d watch a video and he’d hold my hand until it got too sweaty. Teachers loved Daniel, and he ran track and was polite to my mother and went to church every Sunday morning with his family. Daniel was nice. Like me. He made good choices too. He bought that Toyota instead of the classic little MG Midget with the broken convertible top that he’d run his hands over lovingly. Toyota love was only responsible love—remembering to put the gas cap on, refilling the wiper fluid. Convertible love was fingertips drawn slow over the curve of warm metal.
My inner evil twin, the one who would say the things I didn’t want to hear but that were the truth, would also say that oatmeal is nice. Second-grade teachers are nice. That Christmas present from Aunt So and So was nice, the little pearl stud earrings. My inner evil twin also knows that the kind of nice that appears in the phrase “But he’s nice,” that emphasis, well, it’s suspiciously defensive. Sort of like when you buy a shirt you don’t really like because it was half off and then say, “But it was a good buy.” Justification for giving in to things we don’t feel one hundred percent for. Maybe I just wanted to believe in love, even if I didn’t all the way believe in me and Daniel Jarvis. Maybe what Daniel Jarvis and I had was half-off love.
With Daniel, there weren’t any red flags, but there weren’t any blue ones or green ones, either; no beautiful silk flags with gold threads and patterns so breathtaking they could make you
dizzy when they blew in the wind. It was enough, maybe, not to have bad things, even if you didn’t have great things. For example, my best friend, Liv, went out with this guy, Travis Becker, whom she was totally in love with until she found out he was seeing two other girls at the same time and had recently been arrested for breaking and entering. God. Then again, Liv is beautiful and I am not. Good choices are a little harder, maybe, when you have lots of options.
As for Mom, I’m guessing she began developing her favorite lecture somewhere around the time her own father (Gram’s wayward husband, the elusive Rocky Siler) left when she was two, and after her stepfather (Otto Pearlman, Aunt Annie’s dad) did the same thing ten years later. She added to the running theme when she and my dad divorced after his affair with Abigail Renfrew, and perfected it sometime after her three-year relationship with Dean. Or, as we call him now, OCD Dean. He and his two horrible children moved in with us for a while after Dad left, before Gram and Aunt Annie moved in. Let me tell you, people of different values don’t belong under the same roof. We named Dean’s kids Mike and Veruca, after those characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mike Teavee and Veruca Salt (“Da-dee! I want an Oompa Loompa now!”). It got so bad with them there that it felt like some kind of home-invasion robbery where the robbers decide to live with you afterward. Mom, Sprout, and me would go somewhere and leave them behind, and when we had to come back, Mom would sometimes drive right past our house. We can’t go in there, she’d say, as if the building itself were dangerous, filled with toxic fumes, threatened by a collapsing structure. As if the problem was with the house and not the people in it.
My mother, Mary Louise Hoffman, is a graphic designer who used to paint and had shown her work at several galleries. She used to dance, too, which is how she met my father—they actually performed in a show together. It’s hard to imagine her as this painter/dancer wearing swirling skirts and swoopy earrings; there’s a picture of her from the time just before she met Dad—someone had snapped her in the middle of a cartwheel, only one hand on a deep green grassy lawn somewhere, her feet in the air. It seems odd; it seems like a different her, because her feet were so firmly on the ground after that. She was sort of the super-functioning head woman in our clan. Mom handled things—she could sign a permission slip at the same time she was steaming wrinkles from a blouse and cooking Stroganoff. But if you got her started on the man thing, she’d get a little crazy-extremist, super focused and wild-eyed both, like those anti-or pro-religious people, only without the religion part.
Most particularly, you didn’t want to get her started on my dad. “Men” meant him, especially, multiplied by a gajillion. She tended to forget that he was my father, that he was her ex, not mine. And that I wanted to love him, needed for him to love me back because he hadn’t been in my life always. Her constant reminders about why I shouldn’t didn’t help anything. Actually, they hurt her cause. Because every time I heard anything about him, or about “men,” I put up a nice new stone in my mental defense wall of him. It’s sort of like how you protect the little kid from the bully. You want to say, Hey, every time you do that, I love Dad more, but you don’t say that. When your parents are divorced, there’s a lot you don’t say. And another thing you think but don’t dare speak: When you talk
bad about each other, you’re wasting your breath. I stopped listening years ago. You stop listening when you figure out that the words aren’t actually directed at you, anyway. That you’re basically a wire between two telephones.
Anyway. I guess what I mean to say, what I should say right off, is that I knew good choices did not include stealing things from my own father’s house. I knew that, and I did it anyway. I had to. Frances Lee, the half sister I never knew but know now, would say this about what we did: sometimes good choices are really only bad ones, wrapped up in so much fear you can’t even see straight.