Such an announcement on a banner outside of their house felt like an invitation for the universe to make Jessica fail. Yet her parents, Sherman and Sheryl Sanders, didn’t see it that way. If anything, they viewed it as a fait accompli rather than a baiting for the cosmos to tamper with Jessica and her precious future. Jessica herself was still too naïve to fathom what her parents had done. Not only the extent to which they had shamed her, but to which they had cursed her to never succeed. At least, not in the form they viewed as being “prosperous.”
Walking along the sidewalk that led to her house with a friend named Claire, she noticed there were many other graduation signs up as well. But none of them made the same grandiose claim. None of them had the glamor shot-style photograph printed onto the sign, nor the over-the-top assertion about their spawn being destined to “make it” in life. It was Claire who was the first to make her feel self-conscious about the message of the sign, for when she ambled closer to it, she burst into a near outright cackle that she then stifled into more of a titter as she remembered that Jessica was her friend. And even though they had an unspoken rivalry that propelled each of their college application processes, she didn’t want to make Jessica feel like total shit. But as her friend, she also felt it was her obligation to let Jessica know how embarrassing the “advertisement” was. If Claire didn’t tell her, then someone else would—and much less gently. Though Claire supposed she didn’t have to blurt out, “What the fuck is wrong with your parents? Why would they put a sign like this up?”
Jessica was hurt, to say the least. She had never been called out so harshly for the way her parents treated her—like she was some superior princess living in an impenetrable bubble. Why had Claire never mentioned anything before? Why wait until now? Claire replied, “Um, I guess it hasn’t been so glaring before as it is in this moment.” They both stared at the ridiculous sign. Claire added, “I mean, do you really need me to tell you how bad this looks? How out of touch?”
Jessica supposed she did. Maybe her parents had infected her brain for so long with the idea that everything she said or “achieved” was spun gold that she couldn’t see reality anymore. Claire was her only window into it, evidently. Her sole source of “truth.” She had to tear this sign down before any of her other classmates saw it, especially the boy she harbored a crush on since freshman year, Trent Lundren. He had RSVP’d to her graduation party and she couldn’t believe it. Here she had believed that maybe, this entire time, he might not have any idea who she was, yet he was one of the first people to confirm his attendance. Surely that meant something. Meant that he cared. Or better still, reciprocated her affections. But she couldn’t let herself think that far ahead. Right now, the most important thing was getting rid of this blemish on her reputation—which was, ostensibly, already blemished by being viewed as a delusional rich girl who had never been told “no” in her life.
She looked to Claire and said, “Don’t just stand there, help me toss this.”
As they each took a side and tried to dislodge the pickets affixed to it from the lawn, they found that it was like trying to remove gum from the pavement: impossible. However the workers her parents had hired to do this wedged it into the ground, they did so in a manner that made it seem like the stakes extended all the way into the center of Earth. Grunting and moaning, Jessica and Claire were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Sheryl in the doorway, holding a tray with two glasses half-filled with ice and a pitcher of lemonade on it. This meant she had been watching them from the window long enough to find the time to prepare the tray and bring it to them. “What are you girls doing?” she chirped with a false vibrancy.
Jessica quickly jumped up and brushed some errant dirt away from her navy blue pinafore dress. “Nothing Mom, nothing. Just straightening the sign.”
Sheryl grinned and looked to Claire for affirmation when she asked, “Isn’t it just gorgeous? Our girl is going places, and the whole world needs to know it.”
Claire coughed in a fashion that indicated she was trying not to vomit before she assured Mrs. Sanders, “Oh yes, it’s a great sign. You really…can’t miss it.”
Sheryl cocked her head and demanded, “Have some lemonade, Claire.” She approached Jessica’s friend and poured her a portion of the urine-like liquid into one of the glasses. As she did so, she inquired, “Where was it you said you were going to college again, dear?” Claire took the glass and replied, “Stanford.” Sheryl shrugged her shoulders and winked, “Not quite as prestigious as Harvard, is it?”
Jessica was appalled. She wanted to shrink into a tiny nothing, melt into the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West. But no, she was forced to stand tall as her mother continued to shame her friend with, “I’d invite you in Claire, but we just cleaned the carpets for the party and they need a bit more time to dry. Perhaps you’d like to run along and come back once we’ve set up.”
Claire plastered on a pleasant grin and returned, “Oh, who knows Mrs. Sanders. I might not be able to make it at all. Might need to have my own separate celebration with ‘your girl.’”
Jessica could cut the tension with a sewing needle, that’s how thick it was—nothing so substantial as a knife was even required. She tried to diffuse the situation by lightly chuckling, “Oh Claire, she’s such a joker. She’ll be here later, Mother. I’m sure of it.” She gave her friend a desperate side eye after this, one that urged, Please don’t abandon me in my time of need. Claire sighed and obliged, “Yes, of course I’ll be here. Wouldn’t miss it.” With that, she threw up her hand into a wave and bid them both a grudging goodbye.
Left alone on the lawn with her mother, Jessica felt even more pathetic standing next to the sign. The one that promised her nothing could stop her. What if she wanted to be stopped? From living a life of complacency and constantly worrying about her parents’ opinions because it was they who controlled the purse strings. She wanted to be free of that pressure, that burden—but how? It wasn’t possible, least of all when they had just written the first of many fat checks for her tuition. She was their prisoner, their property—just as she always had been. It didn’t matter that she was changing locations; she still wasn’t changing circumstances. She looked from the image of herself on the sign—the one that made her look like a goddamn replica of Laura Palmer’s prom photo—and back to her mother, oblivious to her agony.
So oblivious, in fact, that she cooed in that annoyingly dulcet tone, “It’s time for you to start getting dressed, hon. Okay? We can’t have our guest of honor late to her own party, and you clearly have a lot of preparations to make.” Jessica wanted to wring her neck, but, as usual, she suppressed all her rage, smiled sweetly and said, “Sure, Mother,” and scampered into the house like the good girl she was. Emphasis on that past tense of that state of being.
Suppression of emotions, over time, as many can attest, tend to build up into one crashing crescendo of a moment. The apex of being unable to withstand any longer the burdens of “playing nice.” Of, well, playing a part, for that matter. Jessica had been cast in the role of “angelic ne’er do wrong” for as long as she could remember. Added into that character was the expectation that she would always—always—be an exemplary, well-rounded student. The final aim being, she was told, Harvard. No one had ever asked her if she even wanted to go there or if “Business” was a major she was actually interested in (news flash: no one was actually interested in it). It was, quite simply, the “instructions” she had been given for life. For how to conduct herself. But adhering to the letter of those instructions was becoming a stifling chore she didn’t know if she could handle for much longer.
What happened after college? Would they still tell her how to live even then? It seemed highly likely. And no doubt they would dictate the terms of a marriage as well. She didn’t even know if she ever wanted to get married. She might instead prefer to have nothing but drunken tumbles and at-last-fulfilled fantasies about riding on the back of some good-for-nothing’s motorcycle before they stopped at a shitty motel and he railed her until dawn. How could she do any of these things with her parents constantly breathing down her neck? Making false claims that nothing could stop her when they were the ones doing just that. Stopping her from living her life. Because to truly do that, one had to be allowed room for mistakes. For colossal failures and fuck-ups that could be learned from, rather than constantly sailing along the smooth seas of privilege and repression.
She took a deep breath as she descended the staircase. She had been bathed in shimmering pink by her mother’s pocketbook, with matching open-toe kitten heels of pale pink satin. She looked like a piece of bubblegum… before it was permanently blackened after getting spit out and stuck on the macadam. And, staring down at her guests, she could see that’s what they all thought, too: that she was a malleable stick of gum. Scarcely disguised snickers didn’t help to mask their judgment of her as some kind of parody. Worst of all, when she looked down, she caught Claire standing next to Trent, the two of them patently laughing together at her expense. Why had she consented to this? Why did she tell herself for so long that the way her parents treated her was normal when, obviously, everyone else thought it was anything but?
Continuing with the charade in spite of her body radiating with the hotness of humiliation, she made her way to the bottom of the stairs and announced, “Thank you all for coming. Please enjoy.” With that a DJ she didn’t know would be provided was cued to play Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever).” It was arguably the most cringeworthy moment of Jessica’s life, which was really saying something considering how many there had already been thus far. And maybe it was that song that finally set her off. Made her snap. Because it only took a few verses for her to finally scream, “Stop! Turn that shit off!” as she proceeded to rip away the puffy sleeves from her dress and kick off her shoes (one of them landing squarely against the ice sculpture of her likeness in a graduation cap). She caught the horrified looks of both parents and relished their shame. It was the lifeblood that fueled her to keep going with what was fast-becoming her “plan.” A plan to escape and run off into the sunset, never to return.
Her eyes darted over the room and settled on Trent. It was now or never. She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him out of the house as Sheryl called out, “Jessica! Jessica, where are you going? We still have cake to cut!”
She was pleased to find that her theory about Trent being the type of guy to have a motorcycle was correct. His tall, svelte body, his brooding nature all amounted to him possessing this vehicle. She kissed him on the lips, unabashed for once in her damn life. He was surprised, at first, but got over it quickly as he returned her fervor. She pulled back and said, “I want you to drive me as far away from here as possible. When you get as far as you think you can go, I want to go even farther. With or without you.” He nodded his assent, glancing at the sign and back to her as he laughed, “Well, I hear nothing can stop you.” And nothing could, not anymore. So maybe she did have her parents to thank for that mortifying declaration after all.