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Trigger Warnings

by Mickey J. Corrigan

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Chapter 5: Baby Steps

As the semester progressed, I continued with my objections and refusals. I was surprised at how tenacious I was. Could it be I was fueled by passion? I wasn’t sure.

My prediction was correct, and my roommate went on probation after midterms. But so did I. In Math and Computer Science, I had passing grades, but in the other three classes I had racked up too many incompletes. I was standing my ground, but nobody seemed to care. And now my grades were suffering.

I sent emails to my professors. They responded by ignoring the issues I was raising, instead pointing out ways I might make up the missed work. They suggested I write papers on the same subjects I had already refused to study. Didn’t they get it?

I was at my desk working on a strongly worded letter to the editor, which I planned to submit to The Beacon Beacon, the school newspaper, when my mother called. Apparently, the school had sent home a copy of my midterm grades. I guess they had to do that. After all, the parents were the ones paying the tuition.

“Are you ill?” she asked in the high-pitched voice she resorted to when extremely upset.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“You’ve always been a good student, Springie. What exactly is going on? Are you partying?”

I snorted. “Hardly. I’m taking a stand in some of my classes. The professors are just slow to pick up on my concerns.”

She gasped. Then she mumbled something to my father. I heard him say something in the background.

He got on the phone. “What’s going on with you, darling?”

I explained my position regarding the professors force-feeding students distressing classroom topics and assignments. I articulated my position to a heavy silence on the other end of the phone line.

When my father sighed deeply, I knew he didn’t see it my way. “Honey, college is meant to broaden your horizons. It’s an introduction to the real world. Higher education is designed to provide you with safe exposure to all kinds of things: people from different backgrounds and persuasions, topics of global concern, contradictions and intellectual arguments.”

“I know, but you should see some of the stuff they’re making us read. It’s brutal. And disgusting.” Not that I was reading it.

He sighed again. Now I could hear my mother ranting hysterically in the background. My dad said, “If you don’t do the work, honey, no matter how distasteful you find it, the college can’t allow you to continue to attend.”

“Dad, I’m trying to get them to see it from the students’ point of view. They should take our feelings into account. After all, we’re the buyers. They’re supposed to please us.”

He laughed sharply. He must have put me on speaker because my mother said, “What crap!” and my father laughed again.

We argued until I said I had to go, I had schoolwork to do. He seemed upset when we hung up.

They thought they had reason to be concerned. My parents saw my grades not as a marker of my one-woman political rebellion and a brave stand for social justice but as a red flag. They thought my attitude toward college was a sign that I was losing it. Disobeying, challenging the system, meant one thing: I was having a freshman breakdown. Emergency, emergency!

Predictably, they called a few days later to inform me they were coming to Boston. There was nothing I could say to dissuade them. So I said nothing, let them make their plans.

The first Saturday in November, they drove in from New York. I was surprised by how happy I was to see them. I introduced them to Sandee, who was streaming Netflix in her pajamas. She had a mad-dog hangover but managed to charm them with her little-girl sweetness.

After I gave them a tour of the dorm and pointed out the Language Arts and Computer Science buildings, we took the T into town. The weather was sunny and cold, perfect for sightseeing around the city. We walked down Boylston Street, crossed the Boston Common, then browsed around Quincy Market. People from all over the world walked, biked, and sauntered, shopping or just enjoying the autumn beauty of the crowded city streets.

By five o’clock we were all tired of walking. At a little pizza place in the North End, we claimed a booth in a dimly lit corner. Dad hailed the waiter and ordered himself a glass of wine.

My parents stared at me across the nicked wooden table. Uh-oh. It was time for The Talk.

“Your mother and I are worried about you.” He chugalugged his Chianti. Mom said nothing. He put a protective arm around her narrow shoulder and added, “We’ve made an appointment for you to talk to someone who might be able to help.”

I licked cappuccino foam off the thin spoon. “Help how?” I asked. But I pretty much knew what he was going to say.

“Dr. Louder is well known for his work with adults. But he also works with adolescents.”

“Doctor? You mean a shrink? What for?”

My father said softly, “You appear to be falling apart, honey.”

I hissed. “No! What I am doing is finding my own voice. And I’ve never felt more...” I paused. What did I feel? Strong-willed? Right-minded? Focused? Intent? “Real,” I said.

My mother eyed me carefully. “Springie, your hair is unwashed. Your clothes are unironed and you aren’t wearing a bra or any makeup. You’re flunking three-fifths of your classes. Your father and I think you need to talk to a professional. Something serious must be bothering you. This behavior is simply not like you.”

She was right but also wrong.

While the smiling waiter delivered our pizza, which was hot and dripping with olive oil, I prepared a response. After we thanked him and he departed, I said, “Mom. Dad. I know this must be hard for you. But I’m becoming who I want to be. A girl with an opinion of her own. Someone who is not afraid to care about things and to speak out about injustices.”

My father nodded. My mother glared.

I went on. “When I was just a kid living at home, sheltered and watched over, you guys protected me from all the bad stuff. Now I’ve got to face life as an adult. And there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t want to expose myself to or participate in. So I’m saying no to all that. And yes to the things I like, the stuff that doesn’t upset me. I mean, it’s my life. So I have the right to take care of myself the way I want to.”

It came out sounding pretty impassioned. My dad tilted his head. As if reassessing. My mother looked pained.

“I see your point,” my father conceded. He had drained his glass, and waved to the waiter for another. “What’s on your to-avoid list?”

I recited my list. “Violence. Rape. War. Perversion. The thoughts and behaviors of depressed and mentally ill people. Oppression. Racism and sexism. Sadism. Cruelty to animals.” I took a bite of the pizza, which was really good. Almost as good as what we had in New York. Munching, I said, “I don’t care to hear about people’s struggles with weight loss either. So pathetic. And fruitless.”

My mother glanced at my dad. Her eyebrow lift said it all. She thought I was batshit insane.

“None of us like to hear about that stuff,” my father said slowly and in a tone he used when speaking to the tweenagers who mowed our lawn. “But it’s part of the adult life you say you are ready to embark on. You can’t avoid all the negative aspects of living in today’s world.”

I took another slice and slopped it on my plate. “Why not?”

My mother rolled her eyes. She’d had enough of me. And the pizza. She pushed her plate away. I knew she was dying for a cigarette. I’d been on her case since first grade to quit smoking. Now that I was away, she probably smoked all the time.

“Because it’s all around you. Unless you want to live in a bubble or an ivory tower, you’ll have to see or at least read about the tougher aspects of modern life. Like war, poverty, crime, abuse, illness and death.”

“I don’t want to hear about cigarette smokers who die of lung cancer,” I said, staring at Mom. “It’s their own fault. So why should I let it crash my good mood?”

My mother gave me the napalm stare. Then she said, “John, let me out. I need to use the restroom.”

My father stood up to allow her to scoot past. Once she had disappeared out the front door to have her cigarette, he said to me, “Your mother is very upset about all this. Please see Dr. Louder. If nothing else, it will set her mind at ease. Once he tells her this is all normal college adjustment behavior, she’ll calm down.” His wine sparkled in the light from the sconce by his head. “She’s got a bit of the empty nest. Take pity, Springie.”

He was overprotective of her, too. But he had his reasons. She’d been off the wall a few times, and he’d had to reel her back down to earth.

I stared at my father, looking at the man objectively for a change. He was still handsome, and he kept himself in good shape. My mother was a pain, but my dad had always been pretty cool.

“Okay,” I said.

Proceed to Chapter 6...

Copyright © 2020 by Mickey J. Corrigan

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