Your Daughter's Heart
Elizabeth Word Gutting
Your daughter’s heart is broken. She curls up like one half of a pair of parentheses on the couch in the darkened living room and listlessly plucks hairs from the crown of her head. You stand in the kitchen and watch as she caresses one fiery-orange strand after another between her thumb and forefinger, examining each with her touch as though she may string a harp with her hair. She yanks the strands in one sudden movement and discards them to the floor. She inherited her red hair from her father. When she sees you watching, she doesn’t stop, but does ask you to bring her a glass of orange juice; you are relieved to have purpose, relieved she has some sort of appetite. But when you report that there’s no OJ in the fridge, she meets the news with a sharp glare that pins you to the wall like the carcass of a butterfly behind glass, your species marked with an italic phrase. Doomed Mother.
Your daughter’s heart is broken. She’s fifteen and you are still driving her everywhere she needs to be, and so you choose a ride to the orthodontist as an opportunity to ask a few simple questions. You start globally. How’s school? You know that she hates to be asked this question, just as you hate to be asked How are you? by the depressing selection of 50-plus-year-old men who message you on dating sites. If that is all you can think to ask, you want to say, why should I spend even a moment of my time replying? Your daughter apparently shares this sentiment. She doesn’t answer you, just huffs and turns up the radio. Anything new with Caroline? She doesn’t want to talk about Caroline either. You figured this would be the case, because it’s been weeks since you’ve seen her with her new nitwit friend, but you can’t help yourself. You’ve never liked Caroline—such false reverence, with that high-pitched baby voice and her tangled mop of hair that she constantly twists over one shoulder and then flips to her back. You have one more question, but if you get another strike, you will be shut out of conversation for good. You spend the rest of the ride in deliberate silence.
You know that she hates to be asked this question, just as you hate to be asked How are you? by the depressing selection of 50-plus-year-old men who message you on dating sites.
Your daughter’s heart is broken. Finally, this is how you know. On a Saturday evening she calls you from her father’s apartment, panicked. She’s lost one hoop from a pair of gold earrings. Is the missing one at your house? That’s what she says—your house—as if she doesn’t live with you 85 percent of the time. You practice deep breathing and walk with the cordless phone into her room. You gave her this pair of gold hoops, and see the glint of one immediately, on the floor, next to her diary, which has a pattern of raised purple stars splayed across its front cover. It’s in your bedroom, you say, and wish that you had taken one more deep breath before you spoke. But she is too relieved to take anything as a jab, and tells you she loves you, and hangs up. You sit for a long time on her bed, holding the journal in your hands. The December sun sets quickly and soon you reach over to pull the dangling silver cord of her bedside lamp. You realize you’re not leaving the room until you open up the journal and read.
Your daughter’s heart is broken. You skip past the good times, telling yourself you need only the basics: his name is Geoff, they first kissed at the end of August, and once, on a Wednesday, they skipped school together and—for God’s sake, what should you do with this information?—took ecstasy. You are definitively holding your breath, stifling it like you never want to let it out of your lungs again. You keep skipping ahead to get to the bad times, to get up to the present date, but then your eyes land on a sentence that you will worry over for weeks to come. I don’t want to ask Mom about getting on birth control, because she’s so awkward about absolutely everything related to sex. UGH. You feel a stab in your heart. You want to say to her: That’s not true. At the same time, you want to tell her she’s too young for birth control, and certainly too young for sex. While you have always thought of yourself as an open-door type of parent, she has gotten the exact opposite impression. How can that be? But you can’t dwell. You must go on. Because your daughter’s heart is broken.
You are definitively holding your breath, stifling it like you never want to let it out of your lungs again.
Here is what happened: her father grounded her the weekend of a big dance—he’s always trying to assert his control in ways you find transparent and childish, but for some reason, she’s always caving to his angry impulses. If you had grounded her on a weekend that important to her, you would have had hell to pay. And even at the time, when she told you glumly upon her return to your house that her father had punished her, the reasons for the grounding were unclear to you. Now, for a moment, you panic. You flip back several pages, searching for the answer. The room suddenly feels cold. Did her father know about the Wednesday she skipped school to do psychotropic drugs? Did he know and not tell you? No. It’s something else. She talked back to him in some way. You can’t help it—this makes you smile. One snarky comment, for which she is—in your mind—famed for, and he relegated her to spending the weekend at his apartment, holed up and fuming at him. I really hate my father, she wrote. This doesn’t make you smile; actually, it makes you want to cry. Apparently Geoff could commiserate, though, because his parents are pieces of shits too. Well. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Four pages later, and you learn that Geoff took the opportunity of a weekend away from your daughter to fuck her new nitwit friend Caroline in his car. According to another friend of Caroline’s, they didn’t use a condom, because Caroline is on the pill. You want to shake all of these girls, but then you chastise yourself. You should want to shake Geoff more than any of them. But it’s just so heartbreaking for you because Caroline is hardly sorry; she’s mainly confused that your daughter didn’t realize the relationship was doomed to end. You hear yourself asking aloud to your daughter’s lonely bedroom: Aren’t they all?
Now, for a moment, you panic.
Your daughter’s heart is broken. Dawn is breaking and the journal sits on your lap. Your daughter is asleep at her father’s and won’t be home for hours. You should get some sleep yourself, but instead you make a pot of coffee. You think you’ll wait up until 3:00 p.m. when she is due back home, and then you will take her in your arms and hug her and say you missed her this weekend, and you know she will squirm, but you won’t care because it will feel so good to put your chin over her shoulder. In this way, you will let her know that she is your baby, that you will always hold her heart in yours, you will always care for her. You won’t breathe a word about the ecstasy. You won’t tell her how you worry, without rest, about all that you can’t control. You will take her hands in yours and ask her what she wants to do with the rest of the day, and even if she says she wants nothing to do with you, that she just wants to be alone, you will say, Anything you want. You will mean it, more than you’ve ever meant anything.
Elizabeth Word Gutting’s fiction has appeared in Treehouse, Connotation Press, The Quotable, and Defying Gravity, an anthology published by Paycock Press. Born and raised in St. Louis, she has lived in rural Ohio, the Mission District of San Francisco, and on a tangerine farm on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Now she lives in Washington, D.C., and dreams of adopting a dog.
Illustrated by Meher Khan.