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UNBOXING

By Liz Dubelman

 

Rose watched as her sixteen-year-old daughter, Delilah, walked to the car parked in the driveway. Delilah was all legs. When did that happen? She was wearing miniscule snug jean shorts, a loose t-shirt and a long drapey cardigan. Rose had noticed several fashion trends. Tight on top and loose on the bottom or tight on the bottom and loose on top. Rose preferred loose and loose but she had to admit it made her look old and careless.

Delilah threw a thoughtless, “Bye” over her shoulder as she was leaving. She was happy to be going out. The plan was to hit up the thrift store because they were cheap and she loved making up stories about the previous owners. Delilah didn’t really care where she was going as long as she was going. A driver’s license meant possibilities to Delilah.

All of Delilah’s friends were getting their driver’s licenses. They were that age and it was one of the few rites of passage left. Rose was both happy not to have to cart Delilah around and terrified that a mercurial teenager had control of a 2000-pound machine. But that small measure of freedom made Delilah sort of nicer to her mother.

It was Rose’s plan that while Delilah was out and not emotionally confusing her mother with her silent demands to be close and distant at the same time, she would clean the house – clear out the clutter. Rose opened a bottle of chardonnay. It was a cleaner’s best friend, a little life hack. Rose had read that the best way to clean a house was to pick a room and start clockwise. She picked the half bathroom because it was the smallest room in the house. Her logic dictated she start with the medicine cabinet.

Rose balanced her water glass full of wine on the counter top of the sink area and, with a fine billow, shook a white trash bag open. She looked in the mirror for a moment, took a gulp of wine and opened the medicine cabinet. She tossed the stretched out hair bands that hung on the shelves like Christmas ornaments, the outdated sunscreen SPF 15, 25 and 50. Then the fifteen-year-old tube of Desenex diaper cream. Rose opened the toothpaste-like tube and sniffed it. It smelled like a newborn, like her newborn. She put down the toilet seat cover and sat with the Desenex in one hand and the glass of wine in the other.
When Delilah was born Rose remembered thinking, what the fuck did I do? I can’t do this. The baby was squishy, fragile and scary. She cried all the time, which Rose found a very poor way to communicate. Rose thought baby Delilah lacked nuance and subtlety. So, Rose resolved not to think too much. Just keep her alive, she thought, and don’t sweat anything else. Rose didn’t buy “Baby Einstein” or read parenting books. She focused on breast-feeding, changing diapers, and holding her until she fell asleep, because those were the essentials; food, bathroom and sleep. Rose and Delilah collapsed into a subconscious partnership, but that got old in about 2213 hours. They both needed more. Rose was frazzled. She wanted to leave Delilah at a fire station. It seemed like a viable solution.

Then there was one particular day. It was a day that Rose hadn’t showered. Her head itched. Her breasts were damp. She dreamed of a steak dinner with wine and dessert. She was craving quiet. Rose had only been looking for love by having Delilah, but giving love like this was relentless. Rose remembered having to change a particularly gross diaper when Deliliah smiled for the first time. That’s when Rose experienced maternal amnesia. She forgot how, just moments earlier, she’d hated being a mother.

Rose cleaned out the rest of the junk in the cabinet, leaving only the allergy pills, Advil, saline solutions and tea tree oil. The last two items Delilah had bought because she planned on getting her eyebrow pierced on her next birthday. Rose thought it was so seventies punk, out-of-date and unoriginal. This was not the effect Delilah was going for, but they had each communicated their unspoken emotions and Rose didn’t throw out the two bottles.

Rose wiped down every surface with some sort of disinfectant wipe that came in a large plastic container. Then she stopped briefly in the kitchen to refill her wine and decided to move to the most dramatic room in the house, Delilah’s room.

Rose knew this was wrong, an invasion, a declaration of war by most reasonable standards. She rationalized that Delilah would not exist without her. Didn’t all Americans have access to The White House? Wasn’t the president just borrowing it for a term or two? That analogy fell apart pretty fast, especially in a post 9/11 world.

Delilah was all Rose had. They were alone. Rose’s parents had been dead long before Delilah was even a thought. Delilah was conceived through an anonymous sperm donor. Rose had a premonition that she carried the gene for breast and ovarian cancer. Rather than getting tested, she decided to have a baby before it was too late. She walked into The California Cryobank and asked the woman at the desk for “the hottest guy with the highest success rate.” Or at least that’s what she remembered. Rose admittedly never did get tested for BRCA, but since no one in her family had cancer she felt it was safe to assume she wasn’t a carrier and certainly didn’t pass it on to her only daughter.

Rose was scared and lonely through her entire pregnancy, and when she found out she was having a girl she was sure she was going to pass on her fictitious gene. Rose’s parents had left her some money and she worked at a progressive pre-school three days a week. She thought she had an affinity for children. It all seemed so logical to have one of her own. The thing she didn’t realize was that children are like super-villains. They have strengths and powers and it’s really best to outnumber them. A ratio of two to one is preferable. Rose had revisited this realization several million times over the last sixteen years.

When Delilah was six she announced to her mother that she was killing herself. She said she had eaten a peanut butter sandwich and rat poison. Rose went into a complete panic. She called poison control while Delilah reclined in an easy chair. The calm voice on the phone asked Rose to get the box of rat poison to relay pertinent details – ingredients, quantity, brand – and Rose just froze. She didn’t even have rat poison in the house. They didn’t have rats and if they did she wouldn’t have used poison. Rose was a pre-school teacher. She was very sensitive to toxicity. Delilah was just messing with her.

Rose stood in the doorway of Delilah’s room. It was maniacally neat and clean. There was no earthly reason for Rose to be in there. Her bed was made. Her clothes were put away. There was no film of dust as there was in Rose’s own bedroom, which was really the room that needed the most attention. Rose’s dresser drawers never closed. They were always agape in various degrees, like the smiles on the emotion chart she used at school to teach kids how they feel. Rose’s room was both seductive and suffocating. She loved spending time in bed with the door closed. She surrounded herself with snacks, half-read books, her laptop, music, and the television remote. It was like a bevy of lovers but in an airless, nonsexual way. Rose’s gaze combed Delilah’s room for a contrived invitation to go in and she found it. Her computer was not on charge. The computer was untethered. Rose knew how infuriated Delilah could get when her devices ran out of juice. Battery management was the highest concern for a teenager like Delilah. She was always on a connected electronic. It seemed to make her happy.

Happiness was not something Rose associated with her daughter. She was both intense and apathetic, and upside down about both emotions. She would be bat-shit crazy if Rose folded her jeans instead of hanging them, but seemed completely affectless about the race riots in the middle of the country, as if those were inevitable and pants were important.

Sometimes Rose felt that she had failed to communicate something very fundamental to her daughter. Something about her place in society, or maybe appropriate emotions, or even empathy. Rose was a trained professional. She now was the director of the pre-school. Delilah never came by Rose’s workplace and they were both better for it. Delilah was not Rose’s finest effort and Delilah seemed to hate children. Delilah had once observed that with children everything means maybe. Yes means maybe, no means maybe and maybe means maybe to a small mind.

Rose connected the computer as if she were defusing a bomb. She surely couldn’t be faulted for opening the MacBook just to make sure it was charging. It was the responsible thing to do. The screen was dark and she hit the mouse pad to “wake” it up. The illuminated screen was a YouTube channel: Hedy Lamarr. Rose knew that Hedy Lamarr was an old movie actress and vaguely remembered that she had been an inventor. Once, for her pre-school class, she’d needed to make a list of role models. It had been very difficult to find women inventors, discoverers or explorers. Hedy’s story came back to her because of its classic injustice.

Hedy Lamarr had invented something to do with cloaking technology. Submarines used different radio bands to hide their signals during World War 2. Hedy had been married to a piano player and she got the idea from seeing a player piano scroll. She gave this invention to the United States government to prove that her loyalty was to America and not her native Austria. Later that patent became the basis for all cell phones and Hedy became a bitter kleptomaniac.

Was there a whole channel devoted to Hedy Lamarr? Rose needed to go deeper. She forgot that she was trespassing in the most egregious way. She sat on Delilah’s bed with Delilah’s computer on her lap, violating all boundaries because the need to know was stronger than the need to follow some code of trust that she might or might not be caught breaking.

The video still image was of Delilah. Rose had an a-ha moment of remembering that Hedy Lamarr had played Delilah in the bible story in which Delilah’s name became synonymous with betrayal the way Superman’s became synonymous with virility. Rose had never made that connection before and now it made her a little sick. She rationalized that now was not the time to think about her own motives for naming her daughter after a duplicitous traitor. She had a puzzle on hand and a limited time to decipher it.

Here’s what I know, thought Rose: Delilah has a YouTube channel named Hedy Lamarr. I have no idea what’s on it and once I press play there is no turning back. On the bright side, she thought, Delilah will have one more view and, although Rose didn’t know the significance of that, she knew it was in the positive column.

She pressed play. Initially and accidently the sound was turned off. Rose saw Delilah jump cut from one side of the screen to the other. Rose recognized that Delilah – or Hedy, her screen name – was in her room, in front of the wall that Rose had painted with chalkboard paint when Delilah was young so she could have the playful experience of drawing on the walls. Rose looked up to the wall, which was now wiped clean of images but had a film of chalk residue. In the video the wall had various words and doodles pop on at different times in a jumpy pace like: student, a broken heart, a few stick figures, the word daughter. Hedy had a cute dorky charisma that, to Rose’s mind, was unlike Delilah, whose cynicism was as wearing as the tide on the beach. Hedy was enthralling, even as a silent YouTube star, but Rose would need to turn up the sound. She undecidedly raised the volume on the computer.

“I am a Introvert, an INTP – Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving.” Rose wondered why she wasn’t an IITP. “I am an only child, although I am not alone. I have many friends.” (This was a perspective that wasn’t shared by Rose. Delilah’s friends never came to the house). “I like pineapple and books. In fact, today I want to share an unboxing with you.” Hedy held up an Amazon package. Rose didn’t remember any Amazon charges. “This is from my wish list. I know because it’s addressed to my Vlog name. Let’s see if I can unbox it carefully.” Hedy pulled on the tab and let out a little yelp (also very unlike Delilah). “Before I show you this amazing book, let me read the note. ‘Hi Hedy: My name is Bunny and I love watching your YouTube channel. I just wanted to give something back. This book changed my life. It was deceptively simple in its writing style. Enjoy!’” Rose glanced at the number of views: 21,930. Could that be?

Delilah had a whole sub-life with fans, different clothes, a backdrop and a delightful disposition.   Rose was mystified. They shared a house for sixteen years. Hell, they shared a body for nine months.

Rose knew teenagers had secret lives, but there were over 100,000 people that subscribed to Hedy’s channel and Rose wasn’t one of them.

She clicked to another video called “Tweet At Me.” It was the same basic format. Hedy talked directly to the camera, taking questions from tweets on the screen and occasionally some hand-drawn images would appear in the background. How did she learn to do all this?

“Can you speak in an accent?” Hedy pulled off a perfect Ukrainian accent that Rose recognized as an imitation of Natalie, their cleaning woman.

She read another question off the screen: “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?”

“I would be a palm tree because it’s so Dr. Seuss.”

Rose went to the kitchen to get more wine. When she returned the computer had gone to sleep. Rose touched the mouse pad and played another video entitled “Where I Want to Be.” A commercial played for an interactive business plan site. There was a little button that said: Skip this ad in 5 seconds. Rose hit the button right in the middle of a man saying, “but you don’t have an MB…”

 “Hi there. Hedy here. This is a question that I get a lot: Where would I be if I could be anywhere? Well, here goes: I think I want to be in London. Maybe not the London now with Kate and little prince what’s-his-name but maybe swinging London before that big Eye thing. You know, that giant Ferris wheel. What is that? I want to wear white go-go boots and a mini-skirt and bump my hair and eat fish and chips on a newspaper and go to The Pub for a pint or two. And I would absolutely have an English boyfriend because the accent is so fucking sexy, but that wouldn’t be the only sexy thing about him. Or maybe he should be Irish. I really love Irish accents. He could be named Sean and he would call me Siobhan. And all his “I’s” would sound like “Oy’s,” like Oyrish. And he would be a chef or a poet or a chef/poet. And he would support me. Not financially, but as an artist and a writer. And he would buy me all the books on my Amazon wish list and a few that I never heard of, and he would read to me in bed until we would be overcome by the need to exchange our life’s breath and kiss and kiss until it was time to go down to the pub. And even though everyone would know us he would bring a book to read just to me. And some days we would take a walk in the countryside where it would be green and moist and we would see a lone man who would tip his cap. And Sean would bring some cheese and bread in his backpack…” Then Hedy/Delilah trailed off and tacked on, “Well, just some random thoughts for the day.” She signed off with the link to buy her the books on her wish list.

This was the third video Rose had watched of the daughter, her daughter. How did she not know her own child? Delilah was beautiful and graceful as Hedy. She was surly and despondent as Rose’s daughter. From the subscriber count Rose could see that over one hundred thousand people knew some aspect of her daughter better than she did.

Rose saw there was a new video, one that had just been posted about an hour ago, moments before Delilah had left the house. It already had over three thousand views and a string of comments.

One said, “Call the FBI!!!!!” With five exclamation points.

One just said, “CREEP.”

And one said, “This happened to a friend of mine. She’s a Vlogger too. This guy is notorious. You did the right thing. Don’t let him scare you. Get in touch with BunnyHop. This worm-tongue sack of shit did the same thing to her. PM me if you need her email. I’m serious. HE NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.”

Acid rose in the back of her throat. She was going to have to press play and, as different as everything was before she started cleaning, nothing would ever be the same.

The video was called, “FAN?” Rose pressed the play button, noticing in her mind that it wasn’t a button really, just a digital representation of a button. The same commercial played. Why? Rose thought. Was it that Delilah/Hedy was an entrepreneur and all entrepreneurs needed interactive business plans? Five seconds to skip the commercial.

“Hedy here. This is not my usual Vlog and I’m not doing this because I want your pity or revenge or anything.”

Delilah looked smaller somehow. She was wearing a plain black t-shirt and jeans and she was not in front of the chalkboard wall. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed surrounded by pillows and her familiar stuffed animals Billy T Bear and Scruff.

“You may have heard stories like this before. I just want to tell mine. Many of you know Social347, or at least have seen his YouTube channel. His real name is Blain. A while back he tweeted at me and I was thrilled because he has like three million followers. So, I retweeted and tweeted him back. It was pretty thrilling. I got a whole bunch more viewers. He messaged me and asked for my number and we started texting. He asked me how old I am. I said sixteen. He’s twenty-one. He was really chill and fun. We arranged to meet in Hollywood at his hotel. He was in town from London for a VidCon. We met in the lobby, which was so crowded. He suggested we go up to his room so we could talk.”

Her daughter was speaking so measured and methodically.

“He suggested we order a bottle of Champagne. I thought this was nice and celebratory. It was kind of cool and I only had to have a sip. I was fine with this but at some point he became more in control of my drinking. He kept topping off my glass.” (Hedy made air quotes around “topping off”). “When I stopped drinking he said that I needed another drink. I think in retrospect he had a very specific goal – to get me drunk. I just want to say that nothing I did was unconsensual. But I’m sixteen and he’s twenty-one. I know that’s only five years. But I looked up to him. I feel like I was used. I know I have to clarify. I don’t want any ambiguity. We had sex. He used my body and manipulated me. I’m grateful that I can share this with you maybe to prevent a similar thing.

“Later he texted me and apologized – sort of. He said, ‘I hope you feel okay because it was beautiful but I fear you might have been a little aled up.’ I wasn’t okay and a half-assed apology doesn’t absolve him. If it did the jails would be a whole lot emptier.

“I don’t know what I want. I feel like we have this community, this platform and we need to police it or whatever. Maybe Social347 shouldn’t be allowed back. I don’t know.”

Hedy leaned in to the computer and snapped off the feed.

Rose looked at her empty glass. She couldn’t refill it despite the desperate need to have a change in consciousness. She longed for the not knowing. A time not even an hour ago when she thought her daughter was just a shallow angry teenager. Or a half hour ago when her daughter was delightful and charming. Now Delilah was injured and Rose had to do something because there was no more not knowing. She needed to talk to Delilah but she couldn’t imagine how that conversation would go.

“I went into your room uninvited and looked through your private stuff but none of that matters now. What matters is I love you and we need to do something about this together even if I don’t understand it or even what it is.” Fuck!

Rose heard a noise and, by the time she registered it as the front door closing, Delilah was in at the threshold of her room staring at the computer screen. Time compressed and they both knew what the other knew.

Delilah didn’t say, “What the fuck are you doing?” She didn’t scream. She didn’t do anything. She just looked at Rose. She seemed immobile on the precipice, a little girl and a woman. Delilah seemed so different from Hedy. Hedy was a take-charge person – she seemed on the verge of a manifesto.

“Honey, are you ok?” Rose hugged Delilah. “I need to make sure you’re ok first and then we can decide what to do.” Rose steered Delilah to the bed.

Delilah was confused. She didn’t know she had the option to not be ok. And what were they going to decide to do? Her mother wasn’t in the community. She was a Luddite.

“Did he use protection? Do we need to go to the doctor?”

Oh, it dawned on Delilah. This was like health class with all its ickiness. Rose was still playing at being a mother. Delilah realized that nothing that Rose had seen on the Vlog equalized them, not having sex or talking about it publicly. Nothing. They were not going to be friends. Delilah was scared that she might even have to take care of Rose.

“I’m ok. We used a rubber. That’s not the thing. I just didn’t think it was going to be like that.”

Delilah reached for Rose’s hand because she didn’t know what else to say. Rose was dumbstruck. She hated this motherfucker that hurt her daughter, that preyed on her, that stole from her. And she hated herself for raising a victim. How could Delilah have said “no” so many times to her mother and not to him?

“Honey, seduction is a funny thing. It’s just so fucked up, but I’m so proud of you,” Rose said.

“Why? Because I let some guy take advantage of me? Because I told the world?”

Rose had no idea what to answer. She wasn’t proud, she was angry and frustrated, but she thought if she could play emotional MadLibs she would want the verb to be “proud” because it would make them both feel better.

“I just think you’re really brave.”

But what if it wasn’t true, Rose thought. What if being molested was like the peanut butter and rat poison sandwich? What if it was Delilah’s way of getting attention? A lot of attention from hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

“Are you sure?” Rose heard herself saying.

“What?”

“I mean,” Rose recanted. “Fuck, I hate this guy.”

“You’re always doing that. It’s always about you.” Delilah got up and went to the kitchen adding, “And get out of my room.”

Rose had thought the first three months of Delilah’s life were hard. They were nothing compared to this. When was the smile going to come? When was there going to be some relief?   Rose took her empty glass and walked out of her daughter’s room. She was lost in her own house.

They had had a connection for a split second before actual words had been exchanged. She didn’t want to follow Delilah because she couldn’t tolerate the complete lack of connection that now consumed them. She tried not to retreat completely because she wanted to set a good example and not cower from the uncomfortable situation. She wished Delilah would make the first move. Rose wanted a mother.

She stood in the small hallway just between the kitchen and Delilah’s room and stared out the window. There was a middle-aged woman picking up dog poop left to her from her little fluffy white dog.

Delilah interrupted Rose’s nothingness, “You don’t know anything. What if I made the whole thing up? Would you still think I was brave?”

Delilah stared at Rose, burning a hole through her skull with her eyes. Then, as if she had run out of dramatic laser power, she broke the hold and stormed out of the house. Rose watched Delilah get into her car and back down the driveway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “UNBOXING

  1. Paul

    I love this story! It’s such a vivid and accurate portrait of the aching sadness that mothers feel when their daughters start slipping away into their own lives, and of the confused resentment daughters feel at having to do that. And I love the writing, lines like “… and, with a fine billow, shook a white trash bag open,” and She longed for the not knowing.” I could requote half of the story citing great lines, and little-known details like the history of Hedy Lamarr further enrich the reading experience. (And what a beautiful photo.) More, please.

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  • March 3, 2015
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