After Christina

Peter Biello

When Jill comes home that evening, she calls out to her daughter, but there’s no reply. The snow falls from her jacket as she hangs it in the closet beside the front door, listening to the silence for some sign of Christina. Usually there’s something: laughter as she chats with a friend on the phone, or music from her laptop, or water running for a long shower in progress. Tonight there’s nothing.

“Christina?” she calls.

Jill climbs the stairs to the second floor of their apartment. At the top of the stairs, she sees darkness underneath Christina’s closed door. Given the chance, Christina would sleep from the moment school ended until the sun went down. But night has fallen on this cold March evening in Maine. Why was she still sleeping?

Jill pushes open the door and flips on the light. The room is empty. Christina’s bed, the dresser they squeezed into this room, the little Buddha statue by the enormous window—all gone. Jill imagines all the missing furniture, the tin owl with plastic jewel eyes, the colorful scarves draped over the mirror on the wall, the tiny television.

She calls Christina’s cell and the voicemail picks up. “You’ve reached Christina’s cell phone,” says Christina. “Please leave a message, unless you are my mother, in which case, fuck off.”

Jill drops the phone. Then she picks it up, ends the call, and calls again. “Fuck off,” the message says.

She calls her ex-husband, Rick. “Yeah?” he says. She can hear the wad of Skoal in his mouth.

“What have you done?”

“She’s living with me in Portland now.”

“You can’t do this.”

“Yes I can,” he says.

“Bring her and her stuff back right now,” Jill says.

“No can do,” he says. “She’s old enough to make her own decisions. This was her decision.”

“She’s only seventeen.”

“Yup. And old enough to drive.”

“Oh, that’s what this is about,” says Jill. Christina logged thirty-five hours of practice behind the wheel—fewer than half of what the state of Maine requires before taking the road test. Jill refused to lie on the application. In her opinion, Christina needed the practice. But now it’s clear that Rick had said “yes” where she’d said “no” and that was enough for Christina, who had become increasingly defiant.

“Are you going to let her get a tattoo if she suddenly says she wants one?” Jill snaps.

“She’s seventeen years old.”

Last month, on one cold night, Christina came downstairs in a small t-shirt that exposed her belly. A small Chinese symbol peered over the elastic waistband of her shorts.

“Mind telling me what that is?” Jill said, pointed to the design.

“This?” Christina pulled down her waistband to expose the whole thing. “It means freedom.”

“Do you know Chinese?” Jill said.

“Relax, this one is temporary.”

“This one?” said Jill.

Christina nodded.

“You may like it now, but you don’t know how you’ll feel later in life,” Jill said.

Christina shrugged. A loose lock of dark curly hair fell from the clip on the back of her head. For a moment she looked much older than seventeen. “But I like it now, and that’s what matters,” she said.

She’s just like her father, Jill thinks. For them, consequences don’t exist until they actually do, and then they’re unfair. It struck Rick as unfair, for example, to be served divorce papers after Jill caught him screwing a convenient store clerk on the side for months. “Do you really have to do this to me?” were his exact words when she served him.

“Put her on the phone,” Jill says.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“I don’t care what she wants,” says Jill.

“That’s the whole problem,” Rick says and hangs up.

She goes downstairs to the kitchen—as far away from Christina’s room as she can go without being outside—and calls a deputy she knew at the Sheriff’s office. “What can I do?” she asks. “I want my daughter. I have primary custody. Can I get her?”

“You could,” he says. “But legally she could leave whenever she wanted. A sixteen-year-old can decide to live with her father.”

Next, Jill calls her lawyer.

“Not much you can do,” says the lawyer, “and the little you can do would probably be a waste of time.”

She sat at the kitchen table and cries.