Cynthia Bernard

In a month Megan would turn sixteen—she could care less. It just wasn’t going to be a milestone for her as it had been for her girlfriends. She had already attended three of those significant birthday parties this year. At each, a mother had gazed proudly or had smiled fondly at her daughter, to mask, Megan assumed, a silent farewell to frilly dresses, stuffed animals, and any number of sappy, childhood remembrances. Megan was sure she and her mother did not have this kind of relationship.

“The pharmacy is on my list,” her mother had said over coffee. “Come with me and we’ll buy condoms.” Not a response Megan had expected. Not a response she wanted. It was not concerned or even angry—not at all motherly.

They were in the little sports car now, her mother driving the flat streets of Cape Canaveral and wearing a dark, fitted, pant suit. Seeing her dressed for the office had rattled Megan an hour before. True, there was no swim meet that day, but this was a bad sign. Her mother was setting a precedent. Next Saturday or maybe the one after, she would go to the office again, bailing on Megan. No ride to the pool, no keeping score with other volunteers, no cheering Megan’s backstroke like a devoted parent would. Standing there in the kitchen, stirring sugar into her mug, Megan had felt her mother’s attention slipping away. Once again. Blurting out to her mother that she was ready to have sex had been desperate, Megan knew.

Her mother switched on the car radio and told Megan to pick a station. She flipped to a satellite channel playing what she and Trent called swagger-rock, music with raunchy lyrics and jerky guitar riffs. Music for kicking back or cutting loose, either of which Megan would love to be doing right now with Trent and their friends at one of the sheltered tables along the boardwalk. Some rum and ginger ale on the beach would help her forget how her latest effort to bond with her mother had failed.

“Ooh, I love that bass line,” her mother said.

A silver chain on her mother’s wrist swayed when she shifted gears. “Is that from Dad?” Megan thought it might be a gift to make up for one of their previous fights.

“Boys in your class listen to this?”

Megan wondered if her mother had not heard, or was simply ignoring, the question. “No, I learn about bands like this from Trent’s brother.”

“So this is college guy music?”

“I guess. Why?”

“Just curious. You know, at the office, the team I’m managing is full of young men.”

Megan did not know this. Nor did she feel chummy about it. Before the swimming, her mother’s career had won out also over the soccer games, piano recitals, and Girl Scout trips. Occasionally, her mother had felt something about such priorities, although Megan did not think it was guilt. Yes, they had gone to Sea World, or out for an evening on a cruise ship, or to the salon for a pedicure—but Megan never had much fun on these excursions. They felt forced, as if she were a distant relative her mother had to entertain for the day.

The pharmacy was located in a strip mall, along with a barbeque restaurant, travel agency, packing store, and a few boutiques that sold lingerie and high-end vacation wear. It was summer in Florida, a few hours past sunrise and already sweltering. They hurried into the air- conditioned pharmacy. Its aisles were clogged with tourists shopping for sunscreen, umbrellas, and oversized beach towels. Megan watched her mother stride through the crowd as if she couldn’t wait to get to the condom aisle, as if she couldn’t wait to get rid of Megan’s childhood once and for all.

“I need a refill,” she said to Megan, pulling a brown bottle from her purse and getting in the prescription drop-off line at the back of the store.

Yuck, Megan thought, reading the label for oral herpes pills.

“Go get the...” her mother whispered with a grin, “condoms.” Megan winced. She wandered down an aisle full of braces and bandages for all types of minor bodily injuries, and turned left. At the far end of the next aisle, she found the condom display but walked on.

The next aisle offered shampoos, conditioners, curling irons, and blow driers. A girl was just leaving the aisle, disappearing around its other end. Megan glimpsed spiky dark hair, cut-off jean-shorts, and a green, long-sleeved, hooded sweatshirt. Silly for Florida in July.

“Jennifer! I told you to stay with me.”

“I’m right here, Mom. Quit freaking.”

Megan paused by the perfume display at the outside end of the aisle. Peeking around the case, she saw a tan woman in a sleeveless dress scolding the girl. They stood in front of a rainbow assortment of lip gloss. The woman thrust her right hand in a front pocket of the girl’s sweatshirt and pulled out four small tubes. “What is wrong with you?” She gripped the girl’s forearm. “Now, behave. This is our first real vacation with Mitch.”

Megan looked up from the small glass bottles when they passed. She saw the girl scowling at her mother’s back, saw her fists pushing down the pockets of her sweatshirt. Mitch was probably a loser boyfriend or stepfather. She sympathized with the girl. Shoplifting to liven a vacation that was no fun for her.

Megan sauntered down a cosmetics aisle. She favored dark or vibrant shades of lipstick that complimented her newly-purple hair. Virgin Suicide was the color of hair dye she used, an irreverent name, considering what she was in the pharmacy to buy, but she did not smile. Back in the aisle with the condoms, two elderly women debated the benefits of one pain relief pill over another. Megan pretended to browse shelves of cold medicine.

Trent was unaware of her supposed decision to have sex with him. She didn’t have to go through with it just because her mother was so agreeable. She could go home and head to the beach. Remain innocent, whatever that meant, a little while longer. But then what was the point? She and Trent had been fooling around, doing everything but, for months now. He made her laugh. And he was always drawing her. In his stories, she was the sullen but pretty gargoyle girl who guarded his lair, the only other character, in fact, who could enter it. She knew she was affectionately entrenched in his mind.

Megan guessed she had been waiting on her mother—she had figured, if nothing else, her virginity would be the one aspect of her life her mother would get involved in fully. Her mother had to have opinions on the subject. She would want to discuss them. She would want to relate her own experience of getting knocked up too young in high school; all this, Megan had thought.

One of the blue-hairs finally pulled a bottle from the shelf. She and her friend left the aisle. Megan moved down to the condoms, assessing the options. Warming, ribbed. Those sounded nice. Kiss of Mint, Strawberry Blush. Those flavors sounded like more lip gloss. She picked up a box, black; it looked and felt good in her hand, encouraging. Did she need her mother involved in this event, really, if she had Trent? Now her name was being called nearby. She backed away from the display and shoved the black box in the back pocket of her shorts a second before her mother entered the aisle.

“I put in the refill,” her mother said. “No more than fifteen minutes.” She nodded to the rows of colored boxes. “Which do you want?”

“None of them.” Megan held her breath, imagining the box bulging like an unabridged dictionary in her back pocket.

Her mother gazed at the shelves. “They broke a lot in my day. Obviously. But, really, if it’s something you and Trent—“

“We aren’t.”

“If it’s something you two might, we should get some, start you on the pill, too.”

“Maybe. Not today, though. Can we go?”

“When my refill is ready.” She dug her wallet out of her purse and handed Megan a twenty. “I need cigarettes. Go get in line, will you? Tell the cashier I’ll be there in a minute to pay.”

Megan relaxed, glanced upward, and noticed a security camera pointing down on her from the ceiling. She turned, slouching a little, and snaked through the overstocked aisles toward the front of the store. In pet supplies, a man suddenly blocked the end of the aisle in front of her. He wore black pants, a white shirt, a belt with many pouches. Megan hesitated among the dog collars and leashes. She spun on her heel and bumped into another, taller, man.

“Careful, Miss.”

At first, all Megan saw was a yellow patch with the words Security Officer in black letters on the chest pocket of his shirt. It was crude, like the patches she’d earned in Girl Scouts. Then, Megan looked up into a gaunt and unfriendly face.

“Empty your pockets,” he said.

“I have money.” She waved the twenty her mother had given her. The tall man grabbed her arm and swung her around, causing her to cry out. “I’m not going to do anything,” she said when the first guard cautiously approached. The taller guard gave her arm a painful squeeze. His free hand invaded her back pocket and then he let out a disapproving whistle. He held out the black box. The shorter man accepted it, shaking his head.

“I’ll pay. I was just going up front for cigarettes—“

“Rubbers and smokes,” the shorter guard said. “Who are you seeing today, your pimp?”

Both men laughed. People were gathering at the ends of the aisle. Some kid held up his phone, filming the scene. Megan felt humiliation like an all-over sunburn. “Forget it,” she said. “Keep them.” At least lip gloss girl’s mom would have been by her side, she thought; lip gloss girl would not have suffered this confrontation alone. The guard urged Megan forward. “Hey, what are you doing with my daughter?” Megan and her two escorts halted by the chew toys. Her mother strode down the aisle toward them, giving Megan a searching look. “What did she do?” “Stole this.” The shorter man raised and shook the box of condoms. At the ends of the aisle, people gasped and chuckled. Her mother looked at the box, looked at her, and emitted one amused sigh. Megan felt the heat on her skin turn to anger. “First, she has money,” her mother said. “Second, these are for me!” She plucked the box from the guard’s hand. “God forbid a mother ask her daughter to shop while she’s waiting at the pharmacy. Are you two paid to protect the store or chase long-time customers from it?” She took Megan’s hand and barged past them.

At the checkout counter, her mother used the twenty to pay for the condoms and a pack of menthol cigarettes. She slid the handles of the plastic bag around her wrist and they walked back through the store to the red plastic chairs in the pharmacy. “Jerks,” she said after they’d sat down.

Megan could not remember the last time her mother had come to her rescue! What a rush, like bodysurfing. Her mother sat with the bag in her lap, the hint of a smile on her lips. She’s OK with it, too, Megan thought, and touched the bracelet on her mother’s wrist. It felt rough and cool, like crushed ice in water. She repeated her question from earlier. “Did Dad give this to you?”

Her mother gazed at the pharmacist behind the red counter. “No.” Megan waited for more information, expected it, but her mother remained silent until she was called over the speakers. She paid for the pills and they left the store. Megan lagged a few steps behind while they crossed the parking lot. She couldn’t believe her mother was going to drop the good moment they had shared just like that. “Where did it come from?” Her mother dug in her purse. “What?”

“The bracelet.”

“Did I give you the keys?”


“Here they are!” She jingled them, then realized Megan had followed her to the driver’s side of the car. “You want to drive?”

Megan lifted her mother’s right hand. The keys and bracelet glinted in the sun. “Did you buy it online? Win it at a poker game? Find it on the sidewalk one day? Where did this come from?”

“Megan, stop.” She pulled her hand away. “This bracelet came from work. I… won an award. My team at the office, I mean. The guys got cufflinks and I got this bracelet.”

Megan shifted in her sandals, crossing her arms, the heat of the morning not as steamy as she felt at this moment. “Why haven’t you told me or Dad about it? You announce everything about your job. You’d make infomercials about how wonderful that job is, if you could.”

Her mother expelled an annoyed breath. “It’s hot. Get in the car.”

Megan snatched the bag from her hand and strode around the trunk to the passenger side. Her mother shot her a challenging look before unlocking the doors. Inside the sports car, they were pressed close. “Can I have a cigarette?” her mother asked once they were on the main road.

“When we get home,” Megan said

Her mother glared at her, then at the flat road. “Why did you steal them?”

“I didn’t steal them. I just didn’t want you to know I had them. Like you don’t want me to know who gave you that bracelet.” Megan frowned out her window at the endless line of small restaurants and apartment buildings.

“Why do you want to hide the condoms? I’m cool with it. Trent is great. You’ve been with him almost a year. That’s a committed relationship for a girl about to turn sixteen.”

“Wow, you remember?”

They stopped at the light for their neighborhood. “Of course I remember. What is wrong with you?”

Pedestrians with towels slung over their shoulders were heading to the beach. A man held a young girl’s hand. Her small feet struggled to keep on flip flops. She looked up at her father, which sent her floppy hat falling onto the crosswalk. Without missing a beat, her mother, a few steps behind, retrieved it and put it back on her head. “She’s lucky to have such an attentive mother,” Megan said.

They did not speak the rest of the way home. When they pulled into the driveway, Megan jumped out of the car. She clutched the plastic bag, still angry with her mother, and hurried into the house.

In her room, she put on a bikini under her clothes and shoved the condoms and cigarettes into her beach bag. She strode back down the hall to the kitchen, where her parents were brokering another round of apologies. Tossing the brown pill-bottle onto the counter, she said, “I’ll be at the beach!” and pretended not to hear her mother calling after her for the pharmacy bag on the way out the door.

She biked to the boardwalk and walked down it to the last table, which was littered with backpacks, towels, plastic bike bottles, and Trent’s sketchbook. She saw him surfing the small swells, saw their friends tossing a Frisbee in the sand. She took a gulp from Trent’s bottle, thirsty for the sugary bite of rum and ginger ale, then sat on the wide railing of the boardwalk. When he came up from the beach, she would take him aside, show him the black box of condoms in her canvas bag.

Megan pulled out the cigarettes and lit one. Going through four or five more would create just enough space in the pack. She inhaled, menthol cooling her throat, and exhaled smoke into sunshine. These are for me! Well, one of them would be. She’d return the pack of cigarettes to her mother with one foil-wrapped condom hidden inside. Not a response her mother would expect. Not a response she would want. It was not concerned or even good-humored—not at all daughterly.

Cynthia Bernard earned her MA in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. She lives with her husband near Washington, DC.

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