by JANN EVERARD
sjm_sleeping_red1 by Michael Mandiberg | Flickr
“Head lice are easier to get rid of,” Sarah whines, and the group nods in unison. Sarah is the newest member of ACHES—Adult Children at HomE Still—a support group that meets every Friday night at the Wine On Bar, rain or shine, statutory holidays excepted. Counting Sarah, we now fill a table for twelve.
Meghan, our facilitator, gives us a few seconds to scratch our scalps. “We’re near the end of the venting segment of our meeting,” she says. “Does anyone else need to vent this evening?” No one speaks up. We’ve pretty much covered the insect analogies in past sessions—our kids as difficult to dislodge as wool moths, potato bugs, cockroaches. Meghan raps the table with shiny black nails. “Good. Let’s move on to coping strategies and self-care. Vivian, how are you doing?”
Next to me, Vivian shudders as if woken by gunshot. She has the look of a hard-core addict, all bony angles and sunken eye sockets. Her shoulders curve in towards her chest as if she’s protecting her breasts. In a thin voice, she says, “My doctor agreed to prescribe Pristiq.” She nods at me. “Thanks for that suggestion, Ann. I’m told anti-depressants take six weeks to fully kick in, and it’s only been two, but already I’m feeling something. I mean I feel like my brain is empty so that’s good, right? Better than obsessing?” She looks around the group for acknowledgement and we nod again vigorously.
“Yes, that blank feeling is a relief, isn’t it?” says Louise, leaning across the table to pat Viv’s hand. There’s a general sense of disaster averted. Last time we saw Viv she was shattering, a mirror riddled with cracks. She’s tried but can’t get her twenty-six-year-old triplets to leave home. I glance at her flat chest, feel a slight horror at the drawn-out suckling she’s endured.
Tonight there are a few ACHES newbies, anxious to hear whether there are techniques for dislodgement that have any hope. They haven’t been around long enough to understand that the “coping strategies” segment of the meeting is less about sharing interventions that will jolt our offspring into leaving than learning to tolerate the inevitable. “I tried changing the locks on the door,” says the newbie with two deep fissures just above her nose that will require Botox to obliterate. “I waited for my son to leave. I thought locking him out might make a point. But then…” The low hum from the long-standing members of the group stops her. Kay takes a slug of straight scotch before speaking up. “Honey, you should have talked to us first and spared yourself the expense. They never leave the house for anything. Ask Ann here.” She tilts her head at me. “Ask any of us.”
The conversation devolves at this point, as it does every week. We bemoan how it is possible that healthy young adults feel no need to go outside. We ask rhetorically why they don’t want a real job, by which we mean a job we understand—measured in office hours and salary and not by Google analytics. We regret not insisting our kids take high school math and science in preparation for degrees in engineering or pre-med, the only occupations that seem to guarantee a normal launch. The babble is animated but respectful. Group rules don’t allow us to assume blame for our children’s failure to move on.
Tonight, as a ceremonial mark of respect, I give each voice my undivided attention. Michelle starts: “I can’t even use the job argument to budge mine. He works from bed. As long as he has Internet access, he’s good to go. He made more money than me last year.”
“I tried putting up a sign outside saying We Accept No Deliveries to cut off Jamie’s food supply. Three days later I found nine empty bottles of Soylent in the recycling bin. Apparently, the stuff is shelf-stable and he has enough to survive the apocalypse.”
“Mine’s on a first-name basis with the salespeople at that online distributor—AliExpress? They send him everything from underwear to hand-tailored jeans for a quarter of the prices here. Last week, the Chinese consulate offered him a multiple-entry business visa for free. I think they hope he’ll become some kind of retail ambassador. If they only knew he doesn’t travel farther than the front door for parcel pick-up.”
“I insisted my son contribute financially if he wasn’t going to move out. I thought that would clinch it. Next thing I know, he’s handing me a check for $10,000. Raised it on GoFundMe. Perfect strangers are enabling this behavior and I’m powerless to stop it.”
At this point, I notice Viv quietly sobbing. I signal Louise that I’ll take care of it and wave down the waiter. Until the Pristiq works its magic, a drink is what Viv needs. It works for me. But tears, we’ve all learned, are contagious. Ruth has welled up, too. “I just want my basement back,” she says to no one in particular. “I have nowhere else to store my skis. I tucked them under my living room couch, but it’s a two-seater and I keep tripping on the tips. And my Christmas decorations have been up for six months because Brandon needs the storage cupboard for his collection of vintage video games.”
Into the short silence that follows breaks a tentative whisper. “Couldn’t we just shut down their computers somehow? Force them out into the world to interact?” It’s the first time Parm’s spoken, although she’s been attending for weeks. Her skin has a cloudy tinge, as if she’s been rubbing it with ash. Around the table, people chortle. “We can never, ever get ahead of them on the tech front, Parm,” Meghan says. “Unless anyone has met a professional hacker since our last meeting…?”
Heads shake. We avoid each other’s eyes. As with grief, there is a process to go through to come to terms with an unlaunched child. Those of us who had been around the table longest have gone through all the stages, then witnessed others go through them. It starts with awkward explanations to friends, a thinly disguised embarrassment as the situation is confessed. Child X just needs a few more months after convocation to find a job or hear back from schools. When neither of these prospects have happy endings, there is confusion. How is it that Child X has not lived up to the potential for excellence Mom and Dad have been bragging about for years? Frustration—a lengthy stage—sets in after a few months of unmet requests that our offspring do their own dishes and wash their own clothes. This is followed by depression, a stage during which said child lays on their parent(s) a mountain of guilt by claiming they were raised to think themselves better than the entry-level jobs their BAs have earned them. At fever pitch, the child tells the parent(s) to fuck off because it actually requires skill to win games against those Koreans that log on at midnight. If the parents’ marriage has survived to this point, panic sets in. Retirement plans are reassessed as savings intended to support two must now be stretched to three or more. Some, whose fragile threads to sanity are already being tested by menopause or mid-life crises, contemplate suicide. I worry especially about Viv in this regard, but tonight I see Louise will step in when I’m not here.
Meghan raises her voice above the murmur, a sound like agitated bees. “Can we refocus on self-care?” she says.
Michelle flips scraggly bangs from her face and rubs her hand down her neck as if to smooth it. “Well I’ve found one way to benefit from the situation. I’m having sex with the UPS guy. He’s at the house every day anyways.”
The scotch in Kay’s glass swings wildly as she bristles. “Do you mean Len?” she demands. “My Len?”
Meghan leans forward and pounds a flat hand on the table between them. “Ladies, I suggest you take that conversation offline.” Kay continues to glare but probably knows she’s too drunk to argue. Meghan twists her shoulders towards me. “Ann, you haven’t said anything tonight.”
I haven’t. And won’t. I have previously said all the things that the others have said. I have cycled through the process. Now, with the weight of the group’s eyes on me, all I can do is shake my head, lift my sweating glass, tip back my chin and down the triple gin in one go. There’s a kind of shocked silence, punctuated by the sounds of my gulping swallows. When I open my eyes and survey the table, the newbies frown with concern, but some of the others get it. Meghan mouths good for you. Viv clasps her hands at her heart and, again, starts to cry.
The meeting winds down. The usual panaceas are offered up in spurts of conversation: new shows on Netflix for binge-watching, next month’s Kettlebell schedule at the gym (as if we can learn to throw our weight around—haha, laughs Kay). Meghan mentions the possibility of census work for those strapped for cash. Murray, the only man in our group, points out that another medical marijuana clinic has opened nearby. Extended hours, he says with a glance at his watch, and I picture a drowning man smoking, puffing out Life Rings.
I leave with Ruth. She introduced me to the group. “How did this get to be our fucking lives?” she asks, swaying a little so that her hip bumps mine. The sidewalks are empty in our neighborhood.
In my case, the situation snuck up on me. Wanting our only son to have the whole university experience, his father and I paid for him to live in residence, and it was blissful without him in the house. We made love on lazy weekday afternoons, ate our meals silently at the table, reading books. When Lucas moved back home after grad, there were too many adult bodies in the house. We butted heads trying to eke out space for our private selves. Greg, my husband of twenty-five years, was the first to cave to the stress and moved out. It seemed like the wrong time to ask Lucas to leave, too.
“Ruth,” I bump her back, as much to reclaim my personal space as to get her attention. We’re approaching my house; I have to tell her.
“Let me guess. Lucas is moving out and Greg is moving back in.” Despite everything, Ruth’s an optimist. She buys lottery tickets. But she wants this scenario for herself. She doesn’t want it to be mine.
“No, I haven’t spoken to Greg in weeks. And I stopped paying Lucas’s phone bill so he can’t text me. I have no clue what he’s up to. No, I have something else to tell you.” We slow next to my car. I gesture to the baggage inside, the For Sale sign on my lawn.
Ruth takes it in, turns to peer into my eyes. “You can’t mean it. You’d give up your house? Your garden? You’ll never get back into the market in this city on your own. And what about your stuff?”
My lifetime of accumulation, she means—all the comforts that have tied me to this place. Lucas, who has little hope or motivation to acquire such comforts for himself, can’t let go, can’t (or won’t) picture a reality different from the one that he’s known. “It’s just stuff, Ruth,” I say, and she inhales sharply as if I’ve punched her in the gut.
I put my hand on the car’s door handle. “There’s room in the passenger seat,” I say, gesturing for her to step inside.
But she backs off, palms outward, as if warding off evil. It’s just as well. It was an empty gesture on my part. Because claiming independence should be a savored and solitary thing.
Jann Everard's fiction has appeared in journals in Canada, the US, and New Zealand including, most recently, The New Quarterly, Geometry, The Examined Life, and Savant-Garde. Jann was the winner of The Malahat Review's 2018 Open Season award for fiction. She divides her time between Toronto and Vancouver Island, Canada.