“Is Paige here?” asked Micah. He was wearing a black jacket that Paige had bought him with Gloria’s money and his curly brown hair obscured most of the top half of his face.
“No, she isn’t,” said Gloria, tucking the camera, which she’d found under a magazine on the coffee table the same moment that Micah knocked, into her jacket pocket.
She didn’t like Micah. Whenever Paige showed the slightest interest in other boys, even ones Gloria knew nothing about, she tried to subtly encourage her to “try different things.” There was nothing in particular about Micah that Gloria didn’t like. He wasn’t rude or cruel or obscene or dangerous or controlling or stupid. He was a full year younger than Paige, only a junior at Multioak, but Gloria couldn’t pretend that was her problem with him. A different younger boy would have been fine with her. Micah just struck Gloria as the kind of person who would never go anywhere or do anything interesting. He was never surprising. Gloria couldn’t imagine him ever having anything that was really worth having. How Paige, who was bright and creative and vibrant, couldn’t see this about Micah was a mystery to Gloria, but she held out hope that Paige would come to her senses soon, break up with Micah, and move on to someone more suited to her.
“Where is she?” asked Micah. “Do you know?”
“Yes, I know where she is,” said Gloria. “She’s at the art show. I’m on my way to meet here there now. I was actually supposed to leave ten minutes ago but I couldn’t find my camera until just now.”
“Oh,” said Micah. “I forgot about the art show.”
“Mmm,” said Gloria, trying to ease the front door closed. “I’d better get going.”
“Can I catch a ride with you?” asked Micah. His tone made it sound like he didn’t really care if Gloria said yes or no, but she couldn’t think of a legitimate reason to deny him a ride. He was her daughter’s boyfriend, after all.
“I guess,” said Gloria, not trying to hide her reluctance. Not that it mattered. Micah always seemed immune to subtext of any kind.
“Cool,” said Micah. “Thanks, Gloria.”
He always called Gloria by her first name, which was exactly what she’d told him to do the first time she met him, but it irked her anyway.
In the car, Micah was not talkative.
“Do you have any pieces in the art show?” asked Gloria.
“Nah,” said Micah, looking at the palm of his left hand and popping his thumb in and out of joint. “Art isn’t really my thing.” He reached out and turned down the volume on the radio without asking.
Gloria bristled. This kind of presumption reminded her of her ex-husband. Not on the same scale, maybe, but definitely in the same spirit. Well, maybe not. Actually, she had to admit that Micah wasn’t really like her ex in any way. Gloria realized she was trying to justify her distaste for Micah by comparing him to her ex, which she was willing to acknowledge was not fair. Just because Micah was not right for her daughter did not mean he was a bad kid. And besides, she hadn’t been listening to the radio anyway. She hadn’t even noticed it until Micah turned it down. Braking for a traffic light, Gloria looked over at Micah and smiled. “So if art isn’t your thing, what is your thing?”
“I dunno,” said Micah. “Maybe art is my thing.”
This answer annoyed Gloria so much that every inclination to be friendly dissipated immediately and they rode in silence the rest of the way to the high school. Micah smelled like cigarette smoke. Gloria wondered if she could use Micah being a smoker, and an underage smoker at that, to get rid of him. She decided she probably couldn’t. She was pretty sure Paige had been smoking for a while now and she herself had started when she was fifteen and only quit when she turned forty-one a few months ago.
Gloria parked the car in the lot, entered the school through the front doors, and followed the colorful “Art Show This Way” signs through the halls with Micah following at her elbow. She had assumed that she and Micah would separate once they got to the art show, but it now occurred to her that since they were both here to see Paige and her senior display, Micah might just hang around her until she left, especially since either she or Paige would have to be his ride home. The signs led Gloria and Micah to the newest wing of the school where the Art Show had been set up along both sides of the wide, carpeted, gently-lit hallways. Small groups of students, their families, and interested members of the community meandered past large, interlocking panels covered with the misshapen self-portraits and Japanese anime characters wielding enormous swords drawn by the students of the lower level art classes. Gloria took her cell phone out of her purse and called Paige to tell her she had arrived but received no answer. She decided Paige must have turned her phone off to avoid disrupting peoples’ enjoyment of the art.
“Excuse me,” said Gloria to a girl with neon green scarf around her neck who was carrying her sneakers in her hand. Gloria took the girl for a student volunteer since she was wearing a nametag that said “Mandy” on it in imprecise, purple script. “Can you tell me where the senior displays are?”
“Down the hall and around the corner,” said Mandy, eyeing Micah.
“Thank you,” said Gloria.
“Are you here to see Paige?” asked Mandy.
“I’m her mother,” said Gloria. “How did you guess?”
“Not you. Micah, are you here to see Paige?”
“Yeah,” said Micah. Mandy looked as if she expected him to say more, but Gloria knew he was finished and she gave Mandy a sympathetic look.
“She said you weren’t going to be here,” said Mandy. “She’s not expecting you.”
“I found a ride,” said Micah, nodding his head at Gloria.
Mandy gave both Micah and Gloria one last uneasy look and hurried off.
“That was strange,” said Gloria.
“Everything seems strange to me,” said Micah. It was the most interesting thing Gloria had ever heard him say.
The senior displays had a hall to themselves. The twenty seniors who had participated each had their own space to display their best pieces from their four years of work in the Multioak art department. The seniors’ names, printed on pale blue paper and laminated, were stuck high on the walls over their respective displays. Gloria, with Micah following, walked down the hall without so much as glancing at the other displays, instead peering up at the names on both sides of her. She’d seen very little of Paige’s art over the years, especially recently. Paige didn’t like to let anyone see her work until she was finished, and once it was finished, she rarely brought it home. The pieces she did bring home she usually disparaged as far worse than the stuff she was really into, which was invariably the stuff she left at school.
“Oh,” said Micah, reaching out and grabbing Gloria by the elbow. “Right there.” He pointed to a display just ahead of them on the left. Paige was not near the display, which was where she was supposed to meet Gloria, but that was certainly her name stuck to the wall over the display Micah had pointed out. Gloria approached Paige’s display with great curiosity, eager to see the ways in which her daughter’s unique and lovely approach to life had manifested itself.
Gloria’s eyes were immediately drawn to the centerpiece of the entire display, a large oil painting on an easel set right in the middle of Paige’s allotted space. The painting, though perhaps not as polished as Gloria had expected considering the pompous tone Paige often adopted when talking about her work, was quite detailed. It depicted what was presumably a mother duck leading a single duckling across a road as a giant, smoking truck driven by a sinister black shape bore down on them. The mother duck looked unconcerned, but the duckling seemed to know they were doomed, although Gloria couldn’t quite make out what Paige had been shooting for with the duckling’s facial expression. The painting was entitled “Whatever, Mom.” The painting had received a yellow “honorable mention” ribbon, which was tacked to the top of the easel. Even through all of her hurt and embarrassment, Gloria still found it within herself to be indignant that the painting hadn’t done better than honorable mention.
“She’s really proud of this one,” said Micah. “Because she thinks it’s meaningful.”
Gloria had forgotten Micah was standing next to her and she composed her features, hoping she hadn’t looked too distraught over the painting. “I’m amazed,” she said, “at how well she rendered the texture of the road. And the ducks’ feathers.”
“I don’t think it’s that meaningful,” Micah continued. “I think it’s trite. Every teenage girl I know thinks her mother’s stupid.”
“Paige doesn’t think I’m stupid,” said Gloria. “It’s just art. It’s not even necessarily about me.”
“No, it’s about you,” said Micah. “The only reason she’s still dating me is because she knows you don’t want her to.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” said Gloria, not knowing if she should deny opposing Micah or not. He seemed to be speaking from a pretty informed position.
“It’s true,” said Micah. “Paige doesn’t even like me anymore, although she still pretends like she does, sometimes. Actually, I’m guessing she’s here with RJ Miskuss today, which is why Mandy acted all weird when she saw me. She probably ran off and told Paige I was here with you, so I’m guessing she and RJ are hiding somewhere. I doubt we’re going to see her. She’ll probably have a good excuse for why she didn’t meet you here, but I bet she’s staying out of sight with RJ until we leave. Or at least until I do.”
“If she’s really seeing this other guy behind your back, why don’t you break up with her?” asked Gloria.
“I think I’m sort of in love with her,” said Micah.
Gloria couldn’t look Micah in the eye, so she craned her neck and looked up and down the hall, hoping to see Paige coming towards them and smiling, eager to explain how “Whatever, Mom” was about someone else’s mom. Gloria even hoped that RJ Miskuss, whoever that was, wouldn’t be with her for Micah’s sake. But there was no sight of Paige. Gloria took her phone out of her purse and tried Paige’s phone again. No answer. Gloria gave “Whatever, Mom” one last look, but had to look away almost immediately. She didn’t want to think about what the black shape driving the truck might be.
“You said you found your camera, right?” asked Micah. “You want me to take your picture with Paige’s display?”
“Are you kidding?” asked Gloria.
“I can leave,” said Micah. “Someone’ll come pick me up. Maybe Paige’ll meet up with you once I’m gone.”
“Forget about it,” said Gloria. “I want to leave too. I liked Paige’s art better when it was a big secret.”
As Gloria pulled the car out of the school parking lot and onto the highway, she turned to Micah and said, “Can I get you something to eat? Something to drink?”
“Nah,” said Micah. “I’m fine. I know she’s going to break up with me once she feels like she’s ignored you long enough to prove she’s not doing it because of your influence.”
“That’s not why I’m offering,” said Gloria, lying. Micah was a lot more perceptive than she’d ever given him credit for.
“Will you get me some cigarettes?” asked Micah. “I’ll give you the money. I just need you to be the one to pay ‘cause I’m only seventeen.”
“I’m treating,” said Gloria. “I won’t take your money. What’s your brand?”
“I don’t care.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Gloria.
Gloria had just gotten back into the car and handed Micah the pack of cigarettes when a frantic knocking on the driver’s side window startled her. She turned and saw a middle-aged woman in a faded denim coat and sunglasses frowning in at her and she rolled down the window. “Yes? Can I help you?”
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” said the woman. “Buying cigarettes for your son. I saw the whole thing. You’re a terrible mother.”
“I know,” said Gloria. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me. Thank you for your concern.” She rolled the window back up as the woman gasped over and over with increasing outrage.
Back on the road, Micah was silent again.
“I know this is a strange time to say this,” said Gloria as Micah tapped the ash from his lit cigarette out of the cracked window, “but you really should quit smoking soon.”
Micah laughed. “Whatever, Mom.”
Despite an initial impulse to wince, Gloria laughed too, but as she dropped Micah off at his house, she hoped for everyone’s sake that she wouldn’t see him again.