Pottstown was sleepy and its inhabitants were mostly blue-collars living in decaying row homes. Nevertheless, tucked within the plethora of abandoned mills, furnaces and foundries of the town was a place called The Hill. It seemed unfair that a campus so sprawling green and luxurious would be nestled away and its education practically unattainable for most of the residents living there. The Hill didn’t have to rely on Pottstown, though. It was a healthy distance from Philadelphia but still with impressive access, and the school was a part of TSAO. All you really had to know from that lazy acronym was that the likes of Phillips Exeter, Lawrenceville and St. Paul’s were also involved in the organization.
The Hill School was every parent’s dream, but to Marina it looked like hell.
She had visited only one time with her mother before she made up her mind about it all. She didn’t want to go, didn’t want to be forced into that world, but it seemed like any sort of debate on the matter was off the floor. Today Marina had to sort her things and pack her belongings. In a matter of two weeks, she would be trading Queen Village for Pottstown. No more Hungry Pigeon or Jim Steak’s for the weekend. Apparently, it was of utmost importance that Marina find her independence as a boarder at the Hill. She would have loved, truly loved to hear the twists and tangles her mother weaved in order to convince her father this was a good idea.
Turning 14 years old and living exactly forty miles away must have been what it would take to magically get better, or that was what her mother was banking on. Forty miles and a fifty-six thousand dollars tuition would spurn Marina out of crippling self-doubt and social anxiety. She couldn’t be sure that even distance between them would be the right remedy for their complicated relationship, but there was no use in putting energy in fighting it anymore.
Today was for packing and sorting, and most of Marina’s time was spent rummaging through old photo albums filled with pictures from her childhood. She had come across one picture in particular that she had never seen before. It was her dad holding her in what looked like his old apartment in Boston. His hair was full and dark brown and while his smile was evident, his bright eyes showed a certain unease with the young Marina in his arms. She couldn’t have been much older than three, and when she flipped the polaroid, she saw a date messily written out in marker.
August 9, 1999.
Perhaps, this was a picture of their first meeting.
It would explain the tears in her eyes and flushed cherry red cheeks. For how awkward father and daughter looked, it made Marina feel lighter knowing that at the end of it all, they managed to become close against all odds. She’d take this picture with her as a constant reminder of who she wanted to be and where she wanted to go. If she got her act together, she could go to an Ivy like Harvard or her father’s alma mater MIT in Boston, but first she had to graduate from The Hill School.
Marina was never particularly good at putting things away. She had already forgotten where she pulled the photo album from and so she resolved for a shelf behind her mother’s desk. On her tip toes, Marina struggled to push the album away but it fell to the floor—photos now strewn across the carpet from a dusty manilla folder. It had to have been tucked within the photo album and she missed it, but the photos that she was picking up were not of herself, her father or her mother.
Instead, she would see pictures of a boy with brown hair and bright eyes dating from his birth all the way to his fifth birthday. Just as Marina’s photos were documented, so was his. On the back of each polaroid was a date and his name.
He seemed so familiar to her and not at all.
“Who is Patrick, mom?”
She had blurted it out like word vomit because it had been on her mind for five days.
Five days is 120 hours. Five days is 7,200 minutes. Five days is 432,000 seconds. She had spent too long thinking about that boy in those polaroids, a boy who had the same nose and eyes as her, and Marina gave special thought to all the scenarios behind it. Perhaps, her mother wasn’t so isolated as she had thought. Perhaps, she indeed did have family. It wouldn’t surprise Marina if her mom was estranged from her family. The most she ever got from her on that matter was that she never had siblings and her father died young and wasn’t on speaking terms with her mother. It all could very well be true, but it didn’t explain the careful documentation of this boy’s first birthday, Christmas and day at school.
“What are you on about now, Mars?”
Mom always had an innate ability to trivialize everything that Marina was concerned about, and that power she had only seemed to rise tenfold with a glass of Merlot in her hands.
Marina’s cheeks flushed red and in a moment of annoyance, she stabbed her chicken marsala with her dinner knife, prompting the table to shake and for her mother to snap out of her indifference.
“My god, Marina, could you be any more dramatic? Can’t we have a nice dinner, you and I, for once?”
Marina had to scoff at that. She was the one who cooked or got take out and would work on her homework while eating dinner in her bedroom. Dinner in the actual dining room rarely happened unless her mother was trying to host a party and put up a pretty front. Now she wanted to play doting mother as the clock began ticking closer towards Marina's departure to boarding school.
“I was in your study. I wanted to make copies of pictures to take for my dorm and in an old folder I found all of these pictures of a boy. Just like you marked my pictures, you did the same with his. I know your handwriting and his name is Patrick. Who is he? Is he family? Why don’t you ever speak about them?”
Their dynamic was like routine at this point. Marina would point something out that her mom didn’t like, and she always found her way out of it, but if she was going to go, she was going to get answers about this.
“Do I have cousins? Wai-wait, do I have a brother I don’t even know about? That’d be rich. Let me guess, I have a younger brother but you gave him up because he’s not worth a million dollars-“
“Don’t insult me,” she snapped, “Patrick is an old friend’s son who I like to keep tabs on. Why must you insist creating issues when there doesn’t have to be? There’s no cousins or long lost brothers. Unfortunately, all you’ve got is me and your work obsessed father. Get over it.”
Marina shook her head in defiance, leaving the table to go back to her mother’s study but the shelf she had put the album and folder in was completely empty.
TW: Mentions anxiety, depression
“Do you know why you’re here today, Marina?”
She hated that stupid fucking question. It was a signal from Dr. Hoffman that the daydreaming needed to stop and the talking needed to begin. For the longest time, Marina would just sit and stare at the copious amount of books on his shelves about childhood psychology to pass the time. There was Teach Your Child How to Think, The Price of Privilege, Last Child in the Woods, and her personal favorite, The Drama of a Gifted Child. Sometimes she wondered what book Dr. Hoffman applied when he dealt with the likes of her. She would bet her (allowance) money that it was The Price of Privilege.
“My mom suggested it. She said I was disruptive at dinner last week and claims I’m visualizing things that are not there.”
Her voice was monotone and calm. She had learned the hard way that ignoring Hoffman would just exacerbate the situation. A moody girl in counseling was one thing, but when you didn’t talk? Well, you were just wasting everyone’s time, and her mother would knowingly just schedule another appointment the following week. The best thing to do was to just play the game and hope it would be enough.
“You have been taking your medicine, correct?” Hoffman looked at her steadily through his black thick-rimmed glasses.
It took years for the doctors to find medicine that helped with the anxiety and depression. At first, Hoffman had tried Cymbalta which made her feel like a dry-heaving cat and then it was a Lexapro.
“Why would I stop taking my medicine and give my mom a reason to send me back here?”
“Touché, Marina, touché. So let’s talk about last week, what happened, then?”
Marina paused. She remembered the pictures, her mom’s handwriting and the name Patrick. It stuck to her in a way that the face looked so familiar, and yet she knew nothing about the boy. Her mom had trivialized the photos like she did everything, and she did it well. There was something she was hiding, but Marina didn’t even know what she was trying to prove. The frustration grew in the pits of her chest, and her right leg began bouncing in irritation.
“Marina, you know you can talk to me, right? Nothing you say leaves this room.”
“I know, I just-" Marina’s hand rubbed her knee, trying to ease her nerves and stop her leg from shaking.
“I know what I saw, and sometimes, sometimes I feel like my mother purposely messes with me for the fun of it. I saw pictures of a boy in her study, following all of the big moments you would document for a child you love, and I don’t get it. I don’t know who he is or what he is to mom, all I know is his name is Patrick. The next day I go back to find the pictures and they’re gone. My mom claims he's a friend’s son, but if that's true, why did she hide the pictures? I don’t believe her so now I’m here as punishment.”
The word vomit was happening again and Hoffman loved every bit of it when Marina spilled her guts to him. He took meticulous notes as usual on her, and eventually his attention returned.
“There are worse places to be for punishment, don’t you think? Your mother didn’t like how you reacted at dinner, which is why you’re here. You’re frustrated and angry and feel as if your mother cannot be honest with you, and I understand that feeling. It’s valid.”
Valid, Marina thought in disbelief.
“I know my feelings are true, just like the pictures. She’s hiding something from me and using this as a smokescreen.”
“That very well may be true, Marina. Clearly, it’s topic that your mother doesn’t wish to talk about with you yet, but you have to give her the benefit of the doubt. Give her some rope, yes? If you work hard to make someone the villain, eventually they’ll just give up and play their part. She hid the pictures from you, okay, but that doesn’t mean you should jump to conclusions about her hiding family from you like a secret cousin or brother. Don’t you see how upsetting such an accusation could be?”
In that moment, Marina sulked in her chair in defeat. How brilliant he must feel in moments like these where he could talk his patients in circles and cash a lovely check by the end of it. Eventually, she would nod in submission, play along as she usually did.
Still, Hoffman had to know that his sound logic of what was normal never applied to her mother Wynne Marks. She was a different kind of woman entirely, and Marina would never truly trust her.
“Is that everything? Did you get your books, too?” Marina’s mom took out Purell and began furiously rubbing her fingers after shutting the trunk door.
“Mhm,” Marina said quietly as she began to get in the passenger seat. She was in no way shape or form looking forward to her first day at The Hill, but she had field hockey tryouts to look forward to. At the very least, she’d have a set group of girls to sit with for lunch during the first week of school until the official varsity roster was posted.
Walking towards Marina, her mom held the passenger door open and scrunched her face in concern.
“We should probably talk.”
“You never told me how your counseling went.”
This was it. Mom was searching for validation again. Usually after a blow up or disagreement of some kind, she would approach the subject days later wanting to put a band-aid on the situation. The thing about that was that band-aids were a temporary fix, and Marina always had some leftover scar from the two of them butting heads.
“It was productive, I guess. I know what I saw, but I also have to accept your explanation behind it. While I do think that it’s suspect you would hide pictures after only claiming it’s your friend’s son, I just have to accept it and move on. You'll talk to me about it when you're ready. Besides, I’ve got bigger things to worry about, like if I’ll be early enough to claim the top bunk.”
For the first time all day, the corner of her mother’s lips curled into a rare smile and despite her vanity, she bent down so that she could look Marina right in the eyes.
“I’ve messed up a lot in my life, Mars. I’ve had friends and loves and managed to screw most of them up. I know, I know you’re fourteen, and I’m still trying to figure this mother thing out, but I promise you Patrick is not family in the way you suspect. I have an old friend from Boston, one of the very few friends I had out there, and we keep in contact and brag about our kids. I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”
There were still things that didn’t add up in Marina’s mind. It didn’t explain her handwriting on the polaroids or the dates matching up to Marina and Patrick being so close in age, but she was too tired to keep on fighting. For once, maybe Hoffman was right. If she stopped treating her mother like such a villain, maybe the lies and the forced distance between them would end. The only thing she could do was hope for now.
“Don’t ruin your Calvin Klein, we have an impression to make and you have to establish yourself as the cool mom, remember?” Marina’s reassuring smile was enough to urge her mom to rise and a small chuckle escaped her lips as she moved towards the driver’s side. “Just wait until they do the math on my age. I love that quizzical look they make when they find out I’m not even 40 yet."