“When you get older...do you want to be like your parents?”
Mike stops, pausing his fiddling with the car controls to properly look at El (hair half covering her face, almost glowing in the moonlight seeping in through the car window) to process the question. He's unsure of how to respond and has a clear-cut answer ready at the same time, because, really, how do you know what you really want when everything is so fucked up?
“Why do you ask?”
El exhales, shivering slightly at the chill that sweeps through the air, its a cold November night and Mike took her for a drive in his car, (“I can't sleep, and there's no other place I'd rather be at this time than with you.”) the heating is admittedly shitty but its a little more bearable with his leather jacket draped over her lithe shoulders. She considers his question,
“Because I want an answer.”
It doesn't take much time for Mike to respond, it's not an answer he even needed to think about, its something that he's been sure of, something he's told himself for years and reminded himself every time his mom fucked up by passing out on the couch surrounded by wine bottles or every time (countless times) his dad fucked up by making Holly cry at the dinner table, or by staying out late at night (always coming back with the claim that “Paperwork is a complete drag, my boss just keeps piling it onto me!” as if Karen didn't see through his bullshit excuse, as if they all didn’t), or by letting Mike hear him tell Karen how disappointed he was in their son.
El nods. She doesn’t question why he doesn't, she doesn't need to when she already knows. Already understands. That's one of the reasons why Mike is so in love with her, she always understood him and didn't need to receive words to give empathy. Mike thinks the world would be a better place if more people were like that.
He returns the question,
“Do you?” while lighting two cigarettes, one for him and one for her. They're not smokers, but this feels like a situation where it calls for one. She twists the cigarette between her index and middle finger, painted black nails gleaming, lowly chuckling before taking a long drag as she says,
“Who are my parents?”, a small exhale of smoke forming. She starts, as if she wants to continue, her mouth opening and her hands getting ready to gesture as if she’s about to say something overwhelming. Mike sits and patiently waits, knowing she needs time to think over her words.
“I mean...if you're talking about the asshole who raised me for 12 years...no.” she finally says, emphasising on the last word (and with good reason, Mike silently thinks, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to be like him).
She looks up, the shade of the car roof curtaining over her face, “I don't know what to say about my biological parents...Dad died before I was born....there's pictures and videos and Aunt Becky tells me he was great, that I'm just like him...but that doesn't help because I don’t actually know what he was like, so should I be proud of being just like him?”
She ponders silently before continuing, her tirade apparently not being over,
“And for Mama...I don't know. I mean... technically she ended up...you know, the way she is now (catatonic, lifeless, barely smiling, these are the words that are unspoken but are still known and hang in the air) , and I never want that for me, no-one would want to be lifeless but living at the same time... there's pictures and videos of her too. She seems so...lively in those, Aunt Becky says she was a free-spirited girl. But pictures and videos aren’t the same as real life, are they?”
"It's never the same." she says. She stubs the cigarette against her scrunched up ball and watches it bleed into the thin tissue, it reminds her of the cigarettes Papa used to smoke being stamped onto her, seeping into her skin as chastisement for being bad. She never wants to be like him, never wants to punish little children and push them beyond their limits, never wants to be as manipulative and controlling as him, wants to detach herself completely from him despite him being a part of her life, the only part of her life for 12 years. It's hard removing him though. He still haunts her mind, he's still right behind her in her worst nightmares, ready to take her back to the four walls that he calls home and she calls prison.
Mike senses her sudden uneasiness, and puts his hand on her knee. She immediately interlaces her fingers with his, as if its instinct engrained into her.
“I don't want to be like my parents either... especially my dad.” he sighs, taking a shaky breath,
“But...I can't help it, you know? Moms a control freak in a way...I think that stems from everything being out of control in her life...I'm like her too. I wish I wasn't.”
“And my Dad? Well...when kids are younger the person they want to be like most is their Dad or Mom....for me it was my Dad but, a lot can change. I don't know if Dad changed or I just got better at picking up on things with age...I think it was both.”
“Sometimes I get stressed from everything and snap at Holly and make her cry...Dad does that too.” he lowers his head a little with shame, but El delicately yet firmly lifts his chin up to face her,
“Mike. Look at me”
His eyes meet her own and she kisses his forehead, his eyes flutter and close as he sighs in content. She pulls back,
“You know what’s wrong and what’s right unlike him...you're so different and so much better than him.” she breathes, “you are not your father.”
“Promise?” Mike asks, his voice breaking slightly. Her eyes soften, she knows he needs this from her. The affirmation, the promise that he isn’t, there's no one he trusts more than her and she immediately knows the answer (the finishing) to his question,
His eyes light up a little, and El feels her shoulders loosen, the feeling of ease settling in her chest. She smiles.
Light rain starts pattering against the windows, tiny raindrops slowly slide down the fogged glass, it's still dark and late (stars barely visible, clouds parting and forming in masses for rain), but Mike and El will stay there in the calm of silence and quiet breathing until dawn.