The Big Fight
Daniel Wunsch, Professor of English Literature at the State University of New York in Albany, wanted to pick up his teenage daughter’s backpack and throw it through the window. It sat there on the floor in the middle of the family room, despite the fact that he had asked her to move it when she got home from school that afternoon. His daughter stood before him defiantly— not defying him about the backpack, which wasn’t even the topic of conversation. She was defying him about his most basic values, ignoring his completely legitimate concerns. How was a father supposed to parent such a child?
“The facts are the facts, Cordelia,” he said, looking up at his daughter from where he sat in his favorite chair. “You were seen at a coffee shop when you were supposed to be in school. Why shouldn’t I be upset about that?”
“Dad,” said his daughter. That was all she said. She stood there with a look of exasperation on her face.
His wife sat on the couch across from him, looking at him with pleading eyes, as if the whole problem were his fault. He just glared at the backpack. For a moment, he could see himself picking it up and hurling it at the window. Since it was full of her school books, it would have significant mass. Mass times velocity equals momentum. It would have terrific momentum. He could almost hear the glass shatter.
For a moment, he thought that Cordelia had tears in her eyes, but then she blinked hard and there were none. He started to feel bad for her, but then he just felt annoyed again. Why should she be so upset, anyway? He was the one who should be upset.
“How do you plan to succeed in life if you can’t even meet the minimum expectations and attend class?” he asked.
His daughter took a big sigh—an unnecessarily dramatic sigh, in his opinion—and rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
“Dan, please,” said his wife, Abby. “She’s just being a kid. She made a mistake. That’s all.”
He looked at Abby and held his empty palms upward to sig- nify the futility of his situation. He hoped that Abby would read his nonverbal message: What do you want from me? She’s the culprit. Why don’t you ask her to fix this mess? But Abby wasn’t getting it at all. She made another comment or two to defend Cordelia, while Dan sat in his chair trying to maintain his equanimity.
“Dad, listen,” said Cordelia. She seemed to be relaxing her at- titude in response to her mother’s support. “You have a point, of course. I should have been in class. No doubt about it. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to worry you. But it’s no big deal to cut one boring French class, and I’m going to do fine in life. Really, you need to stop worrying. I’ll be fine.”
“It’s not fine,” he said in quick reply. “And I’m certainly going to worry when I see my daughter starting down a bad path in life. This can only lead to disaster. You cut classes, you do very little homework these days, and you run around at too many parties.
Drinking parties.” He emphasized the word drinking, just to make sure she got his point.
Cordelia shifted her stance. He thought she might storm out of the room, as she had done in past arguments, but she stood where she was. She pursed her lips, let out a big breath, and then spoke in a very restrained tone.
“Dad, listen. It’s not the Prohibition era. It’s 1997. Kids drink at parties. And as far as school goes, I cut one class. Okay, maybe two classes. But I’m in the second semester of my senior year, right? I’ve got very good grades, and I’ve already been accepted to a terrific college. So, what’s the problem?”
What’s the problem? he thought. His daughter couldn’t see the problem. His wife couldn’t see the problem. No one saw it except for him, and he was getting tired of trying to explain it to everyone.
“What’s the problem? he repeated. “What’s the problem? The problem is that you’re about to throw everything away by your ridiculous behavior now. Everything you’ve worked for in high school could be destroyed by one reckless decision at one of these parties you go to. Do you want to be a girl who accom- plishes something in this life? Or do you want to be a loser?”
She turned her head abruptly to her right, as if she just couldn’t stand the sight of him anymore. She tapped a foot rap- idly on the floor, gazing out the window. When she spoke again, her voice was unexpectedly loud and strident.
“You know what, Dad? I’m sick and tired of listening to you criticize me all the time! To be honest with you, I’m sick and tired of coming home at all!”
Dan gripped the arms of his big wingback chair. He looked at Cordelia’s backpack sitting in the middle of the family room. Was it packed with books? Or was it stuffed with clothing? Was she planning to leave home? He felt himself rising up from his chair to a standing position.
“Well, fine!” he said. “Then maybe you should look for some- place else to live!” He had an urge to walk over to the backpack and give it a good kick. For a moment, he thought he was actually going to do it, but she grabbed it before he could make his move. She stood there staring at him for a moment. The look on her face was a look of shock, total disbelief. Then she turned and ran up the stairs.
“Cordelia, wait!” called Abby.
He heard his daughter in her bedroom as she walked back and forth overhead, loudly opening drawers and slamming them shut. He sat back down in his chair, suddenly feeling self-con- scious. His daughter must be thinking that he was behaving like a monster. His wife Abby probably agreed. Worse, he truly felt like a monster. In the moment of rising from his chair, he felt like someone capable of doing terrible things in a blind rage. Was he really going to kick his daughter’s backpack? And why did he say such mean things to her?
A few minutes later, Cordelia came back down the stairs. Her backpack was bulging now, obviously loaded with extra supplies. She walked straight out the front door. She didn’t say good-bye; she didn’t even look back. She slammed the screen door as she walked out. Abby, still sitting on the couch, started to cry. Dan sat in his wingback chair, wishing that he could just disappear.