The lamp was on. Again. I was a block away, but the blinding beam illuminated the neighborhood, my shadow already materializing behind me. I roll my eyes, and hurtle home with my head down.
It was a peculiar lamp. Attached to the gate leading to the house, it had the appearance of one of those umbrellas stuck in tropical cocktails, minus the cheerful flowery patterns. I glance sideways at it. It glows a hideously white glare, publicly displaying my nocturnal habits, mocking me. I slap the switch off. The lamp dims, sinking into the 1 AM darkness disapprovingly.
Inside, I always hope to sneak upstairs into my room without anything else scrutinizing me, but that was never meant to be. There was always one more obstacle to battle before I could retreat to my safe haven; my mom. Tonight, she was holding the foot-long teddy bear toy clock I’d practiced with to learn how to tell time.
“I thought we were finished with this,” my mom commented with absolutely no emotion. Lesson number one when dealing with my mom; never respond when you have no idea what she’s talking about. True to my learnings, I waited silently for her to elaborate, which I knew she would. She flicked the lifeless hands of the clock aimlessly. No, lesson number two, is that she never did anything aimlessly. She had an aim, all right.
“Tell me the time.”
She held up the clock, the hands separating the teddy bear’s face vertically down the center. I try not to glance at the real clock on the wall.
My mom pointedly jiggles the hands, so that it now shows a time four hours later than the previous one.
Again, she ignores my answer, and holds up the clock for the third time. The teddy bear looks sorry that he has to witness this spectacle.
I answer, not expecting a reply.
Mom suddenly shrieks. I jump in surprise. She furiously fumbles at the hands, re-displaying the three sets of hands.
“This,” she fumes, as she shows the first time, “is dinnertime. And this,” another moment of abusing the bear, “is your curfew. And this,” she rearranges the hands for the final time, showing the current time; time for her to reach a crescendo. “This,” she’s seething now, “is a time so late I was wondering whether to call the cops, lead a search party, hyperventilate, or all of the above.”
Lesson number three; when she’s on a rampage, don’t stop her. She’ll get mad whatever I say, so best let the storm pass. As usual, she went on and on about “young people nowadays” and my “compulsive recklessness” was shortening her life expectancy. I, on the other hand went on auto pilot, nodding when she paused for a breath, otherwise trying to look like I was listening. This streak of overprotectiveness was nothing new. In fact, it was getting kind of old.
She always kept the lamp on, my mom. Always waiting for the lamp to dim so she knows I’m home. I was no rebel, but neither was I a helpless little girl in need of supervision. I loved having my freedom, but she would chastise me for every minute past curfew.
She always knew my answers to her probing questions. She was a human lie detector, with the inconvenient ability to predict my every falsehood and be 100% accurate. No matter how detailed a tale I conjured up, she would know that I hadn’t actually been to the movies, or the library. It drove me insane trying to figure out how exactly she knew. At one point in my paranoia, I concluded that the lamp was actually a robot, scanning my brain waves for any sign of guilt. Every time my mom polished the lamp, I would watch her from inside, convinced that she was checking the tapes. My imagination ran so wild that I kept entering the house from the back door. Eventually I reasoned with myself that it was idiotic, my mom would get herself a new wardrobe if she had the kind of money to spend on fancy sadistic technology. Besides, what good was it right in front of the house? I cautiously started using the front door again, but my girlish fantasy of my boyfriend kissing me on the doorstep, remained a fantasy.
She always denied invading my privacy. She was impossible to reason with, so I didn’t push. I’d simply have to find a way to break the rules within the rules under multiple watchful eyes. And so I did for a very long time, bracing myself for the glares, taking the unwelcome spotlight.
The night my shadow failed to appear a block from home, was not a night of relief as I’d always imagined. I actually did a U-turn, convinced that I’d accidentally turned the wrong corner. Maybe I’d had one tequila shot too many. But I hadn’t. It seemed eerily quiet in the pitch dark.
She never told me of her hospital visits. Maybe I was supposed to figure it out myself. But I hadn’t. One night the lamp was as condescendingly bright as ever, the next, it was enshrouded by a heavy black cloth. The windows were covered in black as well. I hated the funeral. All those people who would squeeze the light out of me and sob “She was such a good person” because they would never ever know. I hated wearing mourning clothes. The black screamed out “Look, I’ve lost someone, pity me!” People did pity me, but I didn’t need it. Or them.
The days passed in a haze. I didn’t feel like going out, even after my mourning period was over. I became a hermit, leaving the house only when it was absolutely necessary. I hated coming back to a dark empty house. And that’s when I realized…I hated coming back to a dark empty house. I tentatively pulled off the heavy cloth on the lamp, half expecting it to buzz to life, ready to scan my guilty brain like I had always believed it to. It didn’t. I took a breath, and flipped on the switch. Nothing happened. I flipped it off and on several times, but the lamp remained adamantly dark. I had someone come and look at it, but they told me nothing looked out of the ordinary. I stared at the lamp, the lamp that had seemed so sharp and probing, now lifeless. The lamp that had tortured me for so long, one day as condescendingly bright as ever, the next, it was broken.