After Fern exited the mall, she saw Tyler Michaels standing outside of Macy’s swinging a plastic bag from Video Emporium in an arc over his head. Fern had just bought a SpongeBob T-shirt, a birthday present for her friend Carly, and planned to wait outside the mall for her mother to pick her up. Fern and Tyler were both in seventh grade at the same school, but he was popular and she was not, and even though they’d been in several classes together, they’d never spoken directly to each other. If she went back inside the mall, she wouldn’t have to awkwardly stand near Tyler, who might or might not recognize her. But before Fern could go back inside, he called out to her.
“Hey! You go to my school. You have a plant name. Lily? Daisy? Dandelion?”
“That’s right,” said Tyler. “Are you getting a ride?”
“My mom’s picking me up.”
“My brother was supposed to get me, but he texted and said he entered a pizza eating contest and ate four large pepperoni and sausage pizzas. He needs time to digest before he can drive. Can I have a ride?”
Fern couldn’t figure out a way to turn Tyler down, so she said, “I guess,” but she dreaded the car ride. Her mother always managed to mortify Fern anytime they were in public, and the last thing Fern needed was for one of the cool kids at her school to know what an embarrassing weirdo her mother was. She knew her mother would be overly excited about Tyler, would say what a great kid he was, and then would say it would be nice if Fern could make some friends who were not Carly and Kaylee, whom she called The Sullen Twins because they answered her questions in what she claimed were “monosyllabic grunts.” But that was because Carly and Kaylee knew that if they engaged Fern’s mother in conversation she would talk for a million years.
In the car, Tyler sat up front and Fern’s mother talked to him about school and the soccer team and his trip to London over the summer, and the new video game he’d purchased at the mall. Fern stared at the back of Tyler’s head, looked at his spiky hair that was shiny with gel, and the back of his white soccer jersey, which read Ronaldo in black letters across the top. “Great! That’s great!” her mother kept saying. Fern wished her mother wouldn’t respond so enthusiastically to everything Tyler said; she spoke to him as if he were a puppy who’d finally figured out how to pee outdoors instead of on the living room carpet.
After Tyler got out of the car at his house, which was only three blocks from Fern’s house, Fern’s mother turned around and said, “What a nice young man!” Fern slumped in her seat; it was not worth responding. “We should invite him over for dinner one of these days.”
“No,” said Fern.
“It would be nice if you had friends besides The Sullen Twins,” said her mother.
But who was her mother to say anything about friends? She had none. Her only friend, maybe, was Fern’s father, but it wasn’t as if they even really liked each other. Mostly, they argued nowadays.
“No,” said Fern again. “Please don’t ever invite anyone over for dinner.”
The next day at school, Carly and Kaylee could not believe Tyler Michaels had been in Fern’s car. “Did you smell the seatbelt after he got out?” said Carly, as she upended her brown paper lunch sack and poured out a ham sandwich and two clementines.
“Eww, no, of course not,” said Fern. “Are you psycho?”
“He just smells so good all the time,” said Carly. “I would think he’d leave his good smell on the seatbelt.”
“He smells like a forest full of pine trees,” said Kaylee. Then she added, “Right before Christmas.” She pounded her straw into a box of apple juice.
“You’re both psycho,” said Fern.
“Hey!” said Tyler, who was suddenly standing next to the table where Fern was eating lunch with Carly and Kaylee. Fern hoped he hadn’t heard the conversation about how he smelled, although, now that he was standing close to her, Fern acknowledged he did have a bit of a Christmas tree scent and smelled much better than most of the boys in her grade, who either smelled like mildew or too much Axe Body Spray. Fern looked to Carly and Kaylee, who were staring at Tyler with their mouths open. She desperately hoped they would not say anything mortifying. This was an unprecedented occasion; Tyler always sat at a table on the other side of the cafeteria with the other cool kids.
Tyler held a phone out to Fern and said, “This is your mom, right?”
A YouTube video of her mother taking a cell phone out of a box, holding up a charger, and comparing the size of the phone to another phone that was much smaller played silently on Tyler’s phone.
“Oh my god,” said Kaylee, “that’s totally your mom.”
“Totally,” echoed Carly.
Fern took the phone from Tyler’s hand and stared at the video. It was, most certainly, her mother and she was in their home office, and the clock on the wall read 2:46, and Fern was certain it was 2:46 am because she got home from school around 2:46 pm, and her mother usually wasn’t home from her job at the dentist’s office by then. Fern glanced under the video and saw her mother’s username was RosemaryRocks, which was, of course, a completely embarrassing username. She wore a black t-shirt and her hair was pulled back in a slick ponytail and she wore large, thick-framed glasses that she almost never wore because when she first got them a few years ago, Fern’s father said they made her look like a bug. While he said this, he wiggled two fingers on top of his head, as if they were antennae. Tyler had certainly gotten a good look at Fern’s mother during the ride home from the mall, so how could Fern convince him that it wasn’t her mom in the video? Maybe she could lie and say it was her mom’s twin sister. Tyler probably didn’t know her mother’s first name was Rosemary. But before Fern could conjure a lie, Tyler said, “I found her because I was looking up unboxing videos of the PS4 Pro. I feel like I know someone famous.” He pointed to the number of views on the video: 210, 576.
“PS4?” said Carly.
“Play Station?” said Tyler.
“Oh, right,” said Carly, nodding vigorously, but Fern was certain Carly knew nothing about gaming.
Fern had never been allowed to get a gaming system because her mother said playing too many video games rotted your brain. It had been years since Fern had played the board games—Monopoly, Life, checkers—her mother had insisted they play as a family on Sunday evenings when Fern was little.
“Tell your mom her videos are cool,” said Tyler, and he took his phone from Fern, slipped it into his pocket, and headed back to the table where he usually ate lunch.
“I might die,” whispered Carly. “Tyler talked to us. Should I invite him to my birthday party?”
“He mostly talked to Fern,” said Kaylee. “He probably doesn’t know who you are.”
“So, wait,” said Carly, “is Fern’s mom actually cool if Tyler thinks her videos are cool?”
Fern was annoyed that Carly sounded so incredulous, but she had the same question: in what universe would her mother be considered cool?
After school, on her laptop in her room, Fern found the profile for RosemaryRocks on YouTube and saw her mother had uploaded seventy-three unboxing videos over the past four years. She unboxed phones and gaming systems and tablets and laptops. She opened boxes containing brand-new electronics and showed her viewers what each box contained. In every video, her mother wore the black t-shirt and big glasses, and she didn’t look like her everyday self. Did her mother return these items after she unboxed them? Were they hidden away in the house? Did she have a storage locker somewhere filled with unused electronics?
Fern thought of her parents’ fights about money, her father accusing her mother of running through the funds in their bank account. “What could you possibly be buying?” he yelled. “How are we going to pay for college if you spend everything?” Her mother argued that she bought everyday items and things added up, but she refused to show Fern’s father her receipts. “I make money, too,” she would always say. “I don’t have to explain anything to you.” Now Fern wondered if her mother spent all her money buying electronics just so she could record videos of herself unboxing them.
Fern clicked through the videos and watched a few seconds of each one. Her mother was confident and smiled in the videos. She wasn’t sad or hesitant, as she often was in real life, especially around Fern’s dad. Fern scrolled down to the comments on each video. There were the comments that occupied every comments section on the Internet, the rude and offensive trolls who had complaints about everything. But most of the comments talked about how helpful her mother’s videos were, how it was great to see everything that came with a product before purchasing it. In the comments sections of each video Fern’s mother had answered every question anyone asked her about the products. There were also, quite disturbingly, many commenters calling her mother beautiful and even some that called her hot. Fern scrolled through the comments section on an iPhone unboxing video and gave a thumbs down to every comment that referred to her mother’s appearance.
An instant message from Carly popped up on her screen: “Checking out ur mom’s videos. OMG, all these pervy nerdy men think ur mom is hot.” Fern slammed her laptop shut. She could hear her mother banging around in the kitchen cooking dinner. She walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Her mother’s hair was frizzy and loose, not pulled back in the low ponytail she wore in the videos. She was wearing orange Crocs, her gardening khakis, which had dirt on the knees, and a T-shirt with a chihuahua on it from a fundraiser the Humane Society held four years ago. She looked nothing like the composed woman in the videos.
“Do you need a snack? Dinner won’t be ready for about an hour. The pot roast is still in the oven.”
Fern shook her head and a second later nodded since she needed a reason to justify her appearance in the kitchen.
Her mother opened the refrigerator and took out a container of yogurt. “Strawberry?”
Fern nodded again and took the yogurt. She wanted to ask her mother so many things: Why did she make unboxing videos? Why did she keep these videos a secret? What other secrets did she have? But she asked nothing, ate the yogurt at the kitchen table, and watched her mother pour orzo into a pot of boiling water.
The side door opened, and Fern’s father stepped into the kitchen. When Fern was little, her father would always say, “Smells good!” when he got home from work, even on nights when Fern’s mother wasn’t cooking. It was their joke, and it always made Fern’s mother laugh. Now he never said anything smelled good, even when it did.
“I’m not going to be joining you for dinner tonight,” said Fern’s father. “I’m meeting some of the guys from work at Arnie’s for drinks.”
Arnie’s was the bar near Fern’s father’s office. Why would he bother coming home before going to the bar if he wasn’t even going to have dinner?
“I made pot roast,” said Fern’s mother. Pot roast was one of her father’s favorite dinners.
“I’m trying not to eat so much red meat.”
“You could eat some carrots and potatoes.”
“They’re drowned in beef fat if you cooked them with the pot roast. Look, I’ve got to go, but you two enjoy. I’m just going to go change out of this suit.”
Fern swirled her spoon around the bottom of the empty yogurt container, and it made an ugly scraping sound. She looked at her mother, whose jaw was tightly clenched. She was worried about her parents, but what could she say to her mother? She worried about all the nights her father didn’t eat dinner with them, she worried about the way he seemed distracted on the rare occasions when he sat at the table to eat with Fern and her mother, she worried about the guilty looks that would cross his face when his phone buzzed with texts. “Affair,” said Kaylee with certainty when Fern told her about her father’s suspicious behavior, and Kaylee’s confidence infuriated Fern, but of course she had been thinking the same thing herself. Nowadays, when her father wasn’t going out with some mysterious friends, he was spending hours at the gym lifting weights. He was getting more muscular, and he complained about his clothes not fitting, and he went out shopping alone for new clothes. Why was he going to the gym? Maybe it was just to get healthier, but maybe it was to impress someone. Someone else, not Fern’s mother. Or maybe her father was just over them, both her mother and Fern.
In a few minutes, Fern’s father came back down the stairs. “Don’t wait up for me,” he said to Fern and winked, and Fern wasn’t sure what the wink was supposed to mean, so she just stared at him and neither said anything nor winked back. Fern didn’t like his outfit. He wore a tight gray T-shirt and dark jeans and low-top Converse All-Stars, as if he were a boy in her grade and not a father. He’d wet his hair and had pushed it up so it stood in small spikes. His hairstyle reminded her of Tyler’s hair.
After he left, Fern said, “Mom?” but then she didn’t know how to say what she wanted to say when her mother turned around, her eyes tired and sad. Fern wanted to ask whether her mother thought her father was having an affair, and if she was mad about all the time he spent at the gym, and if it irritated her when he came home and drank a protein shake instead of eating the food she’d cooked. “I was just wondering if you needed any help?”
Her mother shook her head, then said, “Actually, you can set the table. That would be helpful.”
Fern stood and put her empty yogurt container in the garbage and her dirty spoon in the sink and took two plates down from the cabinet. She put her mother’s plate on one side of the square table then put her own plate next to her mother’s, in the seat where she usually sat. But it was silly to keep sitting next to her mother if her father wasn’t going to be joining them. She slid her plate to the seat across the table from her mother, her father’s spot.
“I’ll give you a shout when dinner’s ready,” her mother said, and Fern realized her mother expected her to leave and go hide in her room until it was time to eat because that’s what she always did. She thought about the way her mother and Tyler had spoken so easily in the car, and she wished she could speak to her mother this way too. But it wasn’t how they communicated; it was difficult to just start chatting with someone you usually tried to squirm out of conversations with.
“Okay, see you later,” said Fern, and she went upstairs.
When she opened her laptop, she saw an instant message from Kaylee that said, “lol these nerds really do luv fern’s mom. gross.” Fern closed all the messages on her computer and clicked play on a video of her mom unboxing an iPad. She watched as her mother held up each component, as she carefully pulled away the plastic covering from the screen, as she powered on the tablet. Fern looked at the shadowy wall of the home office and the clock that read 4:01. When did her mother sleep? Fern wondered whether her mom spent all day at the dentist’s office looking forward to this time of night when she could be alone—when both Fern and her father were asleep—and doing something anonymous people out in the world considered useful. She wondered whether her mother planned out the videos in her mind at work while scraping away plaque or showing people how to properly floss. She wondered if the people who came for their dental cleanings treated her mother as if she was annoying, the same way her father did. The same way Fern did. Fern clicked through more videos, turned the volume off, just watched her mother—the different, happier version of her mother—on the screen, opening box after box. Maybe her mother’s choice to make unboxing videos made sense. Maybe there was something to be said about things that were new and untarnished. Maybe opening these things that no one had touched yet, that no one had ruined, made her mom feel hopeful.
Fern scrolled down to the comments section on the unboxing video of the PS4 Pro. She wondered if Tyler had left any of the comments thanking her mother for this video. Fern was signed in with her username, pottedfern. She wanted to leave a comment. She knew her mom read every comment because she answered all the questions people posted, and she wondered whether her mom would see the username and know Fern had seen the video. She thought for a long time about what to say then typed, “Good video. Very informative,” but before she clicked the comment button to post, she added two more words: “Cool glasses.”