I knew I was in over my head when Punzie's mother called my cell phone at three in the morning because Punzie wasn't picking up.
This was not in the job description. Nor was it covered in the training. I calmly (!) told her that it was inappropriate for her to call me, that I had seen Punzie earlier in the day and I was sure she was fine and no, I was not going to bang on her door at three in the goddamn morning and tell her to call her mother.
"If she is dying right now," her mother said, "I hope you can live with yourself, Mulan!"
I lay in the dark for a while after hanging up, thinking of all the things I could have said to Punzie's crazy helicopter mother-from-hell and finally got up and went for a run. Everything about this year was harder than I'd expected.
I'm a little older than most of the students at St. Genevieve's Women's College of Arts and Sciences, because when I turned eighteen I enlisted in the Army. When I got out, I had some GI Bill money but not enough to completely pay my way, so I applied for a job as an RA in the St. Gen's dorms. Resident Assistants are supposed to be a little more mature and responsible; we're supposed to hold students' hands when they're feeling a lot of extra stress, help them get help if they need it (whether it's a medical emergency or academic stress), and make sure no one's violating fire codes by installing a toaster oven in their dorm room. You know, the usual.
I had a week of extra orientation and training and I learned all about alcohol poisoning, acquaintance rape, fire codes, and where students could get free condoms. (It's a women's college, but it's not as if there aren't men AROUND.) You know the first thing they didn't adequately cover? Narcolepsy.
"Aurora falls asleep all the time," Snow told me.
"A lot of students fall asleep in classes," I said, reassuringly. "I know someone who says she slept through every single session of Biology for the Humanist and still passed with a B-minus."
"Aurora doesn't just fall asleep in her classes," Snow said. "She falls asleep in the middle of conversations during lunch. Yesterday, her nose hit her hamburger."
"Okay," I said. "I'll admit that's a little weird."
"Ariel jumped out at her and said 'boo' the other day," Snow added, "And she fell over in a dead faint."
So, I tracked Aurora down and expressed concern in a non-judgmental way, just like they'd trained us to do, and she burst into tears and said she was pretty sure it was a curse and this related in some complicated way to her baptism party, or maybe it was her Sweet Sixteen party? (So much for a non-judgmental attitude solving everything!) She'd actually been doing this for years. Well, a few years. She knew it wasn't epilepsy and she desperately didn't want to see a doctor because the tests to see if you have epilepsy involve 80 million wires getting glued to your scalp ("and I do not have time to deal with glue in my hair. I have a paper due.")
Did you know that on average it can take fifteen years before people with narcolepsy get properly diagnosed and treated? Fortunately, Belle has a Doctorate in the University of Googling Everything and after Aurora fell asleep in the middle of a conversation about last week's Dr. Who, she said, "You know what I bet you have? I bet you have NARCOLEPSY." And she talked Aurora into the health clinic and you know what? They have drugs for this. (And they really work pretty well.) Aurora still faints if you jump out at her (it's called cataplexy, and it can also happen if she gets upset or if you tell her a really funny joke) but now she can stay awake through most of her classes, through conversations with Belle, and through lunch.
Belle tried to diagnose Tiana with narcolepsy next, but Tiana didn't have anything really wrong with her, she was just tired because she was working 40 hours a week and going to college full time and she was double-majoring in Business Administration and French. I kind of thought someone ought to tell Tiana to slow down, but honestly, I was a little intimidated by how incredibly capable she was. (There are people who apparently feel that way about me, which cracks me up. They should have seen me in Basic. OH HAI, I AM AN ARMY OF ONE. WATCH ME TRIP OVER MY OWN FEET WHILE MARCHING AND BE TOTALLY UNABLE TO DO PUSH-UPS.)
"Tiana is totally the daughter my Dad should have had," Ariel said, wistfully, one afternoon.
"Why?" I asked. "Because she bakes?" I should have said, Tiana works at a bakery. And they let her take the slightly burned stuff home with her, and she brings it back to the dorm and leaves it in the lounge. So in addition to being ridiculously capable, she is also the most awesome person ever to have on your dorm floor. We were eating a batch of slightly-too-brown maple walnut cookies while having this conversation.
"My Dad really wants me to major in Business," Ariel said. "Or Marine Biology. He says that's plenty of choices and I have to pick one or the other."
"I thought you were taking those Biology classes because you liked them," I said.
"Well, I am. I mean, I do. But what I really want to major in is Anthropology."
"Could you do a double major?"
Ariel sighed. "It was hard enough convincing him to let me go to college at all. He wanted me to stay home and sing in the church choir."
Merida looked up at that. "Tell me about it. My mother's the same way."
Snow looked kind of cynical and said something I couldn't quite hear around the mouthful of cookie. "What was that?" I asked.
"Sorry." She inhaled some cookie and had to go get a drink from the water fountain. "Actually, never mind."
The first time Snow mentioned that her stepmother had poisoned her, I thought she was joking. Or at least exaggerating. I mean, unless you've mentioned having family serving twenty-years-to-life or something, if you say that your stepmother tried to kill you, it's probably more a metaphor, like when I said, "My Dad is going to kill me" after I signed the last of the enlistment papers. (I didn't mean he was going to kill me, I meant that he was going to be really mad. Which he was, although he eventually got over it, and isn't that how parents are?)
But no. And that was the second thing my training really had not prepared me for: Munchausen's Syndrome By Proxy.
You've probably never heard of this, even if you've heard of Narcolepsy. (Snow had. She was the one who used the term and Belle looked it up and explained it to the rest of us.) Munchausen's Syndrome is also called Factitious Disorder, and it's when people make themselves sick on purpose. For attention, maybe, they don't entirely understand why people do it. It's not hypochondria: if you have hypochondria, you overreact to ordinary symptoms, like every headache is probably brain cancer and you might make yourself sick worrying about stuff. With Munchausen's, you might actually eat something on purpose to make yourself sick. With Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, you make your child sick.
"She was probably doing it my whole childhood," Snow said, matter-of-factly. "Because, I was always sick. Pale as death, most of the time, and I had no energy, probably due to anemia -- I ought to try to figure out what was causing it. Then when I was sixteen she fed me a massive overdose of sleeping pills, and told the hospital I'd been talking about killing myself."
"Did they believe her?"
"Of course they believed her," Snow said, bitterly. "You try telling a psychiatrist that your stepmother probably poisoned you and that's how all those sleeping pills got into your system. They were hers, of course, but she said I'd stolen them out of the medicine cabinet. Anyway, I survived, at least, but that was it, I refused to go home. I spent the next year living in a group home, and now I'm here."
"Did she at least get in trouble?" I asked.
"Nope. She's still living with my father. Needless to say, when I visit, I don't eat anything."
"I can't believe you visit!" Belle said.
"Well, my father's still my father, you know?"
Cindy nodded sympathetically. "I know how it is. Though at least my stepmother never tried to kill me, Snow! That's horrible. Do you have any siblings?"
"No. No step-siblings, either, so at least there isn't anyone at home for her to hurt. Other than my father -- but, you know what? He made his bed. I'm done worrying about him."
If you want to know the honest truth, I didn't entirely believe Snow. Her father was paying for her college, after all, and it sounded like she did go home on vacations and honestly the whole story was just so weird, even though Belle confirmed that Munchausen's By Proxy was a real thing.
But a week later, Snow got a cake. Through the mail. And Aurora got all excited, and suggested that Snow pass it off to one of the Chemistry students to take into the lab for analysis. So Snow gave it to Belle who took it off to the Chemistry lab and ran some tests. It wasn't full of arsenic or anything like that, but it did have a whole lot of magnesium hydroxide in it -- laxatives. Enough to make anyone who ate it really damn sick.
"Are you going to call the police?" Belle asked.
Snow didn't want to, because she didn't think they'd believe her, and she didn't think it would do any good. But Cindy talked her into it, and I wound up spending the afternoon holding Snow's hand while she told the police the story about the sleeping pills. They carried the remains of the cake off for further testing in their own lab, along with the package it had come in, and I hoped that maybe this would get her horrible stepmother into trouble? Because OMGWTF, you know?
It turned out that the reason Snow listened to Cindy when she wouldn't listen to anyone else is that Cindy also had a horrible stepmother, and had told Snow about it one evening when I was at the library. Cindy's mother wasn't homicidal like Snow's -- she was awful in a much more ordinary way, making her do all the household chores and encouraging her stepsisters to be awful to her.
"At least my father pays for college," Snow noted, when she told me the story about Cindy. "Cindy's father basically opted out of doing anything at all for her -- they cover her stepsisters' tuition but not Cindy's. Fortunately, she has an old family friend who thinks this is absolutely awful and has been paying for everything -- she sends care packages, too. Letters, clothes, basically it all comes from the family friend."
"Godmother," Aurora corrected.
"Whatever," Snow said.
"Oh god," Belle said one morning as she opened her mail.
"What?" I said. "Is everything okay?" Belle was one of the students on my floor who came from a happy home -- no Mom (I guess she'd died?) but she had a wonderful, affectionate relationship with her father. I sneaked a look at the envelope. Not her Dad's writing.
"There was this guy at my high school," Belle said. "Captain of the football team. I don't know why he was interested in me. He could have had any of the other girls, they were all swooning over him. My tastes don't run to boorish, belching, jerks who have basically marinated themselves in rape culture on purpose. But he decided he wanted me and basically stalked me for the rest of high school. It's part of why I decided to come here -- it's really far away! Gaston was going to the local party school. But." She tossed the letter onto the table. "Apparently he's decided he wants to do a road trip. He'll be here next week."
"Oh, ugh," I said. "Do you need a restraining order?"
"I don't think I could get one," Belle said. "He's never explicitly threatened me. He's just not so good with the word 'no,' which frankly is really scary."
"When's he showing up?" Merida asked, leaning forward with a dangerous look in her eyes. "Don't worry, Belle. We'll walk you to all your classes."
I nodded. "And the dining hall. Anywhere you need to go."
"You'll never be alone," Jasmine said.
So. Yes. Stalkers. That was the third thing my training didn't prepare me for. Belle seemed like the last person who'd attract a stalker, but as Belle sternly informed me when we were talking about this the next day (as I walked her across campus to her job at the library), that right there was rape culture talking, the idea that girls who got stalked (or abused or harassed or raped) had probably done something to bring it on. "It's also reassuring to you," she said, "because if you can believe that I must have done something to cause Gaston to stalk me, then you don't ever have to worry about this happening to you, right?"
That made sense. Actually, it made a lot of sense. In any case, I knew Belle pretty well, and no one who knew Belle could seriously think that she would have been anything other than direct with this guy.
He did turn up. He was huge, boorish, obnoxious, and loutish, and I was really glad that Merida and I were both there. "She doesn't want to see you," Merida informed him. "She doesn't want to talk to you. She is not interested in you."
He calmly accepted this and left politely. Oh, wait, no. I'm sorry. He suggested that the only reason Belle didn't want to sleep with him was that she was a lesbian or possibly into sexual relations with woodland animals. Also, he suggested that a foursome that was him, Belle, Merida and me would be something he'd be into.
Merida has a black belt in something or other (maybe it's just a black belt in fighting with her brothers?) and she left him whimpering on the path and after that, I think he left, although I called Campus Security and gave them the photo Belle had of him, just in case.
Sometimes I kind of felt like Merida was my co-RA. She seemed to understand the people with crazy parents a lot better than I did.
I mean, it's not that my parents didn't drive me crazy sometimes. They wanted me to be a lot girlier than I was. (My senior year, my mother and grandmother took me out to the mall to try on dresses for my senior prom. What can I even say to sum up that disastrous trip? (1) If you squeeze a girl into a too-small flimsy dress, don't blame HER if a seam bursts when she's trying to get it off again. (2) No one TOLD me to wash my hands before we got started. (3) I went to visit the Army Recruiter the next day. That probably covers it.)
Still, once they got over the shock of my enlistment, they were supportive. They wrote me letters and sent me care packages. My mother hung up a service flag. And when I came back after Basic Training, worried that we were going to have to rehash everything again, my father told me he was proud of me, and he gave me a good luck charm -- a gold dragon medallion on a chain I could wear under my uniform. It had belonged, he said, to his father. I'm wearing it right now, actually. I basically don't ever take it off.
I'd spent years trying not to fight with my parents, though; we had that big blow-up and then I graduated and headed to boot camp. Merida, on the other hand…it sounded like she'd basically spent all four years of high school having fights with her mother, right up until the summer before her senior year when her mother got horribly ill and they thought they were going to die. And they made up. And then started fighting again pretty much as soon as she was healthy.
"You have to learn to set boundaries," she said to Punzie. "You are allowed to shut off your phone sometimes. Like when you're sleeping. Or if you answer you're allowed to say, 'I'm sorry, I really don't have time right now to talk.' You're allowed to tell her something's none of her business."
"I'd feel so guilty," Punzie said. "It would be almost like lying."
I should note here that the thing that would be almost like lying? Going to a party on a Saturday night. Instead of studying.
"You are doing perfectly fine in your classes," Merida said. "Your mother needs to get a grip! But she's not going to get a grip if you keep enabling her."
"I don't know," Punzie said. "She's my mother. She's done everything for me."
"Let's start with some baby steps," Merida said. "Start turning off your phone when you go to bed. Can we all agree that you deserve a good night's sleep?" There were vigorous nods all around.
"But she won't know I'm okay," Punzie said, looking distressed. "What if she's worried, what if --"
"You deserve a good night's sleep," Merida said. "And so do I." (Merida was Punzie's roommate. So those middle-of-the-night phone calls were waking her up, too.)
"I could set it on vibrate under my --"
"Turn it off."
And that was the night that my phone rang at 3 a.m. I don't turn my phone off, because if someone from my floor has a 3 a.m. emergency, they honestly need to be able to get hold of me. Usually if my phone rings in the middle of the night, someone butt-dialed me or had some other stupid mishap, and that's all it is. Still, being woken from a dead sleep by the ring always makes me sit up with my heart pounding, worried that someone's got alcohol poisoning or is having one of the other crises we got trained on.
"Hello?" I said.
"Hello," said the voice of an older woman. "Is this Mulan?"
"Yes," I said. "Who is this?"
"This is Gothel," the voice said. "Rapunzel's mother?"
"Oh," I said, taking a deep breath and trying to calm myself down. "This really isn't a good time to talk. You see, I was sleeping."
"Rapunzel is not answering her phone," Gothel said. Accusingly.
"Well," I said, "It is three in the morning. I imagine she's sleeping."
"I always call to check in during the night," Gothel said. "Rapunzel knows to expect this. And she is not answering her phone. I need you to go wake her up, immediately, and have her call me."
"No," I said.
"No," I said again. "I saw her this evening, and she was fine. You need to call at a more reasonable hour."
"If she is dying right now," Gothel said, furiously, "I hope you can live with yourself, Mulan!"
"I'm sure I'll be fine," I said, and hung up.
And couldn't go back to sleep, and eventually went running.
I was pretty much expecting that Punzie would call home that day and probably get yelled at and guilt-tripped until her mother was blue in the face and then she'd go right back to the 3 a.m. phone call routine, but instead, when I saw her later that day, she was flushed and elated and admitted, in a whisper, that she had left her phone off. In fact, she had left it in her dorm room. In a drawer. A drawer.
"Good for you!" I said, and high-fived her. "Your mother needs to get used to the idea that you are at college now. I talk to my parents once a week, and that is plenty."
Of course, my phone rang again that night at 3 a.m, and Gothel screamed at me that she was going to sue me for alienation of affection -- is that even a thing? I asked Belle the next day and she said that she was pretty sure that's what you called it when someone seduced your fiancé. "She probably means Parental Alienation Syndrome," Belle said, "But that's a completely different thing, anyway, that's when one parent gets you to hate the other parent, which isn't what's going on here at all."
By the third day, Punzie was too terrified of how that conversation was going to go to consider turning her phone back on. In fact, she was thinking that maybe she'd just leave that phone off forever and get herself a new phone with a new number and never give that number to Gothel. On one hand, it was good to see her standing up for herself. On the other, it might have been good if she'd done it directly instead of passive-aggressively. But given Gothel, I couldn't really say I blamed her.
Gothel kept calling me at 3 a.m. so I finally caved and shut my phone off at night. I got a really cheap pay-as-you-go phone and gave that number just to the people on my floor and kept that one on at night, instead. Of course, that one never rang, but at least I was frustrating Gothel, I thought.
So Gothel hired a guy to stalk and attack Punzie, so she could come to her rescue.
I KNOW. It was like the grand slam of crazy, right there.
She hired Gaston, who was still hanging around (yeesh) and I think talked him into it by suggesting it would make Belle jealous (as if!) And the first part of her plot went pretty much exactly as she'd planned. Gaston followed Punzie (she's easy to identify because she has the longest hair I've ever seen) and ambushed her, and then Gothel ambushed Gaston. And then Gothel told Punzie this had all happened because she didn't answer her mother's phone calls and clearly college was a mistake, and instead of letting her take her final exams and finishing up the semester, Gothel wanted to put her in her VW Jetta and drive her straight back to their home fourteen hours away.
And Punzie was in so much shock, she got in the car.
Snow was the one who saw this happen; she was on the other side of the quad and by the time she'd put the pieces together, Gothel's car had pulled out. She ran to find me, and I called people and then we all piled into Tiana's minivan that she used to make deliveries, and we headed out after Gothel.
My phone rang when we were about a half hour away from the college; it was Punzie. Calling from her cheap replacement phone, of course, the one with the number she hadn't given to her mother. "My mother's trying to take me home," she whispered. "I told her I had to pee and so we've stopped at a gas station but she's outside and I don't know how much longer I can stay in here."
"Just stay put," I said. "Don't get back in the car."
"But Mulan," she said, "It's a one-person bathroom and there's a line."
"Stay in there anyway!" I said. "We're coming to get you! Which gas station?"
So that was the fourth thing my RA training didn't cover: kidnappings. When we got to the gas station, unfortunately, Gothel had pried Punzie out of the bathroom and shoved her back in the car. The guy at the gas station remembered Punzie -- she's hard to miss, with the hair -- so we at least knew we were on the right track. We got back in and continued down the highway.
I texted Punzie, because I thought maybe she'd be able to read the text without tipping off her mother. Can you get her to stop for food?
Time passed, and then she texted me back: drive through food.
"She needed to just not get in that car," Merida muttered, and Snow shrugged, like, what are you going to do?
"I'm going to be seriously late for my work shift," Tiana said.
"Maybe we should call the police," I said. "The problem is that Gothel is her mother -- I don't know if anyone's going to believe me when I say she's being kidnapped."
"I doubt it," Snow said.
"We're going to be passing through some small towns," I said. "Are any of you from the towns we'll be passing through?"
"I am," Jasmine said.
"I don't suppose your dad's the sheriff or anything?"
She bit her lip. "Mayor, actually."
I handed her the phone. "Call him up."
So we caught up with Punzie and Gothel in Jasmine's home town. Her dad the mayor was charming and delightful. By this time, Belle had called from campus to say that Gaston had woken up saying that Gothel had hired him to scare Punzie ("it was supposed to be a joke! A joke!"). Some police officers came down from the city and interviewed Punzie and then Gothel. When they started to read Gothel her rights, she turned to Punzie and said, "Are you going to let them do this? To your own mother? Are you?"
Punzie locked eyes with Snow, then, and she looked at the arresting officer and said, "Yes." And we all went back to campus.
"I've decided," Snow said, as we arrived back to the dorm floor lounge. "I'm not going home for Christmas. I don't feel safe around my stepmother -- the police decided the evidence from that cake was inconclusive, but I know the truth. My father can't be bothered to keep me safe. So I'm not going home."
"Me either," Punzie said. "I mean, I just had my mother arrested." She let out a nervous giggle. "That pretty much ruined Christmas, I'd say."
"You can both come to my house," Merida said. "My mother is only the ordinary sort of annoying."
"Or mine," I said. "Do you like Chinese food? We're Buddhists, but we celebrate secular Christmas with a big meal."
"Or mine," Jasmine said. "You've even met my dad!"
I saw Cindy, across the lounge, looking sad, and I said, "Cindy, do you spend Christmas with your godmother?"
"No," she said. "She lives in France."
"Then you need to come, too," I said. "Anyone who doesn't want to go home, because their parents are scary or awful or even just because they're jerks about majoring in Anthropology or whatever. Come to my house."
"Or mine," Jasmine said again. "It's just down the road! Really convenient!"
"Or mine," said Merida. "Family doesn't have to be the people you're born with, you know? Sometimes it's the people you choose."