The following is from Kiley Reid’s Come and Get It. Reid is the author of Such a Fun Age, which was a New York Times bestseller and longlisted for the Booker Prize. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, The Guardian, and others. Reid is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
Millie Cousins was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1993. Her father, Richard, was six foot and fair with hair that had turned gray in his forties. Her mother, Glory, was a foot shorter with sharp cheekbones, and she came from a Black farming family near Albany, Georgia. Glory had short hair that was curly, black, and gray. She only wore makeup for celebratory dinners, when she used blush, tinted ChapStick, and a tasseled pashmina draped over whatever she was wearing. For Richard and Glory, a child wasn’t necessary or a dream, but when the opportunity presented itself at their joint age of forty-two, the thought of it was quite nice. The three of them went camping several times a year, mostly in the Ozarks, where Millie’s penchant for Fayetteville began.
Millie’s father was an international and political affairs professor at Missouri Southern State University. Glory was the manager of the Papyrus stationery and greeting card store located in Northpark Mall. She had a monthly book club meetup as well as a bunco night. She loyally helped her friend Myrna with her soap and candle booth every Saturday at the Empire farmers market. Millie’s parents pushed her to do lots of activities as well, in service of being a flexible person, an excellent sharer of her things. She later understood this as overcompensation, a correction of her status as an only child. But very quickly, the things she was pushed to do as a child became the activities she liked to organize as an adult.
Millie did Girl Scouts, volleyball, and camping club, for which she was voted president two years in a row. In high school she was on the yearbook committee, prom committee, and student council, where she served as vice president in her senior year. She was the stage manager for two musicals, dressed in all black with a headset backstage. After high school she took a gap year. She worked at a bed-and-breakfast and a coffee shop in Fayetteville. She saved a good amount of money and earned in state tuition status.
Halfway through her sophomore year at UA, Millie became an RA. This was something Aimee Pearson, the housing director, said she’d never allowed before, but Millie happily replaced a student who’d had a bedbug scare and subsequent mental breakdown, and she transitioned into RA status with ease. She worked as a camp counselor in the summers. She volunteered to be at the dorms for January term. She house-sat for Aimee and took care of her dog. When Glory told her friends what Millie was up to at the moment, she often ended with “Oh yeah. You know her. Exactly. Always likes to be in charge.”
Fourteen months before her second senior year, Millie was finishing her junior year at the University of Arkansas. Her mother was driving home from work when the pressure in her eyes became so severe that she had to open the driver’s side door and throw up. In the parking lot of an Anytime Fitness and Firehouse Subs, Glory dialed 911. The police came and sat with her. Glory said she didn’t need an ambulance, but the officer kept shaking her head, saying, “I think it’s best we get some help.” Millie’s father arrived as the ambulance did in all its unnecessary splendor. Glory collected her things and got into Richard’s car. “If I don’t get in, they can’t charge me.”
Glaucoma was a word that had been said often in the Cousins-Arnold household. It was one of the few reminders that Millie’s parents were older than most of her friends’ parents. She didn’t sleep for two nights after her mother’s episode in the car. The idea of it happening again or Glory vomiting inside the vehicle, Millie couldn’t abide by it, at least not while living in another state. Before confirming with her parents that leaving was a good idea, she went to Aimee’s office.
“Hey, girly,” Aimee said. But then Millie sniffed and Aimee turned around completely. What proceeded was a lot of moving chairs, offering tissues, and holding up a small waste bin. Aimee was as kind as she was unflappable. “Hey. Listen to me. I know this sucks,” she said. “But you are not the first to take a year off. And you won’t be the last.”
Millie didn’t remember saying that explicitly. A year seemed extremely long. But who was to say what her mom’s eyes would be doing in the fall, especially if she had surgery. Yes, Millie thought. She was taking a year off. One year off and then she’d come back.
For the next two weeks, Millie completed assignments that the rest of her classmates had not yet been assigned. She did made up tasks meant to substitute for group activities, and she set up her fellow RAs to take on her residents. A few times, Millie was back in Aimee’s office as Aimee helped her tie up loose ends. “Your professor’s not responding? Who is it? I’ll take care of it. My husband taught with him in Little Rock. We see them at tailgates.”
Three weeks before the end of the academic year, Millie moved back to Joplin and Glory wasn’t pleased. “I’m fine,” she’d said, on the phone and through texts. When Millie pulled up in front of the house, Glory said it again. “See? Look at me. I told you I’m fine.” Millie completed her final exams and papers by emailing two and completing two more online. She got her high school job back at the Starbucks inside the Barnes & Noble at Northpark Mall, which she was not allowed to call Starbucks; she had to say Barnes & Noble Café. Her RA friends—there’d been two she was close to—went intermittent and then quiet on their once-active group text. In the fall Millie took three online classes. She drove her mother to and from work.
Doctors and the internet insisted that glaucoma couldn’t be cured but it could be controlled. Millie and Glory googled remedies, vitamins, lists of foods to avoid, and holistic approaches that internet forums cited and swore by. Glory gave up coffee completely, as it could increase her intraocular pressure and lead to more optic nerve damage. Millie wasn’t about to give up coffee, especially when she got a shift drink for free, but when it came to meals, she became an active participant. Together, she and Glory transformed the contents of their refrigerator and the colors on their plates.
The leftover Tupperware that Millie took to work became filled with grilled asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cold-water fish, and strips of eggplant. At home, she and her mother snacked on goji berries and black currants, watermelon and grapefruit, sometimes with mint and salt. There were so many eggs being cooked that Richard purchased an egg storage keeper and drawer. “Look at this,” he said. “This is really slick.” Millie propped her computer on the counter next to the stovetop and watched YouTube tutorials: poached, shirred, omelet soufflés, a béarnaise sauce that tasted better on a second try. It was these protein-heavy meals, the absence of sugary cocktails and beer, and the family gym membership her dad added her to that resulted in the first of three significant things that happened back in Joplin. Over the course of the year, and without meaning to, Millie lost eleven pounds.
The fact that she was losing weight became less important than where she was losing it from. New negative space was seemingly being forged solely around her midline and waist. She didn’t have much boob to lose, but her small breasts didn’t seem so small when she stood in the shower and pressed her hands into her sides. Millie had returned to Joplin as a practiced size ten. By Christmas there were size-eight pants under the tree. “See?” Glory said. “See what happens when you don’t eat all that candy?” Millie didn’t reveal that her kale-and-bean-based meals had no bearing on her consumption of sweet and sour gelatin-based snacks. Haribo Peaches were her favorite. Sometimes she had Cola Bottles, too. But she tried to go to the gym more often because she liked the way she looked. She felt as if her body had gotten its braces off. Like she’d reentered her room after a deep clean.
The second significant thing that happened back in Joplin was that Millie and her mom started microdosing marijuana. Glory had purchased two large pairs of sunglasses from Target to protect her eyes. She wore the bigger pair on the day that Millie drove her to apply for a medical marijuana card. Millie laughed as Glory got in the car, holding her purse in two nervy, flat hands.
“If I get this thing”—Glory shut her door—“you can never tell Myrna.”
Millie put the car in reverse. “Why would I tell Myrna literally anything?”
“Not just Myrna. We can’t tell nobody.”
Millie pulled out onto the street. “Well, you’re in luck because I have no friends.”
“Mill, don’t say that.”
“Mom, it’s fine.”
Glory didn’t want to do brownies because of her new gluten-free diet, so Millie found a recipe for caramel edibles. She purchased a candy thermometer and a silicone pan from a confectionery shop in the mall. They added pecans that Glory put in a Ziploc bag; she smashed them to pieces with the bottom of a mug. Glory had tried smoking in her early twenties and she remembered it making her nauseated and paranoid. But now, after a caramel square in the evenings, her stare became soft and steady. It didn’t take such a pointed effort to read an email or a recipe. She said it felt like she was getting her eyes ready for bed.
Millie partaking in Glory’s medical marijuana hadn’t been discussed prior. But she’d tasted the samples and said when she felt it, so the idea of creating rules around her not having it seemed a bit belated. Sometimes she’d take half a caramel before her shift at work. Activities like washing her dog or sectioning and detangling her hair became moments where she could be clever and inspired. Being tepidly high, in addition to her recently pulled waist, made Millie feel creative and not so alone. But this sensation had much less to do with the edibles than it had to do with her mom. This was the third thing to happen back in Joplin. Millie and Glory became terribly close.
They watched a lot of HGTV, betting on which house the couple would choose. They watched Scandal from the very beginning, and when Richard entered the room, Glory would shush him and Millie would scream, “Daduhh!” They went to movies on weekends and timed their caramel intake, sitting toward the back for Glory’s eyes. Glory quizzed her every morning over breakfast the week of Millie’s final in Intermediate Spanish. They listened to podcasts while Millie took care of her plants, redoing the soil to get rid of gnats.
By spring, so much of their conversations were in their own shorthand. Once, at breakfast, Glory said, “Mill. Guess who finally got married.”
“The bad guy we like from that show. The one with the name.”
Millie made a face. “To that woman with the mouth?”
“Yeesh. Well, good for them.”
“That’s what I said.”
Richard placed his spoon onto his plate. “You two can’t be serious.”
Millie thought her dad was being dramatic, but there were other times when she saw his point. Once, while she was on a walk, Glory phoned her cell. “Hi, I’m in line. So I gotta be quick. Mill, do I like the salad or the bowl?”
Millie sighed. “You like the bowl.”
“And do I want the thing on it?”
Millie was alone, save for her dog. Still, she felt mortified to answer the question, and to know what question was being asked. “Yes,” she said. “But you want it on the side.”
Millie needed to go back to school. But with the absence of friends and four-dollar coffees, and with her B& N shifts and occasional house-sitting, Millie started saving more money than she ever had before. Coming off of so many summers living in dorms and cabins and rooms that weren’t hers, and after becoming mildly addicted to TV shows featuring tiny houses and youngish owners, the idea of owning a home came down on her like a dream. With six thousand dollars in her bank account, Millie allowed herself to entertain the idea that maybe, if she was very, very good about it, she could make a down payment in two years. This fantasy home would not be in Joplin, it would be in Fayetteville. But then in April, Millie was offered a shift manager position at the café, and she found herself tempted to stay one more year.
“No,” Glory said. “Absolutely not.”
“Okay okay, hang on,” Millie said. Yes, she missed Fayetteville, but Joplin wasn’t terrible. And there was a big difference between the $9.12 she was currently making and the $11 an hour she could be making full-time. “You’re acting like I’m not going to graduate. I’m just thinking that if I took one more—”
Glory held up her hands. “This? This was a mistake.”
Millie knew that Glory wasn’t referring to Millie’s year off of school. The mistake was letting her in as something other than a boundaried, limited, and professional daughter. For Millie’s entire childhood, Glory’s approach to parenting had been almost clinical. The way she punished, the way she encouraged, and the way she loved. Everything from Glory, whether she said it or not, came with the same admonition: I’m not your friend, I’m your mom. Sometimes Millie felt that the approval that she wanted from adults or superiors in general was in response to the way her mother tried to establish this partition. But after her year in Joplin, she also felt certain that she just liked being around her mother. Glory was fun to be around.
“You are going to go back to Arkansas and you’re going to have a real senior year.”
“Okay, but just hear me out for two sec—”
“Millicent? You don’t need a house.”
“Well, of course I don’t need it—”
“You’re a kid and you need to be doing kid things with other kids. And if you want more money? Fine. This is what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna tell Starbucks yes—”
“Barnes & Noble Café.”
“Ma’am. You’re gonna say yes and take that position. And then in August you’re gonna say, ‘Oops,’ and you’re gonna go back to school.”
“Okay, first of all, I’m not a kid. I’m twenty-three.”
“Then go be twenty-three in Arkansas.”
“Can you relax? And that’s so not cool to take a promotion and then quit three months later. They would never take me back again.”
At this, Glory staggered back and reached her hands into the air. She blinked as if she’d seen a vision, and she uttered an emphatic “Well, good!”
For the next few months Glory pointedly brought up minor logistics regarding Millie’s return to Fayetteville. Yes, she’d signed up for classes. And yes, she’d talked to Aimee. Everything was fine for her to return as an RA.
“We’re all good to go,” Aimee had said over the phone. “But—don’t be mad at me—I have to put you back in Belgrade.” Millie had been in Belgrade for her junior year, a fact made fine because her friends had been there, too. But the transfer/upperclassmen/scholarship dorm was not great, affectionately nicknamed Smell-grade and Cell-grade. “I know,” Aimee said. “But Josh is an RD now and I need to put him with someone who’s been there before.”
“Josh from accounts payable? He’s an RD?”
“Yes, he’s great. He won’t be at orientation—grandma died, poor thing—but don’t you worry. He’ll be there for move in.”
Millie blew through her lips. Welp, she thought. It had been her decision to leave. Now she was coming back to the bad dorm with the new RD. And this time she’d be friendless and old.
“Hey, Aimee?” Millie said. “While I have you . . .” She went into the backyard so Glory couldn’t hear. Millie told Aimee she was looking for a house to buy after graduation, something small, for just one person. If Aimee had any leads, she would love to know. Aimee said, “Hoo boy. You’re growing up. Okay.”
That summer, Millie worked full-time. She went to the gym twice a week. Instead of social media apps, she was always on Zillow. Sometimes she couldn’t help herself; she used some of her tips to purchase Haribo Peaches after work. But mostly, Millie took the cash and stuck it in the right foot of a pair of rain boots; what she came to think of as her “down payment shoe.” Every other week, she delivered its contents to a new savings account. That summer, she turned twenty-four, and she saved twenty-three hundred dollars.
Two weeks before she moved back to Fayetteville, Millie sat in her RAV4 in the Barnes & Noble parking lot. She psyched herself up, memorizing the speech she’d written in her phone. She asked her boss if she had a second to talk. In response to her prepared lines, Millie’s boss clapped and said, “Oh! Well, that’s a bummer for us, but good for you! Would you be open to training Samantha? I have to ask, but I think she wants the hours.”