Cara Sayne plans to frame the napkin one day.
The wrinkled white rectangle from Cracker Barrel declares how her 13-year-old daughter is going to live life differently than she did.
There, written in Cayla's tidy scrawl, is a list of her top colleges. She has her world mapped out: graduate high school, study nursing, work in a hospital operating room. Cayla, whose long blond hair and a matter-of-fact approach could put her more at 17, plans on enjoying her 20s. Her 30s are for having kids. She wants up to four, but not until she's had time to live her life and be on her own. She doesn't want to depend on anyone.
Cara, 36, listens in slight awe when her daughter talks about the future, a proud smile stretching across her kind face. Cayla seems to have all the answers Cara never possessed at that age. Cara didn't graduate college. She didn't know what she wanted to do. She had kids young. And she depended on a man, Cayla's father.
But when their relationship fell apart seven months ago, Cara's life crumbled. She wouldn't eat. She couldn't focus. She would lie on the couch and cry until she no longer could.
"One day Cayla just says, 'I can't take it anymore,' " Cara said. " 'You have to eat. You can't do this to yourself.' There was just that total role reversal. And then she got mad at me and said, 'Enough. I can't do this anymore.' "
Cayla instinctively cared for her mom, wanting to protect her, to rouse her from the pain.
"It just kind of started happening," Cayla said. "It feels kind of weird, because she's usually the one giving me advice. But it felt really natural."
Their lives have moved forward since then. They spend their nights at the baseball park cheering on Jacob, Cayla's 9-year-old brother. Cayla's friends think Cara's "the cool mom." Sometimes, Cayla said, that can be weird. But it's better than having a strict parent whom she can't talk to about anything.
Sundays are their days. They shop at Forever 21 or go out to lunch. They listen to Lana Del Rey and talk about life — everything from Cayla's favorite horror movies to her first kiss. Mostly, they laugh. And when she needs to, Cayla gives her mom advice.
"This 13-year-old has been my rock," Cara said. "At this age, there's a very fine line between being their parent and their friend. I'd like to say I have a good balance of that."
Sometimes, worry weighs Cara down. When she needs reassurance, she doesn't have to look far. The crinkled napkin stays in her purse, reminding her of the hopeful future that awaits her daughter.
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3111.