by Emily Callan
I remember feeling wholly content that October afternoon. Merryn and I wore matching outfits and that made me feel invincible. There was something significantly empowering about wearing matching clothing. Her little mosquito-bitten legs sticking out from her overalls looked cute next to my large, fuzzy ones. We were untouchable.
Mom sat inside at her writing desk, paying overdue bills with her glasses sliding to the end of her freckled nose. We left the front door open so that we didn’t feel so far away from her between dashes inside to leave nature treasures beside her paperwork.
“Okay, no more acorns! You’re bringing in bugs!” Mom chuckled as we piled them near her, each one hand selected specifically for her. She was in one of those rare good moods, the kind we prayed would last a couple of days – she laughed at everything and we could do no wrong.
Everything felt pure and sacred, like a morsel of time was plucked from the universe and set aside just for us three and no one else.
In the late afternoon, the sunlight felt mild and sleepy as it filtered down through the fiery leaves of the giant oak tree in our front yard. I inhaled deeply through my nose, over and over until I felt light headed, trying to fully savor that magnificent air. I wanted to hold that breath forever, to dive into it and swim like an otter until every bit had been appreciated, weaving in and out to embrace every aspect of its robusticity. The high school marching band could be heard from our front yard – it was autumnal perfection.
I stood on the front porch, looking out across our yard, and felt entirely grateful even for our cracked and bumpy driveway. Nothing could be better than exactly right now. I clutched the wrought iron railing and, briefly closing my eyes, tried to seal the moment into my mind forever as the happiest one I had ever known. I decided then that it would be the moment I would always come back to. I don’t ever have to lose this feeling.
It would be the next best thing to traveling back in time. Wouldn’t it change everything to be able to travel back to the most beautiful turning points in our lives and relive them in their entirety? True happiness is so limited; what if we could choose to keep every detail in a tiny vessel to pull out and fall back into when we needed that safety? Or would it be too much of a good thing?
Perhaps my immense joy is what brought on the remainder of my adolescence. Perhaps the Beings who orchestrate those fleeting moments of extraordinary bliss saw that my happiness could not be contained and knew that too much of that good thing would surely lead to rich decay.
“The fairies and stuff… That’s not real, right? That’s just pretend? For fun?”
Mom’s aggressive pursuit of anything magical made me anxious. I couldn’t stand that she intentionally misled us with promises that little winged folk lived in our yard, or that beautiful, otherworldly spirits whispered protection over us while we slept. Merryn bought into it with her entire ridiculous soul. Why was she so trusting and happy?
“I don’t think so.” Mom was barely present. She half closed her sunken eyes and chewed her jaw. I could tell I was boring to her. The way her eyes cut to the side to appraise her oldest nuisance. She had been out with a new boyfriend the night before, and I could tell it hadn’t gone well. A part of me wished I could be gullible like Merryn so that I could be one less thing for her to chew her jaw over.
“It doesn’t seem like it could be real.” I hated beating around the bush and I hated pretending. It was little kid stuff and I didn’t like to be teased with the thought of something being real if it would only disappoint me later. I just wanted her to get it over with and tell me I was justified in my skepticism. I wanted this to be a test that I could pass and add to my little arsenal of personal accomplishments.
Sunday, March 3nd, 2002 – Did not fall for bullshit. Used brain to analyze situation and decide what is most reasonable and true. Merryn still incomprehensibly stupid. Will persist in attempts to ruin the magic for her.
She shifted her thinning shoulders in her chair. “If something is good and makes you happy, why wouldn’t you want to believe in it?.” She was irritated with me for even questioning it, but she didn’t sound like she even believed herself.
“Because it’s not real. I can’t just decide what is real and what isn’t, right? It’s stupid-”
Mom lunged suddenly forward and latched onto my arm, wrenching my shoulder up, her trembling fingers digging so hard into my skin I froze in panic. Through my thin shirt, I couldn’t tell if she was pinching or clawing me. Her face was so close it almost touched mine, and her eyes were not her own. Bulging, bloodshot, and filled with hatred. For me? For my question? I didn’t know.
“Mom, you’re hurting me.” My voice cracked and I tried to pull away, but not too hard because I didn’t want to anger her further.
“You little cunt, how dare you question me? Undermine me to your sister?” Her voice was low and frightening, her lips were drawn thin and purple in a dangerous grimace.
“I wasn’t-” My words cut off as her coffee mug slammed into the side of my face, cracking into the bone at the edge of my eye. Sharp, explosive pain brought blinding balls of lights into my line of vision and a tingling burn to my face and neck. I took a step back, straining at her grasp. I couldn’t breathe. I wished I had never brought it up.
“Oh, my god, sweetie,” Mom dropped my arm and the malice washed from her face, as if she had just experienced something horrific but hadn’t been involved. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, oh my god…” She was panicking, her words turned to gibberish. I was filled with guilt to see her so distraught.
I muttered apologetically and fled from the room to find a place to hide, walking quickly with my head low and fists clenched. Straight to the bathroom, I locked the door and turned on the loud fan. I climbed into the tub and drew the curtain before I began to let tears fall. I felt embarrassed and bewildered. Why did I feel embarrassed? I felt so stupid. I hated myself. What had I done? What did she call me? I had never heard that word, but I knew from the way it ripped from her mouth like twisting metal that it was meant in the worst way possible. I whispered that evil word over and over to myself. I was just a cunt and she hated me.
Puberty took over and I lost whatever was left of my confidence. As my hips filled out and formidable breasts began to emerge, I withdrew, insecure about the features I couldn’t hide. Mom began to watch me like a hawk. She became overly particular about the things I wore, especially in front of Don. Early on, I rolled my eyes and mocked her concern. “Yeah, I’m sure your fat old boyfriend thinks my crappy tank top is super sexy, Mom.” A smack to the side of my head, a slammed door, a book hurled across the room, and my self-assurance slowly disappeared. I skulked like a rat around the house and kept mostly to my room. I sought out baggy clothes that hung from my curves, somewhat hiding them. I felt cursed.
And fucking Don. I hated him. His too-cheerful voice had obliterated what remained of the peace in our home. The explosive laughter emanating from their bedroom some nights made me desperate with rage. Mom had stopped laughing at us because laughing at him made her feel better about herself. Maybe it distracted her from the knowledge that for every mirth filled evening with him, he would make up for it with multiple consecutive nights of bruising and belittling.
Don was oily and red faced, with thinning hair he dyed jet black and slicked straight back. A hog in a Sears suit. I sometimes imagined sinking into his hairless, bloated belly the very kitchen knife he’d bought Mom for their first anniversary. An expensive Japanese knife, he’d bragged. “Not that you know what the fuck you’re doing with it, but you’re welcome.” We all knew he’d gotten that from Sears, too.
One morning, I made a risky dash from my room to the bathroom down the hall, wearing only briefs and a thin camisole. I almost collided with Don as he came from the other side of the hall and I froze in panic. I knew what I was wearing wasn’t appropriate and I was terrified Mom would find out. Don didn’t seem to notice; I scurried on to the bathroom with my heart thudding in my chest.
But Don had noticed.
Hours later, I was in my room with the door locked because I didn’t want anyone to know about the yoga tutorial I was struggling to follow. I heard someone violently try the doorknob; no knock, just an aggressive turn. “Not in my house…” I heard muttered from the other side. The next thing I knew, the door was open and Mom was standing in front of me screaming something unintelligible. Freshly patched drywall was punctured once again by the doorknob. My picture frames fell to the floor, with their glass shattered and happy faces within smiling out at nothing in particular.
I had learned over the months to withdraw during these times, to an extent that I could fold into my mind and excuse myself from Mom’s episodes. A rushing in my ears shut out the most brassy tones of her voice, my eyes felt heavy and sleepy, and my vision became blurred. This won’t last forever. I could never fully grasp that the moment was real and happening; it couldn’t possibly be. I wasn’t a part of it. I was somewhere else, maybe sleeping. Back to my happiest moment I went; the wind swirling brilliant foliage into a tiny, cheerful funnel, Merryn poking with a stick at a dead cricket, and me, standing in the middle of it all, inhaling as heavily as I could in case I were never able to do so again.
“Do I make myself clear?” Snap, and I remembered Mom was in front of me. What was she talking about? It had been ages since I’d zoned out. But had it? Only a minute or two, apparently. The yoga video was still running and my ears went hot when I realized I was wearing borrowed volleyball shorts, so short they were almost underwear. I immediately regretted putting them on. I only ever wore them in the privacy of my room and I just liked the way they looked. They tucked just under my butt and I loved how athletic I looked in them.
“You look like a fucking whore! What are you wearing??” Mom noticed my tiny shorts about the same time I did. “Were you wearing those this morning? Did Don see you in those?” He told her. He told her. “Are you doing this on purpose? Are you that selfish? You’re not the one who has to pay for it.”
And there it was. I didn’t feel the initial impact of her strike, just the roar in my ears as the room spun around me and the strange electrical sensation that always followed. I sank like a robot onto my bed. I tried to get back to my October paradise but all I could focus on was the swelling of Mom’s own lip. I couldn’t tear my eyes from her mouth. Flecks of spit popping out. I could see her bottom teeth as she hissed and spat, and the dark stains between each one. My gaze drifted down toward her collarbone, mottled with bruises in varying degrees of healing.
“Look at me when I’m fucking talking to you!” Mom reached out and grasped my face with one hand, squeezing my cheeks together with sharp fingers. I felt so stupid when she did that. A fat cheeked, fat mouthed baby. No dignity beyond my refusal to cry in front of her.
Mom had stopped apologizing a long time ago. She really believed in herself now, as she edged in closer, increasingly angry that I never seemed to respond the way she wanted me to. I think she thought I was too prideful in my refusal to respond or speak, that she needed to try harder to break me.
You’re hideous, Mom.
It was all hideous. Mom was hideous. Don was hideous. The darkness of her bedroom where they slept in during the week, forgetting to get us ready for school, was hideous. Her sallow complexion and dark-ringed eyes were hideous. Her disinterest in Merryn and me was hideous.
It was such a nasty circle; Don hitting Mom, Mom hitting me, me pissing off Don. Or was that the wrong order?
Mom hitting me. Me pissing off Don. Don hitting Mom.
Me pissing off Don. Don hitting Mom. Mom hitting me.
Don hitting Mom. Don hitting Mom. Don hitting Mom.
Anything I did would piss off Don; there was no avoiding it. But I couldn’t hide any better, or tiptoe any quieter, or lower my eyes any further. I had done everything I could to disappear. It didn’t start with me. Things had only gotten worse with his arrival. It started with him. And it would have to end with him.
He was the heaviest sleeper. Would he even know what was happening? Would he even feel it? The Sears knife wasn’t as sharp as he liked to pretend. I was going to have to be sure of myself – there could be no second guessing.
Sink and twist.
One more time.