My mom looked like she was going to cry, and I realized, like a sudden kick to the throat, what a terrible mistake I had made. This was worse than sticking your head above the crowd. It was assembling a crowd for her beheading.

My mom looked like she was going to cry, and I realized, like a sudden kick to the throat, what a terrible mistake I had made. This was worse than sticking your head above the crowd. It was assembling a crowd for her beheading.
“Why would you do this to me?” my mom whispered as I pulled out the cake Ron had bought from the grocery store. Everybody sang “Happy Birthday,” but it was awkward when some people didn’t remember her name. A few neighbors had brought presents like stationery or jars of peanuts wrapped in tissue, but it was clear my mom wouldn’t open them, since she kept saying “Thank you for coming!” after her first nibbles at the frosting.
She was swaying strangely in her beige flats. I tried to make grown-up party talk like I’d seen on TV, but nobody was interested in me, and I was distracted by my mom’s voice, which was that of a little girl, with too much breath and fear and pitch. I didn’t want anyone to see her like this; she usually stayed indoors when she was her tiniest self; the voice was a precursor to one of her marathon migraines. I had forgotten about getting anything to drink, so there was only the pink wine, and people drank tap water out of our mugs and the walls were getting too close and almost sweaty and the people seemed to want to leave but I couldn’t go home with them.
In the morning my mother thanked me for the party; she had spent the night getting soothed by Ron, and I had spent it counting and recounting my stuffed animals, touching their noses and tapping their heads in my special code, so I could face my mom again.
When I left my mother’s house at 14, I took only four things: a big bag of clothes, her dime-store eyelash curler, a photograph of my crossing guard, and my ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>Holly Hobby diary from 1979. I had only wanted to grab quick and unnoticeable things from the house.
A judge had informed my father that kids could shift custody arrangements on their own as soon as they turned 14. This had always been my plan, to get away. I wanted it, but I also feared it, feared what it would do to my mother. Over Christmas break, at my father’s apartment, I secretly applied to private schools in San Francisco. The timing slipped up beneath me like a sheet of ice. And then I had to tell my mother.
I chose a moment when her back was to me, her arms full of laundry, as she was climbing the stairs.
“Mom?” I said, looking up at her wide back. I held the banister for support. “I applied to some high schools in San Francisco.”
She stopped. She didn’t put the laundry down.
Slowly, my mom climbed the rest of the stairs and disappeared into her room. She emerged a few seconds later, breathing heavily. “It’s your decision,” she said.
I started to climb up to her, but she motioned me to stop. “Your father can give you things I can’t. I knew you’d choose him one day.”
“It’s not about Dad,” I protested. “It’s about the school. There are some really good schools!”
My mom sighed, and her eyes filled with tears. “If you go to live with him, I’ll never see you again.”
I knew this was true. She would never come see me, and she wouldn’t call because I’d be living with my father. After I left, any connection would be up to me.
Because she had always relied on me. It had been my role to retrieve her from her months of sobbing after my father left and to interrupt the hours she’d spend in the tub in the dark. When she’d whisper “It’s just too hard to be here,” I’d rush around like a dog on ice to distract her: “Let’s watch a movie, let’s make popcorn, let’s look at my new dance! I’m making it up right now!”
It had been my role to shield her from the glances at the grocery store when she talked like a 5-year-old, counting the money that didn’t ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>add up. I’d calmly ask the clerk to take out the ice cream and the sugar cereals, and yes, I’d tell the cashier, everything is fine. It had been my role to shake her to go back to the store when she’d drive away without my brother, when he was a toddler left screaming in the parking lot, waiting to be strapped in. It had been my role to keep my mom tethered—to me and to everything else. Somewhere deep and unspeakable inside me, I knew I had to get away.
It was after that that I got sick. My fever spiked to 102, then 103, and the pains in my belly were unbearable. My mom drove me to the hospital, and it was strange because it was called Children’s Hospital, and I hadn’t felt like a child for years. There was a kind nurse who stroked my head and called me poor baby, and then there was a needle in my arm and a doctor and a mask on my face, and I was being sped down a hallway on a gurney.
The doctor thought my appendix had ruptured, which was the reason for the rush. When they cut me open, though, they found nothing wrong at all. Later, the surgical reports from the hospital indicated that the operation lasted four hours, and they removed a perfectly healthy appendix and discovered some light endometriosis around my uterus. (They cut over to my right ovary, which was healthy and fine, and discovered only “streak tissue” where my left ovary should be: a birth defect, apparently, a missing piece.)

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