Swinging noise from her shoulder
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Ours was a family of two realities: the one we lived through and the one that had formed in my mother’s mind. She was often convinced that we were going to starve because we didn’t have enough money for food. When I was growing up, she talked endlessly about not being able to cover the mortgage on the house and how we could end up homeless and living in a box. It took me years to realize that these were fantasies. As a child, I tallied the cans in the cupboard and ticked off the days until Daddy’s check would come. But despite what my mother said, there was always enough. Sometimes we ate at the restaurant in the strip mall that smelled more like carpet than like meals or filled the car with greasy bags from Taco Bell. Still, my mother’s whispery laments were like chalk on a window: They didn’t leave a mark, but the sound stayed with me for days.
“We’re going to die in here,” she said, darting her eyes around our living room walls. “We just don’t have enough to make it.”
She always claimed to be working five jobs, though I only counted one, sometimes two. She said she was a prostitute.
When the air would become electric and I knew I should run and hide, my mother told me that her grandfather raped her every night. “Every night,” she seethed, and I was probably 10, the walls seeming to melt away. Her shoulders squared, and her eyes blazed with cruelty. “And you think you’re better than me?”
My ears folded when she said these things. The floor was stairs, and I was falling but also standing. I wouldn’t meet her gaze. My mother was no longer Mom, and I was no longer myself. She would forget these moments of madness by morning, or whenever her shoulders went back to their regular submissive hunch. She would forget partly because she said she had no memory of her childhood or that grandfather; everything between kindergarten and sixth grade for her was one black, impenetrable wall. And she would forget because she really was a different person then, split off from everything she knew.
She died of brain cancer, aggressive ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>glioblastoma multiforme, diagnosed two years prior. Her obituary told other stories about her than the dark ones I remembered. I learned she had a great sense of direction, liked to hike alone in ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>Yosemite, dealt poker at frat houses to pay for college, and had two surviving aunts. I already knew she loved cats and the mountains, had taught high school Spanish and math, and liked to eat hamburgers. I remember all this from my 14 years in her house. I didn’t know she considered herself a “Breck Girl,” and I had no idea what that ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>meant. Also that she “had such a great love for everyone, and never met or knew anyone she could not forgive.” I don’t know if she forgave me.
After I left my mother, I could never explain to myself why I didn’t go back. I knew that I was terrified of her, and yet I was scared of the guilt I felt for leaving her. These opposing terrors seemed to cancel one another out, turning me into a burned-out husk of inaction.
I didn’t have a language for my mother, probably because she didn’t have a cohesive language for herself. She could snap herself into a mom I couldn’t recognize, a mom I wished I could forget. Sometimes I thought my muteness meant that nothing of significance happened, and I would doubt the fear that gripped me through adulthood. I would later learn that a telltale sign of trauma is that it doesn’t have language at all.
After she died, though, the larger memories of her came rushing back, and I wanted to find the vocabulary. I wanted to pull my mother out of the hole that occupied the center of her story and listen for a voice. I wanted to find the reason for her madness. I wanted to see if life with her was bad enough to warrant my disappearance—or hers, depending on the perspective; I wanted to tease our existence apart and see if I had a self, still standing. “If it wasn’t anything,” as William Faulkner once wrote, “what was I?”
But first I’d have to come back from the dead.
When I left my mother’s house at age 14, she quietly killed me off. She took a trip to ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>Kansas with my brother, who was 10. One day my grandfather asked her about me.
“Cris died,” my mother told him. My brother, Andrew, panicked, but she pulled him into another room and told him to play along. I don’t know if she told the aunts and cousins and everybody else this same story. Did I die in a crash or of some disease? I never heard from anyone on her side of the family again.
Andrew followed a path similar to mine. He also moved out of our mother’s house when he was 14 and went to live with our father. Unlike me, when he was still in high school he snuck back into our old home. He wanted to retrieve some of his baby pictures, along with his old teddy bear, Charlie. He found the key to the front door in its usual hiding place; he calmed the dogs and tiptoed into the empty house. My old bedroom, he said, had been transformed into an amateur taxidermy studio for my mother’s boyfriend, with glass eyeballs and animal pelts scattered about. My brother’s bedroom hadn’t been touched. Three years of dust had accumulated on his old action figures and video games; too-small pajamas still lay crumpled in the hamper.
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