Just after your seventeenth birthday your mother returns to the house from the psychiatric ward of the hospital in Abingdon or Elizabethan, you aren’t sure which. She stays in bed all day. Her presence stifles the calm of her absence. It had been easier for you to tend the babies without her around. They were at ease and so were you. Her presence exacerbates your feelings that things are not going to improve. You attempt a stay against these feelings, but fail. You pick up the phone, which you should have picked up years ago but were too scared, your parents made you too scared, and called the superintendent of schools. If the cops were going to show up and take you and the babies away then so be it. No cops show up. No truant officer shows up—maybe because you didn’t give them enough information, maybe because in Rogersville, Tennessee, no one really gives a fuck. But your mother, who was supposed to be sleeping, had been listening to your every move, heard when you softly picked up the phone, stepped into the laundry room, and made your call. And then you feel her rage, pathetic, inarticulate rage, in which she follows you down the sidewalk and yells at you for the call. Yells at you in front of the babies, in front of your brother who had just pulled up the drive, in front of the neighbors. And you turn around and tell her it’s right, what you did, it was right because the kids should be in school. She stays in her robe. Yells for the children to gather in the prayer room, will not let you near them, locks you out of the house for a while, until the children get rambunctious. Then she locks you all out of the house together. Your father will return from work, will not yell at you, but will remind you behind the closed door of the prayer room, a door that your mother beats upon and demands to be let in, that your call could have separated the family forever. The babies don’t understand all the yelling, don’t understand why you would do something to separate the family.
The fall before you turn thirteen you go to a department store with your mother. She insists on trying on the kind of dresses she can’t afford, the kind that sales people know she won’t buy. She puts on a black strapless—a style you had been told was not modest to wear. She asks what you think and you don’t know what to say because it doesn’t look right on your mother. So you tell her it looks okay, but the other dress she picked out was prettier. A hurt look comes over her face and you know you haven’t said the right thing, but hope she will let it go. You look in the mirror, look at the dress you’d put on and notice how it clings to your body and that you like the clinging. And then you notice how the dress reveals your collarbone that still juts out from where it had been broken recently. Like the last time you had broken it, the injury has gone untreated. There is a painful throbbing in the center of the bone, but you learn to get used to it. You tell yourself that soon enough the throbbing will dull once the bone pulls itself all the way back together. You look up to discover your mother staring at your body in the mirror. Suddenly you feel ashamed and step away from the mirror. She doesn’t look away from you as you awkwardly try to pull your jeans on underneath the dress. She watches you struggle with a smile and says, “You won’t always look that good.”
For your fifteenth birthday your father lets you pick out a dog from the pound. A sweet dog that chases cars. You work with him so he won’t chase cars. It’s helping, you think, to lock him in the laundry room for half an hour each time he chases a car. So for a month you train him, and you would have trained him longer but he gets hit by a car. Probably you never should have gotten the dog. You weren’t allowed to keep him inside with you, and he had a knack for getting out of the fence. You tried to train him. You remember caring for the animal but you can’t remember his name. You block some things out, or maybe you just forget. He gets hit by a car and you run to him, but there is no one home to take you to the vet. So, you sit with your dog, hold him and touch him and tell him he’ll be alright. He laps at you, seems alright, there is only a little blood. But then he convulses, which scares you, so you beg the woman who hit him, a single mother with a screaming child inside a beat-up car, to please take you to the vet. By the time you get your dog in the car, with the help of an older man who pulled over to survey the scene, your dog is dead. You never cry, not while there is still something to be done, but when you see your dog give out a final breath and blood leak from his mouth, you do. And then the old man is taking your hand, saying something about nature, about the cycle of life. You shake off his hand and go to take your dog back out of the car. You will avoid getting another animal until you are an adult, living in Salt Lake City, and your boyfriend will present you with the small gray kitten he withdraws from his pocket. You will back away and stare at both of them, angry, your boyfriend asking you to love this tiny, shaking, feral thing.
When you’re twenty-one you need a job. You find one with a river company in Arizona. You learn how to appreciate shade, how to rig boats, and eventually, how to read water. But before you are allowed to run the river, you work around the warehouse. Your boss teaches you how to repair the spring-fed water line, and his wife tells you how to fend off the loneliness that can come from living in a vast space so beautiful it can hurt to look upon it. Years later you’ll try to stop a stranger from dying in that space, his body broken on the side of the road, a car accident on 89A, just a few miles from the warehouse, but his final breath will escape while you grasp his hand, still asking him to hold on.
For as long as you can remember, from childhood to young adulthood, your parents, mostly your mother, would insist on going for drives in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In later years the drives came out of fights between your parents—running away from one another or making up after the running away, and sometimes they would just get the itch to drive. You hated those long drives, though you didn’t always. You’re not sure when they got stressful, probably when the babies arrived. It was hard to keep them quiet in the car. You remember the heat, the smell of teething gel, unwanted warm bottles the baby would reject with a violent toss across the back seat. Later you’ll visit a man you knew from when you lived in Utah, but he’ll have moved to North Carolina and he’ll want to take a drive and you won’t want to go, will try to show that you don’t want to, but will go anyway. He’ll drive by places that will make you ache for the desert, for the Cottonwood Canyons, for the thin mountain air back home. You’ll feel resentful of him for taking you back in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but you’ll fight the feeling and you’ll never tell him. After the visit you refuse to speak to him anymore and he’ll not understand, will be surprised. You’ll recall that fucking drive and wonder why the hell you didn’t scream in resistance, why you chose to please rather than disappoint.
When you’re eight you look six and live in the country. Out in front of the rented ranch house you, wearing a pink sweat suit, watch your shadow playing on the ground—you look taller, your ponytail blowing rapidly in the wind. Your older brothers teach you how to throw a football, show you how the spin goes, spend hours with you until you get it right. You are proud when you see the ball spiral fast through the air. You go inside to make yourself something to eat—peanut butter toast. The bread gets jammed inside the toaster so you climb the counter top, take a butter knife to dig out the bread and are quickly sent flying through the air, landing on the cold linoleum. Your oldest brother walks in, “You can’t stick stuff in the toaster, it shocks you,” he says, as he picks you up and sets you at the table. He boils water and makes a bowel of Ramen Noodles, sets it in front of you, and walks out of the room.
You remember your mother scanning her face in the mirror, looking for traces of her own mother, pulling at the skin around her eyes and under her chin. She fills in the deep pink outlines around her lips with brighter pink lipstick. She goes outside with you, sits on the porch and insists on drawing flowers—she says this activity is just as good as any science lesson you’d get from school—and draws her flower in pink, and like her lips, draws dark lines on the outsides, each petal putting up its own barrier against the next. Your flowers are messy, and, you didn’t even know what you were drawing, some kind of pansy, you think. Your mother’s flowers are perfectly drawn and when you ask her to show you how, she says hers is a natural gift, one that can’t be taught
You’re twelve when, for three months, your family is homeless, you remember being packed into a Ford van, your father driving across country. You hold your bird’s cage in your lap and wonder if, like you, she gets carsick. You arrive in Missouri, just outside of Jefferson City, where your mother has made arrangements with a Christian family to stay in their unfinished mother-in-law space for a few days—one large room, an adjoining bathroom, center block walls, and a concrete floor. You place your bird in the bathroom, out of the way, because her chirping upsets your mother. You go outside to play with your little brothers, there are only three of them then. And when you return you find steam pouring from the bathroom door, your father running a towel across his wet hair. You run to the bathroom, but are too late. The heat and steam killed your bird, and her small yellow body looks bright in your pale twelve-year-old hands as you kiss her tiny head. When you pile back into the van and drive south toward Texas, you watch Missouri disappear and hate it.
You’re fourteen when your older brothers try and catch you before getting in the shower. They like to taunt you, one at the bathroom door the other at the window. You don’t know which is more susceptible, the door or the window, so you decide to throw your weight against the door while screaming to be left alone. They overpower you, walk in laughing as you try to cover your body with a t-shirt. That part of you that knows how to hate does so with a vengeance. Later you will try to forget this, and other things. Your oldest brother goes to war and returns an addict; he divorces his wife, neglects his children, and takes to the streets. Sometimes he leaves voicemails in which he asks you for money, sometimes for a place to stay, sometimes to cry about all the bad from when you were kids, and sometimes to yell at you for not caring enough. He says, “You better fucking talk to me!” But you don’t. And when your other brother calls to say he misses you, you freeze, for years, unable to recall that person he used to know.
You remember your little brother, Christopher, getting so angry with you, but you don’t recall for what. You were not always a good sister, lost patience, yelled at the babies when they misbehaved. A few times you spanked them, and having done this tortures you and always will. You don’t believe in spanking. The babies were just bored, needed more attention than you could give. And when Christopher got angry, you got angry back, and when he yelled, you put your right hand on his beautiful, perfect face, thumb on one cheek the rest of your fingers on the other, and you squeezed. Like your father always did to you, you stared in his face. You hate yourself for doing something your father would have done. And the next day, when a tiny blue bruise the size of your thumbprint appears on Christopher’s cheek, you feel sick. It’s your biggest regret. You want to tell him, tell him you’re most sorry for this, for not being better. And you do, but he doesn’t remember the bruise, years later, he can’t recall it.
Not too long before you leave home, your father tells you he will help you. He doesn’t know how, but he will help. He wants you to have dreams that come true, though he asks if you don’t think he has any dreams of his own. You wonder about them, his dreams, and think he could have done anything, gone anywhere, could have been happy, but he picked the wrong woman and never did figure out how to set it right. You don’t believe your father’s dreams will ever come true because there is something impossible there. You ask him again, how will he help, hopeful to put your plans of running away, of leaving the babies, on the back burner. Your father tells you he will help you get into school, but then says if you tell anyone, tell your mother, he’ll say you lied and will pretend he knows nothing about the conversation. Later, when you run away, you wonder why your father made a promise he had no intention of keeping, of offering help he would never give.
You recall being a child walking home from kindergarten (you didn’t get pulled out of school until after a few weeks of being in the first grade). You walk up the hill to your family’s apartment and it tires out your legs and your stomach growls for something to eat. Sometimes when you get home the door is locked, your mother sleeping in the back bedroom, so you sit outside waiting, sometimes for hours, to be let in. You don’t bang on the door as your brothers do when they get home, you want to let your mother sleep. When the door isn’t locked, you slip quietly into the bedroom, wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, then ease up to the bed and place your hand near your mother’s nose to check for a breath. Just as carefully as you entered the room, you leave it. In the kitchen you retrieve your favorite spoon—it has a long, narrow handle. You have heard your mother call it an iced tea stir spoon. You take it to the refrigerator and sit down on the floor crossed legged. You eat four spoonfuls of cool whip and then wash the spoon and put it back in the drawer. Soon you feel ill and throw up the sweetness.
When you’re thirteen your throat begins to hurt and swell. Your mother tells you to gargle salt water and to take her Echinacea and Goldenseal tincture. At first you give yourself the tincture only a little, but within days the pain is so bad that you take the concoction more frequently, hopeful it will kill the sickness living in your throat. You stay up for two nights straight, spitting in the sink to avoid the piercing pain that comes when you don’t. You pace the hallway between spits and forcing yourself to drink more Echinacea and Goldenseal, each sip leaves you fighting back a painful scream. In the mirror you notice the circles under your eyes look worse than usual, you open your mouth and see how one side of your throat nearly touches the other. You give up the pacing and sit down in a living room chair, the sun has risen and the babies are running about half dressed. You don’t move to tend them, instead pull a blanket under your chin and whimper. Your mother hears you, yells from her room, “Rachel, are you crying!” “No,” you attempt to lie. “Great. Rachel’s crying,” your mother says to your father. Your father, who had just come home from a graveyard shift, enters the living room and asks you if he should take you to the doctor. Through tears you tell him you’re okay, but give him a look that you hope shows you aren’t okay at all. You hear your mother yelling about you being manipulative and just wanting his attention. You ignore her and quickly put your shoes on, afraid your father will change his mind. He doesn’t, and at the doctor’s office you’re injected you with steroids. The doctor tells your father he’d like to send you to the hospital, but knows he and my mother don’t like hospitals. He says, “If she’s not better in six hours, plenty of time for the steroids to take effect, you will need to get her check her into Bristol Regional Medical Center.” In the car you tell your father you’re worried your mother won’t let you go to the hospital. He tells you not to worry. When your father pulls into the driveway your mother comes rushing out, “What did they say, it’s nothing, isn’t it?” You stand still and look to your father, who tells her it’s not nothing and you should be in the hospital. “Bullshit! She doesn’t need a hospital.” Your father tells you to go in the house and lay down, and then he lowers his voice and angrily harshes your mother. You were prepared to be yelled at more, to be kept from getting better, but your father was a father that day, and the yelling stopped. Eventually, your mother comes and lies down next to you and goes to sleep. When you don’t get better both your parents take you to the hospital where you mother stays with you. You try to watch cartoons, but she makes you keep the television off. She sleeps next to your hospital bed for three days, until the IV drip of steroids and antibiotics fix your throat. You wish she would go away, would stay at home, but know she won’t go anywhere. She leaves your younger siblings with your older brother, Sean. She likes being out of the house. She talks to the nurses, tells them she’s sick, too, only the doctors don’t know what’s wrong with her.
When you are five, before your mother decided school was evil, and you were still in kindergarten, your mother slept more than she didn’t. But some afternoons she would be up, heating food on the stove, and remind you that you were her “little baby girl.” It was during one of these afternoons that you tell your mother it is your turn to bring the snack for class, that everyone had to take a turn. She asked you what the other kids had brought. “Bananas, peanut butter crackers, milk, stuff like that.” You told her you didn’t like the milk and that you wished there were more juice boxes because milk made you gag. She was thoughtful, then said, “We’ll go to the store and pick out something special!” When it was time, she ordered gingerbread-man cookies from the bakery and cherry juice boxes. You thought it was the most wonderful snack in the world, but your teacher said it was supposed to be a nutritious snack, which hurt your pride, but your joy was not completely lost when another child in the class said your snack was the best so far. You only told your mother what that child had said when she asked what was said about the snack. She smiled, seemed pleased, and then told you that your brothers and you could have a sleepover. You still have pictures of that sleepover, everyone in pajamas in the living room of the small apartment, your mother’s frosted hair, her smiling amid a pile of children. You look at that picture and see your tiny body curled up next to hers and remember how much you used to love your mother.
When you are ten you crack your collarbone for the first time—rough-housing with your brothers. Your mother yells for quiet, is on the phone with some religious person, then another. Hours later she looks at your collarbone, comments on its redness, but says it’s fine. You reinjure it three weeks later—again, rough-housing. Your father looks at it and makes your mother call the doctor. The doctor looks at your injury, lies you down on the table, and stands between you and your parents. He speaks to them the whole time he inspects your belly and chest, is calm when he, without letting them know, checks your privates. You didn’t understand at the time, but now you know he was looking for abuse. The doctor tells your parents they waited too long to treat your break. There is little to be done but put you in a sling. Later, when you hurt your arm you remember the fractures in your collarbone, so don’t ask for help because you know it would be too hard won. You hold your arm and know part of it’s broken, so you do your best to protect it, but one time you wake up and discover yourself sprawled out on the floor, having blacked out after accidently hitting your arm against your bedroom door.
Your mother is cleaning out kitchen cabinets, has you stand on a chair as she hands things up to you to place on the shelves. There are a few vases, cereal containers, two plastic lunch boxes that you and your brother had not used in nearly six years, not since you’d been pulled from school. You look at the pink one, recognizing your first name printed evenly on the front, but you aren’t sure about the name following yours, so you sound it out. M-i-c-h-e-l-l-e comes out Mitchell. Your mother snaps at you, “That’s your middle name! How do you not know how to spell your own middle name?!” Immediately you redden in shame. You’ve never had to write your middle name before, and as you sit there thinking about it, it’s all a blur. You read books all the time, you’ve probably read that name before. And you wonder if you always read Michelle as Mitchell. You say you’re sorry, tell your mother you just read it wrong. You set the lunchbox aside—“I think I’ll keep this in my room,” you say. Later that night, while your little brother Matthew sleeps in his crib across from your bed, you take the lunchbox under the covers, and with a small light you look at your middle name, bring pencil to paper, and write the middle name over and over until you have it memorized.
You don’t remember what happened to set your father off, probably you asked him a question about numbers, a question no nine-year-old should need to ask. Your father storms down to your parents’ bedroom, throws open the door and demands of your mother why you can’t do math. You are filled with embarrassment, which worsens when you hear your mother say, “She doesn’t have an aptitude for math!” You are confused when you hear this because your first grade teacher had said math was your best subject. And you remember liking math the best. So when your mother comes storming out of her bedroom you are frozen as she brushes past you, grabs some math textbooks she ordered some time ago but never opened, and then marches you into her room. All day she crams math into your head, by five o’clock you’ve gone through the second, third, and half way through the fourth grade math books. “Look. Now she’s more than caught up,” your mother says to your father. He’s quiet as he looks over some of your problems, tells you you need to work on your handwriting. That night you lie in bed, Christopher sleeps across from you in his crib, his little feet curled up under his tiny hips. You try to recall what it is you learned that day, but cannot. It’s as if there is a haze covering your brain. You make a promise to yourself that you won’t always be behind.
You’re thirteen when you find Sean hiding in the basement. He sits on the bottom of the stairs, his face in his hands, and he’s crying. He’s crying like you haven’t seen him cry in years. “What is it?” you ask. “I’m a big idiot. I’m just a big idiot!” he says, over and over. “No you’re not. Why are you saying that? You’re not an idiot.” You awkwardly pat his shoulder and again you ask him why he’s saying that. He finally tells you the neighbor boy (two years younger than him) was doing his homework outside and asked Sean to help him, but he couldn’t. The boy kept insisting he should know, he was grades ahead of him and he should know. But he couldn’t help and ran to the basement in tears. You are angry at your parents. You want to demand they send all of you to school, but you don’t. Though you do tell your mother why Sean’s crying, hoping her guilt will make her at least think of sending all of you to school. It doesn’t. “Watch your little brothers,” she says, as she, with a textbook in her hand, guides Sean into her bedroom for the afternoon.
At eight you start ballet classes because your mother makes you. At first, for several years, you hate it. You don’t understand how to be around the other children. You’re to take classes because you are not enough of a “lady.” You notice the girls doing their homework in the dressing room, so you start bringing a book with you to read while they study. Sometimes your father lets you go to the library before ballet class. He drops you there on his way to work and lets you walk to the studio. For years this is how you will learn—the books that your mother won’t let you read at home will become well known to your fingers as you pull them from their shelf and read them, hidden in the safety of the stacks. Later, you will pause to wonder about how you learned to find books in the library. It was your mother who taught you how to do that. You know she will regret it, years later, when you start bringing home books about college. At ballet you notice the other girls have different kinds of books, different subjects they study. You try to teach yourself about science. You find your father’s old biology book, the one from his only semester of college. He’d been a student when you were eight-years-old. You’re fourteen and trying to understand the text in the book. The glossy pages are confusing and again you feel that familiar kind of film settle over your brain. You don’t understand. But when your mother finds you reading the biology book she says, “Ha, college level and you don’t even have to go to school.” You don’t bother telling her you don’t understand. You know it won’t make any difference and she’ll only tell you it’s because you don’t have an aptitude for science. You hate the word “aptitude.”
You write a last letter to your grandmother when you’re around fifteen. She had mailed you a letter in which she asked if you had a boyfriend or wouldn’t your father let you have one? You replied to her, happy to be asked. You tell her that if you fell in love it wouldn’t matter what anyone else, including your father, said. It’s a silly thing to have written and you know it. You wouldn’t know how to talk to a boy if you were stuck alone with one for days on end. But you’ve read a lot of books, some with love stories in them, and you like the romantic idea of falling in love and nothing getting in the way. So, you write this to your grandmother who you have not seen since you were twelve years old. She’s your father’s mother. She always had parakeets, which is what prompted you to get a pet parakeet of your own. You love your grandmother, though your mother has no fondness for her. You’re upstairs putting your little sister to bed when your mother screams for you to come downstairs. You kiss Katherine’s face, tuck the blanket around her baby body, and then go to your mother. She’s waving your opened letter in the air wildly, demanding to know what you were thinking by sending this filth to your grandmother. “Why did you open that?” you demand. “Because, you were sneaky about it and I knew you were hiding something.” You tell her you’re not hiding anything, just wanted to write your grandmother a damn letter. Probably because you don’t apologize or cower, perhaps because you cussed, your mother pauses, then she says, “Punctuation. Do you even know the difference between a comma and a period?” Your face gets red with embarrassment, and your mother’s lips curve in a smile.
After you run away you study. You make friends who help you study. At eighteen you take the GED and then the SATs, and finally you meet with the director of admissions at the local college. You tell her your SAT math scores are twenty points too low, but then you explain how, even though you’ve been kept from attending school most of your life, you’ve been working and ask if there isn’t any way she could let you take classes anyway. She stares are you for a moment, you in your borrowed dress and lipstick. She tells you to wait as she fetches the director of the financial aid office. She tells you to repeat your story, so you do. Both women stare at you and then each other. Finally the admissions director says she’s admitting you and the other woman tells you she’s going to help you with your financial aid paper work. You start college right on time. It was most important to you—to start on time. But you are not prepared for school, for the shiny floors and bright lights. You don’t understand how it all works. Your English instructor takes time with you, looks over your assignments in all your classes, and explains what’s expected of you. A year later you will transfer schools, will move to Salt Lake City, Utah. You will remember the women in Indiana and be thankful. The haze around understanding and learning slowly dissipates, but always you will play at catch-up.
When you’re twenty-seven you have a temper that has gotten worse with age. It’s a temper that takes time to trigger and then lose, but when it reaches just the perfect heat, you see red. You fight with your boyfriend, the one who presented you with a kitten, the one who isn’t really your boyfriend anymore. You go to his place to gather up your things, he knows you’re there, though he never admits this. It’s dark outside and from his living room window you watch the city lights flicker across the valley, Kennecott mine somewhere in the distance, a massive hole where a mountain once stood—you try to locate it in the darkness, but can’t. He walks in with another woman and in an instant you are not you, but a violent version of you. This woman is larger than you, yet it’s easy to pick her up and set her out of the apartment when she refuses to leave. And your not-boyfriend yells at you, says he could be “mid-fuck” right now. You punch him in the head before he says this, and after the words leave his mouth, you go to walk out the door. He blocks it, insists you sit down. And you do, feeling the heat leave your body as he reminds you of all your walls. Your skin is pink and clammy, sweat sticks to the hair around your face, and you notice you’re breathing hard as you stare at this man who sits across from you with his hands on your knees. And you think that most of this is your fault because you don’t know how to love right.
When you’re twenty-nine you move to Missouri, leaving behind the mountains and the desert, the west, the home you made your own. This flatland will bring you to the ground, cover you in a humid blanket so thick you have to remind yourself to breath. You’ll walk through the small downtown of Columbia, Missouri, and wonder if maybe you should have stopped to see if all this education was still what you wanted. You’ll go home in the summer, Utah and Arizona, and your river people will tease about you moving to “Misery,” and you will all laugh, cold beer in hands after a day of rigging, preparing boats for another trip down the Grand. But you know you’re beaten down and so does your boss, who says he’s worried. You look out at the Vermillion cliffs—cast like giants against a setting sun, drink one last beer for the night, smoke a last cigarette, and finally tell your boss it worries you that he worries.
–Rachel Michelle Hanson (from Storyscape)