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i. monsters in my head
On the nights it all gets too hard, I let myself think back to the times before. Before the parties and the home-alone-nights and her dark days and husbands number 1 and 2; before it all, when it was just me and Mom and her and me, and that was all we needed, because we were a family.
If I close my eyes tight and don’t move for a few minutes, it’s almost as if I’m back there with her, just the two of us, and she’s smiling, because she could do that then.
“You are my world,” I can hear her say, just like she used to on the nights I’d get frightened of the monsters in my room. She would hug me so tight I could smell the burnt sugar and chocolate on her from the candy store she worked at. We would lock our pinkies together and she’d smooth my hair back and kiss my forehead and stay right beside me until I fell asleep and the monsters were gone.
The memory never lasts for longer than a few seconds. Sometimes it leaves me feeling worse than before.
I’m older now, and the monsters aren’t in my room anymore, they’re in my head.
ii. makeup is art
I’m nine years old again, clutching my teddy bear as Mom paints her face in her room. I like to watch her get ready. She is careful and precise with every movement.
“Makeup is art,” she tells me. Then she makes funny faces at me in the mirror, and I laugh and laugh and laugh.
She pulls her hair into a bun and slips into a new dress that Steve bought her. She goes out with Steve a lot now. I ask her when I get to meet him. She laughs, a tinkling sound I love to hear. “Soon, baby, if all goes well.”
Nannies are expensive, Mom tells me next, so I need to be her brave big girl and stay at home all alone in the apartment for one night. Can I do that for her?
I tell her yes, even though I’m not sure I can.
“You are my world,” she says to me. We lock our pinkies together and she smooths my hair back and kisses my forehead.
When she leaves, the apartment feels empty.
I get to be a flower girl at the wedding. I run and laugh and throw petals in the air and everyone calls me cute.
Mom looks beautiful, but Steve doesn’t look half as nice standing next to her. Today is only the third time I’ve met Steve. I don’t like the way he looks at me, but when I try to tell Mom, she tells me to hush.
After the wedding we move in with Steve. He has a much nicer, much bigger house. Mom quits her job at the candy store, and she doesn’t smell like burnt sugar and chocolate anymore. I think this means we get to spend more time together, but it doesn’t. She gets headaches now, and a lot of them. She takes white pills to stop them. They don’t always work. These are her dark days.
One night, Steve visits me in my room. Mom is asleep, he says. He calls me beautiful and pushes aside my clothes and touches me. It makes me feel like the monsters are crawling over my body. But I let him, mostly because I don’t know what will happen if I don’t. I pretend it’s just a nightmare and it will all be over soon. I don’t let myself cry.
I’m a brave big girl, Mom had said. I’ll be fine. I’ll tell Mom and we’ll leave him and it’ll be just the two of us and she won’t have dark days and I’ll be her world again.
The next morning, I don’t get up until I hear Steve’s car start and I know he’s gone. Then I wake up and walk carefully to my mother’s room. I try to tell her what happened, but she tells me to hush. She’s having another one of her dark days.
I am not her world anymore.
iv. bright copper like the sun
A few months later, when Steve isn’t home, Mom and I pack our bags and drive away. I don’t know why, and I don’t ask why.
Mom is frightened and crying, and doesn’t much care that I can see her. I tell her that I’m here, that it’ll be okay, that we’re fine. She tells me to hush.
I like to watch her fingernails while she drives. They’re painted bright copper like the sun, and they tap out a soothing rhythm against the steering wheel. They’re the only calm thing about her.
We stay with my Aunt Lina for the summer. I’ve only met Lina on a few other occasions. Her house is tiny, not big enough for three people, but it works out okay, since Mom is hardly there.
Sometimes when it gets too lonely, I pull out my old dolls and play with them. I pretend I’m a hairdresser. I brush Ella’s curls and braid them back. Other times I just tell them stories. They are good listeners, and never have dark days.
One day Lina catches me doing this. “You are too old for dolls,” she scolds. “You need to grow up.”
So I grow up. I put away the dolls.
v. white pills like candy
Mom finds a new man. His name is Robby. They get married in a one-night, Vegas-style wedding that I’m not invited to.
Robby’s house isn’t nearly as nice as Steve’s, but I don’t really mind. Robby is nice enough, but I can tell he doesn’t like kids, so I stay out of his way and he stays out of mine.
For a while everything is better. Mom is happy and always is home and Robby keeps away.
Then she starts having dark days again. Her headaches are worse this time. She pops white pills like candy. She gets thinner. Her door is always shut.
vi. burnt pancakes
On her birthday I make her breakfast in bed. I place burnt pancakes drizzled in maple syrup on a tray and bring it to her. Robby’s at work, so I figure it will be alright if I go into her room. She won’t eat any of it.
“I am your world,” I try to tell her. “Remember?”
But she doesn’t listen.
On the lonely days, on the sad days, on today, I wish Steve to come back, because it feels like he was the only one who ever cared about me. These are the days I hate myself the most.
vi. ruby red
Robby leaves. Mom cries and cries and cries. This time, I don’t try to comfort her.
School starts back up again and in home economics we learn to sew. I trace the needle over my arm until my skin breaks. Ruby red droplets of blood pool at the surface. The sharp sting feels satisfyingly nice.
One day the teacher catches me doing this. Her face is tight with concern. She sends me to the counselor, and they call Mom.
After this, we get in the car and we drive. On the way to Somewhere, she tells me she is sorry.
We are healing. That’s what Mom tells me. Her dark days are less frequent now, but when they do happen, it’s worse than ever before. She goes to a special doctor, one that helps her not take white pills. I go to a special doctor too.
We move back into the apartment we used to live in.
“It’s so tiny,” she comments on our first day back. “How did we ever live here before?”
Happily, I think, but I keep my mouth shut. She likes it better when I don’t talk.
I go to school. She gets her job back at the candy store. She gains some of her weight back. Slowly, slowly, like a worm inching back to the soil after rainfall, we get better. We talk sometimes. I tell her about school and she tells me about her work. She brings home candy from the candy shop. It’s not like old times, but sometimes it feels like it.
I am not her world anymore, though perhaps I never was.