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My Mama had a white dress with red polka dots. She had lots of dresses, but I remember that one because I used to always play dress up in it. I'd pull it off the hanger; it smelled like her honeysuckle perfume and detergent softener. I liked to pair it with some of her heels. They were three sizes too big on me and always falling off. After that, I’d go to the bathroom, drag in a stool and apply her fancy lipstick in the shiny gold tube. I'd lean into the mirror just so, making a perfect “o” with my lips. Then, I'd parade myself in front of the long closet mirror, twiddling the pearls in my chubby fingers, and pursing my smeared scarlet lips.
Sometimes, I'd do little fashion shows for my Grandma, stumbling down the hallway in my oversized shoes. "Why don't you look fancy," she'd say, "you’re just like your Mama was at your age." I'd beam whenever she said this because all I wanted was to be like Mama. Mama with her perfect hair and gracious ways, her pretty laugh, the way she'd make bad days better when she'd wink and slip you an extra big slice of pie after dinner on a white plate with red and black checkers all along the edges.
I had a Daddy, too; he was stout, with a disapproving look, and a hairline that seemed to creep back farther every month. Daddy was always a little red in the face; I thought it was because he always had his ties knotted too tight, and a little bit of his neck would always spill over it. "Mama, you're gonna choke him!” I’d yell when I watched her tie his ties; she'd laugh, he’d grunt. Grunting was his second favorite form of communication, his favorite being loud cuss words and menacing glares. I preferred the grunts. Daddy was never redder or angrier than when Mama'd talk about going to a class at the local college or getting a job as a secretary. Daddy would always say, "you already got a job and it's right here at this house if you ever felt like doing it." Daddy never thought Mamma was doing her "job" right; his collared shirts always had too many wrinkles, the chicken wasn't crispy enough, the wash wasn't soft enough, nothing was ever perfect, including me. Because when Daddy couldn't say anything about Mama, then he'd talk about me. I was used to it. Mama said I had a thick skin. I used to pretend like Daddy was a rain storm and I'd put on my imaginary yellow raincoat and the words would roll off of me, but they still got through sometimes. My Mama didn't have a raincoat and she swallowed every word like a bitter pill she had to take. I could see it on her face. If Mama was the sun, Daddy was the clouds. She never stopped being beautiful and bright, but sometimes I couldn't see it anymore.
When I got to the second grade, the pictures in the books started turning into words. It scared me. All the letters seemed to be arranged in strange orders, like some secret code that everyone in my class knew, but I couldn't figure out. As I got older, Mama and Daddy argued more about me or about that job she always talked about so wistfully. It always ended with tears and Mama’s desperate apologies. I got used to slammed doors and angry screams through paper thin walls and pillows pressed right against my ears. But even when the screaming stopped, I could still hear it. My head was like a broken record repeating phrases I heard again and again. I would wake up the next morning, my face still stained by salty rivulets and stagger to the bathroom groggily. One day I opened the door and my Mama was there. I fell back at the sight of her face; her eyes were plum purple, puffy and swollen. Red branches spreading from behind her irises. Her lips were like a cracked sidewalk only it wasn't grass that came up between the cracks. I ran into my room and shut the door, burying my head between my knees. The drought was over and the rivulets ran again. We never spoke about it. I wish I’d stayed, and hadn’t run away. But I didn't want to see, maybe that was selfish, but I knew Mama didn't want me to see her like that either. I knew I'd hear lies even if I asked. I may have been school stupid, but there are two kinds of stupid and I wasn't the other one. I heard the lies anyway: the curling iron burns, when she slipped near the sink and broke the mirror. As I got older, I learned that obliviousness was a gift and consciousness could be a curse. Distraction was the only remedy. I spent a lot of time with friends. I still played dress up now and then and wore lipstick from the shiny gold tube. Pie still made the bad days better, but there are some things that even a peach pie can't fix. One day when I got home, my Mama noticed the red lipstick I’d gotten all over my hands when my friend Susie and I were playing. Mama laughed her pretty laugh and smiled. It was a sunny day. Daddy was away, no clouds.
A few weeks later, Mama was visiting her sister in Austin and Daddy was supposed to pick me up, but he never showed up at the school. I only lived a couple of blocks away and there was an ice cream stand on the way home, so I decided to walk.
There was a silver corvette in the driveway and the door was open.
"Daddy,” I called as I pulled open the screen door; no answer, except the sound of a running sink in the kitchen. As I tiptoed closer, I heard humming. Mama, back a day early, I assumed. I laughed as I swung around the kitchen doorway. “David,” the woman sang as she turned around. She saw me and her mouth gaped, the wine glass she was holding slid out of her hands. I dropped my bag on the floor. My eyes traveled from her shocked blue eyes to her collared shirt, or should I say Daddy’s collared shirt, down to red underwear. Finally, she spoke, ducking behind the kitchen island,
“I’m a friend of your Daddy’s,” she said, sounding hesitant and nervous. Her voice made me sick. I felt bile creeping up my throat. I ran up to my room and slammed the door behind me. I slid down the back of the door. I prayed she’d be gone by the time I went downstairs again.
It felt like hours before I finally crept downstairs. Daddy was seated at the kitchen table. Heavy brows sat on his downcast eyes. It seemed to take a minute before he finally noticed my presence. "Siddown,” he said gruffly. I did.
"I don’t know what you think you saw,” he said. I wrinkled my nose at his bitter breath. He smelled like too many whiskey sours and a bottle of cheap gas station perfume.
"I know what I saw,” I say, sitting a little taller in my seat.
"No, you don't, you're just a child, and you'd better not say anything to your Mama,” he barked, shaking his fingers at me. For a second I forget myself. I slip.
"I'll do as I damn please.” I'm taken aback. I don't sound like myself. I feel my blood boil in my veins and it's as if someone's taken over me, and they’re angry. No, no, they’re furious. My Daddy is silent for a moment, but then he sputters and shakes. A machine in spontaneous combustion about to explode. His silence makes me bolder, and for a second I feel as if I've beaten him with those six tiny words. As if for all those years, it would’ve been that easy. I start again.
I don't finish because the blow hits me and I'm not in the chair anymore, I'm on the floor. My breath shakes and I don't dare to look up. I hear the shoving of a chair and heavy stomps out of the kitchen. For a long time, I don't get up. I just lay on the floor. My hands cradled around my face. I thought Daddy was the one who was broken, but now it's me. I know who broke me, but who broke Daddy?
The next morning I'm in my bed, but I don't know how I got there. When I enter the kitchen, I see that Mama is back. I tell her everything. She closes her eyes and leans in kissing me on the forehead. "I'm sorry baby,” she says, and I swear I've never heard anyone sound more sorry than she did right then.
The next day I got home from school and there was more humming in the kitchen, and the sink was running, too. But this time it was Mama. She turned around. Mama had lipstick on her hands, running down them, dripping to the floor. And then I saw the lipstick covered knife in the sink. And I looked from the knife to Mama and back again. I couldn’t begin to describe the expression on her face. I ran. Now, this is another time I think that obliviousness might've been a gift. As I slam the door of my room, I hear a siren start barreling down the road. Then, loud banging and then, screaming. As I creep around the banister, I watch as they pull my Mama away, and she screams for me. And I can’t bring myself to look at her. She screams my name once more, and this time I turn to her and she looks at me, mascara streaming down her face, hands still stained red. She locks eyes with me for a minute. “I’m sorry,” she whispers and this time I know that she isn’t.