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We drove around, looking at houses. My eyes stayed dry the entire time. I’ve always expected the worst to happen, so I can’t say I wasn’t prepared. My resolve hardened the more we looked. I felt like a machine – cold, hard, incapable of emotion. I assumed I was broken, like a battery-powered doll that had stopped talking back, stopped walking, stopped having life. I was just a shell with pretty clothes, fancy hair, and a painted-on face. I was breathing and talking, but if someone had asked me to put on a smile, I don’t think I could have done it.
“Your dad doesn’t know about any of this,” she said. “Don’t tell him, okay?” I nodded once, and that was it; we were partners in crime.
“Mom?” I’d asked one night at dinner six years before. “Are you and dad ever gonna get divorced?”
She looked at me as if I had just said I didn’t like chicken nuggets anymore. “Of course not!” she said, aghast. “Why would you ask that?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged. “Lots of kids’ parents are divorced.”
“That’ll never happen to us, honey,” she assured me. “You dad and I love each other very much.”
They say the past comes back to haunt you. I didn’t remember that conversation until my mom started driving the wrong way home after picking me up from dance practice. I was 16 but just as innocent as I’d been over half a decade before.
“I’ve been looking at houses,” she slowly said. “I’m moving out of your dad’s.”
She’s been looking at houses … She’s moving out … We’re moving out … I’m moving out. Oh God, I’m moving out of my house. I’m going to be living in a new place – without Dad!
Not a speck of my inner turmoil was reflected on my face.
The next day I went through my routine on autopilot. I am a quiet person, so it wasn’t remarkable for me not to say much. It wasn’t until sixth period at school that I realized I hadn’t turned into a complete robot. Of course calculus hadn’t been on my mind the night before, and it showed in my difficulty with the simple homework we’d been assigned. After going through multiple problems, I still wasn’t getting it. I wasn’t the only one, but my struggle was out of the ordinary.
Another girl, nice enough if just a little snooty, teasingly joked, “I don’t understand why you’re having such a problem!”
Any kind of witty, sarcastic comeback fizzled out of my imagination. I gave her a tight-lipped smile that probably more closely resembled a deranged grin. I turned back to the front, keeping my eyes on my sloppy homework. The numbers blurred.
So my tear ducts still worked.
You don’t have parents who can’t stand to be in the same room as each other! I yelled at the ignorant girl telepathically. You didn’t go house hunting last night! The trunk of your car isn’t stuffed with supplies for a new house, smuggled from the cupboards before your dad got home! That’s what my problem is! Shut up, shut up, shut up!
The rest of the year went downhill. My mom moved out in late October, and I followed her two weeks later. I didn’t see my dad most nights during those two weeks, but I heard him come home late, detained by a meeting or a night out drinking. He would already be gone by the time I got up in the morning. After school I went to see my mom. The house I grew up in wasn’t home without her. Yet the new house she was living in, with its bare white walls and gaping windows, wasn’t home either. For those two weeks, I didn’t have a home, only two houses.
By mid-November my stress and exhaustion, coupled with the impending winter, got to me. I contracted pneumonia and mononucleosis. I ended up in the hospital, dehydrated and suffering from a fever that peaked at 106, and got out just in time for Thanksgiving.
Two months later, exams were upon me. I studied hard for my five AP classes but ended up getting bumped out of the exhausting race for valedictorian. School pressed on me like a heavy weight. I wanted nothing more than to crumble under its strain. Some nights I’d ignore my bag full of homework that everyone else had turned in yesterday. Test grades turned ugly. So did my attitude.
Independence and continuous disappointment caused me to shy away from asking anyone for comfort, even though that was exactly what I needed. I was tired of being my mom’s rock, so I wouldn’t go to her. The last thing I wanted was pity, so I kept my mouth shut around friends. My dad and I weren’t on speaking terms. My sister was away at college, and it just didn’t seem right talking about it over the phone. I curled into myself.
Of course, I couldn’t shut down without anybody noticing. My mom hovered. Friends prodded, asking me what was wrong almost daily. My nana suggested I see a therapist. I insisted I was fine. I was always “fine.” There wasn’t time not to be.
I gradually adapted to my new living quarters. I got comfortable being uncomfortable in my own bed those first few nights, alone in a foreign room. I slept like I was in a hotel, restless and eager to return home. When I ventured into my old room a couple weeks later to retrieve some forgotten clothes, a shocking feeling of uneasiness washed over me. This was no longer my room. This was a stranger’s room, an innocent little girl’s.
Now I feel as though life is getting back to normal – a new normal. I’m stronger than ever, and more mature. Years from now, maybe I’ll be sitting with my daughter at our kitchen table, eating chicken nuggets, and she’ll ask if her father and I will stay together forever. What will my answer be?
“Don’t count on it, honey.”
I don’t believe in the word “never” anymore.