Author's note: Please pay CAREFUL attention to the dates (in bold)!
sitting alone she tells of her pastdaily occurrence
Chapter 1: sitting alone she tells of her past
February 13th, 2005
I SIT ALONE at the table. My pulse flutters as I hear footsteps; I shake my hair down to hide my face as my breath turns into short, shallow pants. Someone is coming. I see a pair of sparkling red flats, so shiny I can see the pale moon of my face in the reflection. A pair of grungy sneakers slouch along next to them, dark leg hairs illuminated in the fluorescents. I glance up to see the faces that match these shoes. They are both looking at me, the strange girl crouched awkwardly on the table, backpack a blue, bulging lump sitting next to her as she waits for the bus. They are both looking at me, Ainsley of the long blond hair and her boyfriend, the ne’er - do – well basketball player – Luke O’Grady. Their eyebrows rise and smirks twitch up the corners of their mouths. They know me well enough to know that I would never mistake the upward curve of their lips for friendliness. I tell myself, You are just as good as them, but that is their power: they know you are afraid of them, of what they could do to you.
They move away, slowly, heads together, muttering, Ainsley’s cawing scraping the insides of my ears, where strange, delicate organs force me to listen to every rumor they have ever spread about me. Tears well in my eyes, like they do a hundred times a day; I am unhappy. I want a friend, someone I could tell anything and they’d sympathize.
In gym today, I stood alone in a corner, while around me, people bunched into groups of laughing, chattering friends. I moved towards them, wanting to blend with them like a shade of paint slightly off – color. Their heads snapped up, eyes shining with hostility, and I moved away from them, murmuring “Sorry” to no one, for no reason.
The coach snapped at me. “We’re a team!” she enthused, spreading her arms wide. “We’re all friends here. We need to work together, Anna, you need to get that. You just sit – alone – in that corner. Nobody’ll hurt you -” her eyes travel in a slow circle around washed – out irises – “nobody’ll make fun of you! We’re a darned TEAM. Come on, Anna, you need to be part of this.” Her voice strained against patience. She slapped her broad thigh briskly, as if she was telling a disobedient dog to heel.
I shrank before their derisive stares, inching into their circle. My face flushed red; their laughter, although I only imagined it, roared in my ears. In my mind I screamed at the coach: DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND? I AM TRYING, I TRY SO HARD EVERY DAY…BUT THEY DON’T WANT ME. THEY HATE ME. I WANT TO BE PART OF THEM, BUT THEY ARE THE ONES WHO WILL NEVER ACCEPT ME.
After class, I ran to the locker room, while the other girls took their time, tossing their hair and squealing for the boys playing basketball in the corner. I stared at myself in the mirror, its glass oily with fingerprints. My hair stuck straight up with static, my eyes were smeared with tears.
But despite that, I wasn’t ugly. I knew from experience that if I wore a little makeup and did my hair I could easily be pretty. I wasn’t fat. I didn’t have any mental or physical problems. I was friendly. I was funny.
Why did they hate me so much? What had I ever done to them?
“I don’t need them,” I told my reflection. “I never wanted them, anyway.” If you say it enough, it’ll come true. I hated myself – I hated myself, for merely wanting them to like me, for keeping myself up at night thinking of Breakfast Clubbish - type ways they would finally see me for who I really was. A sob caught in my throat. The girl in the mirror blurred and became a dark stranger standing before me. The harsh lights of the school, the fluorescents that bared my every flaw, flickered momentarily. The world seemed to tilt around me, and then I was falling off the edge of the mirror, diving into the cold vat of water pooling in the sink, plummeting with a whoosh into a basin of my own tears. The salt burned me away, and as I died, faces danced before me, grinning, long blond hair swinging, polished pink smiles curving around white straight teeth while giggles and whispers… “Who’s that?…Loser…” rebounded off the damp white walls and reverberated through my ears, thrumming in my brain until they became a song I couldn’t get out of my head.
I clutched the cold porcelain of the sink, staring at the mirror until everything came back into focus. “It’s just me, myself and I, now,” I whispered to myself, hugging my body close to me.
“You’re on my side, right?” I asked myself, smiling weakly.
The face that hovered in the streaked and stained glass smirked and splintered into shards, pieces of myself looking out from a shattered mirror. Shards of glass ripped at my throat, and I locked myself into a stall, trying to cry as quietly as I could.
STARS FLICKER OUTSIDE. The bus does not come, and still I sit waiting, cars’ headlight illuminating damp circles of pavement. Rain falls. Nine o’clock, and it is dark and silent and deserted. Piles of untouched homework weigh my backpack down.
I get up and walk the nine miles of hills home. I have never liked the dark. My heart races, I swing around at any innocent sound. I think the reason people are afraid of the dark is because anything could be hiding in the shadows. I imagine the flash of an ax, the low rustle of a rattler sliding over damp leaves, the feel of strange flesh on my neck. The houses stand like slabs of cold stone, silvery in the moonlight.
My house is bright and TV blasts through the door. High shrill laughter bubbles through our yard, the sound of kisses. It’s Annette and Rogers from White Roses, my mother’s favorite soap opera. The door is unlocked, its rusty chain rattling as it swings open begrudgingly.
I know my mother has had one of her bad days the instant I walk in. I can tell the signs from a mile away by now. Her eyes are too bright, big and shiny, like aluminum – covered coins. They glitter and sparkle, outlined in eyeliner as she whirls through the house, painting. Painting. The lime - colored paint spashes and splurts on the carpet, on the floor, but she continues, streaking green over the walls maniacally. I fight a sob. Not again.
I walk over to her, speaking in a low and reasonable tone, like a snake charmer trying to hypnotize a cobra. My hand drifts onto the paintbrush. “Mom…it’s midnight. Let’s go to bed. You can finish in the morning.”
“No,” she pants, wild – eyed. “I have to finish.”
She spins away from me, twirling and whirling like a ballerina, but it is a frantic dance, her hands jerking around and her eyes terrified…of what? Paint slaps the wall with a wet sucking sound.
“YOU stop!” she screams to me, a green stripe on her cheek. “I have to finish, I HAVE to! Get out of here. Get OUT NOW!” True fury burns in her eyes and she starts over to me, her paintbrush held aloft like a knife, one hand clutching the can. I back away, my body stiff and frozen. There is one second…one second when I know, with a spurt of dread, what will happen. The paint tips, and a deluge of green spills out in slow motion, puddling on the carpet like thick pea soup. We stop and gaze in disbelieving silence for a moment.
“Look what you made me do!” she screams, sobbing like a little kid. Her arms swing and jerk awkwardly, like a Barbie doll’s. She collapses onto the table and cries, hands shaking, the folds of flesh on her neck quivering. Tears splash the dirty dishes I haven’t had a chance to do yet. The green paint spreads farther. The walls are half blue, half green.
“I’m sorry,” I say softly, to no one, for no reason.
MY ROOM IS nestled at the far end of our house, a glorified closet barely large enough to hold a cot. But it is there I run, flipping myself onto the bed and snapping the lock. I relax in the feeling of safety.
My little brother, Damiel, is already waiting for me. I feel regret when I turn on the lights, looking at his small, round face, untrimmed hair flopping over his eyes, his mouth pursed seriously. He’s only ten years old – he shouldn’t look like that. He wears a pink shirt, a hand – me – down from me. Downstairs, we hear soft weeping before we chase the sound away with talk of our own.
“Dad sent you a letter,” Damiel says, holding out a thick envelope. He looks at it reverently, and this unsettles me. I take it from him and slit it open.
My father has sent a new check. I hold it for a moment, savoring the crisp, cool power of having money in my hands. A note slides from the same envelope when I lift it towards the trash can, and I gasp and snatch it back. Only one sentence, in his sloppy handwriting: REMEMBER OUR DEAL SEE YOU SOON DAD.
“Is he really coming?” Damiel asks, trying to read it upside down, but I flip it over and slide it out of view. He looks at me, hoping I’ll give him the answer he wants, so he can have a little hope. I give him the same answer I always do, knowing that it’s not true but not wanting to crush him any more:
“I don’t know.”
I made the deal with my father years ago, in tenth grade. It was when he and my mother were fighting again. They’d been arguing for years, big blowups started by small disagreements, he threatening to move out if she didn’t get help, etc., etc. One day, he just gave up. Silence hung in the air, all of us trembling with the fury of my mother’s last insult. He knew the charade, he was supposed to scream something obscene and stomp out the door so that we could chase after him. I knew my part and I played it well. Dusty was too young to understand that it was just an act.
My mother stood waiting, an angry grin on her face, as she waited for him to make his move. Her hands hovered above a heavy plate, trembling with anticipation. He said: “You know what? You’re right. I don’t care what you do any more.”
The air rushed in a whoosh from my mother’s mouth, her face sagging in shock and terror. She had been too narrow – minded to understand that the game could take a different turn. He walked outside, slowly, not running, not dragging his feet, just walking, and then he climbed into the car and drove away. I yelled after him, begging him not to leave, but the car turned a bend and disappeared.
I stood motionless, staring after the car with dry eyes. He had left me behind. I had not wanted to go with him, had not wanted to leave Damiel or my mother– but I had thought that he loved me enough to try to entice me into his car, to keep me. But he had gone from us with exhilaration in his eyes. He had –
No, it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t my fault. It was my mother’s fault. She had driven him from the house, from me, with her strangeness, the little things, like her flicking tongue and her twisting hands, that set her apart from everyone else. It was her fault that he was gone. I hated her. I was never going to live with her again. I was going to get a job and leave to find my father –
No, it wasn’t her fault. It was his. His deception, his lies, his cheating – did they think I was so innocent that I didn’t know what they fought about? But how could he lie to us, cheat on us? How could I love him if he really did that? And yet I did love him, even when I found red lipstick on his jacket when I was eleven, even when he screamed at my mother. I liked our time together. Damiel had been too intelligent for my father, but I was his favorite, “Daddy’s little girl.” My father had loved to hunt, and I was the one he took with him. I liked the smooth feel of his black, streamlined gun, like a snake in my hands, the sharp report that threw me back into the leaves. I never missed a target except when it was living. My father shot at deer, and I was sick, every time, when I saw that geyser of blood, that ripping hole in the heaving body, the horror and pain in the animal’s eyes. I did not like killing. After he left, I hid the gun – from my mother, I told myself.
HE CAME BACK on a snowy Christmas Eve two years later, unexpected, unannounced, bearing armloads of presents and even a tiny little tree. We set it up and, for a little while, we watched the lights twinkle and the ornaments shimmer when they caught the candlelight. My mother cooked something, a concoction of gravy and rice that she presented proudly. My father praised the mess and ate an astonishing amount of it. They went to sleep in the same bedroom that night, his hand on her leg as she giggled and swatted at him, her voice bubbly with wine.
The house breathed out a secret that night. At six I woke up, body tensing when I heard soft, stealthy footsteps. The January air etched a pattern of frost onto the windowpanes; the locks rattled with the wind. For a moment I thought I’d imagined it, but then another creak: the sound of someone slipping away - for a second time.
He was carrying his shirts, his suitcase, fully dressed. His face puckered into an “O” of shock when he saw me. Something more – guilt, maybe – flickered on his face.
“I need to go, Anna,” he said, starting down the stairs. He broke into a jog, slamming through the door. I raced after him, shivering, my skinny chest bobbing up and down, my feet flaring with pinpricks of agony as I ran through the snow. “Wait!”
He hefted his things into the trunk, moving with quick jerks of his head and hands. “What?”
“Are you coming back?” I thought I knew the answer, but I asked him anyway, knowing that I shouldn’t trust anything he said, but wanting the little glimmer of hope he could give me if he lied.
He stopped and looked at me, his face lined with exhaustion. “Look, me and your mother – we can’t - ”
“She’s sick, Dad! It’s not her fault! And what about us? We’re your kids. We don’t have any money. We can’t live with her like this!” I was filled with anger and pain, that my father, the man who had always been the rational adult in my family, who had always given me presents and hugged me good night , could care so little about his children as to leave them to a sick woman who had once been his wife. The egg of illusions cracked open before me, reality oozing from its slimy insides.
“I need to go – “ He swung into the driver’s seat. The engine rumbled to life, spraying mud and snow into the morning. I did not run after him.
“If you leave,” I said quietly, “I’ll tell the police.”
He exhaled a big, contemptuous breath, his eyes rolling into his head. “Pfft! Tell them what?” A laugh gurgled in his throat.
“Tell them about Mom. About her problem. And then I’ll tell them that you left even when you knew Mom was sick and you’ll have to come back here and go to court- against me. And who will win?” I tilted my head and looked at him. “The little girl, or the man who abandoned his sick wife and children?”
He grew blue – pale, his thick tongue moving spit across his lips. “You wouldn’t, Anna.” But doubt showed in his eyes even as he said it.
He got out of the car and came towards me. He knelt to my eye level, face suddenly kind and filled with false promises. “Look, Anna. I’ll make you a deal. A check, for a thousand bucks, every month. You don’t tell anyone besides Damiel, if you can get the kid to shut it – not friends, not your mom, not anyone. A thousand bucks – hell, that’s generous. You can get a job. You can survive. I’ll come back soon, see how you’re doing. You wouldn’t tell the police – not your own father!” His face as glib as a merchant’s tongue, changing in an instant from beneficent sincerity to a wounded, accused look.
I stepped away from his repulsive, clutching hands. Power buzzed through my mind like a high. I did not speak for several seconds, letting him beg me with a dog’s pleading eyes.
I knew he’d keep his promise. For those few seconds he waited, his face echoed his thoughts: If I’m far enough away, it’s not my problem. So I did not run after him that day, or cry even when my mother and brother did. But sometimes I wonder: at what price?
FOR YEARS, I ached to start school. I envisioned a paradise of admirers and friends, of first loves and adoring teachers. There was no one my age on our block, and even if there had been, we would likely never have spoken. The houses at that part of town were neighborhoods unto themselves, secluded places with broken furniture and untrimmed grass whose inhabitants did not even know each other by name.
“You’ll have friends when you go to school,” my mother said. This was before her oddities escalated into something more. She was still pretty them, blond curls framing a face I, a little girl, thought was more beautiful than anything in the world. Damiel was still just a baby, a pink whining thing that disgusted me, even though I never told my mother. I sat on the laundry room floor, watching her fold shirts with quick, methodical movements, doing my best to distract her before Damiel’s wail – the wail I dreaded – took her away from me again.
“Your teachers will love you…” she continued.
“Really?” I asked her. I was caught up in this dream, in a world where everyone worshiped me, and I felt the soft attachment of their love.
She stopped what she was doing and looked down at me, her face falling into the soft wrinkles of motherhood. “Of course they will,” she said, smiling, as if it was the silliest question she’d ever heard. Her arms reached for me, and I nestled against the warm hump of her shoulder. “Who couldn’t love you, Anna?”
BATES ELEMENTARY SCHOOL was nothing like I imagined. The gates were forbidding things, spiked and rusty with age, but I smiled for my mother’s sake, noticing her eyes on me in the rearview mirror. The building was a flat grey headstone, names and dates etched upon it. Children and parents flowed into it, lips and tongues expelling nervous words that blended into the cries of both.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” my mother asked.
I tried to bring back the smile, but it drooped into a wail. “Y – yes,” I whispered, fighting tears. I hated myself for my childishness, but beyond the big double doors was a shadowy tunnel that was sucking everybody in, and I was afraid to go by myself.
“Okay,” my mother sighed, checking her watch. She was busy that day, I think – I can’t remember very well, and I felt my face burn red with anger and shame as she took my hand, briskly. Harsh fluorescents outlined every wrinkle of my mother’s face. She looked old to me, for the first time. The click of her heels echoed down the deserted corridors – everybody else had already found their classrooms. I would be entering with my mother, like a baby, and already I could feel the condescending burn of other children’s stares. I closed my eyes against this reality, so different from what I had imagined.
502. Here it was. I stepped in. Heads swiveling, soft snickers, fingers sticking into the clothes I had picked out so carefully for this day. The teacher’s lipstick bled into the frown lines circling her mouth. She smiled, sternly. “Hello. I’m Mrs. Tuttra. In future, try to arrive on time, Mrs….your name…?”
My mother flicked her fingers at me in a hurried wave and disappeared, walking away, abandoning me.
“Anna Marshowley,” I whispered.
“Speak up, please. Anna, what?”
“Oh, Marshowley. Yes, sit down.”
I looked around awkwardly, and finally sat with a girl with long brown hair. Giggles circled the room, but she smiled at me, her teeth jagged and encased in purple braces. “Hi, I’m Mary.”
“Anna,” I murmured, my face still red.
“We’re going to get to know each other,” Mrs. Tuttra announced, her high voice swooping and falling like a stage actress’s, her hands fluttering as if smoothing out air disturbed by children’s breath. We gathered into a circle. The thick ridges of the rug left a red pattern on my legs.
“I’m Lily…Lily Amperlett,” one girl stuttered. “I like…horses.”
“I’m Amber Whickchiss. I like Mrs. Tuttra.”
“My name is Robert, but I like to be called Rob.”
Mary’s turn came. Her heart kicked, feebly. Dozens of eyes stared at her, unblinking. She forgot her own name, lost in the harsh whistle of air that streamed from her lips.
A soft murmur of laughter rose around me. Only I did not laugh, while Mary stood before us, red and miserable. Happiness and guilt rose inside me – happiness that they had found another person to laugh at, that they had forgotten about me, guilt because Mary had been kind and yet I was gleeful at her humiliation.
“Mary,” Mrs. Tuttra prompted her. A small, derisive cough pushed its way through her painted lips.
“Mary Wilson,” she stuttered. “ I like…”
She paused, silence stretching like a long glob of gum before it snaps. I sensed the danger and froze. Mary had been kind to me, but now she needed someone to replace her as the current clown.
Her eyes fastened on me, desperate, like two hungry sky - blue leeches.
“I don’t like girls whose…whose MOTHERS come in with them!”
A gasp. “Mary!” But it spun away like a piece of driftwood on a black tide, swirling deep into a whirlpool that sucked greedily at my secrets. That was when I first heard the roaring laughter of a class, loud and syncopated as a single organism, while in its center I was the only one whose eyes remained dry, for why should I laugh with cruelty at myself?
THEY DID NOT exactly tell me I couldn’t sit with them; but you could feel it coming off them, like waves of frigid air. I sat down at an uninhabited table that day, while the rest of my class ate together, sharing secrets and telling poop jokes with the social genius of five – year olds. I had gone from being the scapegoat, to being accepted, to being the scapegoat again. As I ate alone, staring down at my green beans, I mulled over the situation with faint bewilderment. How had things come to this? I had had such good plans, I had smiled and said hello, I at least had remembered my name when my turn came. But none of that mattered, I was to learn quickly, in the skewed philosophy of first – graders.
RECENTLY, I WAS selected to help tutor elementary – school kids in math and science. We got special permission to leave class, eat out, hand our homework in a day late...I and two other girls were assigned to Mrs. LaFargue’s first – grade classroom. The other volunteers cooed over the kids, over how cute they were, over how sweet they were…But I walked past them, helped them detachedly, feeling a faint sort of dislike. I could only remember my first day of first grade, of sitting alone, while that girl Mary had ridiculed me. I wondered who was the outcast in O’ Fargue’s classroom, but I never found out. What would I have told her, anyway? No comforting words, no reassuring advice… nothing but dim dark truths.
THE GREEN BEANS were soggy, limp and puce with overcooking. I put another one in my mouth, tried to find a watch. I hadn’t learned how to tell time yet. The big people were getting up, slinging purses over their shoulders, surreptitiously sneaking doughnuts from behind the backs of the frizz – haired lunch ladies. I got up to dump my tray out, and I was staring at Ainsley Peters. I didn’t know it was her, then, but I recognized her from my class. Hope bubbled in my belly. Maybe they’d decided to take me back. “Hi,” I said.
She smiled at me, a little sadly. “I just wanted to say…I think they are mean,” she said. “I did not laugh.”
Later on, even after I grew to hate her, this is how I would know she couldn’t be all bad.
THE FIRST TIME Ainsley Peters invited me over to her house, I didn’t know what to say. I still do not know whether she did it out of pity, or true friendship. But whatever it was, it was kind, and I was grateful. We took the bus together on a cold March day, slush melting into puddles on the roadside and blades of yellow grass peeking tentatively out from snowdrifts. Her house was a neat yellow one in a good neighborhood. Trimmed grass, neat grey slates, modern kitchen. I wished for this. Our shoes clacked on the linoleum. Ainsley called, “Mom?”
I wondered how they would react to me, her parents: a dark child, uncombed hair, ugly clothes, so clearly at odds with their golden, laughing daughter.
“Hi, Aine.” A guy came down the stairs, grinning. He was handsome, I remember, with just a faint grey tinge of stubble lining his jaw. “And this is Anna? Nice to meet you. I’m Mr. Peters , Anna’s dad – Lily’s just upstairs.”
A woman, blond like Ainsley, came down the stairs, swatting at her husband with a load of towels she was about to put in the washing machine. “Bill, you liar.” She said it playfully, though, not like my parents, who would yell and throw things, eyes going dark with murderous rage, in the years to come. She turned to us with a wide smile on her face. “I’m sorry, Ainsley – my husband’s like a second kid.” She stuck out her hand in a friendly gesture.
“Hi,” I said, offering the wrong hand. My face burned as they laughed, not unkindly.
“Guys, do whatever you want,” Bill said. “Just stay down here so I can see you.”
For that entire afternoon, my life was comparatively normal. We didn’t speak of school. We sat and colored, drawing funny faces on the tips of our fingers; had a fashion show with Ainsley’s sisters’ hand – me – downs; ate lumps of cookie dough until Ainsley’s mother chased us laughing from the kitchen. Ainsley lived an enchanted life: beautiful clothes, a huge yard, a house with so many corridors and closets it was like a maze. I was in awe of her, but I resented her, too. Why couldn’t God have shared her luck with the rest of us? Ainsley was kind, but she was silent when she heard anyone talking about me; she had too strong a sense of self- preservation, of her own precarious popularity, to defend me. And I was the outcast. I was the class joke back then, the one no one spoke to or looked at. I hate myself when I think of it: how I was too cowed to stand up to any of them. But that day, Ainsley and I didn’t speak of this, as I have said. We colored, and pranced across an imaginary runway, and cooked burned cookies, and we managed to forget about all of that, for a little while.
TIME PASSED. SLEEP wiped the minds of my class blank, and I was momentarily forgotten as ‘the girl whose mother came in with her,’ with the indifferent mercy of children. I miss it, sometimes. Clothes didn’t matter then. Sex didn’t matter then. I had a flash of the future to come, once, when I saw the ring of girls, girls gathered around the gaptoothed seven – year - old smiling charisma of Luke O’ Grady, golden boy - blonde and brown and black heads like the woolly heads of lambs kneeling at a shepherd’s feet. By eighth grade he would have slept with all of them – or at least, that was what he bragged to his friends in the shower, while his voice reverberated around the gym, a still-high voice that not even the damp hollowness of the locker rooms could disguise.
My mother’s illness worsened steadily throughout middle school. By sixth grade, she and my father were fighting whenever he was home. In the middle of the night, I’d wake from pleasant dreams and hear them screaming at each other. Damiel would be sobbing in the dusty cot in the next room. He had used to be a small, pink thing that irritated me; now I took comforted in his warm, damp weight leaned against me, in his innocent questions I knew all too well the answers to. We’d creep downstairs, the steps creaking beneath our feet, listening to the sharp, shrill screeches of our mother and the angry rumble of our father’s voice, insults tossed back and forth while china splintered against the white walls. The shards would still be there the next morning, glittering like blue stars in the carpet.
I escaped with Ainsley. I relaxed in the homey kindness of her family. I grew almost addicted to her life: I wore her clothes, listened to her music, pretended that her siblings were mine. We moved through the Bates school system together, and we grew, like everyone else: the girls turning long – legged, sloughing off baby fat, the boys becoming lean, their hands, feet stretching and sprouting dark knuckle hair. We were at her house one day in April, drawing mustaches on all the magazine models, when the doorbell sounded: a high, thin chime.
The sound of voices, geniality on Bill and Lily’s part, high manic babble on someone else’s – my mother. My face grew red; I pressed my marker to the paper viciously. I prayed that she had taken the sour – smelling medicine the doctor had prescribed this morning. She had barely ever met Ainsley; as her illness spiraled downwards, I kept her away, like a vicious dog you keep chained in the shed, asking my father to pick me up instead. But he had left on a “business trip” only a few days ago, and I’d been forced to turn to her. She hadn’t taken the medicine, I knew: she was two hours early.
Ainsley lay back, idly scribbling a beard on a blond model. . “Is that your mom? She’s super early.”
“I guess,” I said, turning away from her. Ainsley had everything else; why couldn’t she have been the one stuck with this woman?
“Ann – aa?” Lily called. Her voice was strained with forced politeness. “Your mother’s here for you.” They could tell there was something wrong with her. Their concern was taut in their voices, the blue veins that snaked down Lily’s pale wrists standing out. I was angry towards them, though I knew it was totally unreasonable, and I went to stand defiantly beside my mother, daring them to judge her. Their eyes rested on me.
“Hey! Mrs. Marshowley, it’s nice to meet you,” Ainsley said, behind me. My mother’s tongue flicked between her lips, like a snake. “Hello, Ainsley. How nice you look – what a gorgeous shirt! Where’d you get it, I’d like to buy one myself – as you can see, I’m a bit messy even at thirty - five.” She laughed, a high, unnatural laugh, gesturing wildly at her shirt, stained with paint and food. “Honestly, how’d that mall trip with Anna go? I was jealous of you girls myself – I remember when my friend Tammy and I - ” She talked on, her hands flying in wild gestures. Ainsley stepped away, her hands curling up, her eyes cloudy when she looked at me. Her face closed to my mother’s chatter with the distance people keep from abnormality. She would be furious that I had never told her all these years, had brushed off her innocent questions with vague, sharp retorts.
“I just remembered - I forgot something in Ainsley’s room,” I said desperately. I edged away from my mother’s arm, that lay over my shoulders like a clammy wet sock. I needed to talk to Ainsley, tell her that I was nothing like my mother. She had to forgive me.
“How could you never tell me about your mother?” Ainsley hissed. My mother and her parents waited downstairs, Bill and Lily not even trying to make small talk, my mother trying too much. I cringed at the sound of her shrill voice, her laughter at things that would never be funny. “I’m sorry,” I said, cowering beneath her anger. “It’s – I think it’s a really personal thing, and - ”
“What’s wrong with her, anyway?” Ainsley’s voice was sharp with spite. “Raised you too long?”
A jolt of anger rocked me backwards. “She has bipolar disorder.” I quelled the feeling. Time enough to get angry, later on, when Ainsley had forgiven me.
Ainsley laughed. Her eyes shone like my mother’s did, bright and hard. Her voice was glazed over with anger. She did not let it go, didn’t let my apology take the sting off my never having told her, truly, about my mother. “Talks weirdly, made you,” she said, “no wonder your mother’s a complete retard.”
The room fell quiet for a moment. The insult was tossed out into the air, glaring and ugly. Fury swallowed me, and Ainsley took a step backward, recognizing it on my face. Her features were squashed into a hard pellet of meanness, pimples rising on her red and angry face like a thousand flaws. I felt the shine of madness come into my own eyes.
“Don’t you ever say that again,” I hissed at her, my mouth going so dry with adrenaline the last words scraped across my throat like sandpaper. “Don’t you ever.” My fingernails dug into my palms. I imagined pinning her against the wall, slapping her over and over until she begged me to let her go. I had said things like that about my mother before, but I would never let another person make fun of her, not even Ainsley.
“Don’t you insult me in my own house,” Ainsley said. She regained her confidence, the derision in her voice cutting me down. She advanced on me, breathing through bared teeth. Her voice trembled dangerously. “Get out of here. I never want to see you again.”
“I hate you,” I said to her, the last word I ever spoke to Ainsley Peters. I was surprised by how badly I wanted to punch her, hatred sharpening my muscles into steel springs coiled with energy. And I almost did.
Her face was simple and shocked, her mouth open. And in the end I didn’t hit her. I took my mother and left, and we never went back.
AINSLEY PETERS. I hated her, would never forgive her for saying that about my mother, and yet I thought about her every day; is it possible that there is a sort of adoration in fixed and unmovable loathing? I had prayed in my heart after our fight - let her grow up ugly – but she was destined to be one of those pretty, popular, bubbly blondes who walk school halls in miniskirts and leather boots, flanked by a giggling entourage, surrounded by a translucent bubble of laughter and gossip. And I hated her for it, for she did not deserve it, not any of it. How was this fair? I hated my life. I did not want to believe this was real. I hated God even more. I was the one stuck with the crazy mother, the runaway father, the jeering classmates; she was the one who was beautiful, rich, smart, and popular. But I wondered: does the personality come with the looks? It didn’t seem to matter, and that’s how I knew I would willingly, no matter how much it went against my principles, cast off my sad, deflated life for her charmed one, gladly floating forever among the gardens of Hades, where beautiful jewels and poisonous fruits grow rampant as weeds.
SHE HATED ME as well; joined the ranks of people – a few, only – who still jeered at me. She hated me, and she was popular: the friends I’d made since elementary school slipped from my side, and went to hers. Her open, laughing mouth, slicked with gloss and liner. My secrets buzzed throughout the school like flies, biting at my skin until I was as disfigured as a leper. I would never have gone to a teacher, or the principal. I knew what would happen: they would deny it, backed up by all their friends, connections stretching from the skateboarders to the starving artists, and I would be tossed from mouth to mouth, spat out like bad gum.
She was more immoral than I, although the fight, I knew with a twinge of guilt, had been both our faults. I would never have told her secrets, but she was willing to air the stained hand – me – downs of my life on the school’s public clothesline. And she did. Rumors, true and untrue, made people avert their eyes from me, ignore me in the bustle of the afternoon, made me go home and weep into my pillowcase every night. “Stupid, fat, mean and ugly, Anna Marshowley,” they chanted to me, when I was walking, head bowed, in the ceaseless echo of the hallways. She saw my stained eyes in the morning and smiled.
IN EIGHTH GRADE, I came home one day, and my mother was home from work early. She sat crying at the table, swirling her sorrows in a big glass of wine. My father had drunk most of it before he left. This was one of the last bottles, and she kept pouring a little more into her glass each time she downed some.
I stood silently, staring at her.
“You lost your job.”
She nodded mutely. Something in her brain flipped, and she was on the ground, screaming like a little child: “I didn’t do anything!” She hugged the floor, rolling around and weeping in low, choked sobs, her wails dying into the carpet. I felt disgust for her, for this big, overgrown kid I was expected to mother. Her mouth was stained cherry red, clusters of wrinkles sagging at her eyelids, bagging at the corners of her mouth. She looked years older than she should.
“Get up,” I said to her halfheartedly. I was too tired to get down as I should have, too tired to plead with a God whose rules did not seem to apply to my mother. I was hungry. I went to the fridge and rummaged around, my back tensed towards her. I could feel her staring at me, in disbelief, anger sliding onto the planes of her face. I had always coaxed her back into passivity before. She crouched on all fours, staring, like an animal.
“You’re a bad daughter,” she spat. “Worthless, ugly. You can’t even help your own mother, you selfish little brat. How can you just watch me do this, and not care?”
I turned, food sliding from my grip. “Because you do it every day!” I shrieked at her. I brought my foot down on the carton of strawberries that had slid to the ground until it was just a bloody pulp. I wished, for a moment, it was her face. “You do this every single day of my life, every day! Our lives are so screwy that this is NORMAL for us. I am so sick of being your caregiver! I never wanted your screwy mind! I never wanted you! I wanted a normal mother who could actually function! I wanted a halfway normal life! I come home, cater to your SELFISH needs instead of your own son’s! I…I wanted a normal mother! I wish you were dead, so you could be replaced… I wish I could forget you ever existed.” My mouth twisted in a smile, and I relished the words springing like ugly toads from my lips. I was happy, that she should finally understand what a burden she was to me, a burden like a horse kept in a house, untrained and wild. There was silence. And then the dam broke, my mother crying, curling into herself, the deep rolling moan of her sobs barring me from comforting her. And my happiness turned sour, mixing with guilt until it was dissolved in my mother’s tears.
She refused to see a doctor. All of us made a circle around her one day, begging her, pleading with her to go, while she glared at us like a cornered wolf, a pan – one of the last – held up threateningly. Then she’d crumple, crying, all her anger collapsing like a big dark tent around her body. Her bones jutted through thin, powdery skin; I could feel them grind and crunch when I hugged her. “Please don’t make me go…” she cried, clinging at our hands. “I’ll be better, please…I don’t want to be like this…” At those moments, I felt guilt for every bad thing I had ever thought about her, said to her, said to anyone. I saw myself, forty years later, standing around a lily – strewn coffin – gazing down at my mother’s face, wrinkled and spotted with age, the remnants of the perfume she had worn puffing from her papery skin – changed, but still HER; and I saw her lowered into the ground, dark dirt scraped over her while others went home as the sun fell and sank into deep blackness ; and I saw myself, reliving every moment of my life when I had screamed at her, called her a freak, a crazy woman, seen hurt like a handprint across her face and been fiercely glad that I had hurt her as she had hurt me.