My mother advised me not to tell anyone about her new job as a janitor. She said the kids at school would make fun of me. She sounded tired but pleased. Her soft, brown hair was fluffed and her wrinkles less creased. She took my little brother and me to McDonald’s to celebrate. I held her leathery hand and told her I wasn’t ashamed of her new job. Her eyes drifted from me to the playground where kids ran up and down the slippery slides, and all the other Mexican mamas too poor to pay for Chuck E. Cheese. My mother told me that there was more good news: with her new job she could now be my classroom Mother Reader. I squealed with joy. She smiled sheepishly.
“I’ll be working nights now, mamita, cleaning after everybody leaves. I’ll be getting home late, so you’ll have to read the bedtime stories to your brother. I can sleep in the morning and then come to your class to read if you want. You won’t be embarrassed, will you?” She glanced at me anxiously.
“Of course not. My class is gonna love you! Nobody likes Cristina’s mom, and Joseph’s mom stopped coming. We need you!”
My mother grinned wider than the Cheshire Cat. I beamed and popped a chicken nugget in my mouth. I imagined my classroom with the metal desks, our homework stapled on display, and my mother sitting on the tall stool.
My mother was the best story reader, even better than the guy from “Reading Rainbow.” I could hear her voice cackling heinously when a witch cast a wicked curse, or sighing romantically when a princess fell in love, or her funny animal voices when the cow jumped over the moon. Her reading coaxed and soothed me. It send waves of warmth through the marrow of my bones, drifted between my dreams, and brought me to mystical lands. She gave every character a unique voice. Her bedtime stories were the reason I loved to read.
I told all of my friends (I had two) and any kid who would listen that my mother was going to be the new Mother Reader. No one paid any attention. They had good reason to doubt. At the end of the month, when my first grade teacher would ask whose parents were coming to Open House, everyone would wave their hands in the air, while I sat at my desk trying to meditate on the art of invisibility. My teacher (tactful as ever) would then ask why my parents weren’t coming, and I’d have to quickly rummage through the excuses to make up a new one. Apparently, I was the only one whose parents didn’t work from 9 to 5. My dad was busy 24/7 … getting drunk. I didn’t say that. I said my grandma was in the hospital. My older sister had a baby. We were going to go see a movie. My mother was going to make her famous spaghetti. I said anything and everything to explain why my parents weren’t a part of my school activities.
On field trips, I sat with other parent chaperones and munched on my sandwich silently as they laughed with their kid. I hated classroom parties the most when moms brought sugar cookies and santa cupcakes and dads helped us play games. Everyone had had a parent come to the class at least once – except me. The kids started to ask whether I even had parents.
“What do your parents do?” they sneered.
“My dad’s a chef. And my mom … works too.”
“A chef? So he works in the back of a restaurant?”
“Yes,” I answered defensively. “He makes gourmet food! Like steaks and stuff. He works at really fancy restaurants” (when he’s not in jail).
“And what about your mom?” they prodded.
“She … well … I’m not sure where she works. I think it’s a computer company!”
The kids would roll their eyes. I guess the look of panic and outright fibbing was splashed across my beet-red face. My father really was a chef. He worked 60-hour weeks and held two jobs at upscale restaurants downtown, where most of the kids’ parents probably took their lunch breaks. My mother did work at a computer company before she got fired. Her boss caught her trying to take home toilet paper.
My parents were poor, but they worked hard to keep us in a good neighborhood. I lived in a red brick house that looked perfectly nice from the outside. Inside, you’d find cigarette burns spotting the couch, a plastic table and chairs, and cases and cases of liquor bottles in our trash can.
We lived a very solitary life. My parents had no friends, and neither did my brother and I. No one was allowed in the house except family. The stress of coming to America and working in a hot kitchen to support six kids must have taken something out of my papa, because he became an alcoholic.
My mother was plump, petite, and a perfect saint. She was a devout Catholic who spent her paychecks buying me ruffled white socks for church and dozens of picture books. She told me that I was lucky to have a father because some kids didn’t, and that I should be thankful. I didn’t feel thankful.
My older brothers and sisters could remember what our dad was like before alcohol became the main liquid coursing through his veins, but I didn’t. I remember regular night-time beatings, holes punched in walls, plates smashed, blue and red spinning lights, countless police visits, and a patchwork of bruises. I remember my mother locking herself in the bathroom and crying over her injuries. That’s what I mostly remember about my childhood. That and the first day my mom came to my class as Mother Reader.
That day my mother came I was so nervous I felt like throwing up the chocolate milk I had chugged for breakfast. This was the first time everyone would meet her, and I wanted them to love her as much as I did. The class was lining up for a restroom break. I squeezed in behind my friends Brittany and Mariah.
“What’s the matter?” Brittany asked nosily.
“I don’t feel good. I think I’m nervous.”
“Oh, cuz your mom’s coming, huh?” Mariah nodded. “That’s probably why. I’d be nervous too if I were you.”
“Why?” I asked suspiciously.
“Well, everyone knows what my mom looks like. She came to the Valentine’s party, remember? But nobody knows your mom. What if they don’t like her?”
The nauseous knots in my stomach tightened until I felt like I was swallowing hot rocks.
“Everyone is going to love my mom. You’ll see. She’s really nice and she ….”
I paused. I didn’t know if I should go there. Brittany’s and Mariah’s parents were normal. They took their kids to the movies and had family game night, whatever that was. Maybe I could finally become their true best friends. Best friends shared secrets, and they always told me about their crushes and if they cheated on tests. Maybe it was time to share my secret.
“You’ll love my mom because she’s really brave,” I continued proudly. “She fought my dad once when he was trying to beat her.” I expected gasps of horror, an “Oh my God” at least, something that made me feel like I had a story worth telling. But Brittany and Mariah just stared at me blankly.
“My dad beats my mom too,” Brittany replied nonchalantly. “He always wins when they play ‘Sorry.’”
“No, you don’t understand he …” I struggled to find the right words, “he hits her!”
Brittany’s big eyes widened, and I heard Mariah gasp softly.
I lowered my voice for special effect, the way my mom always does when she gets to the good part of a story. “One time, he threw a bunch of plates at her because she came home late from work. He hit her in the head and she was bleeding, but then he fell asleep so she came to sleep with me and my little brother. Anyway, the next morning my mom made coffee for him like always. He always curses and yells at her and usually makes her cry, but not that day. The kettle started whistling. She grabbed the pot and instead of pouring it into the coffee cup, she threw it on my dad!” I smiled.
Brittany and Mariah looked at me with gaping mouths, looked at each other, then rolled their eyes.
“Come on, that’s not true. Quit lying like you always do.”
It was true! I remember waiting at the hospital. I felt so happy, bouncing in my chair because I thought my dad was finally dead. Or at least I hoped he was so that I, my mother, and my little brother could finally live in peace and my other brothers and sisters could move back! I almost cried when the doctors rolled him out in a wheelchair. My mother told me to kiss him on the cheek.
“I’m not lying! It’s true!” I didn’t understand why they didn’t believe me. When I lie nobody believes me, and now I was telling the truth and nobody believed me. I was truly alone.
The teacher was going over addition, but I couldn’t focus. Someone knocked at the door.
“Why, you must be Amy’s mother!”
My head snapped up. I looked to the front of the classroom and saw my beautiful mother. She had on a navy blue dress. Her round face was smiling to reveal two dimples, and her crow’s feet chuckled around her dancing eyes. I waved at her enthusiastically. She waved back, smiling.
“Children, would you like to hear a story from our new Mother Reader?” Everyone scrambled to throw our math workbooks back in our desks. “Okay, everyone, crisscross applesauce in the middle! Mariah, would you please bring out the stool?”
My mother sat nervously on the stool in the middle of a sea of fidgety children. She rummaged in her bag and produced four picture books. We had carefully selected them together the day before.
“These books are some of Amy’s favorites. I hope you like them as much as we do.” Her eyes met mine. She looked like a nesting Mother Goose about to read to her darling children. She began.
Everyone roared with laughter at all of the right parts. They gasped when the girl dropped her mother’s wedding ring in the tamales. They hung on my mother’s every word, leaned in when her voice dropped to a suspenseful whisper, and recoiled sharply when she yelled out a surprise turn of events. They applauded vigorously when my mother finished. She was an instant hit.
I finally felt like I was blessed. Everyone pleaded for more stories, begging her to “do the voice again.” My mother quieted everyone with a calm gesture of her hand. “I’ll be back next week. I like visiting Amy’s class.”
“Do you all have any questions for our Mother Reader before she leaves?” our teacher asked.
Mariah raised her hand.
“Is it true that your husband hits you and that he had to go to the hospital because you burned him?”
White silence slashed through the room like a knife, severing all sound and movement. My mother stood there, defenseless, humiliated, her eagerness gone. She was wearing the same look she gets at my grandma’s house, when my grandma and my aunties lash out stinging words, accusing and asking why she makes her children suffer under such a man. Do you think God would approve? How can you sit in church high and mighty praying and singing your praises to God while your children are always crying como trapped animales! If only Daddy were still alive! Your mama never raised you like this, pinche cabrona!
The spark in her eyes sputtered out. Everything inside her looked splintered. Her shoulders hunched. Her spine sagged. I was trying desperately to avoid her gaze, but she pulled me to her the way only my mother can. Her gaze asked me why I had hung her publicly, why I had betrayed and abandoned her. I couldn’t answer. I looked away.
“No, sweetie,” she choked out a fake laugh. “Who told you that?”
“Amy,” Mariah said simply. “Was she lying, or is it true?”
The teacher looked almost as mortified as I did. The class kept looking from my mom to my teacher then back to me. I sat rigid in my seat, willing myself to disappear.
“I’m sure you just misunderstood Amy.”
“I knew it,” Mariah huffed.
My mother’s hands were shaking. She was trying to smile but her eyes were betraying her.
“Well, it was very nice to meet all of you.”
My mother let me have it after school. She was never one for beatings, but she could cleave a jagged hole in me with her verbal assaults. She reminded me through her sobs that I could be taken away by Child Protective Services because of what happened at school. She pointed at my little brother and screamed that we could be separated because of it. She called my big sister, who shattered what was left of my hearing.
“Don’t you like living with Mom?” she shrieked.
“Yes,” I replied sheepishly.
“Then why are you acting stupid with your friends? None of us ever did that! You must really like hurting her the way Dad does, huh? She could lose you because of this.”
Well, now I knew what I had done and I realized I could never have friends. Friendships were supposed to be built on trust and honesty, and I couldn’t be honest with anyone without betraying my family. I realized that my situation was so taboo, so out of the ordinary, that not even the teacher wanted to believe it. Despite my mom’s fears, no one from the school called or investigated.
Second grade came, and I went to a different school. I continued through middle and high school hiding the truth about my family. I found a crowd in middle school who smoked and had divorced parents, so I was somewhat able to fit in.
In high school things got better. My dad went to jail for a year, so I spent that whole year celebrating. I never went to school. I got drunk a lot. I met with other kids whose parents were on drugs or didn’t love them, and we smoked joints in their apartments. I found a 21-year-old boyfriend who agreed to buy me alcohol. I did everything I could to get away from home. My dad wasn’t there, but his memory was. It was in the cracked walls and the hallways where he stabbed me when I was 12. It was etched on my mother’s wrinkles and the bump on her forehead that never disappeared.
I don’t like to see my mother anymore. I gave up on her a long time ago. I blamed her for staying in a life of abuse. I stopped going to church with her. I had stopped believing that anyone could save her. Even though my father was out of the house for a while, I abused her as much as I had that day in the classroom – her first and last day as Mother Reader. I mortally wounded her when I staggered in drunk late on school nights.
She yelled at me first, but then the yelling stopped. She accepted my bad habits as mutely and submissively as she accepted my father’s. I kept hurting her because I didn’t know how else to act, how else to ask for help. I just wanted to be numb. And in a selfish way, I was trying to show her what I had become because of the secrets and lies I had been forced to keep. She made me protect her. I wanted to get back at her. My becoming successful would have made my parents feel like they should be applauded for their parenting skills. I was not going to give them that satisfaction.
I never told anyone else about my family. My high school friends know me as a girl who likes to have too much fun. Only Brittany and Mariah ever heard the truth, and it was easy for them to dismiss it as a lie because it was too horrible to comprehend. I don’t blame them.
I’ve tried looking for the truth too, at the bottom of a Jack Daniel’s bottle, but so far I’ve found nothing. I’ve looked to boyfriends. I found a peachy guy who took me out to dinner at swanky restaurants and always called to say good night. But I kept writing break up notes to him and stashing them in my pillowcase while sobbing uncontrollably because I couldn’t understand why he was being so nice. He must have an ulterior motive. And I wasn’t going to be the one left looking stupid; I wasn’t going to be my mother. I called him to tell him it was over, then I got drunk at a bar using my sister’s ID.
I know I’m looking in the wrong places – all the places my dad already searched. But the truth has to be somewhere. The reason why my mom stayed. She said God intended for a husband and wife to stay together. I remember when she watched me tearfully as he clutched my throat and brought a blade to my neck. Why had I received punishment for simply telling a child’s truth?
I wish I could say the situation has been resolved, but it hasn’t. Our life has been a lie, and I was punished for trying to reveal it. Was I wrong for wanting to get us out? My mother should have let me set her free.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the May 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.