Chapter 1: Like a Rose
I sat on the steps between the front door and the upstairs hallway of my home in Hunterdon, New Jersey with my two sisters by my side, as I listened to the ambulance drive off with my mom inside it.
“I’m sorry girls, I just did what I thought was right.”
My dad’s forehead twisted together painfully and his eyebrows curved upwards as if to meet in prayer at the center of his brow. He walked slowly up the stairs and turned the corner into the kitchen. I heard the sound of keys clanging together and he returned with them in hand, the expression on his face unchanged.
“Where are you going? I asked.
“To follow the ambulance to the emergency room, to be there when she gets out.” He closed the door weakly behind him as he left.
None of us moved and the silence in the house grew. Just an hour or so before all this us kids were playing Dead or Alive on JP’s Xbox which he had set up in the TV room, drowning out the sound of our parents argument. JP, my older sister’s boyfriend who was visiting us from his home in Austin Texas, was the first to get up from the steps. The silence was broken by the loud creaking of our wooden floors under his large feet. My 16-year-old sister Leanne followed. I left my younger sister, Melinda where she sat and retreated to my bedroom.
I crossed to the far side of the room and immediately plopped down on my bed. Staring up at the ceiling I began my process of wallowing in the circumstances, debating the fault, and concluding that just maybe something good could come out of this. It had been only a few weeks since we had returned from Texas, where we had lived for a year with my mom, leaving Dad alone in the house. We had returned to a living room plastered with pictures, mostly of Mom, the rest of us all together as a family. Dad had thought he was doing the right thing back then too, letting us go. He believed her when she had said she just needed a break, needed to get away from this street and the people here who had been watching her. When putting a hole in the wall of our home here in New Jersey to prove to my mother that there were no cameras hidden in there didn’t convince her, distance from the source of her paranoia seemed the only solution. Texas had been my mom’s attempt at escaping the watchful, ever-judging eyes of our neighbors and the plots she believed they had formed against her and us. But, like shadows, they had followed her even across state borders. The same license plate numbers, the same cameras, only hidden behind different walls. She had her parents and a few friends in Austin, Texas, where she went to college. So maybe it made sense to think the trip might help, but from where we stood now, having been missing dad for a year, and mom recently taking up talking about divorce, it seemed the wrong decision. Maybe this was the right one. Maybe this is what we should have done all along. Could it really be this easy: calling an ambulance to take her away and make her better?
I was brought out of my thoughtful haze by the sound of the Phone ringing from the kitchen. We all gathered together at the kitchen counter, and Leanne picked up the phone to check who was calling. She saw that it was a number she didn’t recognize and was hesitant to answer, but it rang again and she pressed the talk button and said,
Melinda and I strained our ears to hear what whoever was on the other end was saying as Leanne’s face grew increasingly worried. I recognized the voice on the other line as our mother’s, and I made out the words, “Pack enough clothes for three days, mommy just needs a break for a little while,” and then “don’t tell your daddy. He already knows.”
When my mom hung up and Leanne put down the phone I immediately interrogated her,
“What did she say?” I asked, and “why does she want us to pack? Are we going somewhere?”
Leanne seemed annoyed with my questions but she responded,
“Mom said she’s coming in twenty minutes to pick us up, she said that we have to pack three days of clothes and we can’t call dad to tell him where we’re going.”
I immediately had the feeling that this was a trick. Mom seemed to have it out for dad lately. She had been blaming him for things. It was no longer that the neighbors we watching us, but that my dad had somehow put the up to it, “We have to call dad!” I said, “he’ll be worried about us, and he is supposed to bring her home. He’s waiting for her there.”
“Obviously we can’t go,” JP chimed in, “You don’t know what she’s planning, or what sort of condition she’s in.” JP continued, “She sounded unstable on the phone, you don’t know what she’s up to.”
JP had an irritating habit of thinking he had the answer to everything, and that his answers were the right ones. At this particular moment, he was voicing something we were all secretly thinking, but were reluctant to accept, as it meant recognizing distrust in our own mother as a valid and justifiable thing.
Leanne was visibly overwhelmed; as the oldest sister, the weight of this decision was placed entirely on her, against her will. We all looked to her for the plan of action.
“Well, what am I supposed to do?” The words burst out of her like a shaken Pepsi bottle releasing the pressure. And then came the fizzle: “She’s my Mom. I can’t just not listen to her.” And that was it. We went to our rooms to pack our things.
Three days, I told myself as I grabbed my favorite items of clothing and shoved them into a bag. The bright blue shiny sweat pants with flared leg bottoms and the long sleeved purple blouse with frilled sleeves were my favorites, along with a black and orange knitted shawl. I had fond memories attached to these clothes which I wore during my time in Texas where I spent endless unsupervised days climbing trees and shooting make-shift bow and arrows in the forrest. The last year had been one of magnificent freedom, wandering around the grounds of our apartment complex alone or with Melinda or my friends from school, mom always away doing whatever it was she did, or laying on the apartment’s kitchen floor with healing stones strewn across her body.
Keesha came up to me where I was kneeling over my bag and rubbed up against my legs. I had found her in Texas, wandering in the forrest when she was a kitten, just like me. No one questioned when I brought her home and adopted her as my own.
“Just three days,” I told her, “that’s not very long.” But somehow that thought was not at all comforting. I looked around at the warm, inviting pink walls of my bedroom and at my bed, covered almost completely in all of my favorite stuffed animals: my big red heart-shaped pillow, his red arms outstretched towards Fluffy the stuffed dog, and all her smaller beany-baby puppies surrounding her, my beany-baby dragon Scorch and his best friend Cangy the kangaroo standing nearby alongside Prance the kitten and her long time crush Horsley the dinosaur. They begged me to stay.
“You don’t know what’s out there,” they seemed to be saying. “Don’t leave us, you might never come back.”
I picked up Fluffy and placed her gently on top of the jumbled mass of clothes in my bag, her head peeking out the top. I wanted to bring them all but I knew fluffy would bring me the most comfort with her soft fur and huggable size. My heart pillow was a close second, possessing arms I would sometimes wrap around myself at night, but his lack of a face made him less available to my imagination. He was the only one of my soft, plushy friends whose personality I could not describe.
Looking out my window at the woods behind my house, I considered collecting my sisters and having us all run into the woods to hide. My mother would come and, not knowing where we were, she would leave on her own and then my dad would return and we would come out of hiding. But Leanne’s voice echoed in my head: She’s our mom.
I wanted desperately to at least call my dad, and tell him that we were leaving. I didn’t believe what my mom had told us; that he was already aware that we were leaving with her. If he had known, she wouldn’t have felt the need to tell us to keep it from him. I pictured my dad coming home from the hospital to an empty house, not knowing where we had gone or why.
My thoughts were interrupted as Melinda came into my room crying. My mind snapped back to the present; back to my own questions and fears, ones I knew Melinda and I shared. Her big hazel eyes were red and puffy, and a strand of strawberry-blonde hair stuck to her damp cheek. She was the baby of the family, only nine years old, two years younger than me.
“It’s okay, Mindy,” I told her.
She looked up at me expectantly, waiting for me to back up my claim.
I instinctively began treating the situation like one of our adventure games, in which I would send Melinda on missions. Under normal circumstances, these missions would involve sneaking into the kitchen at night to get marshmallows out of the cupboard or climbing over the top of the bathroom stalls in empty public restrooms to escape imaginary monsters.
“We’ll be prepared for anything,” I said in a voice of playful determination.
I grabbed a purse from my desk and another one that I then handed to Melinda.
“We’ll fill these with rocks so we can protect ourselves. No one will even know they’re in here, but if anyone tries to mess with us, bam! We’ve got a purse full of rocks.”
She managed a little smile across her tear-streaked face and we went outside the back of our house and stuffed our purses full with the fist-sized white rocks that covered our patio for decoration.
“Now we can protect ourselves from anything!” I exclaimed and we both giggled at that, the simplicity of the game and the directness of its solutions uplifting us, as we allowed ourselves to believe that life played by our rules.
As soon as I got into the back seat of that car I regretted it. The purse of rocks at my side wasn’t going to stop that car from taking me from my home, and it wasn’t going to bring me back. My mother was in the passenger’s seat, and a woman I’d never seen before was at the wheel.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Mommy needs a break,” my mom kept saying, “Mommy just needs a break.”
The woman driver said nothing. As the car pulled away I looked up at the woods behind my house and wished that I had taken Melinda and run into those woods and never looked back. I never should have gotten in this car, I thought. I should have said something to everyone in the kitchen, I could have convinced Leanne if I had just tried harder. I knew, I thought. I knew. I should have said something. We all should have run away into the woods and never gotten in this car.
We arrived at a gloomy-looking house filled with harsh-looking women who all seemed to be eyeing us suspiciously. After leading us inside, the woman who had been our driver began reciting a long list of rules that went along with staying in the dreary place.
“Everyone helps with the chores; we take turns doing the dishes and the cooking. You will need to get a job as soon as possible. We can arrange for you to get rides to and from work.”
I held onto Melinda’s hand tightly as I listened to the woman’s instructions and watched my mother nodding in agreement. It was becoming frighteningly apparent that my mother intended to keep us here for longer than three days.
“Only work-related phone calls are allowed. You will need to start searching for apartments so you will have a place to stay once you leave. The maximum stay is for eight weeks which we sometimes extend but only under certain circumstances. Most importantly, you must not tell anyone your whereabouts. If that information gets out, it could put you and the other women at risk.”
While the woman was talking, none of us noticed that Leanne and JP had snuck outside and called our dad. When Leanne later informed my mom of what they had done and she in turn went to tell our hostess, we were told they had to leave. It was arranged so that Leanne and JP were driven to the local library where my dad picked them up and took them home. All I knew was that they had gone home, and Melinda and I had not, with some understanding that it was because Dad now knew where we were. I felt a sense of betrayal towards Leanne for leaving us, she was the one who got us into this mess in the first place, I didn’t want to come here. I wanted to call dad all along. I was also confused as to why, if Dad knew where we were, did he not come and get Melinda and I also. Another part of me was simply relieved that my dad would not be completely alone back home once again, the way he was left alone for the past year while we were in Texas.
For the first few months we spent in Texas, Leanne had stayed home with our dad, and she had returned to him again at Christmas time. When she would come back to us in Texas, she’d bring presents for Melinda and I, and let us stay in her room with her for hours. It was a two bedroom apartment and Leanne was the only one with her own room. Melinda and I shared a queen sized bed in the other room with our mother. When we got to spend time in Leanne’s room there were times it had felt like we were us again. Three best friends, inseparable, silly, nothing more pressing on our minds than our latest game. But even there, a reality was seeping in that we didn’t want to face. Leanne told us about how sad dad was back home, he drinks now, and cries, she told us. He misses us. Melinda was still having trouble reading, and my dad would call her most nights to read her Clifford stories. Once he even sent a video of himself reading a Clifford story and wearing the Scooby Doo costume which he had worn to take us trick or treating with family friends a few years back. The video had been strangely disturbing, the memory of how much fun that halloween had been, and how much everyone had loved the tall silly dad in the dog costume, us laughing saying “that’s our dad!” juxtaposed against this distance, this desperate way of keeping in touch.
And now here we were again, missing two essential pieces of our family of five. We were told we could stay the night, but that we too would have to leave first thing in the morning because our location had been compromised. We would be transferred somewhere new in order to make sure that my dad wouldn’t find us.
“Here is a list of other shelters in the area.” The woman who had driven us held out a sheet of paper to my mother and asked her to pick where she would like to be taken in the morning,“The rules will be the same wherever you go,” she explained.
“I don’t know,” my mom said in a frustrated tone, “I just don’t know the area.” She ended up picking a place at random. The room we stayed in that night was dusty and bare. Melinda and I laid together for comfort, but I didn’t sleep, and for the longest time, neither did my mother. She was outside the door, on the phone with someone and doing her best to yell and whisper simultaneously. When I got up to see what was happening she was off the phone and in a panic. She started crying and told me that dad had cut her off of the credit card and that she didn’t know what to do. Another woman came out of her room to see what was going on, and my mother started unloading on her. I sat on the top of the steps, doubt creeping into my mind. Why would he do that? Behind me I heard bits of the conversation between the woman and my mom. Men are controlling by nature, they were saying, it’s to be expected.
The next morning my mom, Melinda, and I got back into the car with the same woman from the day before and headed for our next destination. After a long and pensive ride we eventually drove up a long, bumpy driveway coming off of that country road. I noticed toys scattered about outside of the house, and it gave me hope that this time there would be kids. On the outside of the door a fist-sized wooden daisy painted yellow hung like a shop welcome sign. Across the center it read Daisy in fading black letters. Upon walking inside there was an office to the right, and in front of me, a few stairs leading both up and down. The image that stands most clearly in my mind is the view of the closed office door from where I sat on the bottom of those first steps that day. My mom had been called into the office, and Melinda and I had been instructed to “go play.” I’m not sure if it was out of nosiness or just a general dis-satisfaction with the idea of going off to play at the time, but we did not go play. We stayed right there and sat on the steps next to the office door. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I leaned in a bit and listened hard enough, I could hear everything that was being said inside. In utter astonishment, I listened to my mother tell the woman in the office that her husband, my father, had abused her. She described how he had been beating her for twelve years now.
“Since I was pregnant with Vanessa,” she said.
I listened to her tearful recount of the time he threatened her with a knife during her pregnancy and how the reason many of the chairs in our house were broken was because he’d throw them at her. I felt sick to my stomach. She was a liar; a filthy, rotten liar. I clenched my fists and held back tears of rage. I don’t know what Melinda was doing. Maybe she was as upset as I was, or maybe she hadn’t even heard. I was too wrapped up in my own mind to notice. I had never once seen my dad act violently towards my mother and considering that my sisters and I had been homeschooled by our mother for our whole lives until the previous year, it was not something that could have gone unnoticed. I recalled something she had told me a few days earlier, sat on our couch back home.
“It’s okay mommy, I love you,” I had told her trying to calm her down as she sat there sobbing on our big green armchair. I had seen her sitting there crying and had gone over to sit on her lap, attempting to console her although I had no idea what she was so upset about. Distraught, she reached out to grab a hold of a fake flower that had been lying on the triangular, glass coffee table in front of us. She brought the flower, a red rose, up to her nose, and smelling its fabric pedals said, “You’ll never know anybody like me, because I am like a rose. People are heartless and they lie, but not me. I have never and will never lie in my life, because roses represent the truth.” Her tone rose to a sobbing wail as she continued, “And I will stand for the truth! You may be too young to see it now, sweetie, but one day, no matter what they tell you, you will see that your mother speaks nothing but the truth!” She broke into spasms of wails as if, instead of just sitting there on the couch with her daughter, she was being beaten.
“I am like a rose,” she had told me, “Roses represent the truth.”
I wanted to scream.
As my mother followed the other woman out of the office, I stared into the un-ashamed face of blatant hypocrisy and I was utterly disgusted.
Not long after we had arrived, Daisy began to feel like home in a way; the way a story begins to feel like your life once you become immersed in it. It felt unreal and that was what made it exciting. It was a new air, like nothing we had ever breathed before. There were six of us kids there, Melinda and myself, the other sisters: Melissa and Rachel, another girl named Alexis, and her three year old brother.
Melinda, my mom, and I shared a room with Alexis, her brother, and her mom. Often we would be kept up by the sound of Alexis’ mom’s screaming, mostly a long string of cuss words; sometimes at her kids and sometimes at no one in particular. My mom made excuses for her, saying she was under a lot of stress because her husband was having her investigated by child services. I came to view Alexis as somewhat of a brat. I saw her as one of those girls who couldn’t manage to be much more than her mother. Which in Alexis’ case was often petty and loud mouthed; admittedly, a harsh judgment on a seven-year-old, but when I thought about how easily those traits were passed between mother and daughter I couldn’t help seeing her as a disgrace. I have either forgotten her mother’s name or I never knew it at all, along with the names of every other adult I met at Daisy with the exception of a woman named Barbie, who I later came to admire. I referred to Alexis’s mom as what she was; Alexis’ mom. Each night at dinner one of the women would make the meal for the whole group.
This particular night it was Alexis’ mom’s turn to cook. Whatever she was cooking, there was certainly boiling water involved.
“Back up honey, you trust me, you don’t wanna get burned.” At the instruction of her mother Alexis backed away but her mother continued the lecture.
“That doesn’t work to good when the jackass dumps the shit on you though.”
The women who had been sitting around the table staring blankly in one direction or the other suddenly seemed to focus in at the same point. It was story time. And more than that, it was show and tell. Alexis’ mom held up her right hand briefly so that we could all see the burn. It was red and blotchy like a rash.
“You all know that’s not the worst thing, though,” she went on, “Getting burned is one thing, and that it leaves an ugly mark, but it’s not that really. The worst thing he ever did to me was he spat in my face. I try to stand up for myself and he spits in my goddamn face! It’s the disrespect.”
The women all nodded solemnly in a kind of long blink of unfortunate agreement.
Most of the time, the adults and children went about their business separately. My mom was gone most days, allegedly looking for jobs or taking long walks in the park. The other women were gone much of the time, too, and if they weren’t, they were usually sitting around the kitchen table gossiping about their husbands or any of the women that happened not to be present at the time. I listened in on a lot of conversations. I was skeptical of their stories at first. If my mom could lie so easily and so convincingly, who’s to say that they weren’t all liars, predators playing prey? That’s how I saw my mother: a wolf masquerading as a defenseless lamb; a bloodthirsty beast exercising a pathetic attempt to play the victim. And yet they were all falling for it. I made up my mind to hate her.
One day she came back from one of her walks in the park with a story to share. The women gathered around, sitting on the couches in the play room where Melinda and I sat on the floor. She told everyone that she had encountered a crazy woman in the park. She told us about how the woman had chased her with a brick and planned to hit her over the head with it. My mom looked shaken as she recounted the event. “It was crazy!” she panted, as if she were out of breath. The other women comforted her. I wondered if the story was true. I decided it probably wasn’t, but I considered the possibility that she somehow believed in its reality.
Melinda and I were almost always together and yet I was frequently only subconsciously aware of her presence. As my most trusted and willing accomplice in everything I did, most often she would obediently remain in my back pocket for safe keeping until she was called upon. We spent a lot of our time playing games and talking with the other pair of sisters, 10-year-old Melissa and 13-year-old Rachel. Melissa was the funny, outgoing one. Rachel was the more silent, caring one. I was instantly drawn to Rachel. I understood her to be someone who took the things happening around her to heart and stored up a collection of, not opinions, but feelings on the matters. She didn’t talk much, but I knew she’d have things to say if she could only find the words. The way I understood it, Melissa and Rachel were my friends, and Melinda was only involved through her association with me. She could have had Alexis to herself, but Melinda wanted her companionship as much as I did, which wasn’t very much. There were days when Alexis would pester Melinda to play little games with her, and I would walk off to another room with Melissa and Rachel to play more sophisticated games that Melinda would long to be a part of. As time went on, however (whether it was days or only hours I can’t be sure), both Melissa and Rachel took a particular liking to Melinda. Melissa liked her because she could appreciate and share in Melissa’s silly, nonsensical humor, and Rachel enjoyed her company for the simple fact that she was cuter than me. It was like they were pick-pocketing my sidekick and no matter how hard I tried to shove her back in, they just kept sticking their hands in my back pocket and pulling her out again. She was no longer just mine, and I could no longer keep my friends from her. We were all in this together.
As it turned out, I didn’t lose an accomplice, I gained two, and with that I was given an opportunity that I had never had before; the opportunity to play the one role I had always been just one younger sibling short of obtaining; the role that my older sister, Leanne had always played. I would invent our schemes, organize our games, and direct group huddles. I was team captain. I was the creative mind, and I loved it. We would spend our time making up dances, mostly interpretive, always telling a story that I made up and always the parts assigned by me. Most often the performances starred me, with Melinda as my right-hand girl, and Melissa, Rachel, and sometimes Alexis playing smaller guest-roles. Once in a while I would have the story center around Melinda, while I would play a slightly smaller part. No one ever complained.
At night I slept on the top bunk and Melinda slept on the bottom. Frequently she would crawl into bed with me and ask to stay. I continually said no, never considering the weight of the fear she held inside every day. As a second choice, she would sleep with our mom, but remain afraid.
Chapter 2: The Villain
“He chained us to a tree once,” Melissa said matter-of-factly from where she sat Indian style on the floor next to Melinda. I sat on the bottom bunk next to Rachel and watched as she exchanged a glance with her sister as if to reassure her that she too had experienced this.
“Really, why?” I asked hesitantly, directing my question towards Rachel.
“Yeah, and it was in the winter too. It was snowing and he left us out there for hours,” Melissa said.
There was a short pause, no one knew what to say, then Rachel spoke quietly, “I’m not really sure why, I think I forgot to do the laundry.”
“He chained you to a tree in the winter because you forgot to do the laundry?” I summarized rhetorically, “Where was your mom?”
“I think she was inside,” said Rachel, her eyes on the floor.
She didn’t stop him? I wanted to ask. She didn’t come outside when he wasn’t looking and set you free? She didn’t run away with you back then? It was summer so that couldn’t have been what pushed her to take her kids here. It would have been too long ago.
“Oh,” was all that came out.
But they knew what I meant.
When it was mine and Melinda’s turn to share our story, “my dad never hurt anyone. My mom is crazy. We shouldn’t be here,” was all I had to say.
I was ashamed to be there. Not because I considered myself in any way above the others at Daisy, but because I was facing an entirely different kind of crisis and I couldn’t relate to their pain. I was taking up space in a place meant as a refuge from a certain kind of villain, and I didn’t belong. I was also bitter with the knowledge that Melissa and Rachel were escaping their Villain, while mine and Melinda’s had run away with us. For everyone else Daisy represented a transition towards something better, for me, it was the final straw in the breaking apart of my family.
There was a guilt I associated with living at Daisy, a sense of: There’s nothing wrong with my life except that I’m here. As I heard more and more stories about my housemates and their lives before Daisy, the feeling only grew, and I hated my mother more for making me feel like a fraud.
A few seconds passed before Melissa broke the silence. She did so in the same manner as most of her stories; out of the blue, she chimed in with, “I know a rhyme that tells you how to slit your wrists so that you really die.” Everybody was dumbfounded by the abrupt change in topic, and seeing that she had our attention, she rolled up her sleeves and began the How-To session. “It goes like this: up the lane and through the veins, across the corner, then you mourn her.” She ran her finger down the inside of her forearm and then across her wrist to demonstrate. She laughed, but no one else found it funny. It made my wrists hurt just thinking about it and I held my right arm to my chest protectively. “It’s a joke,” she said defensively and then moved on to telling us about the movie Jaws.
Rachel and Melissa’s mom was quiet and timid. Like most of the adults she wasn’t around much. They were most likely out searching for jobs or apartments, which they would have only eight weeks to find before having to leave the shelter.
After hearing Rachel and Melissa’s story, I developed a habit of comparing our mothers as a sort of analogy to the differences and similarities of our situations. I saw their mother as cowardly, and unwilling to stand up for her daughters for fear of what might happen to her. She must be weak by nature, I thought. If she was strong, she would not have put up with the abuse for so long. If she were brave, she would have protected her daughters sooner. I saw her in all these negative ways and yet I felt that she was meant to be the representation of good in their family. She was meant to be the opposition against Rachel and Melissa’s father: the villain. She was meant to be the hero. Yet I felt that she had no heroic qualities to speak of. I knew that she had done the right thing by coming to Daisy because of the simple reason that her daughters accepted it as the right thing, and I trusted that it was the children who knew the truth. I never saw my mother as weak. She always seemed to be fighting against something more powerful than herself and she claimed time after time again that everything she did was to protect her daughters. I considered that this may have been at least partially true; that she thought she was protecting us, but not from my dad. She was protecting us from forces “beyond our understanding,” as she would so frequently say; societies out to get her, individuals who wanted to see her whole family suffer, villains. To have gone to such lengths as to leave her own home under false pretenses to protect her daughters: isn’t that bravery? Isn’t that strength? In her mind, I thought, she must be nothing short of a hero, and yet the level of mendacity and malice at which she went about this “protection” could only render her a villain herself. Perhaps Rachel and Melissa’s mother’s reason for staying with an abusive man for so long was not all cowardice. Maybe it was a kind of bravery motivated by loving the man despite his violence. Maybe it is strength that allows a person to continue loving what has hurt them. If so, then my mother must be the coward; that she would accuse my father, the man she spent 16 years married to, of the kinds of terrible things that Rachel and Melissa went through rather than face her own demons. When I had thought it all through, I couldn’t help but look at each of the women at Daisy and feel a slightly sympathetic deep respect. None of them were heroes, but all of them continued to live and love in one way or another, in a world that had hurt them. This was more than I could say for my own mother whom I was sure could only have been motivated by hate, whether it was hatred for my father or for some invisible villain, I wasn’t sure. Either way, she had betrayed a man she was meant to love and ripped daughters she was meant to love away from their home. I did consider the possibility that she was innocent in her intentions, but I found that no matter how much I tried to view the situation from her point of view, I too spent my days engulfed in thoughts of hate. I couldn’t help but think that even if she did think she was saving the world, she would always be the villain as long as she was destroying it.
On the subject of how to act towards mom, Melinda’s actions and views have always been mysterious to me. At the time, she was incapable of the hatred I felt, possibly because she was simply so altogether confused about everything. But she understood that we didn’t have dad and we didn’t have Leanne and we weren’t home, and mom was the one calling the shots. She began avoiding physical contact with her at all costs. When she would get caught in a hug or a goodnight kiss she would go stiff and her face face would freeze, eyes wide.
While Melinda’s feelings came naturally and possibly even against her will, mine were a conscious decision, an effort to stand my moral ground against an injustice. There were times when I would forget my vow of hatred for my mother. Life at the shelter was becoming almost normal, and being there eventually stopped serving as a constant reminder of what she had taken me away from back home. There were moments of feeling like mother and daughter mixed in amongst my memories of having been captive and villain; the pride I felt showing her the plays I put together with the other kids, hoola-hooping in the driveway under the hot sun, laughing as she tried to keep it up for more than a few seconds, and trying to teach her how. But there would always be that moment when right in the middle of the laughter, or beaming from her praise, I would remember.
It wasn’t until Melinda and I were already in the back seat of the car that I learned we were on our way to a courthouse. My mind raced. Here was an opportunity to expose my mother for her lies. I thought back to episodes of Judge Judy which I used to watch with her. I imagined myself as the witness they would call to the stand. I would stand up with my chin held high and stare her in her lying face as I swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me god. I would save my family from her lies once and for all and go back home where I belong. But as we pulled into the parking lot of the courthouse my stomach began to turn nervously. I had felt this hatred for what a long time, but I had never told her how I felt. I never told her I knew she had accused my dad, her own husband of having abused her for twelve years and that I knew it was a lie. For all she knew, “Mommy just needs a break,” was still a good enough explanation for having spent the past month in a battered women’s shelter. How could I stand up in front of a judge and accuse her, no matter how true, of something so terrible. I didn’t even have the courage to ask her “why?”
Soon after walking inside I discovered that I would not be taking the stand. In fact, I wouldn’t even see the courtroom. Melinda and I were going to be taken to a daycare on the third floor while my mother engaged in what she referred to as “adult business.” As frightened as I was at the idea of having to face my mom with the truth of her own betrayal, I was not at all relieved to hear that I would be occupying a daycare while my mom got away with whatever it was she was even trying to accomplish.
In the elevator on our way to the daycare room my eyes began to water. My heart raced and my frustration rose to a boiling point. I had to do something, anything. I felt that this was the point of no return and unless I did something fast, I would lose everything. I looked up at her; my eyes filled with tears.
“You’re lying,” I said desperately, “you know you’re a liar. Why are you doing this? You’re ruining everything!”
She only looked at me for a second and then, turning away with what looked like disgust on her lips, she hissed, “Don’t you dare make me out to be the bad guy Vanessa.” Then she spoke the words dispelling any doubt I may have had that she was aware of the deception she was getting away with.
“Sometimes, honey,” She told me in a calm, even tone, “you have to lie to get what you want in life. Sometimes you’ve just got to play the game.”
At this point we were standing outside the daycare room, and I went silent as we walked inside. I was dumbfounded. It was as if the villain had just openly revealed to me her plot, only instead of granting me the information I needed to save the world, her words only managed to reveal what I thought I had already known, yet despite having already known, I was shocked to the point of numbness. My mom signed Melinda and me into the daycare and I was left as powerless as ever among several crawling, toddling two to four year olds.
We passed the time playing Legos with a little boy who looked about three or four. As we built our tower I tried to decide whether or not I was glad that this was happening to me at an age in which I was, at least to some extent, aware of what was going on. If I were this little boy, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t be so terrified of the future right now. I wouldn’t be wondering what’s going to happen to my dad, or if I will ever go home again, or see Leanne. But as I watched the little boy knock down the Lego tower for something like the 7th time, it occurred to me that if my family were to fall apart now, at the very least I would know what the tower once looked like. I felt a sharp pang of empathy for the little boy, watching him giggle as he tossed the Lego pieces up into the air. I imagined this little boy as a kid my age, eleven years old and wondering why all he has are disconnected pieces and wanting nothing more than to understand what those pieces had once built.
“Girls, it’s time to go.” I heard my mother’s voice sounding perfectly un-distressed from the other side of the white kiddy gate near the door. My eyes stayed fixed on the scattered Lego blocks on the floor. Melinda stood by my side, waiting for me to leave with her.
“Come on, honey, we don’t have all day.” My mother urged in her best oh-so-patient-and-motherly voice. Unenthusiastically, I rose, waved goodbye to the little boy, and followed my mom out of the daycare. We walked in silence and as we took the elevator down to the first floor I watched the ghosts of ourselves from two hours past act out our earlier confrontation, and wondered apprehensively what had changed in the hours since then.
As we left the building and headed towards the parking lot I spotted Melissa, Rachel, and their mom getting out of a car. Melinda and I exchanged curious glances, wondering why they were at the courthouse. As we walked towards the car we had borrowed, they walked towards the courthouse and didn’t see us. A tall, muscular bald man who looked to be in his mid to late forties stood on the side walk outside of the building, and Rachel and Melissa’s mother stood back a distance of about forty feet, watching as her two girls ran to him and gave him a big hug. I got into the back seat of the car, and turned to look out the window at Rachel and Melissa standing together with their dad as their mom stood awkwardly at a distance. Then, as we pulled out of the parking lot, I looked at my own mother who was seated in the driver’s seat in front of me. I watched the reflection of her face in the rear view mirror with a feeling of absolute terror creeping over me. You can never truly escape the villain that you love.
Chapter 3: Aches and Pains and The Little Things
“Does your back hurt?” I asked Barbie as she eased herself down the stairs with her hand on her lower back
“Yes” she said quietly, with the noticeable effort of pushing words through pain.
I had heard the women gossiping about how a final brutal beating from her husband had left her spine permanently damaged, but I didn’t even consider asking her about it outright. I felt it just wasn’t in her script to be asked those kinds of things. She was mysterious; the most broken and the most tightly glued together of the women I had encountered at Daisy. It was my understanding that you weren’t supposed to pry when it came to people with the amount of depth that I perceived her to have. You were just supposed to wonder. So I did. I wondered, and I watched.
Barbie was broad-shouldered and big boned, with a crippling bend in her lower back that forced her to lean forward slightly as she walked. She was a tough looking woman until you notice her small, tired brown eyes. She didn’t speak much. When she did it was simple things. “Pass the beans please,” a quiet scratchy throated “thank you.” She never gossiped and she never shared her stories, or talked about her past, at least not in the theatrical manner in which it had become accustomed to. When she was asked direct questions about her circumstances, she would reply simply with the answer and nothing more. Everything seemed so pure and simple with her. She had a husband who beat her. She had a dog she left behind. She wanted out, and so she had left. She was not trying to orchestrate pity or attain a sense of praise for having gone through what she had. Specifics weren’t important. I felt that this was the way they should all be.
Sometimes I would sit and contemplate each woman and her faults, always coming back to Barbie as the shining example. Alexis’s mother was an obnoxious showy woman who I felt took a sick pleasure in recounting her lifes’ struggles and probably would not have changed anything if she had the chance simply because if her husband had not abused her she would have nothing to brag about. I concluded that if she could only borrow some of Barbie’s silence she would be able to think through it all and be able to appreciate her life as her own and take it more seriously. Maybe she would even consider the possibility that her constant ranting and raving in front of her children was not at all helpful to them. Rachel and Melissa’s mother meant well I was sure, but I still found myself thinking of her as weak and somewhat foolish for having stayed with her husband for so long. I felt she could use some of the strength and logic that Barbie had so much of in my mind. Logic says, if your husband hits your children, you leave, and if your husband chains your children to a tree, you should have left long ago. Strength says, yes, even if you love him.
I imagined that Barbie’s childlessness was intentional. She could handle a certain amount of rough treatment. She was strong. But she would never bring a child into that kind of world. I believed that Barbie could have made such a heroic decision as to remain childless in order to protect her unborn child, but I did not see her as a particularly motherly person either. I had trouble imagining her nurturing a baby, or even having a conversation with a child my age. Despite this impression, I was convinced she would have made a great mother. Barbie was a good person who had gone through some bad things and was dealing with them. She was honest and thoughtful and she wasn’t playing any games. What more could a child want from a mother, than to know she is a respectable person?
The other women I knew less about but I was sure they could all take something from Barbie that would make them better people. The characteristics I saw in her were the ones I aspired to for myself as well. In the hallway near my room there was a poster of a woman in a red bandana with a challenging look on her face, flexing her bicep with the caption “we can do it.” The poster always made me think of Barbie. She was strength personified.
I stared curiously into the bathroom mirror at the fist-sized red circle around my left nipple. For the past week I had been noticing it grow larger every day. At first I thought it was poison ivy. Poison ivy had been my thing back home. As long as it was growing, I would have it somewhere on my body, no matter how often I was warned to watch out for it, or better yet just stay out of the woods. I liked the reputation it gave me, it meant I was adventurous. But this was not poison ivy. The symmetrical look of it, and the way it was growing into a larger and larger circle instead of spreading outward in red blotches was unfamiliar to me. Concerned, but not wanting to have to consult my mother, I called Melinda into the bathroom to take a look.
“Do you think it’s poison ivy?” I asked doubtfully.
“I don’t think so, Ness, it doesn’t look like it usually does” she told me, cautiously informing me of what I already knew.
“Poo.” I sighed and scratched at the rash, even though it didn’t itch.
“Are you gonna tell mom?” she asked flatly, not so much a question of if as it was when.
“No.” I replied stubbornly, picking my shirt up off of the floor and sliding it over my head.
“Neeeess,” Melinda whined in disapproval. “It could be one of those worms that gets inside you and eats all your food from your stomach.” Her tone was one of genuine concern. The look in her eyes was one of a child on the verge of throwing a fit. She didn’t of course. She just stood there, big hazel eyes on the verge of tears over something so ridiculously selfless.
“Fine,” I gave in almost immediately; seeing Melinda cry and knowing it’s my fault has always been one of the worst feelings in the world for me. My job was to stop her tears, not cause them. But realizing what I had just promised, I added, “I’ll tell her if it gets any bigger.”
By the time I finally told my mother a few days later, the rash encircled nearly my entire chest. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and showed her, admitting that it had been growing for over a week now.
“Honey,” she scolded, “why didn’t you tell me earlier?” She was bent down slightly, her hands on my shoulders and her face only inches away from mine. Her tone irked me, its panicky inflections making my skin crawl.
“I thought it was poison ivy,” I said stiffly, my eyes on the mirror to my right. For a moment I imagined us as a painting. The woman’s plump body was out of the frame but I could see her dark eyes trying to meet the child’s, the fat sagging from the woman’s extended arms, and the child’s shirtless body in her grasp as if she held some claim to it. I allowed myself to pity the child.
The understanding that this child and I were one and the same seemed strange to me. I felt that in that moment the fact of being a child was only in the entrapment of my body and that having to stand shirtless in front of this woman whom I did not trust as a necessary step in looking after my own well-being was a concept more terrifying than any I had encountered before.
Before I knew it my mother had brought Alexis’ mother into the bathroom to help administer my diagnosis. I continued to feel ridiculously small and strangely separate from myself. It seemed that I could no longer fit inside my tiny body; I was spread throughout the room. Maybe I was stretched throughout different rooms even. From all around I watched as two useless women yammered on frantically in what I saw as superficial concern over the large mark on my child’s body.
“It could be Lymes disease,” was one suggestion I remember Alexis’ mom making. “Sometimes the rash comes out like a bull’s-eye.”
That explains it, I thought to myself: there’s a bull’s-eye around my heart. I was amused by the irony, and decided it must be the universe trying to send a message to my mother. It was a nice try, I thought, but it won’t get through.
The visit to the doctor’s office was equally humiliating, but for different reasons. The doctor was a man, and while at eleven years old I didn’t have breasts it hadn’t escaped my attention that my nipples had been getting larger. Though embarrassing, it was brief and the consensus was that I did indeed have Lymes disease. I was given pills that I would take every day for the next month or so.
The medicine for my Lymes disease made me not want to eat, and it made me puke when I did. I was tired constantly and my body ached all over. But it wasn’t as if I had anything that needed doing, or anywhere I needed to be. I just lived off of water and yogurt for a while and threw up a few times a day. What frustrated me about Lymes disease was that it seemed as if my mother suddenly felt obligated to care.
“How are you feeling honey?” she’d coo sympathetically twenty or so times a day, even when she wasn’t around for more than a few hours in the day.
“Have you eaten?”
“Please try to eat something.”
“You need to eat.”
“I’m fine I just ache a little,” I’d tell her, and she’d offer me pain pills and beg me to eat more. It was infuriating. Why was she pretending to care about my needs? I formed a habit of creating great monologues of yelling in my head in which I would tell her; “no I do not need pain pills, no I do not need to eat, what I need is my home. What I need is for you to give me my family back. What I need it to feel safe again. How is it that you cannot comprehend how little of a necessity food is in comparison to the things you have already taken from me.”
The thought of my Dad and Leanne sitting in our living room back home each night, surrounded by framed pictures of all of us together, happy, churned in my nearly empty stomach. I thought of them sitting there in silence feeling helpless, not knowing our whereabouts and hoping we were safe. It’s all so wrong, I thought, the one person that could save Melinda and I from this mess, is the one person that Daisy “protects” us from.
I thought back to a time when I used to wish that my life was more exciting. My sisters and I were the perfect little homeschooled girls, my mother the loving stay-at-home mom who would happily greet the neighbors when they would stop by with their kids to watch our rabbits play in their hutches. The question of why on earth my mother would throw that all away burned in my brain, a question I was sure would never be answered to my satisfaction. Does my dad ask himself the same question, I wondered, does he know the answer any more than I do? Does he blame himself? That thought stung me most of all. I couldn’t bear the thought of him blaming himself for calling the ambulance that day; doing what he thought was right, while my mother blamed him, accused him, of what he had never done.
One day when my mother was acting particularly codling, and the yelling in my head was too much to bear, I released my inner brat.
“How are you feeling sweetheart?” she asked, placing a hand on my shoulder as she took a seat next to me at the breakfast table.
“Shut up,” I told her, shrugging her hand off of my shoulder.
There were two other women at the breakfast table. One of them was Alexis’ mother. They both looked up from their food, intrigued.
“Not so well I see,” My mother laughed uncertainly. “Well, it’s good that you’re trying to eat,” she said with a glance towards my key-lime yogurt.
“Shut up,” I insisted, a little louder this time
By then Alexis’ mother and the other woman were exchanging disapproving glances with open mouths.
“Don’t take it out on me darling,” she persisted her good-mother gambit through gritted teeth. “I’m just trying to help.”
“Shut up!” I yelled, getting up from my chair. I ran to the end of the table, turned back and stuck my tongue out so hard I felt as if it would rip from my throat. In the back of my mind I knew how childish I must have looked, but I did not have the courage to articulate my feelings and this seemed a more logical course of action than suffering through my thoughts in silence. I stood there staring at her, grimacing.
“Wipe that nasty look of your face,” she said, outraged as she rose abruptly from her chair, her hand to her chest, her face both disgusted and hurt. “Do you know how nasty you look? I wish you could see your face in the mirror.” My heart felt like it was on fire. Hypocrite, I kept thinking, you hypocrite. Finally I couldn’t stand that abused look on her face any longer, and I ran to our shared room, slamming the door behind me.
The latest game I had going was one in which I was convincing the other girls that our dolls were possessed by evil spirits. I would move them into strange positions when they weren’t looking and make up scary stories to go along with their placements. Rachel, Melissa, Melinda, and even Alexis were all the victims of my scare tactics. I’m sure they were at least partially aware it was all my doing, but they played along anyway. Later that night I tied shoelaces around two of the dolls necks and hung them from hangers on the coat rack. I then placed the third doll on the ground against the wall with her arms crossed, watching them hang.
There had been a rumor going around that Barbie had stolen a hairdryer from one of the other women. I was completely unconvinced and saw it as something too petty even to suggest. Despite not knowing her by much more than what my instincts told me, I was confident that Barbie was in no way a petty woman, so I spared myself the earful and stopped eavesdropping.
One day my mother arranged to go on a trip with Barbie to her house at a time of day when Barbie knew her husband would not be home. Barbie wanted to collect some things she had left behind when she had first left for Daisy. To my delight, they decided to bring Melinda and me along with them. I was excited to see where Barbie lived, and also partially and guiltily hoping her husband would be home so that I would be able to see not only the place she had run away from, but also the person. I stood in the driveway with Barbie and Melinda, waiting on my mother and our chauffeur: one of the women in charge at Daisy would be driving us there in case anything went wrong.
I stood between Barbie and Melinda, next to one of the community cars that were borrowed for trips like these as we waited for my mother to come join us with the driver. It was the same car my mother had used for the trip to the courthouse. My back ached from the pills I had been taking for my Lymes disease, and I placed my hand on my lower back and bend forward slightly in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. To my right, Barbie stood in almost the exact position. Her back must have been hurting her, too. I felt a disproportionate sense of pride standing next to her like that. I imagined we carried a similar load on our shoulders; that we were both survivors trying our best to stay strong.
Barbie’s house was oddly cluttered. There were open boxes strewn about the living room as if the residents had just moved in and had yet to unpack, but the house itself appeared well lived in. The couch was worn in and there was a good amount of dust on the windowsills and countertops. The boxes in the living room seemed to contain all of Barbie’s things. Barbie was not at all sentimental. She rummaged through the boxes with concentrated purpose, trying to get the job done as fast as possible, shoving things into a large bag that my mother held out for her.
“You really needed to get out of here,” My mother commented looking around as she held out the bag as Barbie packed it with things. “This is just no way to live.”
I didn’t see anything wrong with the home itself, or have any idea of a lifestyle it might suggest, but I imagined it held a dark energy. A dark energy built from the stories it might tell; the memories it held.
“Doesn’t matter now,” Barbie said in a voice somewhere between determined and afraid, “In a few days it’ll all be behind me.”
“That’s right, you’re leaving early. I don’t know how you did it. It’s so hard to find good work let alone a decently priced apartment.”
I was only just then realizing the reason we were there: Barbie was leaving Daisy. I was suddenly hit by a strange feeling of loss standing there in that living room. The stories that filled this room would never be revealed to me. I would never understand the feeling of standing there with the weight of that particular past; that precise pain. I would never know Barbie the way I wanted to.
The night Barbie left I went to sleep wondering what she must feel like knowing she had done it; she had made it out of a bad place and was on her way to newfound independence and self-sufficiency. I hoped that she felt excitement towards the future and that she would leave whatever darkness that was in that living room behind. I wished that I could somehow share in her excitement. I wanted to go down to her room and say something to her before she left, maybe tell her how much I admired her, wish her luck, and tell her I was proud of her. But that would have been strange. She hadn’t said or done anything to warrant my idolization. I simply saw her as everything I wanted to be, and everything I wished my mother could be: honest, strong, thoughtful, and real.
The next morning I found myself curled up behind a painting that was leant against the wall inside a closet. When I crawled out of the closet I found myself in Barbie’s empty bedroom. That morning Melinda told me she had followed me the previous night and watched as I had climbed down from my bed on the top bunk, exited our room, walked down two flights of stairs and into Barbie’s bedroom and then into her closet, closing the door behind me. I vaguely remembered the feeling of going somewhere without knowing exactly where or why. It was the first and only time I have ever taken a walk in my sleep.
Not long after Barbie had left, our mother told Melinda and me that we too would be leaving in a few days. Melissa and Rachel’s stay would be extended past the 8 week limit, but ours would not. This was in no way good news. We were not going home. We were simply being dragged to the next place our mother had in store. I knew she would never bring us home to stay, not if she could help it. I felt frightened and helpless. In an attempt to take some sort of control over the situation, I decided there needed to be some sort of ceremony. A way to say a proper goodbye to Melissa and Rachel, and let them know how much their friendship had meant.
In the hallway just past where the doors to our bedrooms were placed, there was a closet filled with clothing people had donated to the shelter. The night before Melinda and I left, the four of us went into that closet and found a small square baby blanket. Taking it into Melissa and Rachel’s room, we cut the blanket into four sections. In colorful felt pen we wrote messages on the squares, addressing them to one another, each taking a piece and the memories it carried.