Chapter 1: Guilt and Need
As soon as we arrived at our new apartment, I moved into the storage unit. After leaving behind our friends, Melinda and I would be living alone with our mom, and all I could manage to hope for was a space to hide.
Melinda and I walked up a spiral metal staircase onto a spacious loft room with two single beds. I noticed a short door with wooden shutters on the back wall. I crawled in and saw that it stretched for the entire length of the room, a long low cave. I called it my dragon den and took my books, including my prized Dragonology book and all my various notebooks to stack in the far corner. I let myself be excited about the den, trying to ignore the daunting idea that this move may signify the end of our hiatus from home; this may be our new home, our new life.
On the day we moved into the apartment we had gotten to see my Dad briefly, he had bought mom the car she used to take us there and would be paying the rent on the apartment too. When he gave us our first cell-phones he told us that having our own phones would help us keep in touch, and my mom accused him of trying to buy us. I wished he could buy us, and that mom would just name her price.
My mother had a room on the lower level of the apartment behind the kitchen and bathroom and across from the front door. The whole place had an air of emptiness to it. Even after we were unpacked and had been living there a week it was not as homey as the shelter. There were not many distractions; no one to tell me a sadder story than my own, and only Melinda for company. I was grateful for the shelter of my den, the power to grant or deny Melinda access to it gave me a sense of control over my life. The times I kept her out were mostly because I was creating tasks for her that I didn’t want her to see prematurely. I developed the history of an ancient society of dragon trainers called the “Samsung,”after the word on our new phones.When I did let Melinda into my den it would be to teach her the ways of the Samsung and test her on it. I became obsessed with these sorts of distractions. Melinda didn’t seem to understand. She became bored and frustrated with these games, participating only to make me happy. She knew that these worlds were not real and she just wanted the comfort of being near me. Her moments of relief came from times I would let her stay in my den without participating. She would color or paint and I would read or create make believe histories for make believe people.
Melinda had started begging to sleep with me again. I was lonely and afraid at night and I wanted to sleep with her too, but I had developed a habit of smothering my face in my pillow and crying myself to sleep. I knew that if we slept in the same bed I wouldn’t be able to hide the sound. I told Melinda that I needed my space to sleep, and I would lay with her for a half hour or so, tuck her in, and then go to my own bed to cry.
In the mornings, we would be woken up by screaming. We would peer over the balcony to see my mother standing there in the living room naked; laughing, crying, screaming at all four walls. She’d pace a bit, go into the kitchen to make tea, scream over the sound of the boiling water, laugh at herself, chide herself,
“that’s right, you’ve got me looking crazy now. I bet this makes you happy to see a broken woman, see how long you could stay sane under psychiatric persecution. That’s what this is. It is Psy- chi – at -ric Per – se – cu -tion!”
Her rantings and ravings were not the incoherent babbling you would expect of an insane person, there was always a logic to her speeches, a way that she sorted it all out to be righteous. Everything made a sort of sense. In her head she had been driven to an understandable insanity by people who believed her to be insane and who spent all their time and energy trying to prove that she was.
“If people believe something of you long enough, you will eventually become it,” she’d say.
At first, Dad was not allowed to pick us up from the apartments. We’d meet at a dunkin’ donuts a few miles from our apartment and about an hours drive from our home, where dad would take us back for the weekend. “every other weekend” was the response when we would ask when we’d get to see dad, that was the time the courts had prescribed for him to spend with us. The reality was that we got to see him almost every weekend. Mom seemed to have almost as much trouble being around Melinda and I as we had being around her and at the end of each week we were all relieved by her suggestion that we go “to dad’s” that weekend, despite having been there the previous weekend.
The process of exchanging us was never civil. Mom would start screaming at Dad, Dad would look at the ground and take it, Mom would scream at Dad for not screaming back, Dad would look up and say “can I just take my kids now,” Mom would threaten not to let him take us, we would cry, Dad would try and use reason to understand why she was angry, Mom would get pissed off at him for the patronizing tone and storm off, we would get in the car with Dad to drive back to our old home. In the car, there would be silence at first, then we would start talking excitedly to Dad to try and cheer him up, Dad would apologize for arguing with mom, we’d tell him it wasn’t his fault, he’d seem unconvinced.
At home, finally together with both my sisters at once, we were high on the privilege of each others company but already anticipating the bitter after taste of once again being torn apart. We would spend hours recollecting stories that showed our mother in a bad light.
“remember after we came back from Texas,” My older sister, Leanne, recounted, “and Mom shook that plastic bag over that lady’s head in the A&P and yelled “Fuck America” right in front of JP and everyone else in the store”.
“she’s such a bitch” Leanne would say, and we would all agree. My dad would smile a little at these comments, then get suddenly sad or angry and tell Leanne not to say things like that.
“She ruined your life,” Leanne would remind him, “don’t defend her”.
Often we would start out on a fun and light topic, but we would always wind our way back to her. One day we were talking about Melinda’s love of food, “your eyes are bigger than your stomach” my Dad said, and we had laughed about how her eyes are huge and her stomach is even bigger.
“She even named all her guinea pigs after food,” I reminded everyone, laughing.
When our guinea pigs had babies when we were very young, Melinda had named two of them Brownie and Donut, while Leanne and I had named ours Guinea and Rainbow.
Leanne stopped laughing suddenly, “Mom was so stupid,” she said, “putting them out in the heat like that.”
All four of our guinea pigs died on the same day about three years ago because Mom had put them on the back porch in the summer.
“and she blamed me for it and made me think it was my fault” Leanne continued, “she was just freaking out about what dad would think.”
“yeah well”, Dad said with a sigh, “she never was very good at handling situations like that.”
Dad had been devastated. The pigs loved him. Every night when he would come through the door from work they would squeak with happiness. When he came home on that night he asked where the pigs were, why was there no squeaking? and when he saw them all dead he cried for them.
As the conversation went on, Dad reminded us of another time Mom couldn’t handle the situation at hand. We had been running inside from the car during a storm. At only 5 years old, Melinda was the last one out of the car. left to close the car door and run to catch up with the rest of us, she slipped running up the concrete steps and her face broke her fall. I remember sitting outside the bathroom door where mom and her stood over the sink trying to clean her up. Melinda had broken her nose and Mom had called Dad on the phone while he was at work. She stood over the sink crying and screaming while Melinda stood their bleed, no one knowing what to do. After seeing Melinda’s shirt covered in blood I was thinking she had been struck by lightning, and Leanne had whispered in my ear, “if Melinda dies it’s all your fault.” I had been the second to last out of the car, and I had left her behind.
The day the guinea pigs died, Mom had told me to give them water, and I had forgotten, and Leanne had been the one complaining about the smell, begging her to put them out. Whenever we brought up these sorts of stories and assigned blame, I couldn’t help but let the blame wander in my mind. It bothered me that everyone else seemed so content to blame Mom for everything. There was no doubt in my mind that our present was a mess because of her, but the past seemed more complicated. I thought about all the times I had told her I hated her when I was young, all the fits I had thrown. I thought about the day I had gone onto the back porch when Mom and Dad were sipping wine together to tell them about the movie plots I had created about them, all with my mother as the villain and my dad as the hero. I wondered if I somehow knew who she’d become, or if I had somehow made her this way. After all, If people believe something of you long enough, you will eventually become it. Did I make her become this, I wondered. I couldn’t remember a time when anyone else had shouldered blame. Dad blamed himself more than anything, but us kids had always blamed only Mom, not just now, but for out entire lives, anything we ever disliked was on her. She had been our teacher and our stay-at-home mom, stuck with us 24 hours a day every day. There were times when i’d think about it and become sure that it was that which had driven her insane.
Some of our stories about Mom really seemed to distress my Dad, particularly the details that had been everyday facts of life for us since we were very young. The way mom would have us write down the license plate numbers of the cars she thought were following us on the road. She would claim that often it was the cars in front that were doing the following, they were tricky that way. Or the way she would praise us for suggesting new locations where cameras could be hidden. I began to realize how strange it all was, and how strange that these were not things we felt the need to report to dad. My dad seemed surprised at the amount of irrational behavior he had missed in his wife over the years. For a year or so before mom had taken us away he had dealt with her paranoia because it had become directed at him. She had been accusing him of being the orchestrator of a plot to spy on her, beginning to call the “spies” the “S society” (S for Simon, my dad), and he had been forced to challenge her beliefs, to prove that he was good and that he loved her and that he had not hired anyone to put cameras in the house. This was the time of knocking holes in the walls to prove there were no cameras, and shutting the power of in the whole house to assure privacy. He even started lifting weights and wearing cologne as if that might change her mind about him. In a way, we were all realizing for the first time that this had not been going on for just the past two years.
“I didn’t know things were this bad,” he said, “why didn’t you tell me, has this really been happening for so long?”
His tone was never one of accusation. In fact, the way in which he questioned the reality of our stories of the past with mom betrayed a feeling of shame. I didn’t want my dad to feel guilty for anything my mom had done, and I began to feel guilty myself, whenever my dad would be around when we would tell stories about moms strange behavior. He always urged us to see both sides of the story, “she is sick” he’d say, “it’s not her fault”, “I don’t want you to hate her”, and even, at times, “maybe she is right and I am evil.”
He’d say this with a serious face as if he were trying not to be himself but instead some impartial judge and I worried that somewhere inside him he believed it was his fault, that somehow he was this evil person she believe he was. I tried to imagine what it would be like for the person I love, who loved me back, to one day without warning say that I was evil, that I was an abuser, that I was the source of all their pain. My dad was my favorite person, the most gentle and caring person I had ever known, and it crushed my heart to think of how she had crushed his.
Often, however, this objective attitude in him irritated me. It made me feel like he wasn’t going to stand up against her and because of that we would be stuck with her forever.
At the end of our visit, on the drive to the Dunkin Donuts, I begged Dad not to make us go back to her.
“why can’t you just take us like she did? why do we have to go back when we want to stay with you”, I whined.
He explained how sorry he was and that he is working on getting custody but that if he took us he would get in a lot of trouble. On one level I understood and I trusted that my Dad was doing the smart thing, but on a deeper more emotional level I thought that it was cruel to send me back to her and I wished he had a little bit of mom’s crazy in him, the kind of crazy that makes you follow the emotional urgency of the situation rather than the smartest logical path.
Not long after we moved in I started to attend Rolling Hills Elementary school. The 5th grade, despite being eleven years old and meant to be ing 6th. I was glad to be getting out of the house and away from my mother but even in my memories there is a surreal quality to being at that school. It’s as if I was never really there. For 8 hours a day I sat under the fluorescent lighting next to children who seemed strangely like robots. All i remember of my time in the classrooms was the incoherent buzzing of teacher lecture, student question, teacher answer, over and over all blurring together. Once or twice a day i’d hear my name “Vanessa, are you listening?”, “pay attention Vanessa”, I don’t remember ever responding. I felt like an alien there, or that everyone else was an alien. The only person who talked to me was an extremely chatty girl whose locker was next to mine. She would go on and on about her family and her dogs. My first impression of her was a story about her favorite dog.
“He was my baby” she said, “I loved him so much and he would sleep with me every night curled up in my arms and we would play together all the time. He loved me more than anyone else in my family.” she told me excitedly, unprompted.
“Loved?” I asked, “did he die?”
“Oh yeah well” she said with a giggle, “we had to put him down because he bit my aunt on her ankle and made her bleed”
“That’s horrible, I’m so sorry” I told her.
“It’s okay” she said, never losing her grin.
Back home, I had a cat named Keesha. I had found her as a stray kitten when I lived in Texas, and she had been my “furry baby,” as I called her, ever sense. If anyone tried to hurt her, let alone kill her for something as trivial as a bite, I thought, I’d kill them. This girl was sick in the head, I decided, someone who doesn’t feel empathy or remorse, or love, but only claims she does to have something to say, a babbling, deceivingly animated robot. I didn’t have any desire to talk to her after that, but I allowed her to follow me around and talk at me as I nodded vacantly in response feeling a sort of repulsion towards her all the while.
Getting ready for school in the morning was a struggle for all of us. On bad days Melinda and I would stay upstairs as long as possible to avoid the screaming naked woman downstairs, and as soon as my mom pulled herself together long enough to get dressed she wanted to know why we weren’t already out the door. Like everything else we created a game to help with the stress of the process. We tied Prance the beanie kitten to a string, and slowly lowered her down towards the lower level to see where our mom was and report back. Of course it was me leaning over the balcony to see where she was, but our third party made the adventure feel more involved.
“The chicken is in the hen house!” I’d hiss urgently to Melinda who would be waiting at the top of the stairs. The hen house was the kitchen and my mother was the chicken. Melinda was waiting to hear that the chicken was in the coop (her bedroom) so that she could rush down and make herself a bagel. I had stopped eating breakfast, and I would often only watch her from above as she made hers, occasionally coming down to sit in the living room. The chicken never stayed in the coop for long though, and once she came out we would be stuck on the same floor with her until leaving for school.
“Get your shoes on now,” my mother said particularly irritably one day, “we should have been out the door 5 minutes ago.”
I quickly got my shoes on while Melinda stuffed the rest of her bagel in her mouth and rushed to the door. Before she could get her shoes all the way on my mom was dragging her out the door behind me. Melinda was jogging on tip toes with her heels hanging out the backs of her shoes trying to catch up. Down the outside steps and across the back yard towards the road she made a valiant effort to keep up with Mom, and even when she lost a shoe, she didn’t dare stop.
“Mom stop, Melinda lost her shoe” I said.
I had been watching uncomfortably as Melinda ran alongside my mom, and had just glanced down at her feet to see one sock against the dirt, the other still only half in it’s shoe.
“Jesus Christ!” she yelled, shooting a glare at Melinda. We looked back and didn’t see the shoe. Quickly tracing our steps back around the side of the apartment complex we spotted it, directly under the nose of an adolescent black bear, not quite cub, not quite fully grown, next to a dumpster about 50 feet from where we stood.
“go get it.” my mother said, dropping Melinda’s arm, “well? hurry up!” she urged, “we’re going to miss your bus.”
The bear was still happily sniffing the shoe, seemingly oblivious to us.
I looked at my nine year old sister who was already red in the face and watery-eyed from being jerked around. She looked up at my mom with her big hazel eyes wide and pleading. My mom wasn’t having it.
“Get your shoe. we need to go,” she insisted.
Melinda’s eyes dropped to the ground and she fell into full on sobbing. My mom continued to berate her, insisting she get it, and she continued to sob softly but violently, her face towards the ground, slim shoulders hunched and heaving.
Nothing seemed worse than standing where I stood and watching that scene take place. I walked towards the bear and it took a few steps backwards as I approached. Quickly grabbing the shoe from what felt like inches in front of his face, I walked backwards briskly for a few steps, then turned to make my way back. I quickly helped Melinda get her shoe on and felt a hard sort of relief in my gut like a rock settling at the bottom of a rushing river that had been tossing it about. I was intensely aware of my mom watching me as I stooped to help Melinda, and I hoped she was ashamed of herself, watching me having done what, in my mind, she was meant to.
“okay lets go,” my mom said in the same irritated tone, immediately continuing the rush to catch the bus. Though only in mind, the moment lasted as a sort of small victory.
The worst part of my day was getting off the bus and having to greet my mother in the parking lot. She would drive me and Melinda from the bus stop in the parking lot up to our apartment, and the car ride with her was something I dreaded periodically throughout the day, my stomach sinking to my toes in a painful stretching sensation when the time finally arrived. She would immediately begin screaming at deafening volumes about various injustices she had encountered throughout the day. I became skilled at vacating my body during these times and although the drive was no more than two minutes long the memory of those times is like a long dark space where nothing matters and I don’t exist.
At some point my mom started blasting Enya in the evenings as a work out. I’d see her jumping up and down and swaying back and forth vigorously to the music and something about this new habit made me want to be near her again. She’d work out for hours and I would dance around her across the couches, the living room, the kitchen, pretending to be in the jungle or just enjoying the feeling of release that I got from being out of breath with no intention of stopping to catch it. When my mother shut off the music after what was often two or three hours of nonstop dancing I would stay in the living room and sit on the couch with her to watch Reba on TV. After hours of watching Reba, Judge Judy and Sister Sister we would pull out the couch and stay up for most of the night giving each other back and face massages. I was exhausted with hating her and I welcomed these times when I was able to feel close to her again and remember what it had been like once upon a time when our perfect little family revolved around the mother who would do anything for us.
I started thinking about the good times a lot, times when our family seemed to be on the trajectory of a different narrative. “Mom” used to mean something different to me. I was around eight years old when things started to really change. Before she became the Mom who had me record the license plate numbers of her stalkers in the car, the mom who said “good job honey” when I suggested places where cameras might be hidden, the mom who make me feel special for being the kid willing to climb out the bathroom window to help her set her trap for the spies, the mom who thought the ceramic chickens had cameras in their eyes. Before that, and even for a while after, I was the child who woke up every morning and said,
“Goodmorning mommy, I love you,” because I did love her, and I loved mornings.
I learned multiplication tables from my mom at 6 years old. I remember standing in a dimly lit parking lot at night reciting multiplication while waiting for my older sister, Leanne, to get out of her acting lessons. Back then she always shared in our successes and celebrated them with us as if they were her own. My mom was always working on the next big thing for us. The eight foot long trampoline in our back yard, gymnastics lessons, piano lessons, acting lessons, Irish dance lessons, tap lessons, horse back riding. She wanted us to experience it all. But then she started pulling us out of our classes one by one. The reasons why always having to do with the people surrounding the activities. She had gotten into an argument with the tap teacher, the piano teacher thought she was a bad mother, the mother of another child in the gymnastics class asked what time her children go to sleep and if they brush their teeth. Homeschooling had started to become more like no schooling. While Leanne had been reading kindergarten level books at age 2, Melinda was struggling with reading those same books at age 7.
In the quiet moments of comfort I got at night with her tapping her fingers across my face like raindrops, I could almost pretend that nothing had ever changed, she loved and cared for me and wanted what was best, and I could stop worrying about the fact that what was best was not what was happening for us. It was irrelevant as long as I felt that she loved me, and if I could forget about everyone and everything else, and in this narrow window of time, I did.
My mother lost weight fast through our Enya tradition and she went from being an obese woman to an attractively curvy one. This change in appearance was followed by a phase of flirting with inanimate objects.
One day taking the trash out in the morning it was,
“oh Mr. Trash can, are you looking at my butt?” and turning to me she continued, “Honey he just can’t keep his eyes off me today, all the trash thinks I’m so sexy!”
She emphasized the word trash, as if it had some hidden meaning that I couldn’t understand, like she was working within the confines of a language, or a scenario, that she had, at the same time, ingeniously outwitted. It was hard for me to decipher how serious she was. She always seemed to be playing a parody of her own insanity, putting on a show for the spies.
Shopping for groceries another day it was,
“I’m really craving a bag of chips right now, mmm! I want him so bad, Mr. bag of chips you’re such a tease baby I have to have you!”
This was also around the time of flip-flop man,
“there’s flip flop man again,” she’d say about every man in flip flops we would pass.
Her relationship with flip-flop man was a more hostile one than her relationship with Mr. Trash can or Mr. Bag of Chips. His presence would trigger a rage,
“the fucking audacity of these people! they can’t leave me alone, always having to know my business” followed by a decent into despair, “why! Why!?” She’d sob, “tell my why they do this to me? What did I do to deserve it!?”
This would take place in public and be aimed at me. I was her audience, the one she looked to for comfort and answers, but I had none. Mostly I would stand there and say nothing, or repeat, “it’s okay” until the words lost their meaning. Sometimes I would get upset, tell her she needed to stop freaking out in public. This response would only result in new hysterics, the kind in which I was the assailant “you ungrateful brat! Etc..”
One day I came home from school with the conviction that I was never going back.
“I hate it there,” I confided in my Mom.
Before then I had told her nothing about my feelings towards school because I hated home so much more. Complaining about school, I would have felt like a prisoner complaining to their captor about the bad weather they had experienced upon leaving their cell. But lately I had found a strange sort of trust in her, through memories of how things used to be and our ritual of distracting ourselves together. I told her about how all the other children were robots, that my only friend was a shallow, babbling, dog killer. I complained about the squareness of the walls, the fluorescent lighting, the boy behind me who always tapped his pencil on his desk and the teacher who had no sympathy for me the day I took it from his hands and broke it. To anyone else It would have sounded like I was having a fit; to anyone sane. But if there was anything she understood it was need, rational or irrational it didn’t matter. Within the week she had set up a meeting with the principal of a charter school called Unity that was an hour drive from our apartment.