Friday, December 30, 2011

Red Ink

83. The felt tip red ink the number is written in is bold and screams disappointment, so much so that the marks bleed through to the reverse side of the paper. She had underlined it with dramatic force. I can sense her frustration without even reading the additional yellow post it attached to my test. I know I have let her down. 

In blue ball point pen she had written, "What happened??? Is everything OK?" I want to cry. I hate feeling like I have let my teacher down. She had just suggested I be moved up to accelerated history. How do I show appreciation for that recognition? I barely hit a low B.

It would be one of the only three times I could ever remember someone asking me in my life if there was something wrong. She never confronted me again about it. She never stopped me after class. I would never have to answer her. Even if she had asked, I would never have had the courage to say, "No. Everything is not OK. Can you help me?"

I've heard women carry on about the abuse they have suffered from men they knew. I'm ashamed to say I am always skeptical. I find it unusual to almost brag about being mistreated. In my experiences, one holds it in as a secret they keep close with a great fear someone could find out. What if people knew? What would they whisper behind my back? Would I be an outcast? Would I be a headline in our small local paper? Would I be removed from my home?

Out of that fear I will never answer Mrs. Boehning. I am not sure how serious her inquiry really was or if she wanted to stress her disappointment. I don't make the same mistake twice, and my next paper has the familiar triple digits of which I am accustom in her class. She always makes the zeros have dots for eyes and the enforcing line underneath the grade curves and smiles upward so that the 100 has a friendly and approving grin. When I have a goofey smiley face celebrating a perfect score I don't cause suspicion. Nothing can be wrong if my grades are good. No questions asked. But, Mrs. Boehning, everything is not OK. I am too timid and fearful to tell anyone the truth, and no one has taken the time or responsibility to notice.


5:00 pm. My mom gets off work at 5:00 pm. My stomach turns a little as I realize she is about to come to our neighbor's home to pick us up and take us home. 

From about 3:30 pm to 5:15 pm, our neighbor Debbie watches us. She picks each of us up from school and somehow manages to get to each of three schools on time. She has two children of her own, as well. After school we act out our favorite video game, Mario Brothers, with her kids in Debbie's back yard. We pretend to smash bricks with our heads and run the outermost boundaries of her fenced yard. We follow the trail her dogs have already beaten down for us. I always get to be the princess. This is one of the few areas I tend to get my way. My younger sister always is stuck being King Koopa. Luckily for me, the boys seem annoyed with her, so they gladly equate her with the villain of the video game. In real life, I always considered her to be the princess. I am not sure if it is because she is the youngest or if my mother truly resents me, but Jessica always has had better favor with Mom. But before 5:15 pm, I am the Princess.

One day many years later, when I am 18 years old, my mother will have a moment where she is unable to control her anger. She will tell me why she hates me. She will tell me she could have aborted me when she got knocked up with me in the back seat of my Dad's car. She will tell me how she tried to make him stay by having two more children with him, but Dad wouldn't stay. She will look at me so coldly I will realize she blames me for the life she did not have and for the bad decisions she will not hold herself accountable for. I will begin to understand.

But for now, I am Princess Peach, a sixth-grader playing in the backyard of the house next door to the one that stole my joy.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Last Straw

"Bye!" she says aggressively as she hangs up on me. Somehow she manages to turn a one syllable word into two syllables with a heavy accent on the latter half. I wait a couple of seconds to let it register that she has actually hung up, but it is silent on the other end. I burst into tears hysterically, half shocked that I still react this way to her dramatic exits.

I am no longer a child but a 33 year old woman still haunted by that old house and its secrets. I am a woman who is still intimidated by her mother's anger and easily manipulated by her mother's extreme emotions. My four year old stands quietly outside of my bedroom door, shyly questioning what he should do to console me. "Mommy? Is your mommy being mean?" He is anxious with his fingers in his mouth as he whispers. It is a nervous habit of his I have been trying to address as I myself look down at my bitten cuticles and short nails. I'm sure he's watched and picked up my bad trait.

I had a fear the call would end badly before I even had made it. My hope was that it wouldn't. I had a plan to be calm and careful with my request. I had a pressing need to see her, but I knew before dialing the phone that I would be rejected. I thought I was ready for it, but somehow it still stung so deeply. I was startled at my pain and tears. I knew better, but I still had asked.

Ten minutes ago I sat on my bed next to laundry I had just folded and held my cell phone in my hand. I had already dialed her number but waited to hit the word "call" and tried to build the courage to ask. It was never easy to ask to visit. I had already asked two weeks ago.

"We'll just have to see how it goes," was what she left me with.

Yesterday was Christmas, and I had already talked to her on the phone today for 45 minutes. She calls several times a week and talks to me about her job and the ladies she works with. She rarely asks me questions, but at least she calls. Sometimes I try to share something personal, but I can hear her typing on her keyboard, and shortly after she will ask, "I'm sorry, what did you just say?"

Having just spoken with her hours earlier, I encouraged myself to call. I reflected on the last several times I had tried to ask for an invitation. (My mom's "policy" is that you are to be invited to her home. Never do a drop by. She won't answer the door. It's quite rude to just show up, you know.)

I have not been to her home since my son was six months old, and my plumber husband had worked on her hot water heater. She lives only an hour away, and I have requested to visit several times. Always, I am denied. I began getting suspicious about her home. It had been several years since she had surrounded herself in filth, but I was getting more concerned that she was doing it again. My son is four and a half. He does not ever remember visiting his "Nana." A couple of years ago she told me she was working on Christmas gifts and didn't want the kids to get into needles and supplies. Somehow that shifted into a top secret project she was working on that had things scattered around her home... in every room... Of course, that project was absolutely none of my business, she said. For several months we couldn't visit because it was election time, and she was unsure of her work schedule. She swore the city would use her on weekends, even Sundays, and they would not give her any notice of what days she was expected to work. One excuse was Jason use to have ear infections, and she thought it best he stop coming for a while. Angrily she told me one day things were the way they were because she claimed I always chose my Granny over her. The best, by far, was when she said her chihuahua had a cough, and she didn't feel like it would be good for my son or her dog to be around each other while he was sick. My sister said Mom told her no one could visit because once I had requested that she visit us instead of the three families (my brother, sister and myself) loading our four small children under two years of age to travel to her house. She said I had said it would be easier for her to drive to visit us. I cannot remember making that statement, and I'm pretty sure I didn't. Regardless, I don't see it as all that offensive of a request. My sister, however, was given this excuse as to why no one is allowed to visit. Mom huffed, "I would have never said something like that to my mother."

All of her "reasoning" seems to hold no actual logic and only creates suspicion. I know that I can't do anything about her hoarding. I know she won't be honest about the real reason no one can visit. I'm not sure why she insists on lying about it since we grew up with her for so many years knowing the truth.

Mom answers the phone. After a few moments of small talk I get the courage to ask, "So, I was calling to see if you had given anymore thought to us visiting you in a couple of weeks."

She says, "Well, I told you a while back about that project? I'm still working on it."

I am heartbroken. Really? Does she think she is fooling me? I delicately try to respond. "Mom... you've been working on that project for two years."

She immediately becomes defensive. "Ammmmaaannnnddaaaa..." she drags out raising her voice in a scolding manner which automatically annoys and angers me. "DO NOT PUSH ME."

"Don't, Mom. Don't yell at me like I'm a child. I'm just asking if we could visit. You could put everything in another room and we would stay in only one room."

"I can't. There are... things... for the project... all through the house."

I am exhausted with this game. "Can I know what the project is?"

She becomes even more angry."No!"

"Well, can you give me a deadline of when the project might be over?"

Again she yells over my voice, scolding me for asking too many questions and "pushing her."

"Mom, I'm seeing a counselor because of all of this. I'm trying to handle it the right way. It's been two years since you last said you were working on a project, and I haven't asked you since. I just want to see you and want Jason to know you better. He is already four and a half. Time is fleeting, and I think you'll regret this. I'm not sure how healthy this is for me anymore"

"Are you THREATENING me? Are you giving me an ultimatum?"

I roll my eyes and rub my forehead. I try not to lose my temper and choose my words carefully, but she is already emotional and angry.

"I'm not giving you an ultimatum, Mom. I just would like my son to see you. I would like to visit. I'm just unsure of whether or not you even want to see me. It seems like this 'project' is getting in the way of spending time with your family."

"DON'T you do that, Amanda. Don't you tell me that ANYTHING is more important than my grandchildren or children."

At this point I am lost for words, fighting tears and realizing what a total mistake this was. It is so hard to reason with someone who works so hard to be offended at every corner.

"This project is NOT about you, Amanda."

"Mom, I realize that. I'm just saying, it does affect me. It affects my family. I don't think it's fair for me to try to explain this to my son... why he can't go to his grandmother's house. You've given me so many reasons, from your schedule, to your dog's cough, to some alleged statement you think I made..."

The word "alleged" threw her into a frenzy. I should have refrained from saying it. I had done so well at remaining calm.

"I don't have to talk to you about this. I'm saying goodbye."

"Mom, please don't hang up on me," I plead. I'm ashamed at myself for begging her not to hang up on me and in an instant where I actually had a backbone I say, "If you hang up now, you hang up forever. Please don't hang up."

Then the one word transformed into two syllables broke my heart. "BYE!" she says with force and a bit of sarcasm. Then silence.

I am so broken with all of this nonsense. I am annoyed that I have allowed myself to be treated so badly for so many years. I'm not sure why I ever chased a relationship with her when she has made it so obvious she doesn't need or want it. I burst into uncontrollable tears, and I try to rush into the bathroom to hide my sadness from my son. This is it... the last straw.

My face pressed against the cold tile floor and having just failed to get my mom to allow me in her home, I yell out to no one... "I'm pregnant, Mom! I just wanted to tell you in person."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Only a Door

Strange, perhaps, that when I think of that house, 2613, the first image that appears in my head is a door. A door probably wouldn't cause very much anxiety for most people, but a door and a door alone hid the truth about us from people. All anyone would have to do was open that door, and the burden would be lifted from us. But no one opened the door. No one asked why they couldn't. No one questioned anything, and I still don't quite understand that.


When my mom picks us up from the neighbor next door, my anxiety rises as we cross into our yard and walk toward our front door. I don't want to go in. As she opens the glass door and fumbles to unlock the wooden door with her key, we can hear our two mixed chihuahua/dachshund dogs fumble through the trash in the foyer. I wonder if people can hear that when they knock on our door. The dogs bark and make such a fuss. I wonder if people are curious as to all the calamity. I don't know anyone who keeps a bunch of trash in their foyer, so I don't know how people don't suspect something. Mom can only narrowly open the door as we squeeze through. The trash bags are even behind the door, so it only opens enough for us to push our way through. Brandi and Misty, our mixed mutts, greet us happily with tails wagging. Our friends. As I squeeze through the door I notice the mouse hole to the right wall right above the baseboard. It's getting bigger as the mice have chewed through the sheet rock. I imagine one of the dogs could slide in there if they wanted. I step over piles of laundry and trash dispersed over the floor trying to balance and lug my red book bag. 

I turn to the right toward the side of our house that has the three bedrooms. If I turn to the left I would walk toward the kitchen and the living area which we never use. The trash is piled so high in both rooms that it is impossible to navigate anywhere. There is nowhere to sit any longer. The mice have taken over both couches. They have chewed through the tapestry and made their nests inside the frames of the couches. Not to mention the dogs now use that one corner in the house... the corner where we use to set up the Christmas tree... as their preferred "bathroom." That doesn't get disposed of either. None of this trash leaves the home.

There is a back door in the living room that leads out of the house to the back yard. However, the trash is piled especially tall there, taller than myself, and that door never gets used.

The kitchen is full of worthless appliances. The stove does not work. We don't have gas or heat. The refrigerator does not work. It stinks, has dead bugs and has food several years old inside. We don't dare open it. It is not cold, so I'm unsure if it is unplugged or just out of service. I have not used the sink in the kitchen in years or sat at the kitchen table. Dishes and trash cover the table my dad crafted himself. Excess food cakes the wood - mostly ketchup. I can not remember the last time my mom cooked dinner in the kitchen. I know she use to. We use to sit at the table, too. The counters are covered in filth, dead overturned roaches, mouse droppings, and dishes that haven't been washed in years. If I go disturb anything on that counter dozens of bugs scatter from their hiding places, and mice dart to new hang outs. The cabinets are open but mostly bare.

I never enter either room any longer but only follow the path to our room. My brother first departs to his, and then we split from our mother at the end of the hall because our room faced hers.

Watching her from my room, I see Mom slip off her high heal shoes leaving on her dress and pantyhose. She plops on her queen sized bed that sits opposite side of her bedroom door. She always has to sleep on the right side as you face the bed. The other side is piled with clothes and trash. Mom lights a cigarette and I admire her beautiful long nails. She lifts her chin, closes her eyes, and inhales deeply. I have her mannerisms memorized. I imagine I could mimic her perfectly if I ever chose to smoke. I know how to hold my hand, inhale and flick the ashes. She picks up the phone. I'm not sure who she calls, but Mom will be on the phone the rest of the evening. She still makes us go to bed at 8, even though I'm in junior high. She will sit on her bed until bed time. I don't know what my mom sleeps in. I have never seen her in pajamas.

My sister and I go and sit on our bed. It's the only place we can sit. I pull out my algebra book and start working on my homework. I don't understand and feel like crying. I'm too proud to say I should not be in advanced algebra. I have been advanced to all honors classes, and I'm acing everything but algebra. I don't want to be in regular classes and my classmates notice that I have been "demoted" to regular math. I am struggling and know I won't do well on Mr. G's mini quiz tomorrow. For the rest of my junior high career I will spend my entire evenings working on my algebra homework. I am nothing if not a good student and don't want to accept this failure. I do not want to be regular.

I wish I had a desk to do homework on. My neck begins to hurt as I bend over my algebra book. I readjust and try to maneuver myself somehow so that I can be covered by the electric blanket and do my homework. It is so cold, and I just can't understand the equations. I am anxious and sad.

The doorbell rings. The dogs bark and chase toward the front door. I am sick at my stomach and Jessica and I panic. We know to be very quiet and pretend not to be home. I tiptoe to the foyer as the dogs bark at whoever is behind the door. I can't go near the door because it would be possible for the person to hear me as I crush the trash below my feet. 

The doorbell rings again. Someone is persistent, and we get more paranoid. No one can see the inside of the house. I finally make my way to the peephole and see the top of a child's head. The peephole acts as a fisheye lens, but I can make out that it is a neighbor kid wanting to ask if we can come out and play. If I were to open the door he could see the trash in the foyer, smell the stink of the house, or see the hole in the sheet rock. So I watch as the neighbor gives up and leaves.

I am too old to play with neighborhood kids anyway. But that's all I can do. I can't go on dates. I can't have my friends over. I can't go hang out with kids my age. 

I become more and more withdrawn, more anxious, and even more sad. People have begun to comment on how shy I have become. They don't ask why, though. No one asks me if anything is wrong. I stare through the peephole wishing I could open the door to this kid who is five years younger than me. I would be happy to go outside and play. But, today, I can't even do that. 

I hate this door.

Cold Linoleum

My eyes were wide open, but all that surrounded me was darkness. The smell in the air was horrid. It was a mixture of death and defecation. I cloaked myself under my worn and abused blanket. It’s smell was almost equally as rank, but at least it provided some warmth from the cold. It was the only warmth that I was provided with on this cold night in January. If my head poked out for even an instant, the air would bite at the skin on my small face and would leave it stinging. My nose would be left with that burn one gets when she is out in the cold. In fact, that is where you would think I would be... outside. But no, I was indoors.

I heard them scamper again. Another wonderful use for this pink deteriorating blanket.... It provided a semi false sense of security. It separated me from the same space they were in, even though they were right below me. They being the mice. Every night they were a nuisance to me.

I could hear them rummaging through piles of clothes and trash on the floor. In vain, I had tried to stack my clothes on a small shelf so the mice couldn’t reach them. I was already ashamed of my hand me down clothes that fit me awkwardly. Kids were even more cruel when I would wear clothes with holes. I’m sure they thought they were due to carelessness on my part. It was the mice though. They would chew on them to help build their nests. Many times they would urinate on them. I could never get those stains out. I would have to wear the clothes regardless, though.

Night after night they scurried about. Their numbers only increased. One would think I would get use to them, but they still terrified me. I couldn’t see them through the darkness. I could only hear them and sense them getting braver as they would get on the bed. They had become fearless and would even crawl on my pillow. Sometimes I wouldn’t notice if I was fortunate to fall asleep at night. The evidence would be there in the morning. I would find small little black pellets that I now recognized as mouse droppings. They were all over the place, so it didn’t bother me to dust them away with my bare hands. I didn’t ever get much sleep. It may seem silly for me to have been afraid of something so small, but I hated them.

I would have been overwrought with fear in that dark room had I not shared it with my little sister. I was three years her senior, but it was a small reassurance to have another person so close to me in that room. We shared a small full sized bed. We each covered ourselves separately with blankets crocheted from our great grandmother, but we shared the electric blanket. It smelled wretched, but we were so grateful for it. Every breath I took in that house was polluted with some toxic stench, but if I left my face uncovered I would freeze. I had no choice.

I squirmed in discomfort. I felt a familiar burning from refraining to urinate. “Please... please... go away.” I curled in a ball and crossed my legs. Sometimes I would fall asleep, and the urge would go away until morning. In the morning it would be light. If I tried to make it to the bathroom now I would have to wander in darkness across the room to the light switch. I might step on a mouse or the things I hated more than the mice... the roaches. They were fast and didn’t always run from my steps but instead would quickly scurry over my feet. I hated that feeling.

I started to think about the day I would be a teacher. I often thought about who I wanted to be to comfort myself. I could envision myself in front of a classroom of preschoolers. I pictured myself as a twenty something year old woman dressed as a sort of female version of Mr. Rogers in a khaki straight skirt, a tucked in ruffled top, and a blue cardigan.  I wasn’t wearing glasses and had a clear complexion. I was beautiful. The kids loved me, and I loved them. I knew that would be my future. It comforted me.

The ache, however, did not go away. I wasn’t falling asleep even though my mind had wandered far away from this place. I was going to have to make a trip to the bathroom.

“Jessica... Jessica... I have to go to the bathroom.”

Jessica grumbled from me waking her up and reluctantly got up with me. I always woke her up to go with me. I wouldn’t go by myself. We threw back our covers and dived into the darkness feet first. Depending on who was in front, and I imagine I usually had her in front, the other would cling to the back of her sister’s tshirt and slowly creep toward the hallway. We didn’t dare turn our bedroom light or hall light on. That would wake up our mom who would yell from her bed, “What are you kids doing? Turn that damn light off, and go to bed!” I would have to make it safely to the bathroom in order to close the door before turning on the light.

We fumbled through and attempted not to step on anything that would make too much noise. We had small trails dug into the mass of trash, but sometimes we would lose our footing and land on a black trashbag full of styrofoam boxes and cups. The crackle would wake up our mother, so we stepped carefully. Even through the trails one would not be able to see the carpet. It had been a long time since I had seen the carpet, but I knew it was brown.

Finally we made it to the bathroom. This was the scariest room for me. The floor was so cold. It was white linoleum. The pattern on each square was a large “x” framed in with a box. It had crazy textures cut into it which over the years and gotten dingy. I flipped on the switch and shut the door. Jessica waited dutifully in the hallway. The only light she had was from the crack under the door.

Even if I hadn’t been as modest as I was, the two of us couldn’t have fit in the bathroom. The only reason one could see the floor was because the trash and clothes in that room and been piled over enough to be able to shut that door. Privacy, after all, was a priority. As soon as the light came on, I saw them scatter. Big black roaches flew from the tile into the clutter that surrounded the small half moon of clearing. I saw smaller bugs run, although not as quickly, toward the edges. I didn’t know if those small brown bugs were roaches, but I despised them just as much. I waited until all was clear, and then I stepped toward the toilet.

To my right was the bathroom sink. It was surrounded with makeup and coke cans. My mom drank a lot of coke. Every evening she would stop at the Pak A Sak and buy a twelve pack. She would sit in her room all evening smoking cigarettes and drinking coke. The entire time she would be on the phone. I never knew who she spoke to so much. It was probably a variety of people. The coke cans, though... they were stacked in every room towered high. The ones on the top were covered in ash from her cigarettes as they made the most convenient ashtrays.

I looked past the cans to the mirror. I had my glasses on. I always slept with my glasses on because I was scared to take them off. They were huge red framed glasses. Ugly. I hated them. On my mom’s tight budget, however, it was all she could afford. My skin was broken out, and I wished I could tear it apart. My long dark hair hung around my face. It was ratted and oily. Couldn’t I be someone else? Couldn’t I be somewhere else? I started to cry but quickly stopped. Plugged in to the wall of the bathroom was the only thing I liked about the room. I bent down to turn the space heater onto high and let it heat up the back of my legs for a bit. It was the one room that had any heat. Mom hadn't paid the gas bill, so it had been turned off. She couldn't very well have anyone come back in the house to turn it back on, now could she? That tiny black box that was only about ten inches tall was the most highly coveted item in the house.  We’d often lock ourselves in the bathroom sitting in front of it until mom yelled for us to stop playing in the bathroom. I knew I would get in trouble for turning it on high if I forgot to lower it again before I left the bathroom. That was the only way I could ensure that it would be on when I came in before it would shut itself off.

I looked at the toilet. It was grungy, caked in brown. I didn’t want to sit on it. I hovered over it, not letting my bottom touch and finally peed. I kept a close eye on the bugs wandering around me and tried to keep my feet distant from them. I got done and flushed the toilet. The toilet would back up, so in order to flush it we had to plunge it as we did so. The handle didn’t even flush the toilet. I had to pull the wire inside the tank to flush it. I yanked the chain careful not to break it, and the water swirled down. I wondered if that would wake Mom. I grabbed the pink plunger and began plunging as the tissue broke up into small pieces. Finally all of the water and tissue left the toilet briefly, and all you could see was the brown stains on the porcelain. Then new water replaced it.

I glanced over at the tub. A bloated dead mouse had fallen in and met his doom in the bathtub. I was a little sad, but I could do nothing about it. As scared as I was of them, I didn’t want anything to happen to them. Mom always got up earlier than us so that she could be done in the bathroom. She could deal with the dead mouse.

I made my way back to the sink and turned the water on gently. Cold. The water was so terribly cold. I quickly rinsed my hands and dried them on my tshirt. I forgot to turn the heater on low, and I made it back to my sister. She then went inside the bathroom and closed the door.

I was left standing in the dark with no light, except from the crack under the door.