Am I hungry even inside her as my nose distorts from her benzos and I shake from nicotine?
I slide into life two months before my due date, weighing four pounds. Six days earlier, Frida Kahlo dies, and, days later, Angela Merkel is born, and on that day in July, I’m held by the ankles upside down and given a good whack to knock breath into me, and then I’m lowered into a 1950s incubator during the wet fishy sign of Cancer, with a birth defect called pyloric stenosis — a thickened, ineffective stomach valve.
At home, my mother bottle-feeds me. First, she tapes up newspapers across the room, because I projectile vomit onto the stove, onto the fridge, onto the walls. If she feeds me outside, I vomit onto the swing, into the paddock, and once onto a horse named King. Elvis Presley has just released “That’s All Right.”
My infancy is marred by dehydration and hunger. Starvation panics me. Hunger is an augur; it bores inside me; every day drilling more of me away until I am a cave of need, and I scream. My mother holds her head and rocks, believing motherhood has driven her insane. She doesn’t bond with me, but I tumble head over heels for her because, over and over, when I am a baby, she saves me, saves me, saves my life.
On a Thursday, at eight months old, I pull myself up on the kitchen cabinets. My big brother can stand, and walk, and also touch the top of the counter where food is. I want to know how he does it. For a week every day I swing myself up to the round knob of the same kitchen cupboard and try again to push my fingers over the lip of the counter; at night in my crib, I examine my fingertips and the consequences of my defeat. The next Thursday, I’m victorious. Ecstatic, I turn to tell my mother across the room the news. I open my mouth to bugle elation, but remember as I try that I don’t have language, and shut it, puzzled. How can I get her attention? I sort through possibilities. Eventually, I realize I can cry.
No, I think stubbornly, no, I won’t! This is delight! This is joy! I will not.
I’ve learned to stand on tippy-toes. There is food on the counters and now I can grasp at it when my mother doesn’t catch me. Enough to vomit and still have bits to digest, and, gradually, as I mature, my pyloric valve settles.
My mother feeds my father’s pants through the wringer washer, carries the creaky wicker basket to the yard, and humming “Heartbreak Hotel” hangs the laundry using wooden clothes pegs. The sheets slap in the wind. She vacuums, listens to Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash, drops the vacuum hose and dances, laughing. She feeds the dog, Taffy, from a bulbous bag of kibble. She digs in the barn trough for a pail of oats for the horses, as partridges cluck in the rafters. She cleans horse brasses and polishes silver. She braids ribbons into manes and tails for shows, and later pins up red, blue, and white prize ribbons inside the tack house. She sets the table. She picks rhubarb, washes it, chops it, stews it. She ties on an apron. She folds meringue, flips the dial of the frying pan, the pressure cooker, the blender, the Mixmaster. She makes pork chops in Campbell’s mushroom soup, roast beef and gravy, glazed maple hams studded with cloves. She piles Wonder bread on a saucer. In the fall, my mother rakes oak, chestnut and maple leaves. In the winter, she skates backward, holding both my hands. She decorates for Christmas. In the muddy spring, she pulls rubber galoshes with spike heels over her stilettos and clasps them shut at the ankle. She irons, spritzing the clothes with water. She puts on her face; foundation, rouge, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick. She reads to us: Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Opens the Door. She coaxes pet hamsters out of the heating vents. She feeds velvet, chiffon, georgette, crepe, satin, organza through her Singer sewing machine.
When she steps into a ball gown, I’m convinced she’s a princess.
Punishments are white bread dunked in either hot milk or water for dinner, depending on our misbehavior, or we’re sent to bed without dinner altogether. I weep at the top of the stairs, bereft from her loss of care. I remind myself that my last punishment never lasted—she liked me again eventually. It could happen like that. She could look at me almost fondly. A paddle hangs from a nail, rhyme about spanking naughty wives and kids painted on it, my parents’ last-ditch threat.
At our house, the leftovers go to my father, then to my brother. When I ask why I can’t have them, my mother tells me I’m not a growing boy. But I am a growing boy and I say so. By now, I’ve already announced my actual gender several times, beginning when I was three. She guffaws. I’m remedially stuffed into crinolines and puffy-sleeved dotted Swiss dresses with agonizing itchy seams. I’m made to float across our den with a book on my head, which will teach me how to walk as a young lady should, and shown how to place my crossed ankles demurely to the right side of my body, cross my hands politely, palms upward in a gesture of waiting supplication. I am not to speak until spoken to. Thankfully, etiquette is saved for the grandparents, company, and church.
When I’m home and it’s warm enough, I go un-shirted and un-shoed, scampering across the barn roof, jumping out of the hayloft, riding bareback and wild through the fields. I’m unsure about so much, but nature saves me. Around me, straw and hay. Around me, whickers and neighs. Around me, manure. Around me, halters, bridles, saddles. Around me, rope swings from thick chestnut boughs. Around me, fences I can wobble across with my arms extended for balance. Around me, chipmunks, blue jays, snapping turtles, frog eggs, garter snakes, fireflies, praying mantises, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, robins with eggs bluer than sky.
“Janie, be a weed,” Mom says, picking the skin from her bottom lip. “Go, go.”
I am a boy, but I’m not a boy like my brother. Still, neither am I a girl like my sister.
Easters, we awaken to Easter baskets beside our beds, chocolate bunnies in a cellophane mess of pink nesting, but also, when we creep to the hallway, empty baskets with our names attached to them, and strings which wind from one chocolate egg nesting point to another. The three of us follow them to a cache of eggs in the dog’s bed in the basement, where a new string sails us back up to the attic, where a store of eggs sits on a stack of newspapers about Winston Churchill, and a third string leads us to our parents’ bedroom where there are eggs under the pillows. As we grow older, the strings are replaced with riddles.
My mother is amazing at holidays.
There is a new sibling, a sister named Sally. To the south of us, Hurricane Audrey devastates Louisiana. My mother is lost to me forever while she bonds with this perfect, born-at-term baby with the round face and the shock of yellow hair. I remember the pregnancy, my mother buying a card for another pregnant woman that said, Won’t you be glad to see your feet again? I was puzzled, demanded she explain. Sally arrived. I don’t remember if I was jealous. I don’t remember if my development regressed.
In Tanzania, Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, anthropologists, discover Australopithecus.
My father tells us our mother is going away “to get help.” I’m five; I ask if our mother is going to the Olduvai Gorge. My father frowns. She will be gone “many months,” he tells me, instead of answering. I try to find the scope of three months, four months, five months in my brain but I don’t have that register. We walk to the field to say goodbye to the horses, as we’ll be with our grandparents, and so he can take photographs to send Mom. In the photographs, my hair is in pigtails, but I’m only as tall as Copper Queen’s forearm; I’m edgy and untrusting of the mare’s power. My father repeats that our mother is crazy. I mumble Bobby Vinton’s “Roses are Red (My Love)” under my breath; I know some things, and one of them is that being crazy is embarrassing.
We like our grandparents’ house. They give us pop and ice cream bars, although Granny’s tuna fish sandwiches are not as good as ours. They have showers; I adore sliding their glass doors open and shut. I adore looking in the three mirrors that make my face repeat a hundred times.
Our mother rages in. She roars for us to come and screams our names, but our grandparents, who’ve been unpacking us, hold us back at the top of the stairs, my grandmother’s hands firm and insistent on my shoulders as my grandfather holds my sister in his arms and grips my brother’s shoulder. The adults yell back and forth. The children are coming with me! The children are staying put! You need help. Fuck you, you old bag! I’m disloyal for not breaking free and running to my mother, but I’d prefer to stay here. My mother tears up the stairs to grab us. Her father surges forward, bellowing, his body sideways to protect Sally, screaming You will not take them! and shoves Mom, hard. She somersaults an entire flight of stairs—the stairs where she was photographed on her wedding day, her father proudly holding her elbow, her maids gathered around—before landing on the marble floor, where the train of her wedding dress was once arrayed.
We all wait, suspended in silence, to see if she’s dead. I think she must be dead. This is how horses sometimes go down: completely. If they don’t, they have at least a broken leg and need to be shot dead through the temple.
But our mother rises in postponed motion, her face blurry with shock, bent over like the Hunchback from Notre Dame. Nobody says a word. She extends a shaky arm, a tremoring finger. Now the grandparents don’t hold us back, but neither do they ask if she’s okay, or go to her; I slide past my grandmother’s wool skirt and my siblings fly after me.
It will be many years before I learn that when my mother refused to get out of the car at the asylum, my father went in alone to register her. He left the keys so she could listen to the radio, and she stole the car.
“Line up,” Mrs. Morris says on my first day of kindergarten, “boys on that side, girls on this one.” By now, I’m more sophisticated about my gender. I watch everyone split, two schools of fish, and I stake out a third row right in the middle, where I belong.
For a minute, I wait for other kids to queue behind me; I expect three or four. But no one comes. Everyone stares, but no one comes.
The teacher’s firm kind hand guides me to the back of the girls’ row.
In grade one, my hair falls out. I tell my mother I’m pulling it out. “See?” I say and yank out a ponytail’s worth.
The doctor orders me to strip naked and lie down on crunchy white paper while he runs his hands across me, my toes, my calves, my thighs, thumping me and digging fingers so deeply into my torso I squawk. He has me sit up on the edge of the table, places a freezing stethoscope on my chest, pops a thermometer under my tongue. He makes me walk naked across the room to check my gait. He can’t find anything wrong, he tells my mother. He lifts me to sit on the examination table a second time. He takes a razor to my pate to get rid of the remaining hair; a soft rain of feathers tumbles over my goose-pimpled shoulders, belly and thighs.
As we leave, my mother regards me, revolted.
“Sit against the door,” she says when we slide into her Comet, “as if you’re going to fall out.” A block from the pharmacy where she’ll fetch the ointment, the pungent smell of which will stalk me for life, she orders me to crumple to the floor with my arms hiding my baldness. That afternoon, she bends determinedly over her sewing machine; when I arise the next morning, soaked as usual, she has constructed a stack of six form-fitting corduroy baby bonnets that tie under my chin. She swabs brown ointment onto me with a brush, a kitchen tool for spreading melted butter, her own head averted, before tugging down a blue corduroy bonnet and tying the bow.
“I’d keep you home if I could,” she says, with a firm hand to my back. “All right. Now get dressed.”
At school, they giggle, whisper and point, but, on the other hand, the mystery of “Dick and Jane” all at once makes sense. Reading is easy; I’m in love with the worlds that open. The teacher moves me to the smart row. I can’t get enough. We learn about capital and lower case letters. I imagine letters in a case and swoon with pleasure. When I walk to the board to write a wobbly “A,” a boy puts out his leg to trip me, and as I stumble, everyone titters. Before, I was just a kid. Now that I’m bald, I’m a stinky loser, plus stuck-up and a brown-noser.
Sometimes I march with my father through the long grass and puffballs of the field to test the strand of electric wire that runs atop the fence. I extend my index finger. I let the electricity surge through my young body, a bolt, a jab of lightning. Sometimes it makes me seize and I like that too, my body erratic as a scarecrow in wind. Now, at recess, I stand huddled against our long fence that abuts the school, wishing I could magically absorb right through it.
Some mornings my mother bathes me as I shiver in two-inch water, her face a moué of distaste, and I come home to a freshly made bed, the sheets smelling of wind and sunshine, but mostly I go to bed on faintly damp sheets on an ever-damp mattress and pull my school clothes over still-dripping skin.
“I can only hope you’re an ugly duckling,” my mother says. It’s Sunday, so my brother will stay up to watch Bonanza while I’ll listen through the heat vent upstairs where I’m supposed to be sleeping.
She yanks out a copy of the picture book she’s found somewhere. “Like this,” she says stabbing her finger at the last page. “Maybe you’ll be a swan someday, Janie.”
“Ugly, ugly, ugly,” everyone says. The adults laugh and my brother with them.
For that year, I’m not allowed in public other than at school. She keeps me home from picture day. She leaves me with my grandmother when the rest of the family goes out. My father, also, takes no photographs.
Around this time, the UN adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It says “The child that is hungry must be fed…” In Granny’s garden, the gladiolas rise like swords. My grandmother is called Hap because her name is Gladys; these are her flowers. Gladys equals Glad-Ass equals Happy equals Hap. She feeds me.
In first grade, every day at four o’clock, boys set upon me on the pathway home from school. After the first time, I stay late, helping the teacher, wiping the blackboard, clapping the erasers. But still, the boys are there when I leave, no matter that I delay and delay, walking the teacher to her car, slouching against the front of the school, calling to a chipmunk, when I finally start onto the path they pelt after me, trip me, and after I go down in my grey uniform, skinning my knees as I skid across gravel, they kick me. It seems like they kick me for a long time before peeling away. I sit up to watch them as they hoot and holler and high-five each other, blood running down my legs.
I develop chunky knee scabs, a third of an inch deep and four inches around. I have scabs on top of scabs. All my tights are darned now by my reluctant mother who would appreciate it if I was less clumsy. I fell, I say. I just fell. Every day? she says. I nod. PE, I say. I pick the scabs off. Of course I do. My mother hates them, I hate them, hard and knobby, so I get rid of them. At the edge, they curl, hard and ready, but further in where they are soft underneath they hurt like blazes as I force them up. I see the inside of me. It bleeds a trickle. The pink new skin is a wrinkled poppy petal.
The pain is worse than anything.
At least the new blood dries and I get to pick it off too. It flakes, though, if it isn’t thick enough.
I beg my father for a gate into our field, but he laughs because I want a shortcut. You’re lazy, he says.
You have a lazy daughter, he says to my mother.
Lazy! She’s clumsy and lazy! my brother sing-songs.
I don’t tell. The code is, you don’t tattle. Instead, when I’m down, my cheeks pulverized by the stones, I watch the changes in Mr. Smith’s cornfield next to the path. We get all our veggies and fruit from him, climbing through a break in our fence to his back stoop. Even here, even while being kicked by three boys, I notice nature and its cyclical changes. The tall waving stalks of September, the pointed stalks of November, the snowed-in lumps of winter, the churned-up earth of spring, the green leaps of the growing corn as school gets out for the summer.
One day, a girl from my class joins the boys. I look up and watch her braids bounce on her shoulders and the saliva running down her chin as she kicks my head. I stare at her shoes until a buckle tears my cheek open.
Still, I refuse to rat them out.
The beatings stop just.like.that. Though I don’t understand this then, she likely confessed to her parents and tattled on the boys. I’m grateful, but untrusting.
Sputnik goes into orbit. Ella Fitzgerald sings “Mac the Knife” and so, dancing in the living room with my arms over my head, in spasms of joy, do I.
I have bruises on my sweet disposition. I’m going downhill in my whirl of legs; I need some kind of attention to slow me down, to draw me in, to whisper that I’m safe, I’m fed, I’m safe.
But the story is the same: Ugly, ugly, I’m ugly. Clumsy, clumsy, I’m clumsy. Smelly, smelly, I’m smelly. Lonely, lonely, I’m lonely.
Sit on your hands, my mother says. Sit on your hands, my father says. Sit on your hands, my grandmother says. Sit on your hands, my teachers say.
Do what you’re told. I do what I’m told, but it always hurts like blazes.
I’m not allowed to play Kick the Can with the boys when they gather at our house in the twilight. I sulk on the porch. “Scram,” they say. “Scram, baby.” They don’t let me help construct their clubhouse out of random flotsam and jetsam, bits of shingles and barn boards, rusty nails, but my father assists while I lurk, jealous, at the edge of the swamp, frog eggs sliding between my fingers, shouting See if I care! The boys are proud and satisfied. They bang a last nail and triumphantly hang a sign they’ve painted in my father’s basement workshop: NO GRILS ALOWD.
In Tanzania, Jane Goodall discovers chimps use tools. Can I go there? I ask my dad, excited. My world opens up. Yes. My father promises I can someday. At school, we learn only about Laura Secord, Florence Nightingale, and Joan of Arc; in my entire education I hear of no other women. No people of color. No disabled people. No queer or trans folk. I don’t hear about the internment of Canadians of Japanese descent. I don’t hear about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I only hear about white men and war.
As a girl, I lack permission to read the Tom Swift or Hardy Boy books lined up on my brother’s shelf, so I read what I can: shampoo bottles, soap boxes, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins.
Because I’m a girl, they won’t let me play ice hockey once when my father pours the bumpy winter rink in the paddock, except on girls’ day, but I can take figure skating with white skates, knitted pom-poms shaking at the toes. I can take ballet. I can take tap dance. I can take riding. I can take baton twirling.
My brother cuts the grass and takes out the garbage.
I do the dishes and fall in love with the birds at the feeder. Flashes of blue, scarves of red; squirrels and chipmunks, trundling skunks and crafty raccoons.
Mom knows I’m enamored of foals and that I wait beside her at the scratchy intercom every day listening to the mares who are near giving birth. She says their sounds change when it’s time. One night, she lifts me from my bed and to my astonishment walks me along the path to the barn in the middle of the night, me in just my flannel nightie. I’ve never been up during the dark before. I’ve never seen stars. I feel the benediction. I imagine a shower of magic.
In the last stall, where sometimes I do handstands, my mother nests me against the wall and warns me to be careful of the mare. A soft bright sun shines from a heat lamp. The mare is in hard labor, prancing, whinnying, her eyes rolling back from pain, while my mother coos and rubs her face, attempting to soothe her. In the rafters, pheasants perk. Slicked with sweat, the mare crumples, nipping her haunches. Her fat tail flicks to the side and the foal’s front hooves appear, nestled inside her birth bag. As she slides out in a gush of fluids, I am love-struck. This is perfection, this night: the yellow warming light, the salty smell of new life, my loving mother. The mare cranes around and licks the foal’s sac away; the wet filly has kinked blonde hair on a red neck. At once, nursed along by her dam’s plump tongue, she tries to stand on her wobbly stick legs.
I’m seven, and have hair again, scruffy and short.
My brother Scott and his friend Scott lead me up to our attic where the windows are dusted brown as puddles; I side-fist a gap to see the tops of the maple trees. My mother’s wedding and bridesmaid gowns are entombed in grey cardboard coffins swirled with white flowers. Cranky stacks of newspapers threaten to topple. My father’s war trunk squeaks when I hurl up the lid; inside is his Royal Navy uniform, his dented metal water bottle, trinkets from countries he’s landed in.
“We’re starting a club,” my Scott, two years my senior, says. “We’re inviting you. The Bum Show Club.”
I glow like a firefly with the ecstasy of inclusion. He shows me signs they’ve crayoned: Bum Show Club: Pivate.
“To be in it, it’s the rule you have to show your bum.”
The sunbeams smudge in. There are more dust motes than air.
“So pull your pants down,” my Scott orders.
“Do it. Do it! Pull them down,” says the other Scott.
I feel some defense rising in me. “You can’t make me. You can’t make me.”
My Scott, thin arms across his chest: “Fi-ine. But if you don’t, you can’t be in the club.”
“I’m telling. I am. I’m telling Mom.” Mom is downstairs smoking and drinking her chalky ulcer drink. I pick a mosquito bite.
“Chicken! Bawk, bawk, bawk! If you tell, you can’t be in the clu-ub. Tattletales are babies.”
As I pull my pants down, I smell my humiliation like a rectum. I slap my hands over my “V” but they don’t have any interest in me there. They turn me like the ballerina on my music box and make me bend over my father’s trunk. I imagine my ass waves like a surrender flag.
Four needly sets of fingers pry my ass cheeks apart.
“Don’t, don’t,” I say. I’m crying hot tears.
“You’re in the club, Janie,” my Scott says. “This is the club. This is the Bum Show Club.” He motions Other Scott. “Do it to her.”
Other Scott licks his index finger and, with a steadying hand on my lower back, thrusts it inside me. My anus rips and I scream. When I twist around, my brother’s eyebrows are raised, admiring his friend.
“Okay,” Scott my brother says, wetting his finger while with an audible pop Other Scott yanks out his finger. “Periwinkle.” I don’t know what he means. I love the word “periwinkle.” My favorite crayon color is “indigo” and my favorite word is “bunting.” My Scott takes a crayon from my brand new Crayola 64-box, the box I’ve gotten as part of my September school supplies, and slips it inside me. He stirs it around and Other Scott stirs it some more.
“K, squeeze your bum cheeks,” says my Scott.
I concentrate on the dust motes dancing through the circle I cleaned in the window. They are beautiful like stars. The attic is an entire world, the air heavy, full of undisturbed time. I want up. I want my mother. I want to be able to move at all, but I’m frozen. My rectum hurts. I do it.
“Squeeze, unsqueeze,” says the other Scott and for a minute I do that, over and over, squeeze and unsqueeze. I hear the smirk in their voices. “Open sesame! Aquamarine and Burnt Sienna!”
My brother says, “Here comes Carnation Pink. Here comes Salmon. Here comes Green Yellow.”
I’m bulging. I’m cramping. The fissures sting like lemon on a cut. I have to poop. I really really have to poop, so I push, and the crayons fly out. Other Scott laughs but my brother whacks me.
“Stay put,” he hisses. “Don’t you dare move.”
I hang there, exhausted.
The boys go behind the walls under the eaves. They giggle and moan but I don’t escape. I just wait. I still have a crayon or maybe more than one up me—gingerly, I feel around back there: three—and my behind smarts.
We’ve tied Sally to a chair and left her alone in the attic. It’s hours until my mother notices.
It’s my brother’s idea. Anytime I am recruited by my brother, my empathy wars with my desperation for inclusion. My father enjoys a game he calls fake spanking, where he loads my brother’s pants up with magazines and whacks him hard while I watch. I know it’s a joke, but it feels rabid. When my little sister toddles to the door and screams in terror, I hustle her away. I despise them for scaring her, for their stupid games. Still, I climb to the attic with my brother knowing he plans to tie her up and leave her. When he hands me rope, obediently, I tie it around her ankles. When we go down the stairs, Scott tells me I can’t tell Mom. I think of going against him and cannot.
Eerily, I forget all about her.
Our crime has been bigger than usual. Our punishment, too, must be scaled up. Scott and I are told to strip naked and go stand on the porch in the sleet storm, but Mom says, “Oh, Alex, at least let them keep their underwear on.” She is weirdly animated, happy; something joyous is transpiring between the two of them that I’m alarmed by and can’t parse.
We dawdle in the mudroom.
“Strip,” thunders Dad. “Don’t give me a reason for the paddle, too. Consider what you did until you’re good and sorry.”
My brother and I jiggle in the mudroom with the snow-melt from our father’s galoshes pooling under our bare feet while our parents argue about our underwear.
I open the door into a suck of frigid air, step out. Scott follows. When the door shuts behind us, our mother throws the lock and grins through the pane.
“I hate them,” Scott hisses when the gold and white striped curtain falls, and I widen my eyes.
We kick the snow away where it’s drifted across the porch. The sisal carpet prickles my feet. I don’t think about what we did wrong. It’s dark. I can’t see all the way to the paddock fence; it dances with grey snow. I go somewhere else, an elemental place. The fault is inside me. The sleet hits us sideways like a thousand vaccinations. Scott and I scour our arms to create friction, and hop, then press our sides against each other. Soon I can’t feel my legs at all. I slit my eyes. Scott is skinny under the porch light, his white underwear baggy. I hear his teeth rattle.
I’m getting frostbite on one toe.
Scott knocks on the door, then pounds, then pounds again. Nothing. We both pound. We scream for help.
Eventually, our mother arrives, giggling as she unlocks. “Oops! I forgot!”
The boys and I meet frequently to have anal crayon sex. I never touch them back, though I watch often enough. When I’m eight, I have been skipped ahead at school, leaving my bullies behind. I find my first best friend in Other Scott’s kid sister, Wendy. I fall headlong into love over Barbie dolls, where I am the father Barbie and she is the mother Barbie. I don’t know how to tell her what I feel and I only pray she feels the same thing. The boys cajole Wendy to join the Bum Show Club, and this time, when they have her nude and bent over, they make me urge the crayons inside her as she moans and protests.
I shove a bouquet into her.
She doesn’t hate it. I don’t hate it. Our feelings are beside the point. It’s just what we do.
I steal the baby bottle warmer, and some sugar, and lug it to the tack house where I bubble rhubarb stew under the bridles and saddles. I steal chocolate chips and semi-sweet baking squares. I steal change from my mother’s purse and use it to buy Wagon Wheels at the bowling alley. I can’t stuff enough sugar and chocolate inside.
There’s scarcely any fighting at our house. Once, I see my father throw a newspaper at my mother; it sails at her like a slow bird shot in mid-air, crumpling. Otherwise, I’m really not aware of problems between my parents, but even so, eventually my mother carries my father’s suitcases to the back porch, and just like that, he moves out. Soon, terrifyingly, the animals begin to disappear — the horses, the ponies, our pet calves to slaughter. All we have left is our one old labrador, Taffy, and various cats.
One night, Mom wakes me up. I’m sodden, chilled. In the gloom of my bedroom, she hefts a butcher knife, the blade glinting in the light from the hallway. “Get Janie, Joyce said, she’ll know what to do.”
In her bedroom, Mom says she’s going to kill herself. I’m old enough to know this means she’ll thrust that knife through her body and be dead. On a farm, we see a lot of death, including once our dog carrying a frozen stillborn foal she’s dug out of the ground, trotting down the street with it in her mouth. Shaking, I dial the seven digits she feeds me. The woman who answers is an operator, not a doctor, and refuses to alert a doctor unless I say why, and, weeping, I can’t say the words. Mom brandishes the knife above her chest and I’m worried she’ll use it. “My mother’s going to kill herself,” I finally say, each word a thistle in my mouth.
I have to go downstairs to let the doctor in, but it’s so dark and hollow, the tile under my bare feet cold. I’ve never been down alone at night and the terror is deep. I let the doctor in and he says gruffly to go back to bed. I do, legs wobbling, running tiptoe up the steps behind his big shoes, through his ice piles because he didn’t take off his galoshes. He swings his black bag. He doesn’t even look back at me. I’ve done something wrong but I don’t know what. He hates me.
My mother chooses me to be her foil, and we travel to the Bahamas to reside near her married lover. My father stays at the house with my sister and brother, waiting for the world to melt. Waiting for mud season. I don’t know why I’m so lucky, but I am struck by this generosity. I’ve never had my mother to myself. I have never gotten new clothes in February before. The second the muggy air hits me as we debark in Nassau, I’m rapt. I’m home. I love palm trees, the ocean, hermit crabs, sand dollars and the lizards that skitter on our walls. My mother jokes about taking me to a nightclub, and I long to go with her, to be older, to be her friend, but I am only 9 and in my second go-round of fourth grade, after my first fourth-grade teacher called me rude and held me back with my bullies. I go to school in a one-room schoolhouse, sitting on a bench under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth. We sing “God Save the Queen.” Here we use slates and chalk, rub it out with the sides of our fists. The money we use is shillings. I like conch fritters. Here we learn exciting words like “epidermis.” One day we take our lessons sitting on the warmed rocks out of doors and yellow chicks tumble across our legs.
I’m in love with my mother. She sends my heart flipping in delight. I hadn’t guessed before that she could be so marvelous. She is beautiful in her orange pedal pushers and red lipstick, laughing with her new man. I couldn’t have guessed she could pull me into her lap and coo about how wonderful I am. “You’re the best little girl,” she says to me and squishes me tight.
I have a new best friend, Margo, and sleep at her place every night. I don’t love her the way I loved Wendy, but I love her all the same.
I love everything about everything. By now, I’m happily picking up Bahamian Creole.
But the affair ruptures, and we have to fly back to Canada. I don’t remember when we finally go back, except that it is snowing hard outside the plane windows and I can feel the cold before we land. I remember my mother has other children and I have siblings.
I have dozens of dreams where I try to get back to the Bahamas. Every night, soldiers and swamps keep me at bay.
My mother is the only single mother in our morally erect, dry town, at least that I know of, and she’s despised. She drove her good husband away, they imagine, and clasp their men ever closer. She is a hussy, a wanton woman, a home-wrecker.
And we are just that heathen woman’s children.
When my breasts begin to grow, each night I bind them with tensor bandages to push them back in. I make one-sided deals with God: If You get rid of them before morning, I’ll never lie again. I’ll never steal. I’ll never fib.
Yet they still grow, apples, small and hard, then watermelons, large and squooshy, on my chest. I’m miserable. In bed, my breasts crawl up my chest to loop around my throat and choke me.
And I know a secret: I’m something too horrible to name. It has to do with liking girls how I like girls.
As my mother’s addictions grow worse, I do most of the cooking. The cleaner who came twice monthly throughout our childhood quits because she’s too old to handle us kicking our mess under our beds, so I take up the cleaning. Our old dog gets cancer. My mother brings home, first, a cat she names Pardon Me, followed by an Afghan hound, Katie, who defecates in the basement. What has happened?
My mother rarely gets up from her orange chair, except to hoist herself at the kitchen sink to relieve herself. I’m turning into a swan, just as she hoped, but I’m not happy about it. I’m at the cusp of adolescence and beginning to despise her. I’m an insomniac and suicidal and all that I think of when I can’t sleep — 2 a.m., 3 a.m. — is how to fix my mother’s life. Usually I conclude that it is by babysitting enough, at 25 cents an hour, that I can buy her a new fridge and stove. Commercials say appliances will fix things for a woman. What I actually buy her, on occasion after occasion, are bath beads.
I want to be a person without feelings, but my feelings are the biggest thing about me.
My mother saturates every part of me. Her scents, her soft perfumed skin, the fetal curve of her picking her lip in her orange chair.
I’m twelve and a boy carries my books home from school as if I’m helpless. He tells me to close my eyes. He kisses me under Mr. Smith’s blooming cherry trees, jamming his lips on mine in a series of chicken pecks. My eyes flutter open and to my horror meet my mother’s gaze as she drives past in her green and white Comet.
Dave’s Adam’s apple bobs. “You don’t have to go in there.”
“I do have to.” My heart pounds so hard it feels like it will rupture my ribs.
“You could run away.”
He smells of petrichor and his lips taste like the syrup from canned peaches. I need him to be right. I haven’t yet traversed through puberty, but I’ve seen the movie of a girl with blonde hair running through the field of daisies, I’ve held the mattresses they call “pads,” and the belts to join them to girls’ waists. Not a girl, not a girl. A girl but not a girl.
I like that Dave likes me. I like that Dave is nice to me. Really, I’ll like anyone who’s nice to me. I break away with whispered apologies and run up my driveway under the maples and up the back steps.
My mother lurches to the kitchen from the den. The house stinks of Katie’s poop. “You dirty slut!”
“I’m not,” I say. “I’m not.” I am so far from a slut, having only had one series of closed-mouthed kisses.
She spins to the sink and grabs the bar of Dove soap, “one-quarter cold cream,” grabs my chin, makes me open, shoves it in my mouth. “If I ever catch you whoring yourself out to a boy again, you’re dead. Do you hear me? Dead.” She jerks the soap around to clean all of my filthy mouth, pushing it so far back I’m sure I’ll swallow it.
I slink to the basement where it’s safer. I clean up the hound’s excrement with a shovel and dustpan, burping soap, hefting feces-laden bags up the stairs into the garbage shed where my brother will have to deal with them.
I’m 13 during the summer of love, too young to understand “Peace, man,” the Vietnam war, or feminism, all of which are slowly trickling into our town like viruses. Sex, love, and rock ‘n roll are lost on me.
My mother, though, is just 37. She periodically surges back to life from her drug stupor, foreswearing pills. She wears pink mini skirts. She moves the couch outside and moves a turquoise vinyl water bed into the den which we fill with the cold water garden hose. She waves her plastic birth control dispenser around, laughing. She flirts with my brother’s friends and smokes doobies I roll but don’t smoke while they all zone out to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” on the quadrophonic stereo system, lying side by side on her water bed. She wants to join the revolution.
Turn on, tune in, drop out. The Beatles release “You’re Going to Lose That Girl.”
My brother’s friends adore her.
Here, I say, eat, thrusting pancakes and syrup in front of her. Thrusting bacon and eggs in front of her.
My father calls intermittently. I don’t want to talk to him, because he sold my pet calf and it destroyed me. Because he made my mother crawl on her hands and knees as he scattered child support out his car window. Because he did terrible things to animals. He says, “You know I love you,” and I do know it, I’m his favorite because I love horses and am a wizard with words, but I refuse to acknowledge him, so what he says hangs, waiting for the fish hook of my tongue to swipe it up, which will never happen.
I don’t ever acknowledge him.
My mother never says she loves me, and I ache to hear the simple, vastly complicated words. When she fritters herself away on teenage boys, I churn with jealousy.
I want her I want her I want her. I’ve never stopped wanting her. I want even to have her advice on my career path, but she says I don’t need a career, just a husband and a secretarial position to “fall back on.” I am a flooded, yearning pit of need, a subterranean cave deep down one of the Bahamian blue holes which are being “discovered” by Jacques Cousteau.
My mother’s sobriety, during which time she can be cruel as a blade, never lasts long.
At dinner one night my mother tells us she has a gun. She asks us, please, to shoot her dead the day she turns 40. I’m horrified. My siblings are nonplussed. We don’t know what to say. We try to be jocular. Finally, to get her off the topic, my brother agrees to shoot her.
She never brings this up again, even as she ages into her forties.
My mother arranges her pills each morning. I never count them, but perhaps there are 20 or 30, in a circle 12 inches wide. Mother’s Little Helpers. Uppers and downers and in-betweeners. I notice the colors. A lot of light blue, yellow, and white. What started as a 1950s husband’s stern desire to have a compliant wife, and a single doctor’s complicit prescription, now spirals. She swallows pills in handfuls. She’s so stoned she slumps away from the table into her upholstered chair and falls asleep as soon as she lights a cigarette, so that it burns down like a gray flaccid penis to its demise. I pull cigarette after burned-down cigarette from between her chapped lips; the arms of her orange chair are pock-marked with wet black gulleys where she’s had chair fires and doused them.
Not infrequently, I walk in to find the kitchen full of smoke, my mother’s chair smoldering, its stuffing sputtering with flame. Sometimes the edge of her clothes singeing her wake her up, but sometimes not. “Mom,” I say, shaking her shoulder hard one time, pouring a jug of water over her chair and nightie. “Get up. You’re on fire.”
I put my mother out.
No repairs happen to the house or barn as they age. Our roof does not get patched. Black mold takes over the bathroom walls. The hayloft floor gives way. The outbuildings crumple.
For high school graduation, we’re only allowed to invite two people. My mother says she won’t attend if I ask my father, so, reluctantly, because I think he’d be happy for me even though I barely know him now, I don’t.
The night before the walk to adulthood, when I’m bound and safely shrimp-curled into bed, Mom calls out for me. I’m terrified she’ll notice I’ve tampered with my gender and will tear the visible bandage right off me. But instead, it’s just another enema. Here’s a bottle of mineral oil. Here’s a box of soap flakes. Here’s a funnel. Here’s a jar of molasses. Remember? Here’s the rotating motion to move the nozzle past the impacted stool. We move into her gloomy room and she positions herself with the covers pulled back, waving her ass at me while I hold the moist rubber water balloon. Her skin’s as soft as the head of a penis from her potions and lotions; I know what a touch to a penis feels like by now. I dip my finger into the warm Vaseline, smear her, and slide the hard nozzle inside her asshole, slowly, so slowly, and root around. The choking smell is almost sweet. I imagine I’m filling her like an aquarium, a pond, a lake, the ocean. I imagine clownfish, miniature sharks, killifish, imagine that when she cries out, pushes past me, and pelts for the toilet she herself will go down the drain.
I crawl back into bed, wiping my shit finger on my sheet so I don’t have to join her in the bathroom.
It is June 1972. Canada bans cigarette advertising. Michael Cole, Peggy Lipton, and Clarence Williams III from The Mod Squad rent my grandparents’ house for the winter. Margaret Atwood publishes Survival. The FBI hires female agents for the first time. Hippies still protest the Vietnam war. Draft dodgers appear in every town.
I curl my hair and carefully dress. I keep reminding Mom of my graduation ceremony time. I say, “Could you drive me?”
She’s upstairs at her vanity spitting into her mascara block. “No, no,” she says, “I’m not finished getting ready.”
“It’s in an hour. An hour. One hour.”
“Yes, yes. Yes, yes.” She wiggles her fingers at me — go, go — and applies the goop to her eyelashes.
When I walk across the stage to receive my diploma and shake the principal’s hand, when I pause for the camera, I’m entirely alone. Afterward, the graduates and their families — far more than two per family — congregate in the cafeteria; I am ravenous with humiliation. I walk back home by myself, down one hill and up another in my heels and across the sweep of lawn, sinking.
I go upstairs. For a week, I’m pure hatred. I say nothing. I cook, I clean, I percolate, I swell under pressure.
My mother is in her newly-wet chair. The whole left side of her nightie has melted down. It reeks of fire. Usually, I can contain my pain, but this time it leaks out, flatulent and rude. “Mom, I graduated. You didn’t even come. I could have asked Dad and he would have come, but you said not to because you wanted to come.”
Her vacant stoned stare as she tries to focus and understand.
“Do you still have that gun? Because I’d be really happy to kill you right now.”
My mother is gone. She looks at me blankly.
“My graduation, Mom,” I say. “I graduated and it’s supposed to be, I don’t know, a big deal. A thing to celebrate.” I’d wanted a card, flowers, a gift tenderly chosen, congratulations.
At the arc of criticism, which she has not heard from me since I was twelve, my mother rattles herself toward senescence. “Get out!” she screams, and staggers to the door, pushing me backward at it. “Get out of my house, you fucking bitch!”
“What the fuck, Mom,” I say. I have no ID, wallet, nor even a change of clothes. I stand on the porch — that porch where I once got frostbite on my toe and say, “You’re disgusting and your dog is disgusting and did I ever say this before? I hate you!”
Just like that, I was homeless.
There are other events I haven’t explored here. My mother held her mother and sister up at gunpoint; my mother went after my sister with scissors; my mother slept with my sister’s boyfriend; my mother had a psychotic break and was hospitalized. There are all these stories in my subterranean cave and likely many more in my siblings’; I want to say I’ve mapped it, that I’ve been there, in every crevice, running my hands over the stalagmites and stalactites, and I’ve examined every iota of memory and stories I’ve heard, and alchemized them, turned them into something palatable. I want to say I’ve forgiven us, but a lot of it I’ve simply forgotten.
Where are daughters supposed to keep such things? I just stand in front of them stupified by cruelty, stunned and perplexed by how hefty love can be.
My mother died at 72 of a blood clot following an insignificant surgery.
Once when I was well into adulthood and saying goodbye to my mother at the airport in Miami, I choked out that I loved her. I did love her, in a stunted way. I wanted to have said this once to her. I waited in the air that felt like air into which an alligator was about to leap, for her to say it back, and I saw her struggle. Did she love me?
She turned away.