We have been strained from the beginning, Mother. I write about it subconsciously in my stories, these characters wandering around aimlessly, looking for a nipple to latch onto. They never find it though. Brooke says that you were a different mother when she was a baby. She remembers you in a different light, and I hate her for it. She says that it must have been the disease, because once upon a time you acted like a mother. The pills do nothing for you.
She says that you took her on picnics and to the beach. There are photos, so I know she is not lying. Before I saw them I was convinced that she had made this up, that she had dreamt of you that way, the way I do. But she showed me the albums and I know that they are real.
Our photo album is different. Dad is holding me in most of the pictures, or I’m out of focus, crawling in the background. I remember you used to play dead when we were alone together. I’d slap you in the face and scream and cling to you, but you wouldn’t wake up. I thought I’d killed you. Dad would walk in and you’d come back to life, if only for a moment. This is what I remember. I still cannot figure it out, if I sparked this in you, this desire to play dead.
I feel worse for the little ones. They are still young, and you fall apart more and more each day. I was at least close to having you intact. You are too far gone to recognize now, and I know the babies will never see you in the light that Brooke saw you in, or that I hoped to catch a glimpse of. There are no albums for them to look at.
You talk about the old days like there is nobility in what you did, working late to provide for your children, a survivor of domestic abuse. I think of all the decisions you made to get us in that position, and nobility is nowhere in sight. Dad was too normal for you, too ironed out. I remember you telling me this. It’s what attracted you to these other men, this lifestyle of struggle and hardship. You wanted to be held by calloused hands. I had nightmares about them, about what they were capable of. These strange men walking the halls.
And then you met Ralph. Words fell out of his mouth like molasses. He hung deer heads on our wall. A sharp circle traced his back pocket, a chewer. He hummed Amazing Grace and liked the word nigger. I was mortified. He tried to woo me with his craftsmanship. A talent Dad fell short of. Tables were built, names engraved deep into the wood. How kind, you said. They would all become unfinished projects. He told stories, wild Southern stories of hog dogs and white lightning and rabies. How you followed his words into the darkness of it all.
The shed filled with hammers and saws and nail guns. Make room, you said. Dad’s golf clubs rusted in the rain. They were supposed to be mine to practice with. No, now I am to build birdhouses with Ralph, and paint the mailbox and pull weeds. Bonding, you called it.
I babysat his children while you gallivanted in the streets. They drew on my walls and painted my bedspread with nail polish. Fucking brats, I called them. Fits were thrown. I felt so sorry for them though, the babies. They were so tiny, their cries so loud.
I lied to the guidance counselor to keep us together. You asked me not to say anything, not to speak up. His words fell on us like fists, the names he’d call us. Oh, how it made my stomach lurch. I hid in the shed for a whole day, you didn’t notice. I thought about staying in there, hiding, until I died. I hoped you’d come for me. It felt like days passed. Nothing.
I wonder now if you’ve satisfied your desire for brashness, for men with rough hands and scarred faces. I wonder where you’ve gone, what world the medicine keeps you in. They tell me, the doctors, that this has been festering, this illness inside you. They say that you are sick, you can’t help it. Manic-depression they call it. I do not understand. There is no rash, or cough, or chill that pins you to this. I try to tell them you have always been like this, this crazy. Brooke tells me to stop saying that. She tells me to be supportive and let you know that we are here for you, both sides of you.
I don’t want to be supportive though. I want photo albums. I want picnics and sandcastles. I want to tell you to kill yourself, to kill yourself twenty years ago, before I knew you, before you let it get this bad, before the light was completely out. I want to slap you and tell you to stop playing dead. I want Dad to walk through the door so you can wake up again, if only for a moment.
Erica Langston is a graduate of the University of Florida and applicant for a Fulbright award to teach English abroad. She plans to pursue a graduate degree upon her return.
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