Under the scratchy polyester quilt in our rented trailer I listened to the volley of insults grow thick and loud on the other side of the wall. Cabinet doors slammed, furniture tumbled, and a spat that began at the barbecue by the lake had become a full-on battle. I kept hearing the sounds of her crying, even though I tried hard not to. I took my hands off of my ears and left my scratchy quilt, just a pinch of a person, to put a stop to the storm roiling on the other side of the wood-paneled wall. When I opened my door, all the sounds I had heard made sense.
The first casualty I saw was the gray recliner, on its side near the door. Strewn across the carpet in the living room were the dishes. All of them. Broken into pieces like shark teeth, floating atop the brown and tan swirled shag we were calling the fudge ripple rug. I tiptoed through the ceramic bits of ruined plates and mugs past my step-father, swaying slightly with his arms akimbo, into the kitchen. Every cabinet was open and completely bare. There was a slatted window open above the sink, the kind you have to crank with a little arm. And I thought I’d like to squeeze out of it into the dark, a wisp in my pink sateen nightgown.
It’s 2016. My mother and I are sitting in the garage of a house where I have never lived. The big door is open and swirls of smoke from the end of my mother’s cigarette are being sucked into the darkness of the yard. We’re both drunk. A mosquito lands on her hair, now thin and limp. The color of an oyster shell. My own family is tucked in at home two hours south, a safe distance from a past I have encapsulated and hidden in my cheek. I’m constantly trying to keep these two worlds separate, afraid the ichor of this old story will find its way into everything I now hold dear. Mom picks up the remote and adjusts the volume of Wagon Train playing on a television that’s bolted to the wall. Now we can hear every cricket in Florida, and a lone frog trilling in the night.
My mother stood tall, stalwart, and sun kissed in the blue-white glow of the fluorescents. I don’t know what it was that held her body so straight, but I remember clouds of her wavy black hair touched the light fixture above. On the linoleum, a smear of ash caught my eye. I’m not cleaning that, I thought. Near our feet, the heavy glass ashtray they’d been stabbing cigarettes into all evening was unbroken. When I saw the blood coming out of my mother’s face, I didn’t just begin to cry, I started right in the middle of it, the way only a kid can do. I was too late.
Did Aaron ever hurt you? She nudges the control on her motorized wheelchair with a pinky, but the battery is lifeless. Her fingernails look flimsy, as if they would bend in the wind. Almost nothing moves here in the dark dusted with ashes. Her question has edges. It scratches at something inside my chest.
He was my mother’s third husband, and arguably her worst. Working as a superintendent for a building company, he traveled around the Southeast erecting malls and business plazas through the eighties. Any time my mother and I walked into a mall, I would ask if this one was one of ours as if my own hands had hammered in the drywall or framed the many mirrored windows. They got married when I was three and then he broke her nose, divorced her, and married her again. In the betweens, there were more horrors than holidays, yet the two of them were woven together in some way, for fifteen years of my life.
My tongue swiped at a tear droplet on my lip. Under the salt I could taste the lake on my skin. I was afraid to look directly at Aaron, whose sun-burned shoulders I had ridden that morning. His face was a sweaty ugly knot. The mouth that had minutes before been full of words like bitch, and cunt, and whore, was now empty and twisted shut. The impossibly thick glasses he wore had slid down to the near end of his nose, but his shirt was still neatly tucked in. He kept his eyes off of me, like he thought that what he didn’t see wasn’t there. On this occasion, or maybe I’ve confused it with another, I stepped in front of my mother to keep his red, angry fist just far enough away from her face that only a sheet of paper could’ve fit between. Like the tiniest referee, I hunkered down in the middle of them, relentless in my attempt to keep her safe. Swiping at her nose with a dishtowel, my mother dared to speak, swearing that when this trip was over he would be packing his things and leaving her house. A promise I’d hear her make many times over the years.
What? I fake casual misunderstanding. On the road at the end of the driveway, headlights cut the dark. Moisture-rippled photos of my kids lean against an empty vase on a folding table under the TV. I’m looking at this woman who could never stand to be alone, here in her cinder block cave it is just the two of us. We are like squatters together in this place tonight, I think. But we are not the same.
I just thought maybe, her eyes never move from the screen where men are washing their faces under a water pump in vivid technicolor, because, well, you know.
I want to say that I do know. I know the way abusers adhere to the abused. I want to say I forgive her, my one true parent, for floating in and out of such an inflammatory arrangement for so many years even though she thought maybe he was hurting me, too. I know how hard it is to be grown now. To be a woman. A mother. I want to tell her I know there was a broken place inside our lives then and that it has stayed broken. I know everything now, but I don’t say any of it.
The morning after Aaron broke my mother’s nose, there was music. In the kitchen, she swept cigarette ashes and glass off the linoleum tile as he flipped pancakes. Both of them singing along with John Prine on the stereo while the winking sunshine reflected off the lake. My mother swayed her hips to the rhythm of the song and threw the remaining shards of last night’s ordeal into the wastebasket. And because I was still a new person in the world, soothed by the smell of a hot cast-iron skillet and the smile of my mother, I ate the pancakes. Dripping with butter and syrup and sugary absolution.
For weeks or months afterward, the two of them behaved like newlyweds. He hid bouquets of flowers behind his back and she fried pork chops the way his mama used to. The threat of his eviction quickly forgotten, the three of us settled back into living like nothing bad had ever happened. The bruises on my mother’s face were explained away and then they were gone.
Abusers take breaks. It’s the way they survive alongside the abused, becoming tender while bruises bloom and wounds scab over. Splendor has a way of taking up the space between sorrows making you forget the suffering. Those in-betweens are full of apologies and promises and gifts. And as it was my experience, those nights the hurting got so loud I had to put my hands over my ears always ended in mornings with the vacuum running and a table full of band-aid breakfasts.
It is twenty-seven years after the night at the lake and my mother is wrapping a paper towel around her sweating glass. I take a minute more to pluck her words out of the dark, like moths, and examine them. I am in my mother’s garage watching Wagon Train, but I am also searching deep in the grooves of my memory where I find nothing that indicates what she is implying. Just the sound of the two of them singing.
But, please don’t bury me
Down in that cold, cold ground
I’d rather have ’em cut me up
And pass me all around
No. I say it when I am sure that is the answer. I wash down this morsel of relief with the dregs of my drink.
Good. She blows the word out in a puff of smoke that disappears as quickly as does our foray into the past. Mom restores the volume on the tv and just as we have always done, we go back to pretending nothing bad has ever happened.
My own family is chaotic in a soft, predictable way. On a Sunday we call lazy, my husband steers the five of us towards a late morning breakfast at a local diner we’ve come to believe is the epitome of weekend indulgence. My youngest’s feet barely touch the sticky floor under the booth and my oldest has a knit hat pulled firmly over her wily pink hair. In the middle is a child who typically eats rules for breakfast, but will make an exception for hotcakes. We tarry too long over the details, knowing in our heart of hearts that what we order never changes. Our server somehow commits all of it to memory before scurrying off to the next customers.
Soon enough, the table will be crowded with plates and elbows and errant gobs of syrup while the family I have purposefully, lovingly made will laugh and fill their bellies. Stuffed with blueberries and chocolate chips, or topped with whipped cream and syrup, pancakes will flop over the edges of plates, meeting eyes much bigger than appetites. Except for me. I’ll get a plate of over-easy eggs next to two triangles of hot buttered toast. Because that is as safe and unremarkable as a breakfast can be.
Somewhere behind me a plate crashes on the ground. The whole diner snaps around toward the clatter and there is a brief, surprised silence as people measure the severity of the disaster. Sitting opposite my husband, whose love for pancakes is innocent and possibly tied to memories all his own, I allow myself a comfortable sigh. I watch my children bumping around in the booth and experience a swell of peace. The mess behind us is swept away and my youngest, whose dimpled hands had clapped tightly over her ears during the confusion, lets go and erupts in an enormous laugh from where she always does, right in the middle.
Stephanie Gresham is a mother, writer, and recent transplant to Portland, Oregon. An alumnus of the University of Central Florida, she is a resident contributor at Punky Moms dot com with an unholy addiction to spiral notebooks. Her true claim to fame is that one time Lin Manuel Rivera retweeted her dog.