I am making dinner in my new house while my husband hacks away at the stubborn vine winding its way through the rusted chain link fence in the backyard. This has been our dream for almost twenty years. Though, our first apartment outside of Boston seems not that long ago. Not just our first apartment together—our first apartment ever as adults. We thought we were adults.
How did we afford first and last?
How we had to scrub blood and food from the walls the day we moved in, and lived for the whole year without shades or blinds. An agreement between us not to acknowledge the neighbors watching us move from room to room, no clothes, half dressed, dancing on ecstasy in candlelight. How did we not burn ourselves to ash? How many times have I had to trick myself into misbelief?
Mae bought this house in 1961—its first and only owner until the day she died. She took such care here, had many love affairs, raised 4 children and one granddaughter in the house that feels almost too small for me and my husband.
Working at the now defunct naval base down the street, Mae rose in the ranks, becoming a female foreman in 60s Charleston, South Carolina. She cooked only a handful of meals in the last fifty years, and so the oven we have inherited is in pristine condition. A 1963 General Electric double oven with lights along the top that sparkle like the Starship Enterprise. It was called The Liberator in the way that classic post-war American advertising promised housewives freedom through domestic bliss. Clearly, Mae was having none of that shit.
I am slicing peppers or onions or else smashing garlic at the island in my kitchen which Mae surely mixed cocktails on, singing along to some forgotten crooner or girl group. It is spring break and I have promised myself that I will use this whole week from school to write—have forgone the trip out to the west coast for a writing conference because I am full of poems. I’ve just finished one earlier this morning—an ode to my breasts that becomes another poem about my mother—and I am self-satisfied with the pride one feels after going to the gym when someone else has not. I love checking things off from a list. The pure order of a strikethrough.
pay water bill
I am stationed at the cutting board, listening to a podcast, and note Ryan through the window over the sink out the corner of my eye. He has told me that his childhood dream was to marry his best friend and own a home that he could tinker with and renovate like his heroes on This Old House.
Somehow, even as a boozy, grieving, idiot nineteen year old, I managed to choose wisely in my partner. In fact, I am feeling smug about a lot of things in my kitchen right now. If I am being kind to myself, I might call it pride or contentment maybe. I feel so sure that every choice has led to this life, this man, this home, this version of myself. Liberated.
A man who calls himself the Angry Therapist is talking about his early preoccupation with sex. A story about fucking a plum—a kind of pre-American Pie curiosity that makes the therapist and the podcast host laugh. But after some innocuous banter, the host suggests that nine is a little early for such an explicit sexual act and asks whether or not the therapist was molested.
I am slicing into some kind of vegetable and the knife finds its inevitable touchdown on the cutting board with a pop. My husband saws away at the similax—a greenbrier with thorns sharp enough to tear through his gardening gloves.
I don’t have anything that I remember—traumatic, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if something did happen, says the therapist. His parents owned their own business and were gone a lot, leaving him in the houses of neighbors and friends of friends. Long stretches of memory gone.
In preschool, a teacher caught me and a boy looking down each other’s pants. Or else I pulled our pants down for the both of us. Just for the looking.
The teacher didn’t have a bar of soap and it was the 80s, so she pumped liquid soap into my mouth. One, two, three. And told me to hold it in my mouth, to think about what I had done while she called home. I tried making a lock at the back of my throat to keep the sudsy puddle from leaking down my tongue, but the chemical tang made me gag and gasp for air.
I imagine my new future as I wait for my aunt to come pick me up. My mother is working at the Howard Johnson and so her sister—a senior in high school—must come retrieve me. She will ask me, Why. I will try to answer and out of my mouth will come a series of prismatic spheres. Soapbubbles instead of answers.
My body becomes an elevator for my blood, which is going down very quickly. I am suddenly very aware of my knees.
Once I was on mushrooms in Boston—this is before my step-father dies, before I meet my husband. I am with some friends and we decide to see the city from the highest point. The John Hancock building is a wall of mirrored glass and we stare for a while outside, watching the clouds scrape against themselves. A building of blue sky that feels dangerously proper for a bunch of pupil-popped, giggling college students. We spend what seems like an hour riding the elevator up and down, waiting for the men and women in muted suits to exit before jumping as the elevator falls a few floors. That beat before landing made us into astronauts suspended in space. For a moment, a kind of safe disorientation, not unlike college itself. Maybe the ground would be there when I dropped, maybe not.
My cell phone is slippery in my hands as I fumble to pause these chattering men who all of a sudden are making me sick. I grip the pink laminate counter-top and feel my face turn white. I can’t remember how long I am standing like this when Ryan comes back in, sweaty and breathless, for a glass of water. He knows right away that something is wrong.
Later, he will tell me that he is surprised I never suspected this before. He is not the only one.
More than the sleepless nights I will spend in the coming months, trying to re-write my childhood; more than the rage I feel towards the adults in my life who should have taken care of me, should have seen something wrong in a three-year-old, four-year-old, five-six-seven-year old pulling down her pants, reaching in her classmates’ pants, always getting in trouble for wanting to see, wanting to touch, wanting, wanting. More than my sense of betrayal and the desire to call my mother, righteous and screaming: it is this feeling of foolishness, this denial of what so many around me could see, that made it increasingly difficult to stand upright, to sleep, to remember why I had just walked into any given room.
Not an elevator, but a collapse of time. Of my identity.
Author of Her Own Stories.
The Clever One.
My earliest accessible memory: I am three, sitting on top of my grandfather’s sloping driveway, eating a liverwurst and mustard sandwich on Wonder Bread. I am alone and so am at peace. No chaos, just birds and a dazzling spring light filtered through the trees into the air, onto my chestnut curls, my goose-pimpled skin. I am three and yet, clearly recall observing the scene and thinking, I am happy now.
The story I have long told myself about this memory is that I became a writer in this moment. A joyful split of witness. I am here in the present and I am also elsewhere, regarding the present. I am the Observer in this version of that memory. I am content and recognize contentment. I become self-aware. Self as sandwich-eating sublime. Self as storytelling in the springtime sun. There she is and is not. She will spend her life telling herself this is why she has split in two.
Most of her life.
In 1982, Disney re-released Bambi in the theaters. I was two years-old, and my parents were just finalizing the divorce on their shotgun wedding.
By this time, the film had become an iconic classic, though it was widely panned after its original release in 1942. Turns out, an animated portrayal of the wonders and heartbreaks of animal life in the forest couldn’t draw an overseas audience during WWII.
Hunters also united against the film. In the summer 0f 1942 Raymond J. Brown, editor of Outdoor Life, called Bambi “the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen” and demanded that the film include a disclaimer—something akin to Not All Hunters.
I must have been three or four, then, when someone gifted me Bambi on vinyl. Each side featured illustrations, and I stared at those images as I wore out the grooves, listening to it over and over until the needle’s dips and scratches made deciphering the story impossible.
Side One: Good Times. Bambi and Flower are mid-meet-cute, their noses about to touch. Friend Owl looks on knowingly from above, while Thumper rolls back, mid-knee-slap. The flowers on the ground look like candy, and the whole scene seems airbrushed with white light.
Side Two: Decidedly Darker Times. In the foreground, Bambi and Thumper slip joyously on a frozen pond. In a mirror image: Bambi looks questioningly at a family of upside-down possums. Things don’t quite seem right.
Farther up, Owl Friend watches Thumper get twitterpated over a rabbit who is not Miss Bunny. It seems that in the rush to print the records, illustrators forgot to fact check.
And off in the background, looming high above all of this idyllic wonder, whip the orange-red flames of Man’s fire. Black smoke bleeds across the album’s arc, and little Bambi runs off. Always leaving Mother behind.
When I tell my aunt the story of the plum and the podcast and my ash-white face, the line goes silent for a beat. Just enough time for me to think that I am either way off base or closer to the truth than I know.
She sighs, tells me that she doesn’t know, but that There was a lot you saw that you shouldn’t have.
Then a new story about my childhood unfolds. My ear sweats into the heat of my cell phone and I pace from inside to outside my lovely new home.
There was cocaine and black-outs. A totaled car, nights my mother never came home, and men. Men with her in front of me. Men who maybe stayed when she passed out. A shadow of a man, always lurking in the corner of my memories.
As Bambi and Mother munch on the first spring green grass, the instrumentation changes to prepare the audience for something sinister. Shortly thereafter, Mother, too, notes a shift in the air—perhaps a twig snapping or the crunch of a boot in the snow. She urges Bambi to head for the thicket, calling out, Faster! Faster, Bambi—don’t look back! Their stick legs jump over an icy blue creek as bullets whizz in the distance. The final bullet cuts through the music and the excruciating Mother Death happens off-screen.
Walt Disney ultimately decided not to include the animation of the archetypal death, and also edited out a later storyline that has Bambi returning to the crime scene only to find the imprint of his mother’s body in the snow. Only an impression of maternal love, now dragged off by savage hunters.
Instead, after the gunshot we see Bambi bounding off, the dutiful son who does not look back until safely encased in a snowy cave of brambles and branches. His voice squeaks in building panic as he realizes what we already know.
Though, there is a phenomenon of audience members swearing—after each theatrical release: in 42, 47, 57, 66, 75, 82, and 88— that they witnessed Mother being shot.
In a 2014 Rolling Stone article, Stephen King lists as one of his great influences the first horror movie he ever saw: Bambi.
The blank space of trauma is more powerful than the image itself.
Once, when I was three or five, my mother and I were driving somewhere in her pale blue Ford pick-up. It was night or daytime, the radio played music or was turned off. She bent down across the bench-seat to kiss me and I opened my mouth, tried to slip her the tongue. Her surprise was enough to shame me. And when she told me that this was only how adults kiss each other, that was that. No conversation, no questions.
Looking back, I always thought it a marker of my curiosity about sex. I was a liberated early feminist who never waited for the boys to make the first move. During a school assembly in first grade, I put my hands down the back of a boy’s pants. I felt his small ass, traced the sides of his little crack.
The first story categorized this little scene as triumphant—a reverse of the male gaze, or in this case, the male graze.
But now, of course, after pages and pages from articles about memory and the amygdala and trauma, a string of open windows on my laptop illuminating my sleepless nights, I would finally have to begin re-categorizing these stories.
Every story should have an inciting incident. Like a plum or a job opening at the naval base or a shotgun fired in the woods. But what happens when all narrative arcs trace back to an unknowable inciting incident? A blank space, something missing, clouded over. Almost nothing.
How does the story hold itself together?
In 1985, my mother and I live in upstate New York in a small town with few neighbors. I am five years old and my mother is 24. I have a beautiful memory of my time in that house that never seemed to have working heat. It has just snowed and I am in bed, supposed to be asleep. I think I hear Santa on the roof. There arose such a clatter. But it wasn’t Santa, of course. My mother and her friends were drunk on cheap booze and cheaper beer, taking turns jumping off the roof into high drifts of snow, twice the size of their bodies.
Did I figure this out because I heard their laughter resonating above me? Or did I get up from bed and spy out the window to see for myself? Or did I only learn the truth later while my mother regaled some family table with tales of her youth?
I somehow found a way to connect the two stories to make one whole—joined them together with something so glittering that it still manages to distract me from what I cannot see. How that connective tissue becomes as important as the pieces themselves. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi: the truth in gold holds together what is broken, fragmented.
I have another memory from that time. I wasn’t able to make sense of it until I was in my mid-twenties, after my mother tells me over the phone that she was raped. She doesn’t say when or where. She does not want to talk about it.
The conversation ends there and we have never spoken about it again. Not even when I write a poem that sprang from my long-forgotten memory. Though, it wasn’t forgotten exactly. It came to me from time to time, but I couldn’t distinguish it from a nightmare or a movie. A flash of an image. Like a dream that disintegrates upon waking. Slippery and intangible until we hang up the phone. Then the memory slides into context.
She read “The Shadow of a Man” and did not correct me. That is the powdered gold turned solid in this story. She did not correct the time or place. This is all I have as proof. I placed her assault next to my fearful image, and finally my memory had somewhere to go—it poured out, free from its murky film.
The Shadow of a Man
My mother sleeps passed
out in our neighbor’s musty bed. I will
eventually learn the word to describe
their kind: trash. They give me lice and
secret swigs of warm Milwaukee’s Best.
When they offer squirrel for dinner,
my mom doesn’t look up
at me. Usually, when someone offers us
food, we eat it. She will later tell me
that this was the unhappiest year
of her life. Upstate New York winters
too much for us and for the furnace
that never worked. On cold mornings,
I would wait for her call from downstairs
to let me know the oven was warm, ready
for me to change my clothes. That same
year, my first two dogs were hit
by tractor trailers. I was to stay in the house
while mom carried the heaps of golden,
matted fur from the road to our backyard.
It was the year my mother was raped, though,
it would take her two decades to tell me.
She said it, nonchalantly, over the phone
one day, then said she didn’t want to talk
or think about it anymore.
When we hung up, an image: the shadow
of a man, stumbling, calling to me.
The light behind him casts
the silhouette of his body like the profiles
my kindergarten teacher traced of each
child’s head. I am drawing flowers
on my sleeping mother’s back with my finger
when he orders, Get your mommy up.
I know right away that something is wrong.
The way the ice in his glass clinks, how
he walks from the doorway to the bed. I cry
and shake her, but she doesn’t wake up
in time. Then there is no memory.
A piece gone missing just before I see
her, again: up against the wall, his fingers
around her throat. Nobody helped. I remember:
nobody helped us. That night, together
in her bed, doors and windows locked,
we waited for him to find us
again. The dogs were dead, there’d be no
warning so neither of us slept or spoke in fear
of missing the footsteps. He didn’t come back.
She stayed on her side of the bed and touched me
only once—on the shoulder so I could follow
her finger towards the window, as the sky burned.
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, she said. Red
sky in the morning, sailors take warning. My first
sunrise: my mother gave me a rhyme, showed me
what darkness looks like as it turns to light.
In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti is running an obesity clinic in California and cannot figure out why half of his patients have dropped out of the program. They lost the weight, but still left. He couldn’t find the connector. He interviewed 286 people who’d left the trial, and found that most of them had experienced childhood sexual abuse. This led him to ultimately spend his life studying the connections between childhood trauma and profound lifelong health issues. He created the Adverse Childhood Experience or ACE test to identify childhood experiences of neglect and trauma.
My ACEs score is a 4 or a 5, which means that I am more likely to have chronic disease, to smoke and abuse alcohol, to suffer from depression and attempt suicide than those with lower ACE scores.
I score equally high, though, on the resilience questionnaire.
I believe that my mother loved me when I was little. When I was a child, there were relatives in my family who made me feel better if I was sad or worried. Someone in my family cared about how I was doing in school. I believed that life is what you make it.
It has been almost six years since I last saw my mother. She’d driven up for a visit, leaving her new husband at home, but taking her two Pomeranians with her. When she gets out of the car, she is shaking so hard that she can’t keep the water in the glass Ryan hands her. She says it’s because she hasn’t eaten yet—it is 4 o’clock— but she only eats four of the almonds I offer her. She says it’s because she’s old and old people shake—she is 54.
When she storms out the next day, I beg her not to leave. Something about the explosiveness of our fight last night and again this morning, I know there will be no turning back. Ryan retreats to the bedroom to give us space.
Again, as it was for so many years, it is just the two of us now. Mother and daughter.
My mother and her daughter stand in the kitchen. The daughter clutches the counter-top. Her mother is at the threshold, screen door in hand. The dogs and bags already in the car, not 24 hours since their arrival.
She has lost so much.
On paper I can see her fully, understand her pain. But the woman disappearing down route 17, the woman slurring into the phone, sending late night emails— she is only an impression of that woman. An outline left in the snow.
I am both the fawn in the woods and the hunter stomping off back to the car, whiskey on my breath and piss on my clothes. Scent as lure. A trap laid out for us both.
Ode to My Breasts
After Ross Gay
of time, of gravity, of stolen
glances when I bend &
pretend to miss a button.
Watch how they resist
button downs & silk
chemises & bikini tops
& crop tops & topple over
bra cup after bra cup.
My D cups always runneth
over. Hunched over in pain,
spine bent from years
of busting & clasping &
in 9th grade, at my father’s
funeral, teaching preschool,
taking a knee to tie a shoe.
I can make a man fall
to his knees when I give him
the softest part of me— the skin
under my breasts like rose
petals worn down by weight
& underwire & years & years
of my own side-eye, wishing
for symmetry or buoyancy or
anything other than what
I’ve got. My tits will never fit
in a champagne flute. They’re
more than a handful, all heft &
swing. & I’ve managed to keep
them free of milk because do you
really think I’m talking about
my breasts? I’m trying again
to talk about my mother.
She was 19—her own mother
dead— & she firmly refused
the Parlodel the nurses
insisted would help with post-
partum hormones. She somehow
knew the pill would dry her up,
deflate her swollen breasts &
when I feel abandoned by her,
unloved. When I delete another
drunken voicemail meant to
flatten me. When the mirror
mirages me into seeing only
her & I become my own wicked
witch, cursing myself for
letting her hold such power
over me. I think of that girl,
alone. Breasts leaking
through the paper gown.
Defiant & proud, deciding
then just how fiercely she’d
love me. She’d nurse
me & rub the small bud
of my earlobe, singing
made-up songs as I took
all I could from her night
after night. & sometimes when
I fall asleep, I catch myself
tugging on my ear. Even now
I want to convince you
that this comfort is enough.
That she taught me how
to love myself so well even
she couldn’t hurt me. I see how
uneven this poem is— and I want
to make it prettier. Give us
the resolution we deserve.
I waited for my breasts to come
for so long. Little mosquito
bites of disappointment. My mom
& I sat in the living room, or
she cooked dinner while
I flopped on the counter.
The wings of her arms arched
behind her back, as she sang,
We must, we must, we must
increase our bust. I want
to say I joined in and together
we laughed as the sausage
burned slightly in its pan.
I want to reshape and exalt this
moment—a daughter and her
mother—before truth or time
or I can cleave them in two.
No matter how elongated a bubble starts off, how misshapen, it will always turn spherical. Soap bubbles have a memory, can recall.
My mind has protected me, has tried to scrub clean what has harmed me. Wrapped the worst fears, the most wretched touches, the longest shadows in a film. Floated them somewhere in the recesses of my amygdala, my hippocampus, my prefrontal cortex. Some have popped open, some are more stubborn, diligent.
Much of my childhood memory remains out of reach. I am beginning to discover random fragments, but those fragments are opaque. They resist light. I want to see what’s inside and instead only see light bouncing back at me. Like gasoline on pavement. An empty abalone shell. Shimmering, almost enough. Iridescent and precarious.
Danielle DeTiberus teaches creative writing at the Charleston School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in Academy of American Poets, Best American Poetry, The Missouri Review, Rattle, River Styx, Waxwing and elsewhere. Her manuscript, Better the Girl Know Now, was a finalist for Black Lawrence Press’ 2018 Hudson Prize. She received a poetry fellowship from the South Carolina Academy of Authors, and currently serves as the Program Chair for the Poetry Society of South Carolina, bringing nationally renowned poets to Charleston for readings and seminars. More of her work can be found here.