I would change almost immediately. The joyous glow that encompassed me as a happy, bubbly little girl faded. I became bitter, rebellious, angry, and self-destructive. I developed the tongue of a serpent. I would arm my heart with aggression and master the art of using my words like daggers of self-defense. As my mother put it, I became, “incredibly hard to love.” My family would grow to hate me. Twenty years later, I would find myself in my grandparents’ old bed, curled up in a fetal position having my first panic attack at the reality of my past. My family would throw me away like trash. Returning to that world went from slightly different to unrecognizable to forbidden. I would evolve from a beloved child to a hiss of gossip at the family gatherings I was shunned from.
Carl doesn’t do you the favor of punching you in the face and sending you to school with a black eye so that you have a fighting chance of being rescued. Carl doesn’t hit, scream, or molest, allowing you to know you’re being mistreated.
Mom performed happiness. Her eyes were bright, smile wide, and voice constantly an octave higher than its natural state. It was as if we were living in a beautiful house stocked with fluffy beds, pretty furniture, and delicious food, but were growing ill- not ill enough for an ambulance. We just adapted to an existence of fatigue and nausea, oblivious to the low dose of poison in our water. Shortly after the move, Mom was diagnosed with depression. Carl wrote a check. Psychiatrists wrote prescriptions. She reached a point where one day without her meds made her feel like the world was ending. She was and still is hooked. She constantly played, sang, and frolicked like the hyperactive puppy Carl adored. I grew up missing my mom while she was right in front of me. I grew up feeling alone in crowded rooms.
“IF YOU EVEN TRY TO GO THROUGH THAT DOG DOOR, I’LL BEAT YOUR ASS,” Carl boomed from the inside of the garage.
“We will not let you in until you show Carl some respect, speak to him, and apologize,” Mom chimed.
But Carl did not do me favor of punching me in the face and sending me to school with a black eye so that I had a fighting chance of being rescued. Carl didn’t hit, scream, or molest, allowing me to know I was being mistreated.
All routes would dead-end with my parents and whatever disciplinary action they chose.
I can’t remember the words she spoke when they finally opened the garage door and yanked me inside, but I was petrified. It wasn’t sound of Mom’s screams or the jolt of her grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me like a rag doll that plagues my memory, but the look of her eyes- wide, wild, and unrecognizable.
I never allowed myself to acknowledge the relief I felt when Carl was gone. For some reason, I couldn’t understand my brother’s joy when Carl returned from a long day of work. I envied kids with single-parent households and fathers who spent long periods of time away on business. I breathed more fluently, slept peacefully, and basked in some sort of relaxed liberation. From the beginning of his place in my life, any business trip or weekend boating excursion felt like a treat that allowed me to be with my mom at ease. Over the years of her marriage, my relationship with my mother began to develop the feel of a forbidden affair. We’d have occasional girls days of manicures, dinner, and movies. We’d bike by the Tennessee River. We’d escape to my grandmother’s house for a 4-hour drive through the mountains. It always felt like a quick visit to our old happy days. She was different away from Carl. She spoke more freely and loved me more openly. She was more of the woman hiding behind the happy pills. Our interaction was harmonious. Although we’ve had countless arguments, in my entire life, Mom and I have never had a conflict unrelated to Carl.
In high school, our relationship became turbulent. Carl would trash talk my mother to me and trash talk me to her, turning us against each other. She caught onto it once I moved out. I was 17-year-old high school senior living 45 minutes away with my boyfriend. Being underage, I couldn’t find work that to support my bills. I was bulimic. I was doing the hardest drugs of my life. I was pulled over for a speeding ticket and broke down from the 60-dollar fine. Mom had caught onto Carl’s double agent tactics. She would sneak out to meet me for secret lunches, slip me 20-dollar bills that Carl wouldn’t notice, and give me rings he’d given her years before so I could pawn them. We began rebuilding a relationship in Carl’s blind spots. I would sneak home after school. She would get home from work around 3 and Carl wouldn’t return until the evening.
I have decorated my life with the greatest accomplishments I could obtain- all charms on my bracelet to jingle and dazzle distractions from my truth.
Mom boasts about the fruits of her matrimony, but she always seems to be speaking more to herself than me. That is her personal “I didn’t fuck up my life” pep talk. I disagreed. She now mourns me like I’m dead.