By Connie Millard
“I caught him red-handed, that bastard,” your mother wails during her nightly call to your grandmother.
In your room, you sprawl on a mattress on the floor and remember the night she confronts your father about his affair, her small frame wobbling from alcohol and momentary triumph as she waves the damning picture so close to his face, it slaps him across the cheek.
She rails into the receiver that life is unfair, that a tramp with crooked teeth stole him, that she is stupid for marrying him so young. Well, now she’s stuck with you, and who’s going to want her now. She drones on like a half-dead bee trapped in a house, lumbering and erratic, but her stinger still sharp.
You slip on your headphones and jack up the volume. The pulsing bass matches the thumping of you heart as you work to ignore the familiar tang of stomach acid in your throat, bitter and meaty, filling you up like the dinner you miss that night.
“No way. You’re like apples and oranges,” she claims the time you ask to move with your brother to your father’s house.
“We are the girls; they are the boys. He belongs with him. You belong with me,” her arm chops the air, severing you from them in desperate authority.
“Remember, it’s you and me against the world. It’s our anthem,” she pleads, fixing you with a wild stare, her watery blue eyes partially hidden by her hair, once a stylish auburn crop, now shaggy and gray. She and grips your hands in an unescapable vice as she sings the Helen Reddy hit, her slurred voice cracking,
“When all the others turned their backs and walked away,
You can count on me to stay.”
You do stay. Because you have never been without your mother before, not once in your twelve years.
“You yellow-bellied brat. Get out here and talk to your grandmother,” she shrieks, shards of her wrath hitting you like shrapnel.
Your bedroom door explodes, and you throw the covers over your head, burrowing under the blanket to hide from the monster, praying that if you squeeze your eyes shut and chant, she’ll disappear. Like an exorcism. Go away. Go away. Go away.
“You ungrateful slob. I said, get over here.”
You say you are tired. You say you have a stomach ache. You say you will talk to Grandma tomorrow.
But she is strong with vodka and rage and rips the blanket off like a band-aid of an unhealed wound, leaving you raw and exposed. She grabs a fistful of your shirt and yanks you from the bed, where you hit the floor with a thud. She drags you along to the kitchen and reach the phone to croak, Hi Grandma.
“Oh, so you think the grass is greener on the side, Missy?” she says when you explain that you called you father while she was in the bathroom. You cannot look at her face.
You are leaving, you say. He is coming for you.
But, you are afraid. Afraid of your father, who does not speak to you in the affair aftermath. Who does not contact you when you move hours away to your aunt’s house to make a new life, only to be evicted six months later thanks to your mother’s drinking. Who does not leave an address, so when you return, you wander the streets for days, an inept but dedicated stalker, until you finally spot him, and he gives you a hug and his phone number.
“I begged him to stay, begged him until I was blue in the face.” She sobs and squeezes your arm so hard you know it will leave an angry bruise, a black and blue imprint on your skin and on your heart.
“Fine. Go. I don’t need you.”
But she blocks the stairs and, when you slip under her, throws her short, plump body against the door. You use your bags to pry her away, and she latches onto your sleeve and tugs, sucking you back in, to stay, to imprison. Fueled by adrenaline, you wrench the door open. The gush of air shocks you both. And now she kicks and shoves you outside, out of her life. Into the rain. Into the dark. Into the waiting headlights. And you rejoice because you are free, and you are no shrinking violet.
Connie Millard is a full-time working mom of three who once made it to the final callbacks for the reality television show, Worst Cooks in America. After much practice and perseverance, she now spends her time writing stories in between stirring risotto. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Potato Soup, Tales from the Moonlit Path, and Black Ink Fiction Drabble Anthology, among others.