i. parents aren’t heroes.
you were nine and you were home early from your play-date.
jesse was your best friend and he had the best chocolate chip cookies at his house. you had played g.i joe’s and superheroes and jesse let you win at candyland. he had lost his front teeth the week before and got five bucks from the tooth fairy that he put in his piggy bank.
“it’s for my college money’ he had a new lisp but the holes in his gums were really cool and he even let you poke one.
“it’s like your teeth are soldiers and two of them died, so now your mouth is open for people to attack it” you whispered, eyes wide in awe.
“yeah maybe but my mom said that i’m getting even better teeth and when she pulled it out, she promised it wouldn’t hurt and it did a little but not even a lot”
you slammed your polly pocket doll into gi joe and thought about this.
“did you cry?”
jesse giggled. “yeah a little but then my mom gave me ice cream and it didn’t hurt anymore”
later, jesse got a bad headache and before his his mom took him to the doctor, she dropped you off at home. she didn’t drive away until you opened the door and waved from the living room window.
you tucked away your socks and sneakers and wandered around the empty house, your feet cold slaps against the glazed wood floors. you walked up the stairs softly, stifling giggles, jumping when one of the floor boards creaked. the door to your parent’s bedroom was a little bit open and you pushed it, screaming boo.
your mom was on the bed, kissing some man the way she kissed your dad. the man had thick black hair and pale white skin and there were black curls on his chest. his eyes were closed and you could see veins on the back of his eyelids. your mom screamed and the man jumped up and stared at you and he was disgusting and this was confusing and you didn’t even realize you were running until you were panting.
you hid in the shed, under daddy’s tool shelf and cried a little, not liking the way your mom’s shocked face kept flashing in your head. you heard shouting from outside and the door of the shed scraped open and you stood up and ran into your mom’s arms.
“it’s okay baby, it’s all gonna be okay,”
you sobbed freely into her shirt, snot and tears dampening the fabric.
“b-b-but who was that man? he wasn’t daddy.”
“just- just don’t tell daddy, baby. this is just adult stuff. a surprise for daddy. so you can’t ruin it for him okay? okay honey? you know i love you so much, right?”
“okay, but it’s not daddy’s birthday soon so why-”
“it’s just adult stuff honey.” she kissed the top of your head and smoothed your hair, rocking back in forth.
“don’t worry about it baby, just don’t tell daddy,”
ii. maybe it is your fault
you were eleven when everything finally exploded. it was a bomb that was set to go off, a timer clicking to an unknown but certain demise.
your mother got a new apartment by the beaches and you had to pack half of your childhood into three suitcases to be left there. your dad had grey behind his ears and frown lines and no one in your house left happy.
the last conversation that your parents ever had as a married couple was about you.
“she knew? she fucking knew? for how long, karen? how fucking long did you keep this from me? i have given you everything, i have stayed quiet and placid and allowed you to single handedly ruin this family but to get our eleven year old daughter involved? are you even a human being?”
your father’s voice was louder than you’ve ever heard. with a morbid fascination, like a car crash on a highway, you crept out of your room and held tight to the railing of the staircase and listened.
“i didn’t know she was going to be home! she walked in and i didn’t know she was going to be home. i told her i loved her.”
“were you with him”
sobs spills from her mouth like salt water.
“bill was with me and she never, i swear, i made sure she never saw anything again.” your mom was crying and you could hear the raspy scratches in her voice from screaming too much.
“it’s not enough for you fuck one of your interns, now you traumatize our daughter too? nothing’s ever enough for you is it? ”
the unsaid words here were clear: i was not enough for you.
you could see them at the dining room table through the rungs. your father had collapsed in one of the chairs, his jaw tight, a grimace on his face.
his voice was low and tired and heartbroken, “i want a divorce.”
everyone involved let you know that you weren’t to blame.
“a lot of things have happened these last couple of years and i really just want you to know that nothing is your fault and that your…mother and i love you very much.”
your father is quieter now, blurrier. the courts decided you would live with him in the house you grew up with and spend weekends and two months of summer with your mother. your father refused to change anything in the house, leaving everything as it was the day your mother left. it is a shrine, an everlasting funeral for the death of your parent’s marriage and your father is the only permanent mourner.
your mother took you shopping the first saturday you were with her and you went to the movies, and later, during dinner, she asked how middle school was gong.
“it’s okay. i went over jesse’s house on wednesday. i really like my science teacher. he plays these videos, i don’t remember what they’re called tim nye the science guy or something”
she stopped cutting her lasagna and her face drooped.
“bill. bill nye, the science guy.”
you looked down, running your tongue over your front teeth.
“yeah. that’s it.”
she took a deep breath and smiled.
“so, how’s your father?”
you looked at her like she was confused, muttering a small fine before looking back down at your plate. the rest of dinner was silent.
when you left:
“honey, i love you so much. i really love you so, so, so much and i’m so,” she broke here, a choked sob engulfing her, “so sorry for everything that’s happened.”
her eyes were swollen and when you kissed her good bye, you tasted salt on her cheek.
iii. change can be a good thing
you were thirteen and it was three days before your birthday.
your mother had married bill, the intern in october and they were coming back from their honeymoon especially for your birthday party. the wedding was beautiful, in an orchard that bill’s parents owned in california. there were ropes of flowers and a cloudless sky and you had worn a pretty pink dress and kissed bill’s brother, a high school sophomore, behind the rose garden. he slipped you a beer and his lips tasted like metal.
jesse was going to be in florida for a great uncle’s funeral during your party so he had come over to give you your present and watch alice in wonderland, as tradition dictated.
“we watch this movie every single year and i will never not be freaked out when the chesire cat disappears.” he said after it was finished.
your dad had just left to go to the movies with his girlfriend, barbara, an interior designer with short blonde hair and long, butterfly thin eyelashes. your father had hired her to renovate the house about a year ago and she brightened the colors of the walls, brightened the color of the glazed wood floors and brightened your father as well.
“that’s cus you’re a wimp.” you were laying on your stomach, resting your arms on one of the couch pillows. he was leaning back against the den table, fingers sliding over the wrapped box in his hands.
he rolled his eyes and checked his phone. “my mom said she’ll be here at eight and it’s 7:54, so here. it’s um, your present.”
he passed the box to you and you allowed a small grin to perk up on your face. the tape was hard to rip with your fingers and you got a cut on the wrapping paper.
it was a scrapbook, this gorgeous thing really, the cover black, with a single picture pasted onto the middle of you and jesse at age six, arms around each other’s shoulders, laughing. you looked through a couple pages, that small grin blossoming into a wide smile.
“oh my god, it’s beautiful,” you close the book and look up, “thanks, jess”
over the past summer, he had gotten much taller, lanky almost, everything sharp, his collarbones, his elbows, the line of his cheeks. he had a new half smile and sometimes you thought he looked like a skeleton, all bones and no meat, your best friend pushed unwillingly into this strange new body. his lips had always been the color of the insides of blood oranges but it never seemed to matter as much as it had recently.
it wasn’t just him though. you woke up one morning in july clutching your abdomen as if you had just run 500 miles and your breath caught a little when you saw the splotch of blood on your underwear. it was embarrassing, to mumble to your dad that you needed money for “girl” things. he had blushed and pulled a twenty out of his pocket. his eyes were wide and he coughed and mumbled back that maybe you should talk to your mother.
jesse ran a hand through his dirty blonde hair and stood, fingers fidgeting with the loose hem on his t-shirt.
“no problem, it was um, my mom’s idea. she took a scrapbooking class at micheal’s and had all these leftover stickers and stuff so i figured i might as well.” his phone began to ring .
“that’s probably my mom, i should go,”
you stood too and walked him upstairs to the door, fingers brushing across the wood paneling in the hall. he pulled on his shoes and stood and he gave you an awkward hug and there was something trembling in your stomach.
“well, bye. i’ll see you next week.” he coughed and looked anywhere but your face.
then he leaned forward and his lips were on yours and they tasted nothing like metal and your hands were in fists by your sides and then he pulled back and murmured, ‘happy birthday’ and left.
iv. tragedy, like lightning, hits the same place more than once
she died at 11:58pm on the fourth of november right before you turn sixteen. she died on impact, instantly. it was raining.
these are the facts.
the man who drove the other car was drunk. she was pregnant. it was an accident.
these are the speculations.
regardless of obituaries and blood point levels and croaked, sobbed apologies from a pardoned 21 year old, your mother was dead.
you wondered whether the police officer was trying to comfort you when he said she felt little pain. you wondered how a second of impossible, indescribable, mind-shattering pain would feel. you wondered whether your mother was in hell or heaven or purgatory.
you wore her black dress to the funeral. it was the same dress she wore to her mother’s funeral and it was a little big on you, falling over thin legs and thin arms and a thin heart.
bill, the stepdad slowly faded out of your life and you didn’t blame him. your father broke up with barbara and sank into himself again. it was hysterical, this grief, this tragedy; two men in love with the same dead woman.
v. the first time your heart is broken it will hurt the most (you will heal)
you learned how to forget. boys with pretty names and ugly desires. drinks that made it twice asun likely to remember the next morning. parties with music so loud it was impossible to hear anything other than the sound of your own heartbeat.
“you can’t fucking do this to yourself anymore” jesse’s voice was low and mature and responsible. you were plastered, someone else’s lipstick on your cheek, a long tear on the back of your shirt. you didn’t even know who’s house this was, who’s booze you were drinking, who’s bedroom you were in.
“oh jesse babe, don’t you know i love youuu” you were slurring and the black dust around your eyes just looked sad and sad and sad.
“we’re leaving. let’s go” he pulled off his jacket and wrapped you in it, then guided you through the doors, through the throng of lonely drunk teenagers who put the music on so high just to hide the sounds of their own self-hate.
the cold outside sobered you immediately. it was february and you remembered now why your skirt was pink. you were by his car and suddenly, your eyes came into focus and things became clear.
“get off me, what the fuck do you even want,” you were pushing away with shaking fingers.
“just calm down, you can’t do this to yourself anymore-”
“or what, jesse? you can’t save me anymore. i’m done, i’m done with everyone wanting everything from me, i’m done, i just want to have something that’s mine and i just want-”
you stop and you kiss him then, hard and for a moment he almost kisses back, he almost rests his fingers on your cheek and pushes his leg between your thighs and holds you up against the car, devouring you the way you think you want to be devoured.
but, instead he gently pulls back and shakes his head. he looks down, lips set in a firm line and takes his hand off your cheek. you are cold and your mom has been dead for three months tonight and then you are crying and you fall into him, sobbing. he helps you into the car and you are more tired now than you’ve ever been in your entire life.
you lean your head back into the leather seat and you begin to heal.
Yasmin Belkhyr, Age 16, Grade 11, Garden School, Gold Key