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Now, she serves him food at their farmhouse in the country and their condo in the city. and faded inkjet printouts of Leonardo Di Caprio and Jakob Dylan. If my stepfather’s tomato red pickup truck is in the driveway, it means I have to be in the house with him. My tongue begins to tingle, the first sign of an anaphylactic reaction. I know what to do: Take liquid Benadryl right away and let the artificial cherry syrup coat my tongue as it puffs up like a fish, blocking my airway. They stare at the second hand on the clock mounted on the wall. You don’t need to talk to my stepfather and mother. Where my stepfather’s guns are displayed behind a glass case, and his handgun is hidden underneath a stack of shirts in the closet.
Sometimes, she'd take a good look at me and say, "You should put on some lipstick and eyeliner! " She knows what she wants and how to get it, she speaks with authority when addressing anyone from the lady at the cash register to the waiter at any restaurant.
At home when she is not sleeping, she spends her time cooking, playing She had a scowl and was always irritable.
Achiote pork tacos with pickled red onions, strips of beef jerky just out of the smoker, slabs of steak that she serves with steamed vegetables. The minutes it takes the EMTs to arrive are as long as my 13 years on Earth. It sounds like an egg cracked once against a porcelain bowl. Bad girls kneel on uncooked rice, the hard pellets digging into their exposed knees. It’s an unusually cool August night and the air is so still, like it’s holding its breath. “You’ve always had an overactive imagination, Mish,” she says, and laughs it off, like a wave temporarily covering jagged shells on the beach.
These are the meals of my childhood; sometimes ambitious and sometimes practical. I stare into the mirror at my tear-stained face, trying to stop crying because it makes it even harder to breathe. In the ambulance on the way to the emergency room, they give me a teddy bear. Later, my mother pushes the curtain aside and steps next to my hospital bed. “There were crushed walnuts on the top of that cake. She looks at the teddy bear still cradled in my arms. It sounds like the skin of an orange, peeled away from the fruit. Or at least that’s what I’m told, by a former coworker who went to an all-girls Catholic school in Brooklyn. I’m next to my brother on the bed, trying to get him to fall asleep. But a few nights after we leave the island, she confides in me.
Do you have someone who is great, spends time with you, cares for you, and is an important person? One of the things she talks to me about is what will happen when I grow up. And one day I had a really bad day with my friends, and she told me what to do about it. We play games, bake cookies, make necklaces, and draw doodle tricks. Our favorite book is Mom takes me shopping at the mall. We usually get Chinese food or go to a Mc Donald’s restaurant.
Well, I do, and she has black hair, brown eyes, and a caring touch. When we ride the escalator, my mom pretends to fall back and says, “My shoestring’s stuck!But if I try to conjure her face, I’m met instead by her laugh, a fake laugh, the kind of laugh that is trying to prove something, a forced happiness. *** Here’s what silence sounds like after he loses his temper.Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. It just makes it more jarring when the tiniest noise, a muffled cough or a creaky knee, echoes throughout the sanctuary. After I, in a moment of bravery, scream back at him: You’re NOT my father. We’re on Martha’s Vineyard and I’m stuck at home with my younger brother; a de facto babysitter while the adults go out for fried clams and drinks. When my mother walks through the door, I tell her right away.But these meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather; the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate. “I forgot to leave a note for you.” *** I’ve spent enough time in Catholic churches to know what it means to sweep things underneath the carpet. The nuns preferred this kind of corporeal punishment. Bad girls visit the guidance counselor so frequently that she keeps an extra supply of tissues just for them. Suddenly I hear someone, some thing, exhale in my ear. “I woke up one night and someone was sitting on my chest,” she says. I didn’t want to scare you.” I sit in my writing spot on the floor in my bedroom that night, the red knobs of the dresser pressing into my spine, and I think about my mother’s ghosts, about her face, about home.He uses a dishtowel to wipe the sweat from his cheeks; his work boots are coated in sawdust. Bad girls talk to the police officer who is assigned to their high school. Where the TV is always on, and food is always on the table.His words puncture me; tines of a fork stuck in a half-deflated balloon. And I’m afraid he will, I’m afraid he’ll press himself on top of me on my bed until the mattress opens up and swallows me whole. She quietly sets down the wooden spoon she is using to stir and goes downstairs. Later, she finds me curled up in the fetal position in my room. “He was only joking.” *** On an afternoon a few years earlier, I step down from the school bus. And on the counter, a coffee cake my mother baked, the crumbled brown sugar making my mouth water. They roll the tissues in their hands until they crumble like a muffin. Where dinners are ruined when I’m at the table, so my stepfather says I have to eat on my own.You are the one causing problems in my marriage, he says. Now, my mother saves all of her cooking skills for her husband. The walk from the end of my block to my driveway is always full of tension. I cut into it and devour half of the dessert in a couple of bites. Good girls look anywhere but in the police officer’s eyes. Where a vase is thrown, the shattering like soft but sharp music on the hardwood floor.No matter how much my mother vacuums, they multiply. He is hugging me in a way that stepfathers should not hug their stepdaughters. All of the things we haven’t said to each other, because it’s too painful to articulate. Where there’s a pool, but neither my mother nor I know how to do anything more than doggy paddle.My desk is covered in a mess of textbooks and half-written letters and uncapped pens and dried-up highlighters and pencils sharpened to slivers. Where my stepfather makes me a box, and my mother teaches me how to keep my secrets inside. Like with the broken baubles in my old jewelry box, I just close the lid. I print them out on paper with a sunset beach scene in the background and name the collection “Summer’s Snow.” While I write, my stepfather sits at his desk that’s right outside my bedroom. Like those baubles in the box, I can play with existing and not existing inside my bedroom; my room is a place to be myself and not myself. When I can’t focus, I lay for hours on my bottom bunk bed, waiting for my boyfriend to call and save me from my thoughts. We are in his woodworking shop in the basement, and he’s wearing his boots and an old pair of jeans with a threadbare t-shirt. I am someone with even bigger problems, but problems that might be resolved by the end of an evening. He’s working on his laptop, but every time his chair squeaks or he makes any kind of movement, fear rises up from my stomach to the back of my throat.