no one else
This is number two in a multi-part narrative. For those of you who are joining our story already in progress, you may want to go back and read ‘reaction junkie‘ in the archives.
I was beaten so often as a child that for several years I had huge thick calluses on my butt and upper thighs. I almost always had a couple of large bruises or the splotch of broken blood vessels on my back or belly or some other less frequently beleagured body part. Occasionally I had small burns on my arms or face. I often had bruises and scabs on my throat or upper arms where my mother’s fingernails dug deep enough to break the skin.
It’s the stories of my physical abuse that people usually find most horrific. I mention the scope of it here only for context, so that you will have some frame of reference when I tell you that comparatively, the physical abuse was a cakewalk. As counterintuitive as it may seem, I’d have endured twice as much physical pain if it would have saved me from the mental and emotional abuse.
For most of my childhood, my father worked long hours in an office and my mother stayed at home. I had no siblings. No family lived nearby, and my parents rarely had visitors of any sort. So much of the time it was just my mother and me.
My mother used disposable dishrags in the kitchen, these striped paper-cloth things that we used until they fell apart, and then threw away. It was very important that they be squeezed out properly and laid along the side of the sink to dry out so they didn’t sour. That much I knew.
The exact placement of the dishrag was a different matter. We had a double stainless-steel sink. My mother told me to lay the dishrag out along the center divider (perfectly flat, of course, because any wrinkles might cause mildew). So I did.
Until she went to wash her hair. My mother washed her hair in the kitchen sink, rather than in the bath or shower. And she would find the dishrag on the sink divider and fly into a rage, because it was in her way. How could she wash her hair with the dishrag in the middle like that? It was supposed to go on the side of the sink.
So I did. Until the next time she went into the kitchen to rinse a dish, and found the dishrag on the side of the sink and flew into a rage. She couldn’t set the rinsed glasses on the counter because the dishrag was in her way. It was supposed to go in the middle, between the two sinks.
She’d scream and hit me for the one thing, and then scream and hit me for the other. If I protested that she’d told me to put it there, she’d deny it and tell me I was crazy, that it had always belonged … wherever she currently wanted it. If I persisted, she’d beat me for lying.
Take that incident, and multiply it times two or three per hour, every hour that I wasn’t in school or asleep (and I didn’t get a lot of sleep). For almost seventeen years. “Wash this load of clothes, and use a half-cup of detergent and cold water.” Five minutes later she’d open the washing-machine, look at the quantity of suds, and demand, “How much soap did you use?”
“Half a cup.”
“I told you to use a quarter cup!” And I’d be punished for having not paid attention, and again for wasting water because the clothes would have to be washed again, and again for talking back when I protested, sobbing, that I only did what she told me to do. Next time I’d get the soap right but use the wrong temperature water. Or I’d put an item in the wrong load. Or she’d decide there were chocolate cookies missing, or the thermostat had been moved. A million tiny things, each a punishable offense. I’ve hated chocolate my whole life. Who ate the cookies, then? I don’t know. It must be me, because there was no one else.
For years I thought I was crazy. Then I thought she was crazy. Sometimes I thought we were both crazy. Reality was utterly fluid. No safety anywhere, in anything. Just me and my mother, and no one else.
Today is my mother’s fifty-fifth birthday.