The night that she is taken into custody for shoplifting a Frederick’s of Hollywood bustier from the local strip mall, Mom uses her one phone call on me.
“Tell the boys, Denise, will you?”
I say that I will.
“Tell them to get their mother out of this shithole.”
My breathing slows and eyes glaze over as I stare at the bathroom wall. I hold my face inches from the white tiles. My expression mirrors their blankness.
“I’ll tell them.”
I picture my mother: straight knees and quickened steps rushing by storefronts and pretzel stands. Security guards receiving intel from walkie-talkies and trailing after her. Onlookers gawking as they grab her wrists, turn her around, cuff her. People dispersing when it’s over: adrenaline in their veins and the beginning of a story on their lips as they prepare to share this snapshot of my mother with coworkers and friends, parents and significant others.
“You know why I called you, right, and not the boys?” she whispers each word in a soft, deliberate jab.
“Because you know I’ll pick up?”
She laughs, maniacally. I hang up on her. Compose a message to my twin brothers, eight years my senior. Mom’s in again. Nigel says it’s Landon’s turn to pick her up. Landon doesn’t respond for two hours, then agrees.
I put my phone on the nightstand, slip off my pants, and slide into bed next to Aaron. I pull my nose to his neck and inhale his scent: tobacco, skim milk, lavender detergent. This delicate balance has only changed slightly since we were eleven: heavier on the tobacco now, and a different kind of soap. Our foster mom always used something fruity.
He rubs the sleep from his eyes and waits for the report.
“A bustier. But a nice one. The cop said it was worth $150.”
“Damn, Carla’s got big plans for someone. Does she need a ride?”
“It’s Landon’s turn.”
“Well, she had a solid run. What’s it been, four months?”
“Three and a half.”
I roll over and he follows me. Cocoons me in body heat and comfortable silence. Our chests rise and fall in unison.
“Nigel’s having Thanksgiving,” I offer after a while. Aaron nods against my shoulder. His buzzed hair prickles my skin. I laugh and tell him to cut it out, so he moves his head quicker against me like a dog asking for a belly rub. I swat at him playfully.
“I love you,” he whispers to me with half of my earlobe in his mouth. I say it back. Hold his one hand in both of mine, trace the white scars on his knuckles as he falls asleep.
The scars are my first memory of him.
I was eleven, newly plucked from the “neglectful, unorthodox, and emotionally harmful” living arrangement with my mother, and dropped on the Harboros’ doorstep. I took my duffle bag to the bunk bed upstairs before Mrs. Harboro led me to the kitchen where they were all ready to eat! She placed her hand lightly on my back and introduced me to her husband, their daughter Cassie, and Aaron, whose hands were resting on the table, wrapped in puffy white gauze like mittens.
I hated Cassie immediately. She was older and prettier than me and she reeked of familial normalcy. I wrote her off because of her birth-claim to that table, that food. Her belonged-ness offended me.
But Aaron, this small boy with scared eyes and pillows-for-hands, seemed okay. I remember asking him to pass the butter at that meal, just to see if he could do it. He made a pincer with his hands and hoisted it over to me but the knife slid off the top and crashed loudly on the floor. I picked it up for him and he smiled.
“What happened?” I asked him that night while hanging upside down from the top bunk. Strands of hair dangled in my face as I pointed to his hands. He scooted out of the shadows to the edge of the mattress and peeled the adhesive tape away. Big, red lesions tic-tac-toed his knuckles.
His dad made him play games with his buddies from the Shop, he said. They’d sit around in the basement, throwing playing cards and money on the table, smoking and drinking until the room was foggy and they all spoke like they had marbles in their mouths. The game this time was called Bloody Knuckles, but there were others too. Sometimes there wasn’t even a game. His mom knew but didn’t stop it. Eventually, some neighbor called it in. He’d been at the Harboros’ for three weeks.
I didn’t know what to say, so I asked if I could give him a hug. He said no thank you.
He told me it was my turn to show scars and I told him I didn’t have any. He asked me why I was there then. I told him it was because my mom stopped loving me.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you do something?”
“I don’t think so.”
“How long will you be here, do you know?”
“Not long. My big brothers are going to get me soon.”
“Oh. Did your mom stop loving them too?”
“No, just me.”
That was the first night Aaron and I fell asleep in the same room, the first time the question why just me hung heavy in the air between us.
The next morning, I drive over to Landon’s to be debriefed on the latest Mom-incident. He greets me with an awkward side-hug, a cup of coffee, and a copy of whichever Stephen King novel changed his life most recently.
I thank him for the latter two.
His house was our house: his, mine, and Nigel’s. The two of them lived here alone for seven months while I was at the Harboros’, before they got the clearance to come get me. The state allowed it because they had gotten stable jobs, an approved living space, and there were no other options. Our one uncle, Dan, my mom’s older brother, refused custody of me. I know that Nigel called him continuously, asking for his help or hospitality. He received nothing but firm denial on a few occasions, and then nothing but voicemail.
As a thirty-one-year-old, Landon lives a life that looks aesthetically similar to two nineteen-year-olds raising their pubescent little sister: mismatched and without much of a plan.
“Where’d you take her?” I ask him, leafing through a photo album of his recent trip to Maine. Gray-blue water. Lobster bibs. Landon smiling on a rocky beach, wearing sneakers.
“I just dropped her home. She was blubbering all over me, saying she was sorry and that she won’t ever leave me again.” He shuddered. “It was gross.”
“What was the bustier about?”
I roll my eyes.
“Seriously? A concrete clue into our mother’s tortured psyche and you don’t even ask?” He shrugs.
“I don’t want any clues. I’ll take my turn picking her up and dropping her home every third time she ends up in jail, but other than that I don’t want anything to do with her. I don’t understand why you do, of all people.”
My face burns.
“Is she going to Thanksgiving?”
“St. Nigel obviously extended the invite,” he crumbles an empty Splenda packet, flicks it on the floor. “But who knows.”
We drop it, talk about work and school. Landon shows me the website of the travel magazine that just gave him a great freelancing offer. I tell him officially one semester left of grad school! He pats me on the back, Google searches for a “World’s Best Social Worker” mug.
We say we will see each other next week at Nigel’s.
“Aaron better bring his football. We are playing this year.”
Fine, fine, I tell him. I head out, clutching the book under my arm.
My mother loved reading. I remember her sitting in our small living room most evenings, devouring page after page under dim lamplight. There were times I would come downstairs the next morning and find her still in the same floral recliner, head tilted back and drool pooling at the crease of her lips. Until I was about nine years old, I could go over and wake her if Nigel or Landon hadn’t already gotten to it. I could whisper Mommy it’s morning and she would come to, laugh, palm her forehead and mutter where did the time go? She would give me a kiss and ask what I wanted for breakfast.
Her book taste was very specific. The walls of her bedroom were lined with stacks and stacks of paperback novels with half-clad couples on the front. They all had titles like Dark Lover or Sweet Longing etched across them in bubbly, dramatic cursive. She read these novels quickly, hungrily, sometimes finishing four or five in a week. When we didn’t have enough money to buy new ones, I would see her reading the same books over again and slipping spare change in a glass jar that we were all instructed not to touch.
There was one evening, when my mother had taken up an extra shift at Outback Steakhouse, that my friend Tara and I snuck into her bedroom to ogle the books. We were eight. She had been bragging to me that her parents had this huge bookshelf in their living room with millions of books like I wouldn’t even believe. I told her to just wait, to watch this. We stole away from my babysitting brothers, pretending we were on a secret mission. We held our index fingers together in the shape of guns and glanced fervently over our shoulders: left, right. Left again.
Tara gawked at the collection like I had expected. Her shock satisfied me; I told you so. She conceded that I was right, then reached for a book.
We leafed through the pages of Wallbanger, reading graphic scenes that made our stomachs tingle, encountering word after word that we had never seen before. Words we didn’t recognize at all.
The first time my mother called me a slut, I was ten. I had come home from school one day in October. I was wearing black leggings and a long-sleeved shirt with a smiling jack-o’-lantern stitched on the front; it had shrunk slightly in the wash and was form-fitted to my body, revealing my skin-and-bone ribcage and tiny, mosquito bite breasts.
You little slut, she snarled from behind the kitchen counter where she was sitting with a magazine. Her face was disgusted and different; I thought of the Halloween mask Landon had picked out at the mall the previous weekend.
I asked her what she meant and she told me to go to my room until she said otherwise. Hours later, I could smell sizzling meat and cheese downstairs. I could hear the clanking of plates.
Slut. I could not feel the word when she hurled it at me. I could not place it in my life or take offense in a personal way, the way I could when Landon and Nigel called me butter fingers every time we had a catch in the backyard. But I could see it in a memory, typed in small black letters on a yellowing page.
Our Thanksgiving always begins with an annual visit to the Harboros. Some of our friends find it unconventional that we have stayed in touch with a temporary foster family after all of these years, but Aaron and I just laugh, point at each other, and ask our well-meaning but frustratingly privileged friends to please define convention. They never have an answer.
“Denise! Aaron! Oh, come in, come in.” We grin and hug Mrs. Harboro, hand her a covered dish of caramel-almond teacakes that we know are her favorite, and step inside.
The house is a difficult memory. When I enter, it feels like I never left, like my eternal reality is confined to this living room, that staircase, this leather couch with this boy by my side. It also feels otherworldly, like the person that stands here now has never entered these walls before in her life. I breathe steadily, wondering how I could possibly feel both things at once.
We settle in and Mrs. Harboro dotes on us, asks us how many months until the wedding? Seven, we tell her, but we know she already knows. Our save-the-date hangs proudly on her refrigerator next to Cassie’s college graduation picture.
Mr. Harboro claps Aaron on the back in his big, burly way and asks him about various sports teams. Mrs. Harboro hands us an 8×11 of their latest family portrait and lukewarm cups of Earl Grey. Aaron and I bask in the warmness of the exchange; we smile and chuckle and appreciate every moment, pretending to be well-adjusted children visiting with parents, uncles and aunts.
While the men toss around baseball statistics, Mrs. Harboro whispers to me that she has a surprise. Tells me to wait just a second, flutters over to the kitchen and returns with an old, folded photograph. She hands it to me with an expectant smile.
Aaron and I, age eleven, sitting at the kitchen table. Pre-algebra homework spread on the desk, two green Juicy Juice boxes. Aaron has smaller bandages on his hands than the day I first met him; he holds the pencil funny. I have red lips and a bad haircut. Neither of us smile.
My stomach drops and tears form in my eyes.
“Um. Thank you, Mrs. Harboro. This is…great.” She asks me to please call her Kathy and as usual, I refuse.
I try to refold the picture and stick it in my purse before Aaron has a chance to see it, but I’m not quick enough. His body hardens beside me as he catches a glance over my shoulder. He excuses himself, heads to the bathroom.
Tension fills my body, and suddenly the house feels more familiar. I want to go after him but I know it will only provoke his anger. I have made that mistake during instances like these. Similar old pictures or a too-close-to-home news story that make his memories resurface. When I try to hold him in these times, to stroke the sides of his face and tell him it’s okay, relax, he punches walls. He tells me to get away, that I don’t understand. Sometimes he leaves and won’t come back for hours. Most times, his scars are red and reopened when I see him next.
I look down at my lap and twiddle my thumbs; a faint film of sweat forms at the back of my neck. The Harboros don’t notice a thing.
“Denise,” Mr. Harboro interrupts my thoughts suddenly, his voice in a whisper. “Since we have you alone, we wanted to let you know, in case you didn’t already, that Aaron’s father passed away in September. He died of liver failure; his parole officer found him. We weren’t sure whether or not to bring it up, especially not in front of him.”
“Oh, okay.” I sputter, taken aback. “How do you know?”
“Well, the agency gives us names and backgrounds of the parents whose children we take in. Kathy and I take it upon ourselves to stay updated, especially for ones who’ve really made an impact on us, like the two of you.”
I nod, processing the information. Slowly comprehending what it means.
“Sorry about that,” Aaron returns, looking shaken yet composed. He tugs at the ends of his shirt the way he does when there is too much adrenaline in his arms to let them rest.
I hold Aaron’s hand on the car ride to Nigel’s, rubbing the pads of my thumbs in gentle circles against his fist. I don’t ask how he is, but offer the same comforting silence he gave me the day my mom called.
We have mastered these roles, he and I.
Nigel and his wife greet us at the door; our noses are overwhelmed by the smell of rich gravy, our eyes by the many holiday knick-knacks that Suzanne has stashed at every corner of their rancher. We walk over to Landon who is watching the game and drinking a Miller. He sets it down on a cornucopia coaster.
“So glad we could do this!” Nigel exclaims. Aaron and I agree. Landon raises his beer.
“Is Mom coming?” I ask, suddenly, before the thought fully forms in my mind. Nigel looks down, contemplative.
“I extended the offer, but I doubt it. It’s a real shame.” He speaks like a 1950s television character. Sometimes I find myself waiting for an aw shucks or a gee willikers.
“Yeah, it’s a damn tragedy.” Landon doesn’t break eye contact with the television. Aaron and I smirk. I always forget how similar they look: Nigel and Landon. They acted similar for most of their lives too, but when the hard times came we all changed. We clung to different things: I had Aaron. Landon had travel, his writing. Nigel found Lutheranism and a capacity for forgiveness that intimidated us all.
We make our way to the table and pass heaping plates from hand to hand. Nigel and Suzanne bless the meal; the rest of us bow our heads uncomfortably and wait.
“I wanted to tell you guys,” Nigel says, “I wrote Uncle Dan a letter. And he actually wrote back! After all this time. I just told him how we were all doing, you know, an update. He says he’s fine, living upstate now. It really was nice to hear from him. I couldn’t believe it!” A piece of stuffing flies out of his mouth and lands on his sweater vest; he wipes it away, embarrassed. Suzanne rubs his knee. “You have to see this.”
Nigel pushes his chair back and rushes to a drawer in the kitchen. He comes back with a worn envelope and hands it to Landon.
Landon’s brow furrows as he extracts a piece of loose-leaf. His eyes tick and scan like a typewriter, soaking in the words of what seems to be a very short letter. He pulls something else out too, a photograph, before passing both items to me.
“Looks a hell of a lot like you,” he says in an almost-chuckle.
I stare at the photo. A girl and a boy. The boy is older by about four years, maybe five. He has brown hair and an intimidating stare; his arm is wrapped tightly around the small of the girl’s back. The girl has my same hair and eyes, the same blank expression from the photograph I’d received at the Harboros’. My breath slows markedly as I stare back at this little girl with my face, this girl who isn’t me. I turn the photograph over in my hand and find a hasty inscription on the back in blue ink:
Daniel and Carla, 1971.
I wait three days before I call her. I wait until Aaron is at work, until the apartment is empty, until my racing thoughts have cleared and settled. I sit cross-legged on the floor of the bathroom, surrounded by white tile. I’ve never felt more like a child.
“Mrs. Harboro? It’s Denise.” I speak softly as we exchange greetings. A nice surprise, she tells me. I smile weakly.
“You told me on Thanksgiving that the foster agency gave you background on the parents. The parents of the kids you took in.” I push each word from the back of my throat. “Mrs. Harboro, what do you know about my mother?”
I bring my knees to my chest and listen.
Sexual abuse. Ten, maybe eleven.
I hug myself, rock back and forth. I remember a rocking horse in our family room, wooden and strong, my mother pushing me back and forth, smiling. Smiling.
Someone very close.
Pressure at my temples, warm liquid down my cheeks, sticking to my face in streams. Cold air. Goosebumps.
Always blamed herself.
Flashes of pictures. My mother, me. Uncle Dan, Aaron.
My mother. Me.
Stagger to my feet, lunge towards the mirror. Puffy, red face. Wet. Swollen. Reminder. Reminder. My face. Me.
Scream. Punch. Shatter. Clank.
Heartbeat in my hand. Bloody knuckles.
Don’t forget me, Aaron whispered on the last day, dragging soft, small lips against the side of my ear. Both of us sat in the shadows of his bottom bunk, palms open in our laps.
I won’t. I promised. I kissed him on the cheek.
We carried my things down the stairs. My duffle bag and pillow. A folder of my artwork: every drawing and painting from the past seven months. My toothbrush, hairbrush, winter jacket. A braided gimp bracelet Aaron and I had both made, exchanged. We fumbled these items to the front door where Mr. Harboro stacked them in a neat pile: all ready to go.
I gave my hugs and thank yous. Made my promises to keep in touch and cried soft, confused tears into warm shoulders.
When the doorbell rang, Mrs. Harboro opened the door and greeted Landon and Nigel with big smiles. They picked me up, each of them. Rubbed their hands through my hair, called me twerp. Said I was too skinny, that I was going to love the new house, that they couldn’t wait to be a family again. They pointed to Aaron and said this guy better visit soon. We’ve heard so much about you, buddy. They patted his back and made him smile.
The little girl who looked like my mother left the Harboros’ that day. Her spitting image, but with two big exceptions.
Landon and Nigel each grabbed my hand and walked me to the car. Safely, my brothers took me home.</
Sam Baldassari is an aspiring writer currently pursuing a graduate degree in English at Penn State University. Her work has been featured in ThoughtCatalog and MOGUL.