The Pretender

MJ BabyThe pain wasn’t the problem as much as the lack of it. The lack of everything for a while. Vision, hearing, all of my senses are dull, and by the time I grasp what’s happening, everyone had gone back to their lives. Even the man who had clobbered me in the side of the head with his mighty reign of fear bottled up and released from his hand had continued on as if nothing had happened–as if he hadn’t wrongfully labeled me a thief and a liar.

Walking away, he flails his hand in the air as if doing the Charleston before climbing the steps to the front door of the duplex. He opens the door, without turning back, and exits the apartment.

My little brothers huddle under the kitchen table with their Matchbox cars, zipping them around on the floor and running them into each other. They laugh and repeat the motions redundantly as if the ending would somehow be different the next time. At least, I’m reasonably sure they’re laughing. I can’t hear anything over the high-pitched tone buzzing through my head. The way the boys carry on, you’d think each time they crash, it’s the first time.

My sisters sit scrunched down on the floor with their half-naked Barbie dolls bouncing around on their toes. My younger sister tried to give one doll a haircut earlier, and it ended up looking like Pinhead from a Hellraiser movie if the fiendish ghoul had worn lipstick.

The other had long matted hair to her waist. Even though the dolls’ appearance was nothing compared to five years ago, they still manage to smile. And they still had their arms projecting at a right angle from the elbow eager to shake anyone’s hand. I wish I could be a Barbie. Most girls do. That’s what pretending is all about–being something you aren’t already.

I slide down the wall to the floor, a hand pressing each ear, knees in front, head bowed. I can feel the tears streaming down my cheeks, and I wipe at them. Pitiful. The only one I haven’t looked at is my father’s girlfriend. She’s sitting in the rocking chair with her hair pulled back all nice and her makeup just so, staring at me. I can’t tell if she’s experiencing shock and disbelief or disgust. I’m certain she can barely stand to look at me. Pathetic.

Telling people’s emotions has always been a bit trying for me. I’m bad at it. I guess because of mixed signals growing up. My parents always smiled when they were outside, but when they came in, it was almost as if they walked through some magical doorway transforming them into maniacal henchmen. Until the day he returned alone.

It’s been a couple of years now. Nobody’s heard from my mother. I have the sinking suspicion my father killed her and ditched her body off the side of the road somewhere. I figure if he did she probably had it coming. For as smart as she was, she sure didn’t use it. Who in her right mind has so many kids and takes off for two years without so much as a phone call? She must be dead. If she weren’t, she certainly would have been back by now.

My only problem now is what can I do if I can’t hear? I don’t know sign language unless the alphabet and a few choice obscenities count. Spelling out each word would take forever. I don’t need to worry about hearing at school, so I guess that’s good. My dad decided he needed a babysitter more than I needed an education. So, despite my nearly perfect grades and acceptance into the Junior Achievement Club, I’m sitting on the floor of a dirty apartment, deaf. I use the heels of my hands to drag them over my wet cheeks again. The last thing I need is for word to make it back to my father I’m feeling sorry for myself. That pisses him off more than anything. I can hear him yelling already, “I’ll give you something to cry about!”

I glance at the clock on the wall. My boyfriend will be home from work in about half an hour. He works part-time after school slinging meat around in a freezer for a packing company. I wonder what he’ll do when he finds out. Will he get mad and swear revenge on my father for hitting me, or will he find a girlfriend who can hear what he’s saying with the lights off? So many questions but no one to ask.

Using my hands to balance myself on the wall, I push myself to my feet. I’m glad we have a narrow stairway. It’s easier to keep myself upright with a hand on each wall as I drag myself up the steps one at a time. One might suspect I’m going to sulk in my bedroom. His girlfriend probably does. She’s probably glad I’m leaving her sight. But I’m not going to my room. See, I don’t have one. My three pairs of jeans and five shirts, with a few socks and five pair of underwear, are crushed behind the bathroom door in a rumpled pile.

Free from the madness, at last, I spin in the bathroom and slam the door closed, locking it. Now I can lean against it and cry without someone tattling on me. So I do. I can hear my voice sobbing in my head, echoing like a bawl baby abandoned in the nursery.

The bathroom mirror, with water spots and toothpaste speckles, takes up half the wall’s length behind the sink. That’s when I see her.

The face I saw when I was checking out photographs in an album a few weeks ago. Okay, it was my dad’s album. I sneaked into his room and found it in a trunk he built that looked like an old pirate’s chest of treasures. I didn’t know what was even in it at first, because of the padlock he kept on it. But that day, he must have forgotten to lock it up again.

All I could find were a lot of photographs scattered about, almost full to the brim. Some were in beat up photo albums; others were still in the envelope they came in from the store. Even more were tossed about freely, crumpled and creased like forgotten love letters. The only photo I recalled seeing was one of me in a pink and white corrugated dress my grandmother made for me to be blessed in when I was two years old.

Now that same baby-face was looking at me in the mirror between all the blemishes on the glass. “Why?” she asked me. “What did I do?” Of course, there was no sound, only her grim expression and permanently watering eyes.

I answer,”You were born.” My voice echoes in my head.

The bathroom door shook in the mirror’s reflection, and I turned to check out the real thing. The thin wood of the door bounced as hard as if someone on the other side was kicking at it. My attention returned to the mirror and the reflection of the frightened little girl in the mirror. I couldn’t stand seeing her anymore. I couldn’t stand not having the right answers to squelch her curiosity. Her damned curiosity. The curiosity that caused her nickname of “The Question Box,” so many times during adult conversations.

With a flip of the switch, the lights went out, and the little girl’s wistful eyes disappeared.

I felt along the floor, kicking with my feet beyond the toilet to the cold, hard porcelain of the bathtub. The shower curtain threatened to bind my foot, refusing my admittance, but I wasn’t taking it anymore. I couldn’t stand it anymore, not now.

With a violent thrust, I shoved my arms in front of me and clenched the curtain in my fingers, refusing to let go. I pulled and yanked until I felt the curtains and rod come down at once across my shoulders and back, deflecting onto the floor. It’s painless, though. See, that’s the thing. The physical agony goes away after a while. But the fear only strengthens, threatening what is to come the next time.

Climbing into the bathtub, the porcelain refused to budge at all, I slipped down into the bottom of the basin. My head pushed back against the tile wall behind me. My knees bent to allow my feet to remain inside. I reached out of the tub and felt for the plastic curtain I’d torn down, dragging it on top of me like an unyielding blanket.

I lay there in the quiet darkness pretending no one would find me, even if they searched. Pretending the hitting and yelling would stop. Pretending all the pain was over and I’d never hurt again. I was the greatest pretender of all. I wondered how hard I’d need to pretend to never come back. I pondered if that was what happened to crazy people. Maybe someday I’ll find out, but for now, I’m the pretender.


2 thoughts on “The Pretender

  1. Stephanie, as you know too well, abuse comes in many forms and faces. This is only one example of abuse in my home.

    Of course, incidents hardly ever come in singles and don’t even come in threes. They’re ongoing until someone makes them stop. The problem is identifying the issues to do something about it. The truly sad part is the people who refuse to become involved because they “have their problems,” or “want to mind their P’s and Q’s,” or the worst excuse ever, “don’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings.” I firmly believe anyone who refuses to halt the abuse holds the identical scorecard as the abuser–they refuse to prevent harm from happening. Sometimes stopping it may take some effort. You may not be the “good guy” according to the abuser, but you may have saved a life of someone unable to defend him/herself. Like me, I had no idea of who to contact.

    Unfortunately, in my situation, people knew about the abuse and denied involvement as well as several instances where my family moved in a day’s notice or less. I often wonder if this is because they heard rumors and were forced to uproot because of it. Still, as far as I know, the investigations never pursued any further. Why should they? It was no longer in their backyard.


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