Michele Filgate reflects on her teen years with an abusive stepfather and a mother whose silence protected him.
Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.
My mother is hard to know. Or rather, I know her and don’t know her at the same time. I can imagine her long, grayish-brown hair that she refuses to chop off, the vodka and ice in her hand. 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.
Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. 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. These are the meals of my childhood; sometimes ambitious and sometimes practical. But these meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather; the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate. He uses a dishtowel to wipe the sweat from his cheeks; his work boots are coated in sawdust. His words puncture me; tines of a fork stuck in a half-deflated balloon.
You are the one causing problems in my marriage, he says. You fucking bitch, he says. I’ll slam you, he says. 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. Now, my mother saves all of her cooking skills for her husband. Now, she serves him food at their farmhouse in the country and their condo in the city. Now, my mother no longer cooks for me.
My teenage bedroom is covered in centerfolds from Teen Beat and faded inkjet printouts of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jakob Dylan. Dog fur tumbleweeds float around when a breeze comes through my front window. No matter how much my mother vacuums, they multiply.
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. I write sitting on the hardwood floor, my back pressed against the hard red knobs of my dresser. It isn’t comfortable, but something about the constant pressure grounds me.
I write terrible poems that I think, in a moment of teenage vanity, are quite brilliant. Poems about heartbreak and being misunderstood and being inspired. 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. 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. I keep my door closed, but that’s useless, since I’m not allowed to lock it.
Several times a week, my mother posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. These meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather; the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate.
Shortly after my stepfather married my mother, he made a simple jewelry box for me that sits on top of my dresser. The wood is smooth and glossy. No nicks or grooves in the surface. I keep broken necklaces and gaudy bracelets in it. Things I want to forget.
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. I disappear into books like they are black holes. 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. Save me from my mother’s husband. The phone doesn’t ring. The silence cuts me. I grow moodier. I shrink inside of myself, stacking sadness on top of anxiety on top of daydreaming.
“What are the two things that make the world go ‘round?” My stepfather is asking me a question he always asks. 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. He smells like whiskey.
I know what the answer is. I know it, but I do not want to say it. He is staring at me expectantly, his skin crinkled around half-shut eyes, his boozy breath hot on my face.
“Sex and money,” I grumble. The words feel like hot coals in my mouth, heavy and shame-ridden.
“That’s right,” he says. “Now, if you’re extra, extra nice to me, maybe I can get you into that school you want to go to.”
He knows my dream is to go to SUNY Purchase for acting. When I am on the stage, I am transformed, and transported into a life that isn’t my own. I am someone with even bigger problems, but problems that might be resolved by the end of an evening.
I want to leave the basement. But I can’t just walk away from him. I’m not allowed to do that.
The exposed light bulb makes me feel like a character in a noir film. The air is colder, heavier down here. I think back to a year before, when he parked his truck in front of the ocean and put his hand on my inner thigh, testing me, seeing how far he could go. I insisted he drive me home. He wouldn’t, for at least a long, excruciating half hour. When I told my mom, she didn’t believe me.
Now he is up against me, arms coiled around my back. The tines of the fork return, this time letting all the air out. He talks softly in my ear.
“This is just between you and me. Not your mother. Understand?”
I don’t understand. He pinches my ass. He is hugging me in a way that stepfathers should not hug their stepdaughters. His hands are worms, my body dirt.
I break free from him and run upstairs. Mom is in the kitchen. She’s always in the kitchen. “Your husband grabbed my butt,” I spit out. She quietly sets down the wooden spoon she is using to stir and goes downstairs. The spoon is stained red with spaghetti sauce.
Later, she finds me curled up in the fetal position in my room. “Don’t worry,” she says. “He was only joking.”
On an afternoon a few years earlier, I step down from the school bus. The walk from the end of my block to my driveway is always full of tension. If my stepfather’s tomato red pickup truck is in the driveway, it means I have to be in the house with him. But today there is no truck. I am alone. Deliciously alone. And on the counter, a coffee cake my mother baked, the crumbled brown sugar making my mouth water. I cut into it and devour half of the dessert in a couple of bites. My tongue begins to tingle, the first sign of an anaphylactic reaction. I’m used to them. 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. My throat starts to close.
But we only have pills. They take a lot longer to dissolve. I swallow them and immediately throw up. My breath comes only in squeaky gasps. I run to the beige phone on the wall. Dial 911. The minutes it takes the EMTs to arrive are as long as my 13 years on Earth. I stare into the mirror at my tear-stained face, trying to stop crying because it makes it even harder to breathe. The tears come anyway.
‘ I’ll slam you,’ he says. 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.
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In the ambulance on the way to the emergency room, they give me a teddy bear. I hold it close to me like a newborn baby.
Later, my mother pushes the curtain aside and steps next to my hospital bed. She’s frowning and relieved at the same time. “There were crushed walnuts on the top of that cake. I baked it for a coworker,” she says. She looks at the teddy bear still cradled in my arms. “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. My family is good at that, until we’re not. Sometimes our secrets are still partially visible. It’s easy to trip over them.
The silence in the church isn’t always peaceful. It just makes it more jarring when the tiniest noise, a muffled cough or a creaky knee, echoes throughout the sanctuary. You can’t be wholly yourself, there. You have to hollow yourself out, like a husk.
In high school, I’m the opposite. I’m too much myself, because the too muchness is a way of saying I’m still here. The me of me, and not the me he wants me to be. Anything can set me off. I run out of biology class multiple times a week, and my teacher follows me to the girls room, pressing tissues that feel like sandpaper to my cheek. I hang out in the nurse’s office whenever I can’t handle being around other people.
Here’s what silence sounds like after he loses his temper. After I, in a moment of bravery, scream back at him: You’re NOT my father.
It sounds like an egg cracked once against a porcelain bowl. It sounds like the skin of an orange, peeled away from the fruit. It sounds like a muffled sneeze in church.
Good girls are quiet.
Bad girls kneel on uncooked rice, the hard pellets digging into their exposed knees. Or at least that’s what I’m told, by a former coworker who went to an all-girls Catholic school in Brooklyn. The nuns preferred this kind of corporeal punishment.
Good girls don’t disrupt the class.
Bad girls visit the guidance counselor so frequently that she keeps an extra supply of tissues just for them. Bad girls talk to the police officer who is assigned to their high school. They roll the tissues in their hands until they crumble like a muffin.
Good girls look anywhere but in the police officer’s eyes. They stare at the second hand on the clock mounted on the wall. They tell the officer: “No, it’s okay. You don’t need to talk to my stepfather and mother. It will just make things worse.”
Silence is what fills the gap between my mother and myself. All of the things we haven’t said to each other, because it’s too painful to articulate.
What I want to say: I need you to believe me. I need you to listen. I need you.
What I say: nothing.
Nothing until I say everything. But articulating what happened isn’t enough. She’s still married to him. The gap widens.
My mother sees ghosts. She always has. 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. It’s an unusually cool August night and the air is so still, like it’s holding its breath. I’m next to my brother on the bed, trying to get him to fall asleep. Suddenly I hear someone, some thing, exhale in my ear. The ear turned away from my brother. The windows are closed. No one else is there. I shriek and jump off of the bed.
When my mother walks through the door, I tell her right away.
I’ve spent enough time in Catholic churches to know what it means to sweep things underneath the carpet. My family is good at that, until we’re not.
“You’ve always had an overactive imagination, Mish,” she says, and laughs it off, like a wave temporarily covering jagged shells on the beach.
But a few nights after we leave the island, she confides in me.
“I woke up one night and someone was sitting on my chest,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell you while we were there. 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. Where the TV is always on, and food is always on the table. Where dinners are ruined when I’m at the table, so my stepfather says I have to eat on my own. Where a vase is thrown, the shattering like soft but sharp music on the hardwood floor. Where my stepfather’s guns are displayed behind a glass case, and his handgun is hidden underneath a stack of shirts in the closet. Where I crawl on my knees through the pine trees, picking up dog shit. Where there’s a pool, but neither my mother nor I know how to do anything more than doggy paddle.
Where my stepfather makes me a box, and my mother teaches me how to keep my secrets inside.
Now I buy my own Benadryl and keep it on me at all times. These days, my mother and I mostly communicate via group text messages along with my older sister, in which my mother and I reply to my sister, who shares photos of my niece and nephews. Joey in his Cozy Coupe, grinning at the camera while he holds on to the wheel.
One day, I tried to reach out.
I’m going to Nana’s this weekend. Maybe you can come down and visit me while I’m there?
She didn’t respond.
I text rather than call her because she might be in the same room as him. I like to pretend he doesn’t exist. And I’m good at it. She taught me. Like with the broken baubles in my old jewelry box, I just close the lid.
I wait for a text reply from her; some excuse about why she can’t get away. When Nana picks me up from the train station, I secretly hope my mother is in the car with her, wanting to surprise me.
I text rather than call my mother because she might be in the same room as him. I like to pretend he doesn’t exist. And I’m good at it. She taught me.
I check my messages and think about disjointed collages I used to piece together out of old National Geographics, Family Circles, and Sears catalogs; an advertisement for Campbell’s tomato soup pasted next to a leopard, attached next to half of a headline, like Ten Tips For. Even as a child, I was comforted by the not-finishing, the nonsensicalness of the collages. They made me feel like anything was possible. All you had to do was begin.
Her car never appeared in the driveway. A message never appeared on my phone.
My mother’s country house, two hours away from my hometown, was built by a Revolutionary War soldier with his own hands. It’s haunted, of course. Several years ago, she posted a photo on Facebook of the backyard, lush and green, with tiny orbs appearing like starlight.
“I love you past the sun and the moon and the stars,” she’d always say to me when I was little. But I just want her to love me here. Now. On Earth.
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Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Gulf Coast, Slice, Buzzfeed, and many other publications.