Here is an early draft of an essay I’m working on:
Strewn about my dark, mahogany daybed like a broken doll, I lay writhing from the pain. My blackened, dirty feet poked out of my jeans and hung from the bed. The sunlight streamed from the windows onto my face. My mother had just thundered out of the room. The door slamming behind her.
“Don’t you dare leave this room! Do you hear me? Don’t you dare!” she had whispered in my ear as the full weight of her corpulent body pressed against my chest. One of her brown, moist hands pressed over my mouth to muffle my screams. The other applied pressure to the new bruise her rage had wrought just above my elbow.
I don’t remember what I did. What I said. It doesn’t matter. What I said or did never mattered. It was never right. It was always wrong. And I always paid for it.
She stood in the doorframe in a faded nightgown though it was mid-afternoon. Her thin penciled-in eyebrows became two menacing arches. She threw the thick metal cup in her hand at my head.
Anticipating the blow, I wrapped my arms around my head as a shield. But because I was wearing a flimsy tank top, the cup connected hard against my exposed right elbow and rolled across the floor.
There was a pause where her brown eyes strayed to my arm. I felt some flesh protrude from my elbow but I saw her horror first. I looked down at my arm with wide eyes and I began to scream.
Later, my two younger sisters, fourteen-year-old B. and ten-year-old A. entered the room on tiptoe, looking skittishly towards my mother’s room next door.
“You have to leave,” B. said breaking the silence. Her unruly black hair was still wild and patchy from when my mother had attacked the knots in B.’s hair with a scissor.
Thin, fragile A. began to sob.
I shook my head. “I can’t leave. I can’t leave you.”
But we had been whispering about it ever since my mother’s youngest sister, L. had offered me a way out.
“If she hurts you again, you’ll come live with us. Don’t worry about my mother. I’ll take care of it. Just come,” she had wrapped her arms around me. My tears lost in her smooth, lengthy reddish brown hair.
“Pack,” B. said, her steely eyes surveying the room. She left and returned with large, black trash bags. Little sobs escaped from A. who still stood in the corner, shaking and covering her mouth.
The next morning, uncharacteristically, they woke themselves up without my help. I woke up to find them all in my bedroom. Our sweet-smelling two-year-old baby sister’s soft arms were encircled my neck.
“K.,” I said whispering her name and she giggled, flashing her toothy smile mischievously.
“She’s still sleeping,” B. said stoically. “We’ll help you sneak the bags downstairs.”
She pushed A. towards the garbage bags we had hidden in my closet. On the phone the night before, my maternal grandmother had told us to prepare with a warning: not to call friends, not to write letters. “She listens to your calls. She goes through your things at night. Looking for things.”
A.’s long, spindly arms wove around me tightly. Her long black, braided pigtails scratched against my face. Quiet tears streamed down her face.
I looked at B.. “Come back for us,” she whispered. “Come back for us.”
“I promise,” I nodded, tears interrupting me my farewell.
We hugged in a tight circle, breaking only to force K. into it.
“Why is everyone crying?” K. asked loudly. “Why you crying?”
I remember reaching the doorframe and turning back to look at all three of them. Three tiny girls. I wondered who would protect them.
Later, at school, I collapsed on the concrete floor of the girl’s bathroom.
“What if I never see them again! Oh, G-d, what have I done. Oh, G-d, help me,” I shrieked. My friends huddled with me on the floor, patting my bushy, curly hair. They were a terrified group of seventeen- year-olds. They had all been praying for my freedom but none of us had imagined the day would come soon.
It was the last day of my senior year of high school. That morning, I had walked up the stairs at the entrance of the school slowly, my knees bearing the weight of the backpack and the plastic bags I had crammed with my clothes, journals and sketches. I had walked straight towards to my English teacher’s office on the first floor.
Mr. Mason had looked up, pushing his glasses up his nose, still gripping his morning coffee in one hand.
“Can I leave my stuff here?” I asked. And then in one breath: “I ran away from home today. My mother was beating me.”
Mr. Mason nodded. And I dropped the bags in a corner by his desk. He didn’t say anything. But I told myself that I knew what he was thinking. That he was thinking of the short story I had handed in last week. In it, a boy, Mike, contemplated suicide because he was being abused by his mentally ill father and could think of no other way to escape.
“Do you know someone like this?” he had asked me after making me stay after class. “Because if you know someone like this, if you tell me, I can help. I’ll do everything I can to help them.”
I had shaken my head. “No,” I said. But I refused to look him in the eye. I had never taken my eyes off my sneakers.
My friend Marisol, who had a crush on Mr. Mason, had threatened to tell someone the year before. She thought my family secret was too terrible, she wrote in a letter. The letter disappeared from my backpack. For days, terrified, I searched for it in my room.
“I want you to stop being friends with Marisol,” my mother announced one day while standing over the stove. “She doesn’t seem like a good influence.”
I froze. It was several minutes before I nodded. I cowered, waiting for the blows. I waited for the punches. For the knives she liked to throw. But they never came. Was she worried that if she left bruises then, the truth would come out?
I went to school the following day and told Marisol that I would lie if she told anyone. I told her the things my mother said would happen if I ever told anyone our secret. That my sisters and I would be torn apart and put in foster care. That in foster care, crazy people would rape and beat us. That my mother said she would kill herself and kill me before any of that could happen.
A year later, it was the night I ran away from home. My grandmother called my mother to tell her that I would not be coming home. I could hear my mother’s cries from the handset. She threatened to find me at school and kill me. She screamed and screamed into the phone on the other end.
That night, I had no trouble sleeping. I stumbled into the cot my eighteen-year-old aunt had opened up for me in her bedroom. I fell asleep gasping for air between tears. And for the first time, in a long time, I had nightmares. For months, I would dream only of my mother.
Ten years later, I ask my husband what he thinks is the most important day of his life. Without missing a beat, he responds: “Marrying you!” And he showers me with wet kisses.
Later, I email my sister, A., to ask her for help figuring out what my important day has been.
“What should I write about?” I query. There have been so many special days in the last ten years. But she can think of only one. “The day you ran away from home. Because it’s the day your life began. At least, that’s the way I feel about the day I ran away.”
I had been ready to write about the day she “ran away.” The day I kidnapped her. I was 21. She had been fourteen years old. She was tall, hearty, with short, choppy curly hair. In her white t-shirt and jeans, she had been barely recognizable as the ten-year-old I had left behind four years earlier.
The day I ran away from home, I ended a history of abuse and began a future that is nothing like I ever could have imagined. I had never dreamed so far. I was so sure I wouldn’t make it past my eighteenth birthday. I can never forget where I came from. And so, while sitting at my computer and thinking about my husband’s response and my sister’s, I realize that none of their important days could have happened without mine.