This is the final draft of an essay I wrote for a contest that asked “What is the Most Important Day of Your Life?” I previously posted the first draft on the blog.
Come Back For Us
I don’t remember what I did. What I said. What I said or did never mattered. It was never right. It was always wrong. And I always paid for it.
Anticipating the blow, I wrapped my arms around my head. A shield. But 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.
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. She struggled to push the battered mass back into my arm.
“Don’t you dare leave this room! Do you hear me? Don’t you dare!” she whispered in my ear, the full weight of her corpulent body pressed against my chest.
Then my mother thundered out of the room, the door slamming behind her.
Strewn about my dark, mahogany daybed like a broken doll, I lay writhing from the pain. Seventeen years old. Blackened, dirty feet poked out of my jeans and hung from the bed. Sunlight streamed from the windows onto my face.
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 scissors.
Thin, fragile A. began to sob.
I shook my head. Crying. “I can’t leave. I can’t leave you.”
But we had been whispering about it ever since my mother’s youngest sister had finally 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 lengthy, smooth auburn hair.
“Pack,” B. said, her steely eyes surveying the room. Her decisiveness made me feel like the younger sister.
B. left and returned with large, blue trash bags. Little sobs escaped from A. who stood in the corner, shaking and covering her mouth.
The next morning, uncharacteristically, they woke themselves up without my help. I awoke to find them all in my bedroom. Our sweet-smelling two-year-old baby sister’s soft arms encircled my neck.
“K.,” I said whispering her name. 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 warned us not to call friends or 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 huskily. “Come back for us.”
“I promise,” I nodded. Tears interrupted my farewell.
We hugged in a tight circle, broken 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.
It was the last day of my senior year of high school. That morning, I walked up the stairs at the entrance of the school slowly. My knees bore the weight of the backpack and the plastic bags I had crammed with my clothes, journals and sketches. I walked straight towards my English teacher’s office on the first floor.
Mr. Mason looked up. Pushed his glasses up his nose. He gripped 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.”
He said nothing. But I told myself I knew what he was thinking.
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, 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 had refused to look him in the eye then. Had never taken my eyes off my sneakers.
All Mr. Mason offered now was a quiet nod. And I dropped my bags in a corner by his desk, eager to escape his office.
Between classes, 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 almost women. They had all been praying for my freedom but none of us had imagined the day would come soon.
My friend Marisol, who had a crush on Mr. Mason, had threatened to tell someone the year before. She thought my family secret too terrible to keep, she wrote in a letter. The letter had 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 that always came. I waited for the punches. For the knives she liked to throw. But they never came.
“I had it much worst when I was your age,” she said instead. Bursting into tears. Picking up her shirt to unveil scars.
I went to school the following day and told Marisol 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.
Now a year later, it was the night I ran away from home.
My grandmother called my mother to tell her 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 dreamt only of my mother.
I dreamt my mother was chasing me. A monster. Strangling me. I dreamt that I was dying. But the dreams faded.
With time, more family secrets were exposed. Rape. Abuse. Abandonment. Betrayal. My mother became a wounded figure. Tragic and terrible. Broken by the past. Broken by unchecked illness. A fracture that poisoned and shattered her family.
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 most 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.”
The day I ran away from home, I ended a cycle of abuse and began a future that is nothing like I ever imagined. I had never dreamt so far. I was so certain that I wouldn’t make it past my eighteenth birthday. But 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.