Author’s Note: “Nobody’s Child” was an autobiographical, short story published in a literary journal in 2013. The details have been changed to make it purely fictional out of respect for my family. It’s a short, dramatic work of contemporary fiction and will reflect some themes in my current work.
Synopsis: “Nobody’s Child,” is about a young woman, struggling to keep herself together as she tries to find her place within her broken family.
Start Here: “I’ve decided to have an affair,” Mom declares after fifteen minutes of aimless small talk.
She says this with a sharp tone of finality. She says this with the same mannerism as someone deciding to have chocolate cake for dessert or purchasing an expensive pair of shoes. It was nothing more than a well-deserved splurge. If I were her fitness trainer or her banker, there would be no hesitance of support. But, we were speaking about something much more complex than that.
“You meet someone?” I ask.
I play the part of the free-spirited friend, feigning excitement and curiosity when all I want to do is shut my eyes and cover my ears. It’s nothing more than a forged personality that I have come to vex and mother loves.
We sit in a dimly lit, cozy booth at Mary Ann’s Café in the midst of frustrated parents scolding their loud, screaming children. The employees scatter around like fire ants carrying large, colorful bowls and plates toward tables brimming with large groups shouting their uninteresting conversations. Eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings is the busiest time at the café. Mom and I race to the small restaurant immediately after church, a ritual for the last two years, where we order sandwiches and salads and talk about our week. It’s the only time we’re able to catch up.
Half of my turkey sandwich is left untouched as I sporadically try to save half of my food for work the next day. Mom devours her chicken Cesar salad and picks at the bits of remaining parmesan cheese sticking on to the side of the large green bowl, hesitant to answer my question.
Mom clears her throat. “Well… nobody yet.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Then why have you decided to have an affair?”
Mom shrugs her shoulders. “I’ve had people interested in me, Isabel. I can easily find someone.”
“Sure but… why would you want to? Is Rodney having an affair or something?”
She shakes her head. “Not that I’m aware of but I’m sure he’s had in the past. Remember all those night he would come home late claiming to work over time? He even worked on the holidays, a first for him. I suspected it but I didn’t want to know and turned the other way. Technically, I’m getting him back. It’s my turn.”
I watch my mother speak breathlessly about her strange plan. Frankly, it’s a stupid plan. Those times he would come home late happened seven years ago. We both know I don’t have the vitality to voice a rational opinion. Rodney and I have never gotten along. Their shotgun wedding produced a vast amount of resentment for him, and a strained relationship with my mother. Nonetheless, Rodney and I sometimes spoke during the holiday occasions and drunken moments.
“I don’t think he’s cheated. I think cheating would have put him in a much better mood. If you’re that unhappy, why not just divorce him?”
Mom shoots me a look, questioning my sanity. She was Catholic and the mere mention of divorce was on par with telling the priest we would like to communicate with demons through a Ouija board. My father passed away in a car accident when mom was twenty-two leaving her to raise me alone. Technically, she never divorced and this allowed her the legal and biblical ability to remarry Rodney at twenty-five when she became pregnant with my younger sister. Three years later, she birthed our youngest sister. Divorce is a sin in the eye of the Catholic church, forcing us to suffer totalitarian rule under Rodney’s boots In mother’s eyes, it isn’t abuse unless it leaves visible marks.
Mom sighs and starts to pick at my untouched sandwich without my permission. “You know I’m not going to do that. I’m 42 with two kids, who would take a chance? And what if I start seeing someone who turns out to be a child molester? Or an atheist?”
An atheist and a child molester are on the same measurable terms of evil in her world. She’s a beautiful bright human being, yet the years of abuse and negative responses from an enraged husband created a broken, sorrowful shell of herself. He’s fed her the poisonous lies that she will never find anyone as marvelous as him and like a starving child has consumed these statements like bread and water.
“An atheist?” I ask sarcastically. “Oh God, the horror.”
“Oh, shut up. Don’t you see? I’ve been unhappy for so long. I can get out there again, work on myself, my self-esteem, and maybe things will get better.”
I roll my eyes. “No, they won’t. They won’t get better until you leave.”
It doesn’t matter what I think or say. Mom doesn’t ask these questions for a sane source of advice. She asks merely to be heard. The presence of a human voice is enough for her to come up with her own conclusions in these dilemmas. I am the eldest child. A calm, mature and caring creature since the age of twelve, I’ve become a trustful quality and a focused listener. Now I carry the burden of her absurd confessions and unwise choices because I have no choice. My two sisters are too young, too vulnerable. They love their father despite his blatant flaws, leaving mom to confess to me.
Mom leans in closer. “Hey, what’s your friends name? The one with the red hair and freckles?”
Mom nodded. “Yes, that one! Her and her father came into the doctor’s office Wednesday morning. He has flirted with me for the last few months you know. You talk about Jessie so much, why didn’t you ever mention her dad was single?
Narrowing my eyes, my voice falls into a flat tone. “I didn’t see the point.”
Mom smiles, revealing sparkling white teeth, the result of being a dentist’s daughter and maintaining connections as a nurse in a private doctor’s office. “Well, now you see the point in mentioning it.”
Mom ate the rest of my food without asking and takes both of our plates to the waiter’s counter. We walk outside into the breezy, spring air where the sun hides behind a sheer white cloud making the day appear grayer than it should for March. The sun is too shy to reveal itself and doesn’t budge from the comfort of suppressing its natural golden rays. Mother and I drive home with the radio off as she has me create a mental checklist of the symptoms of a bleak marriage. We arrive to a full, noisy house where she quickly changes the subject to the sloppily cleaned floor. My sister snores loudly from her bedroom near the front door, my youngest sister dances on the couch to the theme song on the Disney channel, and Rodney sits on the couch glaring at mother. Instantly, he finds a reason to scream at her. She came twenty minutes later than usual and he demanded an appropriate answer and evidence of our whereabouts. I watch my mother’s face transform into depleted grief and panic as she hurriedly searches her pockets for the receipts of the café. She needs to show proof of what she purchased and how much she spent, despite paying half of everything.
“And you?” Rodney snarls, glaring at me. “Guessing you didn’t pay for anything?”
I shook my head defiantly. “Nope.”
Rodney’s face grew tomato-red. “Then what good are you? You might as well live at the shelters with the rest of the low lives who have nobody.”
Mom and I wait for Rodney to finish reading through her receipts. She nods her head, signaling her approval for me to go to my room.
She whispers, “It’s okay.”
Rodney, with hearing as strong as a fruit bat, shot his head straight up. “And why didn’t you buy me anything?”
Mom sighs. “Isabel, leave.”
Rodney raises his voice. “Get the hell out, Isabel!”
I pass Rodney on the couch and walk down the hallway. Rodney never hit any of us. He just loves bullying and intimidating. He does it once a day, sometimes more if he’s in a bad mood. It frightened us as children but we grew up used to it. His emotional abuse is much worse towards mom than to us, a fact she hangs over our heads when we ask her to leave.
Scanning the hallway for witnesses, I escape into my bedroom and locked the door. I fall onto my knees and crawl underneath the metal framed bed and remove a large wooden music box. Opening the box, a plastic ballerina twirled weakly in the middle of the velvet lining to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” The box smells of perfume and soap with a hint of vodka.
The music box was given to me on my sixth birthday by my father after I became a ballerina. I was terrible at it. I was awkward, clumsy, and the outfits were always too tight. Despite my misery, I pushed through it because he wanted me to stay strong and finish what I started.
Dad died two months later and I kept on going for the rest of the year. I played my part as a serious ballerina and a dutiful daughter although I never felt like I belonged to them. When I broke my right ankle during recital, I knew I was finished. No one knew I was thankful my ankle broke and shattered in two different places. No one knew I was grateful for the excruciating pain that resulted in surgery and an installed metal plate in my ankle. The injury meant I would never have to slap on a plastic smile and dance in front of a hundred cheering strangers, none of who were ever there to see me.
The point was, after all, that I finished what I started.
I carefully lift the false bottom of the music box and pull out a half-empty bottle of vodka and a rainbow-painted shot glass. I turn on the television and raise the volume high and proceed to pour myself shot after shot. I don’t stop until I hit five shots. The liquid burns as it glides down my throat and drips into my stomach. My hands and feet grow numb and body is warm. Everything is okay and I feel good, happy. It’s draining to have to constantly pull and tighten the sutures of my torn self. On these quiet Sunday afternoons, I no longer have to play the roles for which I was created for.
In these roles, I am my mother’s therapist, her puppet, and sometimes her friend. I am my stepfather’s scapegoat, his punching bag, and never his friend. I am the necessary tool in keeping everyone tethered. I am the malfunctioned product of two dysfunctional scientists where there is no other purpose except to serve them under various roles, none of which have ever been that of a child.
I am an actress portraying many roles, a jack-of-all trades and master of none, and overall, I am nobody’s child.
I pour another shot and then another and I lay there listening to the slow tinkling of my music box. And I know I need to finish what I started.