Elizabeth Rollins

Joint Custody

     In the beginning, I had a small brown pleather suitcase. It had red and blue racing stripes on the side. When I came home to my mother’s, after two weeks at my father’s, my dog would climb into it, with my clothes, and fall immediately asleep, as if he was the one returning.
     Eventually, the zipper on that suitcase broke. I used it anyway, carrying it with two arms, one to hold the flap shut. Things fell out in the car on the way to or from one of their houses. I was always dropping things. They got annoyed.
     Then I had a plastic KLM bag from our trip to Europe with Mom. They gave it to us on the Dutch airplane, for things we might bring home from the trip. It was a cheap, bright blue with white lettering. It was only a square gym bag, not meant for heavy use. It didn’t last long.
     After that, I used garbage bags. At my mother’s house they were the cheap white kind that sagged and tore easily. My father had sturdy black ones, so I tried to stash a couple each time I was at his house. With trash bags, you just tossed everything in each time. Lotion, clothes, books, Raggedy Ann, shoes, towel, toothbrush, shampoo.
     When I departed for college, where I would live in the same room for a year, my father and stepmother bought me a set of luggage. There was even a garment bag, with little gold hooks for hangers at the top of it.
      These are some of the stories that I know. Other stories than the ones I usually tell. The first stories, I guess. Stories of my first people, my intimates. I am tracing the thread connecting us all. It has become unclear to me whether or not the thread should be cut altogether.

     I’m ironing. I feel grown-up when I iron. My father comes home late from work. When he’s late like this, it’s usually because he went out for drinks after work. What my mother calls “carousing.” My mother is in the kitchen. They begin to argue. Their voices are low. I’m working on the sleeve of a white shirt.
     My mother begins to shout. I look up the stairs to the front hallway. My parents are silhouetted by the living room light. Their faces are close together, shouting. It’s the same fight they always have. I glance away to the old piano. It has scars from drawings I’ve made with my mother’s sewing pins. A crooked house, a half-bent circle.
     I look back up the stairs as my mother’s voice rises. She spreads her hands flat against his chest and shoves him, roughly. My father staggers.
     My sister sifts down the stairs, a ghost. She unclenches my fingers from the iron. She puts her hands on my shoulders and lightly turns me away. She takes me across the basement in silence, unlocks the sliding glass door, and pushes me outside. On the cement patio, I turn to look back. She shuts the door, locks it, and vanishes into the darkness.
     I climb the long sloped stairs of the patio and sit, listening to the breeze run through the oaks in our yard. I can’t hear a thing from inside the house. I pick up a leaf and shred the flat skin from the vein with my fingernails.

      I was writing a story about a woman who had lousy boundaries, who was psychologically disconnected, who didn’t consider her own needs, because she didn’t understand that she might matter. I was writing that story, but then I had to stop and write this.

     On the first Halloween after their separation, my father bought three bags of candy for the trick-or-treaters who might come to his new apartment. A bag of giant gummi Life Savers, a bag of Butterfinger bars, and a bag of Dum Dum lollipops. We were at our mother’s for Halloween, so the next weekend, at my father’s, we found the candy.      All three bags were unopened.
     My sister and I asked him why the candy was still there. He told us nobody had come to his door. After all, he said, he lived in a second floor apartment. He was casual about it, and went into the kitchen to fix us all dinner. My sister and I couldn’t look at each other. My father had moved outside the world of children.
     We left the candy untouched.

     When I was very young, my mother read The Little Engine That Could aloud before I went to bed. She puffed breathlessly and heaved and rolled her eyes when she read the line, “I think I can, I think I can . . .” When it came to the part where the little children wouldn’t have fruit or candy or toys, her voice softened and sorrowed.
     I sat beside her and gritted my teeth, willing the small engine over the mountain, feeling my responsibility to believe it could. The poor children! The sad-faced candies and vegetables!
     One of these nights, my mother noticed that my fists were clenched. She touched one of my hands and made a noise of surprise. I stared down at the book. I could not look up. I was willing the engine over the mountain. If I stopped, it would slide back.
     When she began to read again, she peeled back my fingers ceremoniously, one for each I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. When the train made it over, she clasped my hand joyously.
Together we chanted the last lines, I thought I could, I thought I could.

     When our father shows us his apartment for the first time, before he moves in, I walk into the stale little kitchen and open the oven. Inside, it is teeming with cockroaches, which skitter in one brown mass when the light hits them. I close the oven and walk out of the kitchen.

     My mother’s occasional violence is matched by my sister’s. They can be furious people. They are screaming at each other. My door is closed and I try to read this book, Maggie, I have out from the library. Maggie is a young pioneer in the West, and there’s this gunslinger who is crazy about her. Maggie always knows what to say. She’s very witty.
     Out in the hall, they are screaming so loud, I can’t even make out their words. They are both crying. My sister slams her door. There is silence. My dog is downstairs, and I know he must be frightened. I get up and open my door, hoping I can get downstairs before they start again. My mother storms back down the hall and kicks my sister’s door. The door cracks in half. My sister screams, this time in terror. I stand in the hallway. My mother sobs, her head down, then turns to me and grimly tells me to call my father.
     I call him at his new apartment. There is music on in the background. I ask him if he could please come over. He wants to know what’s going on. I just say, you better come. When he walks in the front door, I am waiting. I bury my face in his sweater, rough, wool, smelling of smoke and rosemary. He must have been cooking his dinner.
     I fall against him. I bury myself against him. I inhale him. He sets me carefully aside and walks upstairs to talk quietly with my mother and my sister.
     They are up there for two hours. I sit in the living room in the dark. It is the last time I ever bury myself against him, the last scene where we are a family.

     1979 From the diary: “I have a terrible headache.”
     1979 From the diary: “I’m sick.”
     1979 From the diary: “I have a headache.”
     1979 From the diary: “I’ve been really sick.”

     I wake up one weekend morning at my father’s. I am lying in the narrow bed, across from my sister’s narrow bed, trying to remember what the backyard looks like. I am still. I stare at the ceiling, upset that I can’t remember what the backyard looks like. Finally, I get up and look out. It’s a small, leaf-strewn yard with a wire fence. It doesn’t look familiar.

     It’s kickball games in the cul-de-sac. It’s wading in the tiny creek. It’s growing carrots in my father’s vegetable garden. It’s a playhouse made of doors. It’s dinner in the evening, and cold glasses of milk gulped down. It’s an eight-track playing “The Purple Cow.” It’s books and stuffed animals. It’s hamsters and piano lessons. It’s my sister reading. It’s wearing dresses sewn by my mother. It’s optimism in the seventies. It’s parents who go to parties where they eat omelettes at midnight. It’s sleeping under the pear tree with all the kids in the neighborhood. It’s parents who paint. It’s parents who let you have a little glass of wine with dinner. It’s laughing. It’s summer vacations. It’s grandparents who call you honeypot and read you stories. It’s a dog you are training to eat off a spoon. It’s building a boat with your father in the basement. It’s a dream, a picture, bound to yellow and fade.

     1979 From the diary: “Diary, have been sick for a long time. My parents are getting separated and I don’t want them to hurt because I love them so much. I’m so sad but I will love them more so they won’t get hurt. Your friend, Eliz. R.”
     1979 From the diary: “I had two Thanksgivings. One at Nags Head with daddy, and one at home with mommy. I’ve been doing fairly well. I hope I get good grades. Thank you for reading these boring comments. Eliz. R.”
     1979 From the diary: “I have a headache. I’m sorry to complain. Eliz. R.”
     1980 From the diary: “On Dec. 23 my parent’s divorce was final. We had Xmas morning with mom then had to drive to my uncle’s in Richmond. We talked to dad on the phone. Our car broke down in Fredericksburg and we sat all day at a Phillips 66 truckstop. Coming home in a rental car, we spun three times and landed in a ditch. My new boy is Mark. He has a dimple and I never knew it. I was sick awhile before Xmas and I was getting pretty nervous. I guess I’ll go read some more. Eliz. R.”

     I stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom and play out elaborate hostage scenes. Everyone in my family and neighborhood is kidnapped. They are lined up in a cave, shackled to each other. The guerrilla leader is captivated by me, and singles me out. If I will consent to marry him, or at least be his girlfriend, he will spare the lives of my family. To show me he means business, he tortures one person in the lineup. It is usually someone who has been annoying me lately. It is only my calm, sensible talk and my ability to charm this wild beast of a leader that will save us. I have to lure him into letting his guard down, and then I can rescue my whole family. It is easily within my power, and I know it. I look over the line of my friends and family, to see how much they need me.
     I replay this scene in front of my mirror, over and over again.

     At his first apartment away from us, my father drinks. He drinks great big gallon jugs of burgundy wine. He drinks cans of beer. He is an elegant man, but when he drinks too much, he gets sloppy, weepy, giggly.
     He drives us places when he’s drunk. When this happens, my sister and I sit upright in our seats, staring at the road. He weaves, gets lost, drives off the road. We are polite. We say nothing. We don’t even know what words we might say.

      Whenever people say “joint custody,” it makes me think of actual joints: fingers, knees, elbows. Or roasts. Or the hinged parts of chickens. I like a sharp knife for joints. I like to slice through the webs of connective tissue with no resistance.
     If it’s a crown of lamb, say, I cut each bone free before I’ll even take a single bite. If no one is watching, I put the bones against my teeth and nip at the bits of flesh my fork and knife can’t reach. I lick and gnaw each bone clean and then place them, curved and spooning neatly, at the edge of my plate.

     I blew on candles. I broke the dried wishbone with eyes closed. I blew eyelashes. I knocked on wood. To the god of wishes, I sent the usual plea. Happiness. Happiness. Happiness. Happiness for us all.

     After my mother got divorced, sold our childhood home, and took us on a trip to Europe, we came home from the trip and needed a place to live. Around the corner, an older couple joined the Peace Corps. We could live in their house for two years. Just long enough to get us on our feet.
     Most of our belongings went into storage.
     We used their furniture, left their things hanging on the walls. There were yellow butterfly curtains on the window above my bed. In the morning they glowed.
     The man had a heart attack and they came back after six months.
     We had to move right away.

     My father gets a lawyer. Someone tells my sister and me that this woman’s nickname is “Barracuda.” I have nightmares about her. In the dreams, there are hard, sharp scales on her face. Every night she eats my father. I know that when she finishes with him, she will eat me and my sister, but we cannot run away, we are paralyzed.

     When my mother came home from work one day, a month after we moved in, she found me on the stairs, where I’d been sitting for six hours, motionless. She looked at me for a few minutes and then she nodded slowly, pulled me to my feet, and took me outside.
     She took me to the house we’d left after the divorce. We walked in the dark yard, outside the periphery of window light, looking in. My mother told me to say goodbye to each room. We moved around the whole house this way, slowly. Past the hill where my playhouse had been. Past the trees where the hammock had hung. Past the patio. Past the woods where the creek was. Past my father’s old garden. Under my parents’ window. Under my window. Under my sister’s window.
     In the dark of the house, outside of the light, I shut my eyes and let a swarm of memories flow over me for each room. I murmured goodbye, goodbye, to each room, as though they were living things that would miss me.

     The first Christmas I woke up to the noise of pounding. I sat up and wondered what it was. I walked out into my father’s apartment. There was the tree. There were some gifts under the tree. My mother was to arrive at nine. I felt a tremor of excitement. I wondered what time it was. Then there was the sound of someone crying in the hallway. I opened the door and my mother was curled on the steps, her head bent over her lap, bags of gifts all around her. She lifted her tearstained face to me and spoke between ragged breaths. “Couldn’t you hear me? Didn’t you know I was here?” She held up her hands like a surrender and broke down completely.

     It is my second date ever. The boy and I are in the backseat of my father’s orange Honda. We’ve been at the dance and my date’s face is flushed, sweet looking. My father is definitely drunk, which doesn’t surprise me but mortifies me.
     I watch the dark road ahead of us as the boy gives my father directions to his house. The boy and I don’t hold hands, and now he knows that my father is a drunk. I am watching what the headlights scare up, wishing the ride were over. There is an orange cone in the headlights. It is unclear, even to me, what kind of construction this is, but right away we all know my father has chosen the wrong route.
     “Oh,” my father says in surprise.
     The car bumps down off the asphalt and soon we are thumping, jerking, scraping loudly over dirt hills. The boy lets out a pleased whoop and I clutch the seat beneath me, feeling the ground fall away under us in great lurches. In that instant, I find I hate them both.

To move (from the Webster’s Dictionary):
To pass from one position to another
To change one’s place of residence
To have regular motion
To touch, affect with tender feeling
To sell or be sold
To transfer a piece in a game

     When I met the woman who was to become my stepmother, I came with my sister for dinner at my father’s house. We were at my mother’s for the two weeks, but our father invited us over for a special dinner. It was unusual. I don’t remember why our mother let us go. It seems out of character.
     When we got there, we stood around chatting in the kitchen with my father, who seemed nervous. He told us there was someone he wanted us to meet. When she came around the corner, peering from the other side of the refrigerator, I was startled to see that she wore green eye shadow. She had elaborate eyes anyway, large and blue, but this eye shadow was something. My mother did not wear eye shadow. Nobody’s mother I knew did.
     She was nervous. She twisted a Kleenex. At some point, she caught my eye and winked at me in a friendly way.
     Except for the fact that she was there to steal my father’s heart from me, permanently, I liked her.

     We flew to Michigan for the wedding. The alarm clock in the hotel room I shared with my sister did not go off. Our uncle came to our room and woke us up. The wedding was in an hour and we had to leave right away. We didn’t get to shower. We threw on our clothes. All day I fidgeted with the small belt on the hand-me-down dress I wore. I felt ugly, unprepared, exposed.
     There were a lot of people at the wedding, but only my grandparents, my uncle, aunt, my sister, and I were there for my father. Everyone else was there for my new stepmother. People were nice to us. My sister and I did what our grandparents and aunt and uncle did. We smiled. We made small talk. We behaved. We tried not to notice what was happening, how my father was consumed in that room full of people we didn’t know.

     My sister fights with my stepmother in a way I can’t yet. They scream at each other about domestic things. The way the toilet paper is hung, the way my sister and I leave our shoes in the hall. My sister risks saying things I can never say. She screams horrible truths that must cost us all to hear aloud, and that’s when I see it doesn’t matter anyway. Nobody’s listening.
     My sister starts missing weeks. She has excuses; friends, drama club, high school.
     I go ahead without her, back and forth.

     The house is silent. The shades are drawn. It is three thirty in the afternoon, on a Tuesday. I am just home from school. There are dirty dishes in the sink. Evidence of tuna sandwich makings on the counter.
     The dining room shades are drawn. The living room shades are drawn.
     A door clicks open upstairs. My stepmother’s voice, “Is that you?”
     “Oh,” she says, the swishing noise of her silk nightgown as she pads farther down the hall to look at me at the bottom of the stairs. “Your father will be home at seven.”
     “We’ll eat then.”
     “How was school?”
     “Fine.” I am looking up the stairs at her. The hall blind is drawn, too. I moved in last night, after she’d gone to her room for the night. It is my first day of the two weeks with them.
     She turns and walks back to her bedroom. The door clicks again as she shuts it behind her.
     I climb the stairs to the room that I sleep in. I open both windows. I unpack my bag of clothes and books and toiletries, which I didn’t get a chance to do last night or before school in the morning. I take my things out of the drawers and closet and spread them around the room. I find the book I left last time in a drawer, glad it isn’t finished yet. I put my clothes in the three bureau drawers that are kept clear for me.
     I want to go downstairs but I don’t want to sit in the dark. To begin opening shades might cause my stepmother to come out again, another excruciatingly polite exchange. The nothingness of those interactions.
     Since I have been at my mother’s for two weeks, it is considered impolite for me to make plans with friends on my first night back. We are supposed to have a family meal. My father will be home at seven. After the first twenty minutes when he needs to be alone and unwind, I can sit in the kitchen with him while he makes dinner. Lights will be turned on. I can go into the other rooms and pull up the shades while he’s in the kitchen. My stepmother will dress and come down. My father will make jokes or ask questions about things that were going on with my friends two weeks ago when I was here. I will tell him, both of them, the stories.
     I sit on the bed. My clock is unpacked. It is four o’clock. Three hours until dinner.
     Four streets over, my mother, my sister, and my dog are doing their thing. I will see them again in two weeks.

     It is Christmas day. We are with our mother for the morning, but at noon we are to go to our father and stepmother’s house. Even though it has been a couple of years, Christmas is still strange, weighted. Everything is in slow, careful motion. We open gifts, eat breakfast around the tree, talk. It gets closer to twelve.
     My mother says, quietly, “I know you girls have to get ready.”
     My sister and I take turns showering. We put on the new quilt-style jackets our mother has made for us. When we come down the stairs, our mother is sitting alone on the couch. Her back is to us. Her hair is still messy from sleep. She is staring at the Christmas tree. When she sees us in our jackets, she jumps up to take pictures of my sister and me sitting together on the porch swing outside. It is twelve fifteen. We can’t really bring ourselves to smile. We sit next to each other. We sit like statues of daughters. It is twelve twenty-five. The phone rings.
     My mother answers it, “Merry Christmas!”
     Then there is arguing. My mother comes back to the porch, but now she is crying. She starts to say something but she can’t finish. I go into the kitchen and pick up the phone. On the other end, my father is angry, demanding us, telling me that we are unfair and selfish to keep them waiting, when they’ve been waiting all morning for us.
     We leave our mother, although she is still crying.
     When we get to our father’s, he apologizes gruffly for the argument. My stepmother is quiet. Christmas music plays on the stereo. There are presents to open. The sound of tearing paper makes me want to scream, but I do not.

     I bark my shins on the tables. I thump into walls. I slip on floors in my socks. I drop bowls, glasses, spoons. I spill juice. I fall out of bed. I nick the backs of my hands on the dining room table. I stub my toes on the couch feet. I twist an ankle, break fingers, step on another rusty nail. I slam my thumb in the car door. I lose necklaces, earrings, rings. I burn food. I lose keys. I over-salt things. I forget.

     My father is making guacamole in the blender. He takes the lid off, he puts the wooden spoon in. The blade catches the spoon. The ceiling, the counters, my father are thickly green. It is caught in his eyebrows, and he blinks and laughs, we both laugh, we can’t stop laughing. He whispers, “There’s onion in my eyes.” We laugh harder. I fall off the stool where I was watching him. I sit on the floor, unable to get up.
     My stepmother comes in the room. Scowling, beyond furious. She can’t see what’s so goddamned funny. If the goddamned fool had listened to her and never put the spoon in the blender, this mess would have been avoided. She’s told him not to put anything in the blender while it’s running. And if he’s damaged her expensive blender, he’s going to replace it. It’s a good blender. It’s hard to replace. He won’t be able to replace it. He better hope it isn’t ruined.
     My father washes his eyes in the sink. I climb up on the counter to begin wiping the cabinets. She leaves the room.

      The stepmother in fairy tales always gets a raw deal. (It is interesting to note that the prefix, “step-,” comes from Old English, and means, “orphan.”) She’s always evil or jealous or cruel. She’s ugly, or worse, once pretty.
     In real life, though, she’s only someone who is not your mother. One step away.
     She belongs to your father, who used to belong to you before she came along.
     She’s at your father’s side, but she’s not your mother.
     You hiss this at her.
     You tell her with your mother’s eyes.
     With your father’s hands.
     With your sister’s laugh.
     You tell her all the time, sometimes without meaning to, You Do Not Belong Here.
     And so she shrivels, hates, turns cruel.

     It was a small colonial house on a block full of young families. My mother’s room was in the attic, a long, hot, brown-paneled room over our heads. You could find her up there, sitting on her bed, looking out the tiny attic window. She cried a lot.
     Then she decided to go back to college. She got a couple of part-time jobs and attended classes. We didn’t have much money. Our mother made food for us on weekends, to last the week. Onion pie, spaghetti pie, hot dogs, chili.
     My sister had friends who invited her over often. She ate dinner with friends, spent nights with friends. When she was with her friends, she laughed a lot. When she was at home, she didn’t laugh. She stayed in her room.
     When I came back for the two weeks with them, often there was no one home. I didn’t mind. It gave me a chance to look around, check the fridge for what they’d been eating, look in their rooms for what clothes they’d been wearing, see if the house had a good mood feel or a bad mood feel. It gave me time to unpack my things, set up my camp, make it look like I’d been there longer than I had. It made the stink of betrayal, life at my father’s, less pungent.
     I imagined they could almost forget I had been gone.

     I dream a feast, at a table under the trees in my someday backyard. The table is long, and set with candles and jars of wildflowers I have picked earlier in the day with friends. Oh look! My mother is there, always beautiful, and even, in this dream, happy. Look how she laughs and captivates the children. She turns a daisy into a bird and lets it fly away. I set a tray of cheese and crusty bread in the middle of the table. There are bowls of olives and goat cheese and grapes.
     In the middle of the table surrounded by my closest friends, my knowledgeable father strokes the long white beard he’s grown and answers questions about gravity, the temperature of the brain, why crows chase hawks. When they ask him to explain the nature of love, he laughs, points to me, and cries out, You’ll have to ask my youngest daughter about that, for she is even teaching me!
     My sister comes up from a field of Queen Anne’s lace, dusting dirt from her hands. She has buried a plate of hollowed bones in the soil out there. One of the children asks her what she will grow and she tells them to look first thing in the morning. Instead of the purple gems in the flowers, she says, there will be red pulsing hearts, tiny as peas. She says, winking, I am the caretaker of passion.
     Dusk comes out from the fields and I light the candles on the table. We eat grilled peppers with our fingers, our lips shining with oil. Our voices grow soft in the dark.
     We don’t know it, but under the table slugs climb the legs of our pants and the hems of our skirts, leaving their glittering trails like veins for us to discover in the morning.

     After two years of joint custody, my sister finally decides to stay with my mother full time.
     After the initial uproar, it is a respite. Without her relentless anger, without her challenging everyone, it is easier for me to hide in the routine of moving. There is no longer the mounting tension of whether she will or won’t go.
But it also evens the households I move between, two against two.

      My sister’s hands remind me of weeping willow trees.
     Her handwriting bears her in it: strong, lean, comic loops, sharp angles of insight.
Sometimes I sat in her room when she wasn’t there. Touching her drawing pencils, her books, her hairbrush, her make-up, pictures of her friends, her Beatles albums, her eyeglasses.
     If we did not have to become silent with one another, for lack of what to say, she would have known that I loved her more than anyone else, there was no one else whose side I more wanted to be on.

     Sometimes I can’t stand to leave my dog at my mother’s. I bring him with me even though, at my father’s house, he has to stay in the kitchen. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I miss him so much that I go downstairs to the kitchen. I lie on the linoleum with him in the dark.
     Sometimes I feel guilty for making him do this with me. I kiss him between his eyes. I rub his large ears. I rub his belly. We look at each other. Then I walk to the back door and he follows me. I open the back door and he runs out. He stops once in the yard and looks at me, then turns and runs. He knows the way back to my mother’s house.
     After he leaves, I go up to the bedroom, sit at the window, and cry. When my father asks about my dog in the morning, I shrug and say, He must have gotten out somehow.

     On Thanksgivings, my mother made it a point to invite a person who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
     I wondered why anyone would want to come to our house. I worried if we would have enough food. I worried that something would happen with my parents over the phone and ruin the day for the dinner guest. I worried that I’d have nothing to say. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to pay attention to the conversation. I worried that we might have to seem normal.
     Sometimes I took the upstairs phone off the hook, just while we were eating.

     I learned it from my father’s face. From watching his expression go utterly blank. From watching him deflect my mother’s fury or my stepmother’s irritation with dim, blurry answers. With hunched shoulders. His complete withdrawal of self. His mumbled sorrys. His occasional surprising rages.
     I bet he knew when I did it, too. I bet we both knew when the other was feigning vagueness, hiding the true self. After all, he accepted my excuses when no one else would.
     I want to believe he knew. I want to believe there was some kind of unspoken communication between us. I hope that he believed I could protect myself when he let me dangle, chained, between his two wives, my two mothers. I want to believe that it cost him to lose the expressions on my face. That it was not, as it seemed, that he let me go without missing me.
     That he let me hang in his stead.

In the dream, I am lounging on a comfortable couch in a warm, bright room. There’s a Coke on the table next to me. My feet are on the couch, I’m reading a book. I’m utterly relaxed. Somebody, one of my parents, comes in, asks me if I want to go for a walk, or sailing, or to a movie. I do not have to measure this, see what I’m supposed to respond, what it might cost, if there’s a mechanism hidden inside. I simply say, “Sure,” and we go.     

     I am asked not to mention my mother’s name at my father’s house.
     My sister lives with my mother, so I stop mentioning her, too.
     Nor do I mention my family on my mother’s side.
     And my dog lives with my mother, so I try not to mention him, either.

     If I mention my father, accidentally, at my mother’s house, it unleashes a stream of fury, recriminations, accusations. Because I live with my father half the time, a lot of this seems personal. So I try not to mention him when I’m there.

     As a teenager, I resort to one of two facial expressions for you, my parents. It’s all I can muster for you, and it’s as much as you deserve. This is where your long efforts to shut me down begin to pay off.
     A. Vague:
     Eyes go wide and blank. Forehead smoothes. Mouth in slim smile, smiling at nothing in particular. I can’t remember anything specific. I don’t make any statements or declarations. I am milk. I am fresh white bread. I am an indifferent thing, requiring no attention. I look out the window dimly. You ask me a question and I blink, startled. I can’t really say. I don’t really know. I’m not sure. What was it again? Oh, I might say softly, yes. Yes, I forgot.
     B. Angry:
     Eyes go hard and narrow. Mouth in straight line. I measure my hatred for you in long steady stares. I can barely contain how loathsome you are. I am fury. I am steam. I am fist. You are so stupid, I can barely stand to talk to you. I hate the way you look. I hate the sound of your voice. I hate your smell. I know what you’ll do or say next, and I hate you for it. If it were up to me, I would never see you again as long as I live. I would leave. I would kill you. I would not let you hide from my knowing, from the way that I know you and will not forgive you.

     During an argument my mother says to me, You think life stops when you’re not here? We have to adjust our whole lives when you get back. Just as we get into a good rhythm, you come back.

      My mother as a Picasso painting. Here are her ears, down here by the ovals of her knees. She is done in browns and reds and maroons and earth tones. She always complains that she was not made sensibly but then I see her using the too-long arm to reach out of her frame and pluck a piggy-in-a-blanket from the tray carried past. She winks at me then, from one of the breasts that she carries inside a triangle near her foot.
     Her thighs are square pillars, set outside of her head. Her ears are at the bottom of the frame, tucked in a pile of fruit. There is evidence of drunkenness on the part of the painter. He’s given her face too many expressions at once.

     It is a Fourth of July picnic and my father is drunk. His wife is a bitch. We are on the mall in D.C., waiting for fireworks. It is pouring rain. My sister mutters about how stupid we all are and walks away from us. I hold an umbrella low over my head so I don’t have to look at anyone. Four more years and I am rid of them all.

     My mother would get paychecks, or extra money, and go shopping. She would come home with full bags. Blouses, knickknacks, an expensive hand-cut picture frame. Shoes, belts, necklaces. My sister and I would sit, stones in the living room, while she showed us what she bought. Usually something for us, too.
     There was so much else we couldn’t afford. Food or doctor’s bills, new shoes or movies, books or haircuts or paper goods . . .
     My father was right when he complained about the way she spent money, but we could say nothing to him.
     Every month she sat at her desk and sent handwritten letters to her creditors with a check for ten dollars each. She used her blue fountain pen and nice stationary. Until, she wrote, I’m able to send more.

     This is what you really want: you want Willa Mulhollan’s family.
     You go there early one Fourth of July morning. You leave whichever one of your parents’ houses, gleeful that they won’t be ruining your holiday, and you walk the mile to Willa’s house.
     Everybody’s around the dining room table when you get there, in their pajamas, eating pancakes in the sun. When you come in, they shout hello, and make room at the table for you. Willa’s nine-year-old sister begs you to sit next to her. They give you pancakes and coffee. Willa’s baby sister is making snorting noises that make everyone laugh. You feel the brick of tension that lives in your shoulders spontaneously begin to dissolve. As if it is trickling down your back.
     After breakfast, everybody helps clear the table. You and Willa go upstairs and lounge around her bedroom. You play albums, look at old notes passed in school, talk about the boys you like. You tell Willa how great you think her family is and she shrugs, smiles kindly at you, and says, “They’re an okay bunch.”
     Around noon, you take turns showering and she gives you a big white robe, her mom’s, to put on. You sit down, clean and wet, wrapped in Willa’s pretty mother’s robe and the brick is completely gone. You feel great. You and Willa start laughing about something. You can’t stop laughing. Everything is so funny and you feel so great.
     You get dressed and go down to the kitchen. You help Willa’s mother make the picnic. You slice red peppers and fill a large baggie with them. You’re wearing Willa’s eye shadow and her cute blue shirt and your hair is drying fluffy and looks nice when you pass a mirror. You spend the afternoon letting Willa’s nine-year-old sister hang around with you. You and Willa exchange wise glances over her head. You and Willa are cool, older chicks.
     At six o’clock, you all get in the car and drive to the Potomac River. You spread out blankets and everyone sits or stretches out on them. Everyone has a book to read, or music to listen to, or a game to play. Willa’s father listens to rock and roll on headphones. He taps a sandaled foot on the grass.
     You are situated right across the river from D.C., in a perfect spot to see the fireworks over the Washington Monument. You are so happy, you can barely stand it. You almost start crying, in the middle of it all, because you’re so grateful to be there.
     Everyone eats the picnic. You eat the red peppers out of the baggie with everyone else and they taste like you feel—crisp, red, shining.
     Night begins to settle over all the families on blankets. Sparklers break the darkness, voices spill across the grass, boats fill the river, small green and red fireworks spark the water bright.
     Then, real fireworks. The whorling, shooting, streaming, brilliant, falling light. The booming, the crackling. Willa’s mother and baby sister whisper in cadence, “Ooooooo, pretty.” You see their soft faces pressed together, their big matching eyes reflecting the lights. They rock gently, say “Oooo” again, and wonder breaks like a firecracker inside you.
     Then you do cry a little, because it is everything you ever wanted, it is all so ordinary and good-humored and sweet, and you know that soon you will be dropped off at your mother’s or father’s, one of the non-homes that you non-inhabit, and someone will speak to you or not, be nice or not, and you think, you know, that you loved this day, and just as much, you will wish you had never known it.

     I carry an envelope at the bottom of my garbage bag when I move between houses. Inside there are letters my parents have sent to each other about me. I’ve written Hate Mail on the envelope, and I can’t leave it in either house. I don’t know why I have copies of the letters. I read them every so often, even though they make me feel sick.

      I dreamt my mother was a giant turtle. In the dream, I saved her from committing suicide. Or maybe I didn’t. I couldn’t remember when I woke up.

     My father and stepmother drink wine with dinner, a couple of bottles. When my sister comes over occasionally, she and I drink it, too. It makes conversation easier. My stepmother’s face gets ruddy when she drinks. She tells stories about her family in Michigan. My sister tells stories about her friends. My father tells funny stories about work, listens to everyone else’s stories attentively, laughs appreciatively.
     I don’t know what I say, or who I become, but it doesn’t matter, because of course it isn’t me, and it keeps the evening peaceful.

     My father’s heart is a callus. A yellowed, horned knob of muscle. He has worked a long time to get his heart so hard, so shelled and protected and secret. I want to pry for it, dig it out with my fingers, my nails. I want to breathe on it, soak it in blood, bring it to beating again. He ignores my attempts to get his attention.
     I dance wildly with knives. I dip my whole body in India ink. I do cartwheels on the roof of a moving car. I grow two heads. I eat fire. I scream out songs hysterically while skipping rope. Finally, one day, while I am running a full-blown flea circus, the little acrobat family like miracles winging blackly through the air, I catch him bent across from me, looking through the tiny fanfare, staring at my face. I smile eagerly.
     He says, “You look just like your mother.” And then he turns away.

     We were four people, a family. (Then we were versions of three or two and then an added fourth, but mostly two, and then, and forever after, one.)

      There are miles of knots that need untying. Confusions, wishes, misunderstandings, beliefs. Each one has to be carefully slipped free, untied, patiently, lovingly. It is as if the knots are made of strips of my own living muscle. It is that uncomfortable, that dangerous.
     What if the next thing untied turns out to be the knot that held me together?

     Every other Monday, I vacuumed the bright green rug in the room I stayed in at my father’s house. I put all of my things in drawers or in a box in the closet. Nothing was to be left on the vanity. Books, hairbrush, lotion, the two stuffed animals I kept there, all put away. I wiped down the table and the mirror. I took the sheets off the bed and put them in the washer, made up the bed with new sheets. I used neat army corners, and tucked the pillow into the cover. So it could be a guest room, just in case.

      The anger that dwells in here: a searing lava mudslide that will slide down over you, over your precious houses, all your precious belongings. Over all the antiques, artwork, books, exotic knickknacks, appliances, and rugs that you are somehow able to find a home for, even though living, breathing I have long had nowhere to go but me. Here it is, the mudslide, it finds your clawfooted furniture, your porcelains, your mouths and throats. Your eyes fill up, your hair clots, your hands curl against the weight. Your legs are burned, boiled, pinned. You are bent around the dining room table, scorched, soiled black bone, until windows heat and fill and shatter, until the walls of your houses collapse around you, until the remains, with you inside, smolder, and cool, and harden.

     After the landlord suddenly sold the house we were living in, we rented another house. It had huge windows in the front. My sister graduated from high school and was supposed to join American Field Service and go to France. There was a problem. She was sent to Tunisia, Africa, instead. She left for Africa, and I was alone with our parents.
     The reports we got were bad. She was used as a servant until it was discovered and then she was sent to a new family. Her sister in the new family was jealous of her.
     I wrote her one letter the whole year. I said something like, Everything is the same here, you know.

     My mother said the huge windows made the house feel like a fishbowl. With my sister gone, and those huge windows in front of me every day, I felt exposed. I tried not to look out the huge windows when I passed them, just in case someone was watching.

     My mother makes gateaux. Tall piles of crepes filled with various things. Spinach, chicken, mushrooms. She invites people over, friends from church, from work. They have parties with candles and wine and she brings out the gateaux. I hate the gateaux passionately. She works on them for hours, cooking crepes, making fillings, saying things to me like, What kind of cheese layer, do you think?
     At the parties, everyone says to me, Isn’t your mother a wonder? Isn’t she creative? Can’t she cook? Isn’t she something?
     It’s my fourth year of joint custody, and there are two more years ahead. I look across the room to my mother, who is bent in the lamplight, refilling someone’s wine, her necklace swinging away from her body gracefully, and I cannot be charmed by her. She will never save me, the way I hoped she would. She will not be the one, as I imagined, to stand up for me, to say on my behalf, She has done enough. She needs to stop. Damn the agreement. She will stay with me.
     I am the last link between my parents, and my mother will not relinquish this. She cannot bear to become an ex, a has-been, a past-tense thing. She cannot bear to fall from my father’s thoughts completely, even though she barely likes him anymore. She is afraid of being no one’s love, or even no one’s past love. Because of her fears, she will not save me. I know this now. I watch her at her parties, and I feel my love for her slam shut, like a book whose ending I can’t bear to read.

     Somehow my best friend and I got a case of Schlitz beer. I carried it from her house in a guitar case. People came over after school. The beer was warm. The boys sat at the top of the stairs and threw empty cans into our wicker, frog-shaped trash can. Everybody laughed a lot. Nobody hooked up. We had The Police playing on the stereo. I drank a lot. They all left at five. My mother was due at six. I cleaned up and passed out on my bed, quite drunk.
     When she woke me up, I thought I was getting a phone call and answered, Hello? Hello? I was holding the sheet to my ear like a telephone. My mother narrowed her eyes at me in a particular way. She turned and left. After a while, I went down for interrogation. I was still drunk. She told me to unload the dishwasher, and while I did it, she called my father.
     She told him it was his fault I was an alcoholic and he better get over and talk to me this minute. I could hear my father’s reluctance.
     He came and we walked around the block. I was relieved to get away from my mother’s heat and rage. I don’t remember him yelling at me or anything. I was secretly happy to see him, alone, on an off-week. He seemed sorry we were there, doing that.

     My father as a Henry Moore sculpture. Someone else’s thumbs marking him, forming him. His mother. His first wife. His second wife. They have pressed it all out of him. They have turned him into crests, shallow wells, the ridges of their imprints.
     His daughters refrain. They will not put their thumbs upon him. They disguise themselves as men. They pretend to be unemotional jokesters, practical, logical, scientific types. They want to know what was there before. They hide their female thumbs from him.


     I used to unscrew the pump on my mother’s hand lotion and spit into it. Sometimes I squatted in her shower and peed without washing it down. Nothing short of true violence would have expressed my rage at her. So I did these other things.

     At a friend’s house, I meet a kid who lives on the same street I live on with my mother. He grew up here. He describes his house to me and I shake my head, No, I don’t know which one he means.
     It is a short street, there are only about ten houses on it. He looks at me, frustrated, and describes it again.
     Oh, I lie, yes, I know which one you mean.
     He is relieved, I remember now, laughs and confides in me that he would have thought it pretty weird if I didn’t know, seeing as there were so few houses on the street and all.

     My first therapist, X, was paid for by my father. She hypnotized me once and when I awoke, I felt happy and relaxed. She began meeting with my father and stepmother to discuss me. Then, when I went to see her, she began saying things like, “Your father and stepmother are only trying to do their best by you. Your mother, you see, is not allowing them the freedom to love you.”
     My second therapist, Y, was free through the high school. With Y, I drank raspberry tea in a tapestried room in the heart of the cold school. She began meeting with my mother to discuss me. Then, when I went to see her, she began saying things like, “Your mother loves you very much. She feels abandoned in parenthood by your father’s marriage. You see, she’s outnumbered as a parent . . .”
     Eventually, therapist X, therapist Y, my mother, father, and stepmother decided a unified meeting was in order to discuss me. We met in therapist X’s office. Right away, everyone began to argue. Even X and Y got angry and raised their voices.
     I slipped out, after a while.

     The landlord decides to move into the big window house himself. My mother and I have to move again. My sister is still in Africa. We have to find a house without her, which seems terrible.
     There is a house that wins us over, though. It has a breakfast porch and a screen porch and a fireplace. One bedroom has a low ceiling and windows close to the floor. It has been a long time since I want anything as much as I want that room.
     My mother takes it, and every two weeks I live there with her in the room that seems like it was meant to be mine. Every two weeks, though, I leave for my father’s and stepmother’s house, and she is alone.

      If there are trolls in a story, my father is a king troll. My mother is an old witch troll. My stepmother is a seamstress troll. Each one of them is greedy for something, goes about getting it their own way. The king wants power. The witch wants power. The seamstress wants power. There is a ruby bracelet in question. They all want it. They deceive. They use cruelty. They wage war against one another in their caves.
     The seamstress tricks with flattery. The witch wields outrageous spells. The king measures out approval and approbation. They undermine each other’s power. They become consumed with their fighting. They are trolls, so their poor behavior is forgiven them, and eventually they grow older. They forget about their struggles, they forget about each other.
     Where is the bracelet now?

     It is an ugly, orange, brick, square house. Inside are my father and his wife. They leave their dishes after they eat. Dried meat blood. Hard potato smears. Tomato juice in veins on the china. They stay in their bedroom, which smells musty, and of dried skin, when they open the door. They hide their toothpaste and shampoo, saying in ugly voices, your mother should buy you that.
     Sometimes I wash their dishes, even though it embarrasses all of us.

     My sister comes back and goes away again, to college. Money is tight again. My mother decides to rent out a room to make extra money. The woman who comes to rent it wears her hair in a tight bush around her head. My room is the most separate, so it is the one that has to be rented. I move out of my room with the low ceilings and big windows and she moves in. I move into my sister’s room.
     The woman only ever uses one shelf in the fridge and none of her food reveals her. She likes dairy, this is all I know. Cottage cheese, wrapped slices of American cheese, milk. She keeps her door closed and I try to walk quietly when I pass it. I look through the keyhole once when she isn’t home, but the bit of floor I can see is just my old yellow carpet.

     Oh, that I will be something less.
     That I will accept what I shouldn’t, that I will make do with what is not enough, that I am so parched for love it will ruin, one by one, all my possible futures.
     Oh, that I should end up miserable, that all my optimism gets me a black hole I claim is white, a cup of sawdust I claim is wine, a brutal loneliness I claim is solidarity of self.
     Oh, that I should tell you someday that I am sorry. That I didn’t live up to the possibilities it was my gift to see, that I let possibility starve and curl and break off from the fiber of me.

     These are the places my sister left me.
     She was right to do it. She had a sense of survival I lacked.
     But without her, there was no one to speak for me.

      My sister as a color, the color red. A dark red. The color of lipstick, the color of velvet, the color of blood, the color of wine, the color of passion, the color of chafed skin, the color of cold cheeks, the color of mouths kissed, the color of berries, the heart muscle, pomegranates.

     When I gave up, it helped. I slept through afternoon shadows and into the dark of evening. My parents stopped moving to new houses, but I kept on moving between them. I looked at their faces and did not see them. I responded to their voices and did not listen. Before I was asked to, I washed dishes at my father’s house, I vacuumed my mother’s rugs. I wanted no altercations, no interactions at all. I felt that this blankness was a triumph of self-control. I stopped feeling things for them, about them, from them. I believed that I would leave them after high school and be free.

     This is like lifting a heavy, sopping thing from inside you. Like laying it out on the table for discussion, inspection, scientific study. It is like saying to people who have known you, this is what I have been carrying, why I have not been quite right.
     Here I am. I’m in a room full of empty boxes from the liquor store. This is the third time that I’ve broken a relationship in half, divided the furniture, negotiated pet custody, looked at pictures on walls and labeled them mentally: mine, not mine. I’ve had thirty-six jobs, I’ve moved seventeen times. My oldest friends complain that I’m inconsistent, that I don’t give steady emotional support. The lovers whose hearts I’ve broken are so wounded they never speak to me again.
     I never thought this was what I would become. I thought that living on the fringe of a life was something in my past, part of being a joint-custody child, but now I see that it is where I still live.
     And still. I hope that these words, like strong, black sutures, will sew my two halves back together. I hope that there is a chance I will find a home, a place where I can stay. Maybe it’s true, maybe I will find such a place, but first there is the packing to do.