Coral Springs, Florida-1995
Dean had sub zero blue eyes, an ash gray mullet, and a penchant for buttoned down pastel shirts paired with tight acid washed jeans. I can’t remember how he got there, only that my mother brought him home one day and he didn’t like to leave. When he stayed the night, she’d ask my brother and I to sleep with our doors locked like they were hurricane windows, only telling us to open them when she knocked on them in the morning for school. We weren’t even allowed out to go to the bathroom in case he heard us. When we awoke to our mother knocking, Dean would be in the kitchen in his boxer shorts cooking us breakfast with a smile that always took away my appetite. To this day, I don’t get hungry in the morning.
Though I knew there was something not right about this person, I kept good face so the judicial system would agree my mom was trying. At 8 years old, I didn’t know what that meant other than it was what my mother wanted. By that age, I had been uprooted so many times for the sake of her sanity, yet I still wanted to believe she knew what was best and because of that, her happiness was preceded my own.
Even when I began to hear shouting and shrilled cries from the other side of my wall, per her instructions I kept the door locked and my voice quiet.
At first my brother, mother and I put on our best smiles, thanking the man in the kitchen for cooking for us. After a while it became harder to do so, like when Dean would grab my brother and I and force us in our rooms after dinner because he simply did not want to be around us, and the teachers at our school would notice the bruises that kept appearing on our arms. When the guidance counselors started calling the house, our mother would tell them to let us kids be kids, if she answered the phone up at all.
Shortly after, my mother stopped knocking on our doors in the morning. Instead, we would hear a faint calling from inside the apartment telling us to come out for something to eat. Dean would be gone and our mother would be slouched over the corner, cutting apples with flushes of red and blue painted across her face. We didn’t ask questions because her eyes told us she didn’t want to talk about it.
After a while, Dean stopped staying the night frequently and when he did he’d show up just to yell. Us kids were still instructed to sleep with our doors locked in case he came home. He did one weekend afternoon while my brother was out playing baseball. Smelling like poison, he staggered into the apartment, and dragged me into my room. I hit my head on my doorframe and fell asleep.
I woke up face-down on the floor, with blood on the rug underneath my nose, a faint sound of the radio coming from the living room. My door was open. I walked out to see my mother propped against the stereo, sipping slowly from a glass of wine.
“Is that you Jessica?” She asked softly. I didn’t respond. Instead I curled up next to her and put my head on her chest and she ran her fingers through my hair, a motion that always seemed to comfort her, even as I aged. I let the words of the song playing synch inside my head, over and over like my mother had the record on repeat, a song by Mary J Blige about a broken heart.
My mother let out a yell into my hair that came from a part of her that hadn’t existed in myself until that moment. She then grabbed my face aggressively like she had forgotten I was still a child. When my eyes met hers, her face was swollen, half from the crying and the other half from the hit.
“Tell me!” She begged of me. “Promise me one thing, as long as you live. Promise me, you will never let a man make you cry. If you can’t do anything else in this world, promise me that one thing!”
“I promise Mama,” I replied, tears streaming down my own face, unable to understand while I was crying.
In 1996 the courts took my brother and I back to live in New England with our father. My mother was still seeing Dean.
I am sitting drunk against my bedroom door, cradling a beer with my hands softly like it were breakable, crying into the hardwood floor like it were a plant that needed watering. Whenever I find myself on this floor, which is more often than I’m proud of, I can’t help but see my beautiful 35 year old mother with bruises up and down her body holding onto a song like it’s the only thing that understands her. I see her lonely, with nothing to comfort her but her child and a bottle of wine. I have spent much of my life since her passing subconsciously trying to be her penance and I am failing because I am yet to find my own forgiveness for making similar mistakes.