Non-Fiction By Carli Woodyear
My mother can’t fall asleep. She pops Valiums, Percocets, and most often, Xanax, yet remains painfully awake. She used to lie in bed, days at a time, cold rag on her head, and cry. She’d ask us to bring her water, in a real glass (no plastic cups!), with two ice cubes. She would ask us to stay, to sit with her in her dark room, to suffer with her in her dark silence.
She would ask us, “why are you talking about me?”
Always, we’d say, “we aren’t.”
On her bad days, the days she didn’t want to be alive, she would stare at the floor for hours as we watched TV, mouth firmly shut around her truths. She once took a hammer and destroyed a cabinet she made me for my tenth birthday. When we moved up north, she painted all the walls in our house gray.
“I can’t stop thinking about the whole thing. I think maybe I’m supposed to talk to someone. Maybe her? Not that I want to, I dunno...” I was rambling and I knew it. I was also shedding tears. A lot. An embarrassing amount.
“Uh huh.” Mike responded, seemingly unfocused. Noises chirped through my cellphone, then a gunshot sounded in the background, finally a few clicks.
“Are you seriously playing a video game right now?”
He laughed, “Relax, I’m listening AND I’m playing. Multitasking.”
I hung up.
I looked at my phone, turned it off. I went around my house and removed every picture off the wall with my mother in it. Two years later, when she asked what happened to all of the photos, I would lie. I would say I think they’re in storage. Sort of true? I broke the glass that held them and threw the fragments in the trash.
Mike had called me six times while I was busy with my little TLC experiment. I had been dating him for a year, and I would, unfortunately, date him for a second. I was obsessed. Even though I shouldn’t have been. Even though come year two I’d recognize our relationship as the first chapter in a thick, seemingly endless book I was writing in my head entitled: The Great Mistakes.
Mike was kind of ugly. Tall, but ugly. He’d play video games when I’d call him devastated over the dissolution of my family, and sometimes he’d text me at 4am to tell me he wasn’t sure whether or not he loved me.
He wasn’t always bad. Like a lot of people, his flaws, his distance, and his lack of care for me only appeared until after I was madly in love with him. He was two different people, and I had always only been one.,
I was inexplicably drawn to him, to his brooding. He didn’t like himself, he cut himself. I didn’t like myself, he liked to remind me of why. I was “too skinny,” then one day, “chubby..” I had “kind of a weird face.” Which he found kind of funny. I had a quick wit, but also “a nasty temper.” I didn’t trust him. I made hurtful jokes. I was too easily offended. And also offensive. I was “overreacting” or just plain “crazy” when I expressed how it hurt me that he talked about me behind my back. I was a bitch, because the first time he broke up with me for a girl he’d just met, I wouldn’t text him back. I asked him for so much. That was a big one. My expectations were too high for someone like me. I was “trash” and so were my friends because we liked alcohol and pot. I was a mess. I was “too much,” and yet, never quite enough. I just... “wasn’t one of his favorite people.” I was moody, and then, when my Mom’s health declined, I was flat out depressing. I was, as he put it, simply, “hard to love.” They almost always tell me that last part.
I broke up with him a week after we graduated high school. This was mostly because, well, as you’ve already guessed, he sucked. And I was tired of him sucking. He hated me for ending it. But I thought I was learning. Learning that spending two years of your life feeling like you’ll never be good enough was wrong. That even if he calls them jokes, if they make you cry yourself to sleep, his comments are abuse. And that when he’s upset that you won’t put out every single time he asks, he’s manipulating you. The minute you started giving in, you lost.
I waited a respectable period of about one week before I hopped into a romance with my high school friend, Nic. We were going to be a summer fling, but when you’re young and stupid, when you have hope, the only logical conclusion is to do long distance. Our colleges were about five hours apart, but he was tall and not ugly and would text me at 4am to tell me how amazing I was.
It was winter break, seven months into our flawless affair, when I found a notification on my phone from a girl he worked with. I read the direct message to myself a few times over before it sank in: “Since Nic wants to be an ass and take my tips out of my jar, I guess I’ll be one too. I fucked your boyfriend this past summer. Sorry.”
He admitted to it. He also sobbed a really, really ridiculous amount. He drowned me in his unbelievable amount of tears. He cried first in the car when I begged him to leave, at his house when I asked how much of us had been a lie, and in my arms when I asked him for a reason. He never did give one.
My mother came home with a big grin on her gorgeous, crazy-ass face.
“I bought something!” She announced to my Dad and I as we stood in the kitchen making dinner. Well, to be fair, he was making it.
We smiled back at her, less beautifully, but just as contentedly.
My Dad’s crows-feet ached under the pressure of his happy expression as he embraced her. He held her so tightly I could see her shirt wrinkle from his touch. He never could let go.
“What’d you buy Shmoopie?” He inquired lovingly, knowing that this was the most pleased she’d been in weeks. She’d “had a very hard year.”
She shoved her right hand into his and we all ooh’d and ah’d at the massive green ring that sat on her middle finger.
“That is.. something!” I said, not really sure if it was pretty. It was something I had never seen before. I thought for a moment, asked, “how much did that thing cost?”
She tilted her brilliant head to the side and shrugged her shoulders. Ah, it was a secret.
She loved those.
It didn’t matter how much it was, Dad said, anything for her. She deserved to be pleased. She’d spent the last year getting her MBA with cancer. I mean, who does that, right?
She gazed at the jewelry, her incredibly smart eyes enveloped by it’s charm. Maybe she could sleep tonight.
It is in moments like these that I love my mother. Moments of freedom. She and I had plans the entire weekend. She decided that night we should take a train to New York, so we did. She even let me skip a day of high school on Monday. It was Tuesday evening when we finally came home, and I had just finished unpacking when-
“MARGART,” my Dad’s usually gentle voice roared through our cold halls, sending chills down my spine.
“She’s out getting groceries for tomorrow, what’s wrong?” I asked him as my hands closed the book I’d been reading.
He came into the living room holding a bundle of papers, his voice rising as he spoke, “the ring she bought the other day? It was fourteen thousand dollars.”
I looked up at him wide-eyed. I heard my book hit the ground.
That was my mother’s first manic episode.
I call myself a whore as a joke.
When I found out Nic was a cheater, I decided to play with him instead of breaking up with him. I thought there was strength in hurting. And there is, but it’s a different kind of strength. A strength most people hope they’ll never have. A strength born not from anger exactly, but from the loss of one’s pride.
I should’ve dumped him, but first I told everyone we knew about his infidelity. Should I tell his college roommate? Yes. His best friend? Already knew. My best friends? Saw it coming. His mom? Perhaps that was a little dramatic, but I did it.
Ha ha ha, I thought to myself, almost even.
Two months later, when I was finally accepting what he’d done, when we were just starting to patch things up, I started flirting. Is flirting cheating? I was just trying to win. Just asking for numbers. Just dancing. Just kissing an occasional cheek. The boys I met asked me my name, major, if I “maybe wanted to hang sometime” because I’m “hot” or sometimes they’d say “sexy.” It didn’t matter what adjective they chose, I always left the texts I’d composed to them unsent. I couldn't quite commit to breaking my commitment, which pissed my “suitors” off. They thought they were entitled to my response, to my body. Entitled to decide: Was she a tease or a slut? Words they didn’t deserve to use rattled off with no regard, not one of them realizing their misogyny, the dirty walls of their frat houses listening in, judging me, defining me. I didn’t need it, the little voice in my head was already judging, pestering: Was I a bad person? Or confused? It kept me awake at night.
Did I feel bad about what I was doing?
It wasn’t that she wanted to kill herself that pissed me off most, it was more the fact
that at times it felt like she was already dead.
I wrung my hands in the hallway outside her room. I hated to bother her.
My fist stung as it knocked on my mother’s bedroom door. Our house was
freezing- the thermometer had to be set at 62 or under because she couldn’t stand a hot house.
There was no sound from her room.
I knocked harder, and finally, a sigh from inside, then, an irritated, “come in.”
I walked into the tidy, dark room. My reflection greeted me in the mirror on the mantle: a girl that was not quite scared, but something worse. Something darker.
She sat up in bed, staring at me, or rather, into me.
“Uhh hey, I think I left my school shoes in here,” I said, and she groaned at my volume,
shoving her ear plugs back in. She had another headache. I paced around the room searching for the shoes, hoping I’d get to class on time.
Ten minutes passed. They weren’t in the bathroom, they weren’t under the chair or by the
bed. I was starting to panic, afraid she was growing increasingly frustrated.
She jumped up abruptly, grabbing my shoes from under her bed, as if knowing their
location this whole time. Damn, should’ve checked there.
I backed up as she rushed towards me, running into the wall with my head. My heart
jerked in my chest, and for some reason, I wanted to run.
I turned and opened the door, slipping on the hardwood floor as I picked up my pace. I looked back to find she’d followed me out, her athletic build quicker than it had ever been, coming right toward me.
Where is my Mom? I wondered.
I was faster than her, making it to the doors of our house and unlocking them with
quick hands. She stood at the top of the stairs and raised a shoe above her head:
I remember two months ago. A situation just like this one. I remember the anger on my sister’s freckled face as my mother held a glass cup above her head.
“Hit me,” she had said, “I dare you.”
The first shoe hit the door next to me, by my leg. I kept unlocking the doors.
My sister didn’t blink as my mother turned and threw the glass across the room.
She stood tall, even as it shattered against a column and crashed to the ground. The receptionist of the hotel lobby and I both gasped at the terrific noise, our shocked faces revealing our naivete, the fast beat of our hearts exposing our innocence.
That was the first time I really saw her. Saw who she was. Saw her freed from the guise of sanity, from the guilt of her mind. She was fully uninhibited, fully herself, and yet, not herself at all.
The second shoe shot into the door, thrown much harder than the first, and
much closer to my head.
I picked them up and jogged to my car outside, the snowy street soaking my socks through.
“The doctors told me she’s definitely Bipolar, but I don’t know. She could be faking it.” My Dad thought aloud. We were sitting in the house I had kicked his wife out of three days before. The house in which I’d called my own mother a whore. Where I’d asked her to choose: Him or us? Where she made her biggest mistake.
“I don’t think she’s faking it. Remember how she couldn’t sleep, how she was super sad, then wildly happy? I dunno, I think it makes sense...” my reassurances trailed off.
I used to be the one with answers, the one who so clearly knew right from wrong. Black from white. Maybe that’s just it though. Maybe there is no such thing. My mother was sick, physically with her recently discovered breast cancer and with the concussion she’d acquired in a biking accident. The same doctors that found her mental illness told us that there were some memories that she had lost forever. Maybe those were the good memories of us three. Sometimes, I think if she could remember, maybe this would have never happened.
My Dad was quiet for a moment. I went to hug him, but thought that might embarrass my sweet, gentle, proud man. Instead, I placed my hand on top of his, my fingers forced to rest against his cold wedding band.
It is in moments like these that I hate my mother.
He and I talked about how he’d found out about the affair. After one too many weekends of her missing, my Dad said he decided to hire a private investigator, who confirmed that the trips she was taking weren’t away on business to other law firms, but rather to another man’s house.
For eight months, my Dad knew. For eight months, he slept next to her, next to her lies. I imagine him eating dinner next to her, wondering what was real. I imagine him holding her hand in the car, fingers still, knuckles silent, but knowing. I imagine him watching her step out of their brand new clawfoot tub, her body soaking the marble floor with water, smiling at him, her teeth dripping guilt. I image him smiling back with dead eyes, thinking over and over again, “my wife is fucking someone else.”
It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
-Robert Frost, Ghost House
I wish I could call her something different. The word “mother” leaves me crippled with cynicism. It’s nasty, the way it spits out of the mouth- clipped, sharp, bitter. Begging to mean something more, to be absolved of its wrongness, its distance. It’s a term for a stranger, an infidel, a slut. It’s a name for the Mommies who fail, who accidentally leave you at the airport; who forget your brother’s birthday; who lie to Daddies; who eventually lie to you.
Mommies love you, Mothers barely like you. Mommies hug you, Mothers threaten to hit. Mommy is here when Mother never was.
Mine waves her hand in front of my face, making me blink. I forgot she was even talking. She’s been going on and on about why I shouldn’t have dumped Nic right after our anniversary. She asks again, for the third time, “why can’t you just give him a second chance?”
“I’m bad at forgiveness,” I offer her, trying to end the lecture, but she shakes her head in disagreement..
I try another route, “I don’t love him, and obviously he doesn’t love me.” At this my mother rolls her tired eyes. We’re both over people claiming their partners cheat for lack of love. It’s a theory for the people who can’t handle the reality of relationships, of human nature. It’s meant to reassure, to comfort: “love cannot be bad.” To them, I say, grow the fuck up. To them, I say, I am so jealous.
I pause, say, “I hate cheaters.” Even though I’m pretty sure I kind of am one.
She ignores that last bite and resumes her monologue, “I mean, almost every single man I’ve ever dated asked me to marry him at some point, and not one of them was as good as Nic. It’s not always meant to be though, I guess. I understand. You have to learn who is best for you and who isn’t,” my mother brags (or tries to relate?) to me as she pays our check.
I try to come up with a response that will end this weird discussion as I finish dessert, “yeah,” I mutter, “I guess we’re just too amazing, it must be so hard for the men, wanting to marry us and stuff.” I say, rolling my eyes, “what poor, desperate creatures.”
Her airy laugh, more lovely than mine or any daughter’s could be, fills the tops of the restaurant’s ceiling and floats out of the open windows, it’s gone before I’ve even really heard it.
She hands me a little wrapped gift. She loves to shower me with presents. Sometimes it’s an international trip, others a shopping spree, this time, though, an old, dog-eared book of poetry. Inside the cover page reads: “To Carli, from Mom. Check out page 62, some of the lines are EPIC.”
“I really loved this one,” She breathes out in an excited sigh, her grin infectious.
I’ve seen her reading this book. I’m not a huge fan of Frost myself, but I know he’s her favorite. Poetry’s her favorite. She loves re-reading the lines over and over again, loves basking in its ambiguity. She thinks it understands her.
“So, when will you be visiting again?” She questions as we walk out into the city night.
I pause and she notices but doesn’t mention it. I appreciate this.
“I was thinking in two weeks,” I lie. I’m good at lies. Not so much at visiting.
“How’s your Dad doing? Why isn’t he answering my messages?” Oh yes, I think, I love this part of the conversations we have.
I’m pausing again, stumbling over my responses, sinking like a ship, drowning, “uhh… I don’t know- have you tried calling?” I feel my heart lurch in my chest.
I want to go to the Mommy Store, to ask for a refund, mine is broken-no, no wait- I want this one, I do, just how she used to be, back then, back when she loved him, loved me, I have my warranty right here-
“Sorry, just thought I’d ask,” she replies, looking off into the distance at the sound of a nearby siren, not yet adjusted to her move from wild and wonderful West Virginia to D.C. The wind blows the scent of her perfume into my face, and the soft smell reminds me of a time when I was under four feet tall, when she’d pull me close to whisper in my ear, “I love you more than all the waves in the ocean.”
It’s too bad I never learned to swim.
I ask her what her perfume is called and when we get back to her apartment she gives me the bottle as a gift. Now we’ll smell the same. As they say, like mother, like daughter.
I put the bottle in my bag and walk around her apartment for the first time. It’s too ordered; the granite countertops are spotless, the walls- well, she says she wants to paint these gray, too. The only visible mess in the entire space sits on the coffee table. One innocent bottle of prescription pills.
Carli Woodyear attends James Madison University. She's been published by her undergraduate magazine as well and has won Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her writing, both fiction and creative non-fiction, is experimental, and she's interested in mentally-ill subjects and difficult, unreliable narrators.