Mommy is up against the cool pink sink, robe open, bare breasts hanging, brown eyes fierce. I edge away from the powder room and toward the dining room table where my schoolbooks are stacked, a leaning tower balanced on vinyl plaid with scribbled formulas, timelines, verb conjugations and love notes protruding like broken wings. Growls from the basement furnace rumble up the stairs.
“Don’t back away from me,” Mommy snaps. She juts out her chin and raises her eyes to meet mine. She’s indignant that I’m taller than her 4’11” frame by a good four inches, and growing—a reminder that she did not give birth to me.
I reverse directions and step to the powder room threshold. Less than two feet from her now, I glance at the toothpaste splattered on the medicine cabinet mirror, the wallpaper’s pink roses climbing verdigris stems, the pink and beige tiles, her pink-painted toenails, chipped at the edges. If only I hadn’t dawdled at the closet door, moving my handful of skirts and blouses back and forth across the rod, hoping to see a new way of putting them together.
Kathy, my willowy sister, and Mary Ruth, the svelte one, are probably halfway to school by now. Both 5’8”, they easily march in step while they argue about which of them is smarter, a contest that began before I could talk, a contest I will never enter. What would they say if they were here?
“So, you can’t stand to look at me, can you,” Mommy snarls. “It’s written all over your stupid face. You can’t hide anything from me. And you can’t hide from this either. Look!” She pulls down her baggy underpants and rips off a thick gauze bandage to expose a wound so raw it appears to have a pulse all its own, like Edgar Allen Poe’s telltale heart. But this is a scar beating, beating on its own. I can hear it, I swear.
I hold my breath. No clue what to do. I knew she’d need help after her hysterectomy. But I thought it would be getting things down from shelves she can’t reach, keeping her comfortable and warm, making her bed, fetching water for her pills, cooking supper. Not this.
“Take a look. Take a good look, missy,” she spews. “This is pain. This is real pain, and you don’t know what that is. You don’t care about anybody but yourself. But mark my words, oh yes, mark my words. Your time is coming. Just you wait. Your time is coming. You’ll see, oh yes, you’ll see.”
She reminds me of a jack-in-the box sprung loose, but I can’t stuff her back inside, snap the cover closed and go back to fastening the stupid straps on the stupid clear plastic boots I had just slipped over my stupid loafers before she called me to her powder room lair.
“I suppose you think I’m all washed up now. Deformed. A good for nothing freak, don’t you.”
“Why? Why would I think that?”
“Don’t you lie to me.”
She points to the incision, belly button to pubic hair, thick and oozing and pink and punctuated with black stitches top to bottom. It’s a railroad track, a railroad track leading somewhere I never want to go. Screaming now, she raises her raw-knuckled fist and shakes her arm, a metronome set faster than I could ever play. She lurches toward me. It looks like she’ll pop straight into the air any minute. I’d like to see that: her head cracking against the ceiling.
I spin around, grab my books and rush outside. Coat unbuttoned, I barely notice the bitter cold as I kick off my five-and-dime substitute for winter boots, which are thick, black marks in the high school fashion game my sisters and I play handicapped. I stuff the boots in my coat pockets, one bulging on each side.
Since Daddy died, three years ago now, I’ve been fighting for focus like a prizefighter against the ropes. Each morning I get dressed, hoping this will be the day that someone, somewhere will ring the bell, end the round. So the assault can end. So we can all staunch the bleeding. So my stepmother can rise up and become the mother she never was even before Daddy eased out of this world, the mother she promised him she would be when she married him, a man with three girls all under the age of five. But the bell never rings. She goes on and on, punching, jabbing, punching, and Kathy, Mary Ruth and I are the ones she wants to knock out.
But this time she has pushed me past an edge I didn’t know was there. I feel assaulted, slapped breathless just because I’m here, just because I’m me. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I must starve any trace of love I have for her until there is none left. I will not join her battles. She will fight alone. This is it. This is really it. She will be nothing to me. Nothing. She’s not my real mother anyway. No more calling her Mommy, Mom or even Helen, her given name. She’s a witch, yes, Wanda the Witch, Wanda the Wicked Witch of the Western Suburbs. That is who she will be to me from now on.
I suck in the biting air, roll up my skirt a couple inches and trudge forward, determined to have a smile on my face before I enter my first class. I arrive just as the bell signals all students should be in their seats, quiet and ready to learn.
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