My mother dismissed me, blamed the clothing, but later that day she pulled Alex, then seventeen, aside and gave her a cup of Gatorade. “If you can drink this and keep it down,” my mother said, “I won’t bring you to the hospital.” My sister’s stomach, stunned by a rush of sugars and liquid, expelled the drink immediately, and Alexandra was in the hospital within the hour.
I think of this maternal act, my mother’s realization, and I wonder how she chose to ignore Alex’s shrinking body during her first year of college. I believe she thought she had saved her once, that the problem was solved, that Alex was okay and just losing a little weight naturally. When Alex leaves for college and returns with a very small body, my mother is slow to realize again. She will never actually know the things Alex does to herself. She is oblivious.
At the end of her first year of college, Alex will tell me the things she’s done to herself over the year, the weight she’s lost. She promises she is getting better and I believe her. However, in my kitchen standing next to her, I am not yet privy to this information.
For a long time I will envy her fragile bones, slender frame, hipbones that can feel the floor; I will translate “disorder” to “determination.” Now, however, Alex’s small body frightens me. Alex, sarcastic, loving, takes no shit, and I wonder how my mother weaseled her way into her skull. Alex, who will stand up for me when my mother is drunk, who does not shy from conflict, who doubts herself constantly, who challenges me to chocolate chip cookie bake-offs, who offered to beat up my very first bully in preschool, who is my first best friend. When we were younger, my mother would dress us the same, give us the same haircuts, the same Halloween costumes and Christmas gifts. She is my twin.
Alex breaks off chunks from a pretzel rod and feeds them to my dogs, who gather like pigeons. “Where’s Mom?” she asks, looking to me. I begin to answer, but she stops me and places a finger to her forehead, closes her eyes. “Wait! No, I know. I’m seeing… I’m seeing a bed. I’m seeing a fat, middle-aged man watching TV. She’s in her room.”
Lucas laughs, joins in, closes his eyes. “No, wait. It’s…it’s not her bed. It’s Sarah’s bed. It’s Sarah’s bed and she wants to… what? No. It’s Sarah’s bed and she’s having sex with Rick on it. Oh, my God.”
I groan, steal a pretzel from Alex and toss it across the table at Lucas.
He winks at me. “You’re gonna wanna wash your sheets. That wasn’t pretty.”
Chris interrupts our laughter. “No, it’s Thursday. They’re both gone.”
Thursday means our mother and her husband will not be in the house until at least 4:30 p.m. Thursday is court-mandated therapy day, a compromise for my mother not pressing charges against her husband for hitting her. Thursday is wonderful, then, because we will do things we cannot do with our mother around, including running up and down the stairs screaming at the top of our lungs. Inevitably, one or all of us will yell colorful and amusing things including, but not limited to, “I hope the next time Rick stuffs his fat fucking mouth with our food he chokes and dies.” The dogs, roused by our wild rumpus, will howl in affirmation.
When my mother enters our kitchen an hour later, we’re telling jokes about her. We change the subject when she enters with her ask-me-about-my-day face, which usually includes a scowl, frowning eyes, and prolonged eye contact. She will pout, stare until one of us caves and asks, “What’s wrong?”
Chris takes the bait. My mother sighs deeply, and we think she’s going to laugh for a second and then she begins to sob. “Nothing. You kids don’t understand the shit I go through.” She chokes, drawing ragged breath. “You guys have had it so much easier.”
Alex raises her eyebrows at me, asks, “How did therapy go?”
My mother’s thin frame leans against the counter top. “Not good. It’s always not good.”
I gesture to Lucas and point to my mother, mouth, “Go hug her.”
Lucas places his finger to his nose. “No fucking way,” he mouths back.
I smile curtly, offer him a middle finger, and stand to hug my mother, but when I reach her, she coils inward with her arms pinned across her chest like a straitjacket and leaves the room.
Lucas rolls his eyes and offers a middle finger at her retreating back, and the three of us offer stunted laughter. “We’ve had it way too fucking easy,” he mumbles.
Sarah Steil is a sophomore English (creative writing) and pre-vet major at SUNY Geneseo. She enjoys writing, animals, and watching reruns of Forensic Files late at night with her dachshund, Bruno.