Listen to Your Mother

Listen to Your Mother

Listen to Your Mother 858 642 Katherine Sinback

Listen to your mother.

What choice do you have? She pays for everything: your phone, your organic romaine, your rehab. Four stints and counting at Serenity Village. They may name a bench after you, or an honorary pillow with something inspirational stitched in baby-blue: God Grant me the Serenity to stop guzzling vodka like water. You’re not against it. You’d welcome something to show for all the hours you’ve spent serving your pain, your stories, your gritty details on a platter during group counseling sessions. Bedraggled and jittery, hollowed and bottomed out your fellow addicts sit like a collection of antique dolls with chipped paint. Like you, they hunger for something deeper, something more satisfying than your tidbits. Your stories are like the hors d’oeuvres at your father’s retirement party. Your mother raves about the crab puffs and tuna rolls to anyone who will listen. They were her small glory before the fall. Your fall.

You didn’t make it to the party. You detoured into a ditch near the exit ramp. Your Honda knocked off course by the fifth of vodka you consumed watching morning talk shows and a frantic hunt for a cigarette ember that blew into the back seat of your car. Your father’s words echoing in the roar of the wind from the open car window was the last thing you remember. Cars explode, Heather. You have to be more careful.

Then darkness. Then your mom’s face looming over you framed by white light. Her heavily lined eyes, smear of mauve across her lips. For your father’s big day, she had tried, she had applied a thick mask of makeup and tried to be pretty for your dad and maybe that is why tears sprung to your eyes in the moment before her lips parted to speak. We thought you were dead.

You did too. But that’s nothing new.

Listen to your mother.

Pick up your socks. You’re living in her house again. Your house again. Your room again with corner scraps of the New Kids on the Block poster you ripped down still taped to the blank wall. Souvenirs of your adolescent bad taste. Do you really need to smoke in the yard? What will the neighbors think? Your mother finds new ways to be disappointed in you when she’s not revisiting the old ones. When you pass her in the hall, the smell of smoke clinging to your scarf your mother says like she just remembered, “Your cousin Libby is coming to stay with us next week. She’ll take Nana’s room.”

“But I was going to move in there. I hoped–” Nana’s room, the apartment over the garage where your nana never lived, the room that’s been your only goal, your only reachable goal since you left rehab last month. Privacy. Your own bathroom. Your mother trusts you with neither.

Your mother’s lips, now bare, draw into a line. “That was never going to happen. You have to know that.”

You do know that. Not after four stays at Serenity Village, your limp crudité platter now refined enough by all the tellings and retellings of your stories that it’s fit to serve at your dad’s retirement party. You’ve tailored tuna rolls from carrot sticks. Crab puffs from stringy celery. The story you tell the most, the one that brings down the group-counseling house and makes the counselor cock her head to the side either in sympathy or boredom at having to hear it again involves your cousin Libby, she who will soon move into your house and further junk up your already cluttered life.

“So there was this pigpen near my grandma’s.” You always begin the story the same way, always with a deep breath like you’ve never let these words pass your lips before. You want the sad dolls to know that you are sharing a confidence, a darkness.

Libby brought you to the pigpen when you were twelve during one of your family visits to your grandma’s house. Libby and your uncle lived with your grandma in the middle of farms and apple orchards. Her TV only got two staticky stations. Complaining of boredom, you were foisted onto Libby and she curled her lip in your presence, but this time she invited you. She smiled when she asked. She didn’t tell you that she wanted to get high with her friend, that she needed cover, someone to keep her friend’s little brother busy and out of their feathered hair. While the two of them were smoking, you and the boy walked over to the pigpen to take a closer look.

“Did you hear ‘em this morning?” The boy asked, a smile teasing at his lips. “I got to watch ‘em do it once. Goddamn, them little bitches bleed almost as much as they squeal.”

You did hear them. Early in the morning while the sky was still purple and Libby snored in the bed beside you, you froze in your sleeping bag, thinking someone was being chased. The scrape of their squeals scoured away the remnants of your dream. Something soft-focused about Ralph Macchio. You shook Libby’s shoulder but she turned away. She was a country girl accustomed to these terrors. These ritual slaughters. Her daddy was a hunter.

You crawled back in your sleeping bag, squeezed your eyes shut and tried to blot out the sound, the terrible rise and fall of the squeals until silence descended and you longed for the sounds of life.

At the pigpen, the boy’s grin was a challenge.

“Yeah, I heard it,” you said and then your eyes skittered to the puddles of blood inside the pen, the spray of red specks drying in the afternoon sun to the color of rust.

The boy leaned into you, tried to kiss you. You tell the dolls that he pawed at your tit. He jammed his hand between your legs, his fingernails scraped the flesh of your thighs that bulged from beneath your shorts. You heard Libby and her friend coughing, laughing. You say you remember the boy’s grunt as he tried to get somewhere hidden on the territory of your body. You remember the thickness of his fingers and the feeling of being paralyzed, of telling yourself that you wanted this. It’s all you ever wanted even though you wished it was Ralph Macchio.

Suddenly your uncle loomed above you. He grabbed you by the arm and threatened to tell your mother but he never did.

When you tell the story, there’s as much lies as truth in it now because it has become your origin story and your shield. The red dot on the airplane magazine map with lines spidering towards all the corners of your life: Why you dropped out of college. Why your friends shed you like cheap mall jewelry at the end of the night. You may leave a green-tinged trace, but they still don’t seem to remember you or why they wanted your shine to begin with. Why you picked vodka because whiskey reminds you of the blood. Why you can’t look at your mother without wanting to cry or scream so you swallow your words, glare, make her believe that she is the one who ruined you. Why you don’t eat bacon. Why you can’t imagine a perfect night that doesn’t end in a breakdown because the calm that comes after the heaving sobs that rattle your numb body is the most serene that you’ve ever felt. Why you can’t shed the final five even though you barely eat a carrot all day. Why you can’t.

The story of the pigpen is the sculpted cheese ball at the center of the platter.

To yourself, you admit to embellishment. Maybe the boy only tried to touch your leg. Or maybe his hand crawled up your shorts, made it to his destination before retreating in confusion. You were twelve. Your sexuality was a stew of pillows clutched between your thighs, posters of moist-skinned heart throbs, a dog licking your ear in a way that gave you goosebumps. When you add new details to the story, the counselor nods along. You’re not sure if she believes you.


Libby moves into Nana’s apartment. She keeps to herself, skitters away when she hears your bedroom door open. She is three years older than you, but now you are the one who has seen more of the world, the one who gets high. You catch her during one of her slippered shuffles to the kitchen to boil water for her boxed macaroni and cheese. You corner her by the stairs, “Remember that day at the pigpen near Grandma’s?” you ask and then without letting her answer you recite the story of the pigpen. You don’t care if your mother hears. It’s her turn to listen.

Libby doesn’t move. She doesn’t meet your eye. You sense there is something else brewing beneath her surface. Something that might carry you both away, send you tumbling down the stairs. You stop talking when you see your mother’s hand on the bannister at the bottom of the staircase. At this point in the story, your uncle has saved you again from whatever that boy had in mind. Your uncle has threatened you again for whatever you had in mind with that boy.

“It’s not happening,” your mother calls up the stairs. She thinks you are pestering Libby about Nana’s bedroom. She has warned you against bullying your cousin, making her want to leave so you can move into the better bedroom, have your own bathroom where your mother can’t easily check the toilet tank for vodka bottles. You suspect your mother loves your cousin more than you, that they have some sort of country-girl bond that will never include your suburban self.

“You don’t even know what we’re talking about,” you say to your mother.

“Sure, I do,” she says, posturing for Libby.

The three of you retreat to your corners.

The next time you see Libby, this time with her bowl of chemical yellow pasta cradled in her elbow, she stops and knocks on your door. “He didn’t mean anything by it,” she says. “He was just a dumb kid.”

And you already imagine telling the story again, with this new wrinkle the next time. Dismissal or disbelief, that’s for the dolls to decide. You are familiar with both. You imagine the sympathetic clucks of the tongues from the Serenity circle crowding you. The momentary high from your unburdening dissipating in the stuffy room, settling like dust on the linoleum. And you wonder if each new telling separates you farther from yourself, if each detail is more cotton stuffed in your ears. And you wonder if this is like sleeping through the squeal of the pigs.

Header photograph © Galduryndari D.

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