Ripple Effect

Ripple Effect

Ripple Effect 3522 2935 Will McMillan

(Content Warning: child abuse)

When I was five years old I started shitting my pants. “Having accidents,” my mother called it. It was a reaction to what my father was doing, to what he was up to. One day, I attracted the wrong kind of attention. One day, parts of him began to touch parts of me. And because I couldn’t control him or what happened to the outside of my body, I battled to control what was happening inside of it. 

I could go six days, maybe seven, without having an “accident.” By then, my midsection would be distended and trembling, as if my guts were digesting thunder. I strained, I wrestled, in spite of the agony, desperate to control this part of myself. Eventually my body won out, sometimes while asleep in my bed, sometimes while wide awake at school, and the inevitable “accident” would occur. 

It was my mother who washed both the sheets and my clothes. So, she knew.  It was my mother who answered the increasingly frantic phone calls from my teachers. So, she knew they knew. And it was my father who ruled my mother, who watched how he touched me from the sides of her eyes, who told him everything whether he asked her or not. So, that’s how he knew. And when he knew, I knew what would happen to me. Five years was too old to be shitting your pants, to be having “accidents,” no matter the reason. There had to be consequences.

“Are you…ever..?!” And a fist hit my back. 

“going to…?!” And a fist hit my ass.

“shit…your pants…?” And a hit and a hit and a hit.

“AGAIN?!”

Laid over his lap on my belly, like a fish being stripped of its scales. One hand holding me down at the neck, the other swinging up and down in the air. I’d scream no, I’d never do it again, but of course I knew that I would. Because I knew that he’d do what he was doing again. And that knowing only made me scream louder. My father was hurting me, so I was shitting my pants. I was shitting my pants, so my father was hurting me. One thing caused the other, the other caused by the thing, with no way I could think of to stop either one. So, I screamed.

*

“Do you have to tell him?” I asked my mother one afternoon, tiptoeing out of the bathroom, hot water running fast from the sink. On the wall, a mirror slicked with steam. My school was just down the street from our home, an easy walk back and forth. It was the second time this month they’d had to send me home early.

“Yes, I do have to tell him,” she said. “You’re too old to be having accidents. You’ve done this to yourself. I think you know that.”

My father worked at a lumber mill and got home at 5:30. I counted the minutes, the seconds, the sound of my heartbeat a roar in my ears, waiting for the inevitable thud of his boots on our front porch, of the jolt of the door pushing open. He stomped his way through our home, carrying the heavy scent of his workday, of sweat and rotting tree sap. Dinner had to be ready by 6 – no sooner, no later. Like me, my mother never lost track of the minutes, never dared to set foot outside the boundaries my father had cut through the soil of our lives. Over the clanks of pots and pans as she cooked, my mother let him in on the news. 

“Your son shit his pants again.”

I tried to escape. I ran to the bathroom and slammed the door shut. I was fast, but my mother, as always, was faster. My father’s job was to punish, my mother’s job was to capture. She pushed the door open, grabbing hold of my arms. I dropped to the floor, screaming and thrashing. Unable to keep a grip on my arms, my mother grabbed hold of my legs, dragging me down the hall to the living room. I knew my father was poised on the couch, a lion just waiting to feast. I scratched my nails on the walls. I drug my nails through the carpet, on anything I could touch, screaming, promising the way I always promised. Maybe it was something she’d heard in my words. Maybe it was something she’d heard in my screaming, but over the sound of all the noise I was making I heard a noise come out of my mother. 

She was laughing.

Across my father’s knees again after that. And standing still by the living room window, from the sides of her eyes, my mother stood still, watching but not watching, as he hit and he hit and he hit.

*

Six days, maybe seven days later. I’d awakened early to a mess in my bed. An inch at a time I crawled out from my covers. I kept the lights off as I crept down the hall and kept the lights off in the bathroom. I shut the door softly. Sunlight was just beginning to slip through the windows. Everything in the apartment was still – in this great pond of early morning silence it was important to be no more than a ripple. My mother heard me anyway.

“Give me those,” she’d said, one hand on the doorknob, leaning her body into the bathroom. I was halfway out of my underwear, wads of wet toilet paper crushed in my hands. My plan was to get clean and then sneak my dirty underwear out. Maybe bury them under the bushes in the field beyond our apartment. I gave her my underwear. Every inch of my body exploded with sweat, waiting for what she’d say I deserved.

“Your dad’s still asleep. Get in the bathtub before he wakes up. Clean yourself good. Then get back to bed.” She folds my underwear up in her hands, closing the door behind her. In her voice I heard the frustrated noise of retreat. It was the same noise I heard when she took me shopping for groceries and finally bought the candy I’d been nagging her for. “I won’t tell him this time.” Relief washed over me. Breath rushed out of me. My mother said it again. “I won’t tell him.” And that time, she didn’t.

*

Forty years, maybe forty-one years later. Just two weeks before her 70th birthday, my mother calls me. Staying in touch – reaching out – is a responsibility I’ve mostly left up to her. She’s decades divorced from my father. Decades divorced from her second husband as well, she’s calling to tell me her third husband, John, has just died. Through her tears, she tells me she went to go buy him lunch. He’d wanted fried chicken and there was a place not too far down the road. When she left, John was wide awake in his chair. When she got back, not 45 minutes later, he was dead. The paramedics have just left, she tells me. The chicken she bought for John, legs, and thighs only, is getting cold in the kitchen. 

“If I hadn’t left him, he might still be alive,” she sobs. “I might have been able to do something.

“There’s nothing you could have done, mom,” I say. I’m as aware of John’s drinking, his smoking, his advanced age, as she is. I work gently to remind her of these facts, of her habit of missing out on the obvious. “He didn’t take very good care of himself. His body was worn out, mom. You wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”

I remind her again when we speak the next day. I remind her for the next several days over the next several phone calls. On the morning of her 70th birthday, I call her. She’s fine, she tells me. At least, she’s feeling better about John. But there’s something else now, something unsettling, that’s been happening to her for the past couple days. When she asks if it’s okay to tell me, I say yes.

“I don’t know if it’s the stress of John dying or old age or what…” she says. “But God. For the past couple of nights, I’ve been shitting myself in my sleep. It’s so embarrassing. Can you believe it?” She pauses. In the pause, in the silence it brings, I hear my heartbeat as it roars in my ears. “Am I just…am I just disgusting? What’s wrong with me? What do you think I should do?”

I think of her dragging me kicking and screaming as she laughed. I think of how I tried to exert control of my body and what made me want to exert it. I think of how calmly she watched every bit of it. 

I think sometimes, maybe, people do things to themselves.

“You’re not disgusting,” I say, “you’re just overwhelmed. You’re stressed. Your husband’s just died, Mom. I think you should give yourself time to be messed up for a while. And I think you should be really kind to yourself.”

On the other end of the phone, she sighs. A long, almost theatrical exhale. It’s the sound of unexpected and grateful relief. Once, years ago and for whatever reason, she’d simply folded my dirty underwear up in her hand without the need, that time, to expose what I’d done. This time, I decide,  I’ll do my mom the same courtesy. I’ll simply fold her embarrassment up in my hands and act like nothing has happened. This time, and maybe only this time. After that, I might keep my mouth shut the way she kept her mouth shut, when she witnessed so much but chose to see nothing. I can watch just the same, from the sides of my eyes. I can watch as she’s forced down this sudden, unwelcome path in her life, battling as hard as she can for control to find out that she’s powerless. Maybe running as fast as she can to escape, maybe scratching and promising, maybe kicking and screaming.  

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