My stepdad destroyed our house, but it wasn’t great when we bought it, it smelled of cat pee everywhere. The previous owners had a lot of cats who were apparently not potty-trained. The piss soaked through the carpet and into the wood floors, leaving the place filled with an impossible-to-rid ammonia odor.
With only three rooms upstairs, my parents had to create their bedroom in a corner of the living room. They had no door, just a sheet that was occasionally ripped down and replaced. My brother, sister, and I each got a small room upstairs with no closet. Across from my room was the bathroom, right at the top of the rickety wooden stairs. When the tornado sirens sounded, my brother and I laughed hysterically that the house would blow away like it were made of cardboard. If I was quiet in my room I could hear what everyone in the house was doing at once.
. . .
“What are you doing?” My mom and stepdad are standing in front of the pathetic house. They look like forty-year-old orphans who never mentally matured past age twelve, wearing big t-shirts, hiding their belly fat. Mom is wearing her favorite Sesame Street shirt. My stepdad wears a dirty Carhartt tee.
“Saying bye to Madison and Kyle,” I say, coldly staring at them. I can’t help it, but the longer I live away from them, the less I can empathize; the more I want to push and push further away from them.
“Oh, ok. Asshole,” they say, and I realize they expect me to say goodbye to them, too.
“Oh, yeah,” I think. I didn’t come from school to visit them, I came to see my grandparents and my brother and sister.
They both look horrible and gross. Like, when I accidentally look at my makeup-less, unwashed, hungover face in a little magnified makeup mirror: they look like that, but from far away. My mom has a cold sore on her upper lip that looks twice the size of any cold sore I’ve ever seen. It looks infected or something. I stare at them like I have never looked at anyone before; a stare of disgust, disappointment, and hatred.
“Ew. You have herpes,” I say to my mom.
She laughs and says it’s a cold sore. Why is she laughing?
. . .
I’m fifteen and I just want to take a shower. My stepdad has lately been yelling about the fact that he pays the water bill, not us kids. We are supposed to limit our showers to five minutes. I have my shower things in-hand, I am so close. Then, my stepdad’s ogre-senses kick in, and he begins to stomp around in the living room like a villainous fairy tale character who might huff and puff and blow the whole house down.
I can hear my stepdad yelling at my mom, “What is she doing?”
“She’s taking a shower, Bill,” my mom says in a shrill voice.
“The fuck she is. This is my house.” Bill’s favorite thing to say is “this is my house.”
It makes me furious that we aren’t allowed to claim ownership of the house we live in together. I am fifteen and fighting for freedom; a particular type of furiousness.
“Alyson!” my stepdad booms, “Get your ass in here. Now!” Always extra boom on the “Alyson” and the “now!”
This is how my stepdad summons us kids.
“What are you doing?” The interrogation begins.
“Taking a shower,” I say, feebly.
“No you ain’t. This is my house.”
“This is not just your house. This is my house, too.” Although I am scared, I am unable to hold my tongue.
“Comere!” He says “come here” as one word and in the form of a low growl.
He yanks me by the collar of my t-shirt and it starts to rip. I think about the pajama pants he ripped the last time he grabbed me this hard. He pulls me up to his face so he can spit while he yells about his power.
“Fuck you,” I say. I am scared, but I have pride.
He smacks me hard across the face. This shocks me for a moment.
“I’m your dad. We play by my rules! Understand?”
There are tears streaming down my face as I say, “My real dad wouldn’t hit me.”
This sets something bad off inside of him. He pulls tighter on my t-shirt and hanks me around, the sleeves tears more. With all his strength he plunges me to the floor, the same way one might plunge a football into the grass. I land directly on my chin and everything goes black for a second. My jaw feels broken.
“Get up! Get the fuck up!” he yells, and begins kicking me with his steel-toed work boots.
I can’t move.
“Get up! Don’t just lay there like a retard! What’s wrong with you?” my mom screams, the first time she’s said anything this whole time. She’s been standing on the sidelines just watching.
I lay on the floor, my eyes blurred with tears. My chin throbs. My parents are yelling at me, telling me this is my fault. Nothing makes sense.
“Get the fuck out of my house!”
My stepdad picks me up and shoves me into the front door, but every time I begin to turn the handle my mom intervenes and says, “No, you’re not going anywhere.”
It’s hard to tell if they’re fighting over me, but I’m a human ragdoll and one of them wants me tossed out while the other wants me to submit.
I won’t soon forget this. The betrayal on my mom’s part, the misplaced blame.
. . .
It’s a Monday and I’m calling my mom. I like routine and I usually call my family on Sundays. I call my mom to tell her good news. Things are going good, I’m doing well in school. I bring up my brother, Kyle. I say that I talked to him on Sunday and that he sounded like he was doing good, better.
My mom starts to say, “Well, something happened. I don’t know if I should tell you about it.” She repeats a variation of this a few times.
I am starting to get worried. She says something like, “It’s not a big deal.” And, again, “I don’t know if I should tell you. It’s not a big deal.”
“You may as well tell me now,” I say, although I know already that I would rather not hear it.
“Your brother came down stairs last night screaming bloody murder. It was, like, 2 in the morning. He was yelling, ‘Take me to the ER! I need to go to the fucking ER!”
My stomach begins to lurch and sink, the same way that it had when my mom called me about Kyle crashing his car last fall. I want to throw my body on the floor, but I remain still, and I say nothing while my mom continues.
“He was freaking the fuck out, Alyson. He had a syringe sticking out of his leg, blood everywhere, and he was screaming that there was a worm inside of him.”
I don’t think my body can react any more violently, but my stomach continues to throw itself around inside of me. My face is red, and I know I will be unable to sleep tonight. I still say nothing, I know the story isn’t over.
“We went to the ER and the nurse asked, ‘Have you been to Africa?’ and he said ‘No’ and she told him it wasn’t possible that he had a parasite, and you can’t feel parasites moving inside of you. She asked him if he did any drugs and he said no. Then, it came out that he had shot up Adderall because he was out of Xanax. The nurse said that shooting up Adderall is the same as doing meth, and that a side effect can be the feeling of bugs moving under your skin. She asked why he had a syringe sticking out of his leg and he said because he was trying to pin down the worm.”
I had nothing to say. I was so disappointed and sick. I thought I might pass out or vomit or both.
“He argued with the nurse for an hour, Alyson. Before he finally agreed that maybe he didn’t have a parasite.”
“Oh my god,” I said, finally, “Why don’t you do something?”
. . .
I hold my belly in the mirror. I’ve got a good grip on all of the fat, squeezing it with both hands, moving it like dough. I turn to the side, it looks bulgy. “I look pregnant,” I think. I’ve been thinking this since I was a kid, always wondering how girls had naturally flat stomachs. “Maybe I eat too much Wendy’s,” I think, and I vow to never eat it again. I have a fear of becoming fat and not knowing it, but more importantly I have a fear of becoming my mom.
I remember vividly crying in my grandparent’s car once when I was seven or eight, “I don’t want to be like her. I never ever want to be like Mom. If I ever act like her I’m going to kill myself.”
My grandpa gasped. My grandma hushed me. They told me not to talk like that. I was embarrassed, and I shut up.
My mom was mean. She was a bitch. She used to break down and scream at me and my brother and sister at the top of her lungs, “I hate you! I fucking hate all of you! I wish you were never born!” I remember these conversations taking place on the drive to school in the morning. At home, I would sit in my room and cry, and write in my journal about how much I wished my mom would die, always feeling guilty later and then crying about the picture of her death.
. . .
At least there are walls in the kitchen now. They are painted. For a year we had to stare at drywall to cook our ramen noodles. My stepdad had scrawled all over the drywall in pencil. He wrote “Linda is a whore” (Linda is my mom). He wrote, “Ho”. He scribbled meaningless numbers and names.
My stepdad has a problem. He can’t help but to get himself into meth and crack. He smokes cigarettes and drinks constantly, I used to think that was the problem, before I knew about meth and crack. He’s supposedly bipolar. My mom claims that for a few years he was taking his medication and was “normal.” I don’t remember those years.
In high school I began to search through my parent’s room. I always found hydrocodone. Always. In fact, I am positive that if I went through their things today I would find some. I would grab a couple, if I was feeling particularly angst-y. A few times I took one, even though they made me feel nothing but sick. I took them in spite of my parents. I thought, “Ha, take that.”
My mom always held hydrocodone in her purse for my stepdad. She held onto them so that she knew how many he was taking and they argued if she wouldn’t give him enough. Once, he started hitting her because they went missing. I listened from my room and felt sickeningly guilty; I had taken some. Not that I would run downstairs and throw myself in front of her over it. Not after the time I lay on the living room floor being kicked by him while my mom yelled at me, as if I were at fault. It was my mom’s fault she was being beaten. She never listened when my siblings and I told her to leave him.
The last time I went through my stepdads’ drawers I was a senior in high school. I opened the top drawer, the one with different pills. A sandwich baggie sat on top of the junk-mess. I grabbed the baggie. There was something white inside, but it wasn’t cocaine. It was cloudy, dirty white, and it was solid. The shape of it scared me. It wasn’t a circle or anything identifiable. I knew I was holding something bad. My heart dropped and my face got hot. I felt too overwhelmed and began to cry. I knew my stepdad was into drugs, but seeing it like that made it too real. Part of me wanted to throw the shit out. Part of me wanted to try it, like I had the hydros. But I put it back. I googled pictures of heroin and crack until I found out it had to have been crack. I never mentioned it to my parents.
. . .
My brother Kyle is eighteen, three years younger than me. When I was a senior in high school we smoked weed together out on our roof. We felt bad and cool, but we weren’t bad, we were just having fun. I want the Kyle from that time to come back to me.
“I have to tell you something, but you can’t tell anybody,” Kyle says. Kyle says this to me a lot.
“Ok,” I say, swallowing hard.
“I started selling coke.” He looks at me, eager for a reaction.
I don’t know what to say. I can’t lecture him because I can’t bear the, “You sound like mom!” I can’t be another mom. He has to be able to tell me what’s going on.
“Why?” I say. The words trapped in my mouth feel sticky and bitter.
“Just to make some money. There are a lot of junkies around here who buy from me.”
“You haven’t done any of it have you?”
“Well, I tried it once, yeah.”
Kyle is always torn between lying to me and confiding in me.
“You did coke?” I ask, again.
“Yeah, just a few times.”
Now, it’s a few times. The kid can’t give a straight answer. This conversation takes place between Kyle and I often. It happened with pain pills, morphine, and eventually heroin. Of course my parents catch on. My stepdad knows a fellow druggie when he sees one. Yet, my parents lack of intervention makes me feel as if I’m holding the weight of all of this.
. . .
I miss when Kyle was selling weed and I had to tell him to be careful. I miss stoner Kyle. Summer break is when it all went to shit. Really, his addiction issues started years before, but they didn’t start to come out until last summer.
Last summer I was back home from college. It didn’t take long for me to miss dorm life. At home I had to listen to my stepdad and mom fight. I had to pick up piles of dog shit from the hallway every day, and step around puddles of dog piss on my way to the bathroom. Worst of all, I couldn’t talk to my brother.
Whenever I entered his room he was fucked up; drunk as hell, half-sleeping, on thirty Xanax and shooting up morphine. Tears would spring to my eyes, and I would have to leave. Kyle was still clinging to the way we used to hang out and he would ask, “Where are you going?” But I had to leave him. I couldn’t lecture him, couldn’t stop him, he wouldn’t hear any advice. I couldn’t watch him like that.
. . .
It’s my parents fault Kyle is so fucked up. It’s my parents fault. It has to be someone’s fault and how can it be Kyle’s? He’s been through so much.
I talk about Kyle a lot because I feel like it’s my fault, too. I blame our father and stepdad and mom.
My boyfriend says, “Alyson, you went through the same stuff, and you’re not like that.”
We went through the same stuff, and we didn’t. Kyle was treated differently. Kyle was never told “no” and he was allowed to do anything he wanted independently because he was a boy and that’s how my stepdad was raised. I, however, was given a 7:00 pm curfew and frequently grounded for minor offenses, like being home a minute after curfew. It didn’t seem fair, but as my stepdad loved to say, “Life ain’t fair!” If I’d been treated like Kyle was, like a “boy” would I be shooting up heroin in my bedroom?
Kyle is expected to be tough and when he says, “Leave me alone. I can handle it myself.” My parents believe him, it’s what they want to hear. If it were me, a poor weak-willed woman, they would send me to the hospital.
. . .
When I was eighteen my parents admitted me to the ER. Something had been knocked loose in my mind. Someone had given me a drug that I wouldn’t’ve taken knowingly. I stayed in the psych ward for twelve days. Right up ‘til Christmas Eve.
I woke up a lot in the middle of the night burning. Literally on fire, in my mind. Glass in my skin. Horrid whispers in my ears. Bad things were happening inside of me and all around me. I stared out the window, and I saw shadows of people walking around on the roof. I could hear my family in my head, each of them yelling their own advice. The loudest voice was the one telling me not to burn. It must have been the medicine. In the mornings I shivered, the heater did not work and I could see each breath. But in the night hallucinations were harsh and hot.
I was staring at a ceiling, specifically at an overhead light. Those ugly yellow-green hospital ones. I was shifting back and forth on the hospital bed, in some sort of discomfort. The light looked about the length of my body. I knew it was going to explode and injure me. I knew it, but it never happened. I thought I should switch to the other bed, which was unoccupied. That one’s safer, I thought. When they came in and saw that I was utilizing both beds they let me know it was not allowed. They also let me know it was not allowed to run down the hallway. Or to leave, because I was “voluntary.” When, in reality, I had signed the form in my mom’s maiden name. I refused to admit who I was upon entrance. Not until the 6th day I was there, did I sign the correct paperwork which made it legal for them to keep me.
I remember my stepdad crying and saying it was his fault, and wondering why, why would it be his fault?
. . .
My parents are coming for family day at college. I worry the whole morning. My head hurts. My stomach hurts. I hold my fat in the mirror as I often do. I think, “God I look like my mom,” and I put clothes on that won’t outline my stomach. I dread their visit. I don’t know what we will do, and I feel guilty for describing them as “forty-year-old orphans who never mentally matured past age twelve.”
“Hey, fruit loop!” says my stepdad. He’s always called me that, because I’m weird like a fruit loop?
“Hey guys,” I say. We hug, awkwardly.
My stepdad pulls out a set of false teeth he just got to replace his gaps.
“Ew!” I yell, and he puts them in and smiles. His teeth do look better.
They take me out for lunch, buy me some groceries, and meet me later for dinner. It all goes rather pleasantly. They leave early the next morning.
“Yeah, we’re going to check something off our bucket list!” says my mom.
“What’s that?” I ask.
They are going to Good’s Furniture in Kewanee, IL. It really speaks to their character, that they have it on their bucket list to see a damn furniture store. I don’t understand where their priorities lie, but I know not in the right places.
“They have a glass elevator. Remember seeing the commercials when you were little?” says my mom.
“No,” I say, “Well, you guys have fun at your little furniture store.”
My mom laughs. She laughs as a reaction to most everything. They both look the way I described them. They look lost, like orphans, but they look happy to see me doing ok. Maybe it’s finally sinking in that I’ve grown up, because they both look on the verge of tears.
. . .
I take Ibuprofen a lot. I feel bad a lot. My head and my stomach and my mind feel constantly sick. I smoke weed and sometimes that makes me feel worse. And sometimes it makes me feel better. It’s everyone’s fault and no one’s fault. I told my mom not to tell me about Kyle anymore, good or bad. I feel guilty, but it will soon enough turn into a headache, something I can take Ibuprofen for.