We Live We Die We Live Again, Ari Reyes
Mom always smelled like that sticky brown stuff that caked on the bottom of her pink purse. Sometimes, when she would lean in so close that her hair would brush across my cheeks, I could smell the stuff in the little bottle she sprayed on herself sometimes. That smelled like flowers.
She didn’t usually hug me. But that was okay. Her arms were so thin, I was afraid to touch her too much. Like she was going to break or melt or just disappear. Most of the time, it was okay to just be in the same room. We would sit in our little apartment; me planted in front of the TV, and mom in a chair by the window. I always wondered what she was looking at. There was nothing outside but an old dumpster and some stray cats. I tried to sit at that window once and just watch, but I got bored. I’d much rather watch the T.V. It was loud and colorful and it filled the house. I like Rugrats.
There were always people in our house. Especially at night. Men with leather jackets with spikes on them and painted faces. Girls with colorful hair and black nails. They reminded me of pixies or fairies or witches. But they weren’t wicked. They would smile and pet my hair and laugh with their teeth showing. Mom would pull me into her lap and whisper that it was our secret, and she would wrap her little finger around mine.
Mom would usually put me to bed before they arrived but sometimes she forgot. Or sometimes I would sneak out of my room and she wouldn’t notice. It was like a different world on these nights, when I would wake up to the pounding of music so loud it rattled my bed, and I would slip down the hall into a cloud of shadows and smoke. The smoke was so thick it would push its way down my throat and make me cough, but afterwards my lungs would tingle and hum. The next morning, light would stream through the blinds and I would sit on the sofa. It was always a mess. Empty bottles and glowing butts and pointy’s on the floor. But I didn’t mind. It reminded me that they were here, and that they would come again. That meant Mom had to come out of her room again.
On days that she didn’t, I could do anything I wanted. I could draw pictures and watch whatever I wanted on T.V, for however long I wanted. Mom didn’t like me to watch T.V so much, said it would rot my brain. But I thought my brain was okay and I’d been doing this for a long time.
I thought that living in the T.V would be really fun because you always have friends and it’s never boring. I wanted to be Diego and rescue animals or like Kim Possible so I could fight bad guys. When the music got too loud at night I liked to pretend I was in the T.V.
My favorite days were the days Mom would make breakfast. She wasn’t as good a cook as nana, but she was trying so it was okay. She made pancakes sometimes, they were always too runny and they’d fall apart on my fork, but most of the time she just made cereal. She made the best cereal.
Benny came to visit sometimes. This was usually when mom had been away for a few hours, but sometimes she was gone for a couple days and Benny would get mad because he had better things to do than take care of other people’s fucking kids.
The most she was gone had been a week and one day.
Benny would knock on the door; our secret knock. Two quick knocks and then two slow ones. I would open the door and he would shake his head and come inside. Benny had a big beard that was black but also gray, like a skunk. His droopy eyes always looked sad. He would always ask where Mom was and I would either say she’s in her room, or she’s not here. Then Benny would grunt and I would follow him down the stairs to his apartment. His house was always clean and had lots of pictures on the walls. There was a little girl in most of the pictures, her blonde pigtails were long and she had two missing teeth.
Benny said that this was his daughter and he loved her a lot. He missed her too. I asked him where she was once, and he had said that she lived with her mom.
Benny had only met Mom a couple times, but whenever he did he was always mean. Mom would cry and then I would be mad at Benny for a couple days. Benny could be mean sometimes. Like when he talked on the phone sometimes he would yell and I’d have to turn the T.V up way loud.
Benny days were my favorite because I got to sit on his big sofa and pet his fat gray cat. Her name was Zelda. Zelda didn’t look like the cats on the T.V because her face looked like someone stepped on it. She was kind of ugly.
Benny would make us grilled cheese and we’d watch movies together like Snow White and The Little Mermaid. He only had movies that his daughter used to watch and that’s it. I don’t like Snow White, but I never told him that because he thought I did.
Occasionally, if Benny had somewhere to be or he was really busy, he would call Nana. Nana would arrive at our apartment, and let herself in because she had a special key. She kept her eyes on the floor as she grabbed my hand and led me to her silver car in the parking lot. She’d make me sit in the back. Nana’s house was big. It had a big porch in the front with a swing on it and when you went in, there was a huge fireplace where we would make marshmallows sometimes.
My favorite days were the ones I spent at Nana’s house. In the afternoon, she would set me on the counter and we would bake chocolate chip cookies, because those were my favorite. She would let me lick the batter and she would ask me questions. Mostly they were about my mom and her friends but a lot of the times she asked about what I did during the day and what kind of foods were my favorite. Whenever we did fun stuff like bake cookies or play board games, she would always tell me how she used to do them with Mom when she was a little girl. I didn’t believe her though, because Mom didn’t like this stuff, and if she did when she was little, then she was grown up now. I wondered if I would still like baking cookies when I was grown up.
At school, our teacher taught us how babies grow into kids and kids grow up into mommys and then nanas. All the other kids at school had daddys too but I don’t know how they fit in.
Nana was always warm and she never smelled like smoke. Sometimes I would fall asleep on her chest and listen to the sound of her heart beating. I liked to pretend that it was mom who was holding me; and it kind of was in a way. Nana told me that Mom came from her just like I came from mom. Maybe a part of her was still in there.
My least favorite days, though, were the days Nana took me back home. She would always wait until mom came back, and sometimes I would be at Nana’s for a couple days before I could go home.
One time when she took me home, she asked me really nicely to go into my room and shut the door. She gave me the little pony we had gotten from McDonald’s, and then kissed me goodbye. I left the door open a little crack though, because I wanted to keep watch on Mom.
“How could you do this?” I couldn’t hear Mom’s responses though, because she always made sure to keep her voice down when Nana was yelling.
“You’re putting her in danger every second and you don’t even care!”
“If you can’t take care of her, then -”
“Don’t you fucking touch her!” Mom was getting upset now, it sounded like she was crying. Was she crying because of me?
“You’re just too selfish to see how this is destroying her-”
“I can take care of her just fine without you-”
“No, you can’t. I’m not going to stand here and watch this happen. I can’t”
The door shut really loudly and then it was silent. I crept out of my room, even though nobody said that I could, and I found Mom sitting on the couch. Her hair was covering her face, and her bony shoulders were shaking. There was black stuff on her cheeks and it made her look scary. But I didn’t tell her that. When she smiled at me, her teeth were brown and broken. I slipped into her lap and when she kissed me, her lips were dry and cracked.
“What am I going to do?” She asked me, but I didn’t know what she meant.
“We can make cookies,” I said and she laughed and promised that we’d make cookies together.
Benny and me were sitting in his apartment, drinking blue juice in little barrels. We were watching a movie about dinosaurs, and some guy was getting both of his legs eaten off. I like dinosaurs. My favorites are the ones with the long necks. It was scary and on her good days, I don’t think Mom would let me watch it. But she wasn’t here.
After a little bit, I got bored and my eyes drifted to the pictures on his wall. The little girl, her name was Emily, was leaning against a tree with her arms crossed, wearing a purple sweater.
“Benny, where’s my dad?” The question seemed to surprise him and his little glasses slipped down his nose.
He grunted a little, his lips twisted like he’d sucked on something sour. “How should I know?” I nodded my head, forcing down the hard ball in my chest. In another picture, Emily was wearing big round glasses and dressed in a colorful leotard. She had three big medals hanging around her neck. She was barefoot.
I told Benny that I could do gymnastics too and I got up and did a cartwheel. I did it right but my foot smacked against a shelf and one of the pictures toppled over and broke against the floor. Glass scattered across the floor and Benny stared at the picture for a while. It was Emily as a fat-cheeked baby, holding a big stuffed giraffe. I apologized to Benny and told him my throat felt sore, so he took me home. I didn’t tell him that my throat didn’t hurt because I was sick. It hurt the kind of hurt where your heart is beating too fast and you can feel the hurt rising from your stomach and into your chest. The kind of hurt I felt when I was alone in my room for too long or when mom wouldn’t come out of her room, no matter how many times I banged on the door. When she wouldn’t look at me no matter how loudly I cried.
The next day at school, that boy named Jason told me I smelled. He pulled my hair and asked if I ever took a bath and he told me my clothes were dirty. I didn’t think they were dirty but it still made me mad. I pushed him and he fell. His elbow was bleeding but he pushed me back. I bit his arm and he yelled. That’s when the teacher came over and grabbed my ear really hard and then I couldn’t play outside anymore. She gave me a really long note and told me to give it to my mommy.
I gave the note to Benny and he read it super slowly. Then he laughed.
When mom came home that evening I didn’t look at her. From the corner of my eye, I watched her trip from the doorway and down the hall. There was a wet stain all over the front of her shirt. She smelled of sick and smoke and sweat. She didn’t seem to notice I was there at all and I fought the hurt from deep in my throat again. I pushed it way down into my stomach and covered it up with all my organs and blood so I couldn’t feel it anymore.
When Nana said it was time to take me home one day, I told her I was sick. I coughed so much until it was real and I really did throw up. I wasn’t even lying. Nana let me stay for a little longer but then she took me to the car. I cried. I didn’t mean to, didn’t even know it was coming, but all of a sudden I was screaming and crying and telling her I didn’t want to go home. I wished I could live with nana all the time. I wanted to live somewhere I wasn’t alone all the time, where I could eat real food everyday. Somewhere where someone told me not to watch so much T.V.
Nana cried too, even though I didn’t know why because she still took me home. Mom was sitting on the couch. Her dark eyes were darker than before. She stared at me without seeing me, her lips slightly parted and her thin face slack. Did nana tell her what I’d said? Was she angry? She didn’t seem angry. In fact, she seemed nothing at all. Instead of sitting with her, I skirted around her and hid in my room.
When the music started in the night, I didn’t leave my room. I listened to the laughter and stomping and singing until I was almost asleep again. I startled awake when I heard the creak of my door opening. I could just barely make out someone standing there from the light of my Finding Nemo nightlight. They stepped forward, and I heard the jingle of the little buckles on his big boots. He was speaking, but I couldn’t hear him. The music was too loud and the words didn’t make any sense. He sat on the edge of my bed, and pulled the blanket away from me. I tried to pull it back but he pushed me and my spine smacked against the baseboard. My hands were shaking and I tried to push him away but he was too heavy and he was struggling all the buckles on his jacket. I must have been screaming, but nothing was coming out and no one was coming to help me. He pressed against my chest with his elbow and I screamed again. I bit into his face and suddenly the weight came off and he was screaming. He had one hand pressed against his cheek, where blood seeped between his fingers. Something warm and metal was pooling in my mouth and running in little rivers down my chin. I rolled out of bed and ran down the hallway. There was smoke and broken glass and people. Too many people, and none of them were my mother. I ran into the kitchen and two people had their arms around each other, one girl sitting on top of the stove. In the living room, there were a bunch of people on the couch, one girl draped across all of them, her skirt around her hips. The man at the end of the couch was sticking a pointy in her ankle, but instead of crying the girl just smiled.
Outside, it was cold. It was raining, but only just enough to coat the top of your head. At Benny’s door, I knocked but there was no answer. The pounding music from the apartment was still in my head so I continued down the stairs. Out on the street, I kept walking. The cold air froze the blood to my face and it began flaking off in crusts. My feet were cold, I hadn’t had time to find my shoes, and I wished that I had a jacket more than shoes. Pimples covered my arms and my head hurt from the smoke and the music. I tried not to be scared because Dora goes on adventures by herself all the time. Except she has Boots and Map and I don’t.My eyes wouldn’t stay open, and every couple of steps I had to force them open again, blinking against the too-bright lights.
When my mom found me, she cried. She hugged me to her and her shoulders cut into my neck. She was shaking, and together, we trembled on the damp sidewalk. She stood up after a while and tugged on my arm. I pulled away and sat on the ground.
“It’s time to go home.”
I yelled and said I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go home because there’s always too many people and they’re not nice anymore and I don’t even like to watch the T.V.
She pulled my arm again and it hurt a little so I hit her in the face. She frowns and tries to pull me again but I struggle away.
“Take me to Nana’s!” She’s still trying to pull my arm but I kick at her legs and then she gives up. She sits next to me some more and I can see that she’s crying even though she probably didn’t want me to see.
She made me promise that we wouldn’t tell nana about what happened. Did that mean don’t tell her about the man or don’t tell her that I ran away?
When nana came to pick me up for school I didn’t tell her. And when she dropped me off I didn’t tell her then either. Instead I told her about the turkeys we made in class with markers and paper and she smiled and said she wanted me to show her.
She told me that I could watch all the T.V. I wanted if I kept our secret.
The next day, Benny knocked our secret knock. When I didn’t open the door, he knocked louder and called my name. When I answered, he smiled and asked if I was hungry. I told him, no, I wasn’t hungry. He made me peanut butter and jelly anyway. While I ate, he cleaned the living room, swiping everything into a trash can and leaving it outside our door.
When he was done, he walked to my mom’s door and knocked softly.
I wanted to tell him that she wasn’t going to answer, but I didn’t have the energy. My head was pounding, and it took everything I had to sit upright and keep my eyes open.
When she didn’t answer, Benny knocked again and then sighed. She was probably mad because I hit her.
I slept that night at Benny’s house, where we built a fort in the living room and he left the T.V on after he went to bed, to keep me company.
I’d decided that I was going to ask Benny in the morning to call my nana. She would pick me up, and I would tell her everything that happened. And, I decided. I wouldn’t go home afterwards.
In the morning, Benny called my nana and together, we went back to the apartment to pack. I told him I wanted to find my pony, and he threw whatever clothes I had into my Dora backpack.
Before we left, I knocked on mom’s door again. Then I twisted the knob. It was dark, and it smelled damp. It smelled like smoke and the empty bottles spilled around the bed. The mattress was bare except for a wool blanket falling over the edge. My mother’s smooth leg poked out, the veins on her ankle covered in bruises. Her hair was a curtain over her face, so I couldn’t see her eyes, and the hair around her mouth was damp. It smelled sick and my stomach roiled. I turned away, ready to leave, when Benny appeared in the doorway. He looked embarrassed at first, as if she would be mad. Then he stepped in, and looked around. He saw one of her pointy’s on the table and took a step closer, blocking my view. I heard him take a breath and then he was hitting my mother in the chest, pressing his palms into her ribs so hard I heard them crack. I yelled and smacked his back. He pushed me away so hard I fell on the floor. Except I saw that her eyes were open. There was foam coated on her lips, like the big dog that lived across from us, constantly locked behind a chain fence. He’d bark and snarl when we passed, and sometimes his spit would land on our cheeks.
A truck with flashing lights came like on T.V. A man wrapped a scratchy blanket around my shoulders. I shrugged it off and went over to Benny, who was standing on the sidewalk with his phone to his ear. He looked tired and when he saw me, I thought I saw another line appear on his forehead. I stood with him for a long time and after a while we both sat on the sidewalk, knees up to our chins. He asked me if I was hungry and I said no so we kept sitting. We drew pictures in the dirt with our fingers. My back hurt from when he pushed me.
When Nana came to get me she was crying. She wasn’t wearing makeup and she looked older than she used to. She hugged me too tightly and asked me if I understood what had happened. I didn’t, but I said I did because I didn’t think she’d want to explain it to me. After she was done rocking me and kissing my head, she went away to a man in a uniform, and they talked for a while. I went to find Benny again, who was still sitting on the sidewalk. Someone had walked over our drawings, but I didn’t mind a lot.
“Is she dead?” I had heard of people dying; had even seen it happen on the T.V. But this was different because it was mom and we hadn’t baked cookies together yet.
Benny nodded his head without looking at me.
“She’s dead, kiddo.” He was going to say something more but Nana found me again, and she wrapped both arms around my shoulders. She whispered in my ear sweet things about how I would get to live with her everyday and I would never have to come back to this awful place and I could bake all the cookies I wanted. She led me to the uniformed man, who gave me a lollipop. Because that’s what you get when your parents die.
By the time Nana was done talking to the man, Benny had gone.
I didn’t tell Nana about what happened the night I ran away. I didn’t tell her not because Mom told me told me not to, though. I didn’t tell her because me and Mom had one last thing together, and that was a secret.
About the Author
Nina Eddinger · Kutztown University
Nina Eddinger is a Professional Writing graduate from Kutztown University. She’s been published in SHARE Journal, Shoofly Literary Journal, The Borgen Project Blog, Her Campus, and the Front Street Journal. She was a semi-finalist for RACC’s Berks County Poet Laureate competition in 2021. This piece was first published in Shoofly.
About the Artist
Ari Reyes · Saint Edward’s University
Ari Reyes is a Spanish-American artist located in Austin, Texas and a graduate of St. Edward’s University with a BFA. Deeply inspired by the natural world, Ari’s artwork uses organic images and symbolism to explore deeper themes of life, death and rebirth, our emotions, internal thoughts, and fantasy. This piece first appeared in Sorin Oak Review.