Girlhood, Adira Bennett
[Trigger Warning: Depictions of child neglect, self harm, and mental illness]
When I was a little girl, I had wings. I asked for them one day when we were in the dollar store. Mom already had a bunch of stuff in the cart, things we needed and things we probably didn’t. I saw them hanging on the end of an aisle, wrapped in plastic, pink and glittery. After I slipped my arms through the straps I wasn’t without them for a very long time.
Mom didn’t say anything for a while. I guess she thought it was another one of my games and I’d get tired of it eventually. One day, after it was clear that I wasn’t ditching them, she paused on our way out, fingers loose on the door handle.
“Are you really sure you want to wear those?”
I mirrored her frown and stared at her rainbow dress.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?” I asked.
Mom was always in dresses with little cats or birds or stars and always, always glitter. That or sweats. She laughed and flicked my left wing. She didn’t mention it again.
Actually, I liked Mom’s dresses, and my wings, and how we looked when we stood side-by-side. It was like we were together in a place separate from everyone else.
Ms. O’Connor asked me to stay after school one day. I stood in front of her desk and stared at the spelling tests she’d taped to the wall behind her while she asked me about the wings. Why did I wear them, what did my mother think of them. Lily, answer me please. Lily, answer my questions.
I waited until she stopped talking, and then I left.
Mom was in the parking lot when I walked out, leaning against the car, cigarette butts scattered at her feet. I tried to explain why I was late, but she jerked her thumb at the passenger door and I got in.
She drove too fast and had to slam on her breaks too many times. Somewhere in the five blocks between school and home we collided with a streetlight. It was short and old fashioned and landed on the hood, just short of the windshield.
Mom reversed fast and the metal scraped against the car, the light crashing onto the street. We drove away and there was a dent in the hood after that.
Mom and I were good. She told me so all the time.
“Hey. Don’t cry, Lil,” she’d say, dabbing at my cheeks with ripped up sweatshirt sleeves.
But I thought that she said it too many times for it to really be true. Not that Mom ever lied to me. She just lied to herself, and it was kind of the same thing.
We lived in a little house that was fading and falling apart. The front steps were crumbling and the floors and walls creaked when no one was moving. For a long time I thought there were monsters and I’d check under my bed and closet every night. Mom laughed when she found out.
“Nope. No monsters here, Lil. Ghosts, maybe.”
I didn’t leave the house much, except for school and the store. I didn’t go to friends’ houses because I didn’t have friends. Sometimes, when Mom was feeling good, we’d go on walks. We’d pass a lot of old people, and they’d smile in a vague sort of way at my wings.
I spent a lot of time in the backyard because Mom worried about me being out front. I ran around and around, brandishing twigs like they were wands and exploring castles that were really just trees. I went as high as I could on the swings, until I was whipping back and forth so fast I thought I’d puke. Then, I’d slip off the seat and into the air and feel my wings flutter against my back and, for a second, I was flying.
Mom would come out sometimes and push me, a cigarette clamped in her mouth and the pack in the pocket of her sweatpants.
“Higher, higher,” I’d laugh and she’d slow me down because she worried.
Home was my whole world, but it was a big world, and a good one.
Mom would stomp from room to room, laughing, crying and yelling. I hovered behind her and dragged her back when she went too far. When the bottle of pills went halfway down her throat and then all over the bathroom floor, or when I got home from school and followed a trail of broken glass and sticky puddles and drops of blood to where she lay on the floor, I dragged her back.
I was careful with her. I knew when she needed me to cry, or hide, or grab her hand and tell her to please stop. And we were always good in the end.
We went to the museum one day. Mom wore a yellow sunflower dress and we got ice cream. Another day, Mom called my school and said I was sick. We stayed home and watched movies and put together a puzzle of the Eiffel Tower.
“I always wanted to go to Paris,” she told me.
I replayed these days in my head every night. I didn’t want to forget them.
Mom liked to fight with people. She screamed into the phone or punched furiously at the buttons. She went to Grandma’s. She got angry and then she got money. We were always short on money. Mom quit a lot of jobs, or she got fired, and she liked to buy stuff.
“Amanda, why do you let Lily wear that costume?” Grandma asked with a forced delicacy when we were visiting one day. “It’s March.”
“Because she wants to,” Mom said.
Grandma rolled her eyes and leaned toward Mom like I wouldn’t hear.
“Amanda. She’ll get into trouble at school. Does she get picked on?”
“Lily’s fine, Mom.” Mom’s voice jumped dangerously.
Her hand was tapping and tapping and tapping her phone against the table. I wanted to tell Grandma to shut up. Look at her hands, listen to her voice. She was sending Mom over the edge and she didn’t have to. Grandma started to talk again and Mom snapped, cutting her off. Her voice was sharp and painful.
“Jesus Christ, Mom. Just fucking drop it.”
They both fell silent and it was difficult to breathe. Mom lit a cigarette right there at
the table and Grandma asked how work was going.
“It sucks and the pay is shit,” Mom spat, her voice thick.
Grandma just looked tired. She was slumped a little in her chair. Mom started to come apart. I watched her threads pulling, her calm thrown off, and I tensed, ready to go to her or to run and hide. She grabbed at her things like she was going to leave but I knew she wasn’t. She didn’t have what she wanted yet. She was trying to put her sunglasses in her purse, but the buttons were snapped shut. I reached over and popped them open.
“Here, Mom,” I said. But she didn’t hear me.
“And Dave is loaded, but he gives us shit.”
“He pays child support, doesn’t he?”
The sunglasses crashed against the wall and landed on the floor, the right lens in pieces. Mom started really crying then. She told Grandma we needed things she couldn’t buy.
“Lily needs shoes,” she said.
“Those ones are too small.” I looked at the shiny, stiff shoes on my feet and nodded when Grandma looked at me. Ten minutes later, Mom was carrying a thick, white envelope. We breathed again.
Mom would leave a lot, disappearing in sparkly dresses and smelling like hairspray.
She never said where she was going and I never asked. I stayed inside and read myself to sleep with fairy tales. I set the alarm for school the next day.
She’d come back a few days later, walking too fast and too loudly. She’d laugh. She’d make jokes and clean the house spotless. She’d stay on the couch for days.
When she was home, we’d watch TV together. Mom covered herself in blankets, hood up even though it was hot. I’d curl up at her feet like a cat. We were watching cartoons that night. I didn’t understand the jokes, but every now and then Mom would let out a short laugh. My eyelids kept slipping closed and it was difficult to pull them open again. Mom glanced at me and lit a cigarette. I knew that when it was gone, it would be time for bed.
If I pretended to be asleep, she would carry me to bed and I’d fall asleep smelling like cigarettes and coffee. But, I forced myself awake and Mom put the cigarette out in a bowl she’d taken from Grandma’s. I slipped off the couch and ran ahead of her.
“Will you read me a story?” I asked as soon as she caught up.
She sighed and slumped against the door, but then she smiled.
“Which one?” She sat on the edge of my bed and pulled the stack of books out from under it, thick picture books that Grandma would say I was too old to read.
I pointed to the one with fairies. I closed my eyes while she read. She tapped her foot and her voice was hoarse, but she was careful with the words. When it ended, she tucked my blanket tight around me. She was careful not to bend the wings when she did, which was good. What would I do if they bent or ripped? I didn’t know, but it scared me more to be without them in my sleep, so they stayed.
Mom kissed my forehead and her straw-like hair scratched my cheek.
“Night,” I tried to say, but I was gone.
When I woke up again, the darkness outside was still thick. I closed my eyes to go back to sleep and then a long, muffled sob broke through the quiet house. I kept my eyes closed and pretended that my blanket, which was still wrapped tightly around me, was a cocoon. When I woke up, I’d fly away.
Mom was on the couch when I left for school in the morning and was still there when I got home. I got a tray and put some crackers on a plate. “Mom.” But I didn’t know what to say. I went to the kitchen and poured some orange juice for her. I put that on the tray too. Her eyes opened a little.
They closed again and she didn’t move.
I wanted to run outside and not come back again. I wanted to curl up on the floor and never leave.
I sat on the arm of the couch at her feet and stared at the mirror across the room to keep from looking at her hooded head. If I moved my elbows right, it looked like the wings were moving by themselves. I imagined I was being lifted a few inches off the floor.
“Lily, go play outside.”
“Okay.” I didn’t move.
I ate the crackers and drank the juice and watched her shallow breaths closely to make sure they kept coming. When she did move, it was in a fast and jumpy way that made my throat tighten. I waited for her to finally wake herself up and lose control, like an animal scared of being put back in its cage.
Mom was gone for a while.
And then she was gone too long and there was an uneasy knot growing in my stomach. I thought about calling Grandma, but then she’d find out Mom left and that’d be a bad thing for us. I grabbed the phone anyway and held it tight, in case.
I climbed onto a kitchen chair, knees to chin, and wrapped my wings around myself like a blanket. Soon, I thought. Soon, she’d come back and lie on the couch and I’d bring her orange juice and we’d be fine. We’d be good.
I waited all day, until it was dark and I couldn’t see the room around me. Every time a car drove by, fear and relief would wash over me. Then it wasn’t her.
Then—tires on the driveway, a door slamming. I was still, hands sweaty against the phone.
I heard her miss the keyhole and her hand slamming against the door, hitting the handle again and then again.
Later, after Mom was gone from me, I stepped onto Dad’s big, smooth driveway for the first time and wondered why it was white. I’d never seen a white driveway. I thought I’d ask him about it, but I knew he wouldn’t understand the question or why I needed an answer.
The cars there were clean and smooth and there was more than one of them. His door wasn’t covered in shoe marks and the lock on it wasn’t surrounded by thin
I walked in and all I felt was cold. Home was warm and imprinted with pieces of life and this was nothing. There was a woman in a nice, blue dress and high-heeled shoes in the entry room. Pam, I remembered. I forgot who’d told me about her. She smiled at me and I slipped off my wings and handed them to her. She frowned. “Do you want me to put these in your room?”
I shook my head, “Get rid of them,” I said.
Nothing is good, I thought.
Pam took the sparkly pink fabric in her hands and, for a second, I thought I wouldn’t let them go after all. But then I did and I never saw the wings again.
The door flew open and Mom’s glassy eyes slid past me. She disappeared. I tracked her movements around the house. Thud, thud, thud. She was in the bathroom, then her bedroom. Thud, thud. A sound like glass shatter ing. I told myself it was an accident.
I set the phone on the table and covered my ears. She was back in the kitchen, moving too fast. She was yelling, but I pushed my palms harder against the sides of my head until all I could hear was my own breathing.
Her eyes glinted like flames around the room and then she started throwing open drawers, pulling them as far as they would go, raking her hands through them. She paused, watched the mess grow, admir ing her work. Pens, scraps of paper, then the spatulas, forks, the dishcloths. Even sharp things. Everything hit the floor.
“Mom, stop. Mom, come on. Stop it.” My lips moved but I couldn’t remember how my voice worked. I rested my chin on my knees and closed my eyes. When it was over, I would clean up and Mom would go to sleep or drive away again. But I didn’t know how to bring her back now. I didn’t know if I could.
I opened my eyes and she was rounding on me. Maybe I said something or started crying or maybe she just remembered she didn’t want to hurt me, but she left me and turned on the cupboards. Mugs and glasses and plates all hit the floor. Blood dripped onto the white tile.
A mug painted with big, pink lilies landed on the ground and shattered. I remembered picking it out on Mother’s Day, because I recognized the flower. I remembered Mom trying to grow them once and letting them die. It was in too many pieces now and none of the petals were together.
Mom went faster, getting more and more lost until I couldn’t see her anymore. I tried to call to her from the chair, but I didn’t want to go any closer. I uncovered my ears. I couldn’t separate the sounds. My hands gripped the smooth plastic phone on the table.
A pile of broken glass and pens and knives circled her like a wall she was building. Higher and higher and higher.
I would go to her, like I always did. I would find a way to lead her back to me.
I hit END and the phone was slipping out of my hands. It landed on the floor, too, with everything else, and then I did go to her. I crouched outside the ring of broken things. Mom went still when she saw me there. She reached out a hand to touch my left wing and a small smile appeared on her lips. Between the men bursting through the door and what happened after, she met my eyes and the fire went out of hers and we were in a separate place and we were good.
About the Author
Aubrey Asleson · University of Minnesota
Aubrey Asleson is an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota studying English, creative writing, and gender studies. Her piece was first published in Ivory Tower, the University of Minnesota’s Art and Literary Magazine, of which she is now on staff.
About the Artist
Adira Bennett ·
Adira Bennett (pseudonym of E.K.) is an independent artist and writer in New York City whose work focuses on feminism, trauma, illness, and healing. Her art and/or writing have been published by The Feminist Wire, Persephone’s Daughters, Lotus Magazine, The Glass Kite Anthology, and The America Library of Poetry. She was the recipient of a Scholastic Art & Writing Awards national gold medal in 2013. Adira currently works in a forensic biology research laboratory and hopes to have one day petted every dog in the world. She can be reached through her blog (miel-et-sel.tumblr.com) or by email ([email protected]).