My mother jerked me off the couch, slung me to the middle of the den, and yelled, “Look at me!”
But it would be at madness. She had not been well for most of my fifteen years: she tormented the household with inexplicable yet routine fits of rage and depression that were ugly to witness and ugly now to recall.
So I met her stare evenly. How many times had I stood in that same spot while she screamed two inches from my nose? But this time she staggered me with a hard slap. For nothing. And like nothing, it was over.
I surprised myself, how quietly I stood, thinking about how my head had snapped, like a swinging door. I hadn’t even seen the hand coming, didn’t feel the cut from her ring. All I knew was that my mother had hit me, which was just another sign that she was crazy.
“Look at me.”
Again, I did. Reflex is strange in a house used to such scenes: What to do, not to do. Her reflex—when I met her manic, haggard stare—had been to humble me, so her hand rose again without her common sense’s consent. Mine was to hit her back, right hand clenched. But I must have telegraphed my intentions.
“Just try it, Missy.”
My father was between us then. He had not gotten out of his recliner quickly enough to keep her hand off me the first time, but now, astonished, he said, “That’s enough” so quietly I could hear the rattling in my mother’s throat.
She never said she was sorry. Instead, she shoved me into the kitchen, kicked me hard in the spine, and hissed, “Set the damn table,” before running to lock her bedroom door.
So my father and I sat at dinner, listening to the sobs filtering through the vents, chewing more than we had to as an excuse not to talk.
“Let her cry,” I thought, each bite becoming harder to swallow, the taste more bitter than the unsweetened tea.
“I'll tell you one thing,” I said, without needing to look at my father to show that I meant it. “If she hits me again, I'll hit her back, and then I’m gone.”
“All right,” my father said, his head down, too. “She won't.”
The author is a poet and scholar who publishes regularly about trauma and violence against women. She remains anonymous here out of respect for her family.