“Mulberry Purple” by Sharese Stribling
My mother will cry for nearly two hours after falling down the beige-colored stairs in the first house I will ever remember having. For weeks, the skin of her right thigh will look as though someone decided to grab the rusted-over rake from the shed outside and savagely try to open her up with it. Through watching her, I will learn that sometimes you have to give up on constantly changing old bandaids and let the bleeding eventually stop on its own.
She will not shed a single tear, however, on the day my father will rise up from the couch and finally admit that we are no longer the things that he wants. Were never the things he wanted. She will not cry as he packs his bags for the last time, as he raids the fridge for his last cans of Corona Extra, and definitely not as he unwinds the key to the house from his key rings and leaves it on the kitchen counter. I will clutch at her worn-through pajama bottoms with a fierceness I’ll never know again when he tries to hug me goodbye because I’ve never been very good with strangers.
His tires will screech on the pavement, as if freedom can’t come fast enough.
My mother will take us for ice cream that night. I will never ask where she got the extra money from.
Though it will take me awhile, I will eventually understand that, in leaving, he will have set us free, too. Even though bills will be late most of the time and I won’t see a show on cable until I am in middle school, I will learn what it means to breathe free air for the first time in my life. There will be no more weak and meaningless I’m sorry’s. No more slurred, I’ll do better’s. It will just be us, and us, and us. Us, just with more Cheez-it’s in the cabinet.
Between mouthfuls of cookie dough, I will ask if he will be gone for good now, or just gone for a little while, but my mother will not reply. She will know, and I will know, but I will want her to say it. She never will.
Sometime during the car ride home I will realize that no longer will I have to stay up into the early hours of the night just to talk to him. Sober him. I won’t even bother because I know he won’t be there. There will be no disappointment in the pit of my stomach when his eyes don’t clear up fast enough for him to recognize who I am, or when his words still sound strange and foreign on his heavy, dry, stale-smelling tongue. Because, again, he will not be back.
I will grow up thinking that two scoops of lemon custard on a cake cone is the ultimate comfort food, and that the tiny yellow stains on the carpet of my mother’s too-tiny car are the only types of stains she will ever accept without complaint or regret or disdain.
In less than two months, we will no longer be able to afford the life my mother had tried so desperately to carve for us. She will sell the house. It will only be on the market for three days before someone else snatches it up, yearning to put their new, more suitable family between those lilac walls I will have come to adore.
We will go to stay with my grandparents for exactly eleven weeks. Mom will want to leave before we even get there because- well, I don’t really know why, actually. And I won’t learn why until the eve of my twenty-first birthday when mother is four glasses into her favorite bottle of Reisling, and will have long since forgotten how to keep her mouth shut.
“Be good,” she will say as we walk up the cracked steps of my grandparents’ porch. I will stare at the tiny sprouts of grass trying to grow there, and step on them on purpose, only to watch them slowly rise up again. Before we reach the door, mother will crouch down before us, my older sister and I, grab the edges of our chins and just look. Her eyes will start to squint as if she’s searching for something, and I will spend the entire night wondering exactly what she’s looking for and if she ever found it.
This close up, I will be able to see beneath her makeup, and I will eye that tiny crescent moon shaped scar she got from falling out of a tree when she was a little girl.
“We won’t be here for long. Keep your room clean and don’t feed the cat any junk. We will not be here long.”
She will say this until her throat goes all hoarse, and I will nod my head, not knowing if she’s trying to make me feel better or herself.
In those eleven weeks, I will learn the best places to hide, where the walls echo the least, and where my grandfather hides his guns. And with the help of my sister, I will decide that mulberry purple is the color of fear.
For eleven weeks at dinner time, I will sit directly in front of the heating vent in the room I will share with my sister, in nothing but flower-patterned little girl’s panties and big wrinkled tee shirts. We will not sit together at the dinner table like a family. I will slurp up spaghetti noodles and stain every white uniform shirt I own, and bite my tongue in the exact same spot at every meal time. And I will cry about it every time.
I will learn that my grandmother’s house has a pulse. Its very own heartbeat. And she will try to teach me why our God is a good God but will fail at explaining why.
I will not receive my first cell phone until I am sixteen years old, and so in the years prior, I will not be sad that he does not call. He simply can’t.
We will eat a lot of lemon custard on the floor in the kitchen.
And I will do as I am told. I will make my bed every morning, eat my broccoli, say please and thank you and I love you too, even when I don’t mean it. I will be the perfect child. A perfectly normal eight year old that’s just been tasked with memorizing her times tables and making sense, on her own, of why her heart never stops hurting.
It will be in this house where I will need to start taking medication just to get through the day, and where I will begin hearing bees whenever I get nervous. And I will decide very early on that I will never belong to another soul in the way my mother belonged to him.
At fifteen years old, over a sweet potato vindaloo, I will finally admit that I hate him, and that I’d rather let my nightmares grow fingers and choke the life out of me before I ever ask him for a single goddamn thing.
On our first night in the new place, the one mom rushed to sign the papers for because we’d been at my grandmother’s for “far too long”, we will order takeout. Over mushy white rice and kung pao chicken, she will apologize for being so angry lately. Which I will think is funny because I will not have noticed any real difference in her demeanor. I wouldn’t have said anything if I had, anyway.
Crab-stuffed egg rolls will replace our two scoops of lemon custard, and comfort food will slowly turn into apology food. We will begin eating far more apology food than we did comfort food, and most of the time I will not know why we are so sorry. Or who is even doing the apologizing.
For thirteen years, through fourteen different apartments, Marc Jacobs’ Daisy will be her smell. I will buy her a bottle for Mother’s Day on my fifteenth year as her daughter. I will accidentally knock it off the shelf and break it sometime during my sixteenth.
I will remember watching her rub it into her wrists and against her throat, right before heading out on dates with men that will never work out. I will remember the three tiny bumps she has in the middle of her chest, faint but everlasting reminders of the chicken pox that nearly killed her as a child. I will remember the greasy, artificial butter stains her fingers will smear onto the buttons of the television remote control on family movie nights, that one lonesome twizzler dangling from her fingers, and the few strays of hair that don’t know how to rest.
I will not see her truly happy until I am nineteen years old and she is thirty-eight, and by then I will have assumed I will never see it, and the moment I do will make my head spin.