Before my parents’ decision to get a divorce, or rather, what caused them to have that conversation in the first place, what I called The Thing That Ruined My Life, I was a high school freshman and relatively content with my life, but all that changed during the first month of school. Summer was still settling, as it was early September, and was prevalent in the sticky, humid Floridian air that caused hair follicles to spew out in wild and crazy directions. The weekends of swimming in murky rivers and eating catfish nuggets were closing in on me fast.
Friday morning, I woke up, stretched cramped, stiff limbs to their capacity, and got dressed. Today was the end of the week and I couldn’t have been happier—it was not a good week. I walked downstairs, being careful not to step on the second to last stair because it was weak, and went to Raven’s room to get her ready for school. This is normally Elizabeth’s job, but she’s been guilt-ridden ever since Daddy told her he wanted a divorce, so I have to be in charge of domestic and motherly duties.
“Ravie, wake up,” I said as I opened my sister’s bedroom door. All I got was a muffled groan in response. I tapped my foot, weighing my options. I yanked her blanket off the bed and dragged her to her feet. She stared at me with what I thought was annoyance and stuck her tongue out at me. I smirked. After stretching and yawning, she looked for something clean to wear. I hadn’t done laundry yet so her wardrobe choices were slim.
“Is Mommy taking us to school or are we walking?” she asked, trying to decide if she wanted to wear a purple or an orange shirt. I wish she’d hurry up.
“If you don’t hurry and get dressed then yes, Elizabeth will have to drive us and you know if that happens she’ll be upset cuz she won’t be at work early.”
“You shouldn’t call Mommy by her first name like that, Abby.”
“Yea? Well, you shouldn’t take so long to put on a shirt and some jeans.” I blew out air. “I’ll be outside when you’re done.”
Five minutes later, Raven came out, dressed in blue jeans and a faded orange shirt, and sat beside me. She put her head in my lap. I played with her hair until she sat up again.
She looked at me, smiled, and said, “I love you, Abby.” Her smile, I thought, got brighter.
I grinned back and said, “I love you, too Rav-”
“Raven Joyce and Abigail Nicole, get in the car now!” Elizabeth said, interrupting our conversation. We hadn’t even heard her come outside. She slammed the door behind her and hurried to the car. After Raven and I scrambled in the car, Elizabeth drove us to our separate schools. The drive was quiet except for the sound of soft rock music playing from the radio and Elizabeth’s never-ending tirade about how she was late for work. Elizabeth glared at me from the corner of her eye. I already knew that whatever she said wouldn’t be pleasing or lovely.
“Why didn’t you have Raven dressed at 8:45 like I’ve repeatedly told you?”
“But Mommy, it’s not Abby’s fault. I-”
“Raven, hush! I’m talking to your sister.” Turning her attention back to me, she said, “Well, Abby? Would you like to explain to me why you’ve made me late to work this time?”
I knew that no answer I gave would be sufficient for her, so I didn’t give one. I sighed and stared out the window. After dropping Raven off, she drove me to school in silence. It was an uneventful day and I had wished it would end soon. I hadn’t been disappointed. The only light in my dismal day was Art class, where I got to work on an art project with Rose, Pastor Charles’ daughter. She was pretty quiet, a contrast to the rest of the girls in our class. Because of our parents’ infidelity, we had become close friends. At first, it was awkward, but we were more used to each other now and I was grateful for her friendship.
I walked into Mr. Jones’ classroom, paintbrushes and different hues of violet, magenta, and fire-engine red spewed on every desk and some even on the floor. I took my seat near the front, at a table that seated two, in the second row that was right next to the window.
“Hey Abby, have you decided what color to paint the flowers?” Rose asked after getting our finished-but-not-yet-painted canvas.
I sighed. “I don’t care. You pick. Just any color but violet.” I laid my head on the desk in frustration.
Rose picked up on my mood and didn’t let me get away with my nonchalance. She touched my wrist with her index and middle fingers, which were covered in evergreen paint, pursed her round lips, and asked, “What’s up, Abby? And don’t say ‘nothing’ cuz I know something is wrong.”
I hated it when she wouldn’t let me all moody. I decided to give in. “It’s Elizabeth. She got all fussy and shit cuz I didn’t have Ravie dressed by 8:45. That kid takes forever to get ready!”
“Is that the only thing?”
I sighed dramatically, again. “No, not really. It’s just…ugh! I hate what your dad and my mom did to both our families. Dad moved out, like officially, early this morning. I heard them arguing and I think some things were thrown around. I hope Ravie didn’t hear them. God, when did our lives turn into a fucking soap opera?! We weren’t always this dysfunctional, ya know?”
I said that last part in a whisper that was more so for me than for her. Trying to convince myself of my family’s non-dysfunctionality was better than admitting the truth that I couldn’t escape from—we were, indeed, very dysfunctional now, thanks to Elizabeth and Charles. It had been a week since The Thing That Ruined My Life and I had no one I trusted to talk about it with except Rose. I picked up a paintbrush that was already drenched in the shade of blue depression and half-heartedly stroked our canvas with light, airy brush strokes.
The rest of the class was a circus seeking attention from Mr. Jones however they could get it. Screeches of “Mr. Jones, look what I did!” and “Check this out, Mr. Jones!” filled the once empty air like a hoard of banshees. I kinda felt sorry for the poor guy. He was a gangly, skinny, glasses-wearing, nerd-king with mud-hued hair and eyes the color of the ocean at sunrise. He was new here, came in about two years ago from Florida State University. I think he told us at one point he had majored in Art History. Or was it English? I forgot, but he was walking around, checking out my classmates’ projects. We were supposed to draw and paint something meaningful, so I chose a flower because of Elizabeth. She was the one who got me interested in art, but since her infidelity, I hadn’t been too keen on drawing, painting, or even looking at flowers. I wanted to paint something dark, something red and dismal, but once we chose a topic we couldn’t switch, and Rose would never go for that anyway.
Mr. Jones walked over to me, as I was still painting with the saddest shade of blue ever created, and said, “Abby, looks like you haven’t done much with your piece…everything okay?”
No, everything’s not okay! My life is over and it’s all because of my mom and my pastor!! “…yeah, I’m okay, Mr. J.”
“Alright, ladies,” he said, addressing both me and Rose, “I expect to have the finished product on my desk by next Monday.”
He walked away after that, preoccupied with two students who had managed to start a paint melee.
“Crazy, huh?” Rose commented on the paint war behind us.
“Yea,” I said, with no feeling in my voice.
“…maybe you should tell your mom how you feel?” she asked carefully, like she didn’t want to upset me further.
I gave her an are-you-crazy look and shot back, “Have you told your dad how you feel? I mean, he’s the pastor for crying out loud! It’s only been a week since you caught him and Elizabeth in bed together! My family is ruined and will have to move to another church, eventually, and you honestly think that telling her how I feel is gonna change anything?!”
“It might…” she said, quietly. I couldn’t believe how naïve she was being. When the last bell rang, I ran out as fast as I could and headed for Raven’s school so we could walk home.
As we walked home from school, the trees mocked me with their gorgeous green leaves and waving branches. I wanted to break them all off and ground them into paste. I watched silently as Raven lowered her eight-year-old body to the roadside to pick up a bushel of violets. I wished she hadn’t. Violets were Elizabeth’s favorite. She used to paint pictures of them all over the house, making it come alive with color. When I was younger, we painted violets on my bedroom walls, but not anymore. I hated violets now. Above us, the blue sky tormented me with its optimism. I hadn’t wanted to be optimistic. I wanted to smash everything in sight. Raven skipped beside me, flowers still clutched in her death-like grip. I wanted to take those purple weeds and smash them to the ground. Observing her pick flowers reminded me of Elizabeth and how we were when I was younger. Before Raven was born, I had Elizabeth all to myself. When she was born and was old enough to talk, the sibling rivalry I had anticipated never came—in its place was a strong sisterly love. Elizabeth had changed ever since the infidelity. Before that, she was “Mommy” but since then, she’d been “Elizabeth” to me. Years ago, she was attentive and caring. Always singing some song, either Gospel or jazz. She was partial to Donnie McClurkin and Maxwell, though she reserved the latter for days when we didn’t have church. Now, she just works. No more singing or painting, just work. Apparently, Raven and I were invisible because she’d maybe talk to us twice a week. Sometimes, we didn’t hear from her at all, unless she was yelling at one of us.
Raven, with her eyes closed as if remembering something of importance, smiled to herself and giggled in a way that showed her innocence. I stood in front of her with my hands on my hips, rolled my eyes and sighed loudly in an effort to hurry her along. I hoped she’d gotten the hint to walk faster, but that was wishful thinking. Against my better judgment, I smiled to myself. Raven gazed up at me then, right when the corners of my lips turned upward in reminiscence. She had a strange expression on her face. Not curiosity or fear, but it was unusual to see on an eight-year-old. It was as if she knew that something was wrong, but she couldn’t place her finger on exactly what. I had a bad feeling that she was about to ask me something I didn’t know the answer to. She did.
“Hey Abby, when’s daddy coming back? Is he on a business trip or something?”
“What’d you mean, Ravie?” I played dumb, pretended I didn’t know what she meant. I needed to know how much she knew.
“Well,” she said cautiously, almost like she was conscious of something she shouldn’t have known, “I heard a car door slam really loud this morning, like really early. It was still dark outside. I got scared so I went in Mommy and Daddy’s room, but Daddy wasn’t in there. I was gonna ask Mommy if she knew where he was but she was crying real hard, and her room was messy like a tornado, so I didn’t bother her and I saw you in the living room writing in your journal last night, so I didn’t bother you either. I just went back to bed.”
She knew more than I had anticipated. I had no idea how to answer her question. I sucked in my breath, afraid that if I even dared to breathe hard, she’d hear the uncertainty. I figured honesty was best because that’s what Daddy had taught us. What he failed to teach me was how to explain divorce, or at the very least, separation to my kid sister. I sighed. This was going to be harder than I thought.
Daddy got off easy, he got to leave. Meanwhile, Raven and I were stuck here, dealing with the aftermath. The only reason why he left instead of Elizabeth was because he didn’t own the house. The house was in her name, not his. I saw the house information once when I was playing pirates with Raven. I could understand why he left, he didn’t want to be around his cheating wife and have us hearing them cuss and scream at each other. It still hurt though that he got out and we didn’t.
At 16, I was hurt and dealt with my dad’s leaving by bottling up all my emotions inside me; I figured why let them out when I have to be strong for Raven? Sometimes, I allowed myself cry at night, because I missed Daddy and just wanted to act like a kid instead of a miniature adult. The only constant emotion I ever felt these days was anger because Elizabeth chose infidelity over faithfulness and had ruined many lives. Our destitute excuse of a mother wasn’t much help to us lately. She was probably dealing with her own grief and guilt about cheating on Daddy with Pastor Charles by becoming a workaholic. I knew that she thought working was the only thing that gave her life meaning.
“Abby,” Raven called me again, interrupting my thoughts about Elizabeth. This time she was whining. I hated that.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
I sighed. This kid was really starting to annoy me. “I don’t know when Daddy’s coming back, okay? I wish I did, but I don’t. He’s probably never coming back and it’s all Elizabeth and Pastor Charles’ fault! Happy now?”
I realized two seconds too late that my response probably wasn’t the best way to handle the situation. I had just wanted her to stop whining. She looked at me like I just force-fed her Brussels sprouts. Her face contorted as she cried loudly and, as if on cue from God Himself, the once bright sky became sunless and cloudy. Before I could blink, gigantic raindrops cascaded from the sky and soaked me and Raven in a matter of mere minutes. I got down on one knee, hit my kneecap on the wet, slippery curb on the way down, and pulled her to my chest, so that no one who passed by would hear her wailing. After a while, she calmed down. We ran the rest of the way home. The evening rain we had walked through turned into a gentle sprinkle by the time we reached the driveway. We were tempted to play in the mud, which would have, inevitably, made Elizabeth livid, and I didn’t want Raven to get sick, so we scurried inside the house, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. That didn’t last long because Elizabeth caught me trying to run upstairs before the water that was dripping off my clothes splashed on anything important.
Standing at the bottom of the staircase, scowling, she called me back down. “Where have you been? Why the hell are you so wet? And don’t you have enough decency to dry yourself before you come into my house? You look terrible!”
The only answer I gave was silence. My palms were sweaty and I swore my heart was beating so loud the neighbors could hear. I thought, foolishly, that if I didn’t answer her then she’d leave me alone. I was wrong.
While rubbing her temples, she said, “Abby, I don’t have time for this! I have a huge assignment to finish for the museum before midnight tonight. Now, go dry off and make dinner.”
“But there’s hardly any food in the kitch-”
“What did I just say?” Her question was more of a statement than something she wanted an answer to. Her nostrils flared and she narrowed her eyes at me.
I tried unsuccessfully to imitate a mouse-like behavior when I noticed that she was glaring at me. Before I could’ve blinked, she raced to her office to get to her first love, work, and slammed the door behind her. After going upstairs and drying off, I slumped into the kitchen barefoot, my feet making swirly patterns of the dust that made its home on the floor. I’ll sweep in here once Raven’s asleep, I told myself. I opened the freezer not expecting much to be there. I was not disappointed. One lone frozen pepperoni pizza was begging to be cooked, so I took it out and put it in the oven. As I waited for the pizza to cook, I called Raven to dinner. She was in her pajamas with a frown on her face.
“What’s wrong, Ravie?” I asked, concerned.
“I want Mommy back.” She had tears in her eyes and tried not to cry. She sniffled.
“Well, what do you think we should do, Ravie?”
“Hmm…we could replace her paint brushes with glue sticks…”
“Or take her keys and hide them?”
“Maybe we could break all her expensive stuff?”
“I don’t know, but we gotta do something,” I said with a huff, mentally exhausted from trying to scheme Elizabeth back into motherhood.
At that moment, my eyes landed on a vase, the one that one of her coworkers at the museum had given her. It was tall, sleek, and looked to be worth at least $1800 (I think it was imported from Thailand or China or somewhere exotic). It sat on a step stool near the entrance of the kitchen, situated so that if a person were leaning on the wall and wasn’t careful, she could accidently kick the stool, thus breaking the vase. I was fueled by anger at Elizabeth, and a little bit of regret, so I went for it. I leaned on the wall and kicked out with my left foot. The vase, which held no violets or other plants, shattered in slow motion, it seemed. Since Elizabeth’s office was right next to the kitchen, I knew she heard the loud clatter. I just hoped my first attempt at getting Elizabeth back was worth her anger at breaking her favorite vase.
Elizabeth came out of her office then, eyes like saucers, and yelled with all the authority of a wrathful mother, “What the hell happened in here? I’m trying to work-” She gasped when she saw her beloved vase broken into miniscule pieces. “Who. Broke. My. Vase?” she said every word slowly so that her anger was amplified.
Raven and I looked at each other, both afraid to speak up. After a few seconds, I decided to confess. “I…I did it. I was leaning on the wall and accidently kicked my foot out and it uh, fell off the little step stool thing. I’m sorry.”
I stood silent, waiting for the wrath that was sure to come but never came. She surprised me with silence. I almost thought our plan worked, but I noticed her eyes seemed glassy, like they were covered with an invisible film that only she was aware of. She looked right through me.
“Clean this up,” she said with hardly any feeling in her voice, after what seemed like a million years of silence.
I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t so I obliged to her demand as she returned back to her work. That’s it. It’s over. We lost her forever.
Raven saw the distress on my face and hugged me tight. The warm comfort of a sisterly hug did wonders for the broken soul, or at least I thought so. She smiled and playfully hit my arm. I smiled slowly, as an idea formed in my head.
“Hey, Ravie,” I said, as my grin practically split my face in half, “I’ve got the perfect way to get Elizabeth back.”
She was cautious, curious. She picked up her glass of milk, took a long sip, put it down again, and rested her chin on her hands, waiting for me to reveal my genius plan.
“Ravie, I need you to break my arm so Elizabeth will be out of work and we could have her to ourselves, at least for a little while.”
“How am I gonna do that?”
“Well, you could push me off the bed or down the stairs.”
She thought about it for a bit. “Are you sure about this?”
I huffed, annoyed. “Yes! Do you want Elizabeth back or don’t you?”
“I do, I do!”
“Then pick one: bed or stairs?”
“If we have no more choices, then I pick…bed!”
“Alright, bed it is then. We’ll do it tomorrow when she’s home from work all day…”
The next words out of my little sister’s mouth were ones that I most definitely hadn’t expected, but she was smiling so I should’ve seen it coming. “You miss Mommy, too, don’t you Abby?”
My jaw dropped, but I quickly recovered. What could I say to that? No way was I about to admit that I missed Elizabeth to Raven. She questioned me more. Wasn’t it easier to just tell Elizabeth how I felt instead of breaking my arm? What if my plan didn’t work? I gave no answer, but told her what to do for Operation: Broken Arm. Perhaps I was mean, or maybe passive-aggressive, but for me to have been vulnerable and admitted my feelings to anyone, especially the one who had ruined my life, would’ve taken a miraculous act of God, and I hadn’t exactly been talking to Him as of late. No, I vowed never to tell her how I truly felt. Besides, it had been all too easy to pretend that everything was fine. After we finished the pizza and finalized the plan, we went to bed. The moonlight from my bedroom window crept in and casted haunting shadows on the walls and cracked floorboards, but I was too exhausted to care.
The next day, Saturday, was warm and incredibly inviting. Elizabeth was off and today was the only day she allowed herself to rest. The irony of the situation, that I was about to interrupt her only relaxation day with my devious, manipulative plan, was not lost on me. I didn’t care. Even though I was still infuriated with her, I was determined to do whatever it took to get Elizabeth back to the place of motherhood. When Elizabeth was in her office painting, Raven decided to change into a flowery dress, for no reason whatsoever, while I waited in my room. When she returned, her eyes darted everywhere but the bed, which I was sitting on.
“Are you sure about this, Abby? Can’t we do something else to get Mommy’s attention?” she said, her was voice shaky.
“No, we can’t. This is the only way.”
“Look, do you want Elizabeth back or don’t you?”
She silently consented and we went ahead with the plan. I had to lift her onto the bed because it was so high (it was one of those high, canopy beds). We started jumping on the bed and even though I’d have never admitted it, I enjoyed it. All that enjoyment turned to pain as the plan went into action. Raven pushed me harder than I thought she would, like she was getting rid of her own anger she felt towards Elizabeth. Gravity took over the rest. I fell, landed on my arm, and after soon heard a loud popping sound. I heard myself scream, but it sounded far away. Elizabeth rushed into the room and scooped me in her arms. Our plan was executed with all the precision of a cat that succeeds in cornering and capturing a mouse—I couldn’t be more pleased with Raven or myself, in spite of the horrendous pain I felt. Before everything went black, I heard her whisper “I love you, Abby” in my ear.
From that moment, Elizabeth was the attentive, jovial mother of my youth. We laughed and painted again. She wasn’t at work constantly anymore and actually made time for me and Raven. I had even started calling her “Mommy” again. I loved every minute of our newfound relationship, but I still hadn’t told Mommy how I felt. In the month it took my arm to completely heal, and the divorce to be finalized, I realized that I was still hurt by her actions, even though our relationship had gotten better. I hadn’t been able to hold my feelings in for long though. After a particularly challenging day at school, I stormed upstairs to my room and slammed my book bag on the floor, which landed with a loud clunk! In my peripheral vision, I saw Mommy sitting cross-legged on my bed, messing up the sheets, with a book in her hand. I ignored her as she bit her lip. I knew she wanted me to speak first, tell her what was wrong, but I was stubborn, so the tension between us grew.
Finally, after eons of waiting in silence, she said, “Abby, what’s going on?” Her tone was gentle and sweet but it didn’t go past the surface of my ears. I wanted to tell her where she could go, but that would’ve been disrespectful. For months, I’d been holding my tongue. This time though, I decided I’d let her have it.
“Mommy, how could you cheat on Daddy with Pastor Charles? How could you ruin our lives like that? What were you thinking?” I tried to keep my voice calm, neutral, but I was too fired up. Even though we were having this conversation a month too late, it still felt good to get that out. I glanced over at Mom. She was crying and I heard her sniff. She looked up at me, her eyes were full of guilt, shame, and the painful knowledge that she single-handedly ruined multiple lives.
“I can’t stand you,” I said, even though I didn’t really mean it.
“I know. You have every right to be upset with me, but here…” She handed me a sealed envelope. “Inside is a letter I’ve written explaining everything. Read it.”
“I don’t want your stupid letter! Why the hell did you ruin my life?!”
At hearing me cuss, the lioness in her sprung up. “Excuse me? Who you think you talkin’ to? Cuz you definitely ain’t talkin’ to me. Abagail, so help me God if you ever cuss in my house again…”
She slapped me, suddenly, and continued to be belligerent. I tuned her out. I kept my face straight, even though it hurt, but inside, I was glad for making her angry. I put on my best “sorry, Mommy” face. “I’m sorry Mommy. It won’t happen again.” Finally, you’re showing emotions.
“See that it doesn’t…Abby, I’m so sorry that I hurt you and Raven and you dad, I really am. I know you won’t understand it now, but I had a reason for doing what I did, though that doesn’t excuse my actions. Your dad is a good man, but he’s a workaholic like I am. He was hardly ever home…”
I was silent as I headed for the door.
“If it’s any consolation, Charles is stepping down from his pastoral role. His wife told the congregation last Sunday. But we’ll start looking for another church soon. I’m so sorry. If I could go back and undo what I did, I would…” she said in a muffled whisper.
As I turned the knob, I resisted the urge to scoff, even though my back was to her, softly shut the door, and left her to deal with herself. Despite her attempts to make amends, I knew that she still hadn’t forgiven herself. I wished that I could have been able to tell her that underneath all the rage and ill feelings I was still wrestling with, I was willing to forgive her, if she’d let me. I headed to the porch to read her letter. The yoke of my mother’s burden—and my anger—had been tight around me for too long. It was time to let go.