Please note that the following essay contains mature content that includes domestic and verbal abuse, toxic family dynamics, and language some may consider offensive. Reader discretion is advised.
I slam my hand down on my bedside table, feeling around for my phone so I can turn off the alarm and stop “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus And Mary Chain from blaring.
I’d been out too long and gotten too drunk last night. I didn’t regret it. It was the first time in months all my friends had been in the same place; everything was great until you called.
My hand connects with the cool, smooth surface of my phone and I swipe away the alarm, plunging into silence once again.
I don’t open my eyes. Instead, I roll onto my back and face the ceiling. I breathe through my nose and hold the breath captive in my chest until I feel like I’m going to pass out. I release it through my mouth.
Today is the day.
I’ve dreaded this moment from the second I got away from our parents. I think you know that. Your hands are clasped in front of you when I open the front door, your fingers twisting the ring Mom gave you around your pointer finger. It reminds me of the day I threw my matching one out the window of my moving car.
“Hey, June,” you said simply, as if you hadn’t come here to ask an impossibly hard favor from me.
I don’t reply. I stare straight ahead, straight through you like I’d taught myself to do at thirteen. Maybe if I don’t say anything you’ll disappear, maybe you’ll turn out to be another one of my mind’s stupid tricks.
“I know we haven’t talked in a while…”
If you had given me more time to prepare, I might’ve scoffed at this.
“And that this is super short notice.”
You look down, fidgeting stopped, and stare at your feet for a few seconds. You glance back up at me and I curse the small part of myself that thought you came to apologize.
“But could I stay with you for a while? Things with Steven didn’t go like I’d planned.”
You know I can’t tell you no because if I did I would be a shit sister, perhaps worse than you, but the word ‘Yes’ won’t leave my mouth. So instead, I move out of the doorway with my mouth glued shut.
You look around the living room, peer into the kitchen, and appraise all the photos in my house. I can see in the nod of your head and the upturn of your lips that you’re pleased with the fact that there are no traces of a significant other in this house. At least it’s not just you who’s alone, right?
“Nice place.” Your comment is innocent, but I see behind it. There’s malice in your tone.
I hum, nodding. “Thanks.” That’s the first word I’ve spoken to you in three and a half years, and I immediately regret saying it. Giving you the satisfaction of an answer will make you push farther and take more.
The smile you give is blinding.
You never smile unless something’s gone your way.
I find myself sitting at a table with you. You insisted on making tea even though you don’t know where anything is. It’s another attempt to subtly stake claim on my house. On me.
“You can go wherever you want as long as you stay out of the attic,” I say, quickly adding, “Don’t go in my room either.”
We sip at our scalding tea in silence, the kind of silence that occurs when you see someone you hoped you’d only see in memory.
You’ve taken over the guest bedroom, which I’d been using as a studio. I suppose it’s my fault for not specifying, yet every time I walk past the closed door it feels like there are butterflies in my stomach, ramming into the inner lining of my body.
You and Mom are compulsive liars. Dad was always easier to deal with despite his violence. At least he was open about it.
You two always kept things quiet, sharing smiles at the dinner table as if you’d whispered a joke only you two could hear.
I reflect on this while reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. You’re watching something I don’t know the name of, but it’s obnoxiously loud, and I find myself rereading the same sentence multiple times.
“Can you turn that down?” I ask. My voice is louder than I wanted it to be but that’s the only way you’d hear me.
Instead of doing what I asked you to do, you turned the entire tv off and turned to face me.
“Are you okay?” you asked, “You seem like, mad at me for some reason. Did I do something?” Your face was scrunched in concern and your eyes searched my own.
You’re so full of shit. There’s no way you didn’t know what you did, you can’t possibly have no idea why I stopped talking to you.
I shake my head and mumble out a “don’t worry about it.” I stand up and, though my feet don’t want to move, I know this wouldn just escalate into a fight if I stayed. I force my body to work, focusing on moving each limb the way it needs to, and walk upstairs, past the door that makes me want to jump off a cliff. That door represents the worst times of my life, now that you’re behind it. It represents Dad’s yelling and Mom’s lies. It represents your apathy, your callousness.
When I reach my room I walk in and close the door behind me, making sure it’s locked so you won’t be able to look around my room while I’m sleeping.
I set Pride and Prejudice down on my nightstand.
I try to sleep for about fifteen minutes before I realize it’s completely pointless and sit up again. Whenever I imagined our reunion I always saw myself fighting, pushing back, and telling you all of the shit that’s built up over the years. But I didn’t. I didn’t even try.
Maybe it’s because this dynamic of ours gives me a sick sense of comfort, because for as long as I can remember I’d give and you’d take. I was an accident, unwanted, and everyone in that stupid house made sure I knew it.
I’m back in third grade. I’m begging and begging to go to this stupid STEM sleepaway camp. We’re at the dinner table and I won’t shut up about it, so Mom gives in. Because you’re her favorite, she asks you if you want to go to that ridiculously expensive camp that the local church puts on. You shake your head, “No thanks,” and go back to eating.
The day I leave, only you and Mom are home. Dad’s been with whatever lady he’s screwing for three days now. I’m worried. Mom gives me a less-than-gentle shove to encourage me to get onto the bus and walks away before I’m fully in. You hadn’t bothered to come.
I sit in the back of the bus, resisting the urge to call out to Mom as I watch her get into the car. Even if I did and Mom heard me she wouldn’t turn around. She only did that for you. Instead, I puff out my cheeks and pretend to have a bubble in my mouth. I don’t breathe until the bus starts moving.
When I come back from the camp you and Mom are even closer, sharing everything with each other without even speaking. I don’t know what I missed but I can tell it was important. My heart sinks as I think about how if I’d stayed home, mom might like me more.
Now I realize that something happened with dad. Maybe he threatened to leave. Maybe he got physical.
I can hear your footsteps in the hallway. They stop outside my door. I can feel you staring at the other side of the door, and I resist the urge to start fidgeting. I won’t let you make me nervous anymore.
You move on.
At some point I must’ve fallen asleep.
I know this because when I wake up my room is painted with the warm orange color of the morning. I stretch, roll my neck, and get out of bed.
I walk to your room—ugh, I’m already calling it your room—and knock.
I call out for you.
You don’t answer and I contemplate walking away, but I need to know you didn’t go into the attic, so I open the door. It doesn’t look like you’ve even touched the guestroom since you claimed it, even your suitcase sits there, fully packed.
“Shit,” I breathe “Shit, shit, shit.”
Icy-hot tendrils of panic snake up my body and I feel like I’m going to pass out.
My sock-clad feet move on their own, running down the hallway and almost slipping out from under me. I slide to a stop in front of the attic door, which is pulled down to reveal the unfurled ladder.
I run up, shaking so violently I almost lose my grip and slide back down. When I get up I don’t know what to do so I just stand there for a second, processing what this means and trying to imagine what’ll happen so I won’t get hurt.
The attic is consumed by a golden-orange light, one that would’ve been warm and comforting if it weren’t for the circumstances.
The attic looks too big for the house, a long rectangle that seems to go on for miles. It’s filled with frozen moments of time, statues made out of butterflies whose wings flap occasionally, the only sign that they’re alive.
I don’t know exactly why it’s butterflies that make the statues; maybe it’s because we used to catch them in the fields behind our house, or maybe it’s because trauma is a fan of metaphor.
You’re weaving through them, eyes wide and hands pressed tight against your chest. You look small.
You stop at one of them, a two-person snapshot depicting us mid-run. We’re young, maybe seven and ten, and our hands are clasped together. It looks like I’m dragging you along, smiles set on both of our faces. You look at it fondly, but your brows are furrowed in sorrow and I wonder why any of these emotions are on your face.
You move to the next.
This one shifts. It changes shape periodically and tells the story of a night I remember too well.
The figure of dad’s shape is looming, his large body tense and jagged. His mouth’s open, but it’s impossible to know what he’s yelling about. My eleven-year-old body seems microscopic underneath him. I’m on my back, he’s standing above me with his fists clenched.
I kick at him and am able to get up. I run upstairs, and almost trip about ten times but I’m able to make it to our bedroom door. I try the handle but it’s locked. I’m sobbing, my throat is raw from crying, and I’m banging on the door. I’m yelling something like “please,” or “let me in.” The door stays closed.
It feels like hours but it’s only a matter of seconds, maybe a minute at most. Dad’s caught up, yelling even louder while I’m fighting to keep my hands down at my side.
Dad’s never used his fists. He never “laid a hand on us” as he likes to say, but he screamed. He screamed and he yelled and he threw things. I guess something hit me that time or maybe I fell, but the next thing I remember is sitting with my back to the door, crying and holding a hand to my forehead, red slipping through the cracks of my fingers.
I wait there, expecting to hear the click of the lock, expecting to feel your hand replace mine. I wait half an hour before picking myself up, carrying myself to the bathroom, and cleaning the dried blood off.
I stand there, hand under the running water, and watch as the residue of my father’s anger drips from my hands and rushes down the drain. I knew then that I had to get the hell out of there and you wouldn’t be coming with me.
I don’t look at your face. I refuse to, but then I hear you sniffling. I realize I’m crying.
Shit, I haven’t cried in years. I rush to wipe the tears from my face, scolding myself for doing this in front of you.
I don’t think I heard you right, I couldn’t have, because why the hell would you apologize? I couldn’t remember the last time you did that.
You’re sobbing now, and you don’t even try to hide it. I start crying again, harder this time, and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m angry or sad or shocked.
Maybe you had it hard too, maybe not everything was black and white, and maybe I’m in the wrong for not being ready to forgive you.
You step toward me.
Despite the things I’ve been feeling, am feeling, about you, I step forward. I collect your body in my arms and let you sob into my chest. I collect your broken pieces, hold you together, and press your sharp edges into my chest. I let the pain of it relieve me.
No this feels wrong—it is wrong—but I can’t push you away. My arms aren’t working. My body melts into you and a sob escapes my mouth. I bring my hand up to cover it, trying desperately to keep myself in my body. But it won’t listen to me anymore; it’s fallen back into whatever rhythm it was in when we were younger and now all I can do is think:
Please, let go of me.
I can’t, not now, not like this.