By Janine Canty
Living with a cruel man for seventeen years teaches you that tears only bring more pain. Tears on habitually bruised and torn skin stings. Tears only feed a fire you can’t control and don’t understand. At first you might try crying in the shower or over the sound of the washer. He watches in the shower. He’s deaf in one ear, but he hears over the washer.
He knows your hiding places and what your voice sounds like when it’s trying not to cry. He can see your tears before they form. He anticipates them before they fall. They are Mardi gras and Christmas rolled into one for him. Proof that he is right and you are crazy. Your wet eyes and begging give him fuel.. Pass him his manhood with your ravaged face. Slumped shoulders. Downcast eyes. A cup of black coffee. Extra sugar and shaking hands. I hate coffee. I taught this body not to cry in order to survive.
Numb is good. Numb is quiet. Numb is nirvana among the shattered green plates and ripped shirts. I kneel on broken glass with bloody knees. I hold a piece of glass in my palm. I wonder what it would feel like to open my wrist. To see my life flowing out onto the floor. Among the glass and cat hair. Turning the couple of cheerios the dustpan missed, red. My hair is tangled. Dirty and in my eyes. My face is aching and dry. I wonder what my casket might look like. I wonder if my Mother will cry. I envy her if she still can.
I’ve become my own memory at 31. Have I stored up enough numb to end me like a broken sentence? Pull the glass down my wrist. Let someone else clean my stain and non tears. Wipe the flesh that used to be a girl named Janine, away. The baby coughs once, then again, from a jenny lind crib. He’s had that cough a day too long. The house is chilly.
I touch the back of his head lightly with the hand not still holding a piece of glass. Like an admonishment. A reminder. A warning. I pick up a doll my daughter has kicked out of bed. I chuck it towards a cracked toy box. I’m cradling the glass in my hand gently, the way I once cradled them. I don’t cry when I sweep up the mess. I wrap the glass carefully so none of the kids cut themselves. I’m not satisfied.
I slip my feet into the monsters slippers. I carry the bag to the shed behind the house. I push the lid down firmly on my non tears. My non-suicide. My non-self. I get in the shower while he’s not there to see.
I don’t cry.
I don’t cry when my father meets me at a bus station in Boston. When he looks into my face and sees a shell where his child once stood.. My eyes are dry. His are destroyed. I don’t cry when I return to the monster with my father’s plan. I don’t cry when the policemen step into the house with holstered guns and grim expressions. My 14 year-old cries. She refuses to leave. She’s calling me familiar names. I ask if I have a right to take the children with me, if they don’t want to go. The policemen asks if I am their mother. Asks if I gave birth to them.
I nod silently. He tells me I have the right to take them anywhere I want. I look at him blankly. I go to bed when I am told. I get up when I am told. I am watched in the shower. I flush the toilet only when I am given permission.I grew these children in a body full of fear. I bathed them. I rocked them. I wiped their bottoms and noses. I brushed their hair. Held their hands. I wear the smell of these children on my collarbone. I love them. They are the things which have kept me breathing. I don’t understand rights. These children became weapons the moment they were cut free from me. With their first breathes. Their first cries, they became solely his. I’m on a cold delivery room table, being sewn back together. I am an empty incubator for someone else’s property.
I don’t cry.
Somehow we are all in the driveway. Flashing lights on our faces. The older policemen standing between the monster and I. His body a shield. His hand on a holstered gun. Two children frightened into silence beside me. Two children frightened into silence beside the monster. We have become a divided battle line. I am guided gently into the back of a cruiser with the clothes on my back and half of my heart. The other half remains on the driveway, in the physical form of a 14 year-old girl and a 16 year-old boy. I lay on a plastic mattress in a shelter and count the cracks on the ceiling. My 6 year-old wants to know when we’re going home. My 11-year old hasn’t spoken in 3 hours. My 14-year old is sucking on a stolen Marlboro with shaky fingers, She scrapes burnt hamburger viciously off of chipped plates. She can still smell my deodorant.
My 16 year-old is standing in a now dark driveway. Staring at the spot where his family ended. Nobody asked him to make a decision to stay or go. Sixteen year old boys aren’t allowed in shelters built for women with healing skin.
I don’t cry when they put my son on the witness stand. He’s wearing a blue shirt I’ve never seen before. Something dies on his face while I sit ten feet away, unable to stop it. His voice is uneven. He needs a haircut. He was born into a war and he wasn’t made for fighting. We look at one another at the same moment. We look away from one another at the same moment. My son and I are synchronized puppets held together by secrets and scar tissue. The judge’s words hit me like truncated bullets. “Has not proven allegations of abuse against the minor children… Returned to their father by 9 pm… “
The gavel makes a sound no louder than dirt being thrown on a grave. It multiplies inside of me like knives. I become a howl in a borrowed dress and tight shoes.
My bones won’t hold me up. My insides have blown away. I’ve become a screaming, out of control animal, in front of a judge. In front of the monster and our 16 year-old son. The tears are not a relief. They don’t feel natural. They don’t feel like a friend. They feel like the monster in a new body. My body. The one I taught not to cry. I don’t want to cry, but cry I do. I cry from Millinocket all the way back to Houlton. Forty minutes.
I cry while the legal aid lawyer apologizes repeatedly. While she passes me kleenex. Bites her lip and looks for rest stops. I cry in a dirty gas station. In front of a dude buying twinkies and beef jerky.
I cry while Ms. Legal Aid brushes her long hair back. While she juggles a to-go cup and a sticky phone. While she negotiates with the fat lawyer who will grow fatter on my in-laws money. While she discusses the return of my living heart to the monster.
My cries turn back into screams when I hear the names of my two youngest sons slip past her mac lip gloss. When I realize I have to pack a suitcase and hug them goodbye. I have to send them back into a house where I learned not to cry. Where I became garbage and then I became something worse than garbage. Then I became nothing. While they were learning new math on patched kitchen chairs. I realize that I will wake up alone in the morning. Alone with swollen eyes. Maybe nothing wasn’t so bad.
I walk back into the shelter. My face red and scraped dry of tears. My insides gone. They have been left on a witness stand. A dirty gas station floor. The shiny seat of a Mercedes leased by a legal aid lawyer. I give my son’s the pretty story I made up on a dark highway. I pack a suitcase and talk to them in a voice I don’t recognize. My 6 year-old asks why I’m not coming. I can’t speak when I bend down in front of him. His hand has found the hair behind my ear. The way it does when he’s tired or sick. Or scared. My hand is on his cheek. I want to die right here, Caressing the skin of my 6 year old son. He has the eyes of a monster. He has his father’s eyes. They are beautiful on his face.
I don’t cry when I wave goodbye.
I don’t cry when I pick up a pen and sign them away a year later. I am not the person I was before the judge’s gavel. I can never be that person again. I am a mother without children. I’ve learned that freedom isn’t free. I’ve watched pieces of my children shrink on court benches. Their shoulders are slumped.. Their eyes are downcast. I recognize this stance. I’ve seen the un-crying settle in their eyes. I hold the pen like a sword. My hands shake. My eyes are dry.
I don’t cry the year after that when the phone rings before dawn. When I realize that the monster’s voice still has the power to terrify me in the dark. While I stand in a bedroom I pay 500 dollars a month to sleep alone in.
I don’t cry when I see my 16 year old daughter on a ventilator. I don’t cry when they list the drugs found in her system. I don’t cry when they describe the boy in the backseat with her. The one who walked away with a scratch on his cheek. I wonder if his mother cried. I don’t cry when they hand the monster our daughter’s belly button ring in a ziploc bag, crusty with her dried blood. I don’t cry when I remember that the last words she said to me were: I hate you. I wonder if this is my punishment for thinking: I hate you back, you spoiled little shit.
The nurse has a red braid and cold hands. She calls me “Mom” with force. Ten, twenty times a day. She says it all the time. Like if she says the word enough, I’ll believe in it again. I’ll believe it has anything to do with me anymore. Yes. I carried this girl. I brought her into this world. Into the house of horror where women learn not to cry. I belong to her and she belongs to me. I haven’t lived with her for two years. She’s my flesh. My blood. My baby. She’s a hostile stranger. We belong to one another. We are strangers to one another,
I haven’t seen my daughter’s eyes in four days. The ventilator goes away like it never happened. I could believe it never happened, if she’d open her eyes. I don’t cry when I hold her still hand. I count her respirations until my eyes water with something else. something I don’t have the energy to identify. Into this room full with waiting and silent begging for my child’s life. through the smell of dehydrated hospital eggs and non tears, came my advocate from the shelter. The one who stood beside me when I waved goodbye to my two youngest sons. Sat beside me in court hallways. Walked beside and in front of me. She was there when I blew apart. There for my rebuilding. She was like Jesus in a jean jacket. I loved her the way you love someone who’s helped scrape your heartbreak off the walls and held a flashlight against your darkness. Who’s said: Yes, you can, you CAN, until you do. She was a buffer. Calm in the middle of a storm.
A reminder that I was not the woman with the slumped shoulders anymore. I think we broke some unspoken rule in her car that afternoon. She struggled between advocate and friend, Between professional and human. The lines blurred and it saved a life I still wasn’t sure I wanted. I didn’t cry while I tried to eat a lunch she bought. I didn’t cry when it was time to say goodbye. When I knew I would have to walk back into that room and face the monster and whatever remained of our child.
I didn’t cry when I hugged her. I didn’t cry until I did. Then I still cried non tears. I silently shook. I shook so violently, I shook both of us. I think I shook the damn car. I shook the world around me with pounds of sorrow and silent screams. The harder I cried the dry cry, the harder I held on to her . I was afraid to let go. Afraid of the things I might be letting go of. My daughter. My idea of being a mom. What that means. What I mean. My frigging sanity. When I pulled away, my face was dry. Hers was wet. Tears were not an idea. They were not a myth. They were not born solely in pain. Tears didn’t have to be bad. Tears could be love. Tears could be lifesaving. Her tears were love. They were lifesaving. My tears were still not something that felt good or natural. Maybe they never would be. Maybe my daughter could recover. Maybe I could. All I knew in that moment was that I loved the person in front of me with wet eyes, more than I ever hated myself. Her tears gave me back a strength I’d forgotten I possessed. Enough strength to let her go. To walk back towards my daughter’s hospital room. To not fling myself off the roof of the hospital. It was a start.
My daughter survived. Came back to my world. Got married on Halloween. Dressed in black, as a vampiress. She wore fangs and ringlet curls around her high cheekbones. She looked happy and healthy. She looked radiant. Some days she’s a gift. Some days she’s a pain in the ass. The way daughters are supposed to be. She made me a grandmother a few years ago. That’s one of my favorite things. That’s my best thing. I’m not the mom I set out to be. Maybe no one is ever the mom they thought they would be. I’m in a room in Vermont. It’s like 101 degrees. It’s filled with wine and cheese and bare feet. Gel pens and stories. A baby learning to crawl in a circle of bodies in various shapes and sizes of lulu lemon.
I am surrounded by writers. Real writers. I don’t feel like a real writer. On my bad days I still struggle with feeling like a real person. I’m not a crier. I’ve never been a crier. Crying doesn’t feel good or natural or safe. These people cry with a boldness, a realness, that takes my breath away. There’s a tiny woman, with a huge presence and beautiful, long dark hair. She looks into my face. She sits knee to knee in front of me. She hears me before I speak . She hears me, even though she’s profoundly deaf. There’s a redhead who fascinates me with her use of the word “Fuck.” It sounds like art when it comes out of her mouth. I’m holding the quivering hand of a woman who was a stranger 24 hours ago. Cat Stevens is singing about fathers and sons. There’s something running down my face. My fingertips find my wet eyelashes before I realize what it is. I’m crying.
I’m fucking crying in this blazing hot room in Vermont.
I’m crying in front of people I’ve never met before. I’m crying. I am alive I am real. It feels natural. It feels safe. It feels wonderful.
Janine Canty was born a word geek. She is a former blogger of pap smears and Cadbury creme eggs. She puts on scrubs by day and pushes a med cart in a busy nursing facility. She puts on a ratty pink robe by night and writes with a cat trying to climb onto the keyboard. Her work has previously appeared on Sweatpants and Coffee and The Weeklings and The Manifest-Station, of course. She can be found on facebook here.