By D. Michael Whelan
When I was younger, I loved Halloween. I think it was getting to play dress up, pretending to be something else, something of your choosing. Every day of my life I was pretending to be something else just to stay safe. I was pretending not to be gay, because my parents knew, but warned me what would happen if I told anyone else. I was pretending everything was okay at home. That home wasn’t actually a warzone, where I had to match wits with a mad woman, just to be allowed to eat, sleep or stay inside. Beatings were unavoidable, but I became a master at figuring out how to work with them, so they inflicted minimal damage. I learned how to figure out my mother’s moods and what made her tick. I was strategic, sometimes making sure the beatings weren’t big, but when she was on the edge I knew she would have to blow completely in order for me to be safer as the night wore on.
See, I was always pretending. I was always lying. I was always someone else. I was the bright and lazy student, because not doing your homework because you were playing one of your mother’s psychological games did not fly. I was the student who didn’t appreciate his parents, because whenever the police were contacted about said abuse, it just made things worse. I was defiant, but only because I intended to survive. I was a liar, but never a liar about the things people thought I lied about. I was too crafty, too good at lying – people never knew what I was lying about. They never did either.
But on Halloween I didn’t have to be any of these things. Pretending could be fun, and I got to choose what I would be. I was always a witch, at least until my parents decided long black wigs and costumes consisting of a black robe were too androgynous and therefore not appropriate for their son. Then I would dress as a warlock or some other powerful creature. I was never into gore or trends, and I always went as the same thing more-or-less, just in slightly different costumes. I was always powerful. I was always something that mere mortals would never trifle with. I was always someone who could escape just by snapping their fingers.
When I was thirteen, it was going to be my last Halloween. I knew this going into it, I was too old to play dress up, too old to go door-to-door for candy and other goodies. I planned to make the most of it, and commit every second to memory.
My brother and I were ready to begin our evening a little after 6:30. My mother was staying home for trick-or-treaters, but she didn’t trust me to go by myself, or keep watch over my nine-year-old brother, so our stepfather was going to come with us. On the way out the door, my mother asked me something. I don’t remember what. I know because I’m not stupid, I didn’t get mouthy. I was determined to have my Halloween. I remember her claiming I had a tone and rolled my eyes, even though I was sure I hadn’t. Life with her made me learn how to control everything, and be aware of everything. She was mistaken. Or lying. But saying either of these things was not an option. It would be considered backtalk. So, instead I apologized. But it was no use.
My mother ordered my stepfather to take my brother trick-or-treating and said that I was to stay behind. Halloween, for me, was over. As soon as they left, my mother’s games began.
“Is your homework done?”
“No, but it’s Friday. I haven’t had a chance to-”
“Do your homework, NOW!”
It was more than a command; it was a threat, a dare.
As soon as I sat down, my textbooks open, she screeched, “What are you DOING! Do the dishes, and clean the kitchen. Actually do something for once in your goddamn life, you lousy piece of shit.”
It was another dare, another threat, and my mother’s favorite game. The game where she gave me a list of things to accomplish in an impossible timeframe, or else… And even better, she hovered the entire time to tell me how I was doing them wrong, what to do first, and what to do next, but switching up the order of my tasks, and the instructions. It ate away at my time, but again the timeframe was already impossible. This was just to make me crazy, and let me know who was in control. And it wasn’t me.
Before I had finished the dishes, she made me stop because I was doing them wrong. Loading the dishwasher incorrectly. I was so tired, and upset and angry. I just wanted my one night. And it was my last year to have it. I wasn’t stupid enough to think that missing out this year meant I could participate next year. I wasn’t stupid.
I had to go back to my homework, then pick up the basement, then my room, then homework, then the kitchen again, then homework, then the dishes, then the floors, then homework, then my brother’s room, the one that used to be mine before I was banished to the basement, then homework, then dishes, then the kitchen, then homework, the kitchen, homework, the kitchen, homework… Somewhere in the homework/kitchen loop, and forty-five minutes after this madness began my mother laid into me.
She called me every name there was, used every hurtful adjective imaginable, and I stood there, eyes partially to the floor. She screamed at me to look at her, but I knew as soon as I did she would take it as a challenge – like an animal. I bit my tongue so hard I tasted copper. I knew better than to comment on her contradictory statements or her terrible abuse of the English language by using so many unnecessary adjectives. As if she had to convince herself, even more than she felt she had to convince me.
I don’t remember when the knife came into play. I think it was right after I made eye contact, after she screamed at me to look at her for the third time in five minutes. It seemed to materialize out of nowhere, but I know she got it from the drawer next to the dishwasher or the countertop right above. She advanced on me, slicing through air. I fought back the urge to step forward so she would “accidentally” cut me. Let her explain that to the emergency room personnel. I would have too, but there were too many unknown variables. Where would the knife strike, at what speed and trajectory? Where could I allow it to make contact? How could I make sure it went according to plan, without putting me in serious danger?
That was easy, I couldn’t. So I jumped back and pretended to be scared. That was what she wanted. She didn’t want to know I was thinking about angles or parts of my body that could take the blade and make a mess, without killing me. She wanted me to cower. To be scared of her. To let her know that I knew my life was hers – I was nothing.
If it was Sunday, I would have stood tall. I would have challenged her. I would show up at school with her sloppiness on my body and if she tried to keep me home, as she sometimes did in such cases, I would find a way to be seen. But it was Friday. I was stuck with her all weekend. My dad was in town, but he wasn’t interested. He’d just tell me to get along with my mother, and to stop making her angry. I was on my own. It was Friday. Friday. Friday.
I pretended to be scared. My body shook lightly, I made my knees go week. I made sure my voice was tinged with fear. To survive, I had to be in control of everything.
She ordered me upstairs to take a shower. First in the main bathroom, then in hers. The main bathroom, hers. I ended up in her bathroom. Two minutes into my shower, the lights went out. The room, with no windows was wrapped in complete blackness. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I knew if I was not out of the shower in time, things would be worse. And I knew she would smell me, and if I did not smell exactly how she wanted, things would be worse. I carefully put my hands forward to feel for the shower door and pushed it open. I wrapped myself in the towel I put on top of the toilet and made my way to the wall by the door. I turned the light on, and quickly got back in the shower.
Two minutes later, the lights went out again, but this time with a deafening screech. I had just finished my hair and was rinsing so I stayed where I was, letting the hot water rain down on me. I wanted to make it hotter, but I knew my mother would scream about foggy mirrors or using too much water. When I was done it was time to wash my body, but I couldn’t find the soap. Again, I carefully felt my way to the light switch and turned it on. This time however, I had just made it back into the shower when my mother burst in, wielding the knife she pulled on me earlier. She banged on the shower door, so I cracked it open, and she thrust the blade towards me so fast I jerked my head back in authentic fear. My first of the evening.
“If I turn off the lights that does not mean for you to turn them back on, you piece of shit. Don’t do it again.” She turned on her heel and quickly left, shutting the lights off behind her.
I finished as quickly as possible; still not sure I used the right soap. When I got out, I dried myself just as quickly in the dark, and then got dressed, feeling for the tag in my shirt and having to turn it around once it was over my head. Upon inspection, I still smelled “nasty”. I wasn’t fast enough, and had wasted too much water to shower again. I was to go to bed. No words exchanged. I would not wait up for my brother.
I was surprised by this, certain we would play more of her games. I didn’t say anything. Afraid that a “thank you” would alert her to the uncharacteristic mercy she was affording me. If I said, “Yes,” she would find a tone in my voice. Questions were not allowed. I simply nodded and left quickly and quietly. Down to the basement, to that corner room that had been made into a place to keep me, out of the way, and away in general.
I didn’t go to sleep right away – how could I? I had to think about tomorrow. I had to make a plan to get to Sunday, because today was only Friday. I didn’t think about what happened. In truth, I don’t think it would be all that memorable if it didn’t cost me that last Halloween. It wasn’t the first time my mother pulled a knife on me, or some other kind of weapon. And it wasn’t the last. Her games were every day. Inspections every day. Knives or shower interruptions not every day, but hardly something special. These experiences blend, and it’s always the timing or other random details that make individual moments stand out.
That was my last Halloween. Except that it wasn’t. I don’t remember my last Halloween, because I didn’t know it would be my last. So I call my first non-Halloween my last in order to provide myself closure to the last thing I was allowed to do as a kid. Even though I had fully grown up years earlier, it was the last tradition where I could pretend to be a kid. Pretend to be happy. Pretend to be innocent. The one day I didn’t have to pretend to be scared.
D. Michael Whelan is a gay, gender nonconforming and disabled writer and activist. He holds his MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles and currently lives in Colorado with his husband, dog, and a cat that he (fondly?) refers to as a squatter. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post and EAB Publishing’s literary journal, Midnight Circus. For more information, please visit his website dmichaelwhelan.com.
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