Article by Alesandra Tejeda
Art by Olathe Antonio & Jia Mei
I am seventeen years old, and my boyfriend, Joe, and I are at the grocery store. We’re going to buy sushi, go back to his house, and watch a movie.
We’ve just reached the refrigerated sushi display and I’m absorbed, chatting away about our options, when I hear Joe’s voice, rushed and caught by surprise, say:
“Ale,” as he grabs my right arm.
I look up and scan my surroundings, confused.
Then my eyes catch my mother’s.
She’s maybe ten feet in front of me. In the hummingbird second it takes for me to internalize her presence, my heart drops to my toes. She’s wearing a familiar outfit: her tennis shoes, sweats, and Louis Vuitton hand bag—arms crossed, her toes face the deli counter as her torso twists to me. Staring at me. Her eyes are dark.
I wonder what my face looked like before time unfroze. I burst out laughing, and follow Joe out of the store. I still wonder why I laughed.
That was the first time I’d seen her since the restraining order was issued and the last time I’ve seen her since—at least face to face. I’ll often find myself seeing short, stout blonde women from behind, and my heart suddenly thuds like a drum in my ears as I flee in the other direction.
So I’ve “seen” her many times in grocery stores, the bank, the airport. It’s never her, but I always react the same.
* * *
“I love Mexico. It was such a wonderful part of our childhood.”
I was born the only child of my parents, each in their second marriage. My mother had my three brothers previously, and my father had already had my two sisters. I was the baby, born eleven years after my youngest sibling, and raised in Mexico City, the birthplace of color, flavor, and Frida. My mother moved there for my father, whom we called Pa. She would describe both Pa and Mexico as the loves of her life.
My childhood was fueled by parents who loved me fiercely. They were architects, determined to raise me in a world of imagination and intellect. Pa would read me the biographies of Matisse and Barragán before bed, and I would draw in the back of my mother’s class when she brought me to the university.
He was kind and caring towards her. She adored him. Theirs was a fervent love. I remember many tender moments, but the arguments are more vivid.
“He helped keep her together.”
* * *
I’m four years old, and my father is lying to my left, my mother to my right. I am squeezed in between them, warm. I can’t escape. I’m staring at the ceiling, focusing hard on the spackled paint as my parents’ fighting words escape their lips, shoot across the air in front of me and collide into each other. Their voices reverberate in my ears.
“GO TO HELL,” one screams.
“FUCK YOU. VETE A LA CHINGADA,” replies the other.
* * *
I’m sixteen years old, and we’re in that godforsaken parking lot. My brothers Kerry and Brandon are sitting on the curb. They drove five hours on short notice to pick me up. Kerry is 11 years older than I am, Brandon 12. Devin is 14 years older, but he’s in Mexico.
Kerry’s scrolling on his phone as he puffs out his stress. The heat is beating sweat out of our pores. We’re anxious to go, but my mother wants to sit down one last time before I leave for the summer. She’s at Walgreens across the street buying a Coke and some cigarettes, and Kerry’s showing us what he thinks can explain her. He’s scrolling, scrolling—
“Ah, here it is,” he says. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” Brandon and I sit back like bewildered disciples subscribing to a new and obvious truth.
* * *
“Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It fits her description to the T.”
“It’s like her picture should be right next to it.”
“How would you say so?”
“That she has delusions of grandeur, that she’s better than everyone else, and that she lives this life that is so wonderful, but it’s not real.”
“I don’t know how she, in her mind, defines right and wrong. That’s always been a mystery to me. How does she not understand that she is completely out of reality? You know?”
* * *
I have often caught myself staring at my mother, marveling at her as she does the ordinary things I’ve seen her do a million times. Suddenly it’s as though I’m sitting alone in a movie theater, estranged, watching my mother’s persona before me as she shuffles her papers and blows her nose and—I realize I don’t know her.
I gape, bewildered. It’s as if I could reach out, poke the movie screen, and make her image dissolve.
“When we would visit her in the summers, I remember our trips would get shortened. We’d have to go back a day sooner, and she’d say, ‘Your dad is always spoiling another day for us, and we have to send you back.’ She would take her failure as a parent and blame it on others.”
“Every time I would say something was good back home she would attack everything and say, ‘That’s not true, you don’t know yourself, you don’t know them,’ and then talk for years about how great she was. It was always to make out that someone else was bad, she was always better, and you were always wrong.”
“Ale, you’re a good example. She married Erik and put you in danger a lot of the time, just so she could have money.”
* * *
I’m fourteen years old, and I’m holding a frying pan behind my back in clenched hands, in defense of her. Erik is roaring, shaking, shouting blame at me as the kitchen turns blurry behind him, as I stand there and stare, glare, do not move. His spittle lands on my face. I glare at him, daring him to make a move, knowing that he won’t. Coward.
The best compliment he ever gave me was when he told me I had eyes that could melt Antarctica.
* * *
“She kept telling lies over and over and over again.”
“A vivid one that related to you was when she manipulated you into taking the blame for when she took that girl’s phone and made all those calls to Mexico.”
I’m nine years old, and it’s the winter after my mother and I left our life with my father behind. We’ve been staying at my grandparents’ house in Milwaukee a season longer than we said we would. The attic of their house has become a refuge, with a warm bed that shields me from the cold seeping through the old window panes. It’s on the third floor. No one needs to come up here, so my mother and I are left alone. I often retreat to the cold of the attic from the tense air downstairs that lingers from my mother’s latest fight with her parents.
My mother once told me, “The only time my mom said she loved me was when I left for college.” That was why they “didn’t get along.” And though she loved her dad, he always sided with her mom.
“This is it,” I think, sitting on my bed, too afraid to go downstairs. I had overheard in the muffles escaping through the old floor boards that my cousin’s friend’s phone had gone missing. What seems like hours pass before the argument ebbs.
Finally my mom’s face surfaces from the stairs. I run to her and nuzzle my face in her stomach, relieved to see her but anxious to flatten the creases in her brow, to take the pain out of her eyes and make it my own.
“Are you okay? What happened?”
“Listen to me. There’s something you need to do, okay? Caroline’s phone went missing. She found it in the couch, and it had a lot of long distance calls to Mexico. Your grandparents are accusing me.”
“Why would they think that?” I know she would never do that.
“I need you to admit that you did it.”
I feel my insides drop to my toes.
“I need you to go downstairs and admit to taking the phone. I don’t know—say you really missed your family and wanted to talk to them.”
“But…but I didn’t.”
“Please Ale. Just do it,” she says softly, as her brow creases and a flicker of fear crosses her face. I would come to know this expression well.
My grandparents didn’t believe me. We had to leave. I apologized to my cousin’s friend too, in the cold one night, after crying and pleading to my mother to be released from this responsibility.
* * *
“I think Pa really suffered from all of this. I know there were great times and great moments, but he had a very different personality. He was much more humble, down to earth, empathetic. I think, in a sense, it became too much for him. I just can’t imagine.”
“What really held her together was your dad. And when he passed away, she just fell apart. Everything came out after that. That was the catalyst.”
I was eight years old when Pa died. Kerry, my eldest brother, lived with us that year. He picked up the slack my mother could no longer bear to take up. He shone a little brighter for me on the days my mother couldn’t open the curtains. That was the year she built dams behind her eyes. They were built in a hurry, though, and would often break. In the years to come, I was the one to get caught in the flood. My father’s death really was the catalyst. I didn’t know that then. I would spend the next eight years of my life thinking my mother and I were just victims of cosmic play.
My mother and I spent the four years after Pa’s death in twelve different homes. Not one of them ours, not one of them paid for with our own money. We didn’t have any. We scraped by with the help of others. We were kicked out of most of the houses, usually because my mother had broken the trust of the family member, friend, or acquaintance we were staying with. Sometimes we just overstayed our welcome. Usually it had to do with theft—belongings and money, forging signatures for credit cards. Oftentimes I took the blame. I was my mother’s pawn, though I thought I was my mother’s advocate, emailing friends and people she knew, asking for money. I would say that this time would really be the last, not knowing it was a lie.
We became a team, intent on surviving.
* * *
“Your dad was able to deal with a lot of her craziness and keep her together, but she still did things while they were together. She spent a lot of his money, from what I heard. She blows through people’s money. That’s another problem. She spends other people’s money without any guilt or consequence.”
I’m eleven, and the air smells fake.
Fuck. Department stores make me sweat. The fluorescent blue light makes my skin crawl. My fingers fidget on the clothing racks to keep my mind occupied.
My mother is spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. Not even our money, other people’s money. Always other people’s money.
The fluorescent lights reflect in my mother’s eyes as she gets sucked into the superficial allure of the store: promised glamour and promised status.
“She was obsessed with her physical appearance, you know that. She had to have the most flashy everything and use other people’s money too. But you know when someone does that they’re portraying someone that they’re really not.”
Promised packages of normality—This is what people do, wrapped with, You look so fabulous, I can’t even tell that your life is in shambles. “You’re going to get found out, Mom,” I think. “Reckoning will come, and all those credit cards in your wallet won’t defend you, and neither will that Louis Vuitton handbag.”
She tries to get me to try on clothes, to partake in her idea of mother-daughter bonding.
“I. Don’t. Want. To,” I protest for the nth time.
We should be spending money on food.
I sweat. Fake smiles. Fake “How are you today?” The cashier doesn’t give a shit. “Is your mom taking you shopping? How fun!” I fake a smile. I’m sweating. I hate this smell.
* * *
“I thought she was wonderful for a long time, and then I realized who she really was and it really hurt. I didn’t believe anything she ever said anymore. I wasn’t able to trust her after that…or at least it was hard to.”
I am five years old, and I am swallowed in my mother’s embrace. My body fits perfectly in the plump enveloping cavern of her outstretched arm. With her other hand she caresses my hair, cooing, “Edelweiss, edelweiss, every morning you greet me,” her voice creaking like the old floorboards in my grandparents’ house as I fall asleep.
“With her craziness she was able to leave a lot of responsibility behind, which included us. But when we would visit her in Mexico in the summer we experienced a whole different culture that we never would have experienced any other way. And we got a second father in Pa, who was absolutely wonderful. And you were born.”
I don’t remember her ever speaking badly about my father. Every year we would make him an altar on Day of the Dead and celebrate. But the mourning too would come, and she would hold me like she had the morning she told me he was gone.
* * *
I’m seventeen, and on Valentine’s Day she leaves a bag with a heart balloon attached on the doorstep.
I don’t remember what the card said. I don’t remember what any of the cards said. They often had poems in Spanish, descriptions of the blooming bugambilias in Mexico, and always words of love and admiration. They eventually ended by hinting at the end of our separation—as if I was being put up to it, and she would take care of it, and we’d be together again soon.
“Your brothers are brainwashing you,” she would say.
* * *
“It’s only in the worst situations that she’ll give up some of her ego to try to overcome the situation she’s in because she needs desperate help.”
“But once she feels settled again, she goes right back to her old ways.”
I’m fifteen, and my mother says, “You were right Al, I’m sorry,” from the bottom of the stairs, with that familiar pain in her voice. The lines in her forehead have become permanent. I can no longer make them mine.
I glare and think, “Right? Of course I was right. We never should’ve hosted a foreign exchange student in a toxic home. And after you found out I sent an email to the first student, warning her not to come, that she had been lied to, and she thankfully listened, you grounded me for a month because you couldn’t see past your wounded ego and face the ugly truth. I don’t take it back.
“And now here we are. Your husband has been in jail for days, and the student moved to a different home. It’s too late for apologies.
“Of course I was fucking right.
“She doesn’t think about how her actions affect other people. She just kind of does whatever she wants, thinking it’s a good thing.”
* * *
“Growing up could be a fucking nightmare with her. I was six when she called the FBI to tell them my dad was abusing me. So the FBI came to my dad’s house, and I was the one who answered the door. They began to ask me, ‘Does your father abuse you?’ And I just thought, ‘What are you talking about?’”
I’m seventeen years old, and I hear the doorbell. It’s 11 o’clock at night. Who the fu—
“Ale, can you come down here?” my guardian says. It’s junior year, and I’ve stopped living with my mother. The guardianship change is not yet permanent, and it wouldn’t be until the summer after that the court dates would end and I’d be granted both a guardianship and a two-year restraining order.
I stop at the top of the stairs. I can tell from the polite chuckle and the sound of the boots that it’s a police officer.
“This is it,” I think, “She fucking convinced them I was kidnapped, and they’ve come to return me.”
My feet draw slow creaks out of every step. I come around the corner, rubbing my eyes.
The police officer introduces himself and says:
“Nice to meet you, Ale.” He shuffles his feet and an uncomfortable chuckle escapes his throat. “I apologize for waking you up. I’m here because we’re obligated to follow up on a call from your mother about your safety. She’s been calling a lot, actually. She said you were being sexually abused at your new residence and that you were being taken advantage of as a sex slave. Is this true?”
I blink. I sag.
I am so tired.
* * *
“When I was younger, I was very careful about what I said. When I got older, that changed and I cracked. I cracked one day and said, ‘I’m not taking this anymore,’ and our relationship after that changed.”
I’m sixteen years old, and I’m at a friend’s house. I receive a text from Joe’s mother in the middle of the night, saying that my mother had called for help and Joe’s father has bailed her out of the local jail and dropped her off at a motel. I don’t remember why she was arrested that time.
Rage and shame, but mostly shame, overwhelm my senses.
And cry. Teeth clenched. Rubbing my fists in my eyes. I hate my mother in this moment. All I feel is heat.
I call my brothers, and they say they’ll pick me up in two days, their voices heavy because they know.
The next day I take the few things I have and spend the night at the motel with my mother because if I had refused she wouldn’t have let me leave.
She comes to get me from the lobby. I stay silent, treating her like a stranger in the elevator.
It’s such a fucking ugly elevator.
It smells stagnant.
“Are you going to talk to me?” she asks in that familiar, pained voice.
“Why did you do it?” I finally ask as the doors slide open.
She walks out to the left and turns.
Pain turns to indignation in her voice, “They’re my friends too, Ale.”
“Fuck you. They’re his parents, not your friends. You could have called anyone else.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she scoffs. “You don’t think I tried? I tried everyone. I had a right to call them.”
I remember when Erik told me I had eyes that could melt Antarctica.
I summon these eyes, stand resolute, every word punching holes in the stagnant air:
“You had no fucking right.”
I brush my teeth. We have to share the stiff bed, which barely has room for the two of us or the trench forming between. She paints her toenails and watches TV like I’ve seen her do a million times before, when it was just us against the world. There was a time when it didn’t matter where we were: If she was there we were home and the sight of her painting her toenails meant that we’d be fine.
The nail polish smells nauseating now. The TV’s fluorescent blue makes my skin crawl. I get into the bed, face the wall away from her, and will the next sunrise to come quicker. To end this twisted purgatory of a room where the TV still murmurs and my mother still paints her toenails. I wonder if she still feels that she is at the center of a cruel, universal joke. If, to her, her nail polish smells the same as it always has.
I sleep, rigid, so I don’t roll into the trench in the middle of the night.
My brothers pick me up the next day from the godforsaken parking lot.
That was the last night my mother and I spent under the same roof.
* * *
“Brandon, why did you decide to start talking to her again, over the phone?”
“What happened was that I’d received an email one day. It was the most thought-out email I’d received in a long time from her. I thought, “Okay, I’ll give it a chance.” When we spoke I was still pretty cold and short. After all these years I’m still careful about what I say. I’m open because there’s just that natural innate feeling of the motherly figure. But I’m definitely not as deep into it like I would be with my dad, or someone else.”
“Ugh. Just to know she’s okay. Because I do love her, and I just don’t know if she’s truly capable of taking care of herself. But I know she is. I just feel bad for her sometimes because I know she can’t help herself. I wish she would at least acknowledge that there is something wrong with her mind. But she never does. It’s always somebody else around her. It’s never really her fault—even when she says she’s sorry, I don’t believe that she’s truly sorry.”
“You know, I can’t overlook the fact that mom has been extremely nice in many situations. But then it goes back eventually. That’s the problem.”
“I know you don’t feel the same about speaking to her. Neither of us have.”
“Well, you know. The hardest part at the end of the day is that she’s still your mom. You love her, you know? But that doesn’t mean that she has to be a part of your life. She doesn’t have to be. You choose. We’ve chosen.”
I’m eighteen years old, and I’m writing my mother a letter before I go to college. The words have finally come. Part of it reads:
“You’ve made up stories to suggest that I was kidnapped, baited, or brainwashed. I refuse to give in to your presumption that I have nothing to say for myself. It will not be misunderstood that anything I do or say about this matter I do not mean. I am writing this to you because, as your daughter, I hope you will listen to me for once. Not for my sake, but for your own. If you hope to gain some sort of validation in your harassing efforts to drag this matter out even longer, to get a reaction out of me, know that it will not come. I have long since stopped being angry with you. I never have nor will I ever hate you, because I think it’s an exhausting waste of time and energy. I suggest you also let go of the anger in your heart.
“I am moving on. I do not owe you anything. Whether you always believed this guardianship case was done against my will, despite my unwavering testimonies in court, or you simply cannot face the fact that I left, I will say one more time that I control my own destiny, and that will not change. I chose to cease being under your guardianship. I chose to bring light to your behavior and end the tirade. These are my words and my truths. The day I took control was the day I stopped speaking on your behalf as your defender and follower and chose myself. And despite what you might think, I know beyond a doubt that Pa would be proud of me.
“I’m not waiting around hoping you will change. Only you can make that choice. If only the heart can see what is essential, I think you have gone blind. The longer you keep harassing those around me for vindication, the longer you continue to drag this on, the longer it will take for me to ever consider having a relationship with you. Otherwise, I do not intend to see or hear from you. Know this and keep it in mind.
“As I said, for your own sake, I hope you will let go of your anger and find peace in your heart.
Part of the Ego issue