An eight-year-old girl lays in bed with her covers pulled tight around her chin. She squeezes a bear just as old as she is against her side. Her parents are in the hallway screaming at each other about any and every misdemeanor that had ever occurred in their eight-years-and-nine-months-long relationship. They call each other names she knows are only reserved for late-night blowouts.
She pulls the covers over her face when she hears her father’s heavier footsteps walk away from where the yelling was happening and her mother’s lighter footsteps follow him. Why is she still yelling? Can’t she just let him walk away? Her mother’s asking questions that are too hard for him to answer.
She hears a cabinet door open. Glasses clink. Her father’s pouring himself a drink; two thirds whiskey, one third water.
“SHUT UP!” she hears him yell.
She hears glass shatter and imagines amber liquid and shining chips of glass running down a wall.
Her mother screams.
She covers her mouth to keep from making a sound.
Heavy footsteps pound back to where she knows their room is. She closes her eyes, hoping they’re finally going to fall asleep. Lighter footsteps quickly follow. Her mother is still shouting.
“SHUT UP!” he yells again. “JUST SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”
Her mother yells back at him.
She hears a sharp smacking sound and her mother’s scream. She hears a heavy thud against the ground. Their bedroom door closes.
She rips the covers off. Should she call the police? Would he hurt her if she said anything?
She cracks her bedroom door open. The house is dark. Her eyes are adjusted to the lack of light and she sees her mother sitting against the wall outside of the bedroom she shared with her father. Their eyes meet.
“Are you okay, mommy?” she whispers.
Light reflects the silver tears on her mother’s face. Everything looks inky blue in the night.
Her mother nods.
She falls into her mother’s arms and they hug. Her hair is wet where her mother’s face was pressed against her head.
“I’ll be okay,” her mother says. “Go to bed.”
She leaves her mother where she’s sitting on the floor, walks to her room, and slides into bed. Her father is snoring.
I wonder how my three siblings and I knew never to confide in anyone at school. We kept our parents’ secret without ever being asked. Maybe it’s because they only really beat us once or twice and it felt like it was none of our business. Maybe it’s because we saw our mother cover up the bruises with sunglasses and excuses. Maybe it’s because when we told our grandmother about it, nothing changed, and if our grandma couldn’t do anything about it, neither could anyone else.
Our father was a popular man in my hometown (population 1000, counting cats, dogs, and a few stray squirrels). He was a hard worker, he always had time to stay out and drink with his friends, and he was good looking with an easy smile. Our mother was an unreliable high school dropout who worked just about every low-end job our town had to offer.
As we grew up, we started to learn that our family was different from everyone else’s. Other kids didn’t have to make excuses for why they couldn’t stay awake in school, or why their parents didn’t go to parent-teacher conferences, or why their mom sometimes wore sunglasses inside the grocery store.
Maybe we didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. We were always a little on the outside of the social circle, and didn’t want to alienate ourselves more by exposing our secret. Foster care would have separated us. Besides, when we confronted our parents, they told us that every family had arguments. So maybe we were overreacting.
In my teenage frustration, I asked my mother why she stayed. She said because she thought that a judge would give our father custody of us kids because he had a good job.
I told her she was a coward.
After my father was out too late, and drove home drunk with us kids in the vehicle, she’d tell me she was going to leave him—that she couldn’t put up with it anymore.
Her resolve always faltered.
She would continue fighting with him, repeatedly infuriate him until he was so frustrated he would snap. If she knew what was coming, why would she keep arguing?
My youngest brother is 17. He ran away when he was 16 and the cops found him ten hours away from our hometown. His reason? He felt invisible. He skips class often, and has had meetings with a truancy officer. My younger sister is 18. She’s been on and off of psychotropic medications and has been in institutions for self-harming. She dropped out of high school and is living with her 22-year-old boyfriend (of six months) who has a two-year-old child with another woman. My younger brother is 20. He cut himself and scared others by acting crazy when he was in high school. Our parents let him drive himself to his therapy appointments. He wears the same clothes for days on end without showering. He just started a college program at the local technical college, but is having trouble figuring out how to get student loans.
I’m 21. When I told my parents I was depressed in high school and asked for help, they laughed and told me to stop trying to get attention. I married my high school sweetheart in secret when I was 18. I just graduated from a division one university Summa Cum Laude with a bachelors degree, and I’m starting a masters degree in January. I talk to my parents on the phone every other day.
Our parents are still “together” after 21 years and nine months of marriage. They yell at each other often. My father sometimes becomes violent. On the extremely rare occasion someone confronts him about abusing his wife or children, he denies it ever happened. When one of us asks our mother where she will go when my youngest brother moves out, she has no idea.
We never outright told anyone about what was happening at home, but our lives are testaments to years of abuse, secrets, lies, pain, and neglect. In keeping these secrets for our parents, we kept them from our parents. In turn, our parents have been able to keep the secret from themselves.
This essay has been nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award. Reader feedback in the comments section will be taken into consideration by the judges. Contest Rules.