Glass

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What Happened When the Glass Cracked

My father left. I woke up and could no longer smell him in the closed air of our home. My mother was alone, at the kitchen table. She sat holding a cold cup of tea. She stared out the window above the kitchen sink. She never blinked. Her eyes were dry. When I approached her, touched her shoulder, she turned to look at me. She still did not blink.

My father left but his leaving was slow. Every morning, on his way to work, he’d take some part of himself, neatly packed in a brown leather satchel.  Soon, his desk was marked by a cartography of clean spaces surrounded by dust. One by one, he took his suits, socks, shaving kit, shoes. My mother pretended he wasn’t leaving, pretended she couldn’t see all he refused to leave behind.

My father left but when he did, he said it broke his heart to do it, to leave us kids. He took us to the park, one by one, and then out for ice cream. He explained that he loved us but didn’t love our mother anymore, said she was the kind of woman a man could never love for long. We knew our mother and understood what he meant.

My father left and when he did, he said a man wasn’t meant to love children enough to stay when a marriage wasn’t working. He told my brothers to remember that when they had families of their own. He told them, “Never let children force you to stay with a woman you don’t love.” He told me, “Marry a better man than me.”

My father left and when he did he sat us on the living room couch in a neat row, our knees touching. He stared down at us and said we were the reason for his leaving, said he couldn’t stand the smell or sight or sound of us. One of us started to cry and he shook his head. He said, “See what I mean?”

My father left. When he did we were happy. My mother threw a party, left the windows open and played music real loud. She let us stay up way past our bedtime  and we danced with our arms around her as she drank whiskey sours and said in a sing song voice that she was about to have the best years of her life which she didn’t but that might, it felt possible and true.

My father left. When he did we forgot what it meant to be happy. My mother took to her room. The cupboards ran bare. We began running wild, becoming the kind of kids whose father left a big ragged hole in their hearts. My mother took up with another man, a similar version of the man who left her. When we called him Dad, he told us to shut up so we called him Dad a lot.

My father left. When he did, he said it was too painful to see us. He remarried quickly we heard through my mother’s friends to a woman who was much older. Everyone found it strange. I saw them at Safeway and hid behind a tower of canned soup. He held his hand in the small of her back and smiled at everything she said. When he saw me, he shook his head slightly. I understood.

My father left and when he did, he became a better father. Each morning, he would take us to breakfast at his favorite diner and watch us at school. He attended all our games and recitals and helped our mother with us every day, often cooking our dinner and putting us to bed. When he’d go to his apartment, my mother would say how divorce was the one thing that made her love my father.

My father left and when he did, he tried to make us love him even though we could not because his leaving broke our mother in half and we spent the rest of our lives trying to hold her together. No matter what he did—fantastic trips, new toys, new cars when we were older, we couldn’t give him the one thing he wanted.

My father left. I was his favorite. I went to see him in his new apartment on Wednesdays and Sundays. We’d watch TV together, his arm around me. He smelled like menthol cigarettes and gin. He always held my hand in his lap and before I went back home, he’d say, “This is just for us,” and he’d press his calloused finger to my lips.

My father left. I was not his favorite. When I want to see him in his new apartment, he was stiff, would always sit an awkward distance from me. He’d ask, “Why are you here?” I’d say, “I wanted to see you Daddy.” He’d shake his head. He’d say, “I cannot imagine why but the sentiment is not mutual.” I persisted, nonetheless.

My father let and when he did, I wrote him hundreds of angry letters. I always chose my words carefully, wrote these letters on small index cards and pretended they were postcards. When I mailed them, I didn’t put them in envelopes. I wanted everyone to see what I really thought of him.

My father left and when he did, I became the kind of girl with daddy issues. I learned that boys love girls with daddy issues.

My father left and when he did, my brothers became the kind of boys with daddy issues. They took up too much space in our house, always slamming doors and making a mess and saying coarse things to my mother and I who loved them as best she could even though they were exactly like my father.

My father left but never for long. He’d stand on the porch with his suitcase and tell us he’d be at the Ramada downtown. He’d even tell us the room number so we could call him and sometimes we did. After a few weeks of room service and instant coffee, he always returned, said, “Let’s give this another go.” My mother always let him come back and this made us hate her more than him.

My father left but as he drove away from our house, his car was struck by a garbage truck. He died and it was terrible. The accident was the craziest thing, witnesses said. He had the top down, singing loud, smiling like the happiest man in the world and then he flew out of his car and landed next to someone’s mailbox, his limbs akimbo, but the smile still on his face.

My father left and lost his mind, quit his job selling lumber and became a bartender, sleeping all day, serving drinks all night. He started smoking, learned how to twirl a bottle of booze in the palm of his hand, a trick he taught us to impress our friends, which it did. He did embarrassing things like piercing his left ear and using hair product. He’d often say, “I am living the life.”

My father left and moved in with his parents who he hated. When we visited him at our grandparents, he always said how he wished he could move back home but he never did so we decided our father was probably a liar and our mother agreed.

My father left because he could no longer stand to live in a house. The walls, he said, were weighing him down. He started living on the street, sleeping in the park about a mile away. Sometimes, my mother let him use the shower. She said, “I suppose the vows extended to loving him in cleanliness and filth.”

My father left and took two of my brothers with him, the younger set of twins. They missed us at first and we missed them but then they moved three states away. There were letters, written in their terrible handwriting, and then the letters stopped. It was strange, then, to realize, that once there were five of us kids and then there were three.

My father left and took me with him, said I was his best girl. We moved into a gorgeous loft apartment downtown. When women spent the night, they’d say, “You’re so lucky to live in a place like this.” I could tell they wanted to live with us too but my father said I was the only girl he wanted to live with for the rest of his life.

My father left and took me with him, said he needed someone to take care of him whom he didn’t have to love. I wasn’t very good at taking care of him and he never let me forget it. He told me I wasn’t going to make a good wife for any kind of man. I was just like my mother, he said. I considered that a compliment.

My father left and took all of us with him, said his children were going to see the world, not sit around in a split-level playing by the rules. We got passports and every month we’d be in a new country, learning to eat strange foods and speak strange languages. My mother remarried and had a new child, a girl. She called that baby her clean slate.

My father left and my mother fell apart. Every day, we came home from school and found her sitting in the front room, staring out at the window. In a monotone voice, she’d tell us about everything she had seen, the mailman, three dogs, a crying baby, seventeen cars. “I didn’t see your father, though,” she’d say. She never looked up when she spoke. She often slept in that chair.

My father left and my mother blamed us. Every morning she woke us up by standing at the foot of our beds, screaming all the reasons she hated us. We should have been upset about the depths of her hatred but her face when she screamed, all stretched, eyes wide, skin red, it always made us laugh and laugh and laugh. We started to look forward to our mornings.

My mother left because she wanted to star in pictures. That had always been her dream ever since she saw Some Like It Hot and she meant to pursue it. She moved out to Los Angeles and lived in a cheap apartment in Echo Park and she never did star in pictures but she was in the city of angels and that seemed to be enough for her.

My mother left and joined the army. She wanted to put her strength to good use. She wanted to be told what to do. Every day during basic training, she sent us a postcard with little notes that said things like, “Destroyed a target today,” or, “My arms are really ripped,” or, “Sometimes, greasepaint gets in your eyes.”

My mother left and became someone else’s mother, took up with a man who had eight daughters, each one year apart in age. Their real mother died when the eighth child was born. The youngest was three when she left. My mother saw them walking down the street, each child holding the shoulder of the girl in front of her. That’s what made her leave us and seek them out. She loves orderly children.

My mother left and became a dancer. That’s what our father told us. Our classmates told us she became a stripper, said, “Your mama is working the pole.” We weren’t quite sure what that meant but we knew it wasn’t good. When the older twins turned eighteen they went to the club where she worked. She was a bit older then. They said she held the pole like it mattered. They said she was beautiful.

My mother left and went to an ashram in Upstate New York. She stayed there for three years, shaved her head, lived in complete silence. When she came home, her hair was short and soft. She smiled a lot but said little. At dinner, that first night after her return, my father asked, “Well, did you learn anything?” She smiled, held her hand to her lips. We waited for her answer.

My mother left and moved into the house next door. She said she wasn’t leaving us, she was just making a little more room in the world for herself. She hired a contractor and knocked down most of the walls so everything was wide open. We’d visit her during the day and run around the great big room that was her house. “Isn’t it so much better this way?” she’d say.

My mother left and for a little while, took my father with her. We were old enough, they said, for us to look after ourselves. After a month, my father returned. He looked thin, tired. He never told us about what happened or where our mother went even though we asked and asked and asked.

My mother left and took up with another woman. One afternoon while we had coffee even though I was too young to be drinking coffee she leaned across the table, winked at me, and said, “I’ve lived too much of my life feeling dead and dry.” She looked from side to side and leaned closer still. “I’m not dry anymore.” I had no idea what she meant and then later, I did.

My mother left and went to the end of the driveway where she stood for a very long time. My father came home from work, said, “What’s she doing out there?” We didn’t know. The sun set. The sun rose. The sun set. The sun rose. She stood at the end of the driveway. She never moved. I don’t even think she blinked. I guess she went as far as she needed to go.

My mother left and took up running. Every evening around five she’d run by our house and my brothers and I would sit on the porch and wave to her. She’d turn and stare at us as she ran by but she never waved or stopped. She simply stared until she was out of sight and then she looked ahead and kept on running and running and running.

My mother left but she didn’t. She pitched a tent in the backyard, the fancy kind with rooms. She had a nice air mattress, raised off the ground. She used the house for bathing and cooking for the family but each night after we watched TV, she’d return to her tent, humming happily. Even after my father started dating again, she stayed out in her tent with us, away from us.

My mother left and became the town whore. That’s what my father said even though there was little evidence to support his claim. She still went to church, got a job at a camera store selling lenses and tripods and other accessories. Even though she was mostly alone, my father always imagined her with men who were not him. He never understood that was why she left in the first place.

My mother left and became the town whore. My father said people were just talking but she was often seen at the bars in town wearing next to nothing, draping herself across men of an inappropriate age. When I visited her, a man was often leaving, tucking his pants as he stumbled out the door, muttering, “Goddamn.” My mother would pull her robe closed and smile at me. She’d say, “I love freedom.”

My mother left, went to school and wrote us letters about what she learned. She said she was going to spend the rest of her life trying to understand the world. My mother spent most of her time in the library. She called it travel. We’d ask to see her and she’d say, “I’m on the road right now,” even though she was on Elm Street. She really believed she was somewhere far away.

My mother left and took up with an unkind man. We’d see her around town sometimes with fading bruises on her face and arms. We’d say, “Come home, Dad still loves you,” but she always shook her head, smiled softly. She’d say, “You are too young to understand the pleasures of penance.” Her boyfriend broke her; she ended up in the hospital. I sat by her side and asked, “Have you had enough penance?”

My mother left with great fanfare. After dinner, spaghetti, she called the entire family into the living room. She pointed her finger at my father, her hand shaking. “You too,” she said. We sat quietly as she explained why she was leaving in exacting detail. We were all culpable she said, to one degree or another. I asked what that meant and my brother jabbed me with his elbow. Later, I looked it up.

My mother left quietly but even before she left it was like she was already gone. She rarely spoke to us, always looked right through us. When she disappeared it was like she had never been there, like we were miraculous accidents who showed up one day, hanging on to my father’s legs with sticky hands as he stared down at us in wonder.

My mother left and took the younger set of twins. There was still a chance, she said, to help them become something. The rest of us were hopeless, I guess, even though I was the youngest and thought by her reckoning I could still become something too. She moved to the other side of town with my brothers, even changed their names, taught them to ignore us if we saw them around.

My mother left and took the older set of twins, said she had known them just long enough to love them instead of leaving them behind. We watched as they packed. They were smug and made a big show of packing their things. They even stole one of my action figures. We’d visit them on Saturdays and they’d brag about how they were the ones my mother truly loved. We shrugged.

My mother left and took me with her, said a girl needed her mother and boys needed their father and sometimes mothers and fathers no longer needed each other. The night she told me we were leaving we sat in the backyard, on the cement wall along the edge of the property. The moon was high and full, but an ugly color, not the color to mark a leaving. “We’ll have an adventure,” she said.

My mother left because my father drove her away. He didn’t hide his philandering, that’s what she called it, always came home reeking of cheap sluts, their drugstore perfumes and tacky lipstick clinging to his dress shirt collars. Enough was enough, she said, so she left him and left us because he deserved to know exactly what he lost. It didn’t take him long at all to miss her, want her back but she refused.

My mother left because my father threw her out. She didn’t hide her philandering, that’s what he called it, always came home reeking of cheap sluts, their drugstore perfumes and tacky lipstick clinging to her blouses and dresses. He demanded she stop and get right with God and their marriage. She insisted she was as right with God as she ever hoped to be. She moved in with a lady named Nancy.

My mother left because my father was too kind, a uxorious man who adored her morning, noon, and night. It was impossible to breathe around a man like that, my mother said. It was too much to be with someone who was unable to see her flaws. There was, she said, one after noon in her new apartment, such a thing as being loved too well. “Can you breathe now?” I asked. She inhaled deeply.

My mother left and we never knew why. We spent half the week with her and half with my father. We lived two extraordinarily ordinary, nearly identical lives, always wondering why my mother one day woke up, packed a suitcase, kissed us on our foreheads and said she’d send for us soon. When we asked my father why they were divorcing he said, “I will never know.”

What Happened When the Glass Broke

The twins, the younger ones, started bruising all the time. A doctor looked them over, said, “These boys are sick.” Before long they were in the hospital and we sat by their sides, bored, watching them die, not understanding they were dying until it was too late to care as much as we should have. I moved into their room, after, and smelled them all the time. My parents became quieter, sat side by side, muttering, “Our boys.” We might as well have all died.

The twins, the younger ones, were walking home from school when they disappeared. For months, neighbors swore one minute those boys were there, swinging their backpacks as they shuffled their way home, and the next minute, they vanished into thin air. The police looked for them. We spent night after night bundled up in our warm coats, walking through frozen, empty fields with flashlights, two feet apart, looking for those boys. Then most people stopped looking because they were sure there was nothing left to find. My mother set their places at the table night after night. She put their favorite foods on those plates. Each morning, she set out new outfits even though they wouldn’t fit anymore, not years past. One day, there was a knock at the door. I answered and these two young men were standing there, well-dressed, nice haircuts. I recognized the freckles on their left cheeks. “We’re home,” they said, and walked into the house like they never disappeared. They would never tell us where they got off to or what happened, not ever. Whenever they were asked, they just smiled like they knew the best secret in the world.

The twins, the younger ones, started getting in trouble at school and then they brought that trouble home, fighting everyone who tried to say a word to them. My parents eventually got fed up, said there wasn’t enough love in the world for a parent to put up with their kind of trouble so they sent them away to a camp that had nothing to do with camping. Every three months we’d visit the boys who always wore gray sweatshirts and khaki pants and canvas sneakers. They were still a whole lot of trouble but it didn’t matter so much. I know we were supposed to miss them but none of us did.

The twins, the older ones, were playing in the street, some silly game they had invented involving lying in the street to feel the rumble of cars on the next street over, a busy thoroughfare. They didn’t see the old Charger, didn’t hear the pistons sliding or the roar of the broken muffler, the Skynyrd blasting through the open windows. I like to think they turned to look at each other just before their bodies were crushed beneath the hot rubber of that muscle car. I like to think they knew they would never be alone.

The twins, the older ones, were out at the overlook with friends, drinking, dancing around a bonfire. One of the twins went to the car to make out with some girl who wore a lot of eye shadow and chewed gum all the time. We called her Bit because she always looked like she was chomping at the bit. The other twin, he got the idea he wanted to fly so he tore off his shirt and ran off the cliff and for a little while he flew but then he hit the outcropping of rocks below. That stopped his flying for good. In the car, with Bit, his brother suddenly grabbed his chest and all his bones started to ache like they meant to come apart. He started trembling and Bit thought that meant something about what her hand was doing in his jeans. He pushed her away and stumbled out of the car his dick hanging half out, calling for his brother like a crazy man and all those kids out there drinking with them, they just stood and stared. They didn’t know what to say.

The twins, the older ones, didn’t want to be bothered with anyone else in the family. One morning we woke up and they were gone. Their room was immaculate, probably even cleaner than the day we moved in. Their clothes were gone but everything else, they left behind. On the lower bunk of their bunk beds, there was a note. All it said was, “We don’t belong here.” It was hard at first. The house was quieter, emptier. We had more room to be ourselves and we didn’t know what to do with that. Eventually, though, we realized, those boys were right. I saw them once, in Vegas with my husband many years later. They both wore expensive-looking suits and walked in lockstep. I saw them making their way toward us and raised my hand to wave, could feel words hanging from my lower lip but they stared right through me and kept walking on by.

My father had a temper. He and the older twins were out late drinking, or what my mother called catting around. Another drunk said something to the twins my dad didn’t appreciate and that got my father in some kind of rage. He broke a glass bottle over the bar, like it was something he did every day. He said, “Don’t you talk cross about my eldest boys.” He lunged forward and he did not blink. With one slash he cut that other drunk’s throat and blood started streaming down that man’s neck, staining his shirt. He fell to his knees holding his throat, the blood oozing between his fingers. When the man finally fell all the way down, my father nodded, dropped his broken bottle, wiped his hands on his jeans and sat back down at the bar with his boys. He ordered everyone a round of drinks. It was some time before the police were called and everyone swore they did not see a thing.

My mother loved to find trouble. She’d go looking for it any old place. She also had a thing for knives, kept a real sharp blade in her purse. One day she went walking on a rough street in a bad neighborhood. She held her purse tightly against her body and kept one hand in her purse, fingering the handle of that knife. One way or another that blade was going to find flesh. That night it did. She was taken to jail and my father went to visit her. She was still waiting in an interrogation room. It’s a small town; they let him talk to her. She sat quietly staring at her hands. There was a crimson droplet on the collar of her blouse. “I hope it was worth it,” my father said as he sat down. My mother looked him in the eye. “Oh yes, it was,” she said, and then she resumed staring at her hands.

My parents weren’t much for abiding the law. When they wanted something they took it. If something got in the way of what they wanted, they got rid of it. I don’t think they loved a goddamned thing but each other and maybe my brothers and I. They saw a movie and got it in their heads to rob a Triple A baseball park so they donned a pair of ski masks and took my granddaddy’s Colt and stole a little more than $13,000. It wasn’t that we were embarrassed by our parents when they came home and told us what they did. It was their lack of ambition that bothered us.

Dogs in the neighborhood started to disappear. It was the strangest thing. It used to be that some days there were so many dogs, all of them yapping and barking and chasing their tails making everyone crazy, you couldn’t even think clearly if you were walking down the street. The streets got quieter and quieter and soon, the last dog alive in the neighborhood was our dog, Rusty. People started to talk. I didn’t see it happen but my brothers did, the older twins. One night, they heard growling in the backyard and so they ran downstairs and out onto the patio. There our father was crouched real strange, growling, his lips wet with spit dripping down his chin as he and Rusty circled each other like only one of them was going to get out of the fight alive. Only one did. A girl down the street, only fifteen, went missing the other day.

None of us were surprised when we heard what happened. I always saw how my father looked at my friends, how he sometimes looked at me. There was something in his eyes, some kind of hunger that seemed to tear at him. When my friends and I were watching a movie or sunbathing in the backyard, I’d see him, standing almost out of sight, his hands shaking like he was trying to hold himself together, his lips shiny and wet.

My mother and I were home alone and a man walked into our house, real natural, like he belonged there. Terrible things happened to us both. We were witnesses for each other. My father took us to a doctor friend of his, a discreet man. “It’s a little late for discretion,” my mother said.

My mother and I and the younger twins were home. My father and the older twins were at the park. I wore a training bra and lip gloss. I was young but not young. A man walked into our house, real natural, like he belonged there. My mother stood in front of us like that would stop him, her arm iron straight across our bodies. She gave him a look that should have scared him but it didn’t. The man had a gun in his waistband. He tied up the twins. He grabbed me and she clawed at him. She told him he wanted a woman not a girl. He threw her into a wall and she slumped to the floor. He took me into my parents’ bedroom and when we were on the bed, I thought, “I am on my parents’ bed.” He broke me but I didn’t know how to explain it so I stopped talking, started hiding in my room and then I left home, moved in with my aunt. I didn’t want to live in that house anymore.

My mother and I were home alone. I don’t know where the others were. A man walked into our house, real natural, like he belonged there. My mother knew what would happen before I did. She looked at me real hard. She said, “Baby girl, you fight no matter what.” He put us on the couch and sat on the coffee table tapping our knees with the barrel of his gun like he was deciding where to start. He had me tie my mom’s wrists with a lamp cord. I sat next to her holding onto her arm while she whispered things to me. He found the liquor cabinet and started drinking. My mother said, “My husband will be home soon.” The man laughed. I started to understand what would happen. I’ve seen movies. He took me first. I did what my mother said, fought like holy hell. I looked into her eyes the entire time. She did not look away.

My mother and I were home alone and a man walked into our house, real natural, like he belonged there. Terrible things happened to us both. My father found us, in their closet, holding on to a pair of his slacks. We were both shaking. He wanted to call the police but my mother said no. I said no. He asked what happened. My mother couldn’t speak so I said, “Nothing.” That lie was easier for him to believe. We followed my father through the house as he checked every room, made sure the windows and doors were locked. I took a long shower. I didn’t sleep for a long time after that. I didn’t feel comfortable in any room where that man touched me which was nearly every room. One day, my mother told me to pack my things. She packed her things. We got in her car and drove far away, moved into a house in a gated neighborhood with a fancy alarm system. We were very quiet but we were always alone together.

My mother and I were home alone. She had been drinking and was on the couch wearing a thin nightgown that went just past her knees. I was in the kitchen painting my fingernails purple. A man walked into our house and from the set of his face it was clear what he meant to do. When he grabbed my mother, she pointed at me, said, “She’s younger. What would you want with an old lady?” The man laughed and shook his head, shoved my mother to the couch. He said, “You’re a real piece of work, one hell of a mother.” He took a sip from the bottle of wine she was drinking from then came for me. When he grabbed my arm, he looked at me almost like he was sorry. Then he dragged me into my bedroom and kept me there for a long time and touched me almost like he was sorry. I didn’t make a sound. I wasn’t going to give my mother the satisfaction.

My mother and I were home alone. She had been drinking but she looked real pretty, her skin flushed, her lipstick a little smeared like some man had been kissing on her all night. I sat next to her, watching an old rerun of I Love Lucy. Two men walked into our house like they owned the place. When one of them grabbed my mom and pulled her to her feet, twisted her arm behind her back, she gasped and suddenly she didn’t look real pretty anymore. It scared me to see her like that so I stood up and I put my hand on that man’s wrist. I said, “Please leave her alone.” I slid my hand up his arm in what I hoped was a way that let him feel calm, maybe a little less mean. His friend laughed and took a sip from a flask. My mom sank back into the couch, pulled her knees to her chest. She looked so small, so young. It was strange though. She didn’t do a thing to help me. All I wanted is for her to look pretty again.

Who We Are Beneath the Glass

My mother and father are older now. Their skin hangs loose from their bones. They move slow. They eat canned food and wear loose clothes. They sit on the couch and watch television. When they fall asleep, their bodies refuse to touch. They repeat themselves, telling the same old stories to each other or to anyone who will listen. No one wants to listen. They talk too loud. They say too much. They never say enough.

My brothers are older now. They are tall and broad. Two of them have bellies hanging over their pants. Two of them have bright red cheeks, a fondness for gin. They are all married. They live in the same town, on the same street. One of them has a lover who looks just like him. His wife doesn’t know. One is married to a woman who looks just like me. His wife has to know. They have jobs. They have children. They have houses and lawns. They say nothing about who we were. Even that is too much.

I am older now. I live in a big city in a tall building. I have an important job with an important title. I have a walk in closet and a bathroom I share with a man who is my husband. We have his and hers sinks. We have floor to ceiling glass windows we pay a brown skinned woman to clean. At night, the lights of the city stretch around us in every direction. At night, I often stand and stare into that glass, past the faint edges of my reflection. I rarely recognize myself. Once a year we visit my family even though they only live an hour away. It is too much. We always stay in a hotel. We fill our days with them so I don’t have to find what’s left of myself, of us, of who we were. My husband asks, “Why do you keep them at such a distance?” I tell him, “There is no other way.”

That is to say, we all lived happily ever after or we didn’t.

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About Author

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.

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