When I was twelve, my mother came home early from work one day and caught me sitting on the pantry floor, stuffing my face. Our house rule was I had to ask for food, but at school lunch, Josie—the mean girl in 7D—shouted that my fish sandwich was gross. Embarrassed, I hid it away in my locker. My stomach kept growling through last period. After school, I’d thought I would have a half-hour to gorge in secret before my mother got home.
When the pantry door flew open, she eyed me in all my shame and glory: a sort of abstract art piece of chocolate pudding painted across my face. Truth be told, this was the fourth time I’d broken the rule, and she only just caught me. Usually, I was crafty, because when she caught me disobeying her (whether that meant wearing my best friend’s low-rise jeans, or using up all the hot water), we always got into shouting matches. I was bad at keeping my mouth shut. Our battles moved through the house with violent choreography, loud enough to fill the empty rooms but not enough to concern the neighbors. Or maybe the neighbors simply chose to ignore the screaming through the walls. I talked back hard and got slapped back harder. This time, with the pudding, I made the mistake of screaming at her so near the basement stairs, she threw me down them.
That snapped her out of her rage. She rushed to the bottom of the stairs to cradle her battered daughter. She sobbed and stared at the pieces of my ulna poking through my skin. I tried to push the bloodied and jagged bits back into place and lost consciousness the moment she scooped me up.
After the surgeon set my broken branch of an arm, a woman gripping a notepad was sent in. She had questions. I told her I had been wearing slippery socks. My mother wasn’t a monster, she was just tired, overworked.
Like those geckos that drop their tail to fool a predator, my arm grew back—but different, changed.
Not long after my senior prom, I got reconstructive surgery. Rhinoplasty. I was out late with my boyfriend, curfew broken, so she broke my nose. How can I explain what it felt like to have a glass ashtray smashed against my nose? How can I describe my boyfriend Andy’s expression as he tried to have sex with me? His look intensified as he homed in on the shade of dark purple that had become the lower half of my face. He finished, rolled off, but kept staring at the diagonal gash across my nose.
“Did it hurt?” he asked quietly.
The ashtray had shattered both nasal bones and sliced open my septum. I told the doctor I’d been walking backward, tripped, and fell.
“I break easily.” Maybe I wasn’t so bad at keeping my mouth shut.
My mother broke eleven of my bones before I squirreled away enough money to escape.
On my 29th birthday, I confronted her about it. I was drunk. After all my yelling and crying, her answer was simple. “Honey, the world breaks the weak.”
The next day, I was ordering a scone in a café when I got the call from the hospital. They asked for me by name. I was her next of kin–her only kin. They said my mother had been in an accident early that morning and was in critical condition.
When I got to the hospital, a police officer came to talk to me. He said my mother had been the victim of a hit-and-run. She’d been walking back from the corner store when a car slammed into her and catapulted her through the air. She’d lain there gasping for an hour before some kid on a bike found her, contorted like roadkill. The police were canvassing her neighbors.
My mother underwent 17 hours of surgery. Both of her arms were snapped, and she suffered a compound fracture to her leg. She cracked four ribs tumbling off the back of the car and had shattered her cheekbone and jaw when her head struck the pavement. One of her lungs collapsed. In recovery, I stayed by her side. I’d learned from her how broken people watch over each other.
Seeing my mother strung up in a full-body cast like a marionette, I ran my hand across my nose. I fantasized about pressing into all her broken bones, into her ulna, into her jagged bits. She couldn’t scream; her jaw was wired shut.
The police stopped by to update us on the case—no leads yet, they were sorry. My mother couldn’t speak, so I spoke for her. I told them not to worry, it must have been an accident—maybe her shoes were slippery, maybe she’d lost her balance. She lay there, moaning and bitter. The police asked me if I knew of anyone who might have wanted to hurt my mother. Thankfully, I’d also learned from her how to be a good liar. My mother? I said. She’s a saint. I can’t think of anyone who’d hurt her.
When they left, I ran my fingers along the scar on my arm; I thought about how she sobbed after breaking it. I didn’t cry over her broken bones, and I didn’t want to hold her either.
I reached into my purse and pulled out a chocolate pudding I’d been saving. I placed it beside her.