At eleven years old I told my mom and step-dad that I wanted to kill myself.
I had been standing in the living room hallway because it gave me a good view of Phillip and Mom arguing. Phillip was sitting at the dining room table with a beer bottle in his right hand. He had been blasting blues music and Mom had asked him to turn it down because she had to go to work the next morning. Then she started bothering Phillip some more about getting drunk all the time.
These were the usual opening statements. Sometimes it felt like they were arguing for my personal entertainment. The furthest they would ever go in trying to hide them from me was closing their bathroom door when they shouted at each other. When they did that I would go to my bathroom, which was adjacent to theirs, and stand in my bathtub and place my ear against the cold bathroom tiles. I had discovered it was the perfect spot to hear what ugly things they were saying to each other. “I should have never married you,” my mom would scream.
“Well then leave,” Phillip would respond, a silk casualness to his voice, as if he was just trying to give my mom the motivation she needed to drive to the grocery store.
“Trust me, I would if I could,” Mom would say.
And to that Phillip would say: “Tough luck.”
I always wanted to be ready in case Mom started hitting Phillip once again and Phillip finally started hitting Mom back. I imagined myself swooping in brave and strong with a baseball bat in my hand. Finally being allowed to unleash the same fury on to Phillip as my mom got to.
See, Mom always liked to act like she had it the hardest but really it was me. I was being bullied at school. One day I was grabbing books out of my locker when two boys, Sam and Tanner, came and kicked my binder down the hall and stepped on my papers. It was normal behavior towards me from the two. The only embarrassing part had been the fact that I had made eye contact with Ms. Ratcliff, who was on hallway duty, as it happened. I ran away to the bathroom and cried.
So my self-confidence was a bit low. I would lie in bed and imagine Mom finding my lifeless body in the bathtub. I wondered if Mom would feel guilty for whooping me or if Sam and Tanner would feel bad for saying I was a queer.
Those kind of thoughts had begun to wear on me.
Mom braided my afro into cornrows every Sunday night. One week Mom noticed a bald spot the size of a quarter on the back of my head. It was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Mom took me to go see the doctor. He had no explanation for it, only suggestions. He said the bald spot could have been either an allergic reaction or from stress.
“What does he have to be stress about? He’s eleven. It’s his shampoo,” my mom explained to the doctor, as if she had gone to medical school herself. “He’s been using Garnier shampoo even though I told him not to. I’ve been washing his hair with V-05 ever since he was a baby.” So I went back to washing my hair with V-05 and started rubbing the bald spot with RogaineÒ. It took two years for the bald spot to disappear.
That night, I wanted to make Phillip and Mom notice me. To have Mom hug me and fix all my problems in that magical way mothers are capable of doing for you at that age. But I couldn’t simply tell Mom and Phillip their arguing made me sad. Our family didn’t sit on couches and talk about our feelings. That was what white people did. We told each other feelings through hoarse voices and tears and calling the cops. So one night when Mom started yelling at Phillip again for sitting in the dark and blasting his blues music while drinking, I saw it as the perfect opportunity to steal the show and shock everyone with the sadness I had been hiding.
“Stop it!” I yelled as I ran out and collapsed on the living room floor. I cried into my knees. Mom and Phillip went silent.
Mom asked me if I was okay.
“Why do you guys have to argue all the time?” I used my t-shirt to blow my nose. “I think you two should just give up and go your separate ways. Some people just aren’t meant to be with each other.”
Phillip leaned against the wall and watched. “See what you did?” There was a smirk on his face.
“Me?” Mom yelled back. “This is you. He’s tired of seeing his mother treated badly.”
“Stop fighting!” I screamed out. “Sometimes I think the world would be better off without me. If I was dead then maybe you could leave Phillip.” I inhaled my snot back into my nose and swallowed it.
They were finally quiet.
“Don’t say that Andre,” my mom said, suddenly tender. “You know people who kill themselves go to Hell right? And you don’t want to go there do you?” I shook my head. “Now get up.” I got up, expecting everything to be changed now. Now they would stop arguing all the time since they knew what it did to me. “Now go to the bathroom and wipe your face.”
While I was in the bathroom I heard Mom sigh. “I can’t go through this tonight. I have work in the morning.”
All Phillip said was “Hmph.”
Mom and me went to her friend, Larry’s, house. I sat in his living room and pretended to watch T.V. as I listened to Mom tell him about what had just happened. When she came out of Larry’s bedroom she said we were going to move in with Larry and I nodded my head. Moving in with another man meant potential new arguments but I figured it was a step towards Mom and me living on our own.
In the car Mom told me she was sorry I had to go through this. That this was why she wanted me to get a good education and be something. So then I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone.
She asked me if I meant what I said earlier.
I knew what I was supposed to say.
“I was just trying to make you and Phillip stop arguing,” I lied.
“I thought that. Well I don’t ever wanna hear you talk like that again, you hear me?” I nodded. “You’re too young to be thinking like that, and besides, if I lost you I would kill myself and you don’t wanna make your mother go through that do you?” I shook my head. “What me and Phillip go through is between us. It has nothing to do with you. Phillip is just an alcoholic. Plain and simple. I just don’t want you to think I’m okay with that. That’s why I argue with him about drinking in the house.” I nodded my head again.
When Mom came home from work the next day I asked her when we were going to start moving into Larry’s house.
“I thought about it,” she said as she collapsed on the living room couch. “I don’t want to move in with Larry. I rather live comfortable in my own home with drunk Phillip then have to depend on another man. You know Larry might get mad at me and say ‘you and your son need to move out’ and then we’d be up shits creek. No, I’ll just let Phillip think everything is alright and stash my money to the side. Then one day he’ll come home and this whole house will be empty.”
I nodded my head, not knowing it would take six years for my mother to live up to her promise.