Embarrassment: from baraço (halter)
All he found when he came looking for us was the home my mother wanted to leave
behind: newspapers stacked knee-deep in the hallways, every corner redolent of
cat piss, linoleum caked with dried mud and dust, tangles of hair matted to the tub,
dried scabs of meals coating plates and bowls piled high in the sink, on counters.
Everywhere the stink, the rot and mold, the great heaps of unwashed clothes, all the
filth my mother never let anyone see. No friends allowed inside. Even her dates didn’t
get in the door. She spent her nights at their dubious dens, leaving me alone to toss
hamburger wrappers and soda cups on the living room floor, our one trashcan so full
I couldn’t empty it. My father, finding all this mess, assumed the worst, took photos,
jotted notes, thinking the house had been ransacked, that we’d been robbed, killed or
kidnapped, though police assured him there were no signs of struggle. How she’d
let the house go, he couldn’t imagine. Before the divorce, I heard her shout: I’m no one’s
maid. Years later, when my father asks how we lived in such squalor, I tell him I never
noticed at the time, though once I did: My best friend, Heather, and I were playing
outside when a sudden shower drove us to huddle under the eaves. Soaked, I took
pity, opened the door, disobeying my mother’s one rule. Inside, Heather didn’t ask
questions about the mildew, the crumpled paper bags she had to brush aside to sit. She
refused the towel I handed her to undo the work of the rain. I saw it then: tatty, gray,
stained. Heather left, and later, when my mother found the couch still wet, I
told the truth. Her face flushed; I tried to bolt. She reined me in with one hand,
unfastened her belt. If they see this, they’ll take you from me, she screamed through the
volley of blows. My back grew a rope of welts. They’ll call me unfit. Is that what you
want? I tell my father none of this, judge it best not to show him the last bits of how his
ex fell apart once they were unhitched. I don’t say how I, too, was the mess, tether she
yearned to slip, so she could careen unimpeded through life, how I held tight as she
zoomed away, raced toward a place where she’d be no one’s mother, no one’s wife.
Jennifer Perrine is an associate professor of English and directs the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Drake University. Perrine is the author of In the Human Zoo, recipient of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize, and The Body Is No Machine, winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Poetry.
Leslie LaChance edits Mixitini Matrix: A Journal of Creative Collaboration, has curated The Wardrobe for Sundress Publications and written poetry reviews for Stirring: A Literary Collection. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, and her chapbook, How She Got That Way, was published in the quartet volume Mend & Hone by Toadlily Press in 2013. She teaches literature and writing at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and if she is not teaching, writing, or editing, she has probably just gone to make some more espresso.