Have you ever walked on eggshells? Ever woke up one day to find that everybody in the household was in a mood that spelled ‘trouble’ for you? For me, it wasn’t an overnight transition. No, I started seeing things when I was as young as four years old. It was right around the time that my father left, as a matter of fact.
It didn’t help that Harry was already 13 years old and could see everything happening before him on a level that I couldn’t yet understand. For instance, when Dad left, for me it was more, “When will he be coming home?” until, slowly, his existence hindered off and I stopped asking. For Harry, it was more like, “Dad’s gone because he doesn’t want us anymore and this life was too hard for him. Yeah, well nobody needs Dad. Fuck Dad.”
And to be honest with you, it showed. It showed in ways that my mother never understood. Harry didn’t like people walking out of his life anymore and he would do anything in his best interest to keep you around. He made sure that I knew I would never be walking out of his life. He left scars on me when he babysat me after school before Mom got home from work.
You learn not to say certain things when you grow up in an abusive household. When I was five, Mom came home from work one day, slammed her purse onto the counter, and curled up into a ball on the kitchen floor. When I materialized in the archway to the kitchen, she spotted me instantly and burst out in tears.
Heavy, sobbing tears that I typically didn’t see of my mother. At five, I wasn’t sure how to handle these emotions and what questions to ask. My mother was a quiet type who wanted us to always be on our best behavior as well. She was prone to migraines and liked the peace.
“No,” I said in my questioning five-year-old voice, waiting for her to tell me more.
“Well, I got fired from my job today.” I remember it as clear as day. She wanted us to be scared. “You and Harry won’t be able to eat anymore. Especially since your fucker of a dad never sends the support he owes me, we won’t be eating. I don’t know how long we won’t be eating.”
She said “we” that day, but as time went on, she was the one eating. My Mom had money stashed away somewhere and, little by little, she was bringing home scraps of groceries. She would make a bowl of soup one night, a meatloaf another. She would sit and eat the meatloaf in its entirety, take a plateful to Harry, and come back out to wrap the rest of it up in plastic wrap. Threw it in the refrigerator and snapped the lock back on the door so I wouldn’t go “squandering” as she called it. The next day, I’d see her throwing away things that went bad and she would dump the whole piece of meatloaf directly in the trash. From the den, stomach rumbling, I would wonder why she hadn’t offered it to me.
I had stopped going to kindergarten. From my point of view, it seemed like nobody was calling after me. That, mixed with the fact that I wasn’t eating aside from the few things I was able to pick out of the trash, and I myself felt like that very trash.
So one day I walk into the den and my mother has her feet kicked up on the coffee table, she’s watching the television that she still somehow pays for every month, and Harry is sitting on the floor off to the side with a bowl of grapes in his lap. They both look at me as if they’re expecting me to say something, but I say nothing at all. I just stand there and stare as I usually do, never understanding why any of this is happening to me. Wondering why, at five, I’m a target.
“Is there something I can do for you?” my Mom asks in this snarky tone that leads me to believe things will only escalate from there.
I shake my head from side to side and just keep standing there. By now, at five, I’m eyeing up the grapes in my brother’s lap and my internal drooling system is full force.
“Are… you hungry?” she continues to ask, a small smile forming on the creases of her face. “Is that what it is? You’re hungry?”
“Yes,” I barely whisper, stomach growling away at a rate I hadn’t known was possible.
“Well, Mommy hasn’t gotten another job just yet and, until I do, I don’t see that happening.”
This struck a chord in my mother and, for once, I saw a bit of sympathy cross her face as she looked at her little girl. The thing she had waited so long for. And then back to her evil look of hatred, as she saw me as the second child that came so long after the other, putting her in a hole the moment my father walked out of our lives.
“Please?” she mocked, and then laughed like a hyena. “Please?! Yes, of course that’ll do the trick. That ‘please’ makes everything better. Thanks for being so kind, Cindy! Thanks for the ‘please.’ Let me just go get you some food, then.”
And, at five, I didn’t expect anything bad to happen to me. I felt invincible. I watched my brother as he stared back at me, solemnly chewing his grapes, wondering what was to come. I thought this was it for me. I felt on top of the world that ‘please’ fixed everything.
Before I could turn around to face my mother and see what she was gathering from the kitchen, I felt the blow to the back of my head. I screamed and attempted to cover myself with my little, fragile arms to the best of my ability, but there was no saving myself. I felt another blow to my back and my teeth crunched against the tile of the kitchen floor. I continued crying and screaming and trying to get back up on my feet. But from all the horror movies I had seen at that age, I thought I was being stabbed repeatedly with a kitchen knife at that point. I reached my hands up over my head to protect myself.
By the time the blows stopped coming, I turned to face my mother with my broken body and blood leaking from all the orifices in my face to see that she had beaten me across the back and head with a frozen turkey. That night, I was locked in my bedroom to sit in fear, still hungry from not receiving any of the food scraps of the day. At one point, I ate a couple of the crayons I found on the bottom of my closet. I never said ‘please’ again.
The next turning point in my life was when I was coming up on seven years old. I heard my mother talking back and forth with Harry about how “the social worker” was coming and how they had to clean up the entire house before she arrived. We lived in a relatively bad neighborhood where every house looked like it was in the same state of disrepair. Harry and my mother were stumbling around the house for a good two hours before I heard beating on my door from a hard fist.
I opened the door, stomach growling and eyes droopy from the lack of sleep I had received many nights prior in that dirty, dark room. My mother was standing in the doorway, a frenzy. “Today, a social worker is coming to the house to see how things are going. We need to be on our best behavior. I want you to stay in the basement.”
Immediately, I was shaking my head ‘no’, worried about being alone in that dark basement for hours, if not for the rest of my life. My mother, at this point, had a habit of forgetting many things in my life and if they left me down there for too long, I would surely die with no source of water or food.
That was the story of how I ended up in the basement. I could hear to the first floor relatively well, and I knew exactly when the social worker arrived. She asked some back-and-forth questions to my mother, commented on how nice the house looked, asked her how Harry and she are getting along. I even heard my brother tell her about things he had been working on in school, and for a brief second I envied him. I never heard about his school life. I didn’t know how school worked or all about the fun things that they did. I suddenly wished I was in school.
Then, out of nowhere, the social worker asked, “Whose room is this?” to which my mother responded, “That was Cindy’s room” in the most stricken, melancholy voice she had ever mustered.
Was Cindy’s room?
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss,” I heard the social worker say as I snapped back to reality. “I… didn’t know that there was another child. My report doesn’t say anything about another child, I’m so very sorry.” There was quiet whispering for about ten minutes, and then I heard, “How much did you say it would take to keep quiet about it?”
My mother replied, “I have five thousand dollars I can give you right now if you keep quiet on that goddamn report and stay the fuck out of my basement.”
As suddenly as I heard what they were talking about, I immediately began screaming, “HELP! SOMEBODY HELP!” at the top of my lungs. I heard my mother ushering the social worker into another room, closer and closer to the door.
The social worker seemed like she was sobbing in glee as she exclaimed, “You don’t know how much this money means to me. I won’t say a thing, I swear I won’t say a single thing!”
And as soon as that, her voice diminished, the door slammed shut, and the door to the basement opened. “HELP!” I continued to scream, hoping that somebody out on the street had heard me when the door upstairs opened to reveal the entire neighborhood. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything, but I felt it when both my mother and Harry beat their fists across my face and shattered bones in my mouth as I screamed in agony. I heard them laughing the entire time, and my mom’s befuddled, “I guess you’ll never ask anybody for help again!” And she was right.
By nine, I hadn’t seen my bedroom in what felt like ages. The basement was my bedroom. My worst fear had come true.
But to be honest with you, it wasn’t as bad as I had made it out to be in my nightmares. For instance, I was able to get sleep at night, which could have been due to the fact that I wasn’t eating properly. I slept through the thoughts I once had about monsters living in the basement and eating me alive. I had bigger fish to fry than basement monsters.
I didn’t see my mother very often, if just three meager times a week at this point when she would come down and bring me some fresh clothes, scrub some of the piss up off of the floor, and leave a small plate of food at my feet. One time, the food had tipped directly off of the plate and landed in the wet on the floor but I had no other choice but to eat it. At that point, everything looked appetizing to me. I hadn’t seen Henry in years.
One time, my mother wandered down the stairs, a bundle of clothes in her hand and a plate of food in the other. I was relieved, as my clothes was stained and had been wet for days. My whole body was starting to ache and I was famished. When my mother met me at the end of the stairs, I was looking at her with pleading eyes.
“What?” she asked with a smirk on her face. “What is it? Are you hungry?”
“Is that food and clothing for me?” I was barely able to ask. My throat was so parched but food sounded just as good as water, everything was so mixed.
“No, that’s not what I said” – I started, but she cut me off.
“Yes, you did. You asked if this food was for you. Don’t start getting greedy on me, Cindy. You know it’s not all about you. Your brother and I are very limited on our food, too.”
For once, I felt the need to speak and stick up for myself. I didn’t know where it came from, but when it came, there was no stopping me. “Limited?! How can you say that you’re limited when you paid that social worker five thousand dollars to keep quiet about me? Living here in the basement, on the verge of death?”
She started laughing, but I caught her with the side of my hand from the slap I had plowed into her face. And it felt so damn good.
“You think you can slap your Mom?” she rasped, bringing her hand up in the same motion, about to strike. “No, no, I’m not going to do the same to you.”
She turned around, and started back up the stairs, food in hand and clothes slung over her shoulder. As soon as I started to sob, she turned around on the top step before disappearing. “Your brother has wanted to see you for quite awhile. He said he could use some of his little sister. For awhile now I was telling him how sick that was, but now I think I’m going to send him down for a little one-on-one time with his sister. Next time you’ll think about ‘us’ and not ‘me.’”
That’s what it’s like to walk on eggshells. That’s the story of abuse and the timeline it takes on, increasing in severity until there are no options but to sit there and fucking take it. Abuse makes you afraid of certain words, certain things. Please. Help. Me. Things I would never speak again, because they led to the worst experiences of my life.
That’s why I couldn’t say that very phrase when the new neighbor boy walked up to the basement window and saw me standing on top of old clothes, barely reaching my face to the window. He looked down and motioned to me, a look on his face that asked, “Do you need help?”
Before I had a chance to think, I was already motioning back, “No.”
And in this basement is where I shall remain. Because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what I deserve.