Almost Like Family

Almost Like Family

Lauren Z.

I startled awake, perched on the frame of my bed with a thick layer of sweat covering the nape of my neck. I had no memory of the dream I’d just experienced, but it had sent a gush of adrenaline through my chest. My heart pounded like it was trying to escape from my body, and my right leg was shaking uncontrollably. I’d almost rolled off of my small twin bed for the fifth night in a row. When I strained my ears, I could hear whispered phrases shooting back and forth like bullets in a duel coming from the kitchen. Of course. That was the third time in a week that I had aroused at an ungodly hour to my parents arguing. 

A strong gust of wind found its way underneath a crack under my window, and I shuddered. The time of year was here when the trees began to grow bare, when the bleak winter began its advance and my ears turned numb if I was outside for too long. My hot pink alarm clock purchased for five dollars from Walmart glared at me and told me that it was 4:46 in the morning. I rubbed my eyes out of exhaustion, still quivering from my nightmare. I reached out a shaky hand to flick on my lamp, and it illuminated my room with an eerie glow. 

I played with my white yarn bracelet, twirling it over and over again. I remembered making it with my parents years ago, struggling to follow the directions. My mother’s gentle hands guided me through every step, and my father laughed his loud, hearty laugh. I can recall tying the two ends together in a dead knot. I didn’t even know how to take it off. The old thing would never hold up. I sighed audibly. There was no use in trying to fall back asleep then. 

My parents’ voices had turned from whispers to yells, and I could hear their argument as bright as day. 

“Please, Noah,” my mother begged my father, her voice wobbly. I could tell that she had been crying from her unsteady breathing, the way her shaky breaths came out in short, ragged, gasps. 

“Don’t do this to me. Don’t do this to us.”

“It might be better for us,” he sighed in his gruff voice.

 I knew he was referring to divorce. My throat tightened, and it took everything in me not to gag. My stomach churned, and the thought of my broken family made my face twist. Divorce had followed my parents around like a shadow for years then, but it had never made a move before. Tensions had formed over the years, and they created a barrier between them. Looking back, I hadn’t seen either one of them laugh – really laugh – for the last four years. That sort of thing happened in stories, not real life. I could feel that my eyes had widened in disbelief. No, no, no, no, no, I thought. They’ll make up. It’s fine, Eva. It’s totally fine. They still want each other. I had a hard time believing myself. 

“For us?!” my mother shrieked. “Don’t pretend you’ve ever cared about me!”

“Think about it,” my father said, unfazed.  

“Maybe it could work out,” my mother replied after a few daunting seconds. 

“Okay,” my father said. I knew that he was massaging his forehead in that gentle way that he’d invented. I could hear him scoot his elmwood chair back, producing a screech on the dusty wooden floor. 

That was the end of the conversation. No good night’s, no love you’s. Just the sound of my parents getting up and walking in opposite directions to their bedrooms. 

My stomach wrapped itself in a tight knot. They didn’t even mention me, how I would feel if they split up and left me to choose which one to live with. They didn’t even raise the topic of their only child, how I would have to go into my ninth grade classroom pretending to be a normal kid. They didn’t even care about me. I felt like I was about to vomit. 

Then came the scream. A shrill, piercing scream that sent a shock up my skeleton and made the hairs on my leg stand on end. A cold sweat began to run down my forehead, but I didn’t bother to wipe it away. It took me a few moments to realize that the scream had come from my own lungs. 

My parents’ footsteps came rushing down the hall, their footsteps echoing loudly. I held my midsection, blinking rapidly to keep myself from crying. The tears burst forth like water from a newly raised dam, spilling down my pale cheeks. In my dimly lit room, I could make out my mother’s dainty figure and my father’s strong build, their silhouettes leaning against each other in my doorway.  

I let out a sob, the ugly kind that made me unable to catch my breath. My parents came to my bed, watching awkwardly as I bawled. The old wooden floorboards of my bedroom creaked under their weight. 

I could feel my face flush a tomato red, and the tears didn’t stop falling. They created an unbroken stream down my face, sticky and hideous. I let my body weight transfer to my hands and knees, and I cried with such a terrifying force that I was scaring myself. I howled and quaked, my scream carrying all the weight that had been resting on my shoulders for the last few years. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had awakened my whole neighborhood. 

I cried until I was sure that all the water inside of me was gone, until my insides were dry and I had no more tears left. Then, my whole apartment was silent except for my occasional whimper and my father’s heavy breathing. Horror was painted across my parents’ faces. 

For the first time in a while, I allowed myself to take a good look at my parents. My mother’s waist-length hair, which she used to curl or straighten or braid, hung at her side, disheveled. Dark circles clung to my father’s dull, syrup-colored eyes. His milk chocolate hair had begun to gray at the roots, and it fell out in tangled clumps. Wrinkles were strewn across both of their faces. I could see the toll that their nightly arguments were taking on them. 

My father cleared his throat, breaking the silence. My mother shot him a look, one that she would send to me when I said something I wasn’t supposed to say in public. 

“Are you okay?” she asked, as if the answer wasn’t obvious. 

I inhaled a sharp breath. I wanted to blow up, let the anger seething inside of me out. I wanted to stand up straight, show my parents how they’d taken my life apart, piece by piece. Does it look like I’m okay? I wanted to yell. You’ve decided to divorce without my knowing, without any acknowledgment of me. You have my life in your hands. I can barely call it mine anymore. You’ve taken my life and smashed it into a million pieces. The pieces don’t fit back together anymore. Take an educated guess. Am I okay? Is that even a question?

“I’m fine,” I said instead. I looked down at my bare feet, my toenails painted a light periwinkle. My eyes darted around the room, trying to find something, anything, to focus on other than my parents. They locked on my bracelet, loose pieces of yarn sticking out from every direction. I had never been so bothered by it before. My friends wore bracelets too – they had tight knots in a perfect pattern, with splashes of pastel colors. Their bracelets weren’t messed up like mine was. I tugged at the string, yearning to just wrestle it off. 

“We love you, Eva,” my father breathed. His words were short and airy. They floated up and away from his mouth the moment they were spoken. Like it wasn’t true.  

“We’re here for you if you need anything,” my mother ended. Her eyes were red and puffy. My father nodded. That was the first time they’d agreed on anything for a while. 

I didn’t reply. Couldn’t. My fury was eating me from the inside out, shaken soda in a too-small can. One word, one look, and I would explode. How could they be there for me if they couldn’t even be there for each other? How could they leave our family broken? I clenched and unclenched my fists, my pinkies not quite coordinated with the rest of my hand from falling off my bike seven years ago. 

I stood from my bed abruptly, surprising both my parents and myself. My toes were pale and numb from the bitter Massachusetts cold, and my mouth ran dry. I breezed past my parents, my movements swift and concise. Some of the floorboards creaked noisily, and I forced myself not to cringe. I could feel their eyes watching my every movement. I gripped the cold, brass doorknob of my bedroom door, the off-white paint slapped on sloppily by my father’s clumsy hands when I was five. I jerked the doorknob to the right, then yanked it open so hard that it bounced back and it slammed into the wall with a loud crash. Then, I turned and uttered the three words I had been wanting to say for a long time. 

“I hate you.” My voice was flat. They poured out of my mouth seamlessly like milk out of a bucket without my consciousness. My hand flew up to my mouth, wondering if those horrid words had just come out of me. That was the first time in all my fifteen years that I had stated them out loud to anyone other than myself. I didn’t really believe what I had just said… did I?

“I-I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “I didn’t mean-” My father held his hand up to stop my halfhearted apology. My mother wiped a silver teardrop from her eyes, her head resting against my father’s shoulder.

“I know, I know,” he started. “You have a good reason to hate us. The past few years haven’t been very easy on you, have they?”

You have no idea, I wanted to snap. Instead, I just gave him a curt nod. That was all I could offer. I let a strand of my gingerbread hair fall over my ear, blocking part of my vision. 

“We’ve just had some…” my mother paused, struggling to find the right word. “Disagreements, that’s all.” She pronounced “that’s” like “thay-at’s”, her thick southern accent covering her words, sweet like honey. I sucked in my breath. 

“We’ve decided to divorce,” my father said too simply. My mother looked at my face to see my reaction. His words hit me harder than a bullet. I suddenly felt out of breath, like someone had sucked all the air out of my room. My face burned. I wanted to walk straight out of my room, my house, the world. I wanted to run away from all my worries to my real family, the one I knew before. The one that I would go on early morning runs with, bake cookies with, laugh with. But that was my family then. Things change, I guess. 

“It might be better,” he continued, his voice barely audible. “For you. For us.”

I nodded. I didn’t want to be in a house with parents that wouldn’t stop fighting anyway. Maybe, just maybe, it could work out. I thought about anything and everything for a few minutes, chewing my lip. I hadn’t thought clearly in a while – my scorching anger had blocked my brain from thinking well. 

“We still love each other,” my mother added quickly. “We still love you. Don’t forget that.” 

I suddenly felt on the verge of tears, and the salty silver drops broke free. I brought my hands up to my face, my whole body trembling out of embarrassment. That was the most crying I had done in four years. In fact, that was the most emotion I had shown in four years. It almost felt good. 

A ray of light entered the room from the window next to my desk, signaling the start of a new day. The dawn sky was splattered with various shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple. I took a deep breath in, filling my lungs with crisp morning air. A new day, a new start.

I looked down at my bracelet through my vision, which was blurred by tears. Almost every single string was out of place, but it was still a bracelet. I decided that I would fix it up the next morning. 

My parents rushed to my side, cooing with eyes full of worry. My father wrapped my mother and me in a tight embrace, and I let myself melt into his strong arms. I let all my burdens transfer into their arms, and I felt buoyant, like I could float away out of jubilance. I felt something I hadn’t felt in a few years. I felt like part of a family. An almost-broken family with faults sticking out from every which direction, but a family nevertheless. 

We stayed there, hugging and laughing and sharing memories for what seemed like hours. Together. Like a family.