Foundations – Sara Landers
When my parents were getting divorced, my father told me that he never loved me. I was sixteen. My mother was in their bedroom shoving bras, jeans, underwear, t-shirts into a suitcase large enough for an adult to curl up in. My father stood in the doorway with a can of Natty Boh in one hand, leaning against the door frame. I was in my bedroom packing as well. I kept my body turned to the doorway so I could hear what was going on. I opened drawer after drawer, pulling them all the way out before dumping their entire contents into a heavy duty black trash bag. Leggings, bras, socks, pajamas all tumbled together. I kept hurrying to stand by the door to make sure I wasn’t missing anything my father might have been saying, which turned out to be nothing. I did my dump-scurry-listen routine until all of my drawers were empty and my father never spoke.
I could hear him drinking his beer. He did it defiantly, with hard swallows. Even though I wasn’t looking at him, I knew his pointy Adam’s apple was sliding up and down with each gulp. The bobbing of his Adam’s apple was a barometer in our house. The more it bobbed, the further into my room I retreated. As my mother went from bedroom to bathroom and back, gathering toiletries and makeup and towels, he followed her. She was sort of hunched over as she went past my door, with the trash bag in her hand and her eyes trained on the floor. My mother never does stand up straight.
Later when we were getting into my mother’s car with the back seat piled high with trash bags and suitcases, he followed us outside. He was barefoot and had on shorts that showed his skinny legs with blond hair like curly albino spider legs crawling up each one. His feet were even paler than his legs: two, blue-white, bony seashells in the grass of the front yard. It was very bright outside, the kind of sunshine that penetrates and makes everything feel sluggish. Our house sat wedged in the middle of a row of houses with rusty fences and buckling sidewalks. John-boy from next door was on his front porch picking at a spot on his cheek. His hair was dirty, his face matched.
When I was nine John-boy kissed me as we played army men in the dirt at the back corner of the yard. I pushed him away and yelled, “Gross!” but then I made the army men kiss each other.
I carried my artwork in a suitcase. I’d layered all my sketch books, prints, and single sheets carefully so nothing got damaged and I carried the suitcase across both arms that were extended in front of me, like I was presenting it. I minded my steps as I went down our walk toward the car. My mom was behind me heaving a last trash bag. Just as we were about to get in the car my dad finally spoke. To me.
“You really leaving with her?” The last word left his mouth twisted as it came out. I only thought about what I was carrying for one second – he wouldn’t try to knock it out of my hands out here. Probably.
“Leave her alone -” I started but he cut me off.
He laughed. A big fake “Ha!” with his mouth all the way open so I could see his fillings. He threw his head back and slapped his leg with the hand not holding his beer. “You think I care that you’re going? What a joke. I just thought she might stay if you stayed. I never loved you anyway.”
It was a punch to the gut. More than a punch. It sliced. It removed something. “Bye!” he said and waved at us, at me. It was exaggerated the way his hand ping ponged back and forth and his eyebrows were way up.
It took me a beat to remember my voice and I told him, “Same.”
I immediately regretted it. I felt ashamed that I said it yet I felt a prickly anger at that shame. I decided to hate him. I quickly got into the car and turned my head to the street. I stared down through the blur at a flattened Big Gulp cup in the road.
Two days after mom and I moved all of my things were still in bags in our new apartment. I’d had to fish my toothbrush out of one and clean underwear from another. I was wearing the same bra. My mom’s teeth stayed clamped together while she scrubbed down our new apartment yet she seemed delicate like a fragile glass plate. If I stood near her she said I was hovering but if I went into my room to draw or think about unpacking she followed me and lingered in the doorway. We ate ramen out of a small pot between us, sitting across from each other at our tiny kitchen table. We passed the fork back and forth and took turns slurping the noodles. We looked at the floor and the ceiling and examined our own fingernails and plucked lint from our clothes. We didn’t have a couch yet but we had a set of dining room chairs that we lined up along the living room wall. I told my mom that these would be great for building a fort if we decided we wanted to hide under blankets for a few days. First she said that I was too old to build a fort but then she asked me if I knew where our blankets were.
On Monday I went to school. I felt different. And not in the way that I thought I’d feel. I always imagined my mom leaving my dad. Us leaving my dad. Elle and Annie – free at last. I thought I would feel carefree and light. But I felt weighted down. Heavy. In geometry class Mr. Loveck called on me and I told him I didn’t know the answer even though I did. I started crying. He asked me if I wanted to go to the nurse and I just got up and left instead of answering. Everyone watched me leave. I didn’t go to the nurse, I went to Mr. Mackey’s classroom. He was my art teacher. My friend Shayna and I always hung out in Mr. Mackey’s room. We often ate lunch in there. He let us come in before first bell where we’d sit huddled in the corner watching YouTube videos on our phones or drawing or chatting with him. He was sitting at his desk and I stood at the doorway. He was dark brown like a coffee bean and he had on the plaid newsboy cap he often wore. It gave you the impression that he was coming or going even though he wasn’t. He was always reliably in his classroom. He had a sandwich on a flattened paper bag on his desk that had a huge bite taken out of it and he was reading. I could hear cars whizzing by on Northpoint Road two stories below. He looked up at me standing there.
“Elle. What’s up?”
I shrugged. I walked in and sat down at the corner of the big table closest to his desk. It had streaks of dried blue paint on it. Pinch pots from freshman ceramics class were lined up to dry on the shelf along the wall. Some were lopsided or slouchy, some were round like apples and others were uneven cylinders. Jewel toned pieces of tissue paper cut into geometric shapes were taped to the windows. Clothespins held squares of charcoal sketches hanging from a string of jute stretched along the opposite wall. Some of them were mine. Seeing them calmed my insides down. My hand itched to draw. Mr. Mackey was eating more of his sandwich. It was peanut butter and jelly, I could smell it. I wiped my cheek with the back of my hand. He swallowed.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he said.
I nodded. I didn’t want to cry but the tears seeped out. I don’t know why I was crying. It was stupid really. I always knew my dad didn’t love me. I’m not saying that to be dramatic or anything. He never talked to me. I mean he would say things like, hand me the remote would you Elle? or take this garbage out to the can but he never asked me about myself or my art or told me I did a good job at anything. My mom was the one who came to the art weekend in elementary school where I had two drawings in the showcase and then in middle school when I was the featured artist of the month. When I was very little she was the one who would slip into my room in the early mornings when the light through the windows in my bedroom was starting to be tinged with pink. She would crawl into bed next to me and I wouldn’t open my eyes but I’d be awake just enough to suck my thumb and wrap a lock of her hair around my pointer finger and rub it against my nose. She’d hum or sometimes fall asleep next to me until the room was bright with sunshine and we’d be blinking at each other all snuggled together under my quilt.
My dad never came in my room, he only stood in doorways. He went to work and fixed big tractor trailer engines, then he came home and drank beer and watched TV. That’s it. I mean it. He didn’t have any hobbies or friends or anything. He was always home and he was always on the couch. He and my mom would sit and watch movies together on the weekends. If she wanted to go shopping at JoAnn Fabric or the dollar store or take a walk my dad would act like he was totally fine with it until she came home. Then he would knock her bags out of her hands and ask her where she really was and they would fight until they were making up and I would go in my room and put in my headphones and turn it all the way up. Or I would walk to Shayna’s house and we would play cards with her brother or walk to the park and draw on the backs of the benches under the pavilion.
“Elle?” Mr. Mackey said in his deep and gentle voice.
I was just sitting there crying like an idiot. A few strands of my hair were stuck to the side of my face and a piece got in my mouth. I left it there.
“I don’t know Mr. Mackey.” I said and threw my head back. Salty water slid down my temples and I rubbed my eyes. I wiped my hands on my pants and blew all my breath out and then held it.
“Draw about it,” he told me.
That was always his answer. The school counselor would say talk about it. Mr. Mackey would say draw about it. He told me that he had a class in twelve minutes, he patted me on the back of my hand, and then he took another bite of his sandwich.
When I got home from school my mom was still at work. I got out my charcoal pencils and put my earbuds in. The largest flat space we had was this big glass coffee table in the living room that had no couch. I knelt on the floor in front of the coffee table. I never planned what I was going to draw. I just started making some lines and then I would see what they were becoming and that would give me an idea for what the rest would look like. It transported me. I don’t know how else to describe it. Drawing was like kissing on the lips or eating expensive chocolate. It felt good. And then when I was finished I felt all energized and refreshed and excited about what I created.
I was deep in that feeling and a scene with an old collapsed bridge over a waterway was emerging. The beams and struts and broken pieces of the bridge were cracked and splintered in a mound but the very center section still stood with one car on it, trapped. Like a storm had whipped around the car smashing the bridge all up but leaving the car undamaged though with no road to continue on. I was working on the details of the car itself when my mom came and plucked my headphones out of my ear.
“Yeah?” I said and didn’t look at her. I tried to keep drawing even though I knew I couldn’t. The feeling was gone.
“Do you want to come with me to look at this TV from a lady on Holabird?”
“No,” I said and tried to put my earbud back in.
I did it more forcefully than I meant to and I saw my mom look hurt. I looked away and she squatted down in front of me. I thought of the word pleading. That’s what her look was doing. I felt a surge of rage unequal to the situation. Her face was level with mine. I stared down at the dull beige carpet. I heard shouting in my head but the room was quiet.
“Do you want to know why I left?” she said finally.
“No mom,” I said. “I want to know why you stayed.” She sprung up and away like I had slapped her and she walked out the door and slammed it behind her.
“Dude, your dad is such a dick.”
Shayna and I were behind the school stadium. We were supposed to be in language arts but here we were. There were only sixteen days of school left anyway. Shayna was using a Sharpie to draw on the soles of her Chucks. I was sitting on the ground pulling up grass and piling it in front of me. I liked the way it felt as I ripped it out of the ground. I liked the sound it made too. Even in the shade it was hot. We could hear Mrs. Altenburger from the other side of the bleachers telling the gym kids they only had a few days to make up their pacer times.
“I mean, it’s totally ok to hate him,” Shayna was saying.
She looked up from her drawing. Her hair was black and hot pink. She had on bright red lipstick. Her shoes were turquoise. All of the colors made me feel tired for a moment. I shrugged.
“Anyway, I’ve told my dad I hate him like a million times,” she said.
“I didn’t say I hated him,” I said quietly.
I ripped more grass. The mound was getting taller and pointier.
“Oh Elle,” she said and shook her head.
She got to her feet and pulled me up. We had art in seven minutes. I walked carefully around my grass castle so it wouldn’t collapse but the motion of our feet passing it was too much for the feathery blades and most of it slid back onto the ground. I turned back to look at it before we got too far away but all I could see was the dark clump that was the foundation.
We went back into school through the gym. There was a staff bathroom between the gym and the art classroom that teachers hardly went into and we always used it. It was a single and you could lock the door. There were ripped out pages from old calendars taped to the walls with pictures of vintage bird cages and others with golden retrievers. Motivational quotes for teachers were taped to the paper towel dispenser and these changed occasionally. Shayna drew little hearts on the bottom corner of the motivational quote paper as I peed and she read it to me.
“In these last few weeks of school remember: Students need love the most when they are at their most unlovable.” She snorted. “What? That doesn’t even make sense.”
“Wait,” I said and zipped up. “Read it again.”
She did. She cocked her head to one side, wrinkled up her nose, and shrugged. I did too.
When I got home from school my mom was in her room taking things from one of the trash bags she had used to pack. I leaned against the doorway and watched her with my arms crossed.
“Hi,” she said glancing at me and then refolded the pair of shorts she was holding. I uncrossed my arms. I pinched the edges of my shorts between my thumb and pointer finger and plucked at it several times.
“Hey,” I said. She kept unfolding and folding more clothes.
“Do you want to go look at the TV?” I asked her. She smoothed the folded shirt she was holding. She didn’t answer for a few long moments.
“Okay,” she said. And we went.
Sara Landers is currently a senior studying creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and in the fall will be applying to MFA programs. She lives in Baltimore and doesn’t mind the rats one bit.
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