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“I couldn’t bring myself to call you ‘dad.'”

christmas with family
Austen Claire Clemens
We spent the whole day after work going shopping for Christmas dinner.
  • Helena Bala
By Helena Bala

Writer, listener, recovering lawyer

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for nearly two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names and locations have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

Christina, early 30’s

Do you remember? Mom was working nights and we spent the whole day after work going shopping for Christmas dinner. We bought dough for the desserts, and sugar for the toppings, and eggs, and milk. And mom carried most of it, because I was still small. My cheeks stung from the cold and I remember that you started screaming at her as soon as we came home. And then you kicked us out of the house.

Then we were in a bus heading to my aunt’s house. I can’t quite tell if this is the same incident or a separate one. In my memories, there is a cloud—a sort of ethereal ectoplasm of sun and warmth—that surrounds mom and I on the bus, so it was probably summer already. The driver kept looking at mom because she was crying so hard.

And she told him, “I have really bad motion sickness.” A lie.

He said it would help to keep a toothpick in her mouth and just look straight ahead. And she said, in between sobs, “yes, that helps,” and she squeezed my hand tight.

The second time, I remember walking into your bedroom and seeing you hit her. You didn’t smack her, and you didn’t punch her. You just pounded the top of her head with your closed fist, like people do to a table when they’re trying to make a really emphatic point.

Mom was crying. She looked like a little girl who was being punished for doing something wrong. I don’t remember if you saw me. I don’t remember if mom did, either. I just remember that she was sitting on the edge of the bed, and you were lording over her. The bedroom walls were green at that point, so this must have been much later—after the Christmas incident.

Every time we fled from you, mom would concoct all sorts of exotic excuses. She still wanted to protect you, you see, from the judgment of the family. They all knew about you, but it was too late. You two were already married. Divorce seemed out of the question.

A few years ago, I found out that people had been talking about you, telling mom’s family about what type of person you were, but they kept it from her. It seemed everyone knew, but nobody wanted to talk about it. I was so angry with them for making that decision for her, but she strangely seemed okay with it.

“What is there to be done anyways? It is too late.” Mom has been saying that since day one.

It got worse, especially when there were no witnesses. You were never physically violent again, that I saw, but your words dripped in blood curdling venom. You would yell—go on these tirades that lasted for hours and hours—about how mom had ruined your life, about how she was a snake that wanted to kill you. And when I got old enough to protect her, I became a snake, too.

“Shhhh,” she would say meekly over your screams. “The neighbors can hear you! The neighbors can hear! Keep your voice down.”

Mom would take it all and it made me angry. It made me want to fight you even more because she wouldn’t do it. And I couldn’t bring myself to call you dad because the closeness that the word implies nauseated me. It burned my throat. But when I couldn’t let it go, when I couldn’t forgive you, she would plead—“don’t make it worse.”

“You’re not my daughter,” you screamed at me once. “Get out of my house; I never want to see you again.” But I was thirteen, where was I going to go? So I got good at taking it, too—but not like mom. I never stayed.

But you stayed. You stayed in me. “I’m done with him,” I screamed at her this last time. “I’m never coming back here again. If you want to come visit me, fine. But I’m done. And don’t call me, begging me to talk to him, to make things good. I’m done.” And I shook with rage as tears spilled out of my eyes and my arms trembled in front of my own face, and I froze because I reminded me of you.

That’s what scares me—catching these latent glimpses of my childhood, reflected in the things I do. I wonder sometimes if it’s a foregone conclusion that one day, I’ll say these things to my own partner, to my own children. I wonder, too, if, running from you, I’ll become her, resigned to her victimhood, bearing her cross with some twisted pride. That’s what I cry about—not about what happened, but about what could.

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