A few months before my graduation, I came home after classes one day to find my parents in the living room. The lights had been shut off and the blinds drawn. The ivory sofa loomed gray in the dim light, and my father sat in the center of it like a king upon a dais, his arms crossed. My mother slouched next to him, looking small and chewing her lip. I wondered how long they had been sitting like that. Shadowy as ghosts. “We need to talk,” my father said. “About issues around having three adults under the same roof.”
I set down my bag. “Okay,” I said. I checked my watch. “I’ve got an hour before I need to leave for work. Will that be enough time?”
They said nothing. My mother rustled uneasily in her corner of the sofa.
I took a seat in one of the wingback chairs facing them. I was cautious. “So what are the issues?”
“You leave books piled everywhere,” my mother burst out.
I did. This was true. There was, in fact, a pile of textbooks by my feet. “I’m afraid I don’t have the shelf space,” I said. “But I’ll work on it. I’ll find a spot in my room, so they’re out of your way. Will that be all right?”
My parents looked at each other. “You need to start cooking more,” my father said.
“All right,” I said. I already cooked twice a week. “How many nights a week would you like me to cook?”
They looked at each other again. “Three or four,” my father said. “And you need to buy the groceries yourself.”
“I can do that,” I said. “As long as it’s okay if I start tomorrow. There won’t be time for me to pick up groceries this late in the day. And two of those nights will need to be on the weekends.” On three nights a week, I worked at the university until ten o’clock. I also worked at a community college as well as volunteered weekends at the local library in hopes it would lead to a job. I was home as little as possible. “What else?”
“Start scrubbing the tub,” my mother said, and I noticed her jaw clench.
“How often?” I asked.
“At least once or twice a week,” she said. “You never do it right. It should take at least an hour.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve been doing the best I can, since you haven’t taught me how to do it. If you’ll teach me, I’m sure I can do it the way you’d like.”
“I shouldn’t have to teach you.” She said, her voice rising. “You should just know.”
I felt something sharp-clawed and watchful crouching in the center of the darkened room, ready to spring. I kept my voice even and calm. I mustered all my patience. But the calmer and more reasoned I was, the more enraged my mother became. I didn’t know what to do.
My father now cocked an ankle on his knee and leaned back into the couch, as if his job was done. As if he’d wound up my mother and now could just watch her go. His blue eyes fixed me in a cold stare.
“Is there anything else you’d like me to do?” I stood. “Because I really do need to fix lunch and get to work.” Maybe a swift exit would save me.
But my mother was on my heels as I headed to the kitchen. “You’re such an ungrateful brat,” she said.
I pulled a loaf of bread from the pantry. But her words had stung. I couldn’t pretend they hadn’t. My father, I had told myself for 11 years, was the abuser. My mother was my supporter. And now, at the age of 23, my friend.
Except she wasn’t.
I could see that now.
I turned around to face her, my calm slipping. “When have I been ungrateful?”
“You’re such a brat you don’t even know!” Her voice rose to such a crescendo it cracked, her eyes fiery with the rage I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. “You’re so spoiled.” A strand of her hair had come undone and straggled down her cheek.
“You guys have given me a lot,” I acknowledged. “And you’re giving me this education. And I appreciate that.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Not enough.”
I had never heard sarcasm from her before. I narrowed my eyes. Were these her words? Or my father’s?
“What do you want me to do? Do you want me to move out?” I asked. I was desperate now. I just wanted her to say whatever it was they had set themselves up to say.
“I want you to stop,” she said. “I want you to stop bringing the voice of Satan into this house. All those years,” she said, the soft folds of flesh on her throat quivering now, her teeth bared when she sucked in a breath. “You told me to leave my husband. You tempted me away from God. You told me to sin. Such a brat.”
She raised her hand to strike me, and all I could do was stare.
It was true I had asked her to leave him. Dozens of times, I had begged her to. Possibly hundreds. It had never occurred to me that she would tell him I had asked.
But suddenly, I understood it had been inevitable. When I was 12 and he had shifted his abuse from her to me, she had stood by and let him. After all, it must have been a relief. She could resume her preferred role: the supportive wife. For 11 years, she had listened to my pleas, then explained that it was my fault for provoking a man who wanted to be provoked. She had wasted her mind until it withered, lost in the Minotaur’s Labyrinth of inventing excuses for the inexcusable.
I wanted to believe I’d been a fool to trust her. But she had been my mother. And I had been her child. A child pleading for protection.
Now, she had birthed me yet again: this time as a monster. This time I was the heart of evil at the labyrinth’s center, and my parents would vanquish me together.
In the end, it was my father who stopped her. I hadn’t even noticed him in the kitchen behind us. And now here he was, standing right behind his wife, and he reached out and plucked her wrist out of the air and held it firm. He stopped my mother from hitting me. Then, he stared at me over her shoulder, a smirk of triumph curling his lips. His false teeth glistened with saliva.
He had won.
Ever since I had returned, he had threatened most days to kick me out, to send me back to the restaurant or the street or wherever it was women like me went after they had burned all their bridges. He promised that my days under his roof were numbered. My position in the family tenuous. I had never dreamed he would achieve this through my mother. I couldn’t see the game he was playing until he had already won.
Two weeks after my graduation, I landed a job shelving books at the public library and moved out. I signed a lease with my brother for a one-bedroom apartment in Lake City and never looked back. My parents, to show they could not be outdone, promptly bought a house in Austin, Texas after that fight. They moved out before their old house even sold.
My father and I would see each other only once more. One final confrontation that would span the entire year I was 25. Neither of us could have known then that he’d gotten it backwards. This was a much longer game than either of us knew. A game that is won not by cruelty and duplicity but by the will to walk through fire.
And even then, after you have been scorched by flames, you must keep going. There is no rest. No one is coming to save you. No justice, no revenge, no righting of wrongs, and no prayers will set things right. There is no setting things right. You have to keep going. The only way out is out. Because in this place, even God cannot hear you. The fields are burned. They will not grow again. In the woods, you cannot stand in one place too long, or the vines will snare your ankles.
You braved the fire because you believed in something beyond it. But now your fate is shaped by your willingness to lay down all the wishful thinking that carried you this far. And then to forge on through the dark, machete in hand, cutting not through your enemies but through the lies and illusions they have planted in you. And you have to keep going like that, sunup and sundown, year upon year. Until you are so far beyond the cruelty that they can never pull you down into the pit again.
It was a victory that had never occurred to him. Or, as of yet, to me. It did not seem possible. Neither of us knew then that the truth was his days as a member of my family were numbered. Not the other way around.