This was my contribution to the Fandom Fights Mental Illness Compilation. Yellowglue and Rhythm_Junkie held my hand through it all. Pleas be aware of the context and adult nature of the themes presented here.
I always lost at M.A.S.H.
It started officially in the 3rd grade and I was obsessed with gambling my life from the get go. The game filled entire tablets, messy circles converging on each other in hap hazard Venn diagrams.
We'd write out the shelter options that spelled the word: Mansion, apartment, shack, and house. Then we'd filled in another three categories with boys' names, and unrealistic dream jobs, and outrageous numbers of children.
If we were feeling really adventurous we'd insert a few other columns. Baby names, how old we'd be when we finally got boobs, and cars took up the bottom left potion of the paper when necessary.
Then I'd close my eyes and listen to my gut, squinching my eyelids to try and read the number behind them so I wouldn't lose ¼ of my life at such a young age, again. My friends would yell, "Stop!" as I blindly marked the page and fought for that number from my gut-voice, speeding up or slowing down to fulfill it's deep desire.
But it didn't matter what number I chose; something was always wrong. If I was to live in a Mansion, it was with the ugliest boy in school. If I had my dream job, I lived in a shack. I never won.
My best friends were Carmen and Sue.
Carmen tried to show me the bright side.
"If you live in a shack with the love of your life then it doesn't matter, Esme. They're just walls." I didn't know my own matter well enough though to know what really mattered, I just knew that it did.
Sue always felt guilty about playing with us. She wanted to be excited when she picked a number that led her to circling Phil's name. She adored Phil, even though he really wanted nothing to do with her. In retrospect I now realize how much Sue's family struggled. She always said, no matter what her fortune was, that as long as she had enough to eat she'd be happy. I felt selfish for wanting everything to work out happily, but it was something I just couldn't let go of, even when I had to share my sandwich with Sue at lunch time.
At home, I had a secret tablet stashed under my mattress. It was the long, legal, yellow kind, and if I snuck one fresh from my Mother's pack of six every now and then she never noticed. It was only when I filled the tablet and couldn't bare to take another one without revealing my secret that I'd stay up all night trying to keep up with all my mental columns and tallies as I played Mash with my brain cells.
I hid under my covers with my flashlight, counting, and circling, and crossing things out.
It was never right.
The compulsion didn't die out with my little girl legs and my slim, straight waist.
High School metamorphosed my long tablet into a beautifully folded origami fortune teller. Carmen, Sue, and I would pass them back and forth between classes, smudging a rainbow of ink on top of each other's words, our thoughts bumping into each other and cuddling under the flaps of paper. I was better at this game. I think manipulating the paper with my hands gave me more confidence in my choices; I had more control.
It was a happy habit until one peaked peek at my future fell out of my overalls and onto the foot of Charles Evenson. That one mistake altered the course of the next seven years of my life.
He laughed when he picked it up, and slid it into his back pocket. I was flabbergasted. He'd stolen my life, practically, and everything seemed out of balance.
"You have such pretty eyes for someone who plays like a little girl." He'd said.
I'd blushed, and turned to find my friends at our usual lunch table but he caught my arm.
"Come tell me all your secrets, little Esme, not them. You're too old to hold their hands anymore. Now, you're mine."
I'd never had a boy interested in me before, and I could hear my mother's voice in my head, reminding me to take what I got and be grateful for it. So I followed him behind the gym and listened as he read and mocked the treasured words he'd found inside that fortune teller.
I saw my Daddy's sweet smile and my Mama's disappointed eyes while he crushed my spirit, and I settled for settling into the grass next to him.
I kept every other fortune my girls and I had created in a shoe box under my bed until Charles threw them away in a jealous fit, forbade me to speak to my two best friends again, and told me I was following him to Ohio for college. He'd filled out the paperwork for me, stolen an essay from our English class, and spoken with my parents, all behind my back.
My life became unfortunate, full of misfortune and dice weighted with fists and flesh burning words.
My Mother was supposed to know me and I just couldn't completely accept what fate had thrown at me. I wanted the story I'd created in my head to become my real and tangible life., but my parents approved of Charles. My Mama, who'd always been of the "love the one you're with" philosophy honestly thought I could do no better. She believed that a girl too worried about the future to pay attention in the now should follow a boy to Ohio. I'd be less of a burden to her then.
My father, who traveled more and more for work as I got older, simply went along with my Mother because she was the one who was there with me most.
My every waking moment was a mashed up Mash game until I met Carlisle. He was everything every person who ever bought a lottery ticket hoped to win. I was rich because he loved me.
Carlisle was the only one observant enough to see the bruises. They had only just started appearing on my outsides. My insides; the heart and soul of me, were black and blue. I didn't want to be saved, but he did it anyway; loved me anyway.
We met at the college Charles had dragged me to after High School. He'd smashed me flat with his words one night when I wanted to stay in and do my philosophy homework instead of go with him to a fraternity party. My face still bore the evidence of the smack he'd laid on my cheek too easily. As I sat on the bench in the dark outside my dorm room, at least two dozen people passed me without even glancing my way.
Carlisle was my Good Samaritan, and, as luck would have it, he was my priest and my wealth as well. While I was ready to settle for the pain of Charles' actions for the remainder of his reign over my life, Carlisle seemed to believe I deserved better. He gave me hope; bright like a poppy.
That small flower, radiating in my heart, is what gave me the strength to leave Charles, and Ohio all together, at the end of that semester.
He was so patient with me, my Carlisle. We moved back to his home state of Washington and enrolled in school at the university in Seattle. Our apartment was so tiny our knees bumped if we both sat down at the card table together.
It turned out that Carmen was right; I couldn't have cared less about the paint peeling off our walls as long as he was across from me.
When we weren't sharing a meal at our folding table, Carlisle was teaching me card games. It passed the time and kept my hands both busy and near to his.
Late into the night we'd play Gin Rummy, Spades and Slap Jack. The old standard Go Fish was always an option, and when I began to feel more adventurous we played Spoons with the tarnished half-dozen utensils we'd snagged at a garage sale. From there we changed decks, giving Skip Bo and Uno their fair turn on our table top, and when my bruised heart was healed enough I suggested strip poker with just one card left.
He taught me the rules before we began with cautious hope in his eyes. I listened, nodding my head and fidgeting my my bra strap near my shoulder where it kept peeking out of my tank top.
But I just couldn't seem to follow the directions. After each of us had played two hands I couldn't keep mine to myself any longer. It was the first time in my life I'd felt in control of my own destiny and I rushed to be bare in front of him. I clawed my shirt away and pushed my jeans down with shaky hands. I desperately needed to expose my heart to this man that might actually love me for believing in my dreams.
He covered my nakedness with his skin that night and pocketed my heart inside his own for safe keeping.
Now, we live at home. It's a place with lots of walls and two bathrooms that feels exactly the way being in my childhood room writing on my tablet did. I know I'm meant to be here, but I'm still hiding just a little bit.
I have two children, rather than the more Duggar-esque number I always seemed to hoard in elementary school.
In the mornings, I've tried to replace my need for tarot-style, cosmic intervention with ordinary prayer. As the sun comes up and my house is still a Napping House you'll find me in quiet self flagellation at my countertop, asking God to forgive my unworthiness for this life while my coffee pot sends steamy incense up to Heaven as a caffeinated plea on my behalf.
The kids both have Carlisle's blue eyes, and when I look in the mirror as I attempt to make myself human every day, my brown ones seem so out of place.
The only time my beloved's faces reflect my DNA is in the sunshine, when the copper streaks that hide in their hair shine through. Sometimes even that glimmer of belonging is just another reminder that I'm the one who doesn't belong here.
One of these things is not like the others…
Emmett is my oldest, on the cusp of double-digit-hood. He's a little wild, and crazy in a kooky, imaginative way, but he is also very smart and has a heart of completely tarnished gold. The tarnish comes from the amount of time he spends outside with his hands in the dirt. I don't ever want to polish him though; I love that little bits of him stick to me when he hugs me around my waist.
Alice will be eight in half a year. She's silly, and loves both princesses and ninjas with equal ferocity. Her tiny body is boundless, and her cleverness is just as far reaching. It is her, not her brother, who asks me the hard questions about this life we live, where babies come from, and why good people die. Her exuberance covers a sensitive heart that I hold carefully in my hands until the right person comes to take it from me. Secretly I hope she'll leave me a small piece when her forever comes to find her.
On the night of their births I felt the compulsion to play the game again. I'd brought a notepad with me, each time, with important numbers to call and things that Carlisle needed to do while I was in the hospital. As they slept in their see-through bassinets next to my bed I frantically set up a game of Mash for them both.
Emmett's had houses, cars, and personality characteristics. I put my new names in all the love blanks: Mama, Mother, Mom, Mommy, because I was too overjoyed with him to think of anyone ever loving him besides myself. The paper said he'd be a sweet boy, who lived in an apartment and loved his Mama. I could handle that.
Alice's felt more complicated, probably because I knew how difficult it was to be a girl and couldn't imagine the burden that she would someday carry like a too-heavy purse. For her I set up houses, the kinds of people I wanted to love her, wisdom I needed her to learn for the both of us, and how often we would talk on the phone when she moved out.
I loved my Mama, but we only talked on important holidays and during family emergencies. I never wanted to feel so far away from the people who'd grown inside me.
The plans were a long way off, but I needed to know as soon as she was in my arms that she'd live in my house, be loved by gentle, compassionate people, know that she was entirely unique, and talk to me every Wednesday.
But it wasn't enough.
I knew, somewhere inside me, that I was the weakest link in our family's equation. I'd never played my cards right from the youngest I could remember and this was no different. I didn't deserve this life; wasn't worthy of the love that was bestowed on me daily.
I carried that knowledge around with me like a disease.
You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough.
I still couldn't settle, because it dawned on me that maybe everyone else was settling for me when they were the best I could ever dream of.
I had to get to the grocery store before the kids got home from school. They both rode the same bus, which helped my anxiety about someone else driving them around in a large tin can with no seat belts. I knew Emmett would protect Alice, and that Alice would karate chop anyone who had the balls to pick on her brother while she was was around.
My cart had wonky feet. The back right wheel was trapped in a riot of random strings and wrappers. The pressure it forced into my right arm reminded me of the impossible task of carrying a baby on any side but my right. That's where my hip shelf was, and as I scanned the shelves for butter and milk there was a phantom ache in my hipbone that almost knocked me over.
We were supposed to be having Shepherd's pie for dinner. Everything I needed was at home already except for the potatoes.
I got carried away by the potatoes.
There's something about knowing they were buried so deep, that they could flourish under all that dirt and still be so soft that made me swoon, dizzy with compassion for the humble vegetable.
Today, this particular store had the spuds in so many colors and shapes that I grabbed half a dozen of all of them: Sturdy russets, speckled with mud that clings like good friend, and small, smooth, red-skinned ones that feel like silk on your tongue. There were the yellow skinned ones that would melt into a stick of butter like a dream, and purple ones that look like jewels crushed beneath your fork. Finally, there were fingerlings. I slipped one between each of my fingers so we could hold hands.
I came from the dirt too. But I can't get clean, I whisper, so the produce man doesn't think I'm any crazier than I already am.
I don't make eye contact with the girl who checks me out when I'm finished. I only look up enough to ensure she's treating my friends kindly. She is too rough with the russets and I frown as I swipe my debit card.
I have to use them all that night; I just have to. I can't leave any of them out. Sometimes compulsive cooking in the only thing that stills my thoughts, and forces me to focus on what's actually happening in reality.
I take out my four largest pots, trying to decide who will be having their rest in the jacuzzi alone, and who needs friends. The russets, the fingerlings, and the purple ones can all handle themselves, but it feels better to put the small reds and yellows in the same pot.
When they're tender under the prongs of my fork I drain the steamy water from their plump bodies and separate them by color once more.
Mashing them in stages, biggest to smallest seems most fair, and I add butter and seasonings as my heart and nose lead me.
I stack the soft substances in layers in my largest trifle bowl, wanting to see the colors side-by-side like a desert castle built by wind and sand. The purple ones sit at the top, whipped to the consistency of thick frosting. It's a fake cake, and my shepherd has lost most of his sheep. The other vegetables and ground beef that I'd saved for this meal would only sully the beauty of the earthy tower I've created. I cook them on the side.
In a last ditch effort on the part of my psyche, I decided I had to shave my legs before dinner was ready.
The kids were busy with after school television and settling in to being home, so an extended stay in the bathroom was definitely possible.
For whatever reason, I just knew that if my legs were shaved before we ate then that meant I had my shit together. It hadn't been but a week since I'd shaved them, and I didn't want to get in the shower, so I sat on the counter in the bathroom with my pants legs rolled up, one at a time. They were covered in the white starch the potatoes spit at me as I'd peeled them. Even they were unhappy with me.
The right leg went well, the removal of the tiny growth making me feel better as I rinsed it away. But I nicked my achilles on my left leg badly, and the pain felt… freeing. It frightened me. I grappled for a hand towel to stop the flow and saw stars when I looked at the red it'd soaked up. With trembling hands I bent sideways, hooking my foot under the faucet to keep from falling, and pulled a band-aid out of the drawer below me.
By the time I righted myself again, the water was clear; all traces of my slip erased down the drain.
Water to wine and back again. I missed my miracle.
I patted the cut dry with a towel adorned with a monster face. When I'd sealed the leak in my leg I looked at my reflection in the mirror and flashed back, violently, to the way I looked when I was with Charles.
I had to get down off the counter top right then before anything else dripped from my mind into my eyes, and I stumbled back to the kitchen to pull my five layered potato pie out of the oven.
That night at the table Emmett jumps up from his seat to hug me as soon as I set the trifle bowl full of stacked mashed potatoes on the table.
"Oh Mom! That is so cool that you remembered!"
I have no idea what he's referencing, but I hug him anyway, enjoying how tight he squeezes me before he hops back into his chair.
"We're learning about sedimentary rocks this week, remember? We just did one of those sand art projects today with Mrs. Stanley and those potatoes are even more awesome! Especially because I got so into identifying my layers that I accidently shook all my sand into one color."
He blushes and smiles up at me and Carlisle under his long, dark, lashes that I watched grow in above his blue eyes, and I smile for the real for the first time all day.
When he sees me happy he asks for a serving and I'm careful not to disturb the layers as I place it on his plate. With every bite he defines a new vocabulary word, radiating joy.
I'm pleased that my unconscious mind remembered his school studies, even if my frontal lobe can't keep track of anything past the soiled band-aid on my ankle and the anxiety burning under my skin.
Alice doesn't like mashed potatoes. She has a built in protection feature that I wasn't born with. She can taste when things came from somewhere deep and dirty, and no amount of washing changes her mind.
I'm actually glad she has it. She may never enjoy mashed potatoes or carrot salad, but she will be clean inside, and I don't blame her for not wanting to sully herself with the life-cycle's leftovers.
I've made her olive oil and sea salt popcorn and a mango smoothy instead. She bounces lightly in her chair with gratitude. She doesn't really even like the smell of potatoes, but the purple swirled top calls to her inner princess and she asks for a serving and two pieces of plastic wrap.
I get them without questioning her. My own inner monologue of unworthiness has exhausted me now that I've taken a moment to sit still. Mostly I just want every one at the table to let me be and still be okay.
With plastic pressed against her palms Alice molds the mound of potatoes on her plate into a striped monster, using popcorn for eyes and dribbling just a touch of mango smooth over his head for creepy hair.
I glow, like the last pulse of a light bulb before it burns out, when I hear Carlisle chuckle at our newest dinner guest.
I can sense how much my kids love me in these moments but it can't sink in past the doubt I've wrapped around myself so wholly.
When they finished their homework and showers, it was story time. Carlisle was perfectly capable of doing it, but it was something I tried to give each of them every night.
Emmett and I are reading the Guardians of Ga'Hoole. He listens as my mouth works it's way around each voice and character, and we cry together when Hortense dies. She dedicated her life to freeing captures eggs from owls that, though they called themselves pure, were filled with evil. She couldn't fly, and it just took one little push…
He's enraptured by the main characters little sister, Eglantine, as am I, and we spot owls when we are out together, trying to decide which character is watching over us during our errands.
For Alice, I continue a tradition that my father started with me. It was a small piece of himself that he gave me too, and when he was gone, which was often, it was something my mother didn't have in her to repeat. I learned, very early, that wanting for things that make you truly happy was wrong. I needed to take what I got. Maybe that's why my consistent loss as those childish paper and pen guessing games hurt so badly.
"Hi, Mommy." Alice says from her bed.
"Hi, my AliceAngel. Can I lay next to you?"
I crawl in her tiny twin bed and stretch my legs out long, her toes bunching up under my knees to keep warm. I take a deep breath, and try to clear my head, so the characters that need to talk to Alice tonight can be heard over the roar of my own poisonous thoughts. My Daddy did the same thing; the deep breath, and the anticipation of hearing the story building in his mind was sometimes the greatest part of my entire day.
I breathe in from my diaphragm, filling that space like a full balloon, knowing it will be empty again in just a moment, but praying the story that comes out of my mouth can help both me and my baby girl. I kiss her forehead on the exhale, then begin.
"Once upon a time their was a girl who loved to swim. She could swim entire rivers in minutes and dive to the deepest end of the pool in seconds flat.
She had special feet, you see. Her toes were all webbed like a ducks'! The older she got, the better her swimming got too, and by the time she was in high school she was the captain of her swim team and the best competitive swimmer for miles around.
There was only one problem.
Her special feet made it very hard for her to find shoes, and while she managed sandals most of the year at school, during her junior year of high school she really wanted to go to prom. She didn't have a date, but she did have a really cool dress and a bunch of friends she liked to dance with. But no matter how many pairs of shoes she tried on in all the stores in all the malls in her town, none of them fit over her special feet.
She was very sad. She felt like she couldn't do both of the things she loved anymore. She wanted to be the fantastic swimmer that she was and go to prom in pretty shoes.
Just when she was about to give up and stay home, her Dad found a doctor that thought he could help her. He was willing to do a special surgery on her feet that would un-web her toes for Prom night, and be reversible afterwards so she could swim again.
She went in for surgery two days before the dance and was so nervous! If the surgery didn't work she wouldn't be able to dance or swim ever again for the rest of her life!"
Alice gasps, and pulls the covers up to cover the tremble that's started in her bottom lip. I tuck the cover under her chin and wink at her, a silent promise that this tale has a happy ending.
"The doctor was very careful with the special skin between her toes and managed to fold and glue it in such a way that her feet could fit comfortably in dancing shoes.
While she was recovering, her Mom secretly measured her foot and went to the prettiest shoe boutique in the Mall. With the help of the saleswoman, her Mom found her dazzling, sparkly shoes to wear to Prom and when she woke up she was overjoyed.
Her feet were a little sore at Prom, but she still got to dance with her friends. The morning after she went straight back to the doctor who coated her feet in a special solution that freed them from the glue and let her webs loose again.
She knew from that moment on that when you want something for the right reasons, and you believe, you can make it happen."
Alice pulls her little girl feet from under the covers and hold them up to my hands. "Are my feet special Mommy?"
"Yes, my love, they are." I kiss the bottoms of them, remembering when they were small enough to wedge under my ribcage.
"Your feet are even more special than swimming duck feet. You know why?"
"Why?" Her eyes are full of sleepy wonder.
"Because one day, they will take you anywhere you want to go."
I tickle her soles before I tucked them back under her blankets and she rubs them together like she's making a wish.
When I get to the door her little voice pulls me back. "Even outer space?"
"Even outer space, Alice." I smile, loving her for her clean, ready feet.
"And I can come back and see you after that too, right Mommy?" I rush back to her bedside and pull her to me tightly.
"Of course you can."
What if I wasn't here when she came back?
I realized as I shut her door that I'd retold one of my own Daddy's stories tonight. It was one of the stones that made me feel like taking what I got and being happy not to reach for more was a bad thing.
It was a blip from his imagination that, when I tried to tell my Mother about it, she'd told me it was impossible.
But still, all that girl had to do was change one thing and her dreams came true. I felt too far gone to change tonight, though. Just walking the steps away from my babies and toward the solitude of nighttime made my feet feel like lead.
My confession as I washed my face was that I kissed their faces too hard whenever they let me. My lips pressed deeply into their skin, so that I could smell their hair and leave the tiniest wet print behind. My Daddy did it with me too and I always wiped in away, thinking he was just being silly and dramatic. But I need that evidence of my presence there on their cheeks and foreheads for at least a few seconds before the air evaporates me again.
Something's coming, I can feel it. I'm like a grape under the heel of a stinky boot, about to burst into a dirty stain on the floor. Once the kids are in bed, I sit down on the fireplace, wrapping my arms around myself.
I can't take this pressure anymore, of feeling like every one of the people I love would be better off without me. They're luck, their good fortune, would increase by bounds I can't even imagine if I disappeared from their lives.
My brain buzzes behind my eyes, and I rock myself in a frantic pattern to try and hold myself together a little longer. My heart beats so hard it's trying to rip through the skin under my arm and my thoughts spin dizzy, like a too fast merry-go-round before shorting out and making my body jerk.
I'm clenching my jaw so hard to keep my self quiet, as if my pounding ears are loud enough. I almost want to just black out for a second, like restarting a computer. Anything not saved in my heart would be lost, and I hope to God these thoughts aren't in there that deeply yet.
She's completely gone from me: unreachable. This time I'm afraid she'll have to break herself before she can be put back together. She waited until she knew the kids were actually sleeping to let it out, and even under the heavy leaden blanket of her pain she stays silent so she won't wake them.
She says she can't feel her arms anymore. They are wrapped around her so tightly as she sits and rocks inside herself on the fireplace that she has easily shrunk herself in half.
She lost a baby between Emmett and Alice. No one knows but us, and as I add up the days I realize this is the 9th anniversary of it happening. She had a miscarriage: a miss carriage. She said it feels like a hollow in her heart, a burrow that's waiting for someone who will never come back.
Cinderella could point at her carriage and say, "That's actually a pumpkin." Esme's fairy tale had been so fucked up by her Mother playing God fairly often that when she pointed to her stomach it was just a defeated acceptance of the settlement her dreams left her when they left again.
I kneel in front of her slowly, not wanting to make anything more difficult that it already is. I touch the tops of her feet lightly to let her know I'm there and she whimpers, pushing the crown of her head into my jaw. Gently, I wrap my hands around her ankles. Her toes curl in on themselves like frightened roly-polies, and I loosen my grip and touch her feet again.
If it takes me the rest of the night to reassure each part of her body that I'm here, I'll do it.
Her calves are next, and I massage them gingerly, wanting so much for one small area of her body to relax again so she can come back to me. Under my index finger, I feel something stuck to her skin. Her long skirt that she'd put on for dinner covered it, but there was blood in a fragile trail from the back of her ankle down to her heel.
"What happened?" I ask quietly. She shakes her head, even as the rest of her shakes violently, pulling her leg out of my hand.
"No, Mama. I'm here." I hold her leg more lightly this time, gently twisting it just enough to scan her injury. It seems to be a tiny nick under her bandage.
She breaths in a loud, whimpering breath and speaks in a scarred voice.
"I cut myself shaving before dinner." It's as if that small mistake was the thing that broke her.
"It's okay, my love. It's already healed, see?" I lick my thumb and rub away the smudge of blood on her heel.
I know better than to touch her hands covering her face. They are the door to the fortress she's built around herself and I won't enter there without permission. I press my palms into her arms instead, reconnecting my lifeline with her skin.
After a few minutes of silence her hands move like stiff planks to rest near her neck. Her eyes are so swollen and still leaking involuntary tears down her cheeks. I wipe them away, and do my best to sooth the muscle between her eyes with my thumbs.
Her hands lurch to her neck and clutch and unclutch near her pulse points rapidly. If she'd been a fish, it would have been self-started CPR. My only goal in that moment is to monitor the pressure of her fingers so that she doesn't harm herself anymore than she already has.
When her arms finally open I wrap them around my neck. Standing carefully, I pull her up until I'm holding her tight enough under her ribcage to carry her someplace more comfortable. The recliner is the closet spot and I fall back into it with her on top me as soon as my knees meet the seat cushion.
I have to show her her that if I hold her hand when she rolls the dice, that we can be okay.