Mulan Matthayasack: À Maman: Make Believe
In 2009, you and your mom leave your abusive father. You are ten, and you won’t remember much about this day besides shouting, some hitting, and muffled struggles—it’s not the first time this has happened. You try to distract yourself by hiding in your room and keeping your head buried in your book, hoping the words on the page will take you away from the moment, into a warm and bright and safe place where no one gets hurt. Eventually, your mother screams, louder than she ever has, and it snaps you out of your fantasies. It sends a cold chill down your spine as you hear thumping along the walls; your heart races, and you panic because you don’t know what to do, when finally, your mother barges into your room and slams the door shut. Her hair’s frizzy and there’s tears in her eyes. Your little heart breaks because you’ve never seen her this bad, this weak, and vulnerable and scared, and you wonder if she’ll lie to you again when you ask if she’s okay. Before you’re about to speak, she whispers for you to get up and pack your bag—but not with school books and notepads and pencils and other stationery things; she wants you to pack some clothes and your toothbrush and other bare essentials, and tells you it’s because “we’re going to stay somewhere else for a little bit.”
“Why?” you ask her.
“Daddy needs to be alone for a while.”
You don’t question anything else after that. Because with the tears in her eyes, with the bruises you see around her neck, with how tiny and frail she looks in front of you, that’s all it takes for you to know that maybe you’re never going to see your father again, but also maybe it’s for the better. And so ever since then, you’ve kept the idea in mind that it’s just going to be you two in this world.
It’s a struggle at first, between jumping from relative to relative for a roof over your heads, and trying to go to school at the same time—both you and your mother. She is trying to finish her college degree all while taking care of a child, and it’s because of this that you admire her, despite seeing her get sad occasionally. She won’t directly say it, but you can see the pain in her eyes even though there aren’t tears anymore; she is lonely.
By 2012, you can say you both finally settle down. It is the fall of freshman year and you are going to a five-star school in the Western Suburbs of Chicago. Your mother has a decent job in the city, and you think things are now turning for the better. You truly believe that it’s just you two in this world, and for you, that’s actually good enough.
She doesn’t tell you when exactly she met him, but from what you gather, you think it had to have been over the summer through one of those dating sites. Now, instead of going to the library to get English books, or helping you with math homework, or practicing badminton with you to prepare for tryouts, she’s on the phone for the majority of the time, laughing over cheesy jokes, and dressing herself up a little more to take pictures.
It wouldn’t have been a problem had you not felt like you were getting replaced. It wouldn’t have been a problem had she not suddenly told you she was engaged after meeting him only a couple of times. You have a weird feeling about him, but you keep quiet because you don’t want to do something as selfish as taking love away from your mother, even though you thought you were enough for her.
He’s from Florida and says that he’s a doctor. He says. But, when your mother called the local hospitals down there to see if he had any records that would transfer over for when he moved in, she saw that they didn’t have any. Turns out, he was in school for medicine, but never actually completed, and he spends most of his days working at a warehouse. That’s the first strike. Your mom waves it off by saying, “At least he has a job.” You turn your head back to your books.
The second strike is when you find out he drinks. Not just occasionally or socially, but daily. He craves a bottle of beer every morning after he wakes up, and he can’t go to bed without one either, and it wouldn’t have been a problem if it didn’t disgust you so much. Because you later discover Tymothy Monroe isn’t the sad drunk who sits in the corner and thinks about his previous relationship or his kids, nor is he the angry drunk that gets heated quickly and becomes aggressive. He’s just the drunk—the loud, obnoxious kind who talks and talks and talks and likes to add his two cents into everyone’s business because he suddenly thinks he’s got an IQ of 180 and that he’s always right. He is cocky and arrogant, he is rude and ignorant, and here is where you see his true colors.
Your mother does, too, but for some reason, she defends him each time. She defends him even though she really does hate it when he drinks, when they argue about stupid things and he refuses to see her side. You think she allows this because she thinks he fills the void in her chest, and even though you’re pretty sure he’s not Mr. Right, to her, having someone is probably better than having no one. Because of that, you deal with him. For four long, consecutive high school years, you will deal with him, you will accept him, you will brush off his actions and comments, and you will keep quiet all your inner feelings—all because you want to make your mother happy.
You’re in the living room one day, staring blankly at them on the opposite couch. There is a Victoria’s Secret bag on your mother’s lap, and she looks at you with a disappointed expression. Out of the corner of your eye, you see Tym trying for a pokerface while pretending to play on his phone, but you see right through him.
“Mags,” your mom sighs, her tone strong. “I know you’re getting older. You’re becoming a young lady now and you’re growing, but you’re still too young to be buying these things.” She holds the lacy strap of a black lingerie piece with two fingers, as if it’s got germs, but what she doesn’t see is Tym’s secret glance between you and the garment. She eventually drops the piece back in the bag, and you watch as it sinks into the pink tissue paper until you hear something that catches your attention.
“If it weren’t for Tym, I’d have never found out about this—”
That’s strike three. Something clicks in you, and you jump up off the couch you’re sitting on, to tower over him. “What were you doing in my room?!” you shout, and instantly, your mom stands in between you both.
“Don’t raise your voice at him!” she demands. “Have some respect!”
“Then what was he doing in my room?!” You turn to her now while he continues to hide behind his phone with that stupid smirk.
“It doesn’t matter!” your mom tells you. “What are you doing with this?” She holds up the bag for emphasis and expects you to answer, but you just stare at her like how you did in the beginning. There is no point in answering her. There is no point in telling her that you weren’t the one to buy it—that Julia bought it as a joke when you were both at the mall the other day, and you specifically hid the bag in the very back of your panty drawer because you were too embarrassed to look at it, let alone wear it. There is no point in saying this, because your mother won’t believe it. She won’t see the real problem, and she doesn’t, because she had avoided your question.
So when she tells you again that you’re being inappropriate and that you need to return it, you snatch the bag away and run upstairs. You lock yourself in your room and send a text message to Julia saying to come pick you up after work so that you both can go back to the mall. In the meantime, you toss the striped bag onto your bed, pull out a notebook, and write down all the reasons you hate Tymothy Monroe.
The final strike, is when you’re in the middle of napping. It’s two years after he moves in, and you’re resting before your night shift at the pizza place, when out of nowhere, you can smell the odor of beer in your room. It comes from his breath, it comes from the door, and it suddenly comes close.
You’re half-awake at this point, and it only really seems odd when you feel a heavy weight dip onto the bed with you. You’re too scared to open your eyes; you don’t want to see what you think is happening, and you don’t want it to be real, but when you get the courage to look, your heart races. You begin to hyperventilate.
You see him crawling onto you like a giant bug, like a giant roach, and you shuffle around. You push and shove, but when he pins your arms up above you and locks your legs with his own, you start to cry. He shushes you with that pungent breath of his, and you try to fight some more, but nothing seems to work. Your heart races faster; it beats and bangs against your chest like it wants to get out—like the way you want to get out. It’s at this point, you know it’s not a dream. It’s not a dream when he slides his giant, dark hand down into your shorts, and you scream, “No! Stop! Please, stop!” and he shushes you like a child. It’s not a dream when he tries to stick a single, thick finger into your hole, and it’s definitely not a dream when he continues to whisper, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” into your ear, with his nose stuffed in your hair, and you can feel him inhaling your scent, feel him taking more and more away from you. It’s not a dream because it all feels too real. It’s not just something you’ll forget when you wake up, or when you’re in the shower or getting ready, or when you’re at work taking orders, or even when you’re reading books to escape from reality—no. It’s something you’ll remember every single second of your life; it will be the reason you have nightmares. It will be the reason you’re scared to come home after work, or to even be home alone. It will be the reason you can’t trust men for the next couple of years. It will be the reason you stay quiet and stay up in the middle of the night, writing over and over again all the reasons you hate Tymothy Monroe, with this exact moment at the top of the list, circled and bolded in bright red.
You kick at him, but that seems to make things worse—your shorts lower further. He pauses at this, and then looks at you in a way that makes you feel small, makes you feel weak and vulnerable and scared—in a way that makes you feel filthy and dirty and gross because you’re having someone eye you like you were a piece of candy to lick all over, and you, on the other hand, just wanted to fucking sleep.
You both hear the garage opening, and there’s a small hiatus between you. The second he looks away, is when you kick him off for good. He falls and scrambles along the floor, and you feel your chest heaving, your heart squeezing, and you’re panting. You grab your blanket and yank it up to cover your body, curling away onto your pillow, legs still alert in case he dares to come on top of you again. You begin to sob over the fact a horrible thing from a disgusting man has just happened to you.
And as he hesitates before leaving to greet your mother, you can feel his eyes linger on your curled body from the doorframe for another minute, watching you and taunting you some more, before he finally walks off like all of this was nothing.
Three out of the four years pass, and the weather is nice one summer weekend. Your mom asks what everyone wants for lunch, and you tell her you don’t care. She suggests burgers, hot dogs, or even both. You tell her you still don’t care. You’re broken. You’re hurt. You don’t want anything to do with him, and you know your mom can sense this change in you, but she doesn’t understand why. She tries to read you while in the kitchen, and Tym excuses himself to start the grill, but even when he leaves, you don’t feel any different. Your mom lets it go and tells you to help her set up. She begins cutting the lettuce, onions, and tomatoes, and you open the fridge to get the ketchup, mustard, and pickles. It’s going fine until she starts something. Until she sees something.
You look over, and she has abruptly stopped in the middle of her task, staring at you, your left arm in the middle of grabbing the condiments.
You instantly slam the fridge door and begin to walk away when she sets the knife down and cuts you off. She stands in the middle of the hallway and grabs your forearm, and you already know what she’s talking about; you don’t have to look at the scars that haven’t fully faded yet.
“You cut yourself?”
You don’t answer her like the first time she confronted you, but this time, she gets annoyed. You feel her fingernails digging into your skin, frustrated by your silence, and they could’ve left their own scars if they dug any deeper. “No!” she shouts at you, like she would a dog. “No, Maggie! This”—she shakes your wrist so you understand, and you understand perfectly—“you don’t ever do this, okay? Don’t ever do this again!”
You see tears brimming at the corner of her eyes, and for a second, you feel something inside of you. A feeling that makes you want to crawl back to her, like how you would when you were a little girl on a rainy night, and she would hold you and tell you everything was okay. A feeling that gets you soft, like the kisses she’d leave on your cheeks after putting your hair into braids for kindergarten, and she’d tell you how pretty you looked. It’s a feeling that makes it seem like it’s just you two going through this world again, because now all her attention is on you, and that’s all you ever wanted it to be.
Tym comes in through the backdoor, and she glances at him and he glances at you, and then it’s like everyone wants to know what’s going on.
But it’s there, you realize, there’s not enough of you to reach out and grab that feeling, to save it. Because now her attention is on him, and if only she knew the truth about that monster, and didn’t look at him like a god, like he was enough and everything for her when you thought she’d only ever need you.
“Okay,” you respond monotonously.
But that’s another broken promise to her and to yourself because later that night and all the nights that follow, when reading isn’t enough to make you forget, when writing all the reasons you hate him isn’t enough to get all these sour feelings out, you do it again and again, in your dark room with nothing but your headphones and soft music playing, hoping for better days, hoping that he would go away, or that someday, someone would save you.
A couple months after the incident, your mom’s had it with this change in you. She doesn’t notice the new scars anymore because it’s winter and you’re wearing long sleeves now, but she doesn’t like that you have a bitter attitude to everything. It’s actually really pissing her off. You’re in your room reading The House on Mango Street when she knocks. You get up from your bed to unlock the door, and she steps in to question you if everything’s okay.
“It’s nothing,” you merely say, and she looks like she’s going to throw a fit now.
And she does. She snaps. She tells you how she doesn’t appreciate your two-word responses whenever she asks what’s wrong, and she also doesn’t appreciate your sarcasm, your stupid remarks, every time Tym talks. She doesn’t know when it all started, but it needs to stop; it needs to stop right now, Maggie, because she didn’t raise you like this. You’re being childish. What’s your problem?
You feel something bubbling inside of you, but you try your hardest to hold it down because you have a feeling it’s not going to be good.
“Answer me!” your mother screams, and you’re shaking now. You’re just as angry as she is, but you can’t say it. You’re scared that she won’t believe you—not with the way she looks at him, with how she’s so in love with him and with the idea that he’s perfect for her even though he drinks everyday and is a slob and has assaulted her daughter. She’d give up everything for him, and you envy that. You despise that.
She sees that through your expression. Finally, something she can read. “Is it Tym?” she asks, her voice low. “You don’t like him?”
“No,” you let out automatically, tightly. Your throat is dry, and you feel your eyes watering at the memory of that afternoon before work. You want to spill it out, but you’re still holding back.
“Tell me why,” she states, and it’s suddenly hard for you to breathe. You don’t respond for another long while, and she gets furious. “Do you not understand how selfish you’re being?” she says. “I’ve been through so much with your father, and the one chance I get to be with someone, you won’t allow it. You won’t even tell me, Mags. You’re acting like a brat!” She pauses and waits for you to reply, but you still say nothing. She’s livid.
“How would you like it if Janine brought you over to her house, and all of a sudden, her dad didn’t like you? With no explanation whatsoever. He doesn’t say anything to you; he just turns his head every time you talk, says mean things behind your back, and scoffs and snickers and rolls his eyes in that same, ignorant way you do every time Tym tries to have a conversation!”
She was not going to bring your best friend into this. She was not going to use her against you, and compare her father disliking you, like it was the same thing with your hatred for this man.
“He hasn’t even done anything to you—”
That’s your next trigger. “He touched me, Mom!”
The world seems still. It’s quiet between you two, and she stares at your outburst with a horrified look on her face—like the look she had when she pulled out the lingerie from the Victoria’s Secret bag, like that look she had when she found out you self-harmed. It’s the same look she has when she catches Tym drinking again, or when he calls her a bitch, but then uses the excuse that he’s too drunk to really mean it. It’s the same look you remember her having when your father first hit her.
Now she doesn’t say anything, and you can see the information processing through her eyes, see them growing darker and darker with each passing second, and for a moment, you feel this huge weight off your shoulders. You feel relieved that she knows, that you can tell her anything again without having to worry about her turning her back on you. That she can help and that she’ll get rid of him because she finally sees how badly he’s damaging your relationship, and god, do you get that feeling again where it’s just you two in this world and nothing else matters. . . .
But then, you see the opposite happening. You see her pupils locking onto you, targeting you, and her words, what you feared the most, smack you across the face. She has the bitter attitude now.
“Why are you making a stupid story up?” she mutters. “He would never do that. Why would he ever do that?”
That, you don’t have an answer for. But it triggers something else in you, a new kind of adrenaline. So when she leaves, you lock the door again and pull out your notebook. Instead of going back to dark nights, instead of reading the problems away with a fantasy, you begin to write your own world. You write about life being fair and where no one would turn their back on you. You write about falling in love with someone who doesn’t treat you as bad as how your father or this alcoholic treats your mother. You write stories similar to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, about jazz and dancing, and about going to Paris or some other place where the sun also rises—a place that is warm and bright and safe, where no one gets hurt. You write about how you never want to come back to the West Suburbs of Chicago after graduation, and memories being alone with him again. You had it now. For three years, you waited for someone or something to come save you from this madness, but you realize now that only you can save yourself. And you will.
The final year of high school comes by quickly, and Tym drives you one morning. The car ride is quiet, and you’re looking out the window to avoid any conversation. The route only takes ten minutes—just ten minutes with him, and then you’ll be away; that’s all you ever want in life now.
“I’m not a pervert,” he says out of nowhere.
Your breath halts.
“Your mother told me what you said to her, you know. That’s ridiculous that you’d think I’d do such a thing.”
Both your hands clench at your sides. He had the audacity to speak to you as if you were stupid. As if you were a little girl and had just made up some sick tale, and he didn’t do any of it.
“I’m disappointed in you, Mags—”
“Don’t call me that!”
He ignores you. “I’m not a pervert,” he repeats. “I don’t know where you get these ideas, but you gotta stop that make-believe stuff. It makes you sound crazy, and it breaks your mom’s heart, Maggie.”
He makes it seem like everything is your fault. That’s your strike.
You want to shove him off like you did two years ago. You want to smack his head against the back of the seat, the window, the windshield or something, and you want to see him die. You want to see blood all over his face, gushing from his forehead, his nose, his giant lip, and you want to see it running—running, like what you’ve wanted to do all those times you were stuck in a room alone with him, and he would give you those eyes that only you knew what was meant, what was promised, and you’d want to tell, but you knew no one would do anything about it, no one would believe you because even your mother didn’t. You want him unconscious. You want him to slump against the steering wheel with his foot still pressed on the pedal, and you want the car to accelerate and swerve in different directions until you crash. You want to crash, and you want the car to burn, to inflame his body along with it until it turns to ash because you want no trace of him in this world anymore. You want him dead and gone forever so that you can finally breathe, so that you no longer have to be afraid of men, so that ugly face would disappear from your memory, and you could have your sanity again.
But instead, you say nothing. You don’t fight. You can’t fight. Because you can’t win. You’ve learned to keep quiet, and that is what you will do until you can get away from this town. You get out of the car when he pulls up to the school, and you shut the door without looking back.
In homeroom today, the counselors come to talk about colleges, and as you stare down at the list of schools they suggest, you know you want to go far. You want to get away from Carol Stream, from Wheaton, from Illinois in general because you want to get away from this man, this monster, but you know you could never leave your mom like that—regardless of the fact that she’s taken his side, regardless of the fact that she doesn’t believe you and how she probably never will.
The only thing you’re sure about is how these next four years are the most important of your life. And you don’t want to be dragged down by anything or anyone, anymore.
You settle with an art school in Chicago, about thirty minutes from home, but still far enough away.
And when your mom asks, “What did you decide?” at dinner and you tell her, she gives you that look again. But it’s now a look that doesn’t faze you, because you’re so used to it. You don’t care anymore. You’re numb. “You want to be a writer?”
She sighs loudly and begins to pull up the school’s website on her laptop to look at the tuition. “If that’s what you really want. . . .”
And when there’s nothing else for her to say, nothing else for her to do to convince you that maybe you should try something more realistic, you go up to your room, lock the door, and pull out your notebook. And you will continue to do this, continue to write and write and write—excluded from the world, in a dark room with nothing but your headphones and soft music playing—making believe, making stupid stories up, because apparently, that’s all you do best.
Mulan Matthayasack is a Chicago-based artist whose works mainly revolve around young adult fiction and romance. Her most recent work "SunKissed" and "À Lui: All The Things You're Good At" can both be seen in the latest issues of Mental Papercuts.