Porcelain Skin

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“You’re drooling,” I say as I scrape the last bit of dough onto the pan. It’s enough to create a measly, pathetic cookie. I guess it’ll be the runt of the bunch.

“What?” My mom giggles as she tries to wipe her mouth without me noticing. I don’t think she realizes that my peripheral vision works. I chuckle softly to myself.

It’s finally Thanksgiving break, and I’ve been enjoying several days of much-needed space from school. There’s just something about having friends that I find exhausting. It’s like I have to perform all the time, keep them entertained. I guess that’s what makes a place ‘home’. It’s the one place you can truly relax. You can be yourself without having to fake a smile or force a laugh. You don’t have to try. I can cry if I want. I can yell if I want. I can fart if I want. Home is where freedom truly lies.

I wipe my hands on a dish towel after sliding the cookie tray into the oven. I swivel around and face my mother’s back. She’s busy creating perfect little peaks with the meringue for the lemon pie. She’s been working on the thing for ten minutes, and I’m pretty sure the cookies will be done before she is.

I wouldn’t judge her too harshly for putting so much effort into it, except that there will only be two people eating it: me and her. So I’m not sure why she’s wasting the time. I’m half tempted to swipe my finger through the fluff just to be mean, but that could result in a heart attack, and I’d hate to send her to her grave early. I’d prefer to keep my only remaining parent around as long as possible.

“So what’s the game plan for tomorrow?” I ask, crossing my arms over my chest and leaning back against the counter top. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.

“Well...” My mom pauses to glance back at me briefly before returning to her pie art. “I guess we could do what we always do. Keep it simple. Cozy.”

By cozy, she means pulling out heaps of blankets and pillows and spreading them out in the TV room where we stuff our faces with turkey as we watch a heart-warming movie. The only problem: it’s not as cozy as it sounds. It’s a bit depressing, actually. It’s Thanksgiving, for goodness sake! A time of family and fun; sharing, laughter, and love; and the sound of constant boisterous chatter echoing through the bustling house.

Instead, we sit in a large, empty room, silently watching an un-relatable movie that reflects all the warmth and glow of a normal family—a normal that no longer exists for us.

When I don’t respond right away, Mom stops her task to turn and face me. She gives me a questioning look, and I suddenly feel really sad for her. At least I have friends that distract me from the hollow, empty shadow that normally consumes me. Mom has to deal with every aching memory on her own.

I remember the heart-wrenching sobs that used to sound from behind her bedroom door. She never knew I heard them, but I did. She’d hold herself together all day and only allow her walls to crumble after I went to bed. She never knew that I did the same thing. We both fought to be strong for the other, but when no one was watching we’d dissolve into entirely different people.

I offer her a gentle smile as I nod.

“Unless you can think of another idea,” she adds when she sees my lack of enthusiasm.

I suddenly notice how much she’s aged in just a few short months. The gray in her hair matches the aging spots on her hands as the color begins to fade from her once flawless skin. The smoothness of her complexion has given up the fight and allowed itself to relax into gentle folds. I want to wrap her up into the largest teddy bear hug, but instead, I just shake my head.

“No, that sounds great Mom,” I tell her. “On one condition.”

She eyes me warily for a moment. “Yes?”

“Tonight, you and me are having some girl talk.”

“Girl talk?” She lifts an eyebrow at me before turning back to her pie.

“Yeah,” I say, stepping forward and resting my arms on the counter as I watch her work. “We’ve spent my entire vacation cooking and watching movies. I think we should have some deep girl talk.”

I see the side of her mouth tilt up, and I know she’s already agreeing to my terms.

“You know what,” she hangs her head to the side slightly to get a better look at my face, “I think that’s a fantastic idea.”

Silence falls over us, and I hear her begin to hum under her breath for a few seconds before softly giggling.

“Girl talk,” she whispers, and if I hadn’t been standing so close I probably wouldn’t have heard her. The large smile spreading across her lips doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Alright, tell me all about him; this Timothy guy.”

“Wow, Mom, that was horrible.” I’m laughing while she stares at me innocently. “His name is Trevor. Where did you get Timothy?”

“I knew it started with a ‘T’.” She shrugs before taking a gigantic bite out of her pastrami sandwich. My mother is the living, breathing Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle—if you imagine the old super-nanny to be twenty years younger. She’s round, soft, and warm. I actually remember mom reading the story to me when I was younger. Oh, the irony. I’d always wanted my very own Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and now I have one.

“It’s actually a strange situation,” I begin telling her, and end up spilling the entire story about my feelings for him and his lack of feelings for me. I leave Trinity out of it. “I’ve never met anyone like him. I didn’t even know that that level of compassion existed until I got to know him.”

“Well, tragedy can change a person,” my mom says. I had mentioned that his best friend died, and I swear she almost cried. She wipes a smudge of mustard off her lip with a napkin before saying, “You’re an example of that yourself.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

My mom stops chewing for a moment to look at me strangely. She swallows before replying. “Oh, come on Emmy. You didn’t expect me not to know about your struggle through high school did you?” She takes another bite and watches me closely.

“You knew?” I gasp, feeling extremely embarrassed about my past behavior. “You knew about the bullying?”

She freezes again, a glint of worry shooting through her expression. “You were bullied?” She sounds horrified, which just makes what I’m about to tell her that much more shameful.

“Wait a minute,” I stall. “What about my past do you know?”

I can still see the worry in her eyes, but I just need a couple more minutes to gather my thoughts before I shatter the shiny image of her precious, perfect, and only daughter.

“I knew you were suffering,” she tells me. “We both were. I noticed that you never brought any friends home. You never talked to anyone on the phone. If I wanted to, I think I could have literally touched the shadow of brokenness that hovered around you. It was painful to see, but I just...,” she takes a shuddering breath, and I feel bad that she feels this way because she has no idea who I was in high school. “I didn’t know what to do... how can a broken vase feed a wilting rose, right?”

I’m nodding, but I’m not listening completely. I’m just focusing on how to break my mother’s heart as gently as possible.

“I guess I was the vase and you were the rose, and I couldn’t provide the sustenance you needed,” she says with regret.

“Mom.” I nearly whisper the word. I have no desire to crush my mother, but I have to get this off my chest now. I’m hoping that If I confess it softly then maybe it won’t hold as deadly of a punch. “I didn’t get bullied. I did the bullying.” There. I said it. And yet, no response.

I look up from where I’ve glued my eyes to a stray crumb on the table to meet a pair of glistening blue gems. Her eyes hold years of knowledge, a lifetime of love, and a moment of betrayal.

I can see it clearly. The two seconds that it took me to say those words was all it took to break her heart. The skepticism and disbelief are evident on her face. I see her chest quiver with barely controlled emotion. Chinese water torture or death by pendulum would be less painful than the feeling coiling around my heart and squeezing out the blood. I want to rewind the clock about five years and prevent everything from happening. If he could have just been a little stronger, then I wouldn’t be breaking my mother’s heart at this very moment.

It’s in this moment that I realize, for the first time, that I’m actually blaming my own father for the outcome of his death. I still feel partially at fault, but never have I blamed him. I’ve accused him of being a coward, of not being able to face life head on, but never, not once, have I deflected the blame from myself back to him.

This just creates more confusion. Whose fault was it really? Is anyone at fault? Maybe the only thing at fault is circumstance. Things just happen that are out of our control, which just happens to be the result of a very corrupt world. A world void of love and forgiveness and hope, a world in need of more Trevors.

I blink to focus my thoughts back on the present. Mom is still watching me, the corners of her eyes crinkle as she examines the daughter that she thought she knew.

“W-what do you mean?” she stutters, and I can’t help but wince when I see her bottom lip tremble slightly.

I clear my throat as I prepare to unload a whole crapload of shameful memories into the unsuspecting mind of my mother. This is going to alter her entire view of me, and I’m not sure how I’ll be able to live with that.

“I... uh.” I pull at my ponytail, wrapping the end around my finger repeatedly. “Things got real bad for me, Mom. I’d never felt so low, so dark, so hated in my whole life. Dad left me. I screwed up and he got tired of not being appreciated.”

“Baby, what are you saying?” I see a glimmer of compassion ease the lines around her face, and hope flickers back to life. “You think your father’s death was your fault?”

“No.” I stare at my sandwich. “Yes. I don’t know. I mean, he said so himself. I let him blame me. I let him put all the accusations on me because I felt like I owed him that.”

“You’re not making any sense, Emma.” My mother’s voice comes out harder. She’s lost the look of complete betrayal and is now staring at me like I’ve suddenly grown fangs and a fear of garlic. “He didn’t blame—”

“Yeah, yeah he did,” I interrupt. “I heard you guys arguing that night.”

“What? What night?”

“I heard you both arguing. He said that I didn’t appreciate all the work he did. He was so unhappy.” I take a breath and pull on my ponytail again. “It was my fault that he felt like he needed to work so hard, that he felt like he couldn’t quit. He was trying to make me happy.” I go silent and the small dining room instantly stills. My eyes are glued to my plate, and I can feel my mother staring at me.

“You know,” she says as she props one elbow on the table, her chin resting casually on her fist. “That’s probably the most selfish thing you’ve ever said.”

My head jerks upwards. I’m stunned by her words. Selfish?

“What...” I mumble.

“You really think that you had so much power over your father that his very existence, his very life, rested in your incapable, little hands?” she scoffs, and for a moment I feel like I’m the size of a pebble.

I’m confused as to whether I should be offended or not. Her words sound harsh, but there’s a tenderness hidden in them.

“Now you listen closely, Emma White.” She leans forward a little further and looks at me with steel determination. “Your father was a loving, gentle soul who couldn’t handle the realities of the world. He couldn’t grasp the existence of evil. His job was completely wrong for him. Now don’t get me wrong, he was good at his job, but he didn’t have the brutal force to overcome his sensitivities. Does that make sense?”

She doesn’t give me a chance to even nod before she’s rambling on. “He had so much compassion for people. All he ever wanted to do was help those in need. That was his entire purpose behind studying law—to help those who couldn’t help themselves, to be the one to stand up for the unpretentious people, the guiltless. He just didn’t realize that while he helped one person, the guilty party got thrown behind bars. That’s when he made a mistake. Good grief, everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes!” She sounds like she’s lecturing my father’s ghost. Her eyes are darting all over the place as passion consumes her words.

I’m not exactly sure what I said to set her off, but she’s preaching hell and fire, and I am shrinking further and further into the back of my chair.

“Nobody is perfect,” she takes a breath and focuses on me. “That’s where I fear you’re more like him than I thought.”

Now I’m a hundred percent sure my mother has just nose-dived off into the loony bin.

“Mom,” I say, the pitch of my voice rising in warning. “You’re acting a bit kooky, and it’s freaking me out.”

She actually laughs at me, and I wait for her to explain herself.

“I’m not worried about you, you know, ending yourself,” she clarifies. “When I said that, I didn’t mean that I viewed you as a coward who couldn’t handle the existence of corruption, but I do believe you have your father’s same compassion and love for people. You see the best in people, which is why you took your father’s death so hard. You loved him fiercely. You looked up to him as a wall of fatherly strength. He was supposed to be there to protect you, and then he showed just how weak he truly was, and suddenly your view of the whole world was warped. People were no longer innocent and beautiful. To you, they suddenly all held a depth of wickedness. Some just chose to hide it better than others.”

My mind is swarming. How had I been so blind to my own mother’s intuition? She knew me far better than I even knew myself. Was what she was saying true? Did I choose to bully Trinity because I felt her innocence was a lie? I basically pummeled her innocence to death. Instead of bringing the darkness out of her, I forced it in. I had wanted to prove that everyone had darkness breeding beneath the surface just waiting for an invitation to escape.

I had forced her to live in agony because I felt like it would prove that not everyone is as weak as my father. Some people can continue to live on in pain and sorrow and hurt without giving in to the lies of death. It would prove that I was innocent towards his death. It would prove that he was just a coward like I’d always believed. And yet, it proved nothing.

My father was influenced by the pressures he put on himself. We are all capable of doing wicked things, but that doesn’t make all of us wicked. My father was not wicked. He didn’t harbor evil inside him. No, my father was not a bad man. He was just weak, hurting, guilty, scared... human.

I take a deep breath as I feel a lightening of pressure upon my conscience. I’ve always known it wasn’t my fault. Somewhere deep inside I suspected it wasn’t true, but I didn’t know who to blame if I didn’t blame myself, and hearing my mom and dad argue that one night had resulted in me blaming myself because it was the simplest justification.

“So, you going to explain to me exactly what you did?” My mother’s voice interrupts my thoughts, and I sigh as I predict her reaction.

I finish confessing all my deepest sins to my mother. She was shocked and disappointed at first, which then turned to anger.

Eventually, she calms down. I know she’s upset by what I’d done, but I also know that over time she’ll get over the shock of my confession. I hate dimming the polished, spotless opinion she has of me, but I knew it was something that needed to be said.

Now, as I switch off my light and snuggle beneath my skittle-imprinted comforter, I know what I have to do next, and it won’t be easy.

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