Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Amara Thomas
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
“Your father and I have thought about this for a long time,” my mother began. Your father, I thought. Such different terminology from Dad. I rubbed my thumb back and forth on the white kitchen table, feeling my parents’ gazes but refusing to look up at them. Back and forth. Back and forth. A small soy sauce stain dotted the edge of the table, an imperfect coffee-colored circle. I scratched at it with my thumbnail, trying to make it disappear. My dad let out a little sigh, as though he already wanted to leave, and I bit my lip with bitterness, finally glancing up. My mom was wearing an old gray sweater, her face a little puffy. I had never seen her look so exhausted, and I felt a wave of pity for her. I looked back down at the table and resumed my rubbing. Back and forth. Back and forth. My thumb was beginning to ache.
The feeling I remember best from that conversation is how desperately I wanted it to end: there was a small piece of me that hoped my parents would get divorced, so that they could stop rubbing at each other’s rawest spots, to go back to the people they were before marriage made them unrecognizable to their past selves. But at the time, I didn’t have words for what it meant for parents to stop being married. My best friend Ashley had spent much of 4th grade crying about how her parents had stopped loving each other, and though I cried with her, I observed her sorrow with horrible fascination, cataloging words like “custody” and “alimony” as though I knew what was coming the following year. I didn’t have the right words to say, “My father loves two different women, and that’s why we can’t be happy.”
I stopped rubbing my thumb on the table, and my mother’s voice came back into focus. “We’ve been talking, and we’ve decided–” She took a deep breath and clasped her hands together like she was praying. Years later, I would catch myself doing the same thing in times of stress, mirroring her effortlessly and unconsciously, folding myself into her outline with ease. The word divorce rang over and over in my head like a chant, like a church bell, so when I heard, “We’ve decided that we’re going to move to New York,” the rest was white noise.
When I dissect the past sixteen years like a carcass in biology lab, peeling away years like layers of skin, I can pinpoint the exact day my childhood ended: April 18, 2014. I could tell you about the way my mom’s face flushed with rage when she saw the text pop up on my dad’s phone, carelessly left on the counter, and how she called his name with her eyes narrowed, her voice fierce but shaking. I could tell you about those missing nights when I was in 3rd grade, when my mother and I ate dinner at home in the dark, both of us impatient for my dad’s arrival but neither of us suspecting what was delaying it. I could tell you about the long, messy days and weeks and months that followed my dad’s too-late dash down the stairs and the juxtaposition of his pale face with my mom’s pink cheeks, how looked like she was crumbling under the weight of the local phone book and cross-referenced every single phone number, staying up for nights on end.
But I think the important part lies in the aftermath: how we spent an entire week in a daze, all of us avoiding each other. How three floors weren’t enough to drown out the yelling, late at night. Up until this point, I had been sheltered and rarely unhappy. I spent my days basking in my parents’ attention as their good egg. I was an only child, but I was rarely genuinely alone. So when I found myself without guidance, without active parents, I collapsed. In the days following that horrible revelation, I was aimless. I spent hours playing on my iPad, and sometimes, when I touched my face, I found it wet and did not understand why. One morning, I woke up early and found the fridge empty except for a half-full jumbo jar of pickles, which I rationed out as my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the taste of brine still in my mouth even after I swallowed.
I missed days of school at a time, looking down at the floor when my teachers gaped at my long absences. I continually missed the bus and stopped bringing in my reading logs with my mom’s neat initials. Instead, I read novels in every class while my teachers looked on warily, hoping that my once-studious self would return. When kids at school asked me, “What did you do over spring break?” I blurted out that my family had gone to Florida for vacation. On the playground, I developed a habit of sitting on the sidelines instead of playing on the monkey bars, shuffling the wood chips under my feet and dirtying my sneakers. We had been a solid triangle, a small but strong shape, until one side bent in, and we became scattered lines looking for attachments.
But learning about moving to New York was a whole other beast. As an impatient kid, I had always told my parents that I was ready to break out of suburbia, but I found myself wanting to stay in my deeply comfortable cocoon. After all, the town I harbored resentment for was still my home; it was the only home I’d ever known. For the first time, I let myself think thoughts I had never dared to think and actively criticized my parents: how could they believe that moving would solve their deep-rooted marital problems? What a youthful, immature decision to make. And yet, during the summer, we packed boxes and looked for apartments as though on autopilot. Despite my ambivalence about moving, I rarely voiced my concerns and instead cleaned out my old room, pretending that we were all the same people we had been just months prior.
For my parents, moving to New York was not a metamorphosis but rather an opportunity to grow into a newer, larger cocoon. I quickly returned to being a flashcard-wielding student, and my new teachers looked on with pride. My parents fell back into their old habits: my dad continued to commute to work, and my mom continued to stay home during the day. But one thing had changed: I was no longer naive enough to believe that my family could do no wrong. During the first year we lived in New York, I kept a log of when my dad arrived home from work every day and watched the clock obsessively every night, waiting to hear the click of his keys in the lock. I like to say that moving to New York made me less clingy, but it only changed the way in which I needed my parents: in New Jersey, I had constantly craved their attention, but in New York, all I needed was their presence.
By now, my parents have essentially returned to normal. They joke with each other over morning coffee, and they rarely argue. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one who remembers what happened that spring. Though it seems like my parents have mostly pushed it out of their memories, the words “infidelity” and “divorce” are always on my mind. There will never be a time when I read about children of divorce and I do not wince or think about how divorce would have been so much worse, yet so much better. There will never be a day that I am able to feel pure, unadulterated happiness with my parents without a little seed of doubt about the future.
I still live in fear of the day that my mom picks up my dad’s phone and finds another text that sets her over the edge. I am terrified that my family will fall apart the same way it did five years ago, and that we will have to move somewhere else to escape the problems caused by a lack of self-control. I am still scared of what will happen if our newly rebuilt triangle falls apart once again. But this home will not always be my home. It is possible to break out of cocoons, and more importantly, it is possible to build new ones.