Jon Tribble Memorial Award Winner
I never acknowledged that we were, by the very definition, poor. I knew the Goodwill clerk by name, and most times lunch consisted solely of those cut-the-roof-of-your-mouth peanut butter crackers. If my brother and I were playing outside, we’d treat ourselves to the finest dessert: a smushed-up violet flower. We’d rip off the stem and place what remained underneath our tongues for safe-keeping. Multicolored thread looped over patched up tears and rips in our jeans. The doctor’s office was a roll of paper towels and a half-empty bottle of rubbing alcohol. Winter boots were tennis shoes with Wonder Bread bags secured over them. I never minded being poor though. This is because I knew something no one else did: my mother was royalty.
My mother was the kind of beautiful that started the Trojan War. Helen of Troy, but with significantly fewer riches and an affinity for Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits. She always wore gold costume jewelry that made her eyes shine like polished amber. I used to put on all of her bangles and necklaces and rings and pretend I was a princess in her court. My mother smelled like coconuts and the perfume you’d get at CVS. It only cost $5 but my mother said it was worth a million; I gifted her a bottle every Valentine’s Day, she told me that I spoiled her. I loved that feeling.
My father would often tell me how he met her, or as he liked to call it, how she stumbled upon him. He said that from the moment he saw her, he knew that she would ruin all other people for him. He was exactly right.
I always wondered if she ever had a second thought. As she packed her things, as she signed her name to forfeit custody, or as she got into the taxi-cab. I remember standing in the road, and in front of God and everybody, I let the tears slip down my cheeks.
I then understood that everyone is born with these huge, bulky, rose-colored glasses. At this very moment, my lenses were ripped from my eyes, and I began to see the world for what it really was.
Everyone has this certain ugliness inside of them, and over time it does nothing but sit and grow septic. I eventually concluded that my mother had rose-colored contact lenses, ones she could never, would never, take off. She lived in a world that turned solely on her own axis. After I lost my rose-colored lenses, I began to hide things.
I shuffled my feet to hide my ragged shoes from the eyes of my classmates.
I became a “quick eater” to hide my meager lunches from the watchful eyes of my instructors.
I hid the gaps in my teeth with closed-mouth smiles.
Everything was best kept in a box that was locked in a vault so secure that even I didn’t have the means to break inside. This hiding continued for what I’d thought would be the rest of my life. But I realized that even if I hid my family’s income, I was still poor. Even if I hid the marks on my knuckles and the holes in my walls, I was still angry. Even if I hid the letters and the old photos, I still didn’t have a mom.
I then understood that hiding would get me nowhere.
I eventually received a call asking for Robin’s girl. When they told me that she was dying alone in a hospital bed and she was up at all hours begging for her daughter, I asked why they were really calling. She needed a kidney real bad, I was the best possible donor, the call dragged on for hours. When I hung up the phone, I finally took a breath.
My brother, with whom I hadn’t spoken since he left to pursue his dream of becoming a conservationist, told me that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I refused. I asked him if birds felt guilt when they, on occasion, abandoned their young. He seemed to shrink into the ground, and for a second, I could finally see above his head for the first time in years. I only felt about three inches tall though.
I told him I’d sleep on it, so I did.
I had nothing else to do the next day, so I got on the bus.
I made it very clear that I didn’t want to speak with her. I had nothing to say. However, after the long days of seemingly endless psychological screenings and ultrasounds, I would sit and watch her sleep.
She looked like chicken bones pushing up against a yellowed plastic bag. She had cut and bleached her hair to hell. What was once long and the color of caramel candy, now a thin layer of corn silk on the top of her head. All of her costume jewelry sat on the bedside table, already starting to collect a slight film of dust. Her hands looked like they didn’t belong to her body. They had these large, deep cracks that almost bled as they ran together with the tiny pricks in-between her dainty fingers.
According to my lab work I was the perfect donor, but all my mother would be told is that we just weren’t compatible enough. I would tell my brother that I wasn’t a match. I’d never have to tell anyone about what really happened; how completely reluctant I was to give a part of myself away to the person that created all of me.
After a few hours of waiting for an answer or a sign, I stood to leave. My ride would be here any minute, but my feet kept dragging against the tiled floor.
I leaned over her bed and bent down until my lips almost touched her face. After all of the different cities and boyfriends and antiseptic, she still smelled like her CVS perfume. Air caught in my throat, and I couldn’t breathe again. I kissed her leathery cheek, knowing I was leaving her in a different way than she had left me. I was leaving her to die.
As I stood in the road, waiting for the car, I never thought to cry.