a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
When Zoe stepped off the bus this Friday, the sky mirrored a baby boy’s nursery walls, if the baby hadn’t arrived home from the hospital. Water-stained stucco townhouses stood as they always did with fake rock painted over front doors, and english ivy creeping up towards the shingles. November air whipped through the 14-year-old’s chestnut hair and ruffled a small folded wad of loose leaf paper clenched in her hand. The shaky “To: Mom” written in blue-inked lines wrinkled in the wind. She checked her necklace clasp resting on the nape of her neck and started to plod home, each foot barely advancing more than three inches after the other. The gray trees that looked like the grim reaper’s fingers did little to console her somersaulting stomach.
Re-checking her chest for the daisy necklace her mom had given her, Zoe adjusted the chain again. Her mom had given her the necklace before her tenth birthday party. With meager RSVPs to her birthday, Zoe hid in her bedroom and prayed to Necky the Giraffe for her mom to cancel the party and save her from embarrassment. Necky sat on the white duvet as the overworn carpet stung Zoe’s knees. Her clasped hands rested on her forehead while she plugged her nose, blocking out the smell of cake, drifting through the vents. Before the guests arrived, Zoe’s mom sat down on the floor next to her and gave her the necklace stamped with a silver daisy and the inscription: if you were a flower, I would pick you every time. Zoe’s mom clasped the necklace onto her daughter, moving her chestnut hair gently to the side. As soon as the other ten year old’s arrived at their townhouse, bearing gifts and giggles, Zoe showed them the necklace and bathed in their compliments. Now, four years later, Zoe still clutches the necklace whenever her shaking hands become too obvious, but on walks home like today, it burned like a brand on her skin.
Leaving for school this morning, Zoe tiptoed past her mother’s room and cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast. The kitchen’s light gray paint began chipping in the corners years ago and the sharpie drawings on the pine flooring were starting to fade.
Zoe ate her eggs at a small wooden table they had thrifted on a whim. Traversing the aisles of Goodwill, Zoe searched for the perfect one, where she and her mom could sit and fill most of it. She presented the tiny wooden circle to her mom and beamed when her mom praised her frugal but fashionable shopping skills.
Before she left the house at 7:32 am, she checked three times to ensure that the pan she cooked with left no traces of yolk or soap and that it now rested neatly in the cupboard.
Zoe arrived at homeroom and her watch read 7:52 am. After history ended at 8:49 am, she checked it again. After 8th-grade literature ended at 9:38, after algebra ended at 10:27, and after every other period that day, Zoe grimaced at the clock and tried to reverse the hands with her mind. But with every glance, time mocked her by shortening the minutes. At lunch, sitting around a large veneered cafeteria table, Zoe laughed and chatted about the boys in their grade wearing highlighter yellow in matching sets or about how the latest one-page homework assignment took them hours. But through all the talking and chewing on soggy broccoli, Zoe stared past her friends at the clock glued to concrete, glaring back at her. Her knee bounced up and down, causing the spoonful of rice headed for her mouth to fall onto the floor.
“Howdy, kid,” Mr. Branson, her 40-year-old neighbor who perpetually covered his bald with a Phillies hat, raised a hand in hello as Zoe passed. Amidst wrestling a particularly stubborn thistle from under his front step, Mr. Branson gave up and with a slight chuckle began walking alongside her like they had been friends since grade school. He wiped his blackened ungloved hands on a yellow Kohl’s flannel.
“I’m glad I caught you coming home from school, kid. I wanted to talk to you about the next neighborhood gathering I’ve been planning––for the thanksgiving season.”
“Yeah?” Zoe’s eyes drifted over his unclean shave and deep crow's feet that framed his blue eyes.
“Well, we’re making turkey hands.” He punctuated the last word with soil-covered jazz hands. “Ha, I just wanted to say you and your family are invited. Make sure to tell your mom to come—we’ll have cocktails.”
He winked and sauntered away while shouting, “You know it’s always a riot when Valentina comes.” Zoe continued walking.
The last time Zoe and her mom attended a neighborhood party, Mr. Branson’s Christmas in August Cookie Decorating Day, Valentina continually sipped pina coladas garnished with Christmas trees before eventually switching to a couple rounds of gingerbread martinis. While Zoe decorated her snowman sugar cookie with a top hat and a carrot nose, Valentina raised her drink in the air, splashing liquor on Zoe, and yelled, “Storytime!” She grabbed the shoulder of Mrs. Ling, the neighborhood pharmacist, but missed, slapping her breast instead and sending Mrs. Ling’s cocktail over all the cookies. Valentina overlooked her scrambling audience and proceeded to monologue anyway. She stood tall in stilettos and a knock-off Ralph Lauren bear shirt. Her stringy deadened hair, encased in multiple layers of hairspray and mousse, perched high on her head. Her animated hand movements highlighted her chipped and freshly bitten neon green nail polish while clumps of mascara threatened to fall into her martini. Shaking her head, Zoe finished placing bikini bottoms on her snowman and mouthed along the words to her mom’s performance.
Before Zoe started middle school, she would sit on her mom’s bed as her mom would tell this same story. On June sixth, 2008, Valentina, 26 at the time, sat in hair and makeup, ready to make her television broadcasting debut on Good Morning Philadelphia. When she got sick for the first time from the little Zoe in her belly, only half her head adorned curls and powder while the other half rested flat and blemished. Her hairstylist ran to the CVS below the studio to buy a pregnancy test before Valentina went live. The results displayed two little lines, so as any good mother would do, Valentina executed the best news anchor debut of 2008 then respectfully resigned to give her child everything she would need in the coming years. That’s the story Valentina tells everyone.
But only to Zoe did Valentina share the real story: In actuality, when the results were positive, Valentina hobbled on air with streaked half-finished makeup and vomit in her half- curled hair. Shaking in her anchor’s seat, she read the news like the 64th street robber held her personally captive that morning. The paper she held creased and smeared under her sweaty grip, and her voice occasionally jumped an octave. Valentina, now 40, works behind the camera, writing teleprompter scripts and gifting side-eyes to the new generation of news anchors.
Even though the truth lay evident on Youtube, Valentina’s audience stopped drinking their merry mojitos and huddled around to listen, applauding and gushing at a mother’s sacrifice every time it ended. As a child, Zoe squealed whenever her mom would talk about the glamor of the makeup chair, and giggled when she mentioned the snot on her face.
Zoe and her mom stopped playing reporter only a couple years ago. Zoe would sit on the kitchen counter as her mom fixed her hair in pigtails and put glitter on her cheeks. Then her mom would record Zoe talking about how Necky the Giraffe that day refused to go to school because of a stubbed toe. Valentina would laugh and yell “Cut!”
Only a couple houses remained before Zoe’s own, her pace remained steady, but her heart sped up as if it exploding would help the situation. The incident happened four days ago, on a normal Tuesday night when Zoe and her mom hunched over a phone laughing at a golden retriever falling into a pool. While watching the video for the third time, Zoe adjusted her seat bumping the kitchen table and pushing the full Brita off of it.
The laughter dissipated and the only sounds in the room played every 15 seconds when the retriever splashed into the pool. Valentina glared into the side of Zoe’s head as her tongue attempted to break through its cheek. Zoe sat statued with her knee still pressed against the table’s edge. Valentina quietly left her seat. The water trickled under Zoe’s toes, seeping into her sock.
Valentina marched back into the kitchen, “I know you know where the towels are,”
Valentina threw the towels at Zoe’s head. “Here, your majesty, clean it.” She curtsied.
Zoe kneeled next to the puddle she created, rolled up the soaked rug, and laid the towels on the hardwood. As she began to wipe the floor down, her mom pushed her aside, crushing Zoe’s elbow against a wooden chair.
“Holy shit, you’re too slow. Let me.” Zoe lunged out of her mother’s way still holding onto the hand towel’s fraying edge and moved towards the stairs. “No, no. You are not excused, young lady.”
Zoe sat unraveling cotton, watching her mother mutter curses and finish cleaning.
“You sit here all this time, and I have yet to hear an apology. No, I'm sorry mom for spilling and making a mess. No, I'm sorry mom for forcing you to clean it all up. If I acted on air the way you acted today the network execs would’ve fired me years ago. You’re lucky your mama ain’t this fuck’n clumsy. ” The words hit Zoe’s chest and collapsed her lungs.
“Mom, I’m sor-”
“No, I don't want to hear that bullshit. This would never fly in the studio. Millions of people would’ve watched you fail, sneering at your mistake, and costing you a career. Go up to your room. You have been such a disappointment—just like the last time I saw you perform.”
The first time Zoe, six years old, performed in a beauty pageant, she sat in front of her bedroom mirror while Valentina held a brush delicately in one hand and bobby pins in the other. Zoe couldn’t stop bouncing in her seat and singing Cher’s “Believe” while her mom lightly brushed on green eyeshadow. Everyone at the show applauded for her talent, but Valentina stood up first to praise her little Cher. The two of them bought a carton of cookie dough ice cream on their way home and sat in their Volvo singing along to the Mamma Mia soundtrack to celebrate.
Six months ago, Valentina entered Zoe into a beauty pageant for the last time. Once again, she sat in front of the mirror. Valentina ripped out clumps of hair and poked Zoe’s eyes with the brush to keep her awake. Zoe slouched in her chair as her mom plumped and pulled her skin, lecturing on the importance of knowing your audience in show business. By the time she performed, the audience housed only the remaining contestant’s relatives. After a pitchy performance and a voice-cracked high note, Zoe received only a few sparse claps, while Valentina herself sat and surveyed the ground. The pair drove home in silence.
This time Zoe survived four days with no eye contact or conversation. When her mom cooked, the knife left trenches in the cutting board and uneven edges on the vegetables. When they ate together, her mom picked at her plate, looking straight ahead until she had mashed up her food enough to claim she was full, leaving her mush for Zoe to scrape and clean.
When Zoe stepped onto her driveway this Friday, she opened up her letter and reread her
I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to spill the Brita, and I will clean up faster and better next
time. I’m sorry that you find me to be such a disappointment. All I’ve ever wanted
was to make you proud of me, and I’m sorry that I keep failing. I know that it's
stressful raising me and that––like you always say–– show business will hurt more
than you ever will. You wouldn’t do anything to deliberately hurt me. You’re doing
your best, just know that I am too. I am really really sorry. I will never make a mess
again. I love you so much, and I just wish that you would forgive me.
Her sweaty fingers smudged some of the blue ink as she turned the garage door open. In the kitchen, the pale gray walls darkened from the setting sun. Her mom sat at the table with the only light in the room emanating from her phone. Outside, the sky melted into shades of black and blue, and the pine trees in the distance sharpened in the shadows, sitting like rockets locked in their launched position. Zoe pushed her shoulders down and handed her mom the note. Valentina slowly put her phone down.
“An apology letter.”
Her mom took it from her and glanced at the pages. Zoe half-smiled and held onto her necklace to stop it from bouncing on her chest. Valentina raised the letter up to Zoe’s eye level, made direct eye contact with her for the first time in days, and tore the letter so it looked like 8 snow covered the kitchen floor. The glow from Valentina’s phone shined onto her face like a camper telling a ghost story. Years of botox couldn’t hide her age, and her eyes, which usually sparkled green in daylight, glinted black, staring into Zoe’s.
“You are a coward. You’re never gonna survive out there in the real world. You hand a letter like this to your boss then you’re done. Show business is cutthroat. They don’t have time to read about your mistakes that they already witnessed. You should know this already, Zoe! I did not sacrifice everything for you to–,” she shook her head, “you’re dismissed.”
Zoe turned and walked out of the kitchen, once she reached the stairs, tears plummeted and her lungs stopped receiving air. She bolted to her bedroom and packed a bag of overnight clothes, a toothbrush, tampons, toothpaste, and Necky the Giraffe. She waited on her bed for the slamming of cabinets and doors to subside before she would tiptoe downstairs and out the backdoor.
Taped on the wall across from her, hung a photo of her and her mother on Six Flag’s Kingda Ka. Valentina’s eyes were covered in hair and her hands clenched onto the slimy green bar in front of her. Zoe bore a full smile and her hands waved to the camera above her head. After the ride, Zoe stood by as Valentina doubled over a public trashcan vomiting. Strangers shielded their children’s eyes as Valentina’s body heaved up and down. Zoe patted her back intermittently but slapped it when she saw her and her mom’s distorted faces on Kingda Ka’s photo booth screen. Valentina spat up bile and looked at her own pixelated, disheveled face and then at Zoe who sat smiling at her own goofy smile on the screen. Wiping her mouth, Valentina shuffled over to the cashier and spent $19.95, handing the paper-framed photo to Zoe and shuffling back to rest on a nearby bench. After 30 minutes of recovery, Valentina continued to ride rollercoasters with her daughter, fighting back her lunch that relentlessly threatened to reappear. As soon as they got home that day, Zoe duct-taped it to her wall.
Zoe stepped off her bed and touched their pixelated faces. If Valentina found her empty bed the next morning, she would look the same as it did in the photo. Screaming at the top of her lungs, she would run through the house, calling for Zoe. Hand clenched white onto her cell phone, she’d ramble to the police and stutter over her words. Face contorted in seeing a 456- foot drop, she’d knock on the neighbor's doors, begging for some clues. When all actions were exhausted, Valentina would come home to a lonely house and sit on the couch, crying, cold from the winter air, cold from the empty rooms that grew twice in size since Zoe left. Valentina would lay shivering, cursing out Zoe under her breath, and blaming herself for raising such a selfish daughter.
Zoe took off her backpack and with slumped shoulders, she sat in front of the mirror. To her right, crumpled-up drafts of her apology letter lay in the trash. She fixed her hair in pigtails and put glitter on her wet cheeks. Tears that refused to stop falling displaced the glitter, and her pigtails lay lifeless against her neck. “This just in, I messed up,” she whispered, “Cut.”
She looked at herself. Her green eyes wilted on the sides, her mouth turned down slightly, her nose matched Valentina’s to the pore, and her thin hair just barely framed her face. Zoe wiped the glitter and tears from her cheeks and pulled the black elastics from her hair.
Brushing her hair to the side, Zoe’s fingers scraped her daisy pendant. Around her, the bedroom walls began to inch forward, screeching against the floor. Heat enveloped her, making the air too dense, too heavy for her lungs. The edges of her vision blackened, and tears that hadn’t fallen yet blurred the remaining spots of color. Sweat greased her hairline. Static traveled down her spine as her necklace tightened, choking her. She tried to pry off the metal melding with her skin before it became a part of her. Her body writhed as she yanked and pulled and cried. The chain singed the back of her neck and imprinted circles on the creases of her fingers. Breathless, she looked at her burning fingers and at the chain still clasped around her neck. She punched the carpet, and fell to her side, letting the fibers cradle her cheek while her tears fell to the floor.
When the moon shone brightly into her room, Zoe wiped her face and stabilized her breathing. She threw the remains of the glitter and eyeshadow into the trash can, and stuffed her packed bag under her bed, ready to be grabbed in case of any future altercations. With steady fingers, she removed the daisy necklace for the first time since her mom gave it to her and read the inscription one last time: If you were a flower, I would pick you every time. Zoe grabbed an unfolded paper clip and scratched out every time. She laid the necklace on her bedside table.
Zoe crawled into her sheets and resting her head on a pillow, stared at the necklace beside her bed. She reached out and flicked the pendant onto the floor. Zoe smiled at the small thud. Gazing at the now-empty table beside her, Zoe fell into a dream.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.