Non-Fiction Winner Samantha Juric

Jan 31, 2018 by

Non-Fiction Winner Samantha Juric

Love Like Ransom

 
I hear the blinds being furled back into a tight green roll hovering over my window. The morning sun is pins and needles. My eyelids, shut tight, quiver. When I open them, through crusty slits, I see my mother standing over me. Her copper-highlights are pulled back into a scrunchie. Her deprived body gives off the illusion of health, confined in spandex workout tights.

She tears the sheets off me. I am stubborn and fifteen, glaring at her. I jerk the sheets back covering the evidence of my oversized, stained blue t-shirt and unshaven legs. When she looks at me, her eyes measure and weigh like the orange scale she uses to weigh her boiled slabs of chicken and pickles, before she tells herself she is full or satisfied, or drives herself to weekly weigh-in appointments where she pays to have protein shots injected into her left arm. “Let’s go. Get up, Alice. We’re going for a morning walk.” I know “we” is not just us. I know my twin sister Angie is being lumped into “we.”

“I’m glad you’ve decided for everyone.” I roll onto my side, my back turned to her.
 
She lets out an audible huff. “What’s wrong with you? You’re just becoming this fat, lazy blob.” She pauses, waits for a retort that never comes. “Fine. Your call.”

Before she’s out the door I say, “I am fine. For your information. Maybe you should talk to your other daughter.”

I want to ask her if she’s bothered to notice that Angie’s skin is orange. If she’s seen Angie in the kitchen, prowling in front of the refrigerator. Has she seen how the refrigerator light makes her cheekbones look like they’re cutting down the length of her face? I want to tell her. But I know it will come out callous. So I keep it to myself. I want to scream, “Angie’s fucking orange. Maybe you should get her to eat something besides goddamn carrots.” I want to tell her that I agree with her; maybe she’s better than me. She’s thinner than me. I want to tell her she wins. But I look down and count the wrinkles that crease like barbed wire, gathering at the tips of my knuckles instead.

Her superiority lingers in my bedroom, pungent. I shove my hand underneath the sheets after the door is closed and grab the fat of my inner thigh and pinch it hard before I curl into a ball. I wait to dissolve away into the mattress. I hear the front door shut.

She leaves behind her love for me to find like a ransom note. She holds it hostage, waiting for me to give in and give up the girl. The perfect one she is convinced I have buried. The one who refuses to exist. I quietly try to resist the threat of the ransom chewing on me.

I know Angie is reveling in this, drawing the lines of separation between us in her head as they speed-walk down the dirt road, their hips swinging aggressively from side to side. She is the good girl today. I am the disappointment. I wonder if my mother keeps track of the same mental tabulation. If it does exist, I don’t ever want to win.

Lately, when I see Angie, jammed in between her arm and side is a bag of baby-cut carrots. At dinner, she will sit down and use her fork to poke at the cooked food. After a while she gets up and walks to the fridge, where my mother has put the bag of carrots when Angie isn’t looking. She shakes a dozen or so carrots out onto her plate from the plastic bag, fogging up. Carrots are smothered beneath mustard for a few minutes before they make snapping noises in between her teeth. I watch as mustard drips yellow, feral from the corner of her mouth. My parents say all the wrong things to her. Mostly they criticize. I stare at the mutilated, starved thing sitting in front of me.

Before I get up, I smoosh my face into the pillow. I drag a muffled howl out of my gut, like nails on a chalkboard. It shakes the pillow until my voice cracks and my breath is gone. I stretch the skin under my eyes before I gather my greasy hair into a sloppy ponytail.

*

I’m sitting in my mother’s lap on the back porch, the summer before seventh grade. Croatian folk music blasts into the expansive 50-acres of land behind us. Mary, one of my mother’s childhood friends, has come to visit for the weekend. Kat and Zlata are dancing to the accordion music. Mary has taught them how to make flower crowns out of dandelions. I watch them beginning to wilt around and behind their ears, drooping.

“Look at this house, look at these beautiful girls. I can’t help but marvel at the life you have.” Mary is envious but I think she’s happy for my mother. She’s jealous of what she sees. The beautiful life my mother has carefully curated for herself.

“Yep, I’m pretty lucky. This one here is my best friend.” She squeezes me in her arms. I know what she wants me to say. I keep my mouth shut. My mother has been calling me her best friend since I can remember. I wonder if Angie has heard her say it.

The first time I’m able to recall, I am six. My parents have just finished flinging insults at each other for over an hour. I am sitting on the stairs. I hear my mother threaten divorce. My father is snide. He lets out a bark of laughter before he tells her she is nothing without him, “You won’t last a week.” After, I walk through the house, finding pieces of her self-worth dispersed everywhere. Sometimes I find her curled up on top of her wrinkled sheets in my parents’ bedroom or sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Today, when I find her, she is sitting on the unfinished kitchen floor.

The notion of their divorce makes me hopeful. She is crying ugly with her knees drawn to her chest. I grab at her shoulder and pull her head onto my lap where she creates a salty pool of tears for several minutes. I stroke her head the way she does when I am sick and we sit in front of the television. I want to protect her from my father. I tell her we should leave. She sits up again.

“It’s not that simple. We’ll work it out. We always do.” She wipes at her eye, drawing wet mascara down the side of her face before she tells me, “You know, you’re my best friend. You’re my anchor.” I smile back at her. For the first time, I notice her teeter precariously between ugliness and beauty.

A few days later, after rifling through Angie’s school backpack for her lunch bag, my mother finds a cheap pink flamingo key chain in a pile of other small trinkets; a Hello Kitty eraser in a silver tin, a Kinder Egg Surprise. I watch the flamingo’s neck crinkle as my mother strangles it in her tight grip, shaking it in Angie’s face. Angie is defiant, refusing to divulge how she acquired the small trinkets.

“This is why Dad’s gonna divorce you. I’m gonna live with him.” When I look to my mother, she is a child.

I shove Angie. “Shut up!” She stumbles back a few steps before she lunges at me. She knocks the wind out of me. We thud onto the floor, a heap of small hands grabbing, scratching at each other, tearing open small wounds that will last forever.

“Stop it! Stop it!” My mother’s voice is hoarse. She stands over us, not really doing anything. When Angie and I break apart I am panting, waiting. The expression on Angie’s face is interrupted, “You know, I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”

“Why do you two have to ruin everything? Do you like ruining my day? Is that what you want? I don’t know any other parents who have to deal with this. Other kids can just play. What’s wrong with you?” She takes a cigarette out of its pack. It dangles between her quivering index and middle finger before she lights it. My mother drags hard and breathes out grey mist. For a second, it’s difficult to see her.

*

I put on my sneakers and pace at the front door, my laces drag at the sides of my shoes, untied. I walk into the kitchen and open the fridge and stand in front of it in my oversized t-shirt. I take out a pack of sandwich meat. Black forest ham. I pull out a stack of it and cram it into my mouth. I’m not hungry. My hands tremble. I take another couple of slices. I choke a little before I cough out a slimy, pink chunk. After I gulp down the last bite I watch tears gather at the corner of the clear plastic packaging. I know the ham will soak them up for someone else to eat. I stuff it back into the drawer and shut the refrigerator. I run out of the house, trying not to trip over my laces. I run to catch up to my mother. To Angie. On their morning walk. I don’t know why, but I realize I’m starving. I’ve been starving all along.
 
 

Sam Juric is a writer and journalist in Toronto whose work you can find in The Walrus Magazine and This Magazine.(Coach House, 2010 ).

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