Embarrassment: from baraço (halter)

By Jennifer Perrine

All he found when he came looking for us was the home my mother wanted to leave behind: newspapers stacked knee-deep in the hallways, every corner redolent of cat piss, linoleum caked with dried mud and dust, tangles of hair matted to the tub, dried scabs of meals coating plates and bowls piled high in the sink, on counters. Everywhere: the stink, the rot and mold, the great heaps of unwashed clothes, all the filth my mother never let anyone see. No friends allowed inside. Even her dates didn’t get in the door.

She spent her nights at their dubious dens, leaving me alone to toss hamburger wrappers and soda cups on the living room floor, our one trashcan so full I couldn’t empty it. My father, finding all this mess, assumed the worst, took photos, jotted notes, thinking the house had been ransacked, that we’d been robbed, killed or kidnapped, though police assured him there were no signs of struggle. How she’d let the house go, he couldn’t imagine. Before the divorce, I heard her shout: I’m no one’s maid. Years later, when my father asks how we lived in such squalor, I tell him I never noticed at the time, though once I did: My best friend, Heather, and I were playing outside when a sudden shower drove us to huddle under the eaves. Soaked, I took pity, opened the door, disobeying my mother’s one rule. Inside, Heather didn’t ask questions about the mildew, the crumpled paper bags she had to brush aside to sit. She refused the towel I handed her to undo the work of the rain. I saw it then: tatty, gray, stained. Heather left, and later, when my mother found the couch still wet, I told the truth. Her face flushed; I tried to bolt. She reined me in with one hand, unfastened her belt. If they see this, they’ll take you from me, she screamed through the volley of blows. My back grew a rope of welts. They’ll call me unfit. Is that what you want? I tell my father none of this, judge it best not to show him the last bits of how his ex fell apart once they were unhitched. I don’t say how I, too, was the mess, tether she yearned to slip, so she could careen unimpeded through life, how I held tight as she zoomed away, raced toward a place where she’d be no one’s mother, no one’s wife.


Jennifer Perrine is the award-winning author of four poetry books: Again, The Body Is No Machine, In the Human Zoo, and No Confession, No Mass. Jennifer serves as an editor for Airlie Press and a guest editor for Broadsided Press, co-hosts the Incite Queer Writers reading series, and hosts The Occasion, a poetry radio show on KBOO FM in Portland, Oregon. When not writing, Jennifer leads workshops on creative writing, social justice, and intersectional equity. Visit her website here and follow her on Instagram @mxreading

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