I had been feeling worthless ever since my daughter was born. Nothing I did to aid my helpless creature felt like enough, and I hated myself for it. My therapist claimed that I began hating myself when I was bullied as a child, and that the only way I could thrive as an adult was if I could learn to love the lost, lonely little girl I had once been. This was ridiculous, but I was desperate and out of ideas, craving oblivion hard. If I did not reckon with my sorry past, I might not live to see another day. Naturally, I went to my father the experimental scientist and adjunct physics professor for help. I found him in his usual position, smoking on the sagging balcony of his rented apartment.
“Revisit your childhood? For what earthy reason?” he said, shaking his head as he tossed his cigarette into the abyss.
I tried to explain what my therapist had said about self-love, but he continued to be skeptical. He asked me how much I paid my gnat of a therapist per hour.
“Why, that is practically how much I make per semester!” he cried, when I told him the grim figure. “Perhaps I should be the one to go back in time, to study to become a therapist!”
“Please, Papa?” I said, trying to conjure the bullied little girl who always won him over.
He sighed and put an arm around me and said, “I will do anything to help you, and you know it.” Then he lifted a finger and descended to his basement laboratory. He returned with a vial of crushed cilantro coated in a mysterious blue powder and a bottle of Elmer’s Glue, which brought to mind a degrading incident from my childhood.
“Mix one teaspoon of glue with this concoction and burn the rest of the bottle. Just one teaspoon, do you understand?” he said. And then he instructed me to return the next morning to my childhood site of trauma, the crumbling old apartment building that was not so far from his own. I thanked him and carried the potion home to the marginally nicer part of town, to where my husband was playing on the floor with our darling little girl, whose chubby thighs and perfect blue eyes made me feel even more worthless for not feeling joy in her presence. I kissed her on the forehead and excused myself to the back porch, where I attempted to follow Papa’s instructions.
I put a teaspoon of the glue into the vial and drank the foul mixture, but it felt so rotten going down that I only managed to swallow half before spitting the rest out. And then I did exactly what Papa told me to do. I set the bottle on fire and watched it melt into the palm of my hand, enjoying the sweet, flesh-tingling sensation that briefly made me feel alive again.
My perfect angel laughed and sucked on her toes all the way to daycare, being a good, silly girl who did not deserve such a horrible, depressed mother. After I dropped her off, I slammed my head against the steering wheel three times, until its honks alarmed two mothers who looked utterly competent and fulfilled, completely untroubled by their maternal roles. I studied them until they entered the building, hoping to learn something about how to live effortlessly, and then I drove to my childhood apartment. I drove and drove, past Papa’s crumbling building, where his dark smoking figure loomed on the balcony, a stack of student exams at his feet, all the way to the complex where Papa and Mama and I had made our first home in America when I was a child, until Mama ran off with her boss, inaugurating the reign of a handful of dark, confusing years, in which the people outside our home were as confounding as the foods and appliances within it.
I parked at the edge of the ugly brick apartment complex and walked past the playground and swimming pool to the courtyard closest to our building. And there I was: big nosed, mulleted, with a polka-dot shirt and plaid pants, sitting at a picnic table with three slick-haired girls in matching outfits. I stood behind a maple tree and watched an incident I recalled all too well unfurling before me.
Six-year-old me was new to the country, making construction paper animals with scissors and glue with girls who were only tolerating her because her father had begged their mothers to give her a chance. To make things worse, she had never seen a bottle of Elmer’s before but was too embarrassed to ask how to use it, so she tried to figure it out on her own. She took off the top and shook it around until glue exploded everywhere, ruining the polka-dotted dress of the head girl. The pretty little thing stood up, enraged and horrified.
“What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Why don’t you know how to do anything?”
“None of you idiots told me how to do it,” my child self said, which did not help matters.
The girls were all standing now. They had grabbed sticks from the ground and were coming closer and closer to little me. I moved toward them, but they were not threatened by adult me, either. They continued their attack, swiping their sticks and yelling. I picked up a stick with my singed hand just in case.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Why are you so ugly?”
“Why don’t your clothes ever match?”
The girls taunted her and taunted her and moved closer, and she inaugurated a lifelong pattern of self-abuse: she slammed her head against the picnic table three times, until her forehead was dirty with splinters, which only served to revolt the girls and intensify their campaign to hurt her. Childhood me looked at my adult self, pleading for help. I felt my heart melting a little bit, but probably not as much as it would have if I had followed Papa’s instructions and chugged the requisite amount of glue.
God, she was pathetic.
I know I was supposed to love her, but I loathed her with every fiber of my being. The pretty girls orbited her while snot dripped down her nose. Why couldn’t she run a brush through her hair? Were her clothes on backwards? Why didn’t she know how to use a bottle of glue? Still, I stepped into the circle and swiped the stick from the hands of the head bully, a family friend who has grown into an impressive young woman with a formidable career as a lawyer and two smiling children and no craving whatsoever for oblivion, according to her Facebook posts. I waved the stick in her face and she shrieked.
My little self looked at me with gratitude and an animal’s fear. Could I really be trusted?
“Thank you,” she said.
“Of course,” I said, but I did not mean it. I took a step toward her and attempted to muster a modicum of self-love, to give her the warmth and validation she so desperately needed. But I could not bring myself to self-love her. As the bullies backed away, losing interest, I found them to be infinitely more appealing than my rat-haired self. Why couldn’t my childhood iteration have been one of these pretty, self-possessed young girls instead of the hideous beast before me?
I couldn’t help it. I swiped at my child self with my stick, left and right, left and right, not to hurt her, but just to scare her a little, to keep her on her toes.
“You stupid cunt,” I said, but the girl did not understand me.
“Help!” she cried at the bullies, but they just watched us with confused yet intrigued little smiles on their perfect faces.
I still wanted them to love me, those damn girls. I swiped at my girl self once more, but this time I was not as careful, and I swiped her across the forehead hard enough to draw blood. And the look in her eyes! It wasn’t anger or confusion or sadness, no. It was what I felt every morning when I woke to my daughter’s cries and knew I was not up to the task, that everyone would be better off if I drowned in a raging sea. Utter dog defeat. Only then did I feel it—pity and sadness for this poor girl. She hadn’t done anything to deserve this.
“Scram,” I said, waving the stick at the other girls, and they slunk away, deciding neither of us was worth it.
“Whatever,” the lead girl muttered under her breath.
“Come here,” I told little me.
Like her adult counterpart, the girl was pathetic, but not stupid, so she stayed where she was. She didn’t run away, though, because she had nowhere to go. Her father was at his office, working hard, still thinking tenure was a possibility, and he would not return until the sun went down. Her mother was also staying late at work, flirting with her boss. Her schoolwork was about as intelligible to her as her father’s physics books. The TV didn’t have a cable or even a working screen, so if she went home her only entertainment would come from hearing Al Bundy’s voice echoing through the cold apartment. The laughter of the nasty girls rang in the distance like the trill of a devilish windchime.
One last time, I recalled my overpaid therapist, wondering what advice I could offer my childhood self to ease the pain of growing up. I looked down into her troubled eyes, saw the mustard stains on her shirt, the blood and splintery mix on her forehead.
“You,” I told her, “are so very fucked.”
She nodded solemnly. “I had a feeling.”
There wasn’t much for us to do after that. She took a seat at the picnic table and let me clean the blood off her face with my singed palm and then we ripped some grass from the ground and mushed it around in the glue pile and when we got bored with that, I taught her how to correctly use glue, pleased that I could do one small thing for her.
The sun did go down eventually. Little me got up to walk home, and when I stood to join her, she told me she was fine on her own. I wiped one last blood smear off her cheek and said good-bye. And then I followed her at a distance just to make sure she was safe, watching her deflated form approach her apartment building until the door opened and her young, hopeful father welcomed her in with open arms.
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and Something Unbelievable. She is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University and is the fiction editor of The Bare Life Review and the Southern Humanities Review.
Image: ”Mother and Twins” by Thomas James Caldwell. CC BY-SA 2.0.