Mom and Dad had a fairytale romance. You know the kind -- boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl decide to get married, they live happily-ever-after.
The storybooks are light on what happily-ever-after looks like. You find each other, you get married, and you live ‘happily ever after, for the rest of your days.’ It doesn’t matter how long or short those are, just that they are.
I think they were happy. I don’t really know. I was too concerned with my own life -- selfish in the way that little kids are, thinking only about themselves and their worries. When Mom got sick, I barely noticed. When Dad told me that she was going to die, I don’t know if I believed him. When she finally did pass, it wasn’t until the funeral -- when I saw her, in a box, with makeup that she never wore in life -- that I knew suddenly what it meant.
I was 7 when she died. Dad sent me to see a therapist for a while. We played with dolls and she tried to get me to talk about my mom, whether or not I missed her. I said I did, because that was the right answer, but I don’t know that I necessarily did. Mom hadn’t been very involved. Dad was the one who did bedtime and bathtime and everything else. When she died, he withdrew, and those things went away. That was what I missed -- the loss of our routine, the rapport that Dad and I had prior to -- well. Mom had been a glamorous, distant figure. Dad was the one I was close to.
When he met my stepmom, I thought for sure that things would go back to the way they were. I was 9, about to be 10. She seemed...nice, but in a very precise way. I met her and her daughters, and I thought…at least she knows how to talk to kids. Some of the other ones -- the ones that Dad had felt okay introducing to me -- didn’t. They treated me like I was a doll, something to dress up and coo over, then put back on the shelf when they were done with me. They seemed annoyed that I had thoughts and feelings of my own, opinions on how they tried to dress me, tried to make me move.
My stepmom was...different. She had kids of her own (a plus, Dad said). They were okay. We weren’t best friends -- we were too different, and they were standoffish -- but they were okay. She didn’t engage with me much. I can remember her talking to me once, before the engagement and the wedding, to ask me some vague questions about what my interests were.
“I like books,” I said. “I like to sew. Grandma is teaching me how to make clothes for my dolls using her sewing machine.”
She nodded, as though this was an acceptable answer, and we didn’t talk again.
Dad asked if I was okay with him remarrying, and I said yes. He looked so hopeful, when he asked me -- I couldn’t say no. Anyway, I didn’t have the words for what it was that I worried about: that things would not go back to the way they were, but that he would continue to be distant, removed from my life. If anything, the distance between us had increased, silence growing to fill the void. He had my stepmother, and he was happy with her. I was a painful reminder of what might-have-been. I couldn’t say that, though. When he was around my stepmom, he was happy, and I thought, it doesn’t matter if I say no.
They got married, and they moved into our house, and that was it.
They were happy. I know they were happy.
I focused on school and my hobbies, and I tried to get to know my stepsisters. “Your sisters,” Dad called them. “There are no steps in this family.”
I tried to remember that. He treated us all the same, and if my stepmom preferred them to me -- well, she hadn’t known me as long. She wasn’t Dad.
I was beginning to think that things were going back to normal, and then he died in a car accident.
My stepmother answered the phone call. I heard her thank the officer, then hang up and start screaming.
That was when everything changed.
The day after the funeral, she took all of my belongings, everything except my clothes, and either locked them away (in the case of my iPad and my laptop, what I needed for school), or sold them.
“Your father didn’t leave us anything,” she said. “There’s no money, just the house.”
She didn’t sell my stepsisters’ things, or confiscate their toys -- just mine.
She let me keep the sewing machine my grandma gave me before she died, but only after she looked and decided it was more hassle than it was worth to sell.
“You can change Ana and Ella’s clothes to fit you,” she said. “We’ll save some money that way.”
I kept my head down and didn’t respond. There was nothing I could say, only a grim awareness of my new normal.
She stopped giving Ana and Ella chore lists after that. Previously, when Dad was alive, we all pitched in to keep the house clean. Now it was all on me. Bathrooms, bedrooms, mopping the kitchen on my hands and knees, mucking out the stables for the horses that she insisted Ana and Ella have lessons for, caring for the dogs that scared me, weeding the garden where she grew her prized dahlias, spreading mulch and mowing the lawn in the boiling heat, shoveling the driveways and the walkways in winter. “It builds character,” my stepmother said. “Which you badly need.”
She built character in other ways, too, using her hands or a belt if I didn’t perform to her expectations. In the kitchen, I learned to hide the wooden spoons that my father had kept in a canister on the counter, stowing them in drawers.
When she couldn’t hit me -- when company was over, and asked why it was that I wasn’t allowed to eat at the table, she used her voice instead. I was spoiled, she said. Soft. She wielded words like weapons, and beat me with them until I too believed them. Something is wrong with me.
Sometimes I’d go to scrub a floor, and find that someone else had already done it. I thought she was fucking with me, the first time, so I cleaned it again, fearful that she’d walk in at any point and tell me that I’d done it wrong.
It never happened.
Someone was helping. I didn’t know who was on my side in that house. I assumed none of them were -- that it was accidental if they did, that they were waiting for me to say something, anything, to thank them for the work only to have them spread mud over the floor and have me do it again.
I kept my head down and did my work.
She made me sew my own clothes. I think she thought this was a punishment, but it wasn’t. In school, I took classes in sewing, and my teacher let me do a project on fashion design. I didn’t want to become a designer, exactly, but it was a ticket out of town. She entered my clothes in the school art fair, and I won ribbons.
My teacher tried to give them to me, tried to give me the project back, telling me I could pick it up on the last day of school.
I pretended not to understand.
The year I turned nineteen, one of the local families decided to hold a ball. An actual ball -- that was what they called it, like something out of one of the soppy romance novels Ella liked to read.
The invitation came on a Tuesday, hand-written on cream-colored paper. The hosts were two of my Mom’s old friends, from the days before -- before she’d died, before…
I was still living at home. My stepmother had forbidden me to leave, and without money or local friends, what chance did I have? I’d never had a job. I had my ID -- I’d managed to stow away the really important papers, hidden in the stables. I had a plan to get out. I just needed money, and not much -- $40, for bus fare to Boston, where one of my high school friends had washed up, working at a coffee place while waiting for school to start. She was going to college there, and she said that I could stay on her floor until I found a place of my own. It wasn’t glamorous, but she had an air mattress. She wrote me postcards, knowing I didn’t have a phone, I couldn’t check my email -- and we planned it out that way. The mail I could intercept, and burn.
I was the one to get the invitation. I steamed it open, because I recognized the name. When I saw what it was -- that we were all of us invited, my name on the paper as clear as day -- I saw my chance, and I started planning.
I needed to go to the party, I knew, because if I talked to the hosts, I could convince them to lend me money “for cab fare, please, perhaps you haven’t met my stepmother but she forgot to give me any, and it’s not safe to walk all the way back home by myself…I’ll have her pay you back as soon as she can.”
They were older, and rich. $40 was nothing to them. I was sure I could convince them, as long as I could go.
I resealed the envelope. When my stepmother read it, later that evening, I told her I wanted to go.
She told me no.
She wouldn’t buy a dress, she said. I had to do my chores. I…
“Okay. As long as I can go.”
One of my stepsisters threw an old dress into my room. I wondered if she wanted me to fix it, but when I tried to ask either of them, neither of them knew what I was talking about.
I used the fabric to sew myself a gown. I found shoes in a thrift store, ugly Lucite heels that must have seen better days. I shoplifted them. I wasn’t proud, but I didn’t have a choice.
I hid the shoes in the attic, in the old chest where the dress-up things that had once been Ana and Ella’s lived. I stashed the dress with them.
I bided my time, and I waited, and when my stepmother tried to sabotage me, I left my chores undone and went to the ball anyway.
The worst she can do is kill me, I repeated over and over again, as I walked along the road, my shoes in my bag and my dress hiked above my knees. And being dead is better than being stuck here another day.
At the party, I slipped on my heels and hid my sneakers in a bush. I walked in with my head held high, and I looked for my mom’s friends -- the ones that I needed to talk to.
I never got a chance.
I met their son, instead, and he…
It wasn’t love at first sight. It wasn’t what the fairytales said, what Dad had said happened when he met mom (and later, when he met my stepmom). It wasn’t anything like that.
We danced. He told me I was beautiful, and I fought the urge to laugh. I was so skinny, there was nothing to me -- flat as a board and tall, too tall for a girl, with calloused hands and muscles that my stepmother mocked, from mucking out the stables and cleaning everything. I’d done what I could, with hair curlers and makeup and a dress that I knew showed off my narrow waist, my long legs -- but I was no beauty.
I saw my chance, though, and I took it.
When he asked me where I lived, whose daughter I was, I told him where to find me. “Look for me later,” I whispered in his ear, and when my stepmother saw me -- when I saw the furious glare that meant, I’ll be waiting to have words with you at home, I fled.
I lost one of my heels in the escape, but I grabbed my sneakers out of a bush and I ran the rest of the way home.
When I got back, I hid the dress. I hid, too, in the stable -- waiting until morning.
He came back for me, the Princes’ son. He had the Lucite heel.
I think my stepmother was hoping that I would stay hidden, that I wouldn’t come out of the stables -- that I would know my place and stay in it -- but I didn’t want to squander this, my only chance to leave.
I changed into the gown, in the stables. I snuck into the house, one Lucite shoe in my hand, and greeted him as though I were the lady of the house.
He put the shoe on my foot, the height of romance, and said that he loved me.
I left with him. I didn’t look back.
He insisted that we get married right away. He was, he said, in love -- and he wanted to rescue me. He wanted to help me, so badly. His parents approved. They’d known my mother, and I was a “good girl”. My stepmother couldn’t say anything. Ana and Ella couldn’t say anything -- it was just me, my turn.
We married. He gave me a credit card in my name, instructions to use it to buy whatever I wanted.
I realized, too quickly, the mistake I had made. In fleeing one bad situation, I’d entered another. When I gained weight -- a result of finally having enough to eat, of not being expected to perform physical labor all day, every day -- he criticized me.
When I didn’t give in to all of his demands, cater to his every whim, he sulked and wouldn’t talk to me.
It wasn’t love, I realized quickly, but something else -- infatuation, maybe.
Six months in, I used the credit card he gave me and bought a plane ticket to LA, where a different high school friend had ended up.
A smarter woman would have asked for a divorce before running. A braver woman would have gone somewhere on her own, somewhere alone, and tried to make it without help from anyone.
I was neither.
When the situation in LA turned sour, after her boyfriend made a pass at me, I fled. I bounced from place to place, never quite finding anywhere to call home.
Eventually, through sheer luck, I found stability. I met James, and he told me to stop running, to take a deep breath and focus on myself.
I met James through work. I’d ended up doing janitorial work for a large company. We rotated what buildings we cleaned and what companies we cleaned for. I met him because he stayed late to give instructions and help with cleanup after a company birthday party had resulted in cake ground into the carpet.
“I don’t need help,” I told him, but he helped me anyway.
“It’s my fault. I dropped the cake.”
“You didn’t walk on it, did you?”
“No, but…it’s the right thing to do.”
He gave me his number, when we finished. “No pressure, but if you’d like -- ”
“I don’t date,” I said.
“No,” he said. He flushed. “I’m new here -- I haven’t lived in the city long, and I’m trying to make friends...ah, fuck. I’m sorry. This is weird.”
I’d never met anyone willing to admit their mistakes to a stranger. I wondered just what it was that he was trying to do, what he was trying to charm me into believing. “It’s fine -- you’re fine.”
He didn’t insist on walking me out to my car, or on giving me a ride home once he found out that I relied on public transit. He told me, “have a good day”, and let me go without anything else.
Against my better judgment, I sent him a text. “You’re not bad at cleaning cake out of carpet. Want to get coffee sometime?”
He wrote back right away: “Sure. Just tell me when and where.”
Coffee went well. I started spending time with him, introduced him to other people I knew in the city, too. After a year or so of knowing each other, we started dating. It still wasn’t the fairytale, I would die for you that I’d been taught to expect, but he made me happy and I knew I made him happy, and so…
He learned, early in our relationship, not to ask about my stepmother. I’d accepted over time that what she had done to me -- what she’d done to all of us, what she must have done to my stepsisters, too, before I was there -- was abuse. I wasn’t ready to talk about it.
He helped me find another job, encouraging me to apply, and when I did, landing work as a receptionist in a doctor’s office, he nudged me gently to go to therapy.
“Not for me,” he clarified, when I started to get upset. “But -- for you. You deserve to have somewhere you can feel safe.”
I hesitated. The urge to run, to push down what it was I felt and move instead toward what was easy, was strong. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“They’re usually good at helping you figure that part out.”
I went. It took a while to find a therapist I liked. The first one was too intent on diving into the “why are you here” question, and urged me to open up. The second half-listened to what I had to say, then suggested a screening for OCD. It wasn’t until the third that I found someone I liked -- who was willing to listen and talk with me about what I might get from therapy and what my expectations were for attending.
I opened up to her. We discussed the past, and hopes for the future. She helped me as I navigated a divorce from my first husband (easier than I’d thought -- he’d filed in absentia, something I hadn’t known could be done, and our marriage had been dissolved years ago).
She helped me, too, as I navigated whether or not I wanted to marry James, if I was doing the easy thing and not making conflict instead of doing what I wanted to do -- as I worked through what I wanted to do with my life, what careers were open to me, what would make me happy. What did I want? What was I willing to do to get it?
Eventually, she dropped me from one appointment a week to two a month.
“You’re making progress,” she said.
I thought, I’m making progress -- this is good.
I started taking classes at the community college, with the idea that eventually I would transfer into a nursing program at the local university.
I didn’t think about where I’d been, only where I was going.
I never thought about my stepsisters, my stepmother, but then…
Ana wrote to me.
I don’t know how she found me. I’d taken James’ last name when we married, and I’d stopped going by my childhood nickname, Cindy, a long time ago. I had a different name. I felt like a different person, no longer connected to my past.
She wanted to talk, she said. To explain, as if there was anything that needed explaining. I read her email over and over again, wondering how she could blame herself for what her mother had done.
“What do you want to do?” asked James, when I showed him.
Do I want to run, or do I want to confront this?
I’d spent so long trying to get away from where I’d come from. I’d run and never looked back, never thought about what must have happened to Ana or Ella after I left. I’d never tried to talk to them, never wondered how they were doing, what they must be doing.
I don’t want to run anymore.
“I’m going to talk to her.”
It’s time she knows: I don’t blame her. I don’t hate her.
“I’ll support you no matter what you decide.”
“I know. It’s time to stop running.”
Hi Ana, I wrote. You don’t have to explain anything…
I included my phone number at the end, told her she could call if she wanted to, and hit send.
Maybe this isn’t what either of us expected. Maybe neither of us is to blame.
When my phone rang, a few days later, I knew exactly who it was.
“Hi Ana,” I said.
I heard her take a deep breath, then…
No more running, I reminded myself. Neither of you is at fault here.
For the first time in years, I had a conversation with my sister.