THE INHERITENCE / LA HERENCIA by Sam Moe

THE INHERITENCE / LA HERENCIA by Sam Moe

I don’t know how to tell stories about you. When we talked on the phone, and you asked about my memoir, I asked if you’d read it when it was done. Don’t be ridiculous, of course I’m going to read it. And I’m sure you will, if I let you find it, if you can get your hands on it. I don’t want to tell you what happened. I don’t want you to be reminded of the things we went through, what you said, the effect. You told me once you were trying to get a little peace before you died. It’s unclear if this is possible. The school you teach at has moved into a smaller location, forcing you to teach Spanish in the cafeteria while other instructors teach in the gym. Today, Manhattan is flooded, Brooklyn is flooded, you tell me you’re going to get home by the grace of God. I think we’re all stuck to the Manhattan apartment, its thick coatings of paint intertwined with our veins, which crisscross around the city, glowing in the night, fraying when we argue. You were born in the city, enduring too much heat in the summertime, rats in the walls, your niece and nephew now living in her old room, your old room. There is never enough space or time. Perhaps I’ll have other chances to speak to you. It doesn’t have to end here, with this singular essay. For example, things might end later, when I tell the story of us going to Paris. For now, let’s return to our childhoods, let’s talk about the mirrors, the storms, the family. Let’s start with the funeral.

*

I sleep at my father’s house, a pit stop between Sudbury, Massachusetts, and New York City, tucked away in a sleepy Connecticut neighborhood. I hardly see anyone on this street, not entirely convinced anyone lives in town besides my father, his daughter, my stepmother, their chihuahua named Christina. I’ve never met any of his friends and have a theory he fabricates them to make his life more interesting.

The night before the funeral is a blur. I arrive at dusk, failing again to avoid my father. I’ll keep my car here before taking the train to Grand Central Station at six in the morning. The night before, like the morning of, the sky is a comforter shade of navy. In his kitchen, low orange light, the three of them seated at the table, eating square pizza, an iceberg-lettuce salad coated in blue cheese drizzle, candles in the center burning down their wicks. On the counter is a glass container of homemade chocolate chip cookies but my father instructs me not to eat them until I’ve finished my salad. I don’t remind him I have a problem with certain textures of foods, hate dressings, don’t like the bite of radishes, also too the fact that the pizza is a square, hate how he only speaks to me when I enter the house, he won’t speak again until we’re almost done with dinner. When he gets up to smoke, I steal cookies and put them in my pockets. The feeling is familiar; lack of money, food, resources, nauseated at the thought of eating in front of anyone, getting older and worrying I won’t have enough food in the middle of the night, cool light of dusk, warm kitchen floor, I will make my body as small as possible as I sift through his cabinets. Years later, finally back in therapy, I’ll tell my therapist about how most of the women on my mother’s side of the family have eating disorders, but I don’t know if I have one? He’ll tell me he’s concerned about me, but we have so much to discuss, we’ll get to this later.

Like the rest of my family, I wonder what my father remembers. Did my mother call him in the middle of the night, sobbing like she did after finding out my sister smoked weed? He never helps, never brings up the past. Once, when my mother sprained her ankle at the zoo, my father told her she was blowing things out of proportion. He refused to take her to the hospital until he’d finished errands around the house. Crying from the pain, she crawled down the stairs on her butt, and was in the process of crawling out the front door to drive herself when he scooped her up and helped her to the car so she wouldn’t make a scene. I don’t remember where my body was at this time. It’s likely I was in the house, watching my mother’s distress. In later memories of the event, I am a ghost standing at the opposite side of the lawn, sometimes in the center of the road, other times I’m at my neighbor’s house. I watch my mother crawling. I am not attached to a body, I cannot help, speak, scream. This is the way my mind conceptualizes trauma. Even when recalling the abuse, I’m still not attached to my body, instead becoming a ghost in the corner of the ceiling, watching someone press my body into a bed.

When my father was a child, he broke his collarbone trying to jump into bed. Instead of taking him to the hospital, his parents told him he was making it up and left him alone for three days. It is impossible for me to imagine his agony. I hear this story several times from my mother, the details always changing. They left him alone for three days, then six, his sisters convinced his parents to drive him to the hospital, and so forth. My father has never told me a single thing about his life. He helps perpetuate the cycle, the rest of us whispering amongst ourselves about our histories, inherited violence, an ouroboros eating its tail. I wonder if I’d had access to language when I was younger, would my parents have even believed me? Would my mother believe me if I told her, now?

The second to last time it happened, I was locked in the back room of a retail store by my boss, who proceeded to assault me. I remember my mind flinging itself back in my head, my vision was blurry, I could barely recount the story to my partner when I arrived back at school. I called my mother the next day to tell her I quit the job, that my boss was creepy. In that moment, she was infuriated, asking me what specifically happened. Nothing, I said, unsure if she could tell my voice was mechanical, formulaic, I’d already rehearsed the speech on the 1 train headed back to class, planning to tell my professor in passing. I just got a weird vibe.

*

I’m exhausted when I wake up at six, even though I slept for almost nine hours. Even though I tell my father weeks in advance, he always tells me his house isn’t prepared for guests. I can’t use his shower because he has a skin infection and needs to wipe every surface with bleach.

My stepmother flies through seven stop signs. In the parking lot of the commuter rail, she waits, idly pressing her foot on the gas. I put my glasses back on, having taken them off when she started driving, not wanting to witness what I could only assume was our impending death. When we get on the commuter rail at last, she bids me farewell before walking into the next train car. I spend the hour listening to music, wondering what my grandmother would be doing if she were with me. Sobbing, probably. A phantom upset at not having access to her body. I have only cried in spurts. Hearing her voice in my ear, mijita linda, hija de mi vida, recalling how she’d press her wet cheek to mine as she bid me farewell, heading off to work as a designer for Ralph Lauren and Anne Klein. When I get off the train I realize I’ve forgotten my North Face coat, the only nice (and expensive) piece of clothing I own. I’ve become accustomed to disorientation during loss, dipping into the chasm of grief but never falling in. I won’t let my mind unravel if only for the sake of my mother, who has spent weeks wailing into her husband’s arms over the loss, justifiably upset, it wouldn’t help either of us if I fell apart.

Whenever I write about my grandmother’s apartment I feel like I’m encountering it for the first time. Something is always different. This time it’s the living room rug, once pale maroon, now ripped out so my cousin can practice as a professional dancer. I haven’t seen my cousin in years. She and I don’t speak, and when we do, it feels like coming home. This is rare. In-between reconnecting, there is hatred. I don’t know why she hates me, and I hate her because of it. It’s hard to understand if we were close when we were younger. We never shared things going on in our personal lives, and the one time I told her my life was falling apart, whispered in the bathroom of her New Jersey home, cold blue tiles and the window with the stained-glass sticker casting pear-hued blobs on our bodies, she was already in the process of leaving. I remember I told her my life was messy and complicated to make her feel better about not visiting with me when I drove up that weekend, on my way to an MFA residency in South Carolina. Perhaps we never loved each other. It’s all been an act.

The night my grandmother passes away, a Friday in December, my cousin calls me to talk through things. I’m in the process of dying my hair black, avoiding calling my mother. I’m so surprised she remembers I exist that Idrop the phone in the tub, almost. After an imaginary shower, I tell her I’m ready to talk. I sit on the couch in the living room, Christmas lights hanging off the walls, and start typing out what she’s saying.

I went through a period where I felt very strongly about you for a long time, she tells me. I had hatred towards you and you didn’t do anything and that’s made it hard to want to connect at all.

I’m focused on transcribing our entire conversation as perfectly as I can. I want to be able to come back to her in the future, scrutinize words for details, hope something will reveal itself to me. Perhaps the reasoning behind all of the hatred, the avoidance. But this hope is futile. I already know what the something is. It’s my past, ugly and covered in bog water, affecting every single one of my interpersonal relationships. I don’t tell my cousin what happened, though I do tell her a lot happened, leave it at that. If she has been through the same experience. he’ll know. It’s unclear if there’s empathy on the other side of the phone, just her breathing, waiting for me to talk again.

*

It happens at dinner. The anger, the unraveling, the discussion about my past, still vague, over café con leche, warm bread and bowls of pasta, I’m considering stabbing myself in the head with one of the butter knives., Like I said, my mom can’t handle more than one death at a time. Still, I want to leave. I imagine turning into a poltergeist, shattering the lights overhead, peeling red wallpaper into ribbons, roses, new shapes that will haunt the funeral-goers for years to come. Instead, I ask the waitress for another cappuccino, my fourth in a row, semi-hopeful my heart will stop in the cab and I’ll never have to deal with any of these people, my family, ever again.

So, why did you both stop talking to me, I ask my younger cousin. I am back in one of my two homes, which means I’m resuming my excavation project. This involves interrogating all my family members until they remember some kernel of knowledge they pass along to me. I add this information to my journals, building a case for myself, though sometimes it feels like I’m building against, trying to pop my unworthy soul out of my body like a cork in the neck of unopened champagne.

I think mom kept us away from you because that’s when you started doing bad in school, he tells me.

He doesn’t know about the abuse. I wonder what he would do if I told him, think better of it, have some more cappuccino. Across from me sits my cousin and her best friend, a woman she met at Barnard. Though she tells us she brought her because she wants to spend time with her, I know this woman is a buffer from the rest of our family. Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican men and women, all with the same curly brown hair, the aunts with butterfly clips in their buns, perfectly done makeup, the men nodding off in the middle of conversations with their wives. I feel like an herida abierta bleeding all over the table, made worse when I become defiant. After all, why shouldn’t I prove myself worthy, why not bring up the fact that I write stories and poems about my trauma. I tell the others I don’t want to return to therapy because then I might run out of things to write about.

I think the problem with some writers is they refuse to go to therapy and they end up hurting other people needlessly, says my cousin’s best friend. In that moment, I know. My cousin has told her everything she thinks she knows about me. I pick up the butter knife, frustrated with its lack of teeth. Outside, I could be anyone. I consider leaving again, this time for good, just another New Yorker in a pea coat trying to hurry themselves into another life.

*

I didn’t have words for abuse in high school. Don’t remember anything, not even the word for rape, assault, coercion, or complex trauma, all things I wouldn’t learn about sufficiently until I was in my PhD program. I knew, of course, that some of my friends had been raped. I knew about abuse. But when it came to my own story, the violence happening to me didn’t seem to count. When I told the men and women who were abusing me that they were hurting me, they retaliated, told me I deserved it. Everyone involved in that multi-year trauma told me I was at fault. First, for being sexually abused in the first place, then, for being sexually abused in the aftermath, a tactic my ex-boyfriend told me would help him forgive me for cheating on him. When asked—dozens, if not hundreds of times—why I’d cheated on him, I found I didn’t know. Language failed me. I didn’t want to, I told him. But you did it anyway, he replied, assault nowhere near a possibility for what happened.

I like to think my personality was already twisting, transforming, into the paint-covered art student I would become, but the violence turned me into a splinter. Everything hurt to touch. I lay awake at night, my body coated in Vaseline and bandages, ruminating and crying. Once I tried to rewrite entries in my journal, thinking if it never happened, perhaps my ex would forgive me. I showed this to him as if I were pleading before a judge. See? It never happened, you can stop yelling at me in the halls, calling me a slut, telling me I’m going to die. But it did happen, he replied, his eyes clear as winter sky. And it’s your fault.

*

My aunt stopped coming around our family close to my senior year of high school, at the height of the abuse. Though if I’m honest, there were other abuses, violations, yet to come, others that have drained my body in different kinds of ways. Had she waited, she would have left eventually, incapable of respecting the faded shape that was once my body. I remember once, when she found out I was hurting myself (the only response I could think of that helped me cope). Exasperated, she sat on the lip of my grandmother’s claw-foot tub and asked, Why can’t you just stop?

Years later, miscellaneous friends asked me why no adults helped me, why I didn’t tell anyone what was going on. To which I replied, I did tell people. I told several teachers at my school I was being bullied. They responded by hosting meetings with me and my mother, claiming I was on drugs, I was a terrible student, I needed help. My mother hired a private detective to follow me around, culminating with a meeting in the headmaster’s office during which I explained I was only friends with drug addicts because they were offering me protection against the people bullying me. My mother didn’t care about any of it, didn’t inform me this was another form of abuse. I would learn later, as was common, about grooming. How having sex when I was seventeen with a thirty-six-year-old man was abusive. At the time, they were my saviors. Heroin and crack addicts in their late thirties and early forties gave me rides in their old cars: groups of us eating three-dollar pizza in the park, stealing thongs from department stores, selling my grandmother’s gold to pay for meals. They had furniture covered in psychedelic art, mushrooms with eyeballs and angels without wings, painted while on acid trips. They told me they loved me, they would never leave me, that I was so funny I didn’t even need drugs. The memories return to me in fits, my mind a barely working faucet.

Once, when we were having a sleepover my senior year of high school, my best friend’s boyfriend put his hand on my back. She was sleeping, snoring soundly. We were both seventeen and he was thirty-six, going on thirty-seven. I recall he turned my body over. Startled, I let him kiss me. I thought this was how sex was supposed to go. And the first time we slept together, my first thought was, I want to die. It was the worst thing I’d ever experienced, and this pain, bleeding, and frustration has continued in each of my physical relationships. Recently, on a date with a woman, I explain to her I’m a survivor and if we are going to have sex I’ll need to take things slow, ask questions. She texts me later and asks if sex is ever fun and enjoyable to me or if I’m just tolerating it, if that’s why I’m always bleeding after. I wish her the best of luck before blocking her phone number.

*

I want to shove my cappuccino mug into my cousin’s smug face, tell him his expensive education won’t save him. I want to tell him about what happened to me in the hopes that he’ll love me more if he finds out I was never at fault, I’ll somehow be saved. I always think people will love me more when they find out I’m a survivor. It never occurs to me this is rhetoric left over from the abuse, a reflection of my complex trauma. I love you and therefore I’m hurting you. I remember he would always tell me he would forgive me as long as I did what I was told. Perhaps now if I appear weak and nonviolent, someone with more power will not only adore me, but never hurt, never yell, listen to me when I say no.

*

Wita, short for Abuelitita, or Little Grandmother, encouraged us to cover the mirrors in the apartment during storms. So the devil doesn’t enter, she’d explain, helping my mother to drape sheets over the large mirror in the pink room. As I’m writing this, I realize my mother’s bedroom was always the Blue Room, not the Pink Room. The Blue Room with paintings of naked women she made in college, my grandmother’s old sewing machine, buckets of shining buttons beneath the bed, needles in the carpet. When we were younger, I never slept in there. I slept in the Pink Room, not quite the center of the apartment, large closets filled with expensive fabrics, rolls of ribbons, too-red rug.

The nightmares started when I slept in the pink room. My grandmother’s railroad-style apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has four bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and a long ribbon of green hallway to the left of the bedrooms and bathroom. When you enter the apartment, you are faced with the hallway, which is filled with sepia-toned photographs of friends and family members in the Galapagos Islands, in Guayaquil, in Ecuador. To your right stands a gilded, fake-gold mirror and two other doors, one leading to the blue room, the other leading to the living room. It was always difficult for me to keep track of this space when I was a kid. Each room has at least two doors, some have three, and when every door is open, you can run straight from the living room into the bathroom.

Before I could advocate for what I wanted (noise: strangers screaming in the street, sirens, pigeons cooing on the AC unit, laughter filtering through a partially opened window, my neighbors upstairs singing happy birthday at three in the morning) I slept in the Pink Room, my mother’s room from her childhood. Each night I had nightmares filled with strange architecture. In dreamland, the closet opened before me into a blue-tinted underworld of hospital needles. Once, a doorway opened between the bedroom and the green hallway, tipping into an endless void of staircases cast in grey light. A pipe in the corner shakes in the night, sounding like someone rattling. Only when I grew older did I learn my mother was molested in that space. When she told her mother, my grandmother told her she was making it up. They fought for months on end, my grandmother calling me from the bathroom whispering and crying, explaining that my mother didn’t want her to talk to me. I didn’t know how to support either of them. Lo se, I would tell whisper back, lo siento.

*

Once, when my mother was still a child, she claims a ghost grabbed her leg and shouted ¡Emergencia! Awake and alone, she heard the landline ring down the hall, a voice on the other end pronouncing her cousin dead. This was around two in the morning. Next, both my mother and her sister claim they saw the spirit of their cousin at the foot of their beds, a faded shadow hovering before disappearing. They tell me he died from gang violence, sometimes claiming the shape appeared much later, other days claiming he appeared before the phone rang. The first time my mother tells me this story, I’m in the middle of a twenty-two-hour drive from Illinois to Massachusetts. Suddenly, the streetlamps extinguish, enshrouding the already-faded backroads of Pennsylvania in mystery. I tell her to quit telling me about hauntings, that she’s conjuring spirits in my car. She responds by cackling loudly in my ear.

My mother asks if I’m going to turn her into a monster in my memoir. Of course my first though is, haven’t you done that yourself, already? But we don’t fight like that anymore. We don’t discuss my past, only hers. Since my grandmother’s funeral, I’ve been trying to mine her for as much information as possible. Any detail, none too small, that will help free me.

It’s unclear where in this collection this mother-shaped essay will go. I know, though, that I need to start rereading my journals to more properly detail the past. But when I go to the bookshelves where they’re housed, all seventy-six of them, I reach only for number thirty-seven. I recognize it by the spine, blue like sculpting dough. There is a singular quote by Robert Frost inscribed on the cover flap: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own meaning.” And trauma I wasn’t able to wade through at the time. Some really, really weird shit happened the other day at work and now I’m not there anymore, but I think that is slowly driving me insane. I don’t even know what to say about it yet because I don’t think I’ve even fully realized what happened. I don’t need to tell you what happened. You already know.


Sam Moe is the recipient of a 2023 St. Joe Community Foundation Poetry Fellowship from Longleaf Writers Conference. She has poetry books published or forthcoming from Bullshit Lit, Alien Buddha Press, and FlowerSong Press.

Art by Jaime Goh

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