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Loose Ends

by Debra Warlic

Rebirth, by synthia Ré robbins
"The Lobby" by Jennifer Young

"Did you sass me?"

This is asked with a sharp look, all her features pointed and dangerous, one I remember with tingles of disgust and fear.

Mama's voice goes distinctly south when she's most angry, a twang hitting here and there for emphasis. This barbed accent scares me as I think back to give her the answer she wants.

I am 16 years old, in the middle of my junior year of high school. Linda, a friend from up the street, is visiting. We're holed up in my twin sister's bedroom and my parents are somewhere, their silence stretched too tight.

Def Leopard wails from the tiny clock radio as we talk in my sister's crimson room. Carpet, bed spread, curtains are all wrapped in an unsightly red that is bold enough for any teenager with dreams of a punk uprising.

Although we're identical twins, Mindy takes pains not to be - my blondish hair is long with curls, hers almost razor-shorn with a sweep of hair framing a pixie face. I dress in the conformist uniform - tight jeans, sweaters over oxford shirts and boat shoes. She is in the alternative garb of short skirts, ripped sweatshirts, mini-boots and several earrings in one ear.

We fight like hell but do it on the honor system. Anything's game as long as it doesn't make Mama mad enough to kill us or Daddy nervous enough to die.

We don't share clothes but we do share friends. We are the core of a group of seven girls, with the need to escape to parties with available booze our only common thread. We dream of living together in a big house without parents, but God knows we'd hate each other in a day. They are the best part of my life.

They are my normalcy, where I go to feel whole and good. It doesn't matter if we argue or embarrass each other. It is so easily fixed, either by a new high school crisis requiring a united front or just time. At my house, no hurt is so smoothly tended to.

Mother is angry and pained much of the time, her small body held tight against anticipated provocations and hurts. She lost the ability to feel pleasure early in life and has a deep capacity for grief.

Daddy goes to kiss her and she turns. If he's lucky, he tastes the top of her hair. He comes to us for affection, furtive and ready to pay for it, if necessary. Shopping trips are arranged and we skulk in with bags and boxes mother isn't to know about.

A jangled smile wavers on his face as he tries to coax happiness out of her, leaving mother irritated and disgusted. When this doesn't work, he clutches his stomach (or his chest or his head) and shrinks. He pushes his food around on his plate and chews antacids for dessert. Sometimes, he gets angry and pounds his fist or his head against the wall - always directing the hurt at himself but making sure we see and feel it. He defends himself under his breath, a weak rebellion.

Mother will cry in her room without witnesses. I don't hear it, but I know. Other times, she will let her displeasure show by slamming cabinet doors in the kitchen. We ask what's wrong and she says 'nothing' in a tone that says something very clearly is and always has been.

She screams at us and throws our childish expressions of fear right back at us. "Well, I hate you, too! I wish I weren't your mother!" When she is enraged, her face scares us. My sister dreams of that face and wakes crying. All the same, we are frightened for her. Her pain and anger make her fragile. She is brittle.

All of this is with me as I laugh and joke with my friend.

I'm hungry, dinner was a couple of hours ago. I pass through the hall and living room to the kitchen, where my parents sit drinking coffee. I ignore them and the favor is returned until I begin walking out with a box of cereal.

"You're not taking that out of here, Meg, not back to that room," Mama says, hostility poking pin pricks in the air. A lot more is riding on this than potential Count Chocula crumbs on the floor.

Anger runs through me. Why does she care about this? Why does this have to be something?

I look at her (this woman, not a mother but Medea, beyond my teenage comprehension) as if she's crazy and keep walking, shaking my head. This enrages Mama.

I am at Mindy's bedroom door. I quake inside, wear a hard mask outside, as Mama says, "No, David, she isn't going to do this."

Somehow, she has me by the arm, one of Daddy's belts in her free hand. The cereal, as it was predestined to do, flies to the floor, splattering the red carpet with cocoa marshmallows.

Voices start at once. I say, "Are you crazy? Let go!" Thinking, there's still time, this can stop before it gets too bad. Mindy and Linda react, shout at my mother. I pull myself away, covering my face and pushing back, still screaming. The belt flaps, the buckle landing on my shoulders, arms.

I push her (I am taller than Mama by two inches but don't feel it) and make my way out of the room to find Daddy in the hall. He is very angry, at first I think at Mama and then I realize it's at me. God, I think, are you watching this?

Daddy grabs me by my arms, pressing my twisting back steady against his chest. Mama (it is too late now) hits me with fists, howling unremembered words at me, the world.

Mindy and Linda are shouting, hovering. Linda says, "Stop it," and my sister, crying as she pulls me away, frees me. Everything stops. Our friend is ordered home and she goes. We stay.

Ten years later I asked Mom about it, the beating I remember more than any other, with the most clarity, because of its ridiculous origin. And because my father helped give it.

I am safe now, I think. I am not so scared of her, though her love is still as fleeting as it is necessary for me to possess. Do I want an apology, an explanation? Whatever my purpose, I ask.

"I don't remember that. It wouldn't have been because of cereal anyway. Did you sass me?"

Debra Warlick,35, a long-time newspaper and magazine journalist whose writing positions include work as a police reporter and celebrity profiler, lives in Atlanta with her son Alex, who is 8.

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