My mother told me a story:when you were a child, I asked God for a vision of the state of our marriage. He gave me a picture of a dance, a marriage dance, a husband and wife dance. And your father had put you in the middle of it. That was what was wrong with our marriage. Your father had put you in it.
The favorite. The daughter who had her father wrapped around her little finger, who could bat her eyes and melt his heart. This is what I knew of myself, or rather, this is what I would know of myself in stories told to me so many times when I was a teenager that it became the past, it rewrote whatever possible memory I could have. Now, when I envisioned myself as that small child, I see her as seduction itself, her bright innocent smile conniving, the flick of her hips suggestive, her every laugh suspect.
I had been given something wholly unfair, she taught me, and in response, my mother made sure that I understood I had something that didn’t belong to me, as though, in my father’s favoritism, he had taken all the love intended to everyone else, and bestowed it upon me. I was a princess upon stolen loot, selfishly hoarding it while everyone else was starved. Whatever was taken from me, then, was merely a kind of Robin Hood, plundering the rich, redistributing what had never been mine.
There was one time, my mother had a story of my father being violent with me. In clothing stores, enamored by the circled racks, I liked to wiggle my way inside until I was invisible, surround myself with the pressure of clothes, the darkness of being hidden.
When we found you, your father was so upset, he spanked you too hard, and felt guilty afterward. I told him, no, he shouldn’t. You’d done something wrong. You deserved it.
I understood what she meant: my father didn't hurt me, not even when I'd done something wrong, so it didn't matter if when he did, the magnitude was off. The debt of violence owed to me was so large, the distribution between my brothers and I so different, anything he did to me was catch-up, not cruelty.
For my mother, then, punishments fell to her, and she was quick to remind me that I could not be the conniving, manipulative youngest daughter, I could not flash her innocent eyes and convince her they were truthful, I could not sob before her and make her believe that I had not contrived those tears. She understood that I was inherent liar, that in the dynamics between my older brothers and me, and I was not victim, but instigator, and I could not convince her otherwise.
My mother told me a stor—no, rather, my mother told her friends stories, on the phone, laughing. She would tell them, she had known all along what kind of person I was, had known what it was to be the youngest child constructing elaborate games to get others in trouble. I was spoiled, but she would not let me be spoiled; shielded from the consequences of my actions, but she would set the scale back right.
So I sacrificed that child for my mother’s love, or an approximation of it. For one single good word from my mother, I looked back on the child that I was and called her a spoiled brat, criticized her for her every complaint, for her voice, girlish and pleading. I, too, spat on her tears, and told her she was faking. For one bit of kindness, for a single compliment, for that little bit of warmth: my mother called me wise. A teenager who possessed a clarity few adults had. Did you think you were good as a child? Did you think that you were innocent? I knew better. I had the bravery, the incisiveness, the level-headed dispassion to look at the little girl that I was and know that everything about her was motivated by pure, ugly, selfish cruelty and manipulation. And the approval on my mother’s face felt worth it. I had failed at intelligence, creativity, and talent, I had failed at anything worthy of a compliment or a bit of praise, but I could be wise, and it was something.