Most people, when recalling an event that transitioned them from childhood to adulthood, they think of parties, celebrations, quinceaneras or bat mitzvahs. My own transition was far more complex and somber, and it required a child of 12 to make adult decisions. My story is laced with poverty, violence, drug abuse, and confusion. Not my own poor decisions, but the decisions of my mother.
As most children do, I loved my mother very much. She was warm, kind, and smelled like roses, wool, and cigarette smoke, I wanted to be just like her when I got older. When I was 7, she divorced my stepfather and I barely saw her. When I did she was too drunk or tired to be a real parent, and as a child this disappointed and confused me.
Eventually, she did get back on her feet, with the help of a new boyfriend. They had a house together. It had been five years, but now I could stay at her house and spend time with her--while she was sober. For a while, it was great--we watched movies, did our eyeliner, played games like Rockband, I could see my brother and sister again. He left a sour feeling in my stomach, but my mother being happy was more important to me than my gut feelings. Yet, after a few months, she started showing up my father’s house covered in bruises and cuts, black eyes and tears streaming down her face, her voice empty and weak. I had a hunching suspicion that maybe her boyfriend wasn’t as great as she made him out to be. I feigned sick and stayed with her at home, listening to her phone calls and sobs on the other side of the shut door. I figured out that he had been getting drunk and beating her, every few weeks, like clockwork. I felt angry, I felt absolutely enraged. I doubt there has ever been so much fury contained in the body of a gangly 12 year old girl.
I tolerated the regular beatings because my mother insisted that it was fine, that they just got carried away, that he wasn’t like that when he was sober. I begrudgingly stayed silent.
Until the night of Christmas, 2011.
My siblings, my mother, her boyfriend, and I were all celebrating the holiday with baking, cooking, opening presents, and funny Christmas movies. It seemed alright, until his after dinner drink turned into two, then three.
His typically nonexistent voice began to crawl up in volume, despite my mother’s frenzy of calming words. I pressed my lips shut and awaited with dread for the final outcome of the situation. My sensitive, adorable little brother and wicked smart sister were oblivious, wrapped up in muted voices of the television.
Then I heard the sentence, the phrase that would incite the worst--”You’re raising him to be a faggot!” A crash echoed into the living room, his drink tipping and spilling on the white carpet. My mother walked in the room seconds later and collected her children, taking us upstairs, away from the angry drunk.
“We’ll just stay here until he calms down,” She reassured us, but the lines around her eyes and the edge in her voice betrayed her worry. I didn’t say anything, and instead locked myself in the closet, the dark, quiet, small space comforting to me.
As I sat there, thinking deeply in the dark, I realized something that would change the entire scope and path of my life--that if we stayed in this house, with this drunk, abusive man, we would be victims for the rest of our lives. He was the symbol for the fear, struggle, and violence that plagued this earth.
My mother would eventually get used to the frequent beatings, my independent sister would grow up and marry a man that would violate her security, my kind little brother would grow up and think that beating a woman, or a partner, was okay. That it was normal. This would be normal for us. This would become our lives.
I realized I was the only one that could take action to save my family, my mother and siblings. I was the only one strong enough to end this violence.
I left the closet, turned to my mother, and informed her we were leaving. She didn’t question me, and immediately started to get everything in order. While I called my father they packed all the belongings they could manage into plastic tubs and shopping bags, all the presents and clothes they had gotten for the holiday. My father got one of his friends to bring his minivan, and we quickly packed everything into the car. We too got in, and I watched the man’s face from inside the house and the ignition started and we left.
As we drove away, the pale yellow streetlights and blue asphalt guiding us to a better life, I finally could feel myself breathe deeply. I felt safe. I felt strong. I felt like I had done something good, something meaningful. I was only 12, but while other children were sleeping in their beds, I had made the right choice and saved my family from hell.
That is when I knew I was a woman.