STRANGERS NO MORE
By Tara Lynn Marta
Stacey didn’t want much out of life. Just happiness and stability. It wasn’t a lot for a young woman of seventeen to ask for. But living in a two-bedroom apartment with her newly divorced mother was far from bliss.
“Take the garbage out, Stacey,” her mother bellowed from the couch. Ashtrays piled the coffee table while remnants of breakfast littered the floor. Teaspoon, the family’s orange Tabby, ran for a crust of bread imbedded in the rug. “Get this filthy beast out of my sight,” her mother continued, kicking at the cat as he made a mad dash for the other side of the room.
Stacey sighed. “I already took the garbage out, Ma, remember?”
“Yeah, well, I have to keep on you about these things. You’re so lazy.”
But Stacey wasn’t lazy. It was just another sadistic remark from a mother who couldn’t care less about the daughter she hardly knew.
“You’re just like that good for nothing father of yours,” her mother yelled, which of course wasn’t true. But her mother didn’t care about truth.
Stacey’s parents divorced when she was five. When they were still together, her father worked on and off, mostly off, and drank what money he made. It was a contentious marriage. The arguments were vulgar and deafening, often resulting in neighbors calling the cops.
“Keep the noise down,” an officer said on one such visit, indifferent to the black eye her mother donned and the scratches running down her father’s left cheek.
The relationship came to head when her father was caught in bed with another woman. Stacey clutched her stuffed elephant as a lamp smashed off the living room wall and angry words hovered in the air. The judge awarded custody to her mother, not that it made much difference. Neither parent was capable of raising a dog much less a child.
After her parents divorced, Stacey’s mother made a habit of dating any man she could find. She married two more times, each husband worse than the one before.
“Ma, do you have money for a new notebook,” Stacey asked as her mother stretched her plump leg over the arm of the couch.
“What the hell do I look like an ATM? Call your father and ask him. He owes you for all the child support he never paid.”
Stacey hardly saw her father much less talked to him by phone. His drunkenness made him incoherent, and during one call he thought Stacey was his dead grandmother.
“Please, Ma, I need a new notebook.”
Stacey paused. “No, for my writing.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Stacey. Just throw my damn money out the window, why don’t you! You think it’s easy cleaning offices at night to pay rent on this dump and keep food in your mouth? No, it’s never enough, is it? Ungrateful brat.”
“I have to keep writing, Ma, if I ever want to be a. . .”
“I know, a writer.” Her mother sat up and banged the remote off the end table when it failed to change the channel. “A writer. Just who in the hell do you think you are?”
Stacey didn’t know who she was other than the daughter of a father who’d abandoned her, and a mother who swore that she’d never amount to anything.
“I’m going to college one day, Ma! You wait.”
“You dream big,” her mother answered. “College isn’t part of your future. You need a job. I see the crap you bring home from school, Shakespeare and poetry. You’re good for nothing just like your father.”
“If I was good for nothing like my father I wouldn’t even want to go to college,” Stacey retorted with discipline, causing her mother to twirl around.
“Watch that tone, young lady. You’re not the big shot you pretend to be.”
Stacey grabbed her backpack and flung open the door. “I’m better than you. That’s why you hate me so much.”
Her mother rose from the couch and bounded across the floor, and with one slap, Stacey bore an imprint of her mother’s hand.
She wouldn’t give her mother the satisfaction of seeing her cry, so Stacey walked out and slammed the door but not before her mother’s voice reverberated through the building, “GOOD FOR NOTHING!”
Stacey ran down the corridor to the elevator and noticed someone inside. “Hold those doors, she cried out.”
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” a woman in her mid-fifties dressed in a pair of tan slacks with a burgundy blouse said. Her black curly hair relaxed on her shoulders. “You’re going to the first floor I assume?”
Just as the doors to the elevator closed the power went out. “You’ve got to be kidding,” the woman groaned.
“Third time this week,” Stacey exclaimed.
A musty aroma permeated the atmosphere. The woman pinched the tip of her nose to ward off the unwelcomed stench. Then she took out her cell phone, but there was no reception.
“Don’t panic now,” she said to Stacey, who remained calm. And using the flashlight on her cell to illuminate the elevator, the woman seized the emergency phone fastened to the wall. “Yeah, the elevator stalled,” she said when a technician answered. “Well, see that you hurry, huh?”
Stacey slid out of her backpack and nervously tapped her foot. Being encased in tight quarters didn’t bother her. But sharing it with a stranger was another story.
“By the way, the name’s Jennie,” said the woman as she rummaged through her purse for a piece of hard candy, and upon locating a pack of LifeSavers, offered one to her young acquaintance.
“I’m Stacey. Thanks for the candy.”
Silence followed the brief introductions. Stacey’s discomfort made it difficult to relax in the presence of someone she’d known a total of five minutes, and she worried about the red streak that ran across her face. She hoped Jennie wouldn’t notice. Stacey would have no explanation for the dysfunction emblazoned on her flesh.
“How long have you been living in this building?” Jennie queried, sitting with her legs crossed on the dirty floor.
“I been here my whole life. You live here too?”
“Not a chance. Just visiting my father in 12D.”
Stacey thought momentarily about apartment 12D. “That’s right around the corner from where me and my mother live. Who’s your father?”
“Carl Matheson,” Jennie added with a sigh. “I’m sure you’ve heard his mouth.”
Stacey could hardly remember anyone yelling except her mother. But thinking on it, she did recall the sound of elderly man’s voice occasionally carrying through the halls, spewing wrath on an undeserving victim. And that victim, it turned out, was Jennie.
“Wait, yeah, I know your dad, not personally, but I’ve. . .” Stacey stopped mid-sentence. It wasn’t easy having a vocal parent, and she didn’t want to embarrass Jennie.
“It’s OK,” Jennie said. “Everyone in the building knows my father’s mouth by now. You learn to live with it after a while.”
Maybe it was her youth, but Stacey had never grown accustomed to hearing people yell, something her mother did daily. She didn’t have a picture-perfect family like the ones in the old TV shows, where fathers returned from work at the end of the day with a bag of gumdrops for the children, and mothers wore pretty dresses with a strand of pearls. And what’s worse, she feared that one day she’d end up like her mother. Disheveled and cranky. Men coming and going. Multiple divorces. A job that hardly paid the bills. Or like her father – a good for nothing.
Jennie observed the anguish etched on Stacey’s face. Or maybe it was the red blotch left by her mother.
“Don’t worry about it, honey. Things will get better,” Jennie said as she pushed her bangs to the other side of her forehead.
“Excuse me?” Stacey asked smiling, trying to hide her humiliation.
“I know what you’re going through,” Jennie added, still fiddling with the bangs that kept falling over her eyes. “Things are bad home, aren’t they? You’re not alone, kiddo.”
But Stacey felt alone much of the time, ruminating on what others would think if they could see inside her apartment or hear the bitter words coming from a mother whose sense of nurture consisted of four letter expletives.
Still conscious of her cheek, Stacey rubbed at it as if she could somehow make the mark disappear. “My mother doesn’t usually hit me. Today was the first because I answered her back.”
“Let me guess, her usual abuse is in the form of words?”
Again, Stacey nodded.
Jennie gave up on her bangs and tampered with the clasp on her purse instead. “Don’t let it get to you, honey. You’ll get through it.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Shaking her left leg back to life, Jennie said, “You’re not only one with a parent who doesn’t choose their words wisely.”
But Stacey had convinced herself that she was the only one, and her paranoia led her to live a solitary existence, unable to befriend other girls at school because they might find out about the dark secret waiting for her at home.
“My old man never had a kind word to say about me. Still doesn’t, that’s why you hear him yell sometimes. I’m a loser like my mother, according to him. He never even celebrated my birthday, and all because he was punishing me for being born.”
“That must have been horrible.”
“My mother died when I was three and the old man got stuck raising me, a kid he never asked for. ‘You’re only here because your mother tricked me,’ he used to say. They weren’t married, and I guess he thought only a certificate brought forth children.”
“That’s rough,” Stacey admitted. “Why do you even visit him?”
Jennie stood to allow the blood to circulate to her legs. “He’s old and doesn’t have anyone else.”
Let him rot, Stacey thought.
“I know what you’re thinking. But I escape my father’s shadow by being the bigger person. Anyway, nothing will change the truth about me.”
Confused Stacey asked, “What truth is that?”
“I’m nothing like him. He could tear me down with his words and strike me with his fists. But I refuse to walk in his footsteps.”
“Sometimes it just happens though, don’t you think?”
Jennie opened her purse and took out a tube of lipstick, then dazzled her lips with a light shade of pink.
“Let me ask you something. Do you want a better life than the one you’ve been given by your parents?”
Without hesitation Stacey bowed her head toward the floor.
“I take that as a yes. So, who’s stopping you?”
“But my mother…”
“Your mother has nothing to do with it. Do we sometimes have characteristics of our parents? Absolutely. But we are not them, they are not us.”
“I wish I believed that, Stacey muttered under her breath.”
A slight chortle echoed. “My father used to tell me I’d be exactly like him one day. He was a part-time custodian, full-time gambler. Always trying to reach for an imaginary fortune he thought he was entitled to. But I had dreams, big ones of going to college. And you know what my father told me? That women weren’t created to use their brains. Only their bodies.”
“Didn’t you hate him for that?”
“Sure. Took me a long time to realize that he was nothing but a broken man, irritated because his daughter was a reminder of a mistake he made in the backseat of a beat-up Chevy.”
“Did you end up going to college?” Stacey inquired, her enthusiasm building.
“I did. Then I went to graduate school and got my M.A., which I turned into a PhD. Now I run the English department at Caldwell University. So much for my father’s theory about a woman’s intelligence.”
“My mother tells me college isn’t in my future.”
“Don’t pay her any mind. Your mother’s a broken woman. Probably sees the potential in you that she never had the courage to see in herself.”
The lights in the elevator returned along with movement. Jennie and Stacey were headed to the first floor. After only twenty minutes these strangers – one who was well into the world, the other who was on her way – were strangers no more. They were kindred spirits linked by a similar narrative. And for the first time, Stacey felt understood, no longer shackled by shame.
“Here’s my card,” Jennie said, handing it to Stacey. The sun greeted them as the doors to the elevator opened and an entire world of possibility awaited. “Call me anytime.”
“You mean when I’m ready to apply for college?”
“Yes, and any other time you need to talk.”
Outside drivers blared their horns at pedestrians trying to cross the busy street. A young mother shouted at her son as she dragged him by the shirtsleeve, his face contorted with disgrace.
Although Stacey felt more at ease, she couldn’t contain a burning question. “How come some people don’t make it out?”
“Because sometimes words have a sharp edge and they know where to cut. When that happens, it can shatter our confidence. Our only weapon is choice.”
“Yes. We can choose to retaliate by acting like our aggressor, or we can choose the road less traveled.”
“Oh, I get it,” Stacey responded. “We choose to be better than our parents.”
Jennie placed her purse over her right shoulder and once again swept at her bangs.
“No, we choose to better ourselves.”
About the Author:
Tara Lynn Marta is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published by Aaduna, Inc., The Humor Times, The Gorge, PoetrySoup, Heartaches to Healing, and Thirty-Third Wheel. Tara is a graduate of Wilkes University where she earned an M.A. in Creative Writing.