In fourth grade, the other kids nicknamed me GHOST BOOBS because I went to school one day wearing my mother’s water bra, which was a bra with water and oil inside to make tiny breasts look enormous, or in my case, turn no breasts into some breasts, and this kid, Davy Rothko, who had the kind of ADHD that seemed basically incurable, pointed to me and said, “Those aren’t real,” to which I replied, “How do you know?” to which he replied, “Ya didn’t have them yesterday,” and launched himself headfirst into my water tit.
“See,” he said. “They’re not really there. I could punch right through them.”
“They’re not ghosts,” I muttered, and from then I was GHOST BOOBS. We were both sent to the principal’s office, but I was the only one who had someone throw a soiled bra with the words GHOST on one triple-G cup and BOOBS on the other at her in the middle of making Valentine’s Day cards in art class almost a year later.
In sixth grade, I was the girl who came to school smelling like a murdered pig, but I was also “the girl who eats rats” because I had raised my hand during a lesson about different cuisines around the world, and I had told everyone that my mom and I went to this little basement food court in Elmhurst that was so secretive you had to rent a key to get in, and we went one evening and dined on fried rats with little pickled vegetables, and it actually tasted pretty good—kind of like chicken nuggets. One girl’s mother called the school to complain because apparently her daughter was so traumatized by my rat nuggets story that she refused to eat for two days straight.
When the principal called my mother to tell her about this and to suggest that she have a conversation with me on the importance of self-restraint, my mother laughed it off and said that was the stupidest thing she had ever heard.
“These people will eat soured milk which has active bacteria and mold, but the thought of a Thai delicacy makes them want to vomit?”
“Who eat soured milk and mold?” I asked my mom.
“Everyone who eats cheese. Everyone who eats yogurt. Everyone. Some people should try an education for once in their life.”
In ninth grade, I wore five or six pairs of underwear at the same time and stuffed crumpled-up wads of Kleenex into the innermost panty because if I wasn’t going to have knock-you-over knockers then I was going to have the biggest booty of all the freshmen girls. My mother asked me if she was imagining it or did my ass look huge in jeans and then small again when I changed into pajamas, and I asked my mom how she would feel if I wanted to get permanent butt implants someday, and she said, “You know I support anything you want to do, but you do really want strangers groping your butt for the rest of your life?” and I said, “Yeah, I do, Mom,” and then she said, “Well, I guess I’d say go for it. Come to think of it, your poor mother wouldn’t mind a nice man grabbing her ass once in a while.”
My poor mother hadn’t had a man handle her ass since the day my father came charging at me with nothing in his hands but held them up like he was about to swing a bat and like my head was the thing he wanted to strike.
“I never wanted you,” he said. “You were never my choice. You came between me and now I have to be two mes. I have to be two fathers. I have to be two husbands. I have to be two mans.”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said, covering my mouth with my hands because I didn’t want him to see me smiling at “mans,” and because I could imagine someone passing by our apartment and thinking, Here is a man and his daughter horsing around—adorable! Because what if in that split second, the passerby only saw my smiling face and my father’s back? I didn’t want that at all. I wanted other people to be disturbed by what they saw. I wanted someone to fear for me, to try and save me, but how was that supposed to happen if I sat there smiling like everything was so fucking super duper?
“You, you, you, you, you, you, you,” he said over and over. “You don’t want me to eat the food I want to eat. You don’t want me to sleep at night. You don’t want me to go outside. You don’t want me to wash my hands in the bathroom. You want to be the one who eats. You get to be the one who shits at night. You get to be the only one who goes outside. And you want to take Helen from me. You want her to love only you. You want to edge me out. You want me to be left out of everything. You want everything and you want me to have nothing. You you you you you you you you. You’ve been trying to strangle me in my sleep. You tried to poison me this morning.”
“It was just milk!” I cried out. “Dad, it was just milk. You always take milk with your coffee.” I wrung my hands together like I was a beggar who had followed him into the street, as if I were some nuisance he couldn’t be rid of. I was desperate for him to kneel down in front of me and take my hands in his hands and tell me, “Honey, it’s just me, your dad,” but he swung his arms at me again, and I backed away.
“You,” he said. “You lie about everything. You sneak around and steal my money and you eat my food and you wear my clothes and you walk in my shoes like you want to replace me. You cheat me out of everything.”
My mother came home from her shift at C-Town an hour later and found me cowering in the corner while my father paced from one end of the kitchen to the other, repeating, “How do I get rid of her,” and then she knew that it wasn’t just my auntie who had schizophrenia on my father’s side of the family, but my father had it too, and for so long it lived inside him, but we called it by so many different names. “Oh he’s just tired.” “He’s irritable these days.” “Winter always hits him hard.” “Daddy’s upset because his daddy passed away this year.”
When my father’s sickness finally became clear to us, I had just started seventh grade—my first year at middle school—and my mother had a baby inside her, but she didn’t tell anyone because she was terrified and I was terrified and everyone who knew us was terrified, as if psychosis were a virus that could be passed between neighbors.
How grateful I was back then, before my father’s sickness became undeniable, to leave elementary school behind and start fresh. Like a beetle, I was shedding. I was going to walk away from my old, beat-up shell, which was composed entirely of bygones—the story of eating rats, the water boobs I tried to pass off as my own, the nights we stayed at Thessaly’s and played with her mother’s cats and stacked big thick bracelets on our wrists to cover bruises from when he grabbed us and promised to snap our hands from our wrists, mornings when I held my mother’s hair back as she vomited into Thessaly’s toilet, again and again until she was vomiting blood, all the while knowing we had to go back home and neither of us could predict anymore the resilience of my father’s anger. I was going to a new school, to a new life. Gone would be the kids who mocked me without knowing how often my mother and I tried to plant jokes into our lives so that my father, whose behavior had become increasingly erratic and rageful, might see that we were not scared of the dark things that he wouldn’t admit to feeling, that we truly saw light in every moment, that the hands that dragged my mother across the living room floor one evening were the same hands that picked me up from the couch where I had fallen asleep and carried me to my bed on another.