Above the Mark: Part I
Sophomore year in high school there was this teacher, Mr. Martello who taught American literature. He had this energy about him when reading Emily Dickenson or something jarring from Edgar Allen Poe; his eyes would brighten and he’d sway his hands as if conducting an orchestra. He taught me about Emerson’s lead in the transcendentalist movement and Thoreau’s adventures living at Walden Pond. He once handed out a picture of 35-year-old Walt Whitman standing in a field of grass wearing a black-top hat with a hand on his hip. He then spent the entire hour sharing stories about the war and how Whitman sought out hospitals in D.C to help the wounded. And how Whitman was one of the firsts to change the style of poetry, breaking away from traditional formats; no rhyme or meter. Like a man soaring through the sky and flying as if he were a gust of wind, Whitman wrote freely!
I was fascinated with Mr. Martello. Not in a romantic kind of way, but in a way in which I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could from him. Pick his brain and all that.
It was clear, Mr. Martello was cautious about me approaching him every day after class. At first, he always made sure to stand on the opposite side of the desk. He wouldn’t maintain eye contact for too long. And sometimes, he quickly packed his briefcase to shorten our discussion, suggesting he had somewhere else to be.
But as I kept approaching, asking questions about Ezra Pound and imagism and Sylvia Plath’s role in confessional poetry, Mr. Martello eased up, realizing my intentions were strictly platonic and geared only towards learning.
My mother, some would say was sweet and kind and caring, but I knew the real her, and trust me, she was no saint. She was evil. Criminal-like even.
Growing up as the youngest girl of three older brothers was like being raised in a hermitage. While my brothers played football and hockey and were allowed to do whatever they pleased, other than school, I had little contact with the outside world.
After dinner and on weekends, my brothers watched TV or played video games, while my mother made me clean the bathrooms, vacuum the bedrooms, and pick all the weeds out of her garden. She made me set and clear the table and do the dishes every night. She made me make mine and my brothers beds each morning. She only let me watch an hour of TV before having to go to sleep. She let me read, but first she had to make sure what I read was appropriate by her standards. I often daydreamed about my favorite passages from The Bell Jar, The House on Mango Street, and A Farewell to Arms, while being forced to read the slim religious pamphlets and hymnals my mother forced upon me.
It felt like my mother had fastened a tourniquet on my imagination. And after
she refused to let me go to junior prom with Matt Alvey, the leader of the French club who spoke the language beautifully, almost poetically, I had had enough of her. She must be stopped. And since my father never stood up for me, and my brothers barley acknowledged my existence, it was up to me to figure out a way to end this monstrosity so that like Whitman, I too could be wild, carefree and dive head first into the breeze.
It was a Friday after school in June. While all the other girls in my class were at the hair salon getting ready for the dance, and Matt Alvey, who I was sure at the moment was retrieving Becky Silverman’s corsage from The Flower Pot on main street, I pretended to do homework at the kitchen table. But really, I was making a list, coming up with different ways to enact revenge on my mother.
An entire page of my history notebook was dedicated to the things my mother loved. She loved church and all her stupid friends. She loved gardening, all the colorful flowers circling our house. She loved lighting candles, especially the vanilla-smelling ones. She loved styling her hair and bought expensive products she’d never let me use.
The question was this: What did she love so much that it would devastate her if I took it away?
It was just her and I alone in the house that night. Dad was having dinner with my Uncle. Who knew where my brothers were. My mother was upstairs doing God knows what. And I was eating a chunk of cheddar at the table when it came to me:
There was a half-bottle of bleach in the laundry room left over from washing my brother’s sheets last night. Before I could give it a second thought, I dropped the cheese on my plate and ran to retrieve it. Pulling the cabinet doors open, I immediately found the bottle. I read the warning label: Caution – do not drink. If ingested, seek medical attention immediately.
What if I slipped just a little into my mother’s tea? Just a little bit every day. For weeks. Maybe months. What if I didn’t contact any medical help? People die all the time and sometimes no one knows the reason.
I ran into the kitchen with the bleach tucked under my shirt.
“Mom,” I yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “I’m making tea. Do you want some?”
“Sure. I’ll be down in a few.”
My heart began to beat through my chest loud enough for me to hear it. Grabbing the teapot off the stove, I filled it with water, then placed it over the flame. Reaching into the cabinet, I took out a green mug. I poured some bleach into it, tapping my foot in a frenzy while waiting for the water to boil. Suddenly, I heard the thump of Mom’s feet making their way down the stairs.
I couldn’t do it.
I thought of Esther from The Bell Jar. I kept seeing the image of her body floating atop the water. Her perpetual desire to end her life. I had barely begun mine. I wasn’t ready for it to be over.
As fast as I could with shaky hands, I took the mug and dumped the bleach into the drain. I rinsed the glass with hot water, then filled it with soap, and then rinsed it with hot water over and over again.
By the time my mother made her way into the kitchen, the green mug had been placed in the dishwasher along with the other dirty dishes that needed to be washed.
“Steph,” she said. “What’s wrong? Why are you sweating?”
I turned to her. “I feel sick.”
“Go lay down on the couch,” she said. “Geez, you’re such a burden.”