Essay: Almost Powerful by Rachel Laverdiere

Matante and the cousins arrive in a swirl of pastel blue, pink, and yellow. In childhood photos, Matante poses like a movie star while Maman fades into the wallpaper. This is still true. Matante looks like a freckled Priscilla Presley. Maman, who often joked that her nerves are shot, looks frazzled. I picture her nerves hanging like the bits of elastic that dangle from the waistband of her panties.

The two older girls are almost sixteen and almost fifteen, and as pretty and tall and thin as Matante. The third cousin, Mickey, turns twelve next week. Five days before I turn ten. She had to live in a hospital for a long time and still has to smear oily medicine on the blistery red scars that have replaced some of her freckles. Last year, the oldest cousin lit the garbage in their burning barrel. She had no idea there was a can of green spray paint inside. The can exploded, burning off Mickey’s long, red hair and the skin of her face and arms, but I still think she’s beautiful. Her sisters have big blue eyes like Matante, but Mickey’s serious green eyes are deep pools in her pale face. She looks haunted. Sort of like Anne of Green Gables when she recites “The Lady of Shallot.”

After their van-load of cardboard boxes overtakes a corner of our living room, we children are assigned bunkmates and sent to bed. My eleven-year-old brother, Lynn, gets to sleep alone. The oldest cousin snuggles into the bottom bunk with my four-year-old brother. The second-oldest crawls in with my little sister. I’m up in my top bunk, so close to the wall that the metal window frame juts into my back. Mickey climbs the wooden ladder. Our moms are in the bedroom at the end of the hall. Maman doesn’t come to tuck us in and help us pray like she has every night since we moved here after my parents divorced.

Mickey puts her cold feet on the backs of my legs and says, “Last time I saw you, you lived on your farm.” I’m afraid yet thrilled to answer her. We’ve never been allowed to speak English at home, but my cousins have forgotten French.

Shyly, I answer, “We moved here last year. I miss the pasture, but I got to bring my cat, Simon.”

“Well, I hate cats,” she says. “But I like books.” My heart sinks for a moment, but then it bobs to the surface. Nobody in my family likes books, but I love reading more than almost anything.

***

Within a week, our orderly suppers have changed. Matante doesn’t follow Maman’s rules, so neither do my cousins. Their family yells at one another before they swallow their food. Their elbows clutter the table. My cheeks blaze when I hear the girls talk back to Matante, yet a part of me loosens—the part that is too polite and too scared. The part that is too much like Maman.

Maman’s tight lips show she won’t allow her family to lose its manners. My siblings and I keep our hands in our laps and clamp our mouths shut while we chew.

After the supper dishes are cleared, Matante shoos us into the living room so the adults can smoke and drink coffee in peace. Maman would never say things like that, but Marante says whatever is on her mind. Like their mother, the two oldest girls cross their legs to the right and chew their fingernails. They leaf through the latest issue of Seventeen Magazine, talking about the clothes they wish Matante could buy them and cute boys from their new schools. Lying on our stomachs, Mickey and I listen to their gossip as we flip through the Sears 1985 Spring/Summer catalogue. She chooses clothes worn by women with long straight hair or hats. I point out the burgundy cable knit sweater worn by a beautiful redhead with hair as short as hers. I know what it’s like to not be the pretty sister. My papa loves my sister, but he hates me because I am fat and ugly. I try not to care because I hate him back, but sometimes it still stings like iodine on scraped knees.

***

One night, I overhear Maman say, “Albert says he’s coming for me some day.” I can’t see her face, but I can see her cigarette. It trembles, and ash falls onto the tablecloth. Inside my chubby tummy, my stomach feels like a dryer spinning feathers and spiky nails. The changes in our trailer make me forget that I was always afraid before my cousins came.

I can see Matante stub out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. “Enough is enough, Rose. Live in fear and he wins.” My fingertips tingle, but there is something hot mixed in with my fear.

Matante leans back and crosses her arms. Maman’s shoulders curve inward and shudder. I wish she could be as powerful as Matante. That night, I tiptoe into the moonlit kitchen for a glass of water. The furniture isn’t pushed up against the door.

***

Weekday mornings, we gobble bowls of cereal while the two oldest cousins bicker over who gets to wear which name-brand knockoff shirts they share. When Maman is done with our only bathroom, they push and hit each other until one manages to slam the door and lock the other out.

The rest of us stay in the kitchen, where Mickey rakes the snarls from my hair. Before we moved, Maman would sometimes brush my hair into barrettes. Now she only has time for my sister. Yanking the brush through my hair, Mickey says, “You need conditioner.”

After school, I ask Maman to buy me some. My knees tremble. We aren’t allowed to ask for things because money is tight.

“Johnson’s Baby Shampoo is good enough for everyone else around here. It should be good enough for you, too.”  Maman’s stern voice scares me less than it used to. She doesn’t have the threat of our mean Papa anymore.

Soon, a bottle of Tame rests on the bathtub ledge. After that, the comb glides through my curls. My hair smells like lemons and fresh rain. I almost feel pretty. Almost powerful.

***

March snowdrifts melt into April muck. After supper one evening, my brother and the other boys in the trailer court pull out their BMXs. I happily miss out on the ride for time with Mickey. We go to my room, where she pulls the latest library book from her backpack. Sweet Valley High. Like her older sisters, Sweet Valley characters worry that they aren’t beautiful enough to make the right boys fall in love with them. As Mickey and I read aloud, we tell each other that we’re lying in a soft, four-poster bed instead of in my narrow bunk. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be rich, but we agree that even if we aren’t super pretty, we’d have a lot more friends. When it’s my turn to read, I giggle and bat my eyelashes, mimicking my cousins. Mid-paragraph I blurt out, “I think I’m in love with Rory.” He’s a boy in my school. I’ve never admitted my crushes to anyone before.

Mickey confesses that she likes the boy who sits behind her. He isn’t very popular, but she likes him because, like us, he reads lots of books. When she frowns and squinches up her face to study me, the red scars along her jaw grow bright. I wonder if my belly and double chin disgust her.

Finally, she says, “You’ll need to learn to act more like a girl.” Then she smiles. “Don’t worry. I’ll teach you.” She’s older and has glasses, so I trust her. Eventually, Maman warns us to stop talking, but after we hear the click of Maman’s bedroom door, Mickey whispers, “It’s time you learn about sex.”

My face grows hot and my stomach somersaults like I’m riding the merry-go-round. “We’ll get in big trouble if my mom hears us.”

Below us, our sisters breathe slowly and steadily. My ears buzz so loudly that I don’t hear much else before Mickey says, “You obviously need a bra. Start paying more attention to how your body is changing.”

The next night in the tub, I cup my hands over what Mickey calls “breasts,” and my palms no longer cover the flesh. After I’ve put on my jammies, Maman comes into my bedroom. I pull the covers over my head before I say, “Mickey says I need a bra.”

Under her breath, Maman says, “Mickey’s filling your head with things you shouldn’t be thinking about.” But she orders a training bra from the Sears catalogue.

When the tiny bra arrives, it refuses to contain my breasts. Maman snatches the bra away. Later, she wordlessly hands over one of her worn-out B-cup bras. The breasts I didn’t notice before Mickey mentioned them stretch the material taut. Sometimes they bulge out of my bra. And what about when I have to wear a maxi-pad—how will I check that it’s still in place?

The questions buzz in my mind, and I wonder if my papa is right. That my sister and I will end up barefoot and pregnant by sixteen, like he tells Maman. That I’ll always be fat and ugly so nobody will ever love me. Goose pimples cover my arms and legs when I think about how much it would hurt to have a baby and still not be loved by the man who put it there. Even though I can’t see his strong, oil-stained hands anymore, I can’t forget how Papa hurts everyone I love. I am never far away from his ugly words. The memories live in my ears and behind my eyelids. Especially in my sleep, the worst things happen again and again. Like how he locked Maman outside in the freezing cold the night before we left the farm last February. How the teachers looked afraid for us when they saw her split lip and black eye the next morning before we came to this trailer.

I go to the kitchen and hug Maman. She looks surprised but squeezes me so tight it hurts my breasts. When I let go, there are tears in her eyes, but my stomach feels tighter and stronger. My blood feels hot and prickly in my veins.

***

By June, Matante qualifies for Welfare, so she moves into town. Mickey gives me the grand tour of their new apartment. In the living room, I recognize the lime green and black couch that used to be in our grandma’s basement. The two older cousins each get a bedroom with a twin bed and an empty closet. Mickey and Matante will share the double bed in the master bedroom. Their closet is as big as my whole bedroom.

Without my aunt and cousins, there is too much space in our trailer. I get into fights with Mom.

“I’m sick and tired of being treated like a child!” I feel brave speaking English. My father used to beat us if we dared to speak English. I hate everything about him, but he can’t hurt me anymore.

Mom sets her jaw and lights up a cigarette. She asks me in French, “What happened to my good little girl?” Wearing cheek blush and eyeliner, she looks more beautiful than ever. My father never allowed her to wear makeup. Matante would never have let a man tell her what to do. Neither will I.

I respond in English, “Why won’t you let me go to Matante’s?”

Between gritted teeth, she says, “Maybe you should spend less time with Mickey and more time with your own brothers and sister. Why don’t you go find Lynn?”

“I hate living here!” I say, slamming the screen door. But I refuse to find my mean brother and his dumb friends. Instead, I kick the door as hard as I can. Heat zings down my legs and up arms, and I feel charged with power.

I crunch down the gravel road until I come across a group of girls my age heading for the park. I puff out my chest and say, “Aren’t you too old for dollies and merry-go-rounds?”

Wide-eyed, they curve their shoulders to hide their still-flat chests.

A girl who goes to a different elementary school than me steps forward. Her hand trembles as she pushes scraggly bangs from her eyes. She says, “I stopped playing with dolls before Christmas.”

I nod my approval.  “Have you asked your mother for a training bra yet?”

Inspired by the vast Saskatchewan skies, Rachel Laverdiere anticipates that calm will erupt into thunderstorms, flocking geese will disappear into the sunset, and northern lights will traipse across the blackened stage. Her work is published in journals such as The CommonCutBankThe New Quarterly and Atlas and Alice. Rachel’s flash CNF was shortlisted for CutBank’s 2019 Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest. For more of her writing, visit http://www.rachellaverdiere.com.

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