The pen doesn’t work. Outside, the rain whispers down onto the road. It murmurs through the gutters in a language I can’t understand: the rain only speaks in truth.
I reach for another pen in the pencil case. The latch was open already, from when mom flicked it while examining the room this morning.
“This is a mess.” Her voice betrayed no emotion, open hand floating over the purple plastic case. The “s” in “mess” stretched across the room.
I bobbed my head, like some scullery servant. “I was going to do it.” I hovered over her shoulder, hands buried in my pockets to keep myself from rearranging my entire life before her eyes.
To be fair, I always say I’m about to do everything.
It’s like I’m carving the words in the paper. I try again.
I sigh, set the pen aside. The next one is a green marker. It squeals, clinging to the paper.
When I was seven, I clung to her, too, to the idea of her: beautiful, strong, intelligent. I loved her because she let me fight her and I hated her because she was always right. I dreamed of the day when I would win, when I could say “I told you so.” That day, I would prove I was good enough.
Not like this marker. I toss it aside, picking a battered pencil from the case.
The graphite is smooth and clean, gliding across the surface like a ballerina.
I used to take ballet classes. I used to shove myself into white stockings and tight pink leotards, noose a wrapper of scratchy pink netting around my waist and pretend I was girly and graceful and lithe. I would twist my hair into braids and stab jeweled bobby pins into my scraggly brown plaits and accept roses, and then go home and change into my baggy corduroys and tattered long sleeves.
And when I marched into class one day, paint-stained sneakers tracking in mud, and announced to Miss Lily that I quit, my mother stood behind me and nodded her approval.
“You have such beautiful long legs for dancing,” protested Miss Lily.
“And for soccer,” my mother added, and from the wry tone of her voice I could hear the arched eyebrow. I looked down and contemplated my shapeless blue jeans. And I marched out of Miss Lily’s class and jumped in the April puddles.
This pen, too, breathes its last.
One week in the mountains—one week finally alone, free from her. One last smile and one wave. And then the awful sight of her car disappearing down the country road, spraying the trees with muddy rainwater. Lying awake that night in the bed that smelled of mothballs, I painted visions of her, grinning, sparkling, listening to alt rock in the last light of dusk. Anything, anything to go back home. Tripping over my rusty Italian, trying desperately to describe this miracle who was my mother. And when she came, the bullies and the pity and the cold misery of nights spent alone in a cabin meant for three faded away, focusing on that one face in the swarm of faces.
No, not this pen. I shake it and try again. Honest- Hon–ty. The pen that my father gave me, the first pen out of the myriad of pens he always held out to me: spent, exhausted, failed—
Like the day my mother’s English failed her, the day her native Spanish couldn’t match my torrent of angry Anglo-Saxon. The day I spat venom at her from the shelter of my father’s arms and reveled in the awful, hurt expression on her face. I won, I won! And then I was left wondering if this was what winning felt like: the seeping guilt, the palpitating heart, the horrified tongue. Or maybe I was losing, again: losing to this woman with the coarse black hair shining in the sickly kitchen light, to this woman in the red bathrobe, red as the womb that had borne me, to this woman with the warm glowing skin of a sun-dweller, stained and paled by days in the cold and the snow. I’d lost to this woman with the worn face and the tired eyes and a mouth set by injustice.
Ho nest y
I’d lost because my mother is truth: my mother is jarring and real and naked, always victorious because even in this world the truth is never really defeated. My mother learned that truth was stronger than Pelé, that truth is louder than the cheering of the battered old radio, that truth is harder than a soccer ball to the stomach.
I do not play soccer. When we got home that day from Miss Lily’s class, I did not put on my cleets. I sat down and read a book—I read delicious lies, and those lies became me. On nobler days I am a dreamer, but on days like this when the world is dark and the thunder rumbles I know I write lies.
Because honesty isn’t hesitating when friends ask if your mother is beautiful. Honesty isn’t smiling when you’re about to cry. Honesty isn’t saying you hate her and knowing you love her.
Honesty is the language water speaks when it falls from heaven. Honesty is the poem the rain whispers on its way down the road.
And even a skyful of honesty could not describe my mother.
Gutter Truths won a Gold Key for Memoir in the 2020 Scholastic Arts & Writing Competition.