a memoir by
Joanna Michaels

The five-year-old girl sat at the kitchen table in her grandmother’s apartment. Cockroaches raced across the flowered wallpaper while several more ran this way and that atop the table’s oilcloth. The girl sat with her chair inches away from the wall, her hands in her lap, arms tucked against her sides.

She imagined she could hear their roach legs skittering over the crumbs left from the chocolate donut she had eaten. The insects startled the little girl. There were no bugs in the apartment where she lived with her father and stepmother. But grandma’s apartment was upstairs from Willy Hop’s, a combination candy store and soda fountain. Not that where the roaches came from concerned the girl. Just the fact they existed distressed her; so there she sat, rooted in her seat, her body pressed hard against the back of the wooden chair.

But roaches weren’t the sole cause of her anxiety that day. Her birth mother occupied the kitchen as well. The girl knew it wasn’t Saturday, and Saturdays were the only days the court allowed her “unfit mother” visitation rights. But there she stood, leaning against the kitchen sink, eyes narrowed and focused on the little girl.

The mother tore open a packet of brown octagon soap and as she dragged a kitchen chair to the sink, its wooden legs screeched over the worn linoleum.

“Come here, I’m going to wash your hair.”
The stern expression on her mother’s face frightened the girl more than the roaches did. Her mother had never offered to wash her hair. This was something new and unwanted.

“You don’t need to wash my hair, Mommy.”

“I said to come here.”

Afraid to say no, she did as her mother asked, climbing onto the chair, bending her head over the sink. Her blonde hair was soft and fine; hardly long enough for a ponytail.

At home, when her stepmother washed her hair, she gave the girl a cloth to protect her eyes from the shampoo. But not today, not here in grandma’s apartment. Today she covered her eyes with her hands.
The mother turned the water on, but didn’t wait for it to warm. Cold water ran over the little girl’s head, down the back of her neck, and into the collar of her dress. The temperature of the water caused her to squirm and pull her head away.

“Hold still,” mother said, grabbing her hair. She leaned closer to the girl’s face, whiskey breath a forewarning of things to come. And come they did. The little girl’s mother twisted her daughter’s face sideways and turned the water on full force, covering the little girl’s face with the spray nozzle.

Her little hands were no protection as water rushed into her nose and down her throat. She couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t cry out. The sound of her choking alerted her grandmother.
A silent witness until now, the grandmother yelled, “Let her go, Helen!”

The mother removed the nozzle from the girl’s nose only to claw at her face, jamming her fingers into the girl’s nostrils.

“A roach crawled into your nose! Hold still! I’m trying to get it out.”
The girl believed the lie and cried out. “Get it out!” But her cries seemed only to trigger her mother to once again push the spray nozzle against her nose. She shrieked, “No, no!” She kicked at her mother until her grandmother pulled the girl down from the sink. She held the girl against her, wiping the snot and tears from her face.

The little girl told no one what had happened that day, thus her stepmother never knew why the little girl began screaming on shampoo days. It’s likely the girl couldn’t articulate what had happened. What would she have said? My mother tried to drown me?

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Joanna Michaels, a Jersey native and Florida transplant, writes fiction and nonfiction. Her mystery novel has been published by New Victoria Publishers. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.

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