Life in the Fishbowl|
by Robert Repino
I still have the newspaper article, the one with the now-famous picture taken outside of the giant front window of my mother's mansion. In it, I am floating in my living room, my nightgown billowing upwards, my cheeks puffed with held breath, my dark eyes sad. My hair melds around my face so that I appear to be a little girl instead of a seventeen-year-old about to leave for college. Oh, it was a masterpiece. I guess that's what my mother—the great artist Delilah Marquis—was going for when she flooded the house.
A few weeks before the photo was taken, I returned home from my all-female boarding school to little fanfare. My mother gave me a peck on the cheek that reminded me of all the fake affection I had received from those conniving bitches I was forced to live with from fall to summer for four years. She wouldn't have understood this similarity had I told her about it.
My mother insisted she was doing me a favor by sending me there, and even threw in a little maternal guilt: "The way you skulk around here, I figured you wanted to get away from your mother." I had long since given up on telling her anything about my time at school. Whenever I described the pranks played on me because I was a celebrity's daughter-like when the equestrian team, which I was too fat to join, left a pile of horse manure on my bedroom floor-my mother dismissed them as events that would eventually make me tougher. I was just grateful that my classmates never found out about my dad going to jail for sleeping with one of my mom's underage students from nearby Swarthmore College, where she taught art. If that had happened, inappropriate piles of manure would have been the least of my concerns.
I ran into one of my mom's students in our cavernous dining room one Saturday morning, a few days after I had moved back home. My mother always invited them over, or required it as some sort of extra credit, for all I knew. This one, a boy I had seen before, wore the typical uniform: unkempt hair, skintight t-shirt, faded jeans, retro 80's sneakers. These brownnosers had appeared nearly every weekend since long before I was born, all carrying sketchpads and drooling over my mother's artwork. They would gawk like tourists, and point at each piece as they discussed the supposed beauty of it. This would sometimes lead to marijuana-laced poetry sessions, where my mom and her disciples would sit cross-legged, belting out melodramatic verse and saying things like, "Your voice has real depth" or "I'm not sure if this works for me." I had learned the lingo when I was a little girl, sitting in my footy pajamas on the top of the stairs, out of sight but listening. I had been fascinated then, but the novelty wore off around the time I hit puberty.
I didn't understand their admiration of my mother's art because it had always scared the shit out of me. Her garish painting of Abraham actually killing Isaac before God could intervene was among the worst. Critics always noted the look of sheer terror and despair in Isaac's eyes. I couldn't help but see my own eyes in that picture, and often wondered if I was somehow the inspiration for it.
An army of sculptures accompanied the paintings, including a man with a pig's head and a seven-foot tall knight my mother had fashioned out of aluminum, complete with a gigantic sword that she told me never to touch. The house, with its stale air, ornate wooden columns, and ancient furniture that I wasn't allowed to sit on, was creepy to begin with, and her pieces of art became its ghosts and demons.
The student was standing among the statues as I padded across the carpet that morning. Hearing footsteps, he turned and stared at me with his blue eyes. They were the same color as the ones belonging to Rick Parson, the boy I had liked since second grade. For a moment, I relaxed my resentment toward the boy. But then he opened his mouth.
"Who are you?" he asked, clearly disgusted with my pajamas. All the cute similarities to Rick left in a hurry.
Normally I ignored my mother's students, but I was feisty that morning.
"I live here," I said. "Do you?"
His face softened. "Oh, you're Delilah's daughter," he said, extending a hand. His arms were covered with white blotches, what I thought was paint. "I'm Todd. It's nice to finally meet you. Your mother's told us all about you."
"No she hasn't," I said, ignoring his hand, which fell limply to his side.
I headed for the kitchen, leaving Todd grinning like a moron. On my way there, I passed by a windowsill, where a caulk gun rested beside the glass. I assumed it was for another one of my mother's projects, but had no idea how drastic it was going to be. She had mentioned that she was working on something "revolutionary," something that she wanted me to be a part of. It was the same tired claim she made for all of her stuff. Before I got too irritated thinking about it, I tried to remember my guidance counselor telling me that I needed to make the best of this last summer before college with my mom, no matter how much she and her students pissed me off sometimes.
In the kitchen, I found my mother sitting at the table, wearing her flowing black dress that made her look like a witch, especially when she let down her gray-streaked hair. It was her outfit of choice, ever since she threw dad out twelve years earlier-it was more "honest," she once told me, although I didn't understand what that meant. She wore a long, beaded necklace and quarter-sized rings on her thin fingers. Her face showed some age with wrinkles, but she was still more beautiful than I would ever be.
Across from her sat a young blonde woman in a beige power-suit, her hair pulled back in a bun as she scribbled notes on a steno pad. Oh, great, another interview, I thought. These had been a regular occurrence for years, and my mom used to demand in vain that I look and act perfect in front of the reporters. On the day that I heard that I was going to boarding school instead of the local high school with Rick, I barged into one of her interviews and announced to everyone in the room that my mother was a cunt. After that, she decided that this was a battle she couldn't win, and stopped requesting my presence.
"Now, Delilah," the woman said as I drifted toward the cupboard to look for some Lucky Charms, "your recent work has been criticized as reactionary. Tell me about your latest project."
I rolled my eyes and "humphed" loud enough for them to hear me. My mom's "reactionary" pieces included placing a garbage sculpture on the statehouse lawn and draping a grim reaper hood on a local statue. No one knew what the hell she was reacting to, but it got her on the news.
"Oh, I call it Aquarium," my mother said, stroking her hair. "It's a microcosm of the real world, only not real. My real-life world will be transformed into something magical, for the whole world to see, and for the whole world to wrestle with."
She finally noticed me when I uncrumpled the plastic bag inside the cereal box.
"Athena, darling, good morning," she said.
"Wow—Athena," the reporter said. "That's a cool name. Do you know what it means?"
"Yeah," I said, dropping a few marshmallow clovers and horseshoes into my mouth. "It's Greek for 'my parents did a lot of drugs.'"
My mother laughed in her fake way. Her eyes lingered on the reporter until she laughed as well. It was perhaps an unfair comment—I knew my mom squirmed every time I brought up the fact that, yes, she had actually made me with another human being. I left the room, still clutching my precious cereal box.
I took the bus into Philadelphia that afternoon. I walked around, looking at the people, getting philosophical about the meaning of life, or the lack thereof, while browsing through bookstores with a latte in my hand. A typically spoiled yet awful suburban teenage day. Until, that is, I felt a tap on my shoulder while I waited for the bus. I turned, and there was Rick Parson asking, "What's up, Athena?"
His eyes were much prettier than Todd's. I stared at them until I responded with a meek, "Hello." Even though I was old enough to be cynical about such things, I indulged in the idea that I was meant to run into him. This was the same guy, after all, who carried me home in the second grade when I skinned my knee, all the while telling me that his scoutmaster had always said to keep pressure on an open wound. From then on, his name was the word that appeared more than any other in my journal, but I never had the guts to tell him how I felt, nor would I have known what to do even if I had. Throughout grade school, I had to listen to how the other girls liked him, and how on occasion he kissed them at their stupid parties. The only good thing about boarding school was the fact that I didn't have to hear about that anymore.
Rick and I sat next to each other on the bus. He was so sweet, talking about training for football, fixing up his car, going to the movies. The University of Pennsylvania had offered him a scholarship, he said. It was dizzying to think of him as a man now. I told him about my free ride to Boston University to study English. I never got tired of saying that, of how far off and mystical it sounded, like an oasis. I didn't want to study literature, or go on to some PhD program. Instead, I just wanted to get a job proofreading things, making sure that the mechanics of the language were in order. No artsy stuff for me, just a job, something I knew I was good at, something that wouldn't consume me and make me forget those around me, whoever they ended up being.
It was the first time Rick and I had spoken since Christmas, when I had seen him at a former classmate's party. That night, he showed me how to tap a keg, something I never learned at my school, where the girls were rich enough to afford pills and cocaine. It was sad to think of all the dumb but fun things I missed out on, especially when Rick said that maybe it was cool to go to boarding school, because it would be like college. Yeah, I said, if college is populated by whiny, spoiled brats who think they know everything. It was still a few months before I figured out that my joke was actually true, and even longer before I realized that I might have been referring to myself.
Even though Rick told the same stories as he had at the party, I listened and laughed again. He had an impersonation of this crazy history teacher, who spit the "s" sound in his last name: "Parssssson!" I told Rick that I had a picture of him from the party wearing a funny Santa Claus hat. "I could get it for you," I said, unable to hide that I expected a rejection.
"That would be great!" he said, his voice dripping with the All-American charm that would have disgusted my mother.
We left the bus stop and headed for my house. I wanted Rick to hold my hand. In fact, things were going so well that I thought he would actually reach out and do it. But it didn't happen, and what I saw once I reached home made me realize that it probably never would.
The fire hydrant in front of the house had a giant hose attached to it. Water droplets hissed from the spout. The hose snaked up our horseshoe driveway, through the garden, and into the backyard. Trying to ignore Rick's confused expression, I followed the hose with Rick trailing behind me, mumbling in confusion. Todd was standing on a ladder, holding the end of the hose into the back window of the house. He was having a great time, smiling and nodding to music that was probably going on in his head. I could hear the water gushing into the kitchen, and could tell from the sound that it wasn't hitting linoleum but a virtual sea that had been rising all day long, perhaps since right after I left the house.
"What the mother-fuck are you doing?" I screamed.
"What?" he said, holding his hand to his ear. "I can't hear you with the hose going!"
I slapped my forehead. "Shut that off, you idiot!"
"Athena!" I heard my mother yell. I located the voice—she was on the other side of the house, coming towards us across the grass.
"Mom, what the hell is this?" I asked.
"It's about humanity's struggle with nature," she said, waving her arm toward the house. "It represents a complete paradigm shift on how we look at bourgeois America in the twenty-first century. It speaks to the masses and the intelligentsia."
"Oh, is that what it is?" I said, throwing up my hands. "Because, for a minute there, I thought this metrosexual gentleman here was using a firehouse to flood our fucking house!"
"Athena, you don't get it."
"I told you I was doing something revolutionary, and that I wanted you to be a part of it."
"How are we supposed to live?" I asked.
"Our struggle to get through this will be representative of humanity's struggle to understand the universe."
"Oh. My. God."
Rick stood beside me with his jaw still gaping. "Maybe I should go," he said.
"No!" I said. "I'm getting you your picture."
"I don't really—"
"I'm getting the goddamn picture," I said. "Now, how do I get upstairs, Mother?"
"Through the living room, of course."
"So I have to swim?"
"Yes," she said. "That's part of the struggle."
I clenched my hands into fists and inhaled a deep breath. "Fine," I said, charging towards the ladder and taking off my shoes. "Get out of the way, you moron," I ordered Todd. He clamped the hose and stepped down.
Climbing the ladder, I peered into the window to see that the water was at about five feet-almost to the windowsill. The table and countertops were submerged. Plastic bowls, waterlogged paper towel rolls, cereal boxes, and other debris floated about, which I supposed were all part of my mother's artistic vision. Instead of remaining stagnant, the water still undulated from the force of the hose, the waves hitting the walls with loud slaps. It was as if some alien blob had seized the house and was slowly consuming everything. I hesitated, perched atop the ladder. I reached out and put my hand in the water, its coldness reminding me that this was all real.
"Go ahead," my mother said. "You might like it."
That not being worthy of a response, I jumped in, the cold shocking me for a second. I stood up, my head just above the surface. I brushed the hair from my eyes and began swimming, passing by the knight, the pig-man, the paintings, and all the other crap that had infested my house for years. They were even eerier in the hazy water, looking like sunken treasures.
I made it to the stairs, where I gained my footing and marched dripping wet to my room. As if things weren't humiliating enough, my red t-shirt, now maroon with moisture, was plastered against my small boobs and bulging love handles. Shivering, I dug through my desk drawers with wet hands until I came across the photograph of Rick. He was holding a Coke in one hand and giving a thumbs-up with the other, his Santa hat a little crooked.
Holding the picture over my head, I swam back to the window. I rested the photo on the sill and looked out, but only saw the smug faces of my mother and Todd.
Rick was gone.***
It's been twelve years since the Summer of the Fishbowl. Now that I have some perspective on things, and with my former life getting smaller in the distance, I can say with confidence: It wasn't always like this.
My earliest memories took place in the backyard, where my father would carry me on his back and run around while I giggled and stuck my arms out, pretending to be a superhero. He would tell me about his days in the Army, when he was stationed in Germany, and about his current job flying planes. My parents had met when my mom was studying abroad and my dad was a captain. It sounded so magical then, like some kind of legend of a faraway place and forgotten time. I thought that my parents were happy, and that it was normal for them to spend so much time apart.
My mom would feed us cookies and laugh with us. Sometimes, her students paid a visit to our home. I liked them then. One of them, a painter named Tonya, used to draw multicolored peace signs on my cheeks, so that every time she came over I would beg for one more elaborate than the last. The students called me their "little flower girl." Of course, things were probably not as idyllic as what I remember, but I chose to remember them as such just the same. Anything was better than the present, even a blatant exaggeration.
Another memory from when I was six or seven, this one a little closer to the truth: my mother herding me into her car one night. She had been crying. It was late, and I was in my footy pajamas, sleepy. I kept asking her, Mommy, where are we going? She said, we're looking for your fucking father. She drove fast, and at first I thought it was cool, but then I cried as the other cars on the road blasted their horns at us. Her hands clamped to the wheel, she stopped answering me when I talked to her, when I said, Mommy, please, let's go home. We pulled into the parking lot of a motel, and my mother told me to wait there. I just nodded. She got out and marched through the lot, a shadow against the neon motel sign. She pounded on every door, one at a time, each answered by a tired, disgruntled tenant. They yelled at her, and she yelled back. Finally, she tried one door on the end. It opened, and my father stepped out in a sleeveless shirt and boxers. A woman was in there with him-actually it was a girl, one of my mother's freshmen. My father had to hold my mother back as she screamed. People in other rooms told them to shut up, we're tryin' to sleep up here. Then some police cars came. The whole world filled up with swirling red and blue light.
Not long after all of that, my father went to jail for sleeping with a seventeen-year old, never to be heard from again. In turn, my mother produced some of her finest work, the stuff that brought in grant money and landed her on Oprah. She announced one day that there would be no more talk of dad, that he wasn't good enough to be referred to, and whenever I asked about him, she would beat her temples with her fists and run off to her room and ask why I had to talk about the past all the time. Diving back into teaching, she forced herself to trust the students again, despite the betrayal that one of them-Tonya, for all I knew-had inflicted. Before long, they became her best friends, because they never questioned her genius, and never wondered about the price those around her paid. She sat me down and told me how important it was that I carry on this legacy, that I not be tied down to some horrible man who would drop me when my hips became too wide. I said, "Mom, I don't wanna be an artist."
"Yes you do," she replied.
Her speech degenerated into the gibberish it had become by the time Aquarium began. At the same time, my own language became suspect. I trained myself to put the disclaimer "I love my mom, but" before every declaration of my hatred for her. My mother's artsy-fartsy lingo would have described this guilty habit as the product of early twenty-first century, post-modern, blah, blah, blah, whatever.
I'm sure that my mother's students would have said something trite about the path she had taken to greatness—something like, "That which does not kill you only makes you stronger." What a joke. In my mother's case, that which didn't kill her only made her wish it had. And I had to witness it-the bouts of crying, the sleepless nights when she designed and produced her masterpieces. I remember one time during my first summer back from school, when, just to see her reaction, I yelled into my mother's studio that I was going to the local crackhouse, and that I wouldn't be back until next week. "Okay, fine," she said over her hunched shoulder. "Have a good time." While I knew that she had convinced herself that she had done me a favor raising me like this, exposing me to the unfairness of the real world so early, I nursed my bitterness over it for years. It was only during the Summer of the Fishbowl when I realized that this anger had become my constant companion, much like my mother's anger toward my father had been hers. Living like that becomes easier than living any other way once you get used to it.
On the first night of the Fishbowl Summer, I dragged myself to my bedroom and buried my face in my comforter. I cried and pounded my fists, mumbling curses at my mother until I grew tired and fell asleep. I dreamed about water gods-Poseidon and the Kraken and other characters from Clash of the Titans—enjoying some seaweed salad in my submerged dining room. I awoke around midnight, delirious. I grabbed my cell phone and began dialing Rick's number. He'll understand, I kept telling myself. But all I got to talk to was his charming voicemail, which asked me to please leave a message and to have a nice day. "Rick, uh, I know you're probably asleep," I said, "or you're ignoring this call—which is fine, because, you know, today was pretty weird. But maybe we can still get together. I still owe you that picture. Ha, ha. Oh, God-I'm sorry about all this. Give me a call if you can, or if you feel like it, I mean, if you want to. Okay, bye."
In the morning, I began throwing my belongings out my window into the yard. My clothes would survive the fall, although my computer and phone would have to stay in the room for now. I would figure out how to transport them later. I knew that I couldn't make the jump either, so I had to make one last swim through the Fishbowl and out the back window again. Approaching the stairs, I heard the sounds of laughter and splashing, and knew it was my mother's students reveling in their mentor's latest work of genius.
I walked down the steps until my feet hit the water, which looked red because of the carpet. More random objects floated around, including a framed picture of me when I was six and a member of the girls' tee ball squad. In my nightgown, I waded in until I could swim. All around me, the dozen or so members of my mother's senior thesis class giggled and gossiped, rejoicing in this act of rebellion against the modern world. One of the girls breastroked toward me and smiled.
"I just wanted to tell you that your mother is an absolute genius," she said, rubbing the water out of her eyes.
"I just wanted to tell you to go fuck yourself," I said.
For the hell of it, I swam into the living room, heading toward the gray light of the giant window that cut through the murky water. Once there, I stopped and stared outside, my toes grazing the spongy carpet. Instead of my lawn, I saw an army of reporters and photographers squatting in front of the window. A barrage of flashbulbs blinded me, one of which took that infamous picture. I gave them the double-barreled middle-finger salute (which should have been the more famous picture, in my opinion). Then I swam back through the school of seniors and toward the kitchen. At the window where I had entered the day before, my mother waded in her usual black gown. It flowed around her like an oil spill.
"I see that you've thrown out all those nice clothes I bought for you," she said.
"Would you have preferred it if they had drowned, too?"
"Athena," she said, "just give this thing a try, okay? We're doing something special here. Didn't you see all the cameramen outside?"
"Yeah, I saw them, Mom."
"So I'm moving all my stuff out to the guesthouse," I said, brushing past her to get to the window.
"No," she said feebly.
"Yes. Jesus, Mom, do you even give a shit about what this is doing to us? You wrecked the house! You destroyed all your work! For what?"
"I made sure that your things were in your room."
"That's not the point!"
"Look, all of my work has led to this," she said. "Did you see the joy in the faces of those students out there? Did you see the wonder in the eyes of those reporters? They know that this is a testament to the revolutionary power of art. They know that all the people who want to brainwash us into thinking that our possessions are everything are scared of this, of what it says."
This coming from the woman who bought a mansion and gloated, What does your father think now? "You care more about those phonies than you do about me," I said, climbing up to the windowsill.
"I did this for you!"
I put one leg over the sill. "If that's true," I said, "then you really are more pathetic than I thought."
I jumped into the backyard, leaving my mother speechless in the water.***
I must have had some kind of nervous breakdown a few weeks into the Fishbowl Summer, when staying in the guesthouse had lost any semblance of novelty. Reporters and students kept peering in at me, tapping at the glass and whispering to each other. I warded them off by sticking wet tampons to the windows.
It was around this time that www.marquisaquarium.com installed a twenty-four/seven camera so people in Fiji could see the idiots swimming around in my living room, and vicariously join this revolt against sanity. Meanwhile, my mother kept trying to reach out in her own misguided ways. One day, she slipped a credit card under the door with a note saying, "Use this. Love, Mom." She didn't realize how obnoxious this was, how it brought back all the bad memories of upbringing. Still, a few days later, as if understanding her mistake, she left an old photo of my tee-ball team by the door to the house. It was in a new frame, and it had a note attached to it that read, "I love you. When you're ready, let's talk." My eyes welled up when I saw it, and I quickly looked around to make sure that no one caught me getting emotional.
I pushed these feelings aside as I tried to figure out what to do about Rick. Unable to call him again, but somewhat inspired by my mother's gesture, I mailed the picture I had promised to his address. I was up all night writing a letter to go with it. It said that I was sorry about how weird it was the last time we had hung out, and that I hoped to see him again before I left for college. There was no reply.
Not surprisingly, my journal read as such:
July 6: Fuck the Fishbowl.
July 7: Fuck the Fishbowl.
July 8: Fuck the Fishbowl.
And so forth.
Years earlier, I convinced myself that I had grown up and become an adult, because there had been no other choice. But now I think it was the Fishbowl that really did it. The few things from my past that had been so comforting, like Rick, had left me in such a theatrical way. Now I was truly alone, more so than I had been during my mother's busy days, more so than I had been at school. This is how the world is, I realized. This is what people face every day. Alone.
One day at the end of July, when I was counting down the hours until I would leave for Boston, my mother came to the guesthouse. "Athena," she yelled, her voice muffled.
I opened the door and leaned against it while she stood there.
"It's time to talk," she said.
"I don't want to talk until you drain the house and we can live like normal people," I said. It was a line I had been rehearsing it for weeks.
"Could I at least explain what this is all about?"
"You already did, and it's ri-goddamn-diculous," I said. "Did one of those brats put you up to this? Do they want to flood the guesthouse now?"
"Calm down." She blocked the door when I tried to shut it. "Damn it, just listen to me."
I gave up on trying to shut the door and relaxed. Backing away, I plopped on the cot where I slept every night. She pulled up a chair, sat down, and leaned toward me. She looked tired, but I wasn't ready to have any sympathy for her just yet.
"Fine, talk," I said.
"I know you're mad. I know I haven't done a good job of explaining myself."
"Get to your point, Mom."
"Look, you know a lot of this has to do with our lives over the past few years. I mean, it has to do with the fact that I've had to raise you alone since your father left." I tried to keep a poker face. It was the first time we had spoken of my father's absence in years. I thought I was going to cry, and how that would be some kind of victory for my mother. "I wanted to just erase him," she said. "But I erased him for you, too, and that wasn't fair."
"No, it wasn't."
"Right," she said. "And so I realized that what I really wanted to erase, what I should get rid of, was the last few years between us. So I turned to my artwork and it spoke to me. It said that I needed something biblical to exorcise our demons, and to start over. Does that make sense?"
"Yes, it makes sense," I said. She looked content when I said that. Her whole body relaxed. "But I don't believe you."
Her head sank, and she exhaled audibly through her nose.
"You came up with some mumbo-jumbo to get me on your side, just like you did to win over everybody else," I said. "I'm not one of your students, Mom." I got up and headed for the door, but the sound of my mother crying made me stop.
"Athena," she said, standing up, "I wanted to shield you from the world, including what happened with your father. But then I realized too late that you have to just stand up to it, and say, 'I don't give a fuck,' you know? That's what this is all about. You and I were meant to tell people about this. That's why you're a part of this."
Tears began to blur my vision. "What do you want from me, Mom?"
"Just open your mind," she said. "When this is over, it will make sense, I swear."
I looked at the ground for a long time. When this is over, I thought.
"You want me to jump in there with all of those freaks?"
"Yes," she said, almost sounding surprised.
"Because I'm a part of this."
"Yes," she said, reaching out to me. "This is my gift to you. I wanted you to choose for yourself to be a part of it."
Choose. I couldn't tell if she meant it, but it made sense. I can choose to join in or not. In one summer, she had helped me to grow up more than she had in the previous decade. This was her only way, whether she was fully aware of it or not.
So I kicked off my sandals and headed for the ladder to the rear window. Climbing it, I peered inside. The water smelled like chlorine, which my mother had to reluctantly add because of the smell coming from the place. I gave my mother one last look as she gazed proudly at me. Then I jumped in.
The water was warmer this time, probably because so many people had swum in it. Professors, actors, writers, artists, and other attention-starved people from around the world had visited. My mother was still trying to book the Dalai Lama. I swam into the dining room. Todd was there with about a dozen students. They held books out of the water while Todd led them in another poetry recital. He stopped when he saw me.
"Athena!" he said, as if we were long lost friends.
"Hi, everyone," I said. "Don't mind me."
I swam between them and towards the aluminum knight. I gripped the statue's sword and pulled as hard as I could. It broke free and almost made me sink with it. I used all my strength to bring it to the surface. The students gasped and stared, but I ignored them and waded into the living room. There, the giant window framed the gaggle of reporters and art groupies who had set up camp since the Fishbowl had begun.
Holding the sword like a spear, I drove it into the glass. I expected it to shatter, but the sword just stopped with a thud, leaving only a small gash in the window. I jabbed it again and again, and the gash spread into a spider web of cracks. The people outside began to yell. The flashbulbs of the cameramen produced a strobe effect, freezing my every violent movement. This is me, I thought. This is what you made me, mother. I am Athena, a woman now, named for some false goddess, daughter of a man with no name, discarded but back from the dead. I am choosing a path. This is me.
A hand grabbed my arm while I was about to stab the window again. I turned and saw my mother as she gripped my wrist and glared at me. Todd and a few of the other students stood behind her.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm exorcising my demons."
"No, it's not supposed to be like this! We have to preserve the integrity of the piece until—"
"For Christ's sake, Mom, will you talk like a normal person?" I said, turning to the students. "All of you! Just be normal! Stop trying so hard to be different! It just makes you all the same!"
"Athena—" my mother said.
"Don't you get it! I just want to be normal! I'm choosing to be normal. I want to go to college, get a job, marry some guy, live in the suburbs, have a few kids, grow old, bake cookies and die! I want to be normal!"
"We are not normal," my mother said, still holding my shoulders, her eyes peering into mine. "You're the one who doesn't get it."
A grinding, cracking sound began in the window. Everyone in the room turned towards it. Before we could brace ourselves, the window collapsed out onto the front lawn in a tidal wave of glistening water and glass that roared with a giant thwoosh. The force of the water sucked all of us forward, sending my mother and me out the window. I saw Todd hanging onto the doorframe, some girl grabbing his leg to avoid flying out. We tumbled onto the lawn, rolling over as the water poured out of the house. All around us, the people stared and the photographers snapped pictures. Inside, Todd regained his footing and walked over to the broken window frame, the water now down to his shins. He looked like he was going to cry.
I dropped the sword and knelt on the ground. My arm had a small cut from the glass, but I was otherwise unhurt. My mother sat next to me, staring into space. Then the shouts and the flashes seemed to wake her from a trance. She put on her fake smile again and stood up. Pulling her drenched hair back, she nodded at the crowd of reporters, allowing the suspense to build.
"And so concludes Aquarium," she said.
The crowd said, "Oh." People bobbed their heads in agreement. My mom turned back to the students and nodded at them. Todd replaced the look of horror on his face with a smile and began clapping. The other students joined in until the reporters had no choice but to applaud as well. My mother put her hands on her hips and grinned, but I stood up and grabbed her by her shoulders.
"Mother," I said, staring into her eyes, "tell them what really just happened." The clapping had stopped. The people leaned in to hear what I was saying. "Tell them your crazy bitch daughter smashed the window." She kept staring at me, her fake smile quivering under the strain. I couldn't tell if her eyes were begging me to stop or not.
"Mother, don't use this," I said. "Not this. Please." I was crying. All she had to do was say that this hadn't been part of some elaborate plan. I didn't want these games anymore, and I didn't care if she was right about us not being normal. As we stood there, I tried to picture my mom as the nice lady from my almost-real memory who handed out cookies while I played in the backyard. For a moment, my mother resembled that woman, and in the time it took to inhale and exhale, I believed that she would choose to be that person. That belief, for as long as it lasted, felt wonderful. Years later, I would still remember this feeling, and sometimes even pretend that it never faded away.
I wiped tears from my hot cheeks and waited for my mother to say something. But she stepped away from me and toward the reporters.
"And, as I had planned all along," she said to the reporters, "I would like to introduce you to one of the inspirations for this project, and the person whom I wanted to end it. My daughter, Athena."
I wanted to be strong and wise and proud. I wanted to use this moment to understand things, to start a new life. I wanted to know that things would be better, and to believe that this would make sense someday. I wanted to be able to describe all the things I wanted. But all I could do was walk back to the guesthouse with my voice silent and my mind a void-alone, as I always knew I would be, but only beginning to learn how to live with it.
Robert Repino grew up in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. After serving in the Peace Corps, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Word Riot, The Furnace Review, 'a-pos-tro-phe, Ghoti, and the anthology Brevity and Echo.
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