When everyone else was out of the house and only my mom and I were left, it took me years before I was able to even speak during a fight. I used to just sit and watch her while she would scream at me. She has amazing stamina and can shout about the simplest thing for hours.
After a while I was able to talk, negotiate, listen and compro-mise during an argument. But I have probably raised my voice three times in my entire life. It’s just not something I ever saw a point in doing before the rape.
One extremely sunny morning, my mom storms into my room as I am lying motionless on the bed, Piccadilly pressed against me. She uses The Voice.
“Michelle, I think it is disgusting how many clothes you have. Have you even looked in your closet?”
She stalks to my closet, yanks it open and starts to tear item after item of clothing onto the floor. She has small, stubbly hands and they won’t stop grabbing my clothes and pulling them onto the floor.
“The clothes don’t even fit in there!”
She goes on. And on. And on. I am gluttonous. I am ungrateful. I am spoiled. I sit up on the bed and look at my red toes and the ingrown hairs on my legs. Her small chest is heaving underneath her black t-shirt. I look at the violent emotions crossing her face.
“Just listen –“ I try.
“No, you do not appreciate what you have! Do you think everyone lives like this? It’s disgusting!”
I struggle to breathe. My muscles tense. My blood boils in my body and spills into my head. Everything inside me feels like shooting out and killing something.
She’s attacking me.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” I scream. I jump up and run across the carpet to push her chest – hard. My mom stumbles backwards. Her body slams into the white cupboards.
I shake. I have no idea how that just happened. My mom’s eyes are wide and scared. I run out of the room and down the stairs and out of the front door.
The feeling of power is overwhelming. It is something I have never experienced before, having control over someone else, the power to shock them and hurt them. I have no idea whether it’s good or bad but for that second it feels good. It feels good to stand up for myself and fight back. It feels good not to let someone else get the better of me.
I get into my grey Yaris and drive. Even though I’m crying, I feel powerful. I fought back. I drive and drive – to the beach, past the mall – but the driving is uneventful. There’s only so many places you can go when you didn’t get dressed and you have red, puffy eyes and no cellphone or money on you. But I have proved my agency. I acted and removed myself from the situation.
I would have to work on the execution though.
I go back to my mom who is sitting on the carpet in my sister’s room, her back resting against the double bed with the wooden frame. I catch her in a rare moment of stillness and I sit down next to her.
“I’m proud of you.” Her brown eyes are filled with an endless well of love. It’s the kind of love that sustains you, that you can feed off and grow from. It’s a love that sees you as pure, no matter how you feel about yourself. A love that sees who you would really like to be.
“For fighting back. All those years, I thought there was something wrong with you.”
I smile and she hugs me. Piccadilly jumps up and licks us, not able to handle that she’s left out.
I can fight back now.
I realise that I can’t distinguish between physical and emotional threats anymore. I perceive any emotional attack, no matter how small or insignificant, as though it is being made on my life. The problem is, I defend myself as such. I also realise that, after all I experienced, I will never sit back passively while someone attacks me ever again. I now know with a certainty that scares me that the next person who attacks me will have to kill me before I lie down and let them do that to me again.
Later that day, my mom and I go Christmas shopping. I am apologetically addicted to Christmas. I look forward to it all year long, and the kind of celebration I like is one that takes a lot of planning, time and effort.
My mom and I decide on a theme of white, silver, purple and blue to decorate our tree this year. I want us to buy a proper Christmas tree this year but they are too expensive. I feel sadder about that than I should at my age.
When my mom sees my face she turns her car around and drives over the curb to where they keep the real, living pine trees. Sparse, dry and light green but sturdy and strong. “Which one do you want?” My mom looks at me.
“That one,” I point to the biggest one in the lot. Obviously. An Afrikaans Oomie in blue shorts, and his son, help us lift the tree and take it to the car, but the tree’s so big that we have to drive home to get the Land Cruiser because it doesn’t fit into my mom’s yellow Yaris.
Once my mom and I get home – to the furious barking of our dogs – we struggle to get it out of the car. Then we give up and drink wine while we wait for my stepdad to do it.
Once my stepdad gets home, we realise it doesn’t fit through the front door either – he has to trim it down. The top of the tree is bent against the roof the whole of Christmas.
It is magnificent. Sturdy, strong. Alive. Shedding green. I love that green tree.
Christmas is less than spectacular, less than eventful. But I am surrounded by love. At Christmas Eve dinner, I have to say something special about my mom.
“My mom was blessed with a fighting spirit.” Anyone who has ever met my mother knows that she fights, sometimes to the detriment of herself and everyone around her. I add, “So Mom, thanks for fighting for me even when I can’t fight for myself.”