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After/Before.

Author: Sylvia-Marie Cleite

I have lived with shame as a tightly coiled rubber band ball sat in my stomach and threatening to snap โ€“ 
since the night he did not return. 
A school night, hazy and blurred. Dull repetition, nothing interesting, nothing of worth. So, I cannot tell you the class I had that day or the teachers I spoke to. Nor can I list the friends that used to be my whole world but whose faces have now melted and morphed. 
I can describe the dread, like a bad smell, perfuming the car on the way home. The confusion cast in each headlight. The questionsโ€ฆ . . . lingering. The doubt when the answer was cleverly dodged and redirected. Child lock and no way out – kids are smarter than any adult gives them credit for. I can tell you, that my auntie never picked me up from school usually. I got the bus, or my mum did, or โ€ฆ my dad. I can also tell you, that the only times an adult will drive in silence with a kid in the backseat, are the times in which the adult cannot admit defeat. Silence is instead allowed to terminate every chance at conversation, and the frustration, I can tell you I was so close to screaming, demanding, throwing a fit, and screeching until my suspicions were proved wrong. Yet we drove in silence, all words hanging themselves in the back of my throat and swinging gently with the motion of the car. When we werenโ€™t far (but too late to turn back) just two minutes away from our arrival, I suddenly felt in need of armour: a sword and shield for survival. 
I can tell you the air was cold and my bookbag was frozen against my hip when we walked to the door. I can tell you I hesitated at the threshold, wanting to stay in the โ€˜beforeโ€™. I didnโ€™t know what awaited me, I had no way of seeing through the wall, to where my mother sat poised and prepared as if the speech had been rehearsed and practiced and the delivery needed to be perfect. I was scared. The second emotion to rear its head. She sat me down. I almost fled. Now? I know the line by heart, like a first tattoo, carved into my chest. I felt the earth open; the crust and ground shatter, debris cascading into an open mouth, the walls of the lovely, pretty house peeling away, and no one could tell – โ€“ as a sticker stuck on a surface. I was not meant to be on this surfaceโ€ฆso I fell. 
After was a jagged line slicing the ground when I walked. After meant retaliation, anger, lashing out at the friends who dared still bother me with problems like homework and sick pets. After was a purgatory of promises and sickly-sweet offers of help in the form of gift baskets and sympathy cards. After made sure I could not return to before. That I was not welcome above ground, and I was not allowed to come back. No one on the surface could deal with that. 
Quickly, I learned how to trick a brain thatโ€™s grieving. I would squint my eyes at my friendโ€™s fathers and imagine them shifting into my own. Or I would dream about unzipping them and finding him underneath. In class, I wrote letters as if he was just on some trip, some land far away to collect stories to be told to his daughter at the airport gate โ€“ I Pushed. Down. The. Hate. The envy and rage. But I could not diminish the shame: that their dads stayed. I tried so hard to comprehend this in the weekly therapy visits, in the school hallway when kids would boldly ask me โ€“ why did he do it? Did he not love you enough? Did your parents split up? But it was worse when they asked how. 
I donโ€™t know how.
I know I am ashamed of the blood I carry. I am embarrassed, even now, when I cannot magically produce a father for fatherโ€™s day. I am angry, I am hollow, I am enraged, I am scorched, I am mortified and there is no grieving stage for that. Just an After and Before.
After he left I doubted any future love I would or could receive. I obsessed, I planned, and I rotted in bed for a man who did not bother to stay for me. The one man on earth that was meant to stay for me.
I have lived with shame as a tightly coiled rubber band ball sat in my stomach and threatening to snap โ€“ 
since the night he did not return.

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