Nate Lippens

My Dark Ages

Thirteen. I came home with cuts on my hands and blood on my ear and neck. I didn’t cry until I was inside the house.

“Why are they saying those things about you?”

“Because they’re true.”

I locked myself in the bathroom. Sitting on the blue and white tile floor trying to calm myself, I moved a dust mote along with my forefinger.

My mother cried. My whole life was lost and I hadn’t lived any of it yet. My mother mourned me, and it was real and true to her. She mourned for my soul. “It’s for God to judge,” they say, but that rarely stops them from taking a crack at it. Hell was the worst thing imaginable to a Christian. My mother thought the worst thing in her belief system would happen to me.

Being a good Christian meant being a bad mother.

She prayed for my salvation. She prayed and nothing happened. I wasn’t changed. She told me that my sin was another thorn in Jesus’s head. Maybe some people could hold those opposing thoughts in their head––that they were loved by god and what they did was hated––but I couldn’t.

I wanted her to recognize the pain in my voice and respond. I wanted her to act like a mother. Later I realized she was acting like a mother, she was acting like my mother.

Fourteen. The nurse removed a bucket and slid the curtain closed, leaving my mother and I alone. My stomach had been pumped of thirty sleeping pills. My mother had been summoned from her job as a clerk at the Hallmark store in the Bower City Mall and she was still wearing a button, which read: Ask Me About Precious Moments. My mother leaned in and said, “I hope you know how much this little stunt is costing.”

I was moved to a hospital room where I lay in bed staring at the TV mounted on the wall, filling the small room with chatter. My mother was looking out the window into the dark, and then at our reflections against the black glass.

“People will talk,” she said.

“About what?”

“What you’ve done.”

Not dying is such a mistake when you are trying to. People would talk about my close call, about what I’d done, but not, of course, what had been done to me. No, it was my fault and mine alone.

Maybe it was. Maybe what happened had driven me to the brink, or maybe it had allowed me to do what I’d wanted to for a long time. Nine years-old, alone in my room, looking up at the white sky and thinking I wouldn’t mind being there. But now, at fourteen, I wanted the ground, its quiet and darkness.

“You got everyone’s attention. Are you happy now?”

I stared at my hands on the blanket.

“Maybe you don’t give a damn what people think but I do,” she said. “It’s not bad enough I’m worried sick all weekend and you ruin my days off, but then you have to humiliate me.”

“Go home, I’ll be fine,” I said.

“I wasn’t planning on staying here tonight.” She gathered her purse and jacket. “I have to work in the morning so I can pay for this mess.”

She turned and left without looking back. Through the open door I watched her walking away, getting smaller. Waiting for the elevator, her profile was stiff. The elevator arrived and opened. The light changed across her face and torso. I wanted to see something there. I wanted to see her face turn back. But she stepped out of my vision and was gone.

It was hard to know whether I was having a nervous breakdown or not. The symptoms of living and losing my mind were so similar.

I was given a psychiatric diagnostic multiple choice:

Never. Sometimes. Often. Always.   

Day, year, president’s name.

Corridors of white light. A locked ward in a teaching hospital in a university town. The closest I would get to higher education was as a specimen.

First night was in a room with a closed door and an observation window in which nurses’ eyes appeared at regular intervals. There was a plastic mattress on the floor. I don’t remember sheets and I can’t remember if I was naked or it felt like I was.

I was the only kid on the ward. The rest were adults. Many had been there before. And they’d be back again. I’d lie in bed awake at night and listen to people murmuring and crying through the walls. I felt like a little fish slipping into dark water.

Back at school, I landed in homeroom with the emotionally disturbed––boys with cigarette burns and bruises with yellowed borders around dark, stained countries. They rocked in their chairs, drummed their hands, and jiggled their legs. Surplus energy filled the room. The desire to be free, to run––but to where, and then do what?

In the hallway a kid walked up to me and said, “Better luck next time.”

Fifteen, standing in her kitchen battered with a shiner and split lip, she said, “It can’t go on like this.’ Then weary, angry, resigned: “I don’t think I was such a bad mother.” Who was I to point out that she had started using the past tense while she was still, for all practical and legal purposes, a parent?

I told her I wasn’t going back to school.

“If you’re not going to school you can’t live here.”

Her coat was on and she was heading out the door. Reaching into her purse, she produced her keys and looked at me, waiting. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

“What am I supposed to say? I have to leave.”

“Or return to school. It’s your choice.”

“We both know I can’t do that.”

She looked down, pulled her upper lip thin into her lower lip. Was she going to cry? If she did would I comfort her? Instead, she turned and headed to the door, opening it and then locking it behind her.

I made some phone calls. In the basement I dug out my father’s old suitcase. Upstairs I pushed some clothes into it. I laced my boots slowly and walked down the hall, turning off lights as I went and sat in the kitchen, waiting for the sound of a car slushing down the street, coming to take me away.

I don’t know if she realized that I wouldn’t return. I didn’t.

Nate Lippens is the author of the chapbook MINCE (Bridge Productions, 2016). His stories have been published by Catapult, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Queen Mob's Tea House, and SAND Journal, among many others.

JD Thornton