The Overnight Bag

Vanessa Martir

I left your father over seven years ago when you were just a year and a half. But I knew it was over when I was pregnant. Truth is I know now that relationship happened so I could have you. You who have saved me from myself so many times.

One day last fall, you woke up in a foul mood. You cried when I sang, “Wake up time.” You pouted while you went about your morning routine. Stomped around the house, sucked your teeth when I asked you what you wanted for breakfast. This is so not you. You’re usually so kind and patient and compassionate. I should have known something was off. Instead, I lost my patience and yelled. That’s when the tears came. Buckets of tears. I tried to hold you but you pushed me away. I bit my lip to keep from letting you see how much that stings. Your rejection cuts deeper into me than any machete made by any man.

We were about to walk out the door when I told you to grab your overnight bag. “I don’t wanna take it. I hate that bag.” This bag was a symbol for being different. You don’t have a father who lives at home. This is the bag you’ve taken with you every other Friday for the past seven years. To the baby sitter, day care, Head Start, to school for kindergarten, first and second grade, even summer camp. More tears by the bucket. “Why can’t we have a real family like everybody else?” My insides caved. You stayed home with me that day. A mommy-daughter day. We both needed it.

* * *

When your father first got married when you were four, I felt a change in you. You were quieter. One day you asked, “Why can’t you and Papi be together? Why can’t we be a family?” I’ve never lied to you, and I don’t speak badly about your dad in front of you.

“Well, you know when you have a friend and they stop being nice to you, do you still want to be their friend?”

“No, Mommy.” You shook your head. “We don’t like mean people.”

“No we don’t. Well, Mama, your dad wasn’t nice to me so I didn’t want to be his friend anymore.” I couldn’t tell you about how abusive he was. The terrible things he said when he was angry–“That’s why Millie died. Because she was a fucking lesbian.” How I had to wear a long sleeve to your first birthday though it was 90 degrees because I had bruises on my arms from where he’d grabbed me and shook me.

You stared at me, your eyes telling me you understood. Sometimes I think you really do.

A few months ago, you told me your dad was talking badly about me. You didn’t say what he said, but you did tell me, “I told him, Papi I don’t like it when you talk bad about my mom. That’s not nice and I don’t like it.” You say he’s never done it since.

* * *

Your dad and his wife had a baby two years ago. You call him my little brother with fierce pride and protection. You told me you wanted to see your dad more. “Is that okay, Mom?” You cupped my face in your hands. “I love you Mommy.” You were so worried that would hurt me.

I reached out to your dad. I told him you said you wanted to spend more time with him. I was willing to make it work for him. Maybe once a week on a day that fit his schedule. “I have too many responsibilities,” he said. I never told you that, Nena. I knew it would crush you. I did tell him that when you got old enough to ask where he was when you needed him, I was going to send you to him to answer that question. He didn’t say anything.

* * *

When you asked me a few months ago, “Why can’t we have a normal family?” I thought that I was failing you. And then I watch you. I watch you reading on the bus, dancing on a stage, making hysterical videos with your best friend, Po, laughing with your friends, holding the door open for people, telling me stories about your trip to the botanical gardens and how you saw a frog the size of your hand in the marsh. It’s then that you remind me that you are my daughter, a piece of me, and I think maybe, just maybe, I’m doing a decent job of raising you.

The bag isn’t an issue anymore. I bought you a book about single parent households and we read it together and talked about it. And I held you through it. Through your wanting to fit in. Through your ache for something “normal.”

You smoothed your hand on my cheek when I put you to bed one night and said, “Thank you for choosing me to be your daughter.” I laughed and said, “I think you chose me to be your mom, Nena.” You giggled. “Yes, I did. I made the right choice.”

Vanessa Martir is a NYC based writer and teaching artist. She is currently completing her first memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey in her blog: Vanessa is a mom, a five time VONA fellow, and a lover of all things art, community and personal narrative.

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