My mother cut my heart out and put it in a box.
If this was a story, that’s how it would end.
It would begin with snow and the tragic, impersonal death of a young trophy wife, and fade into a montage of the replacement-bride, how she drenched her hair with honey and washed her face with milk.
That part’s true.
When my father remarried, the woman was unapologetically vain. She spent hours in front of the mirror, looking all alabaster and perfect. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, she went downtown to the day-spa, where they shaped her fingernails and peeled the top layer of her skin off with various kinds of acid.
I stayed home and dyed my hair. I caked my face with powder and drew black lines around my eyes to show everyone the difference between us, that I wasn’t like her, that she wasn’t really my mother. She kept buying me dresses in pink and turquoise, and acting like we could be best friends.
Let me start again. My father’s wife had my heart cut out. She put it in a box.
The secret is that it wasn’t really my heart. Her slim gigolo boyfriend took me out to the Presidio, where the salt wind blew in off the sea. He touched my face and breathed licorice and aftershave on me, which made me want to scream. Then, he bought a pound of lamb’s heart from a butcher in Greek Town and took it home to her. He told her he loved her. He told her that the dense, membranous muscle belonged to me.
Okay, that last part was a lie. Can you tell that I’m lying? My stepmother doesn’t have a boyfriend. But if she did, he’d be young, with wavy hair and bad shoes. He’d be the kind of guy who knows where to buy organ meat in primarily-ethnic neighborhoods.
This is more like it: my obscenely vain stepmother put on her fifty-dollar Dior eyeshadow and her Manolo Blahnik pumps and reached for her Gaultier clutch. She cut her own heart out and dipped it in lead or mercury—one of those metals that poisons you and makes you go crazy. She fed it to me in sly, careful moments, in pieces, so that I would be like her.
I sat in my room with the shades pulled down and the venom of her heart moved like poison, getting under my skin and making me all drowsy. She spent hours by the country club pool, trying to look younger, but washed-up socialites never do.
I lay with the blankets over me, so heavy I couldn’t move my head. My dye-job was starting to grow out and the roots were showing. I stayed so long, it felt like I was turning into stone.
Then one night, she came to my room like a silent film-star, slightly crazed, smelling like gin, and yanked me out of bed. She sat me in front of the ruffled vanity, studying me with bleary eyes.
“I just want you to like me,” she said. “I just want us to do things together. Why don’t you like me?”
The whole time, she kept touching me in that clumsy, drunk way, tugging at my hair. I watched her reflection so I wouldn’t have to watch my own—the crumpled way her mouth seemed to just collapse. Her eyelids were dark and greasy-looking, like she’d bruised them.
She took me by the shoulders and shook me hard, suddenly. “Why are you doing this to yourself? Why do you insist on looking like a freak? Are you determined to embarrass me?”
She brandished a handkerchief—white, petal-soft—and began to scrub my face. She scrubbed hard and fierce, until my mouth got pink and so did my cheeks. She wiped my makeup off like she was scrubbing me back to life.
“Answer me,” she kept saying, but her voice sounded weird and shrill, and the words had stopped making sense.
When I opened my mouth, it felt like a tiny version of a black hole, where light disappeared and nothing could come out. She shook me and my head rocked back and forth. I couldn’t stop nodding.
She swept from the room without warning and came back with the scissors. I closed my eyes. The blades made a whispering noise, snick, snick. I felt lighter.
When she dropped the shears on the carpet, I didn’t know how to feel. It was the worst thing anyone had ever done to me. I had a sudden thought that no one had ever really done anything to me. It was glorious and shocking. I didn’t feel like myself, but for the first time in years, I didn’t feel like I was trying to be someone else.
In the mirror, my hair was brutally short. It stuck up everywhere, patchy-black in places, but most of it was blond—my real color. My mouth and cheeks were hectic, and my eyes looked wild. My blood felt like electricity. Like I could do anything.
We sat in front of the mirror, staring at my reflection. She was crying now, sloppy and horrifying, asking me to forgive her.
I wanted to tell her not to cry. That I forgave her for her smallness, for so many reasons.
I was something breathtaking and rare now, while she would never be beautiful again.