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Break the Cycle

I’m finishing two books right now: an anthology with 12 sexual assault survivor stories and a sequel memoir. In brainstorming ideas for another book after these are published, I’ve realized I need to practice my fictional and creative writing skills.

Below is a fictional short story about a girl named Sara. One that readers may resonate with. Thank you for bearing with me as I practice creative writing! Let me know your thoughts!

Break the Cycle

May 1982

The bathtub was barely full when my mom sat me in the warm water. Suds covered my heels while the warm, clear water poured from the faucet like the tears poured from my mom’s eyes. She was pretending like they weren’t though, ignoring her own pain to make sure I was okay.

“I’m so sorry, Sara. I’m so sorry. It’ll be okay. We’ll get you all cleaned up.” Never mind the spaghetti sauce splattered on her purple t-shirt and the noodle hanging from her forearm. Never mind the tears she hadn’t wiped away and the stutter in her voice as she spoke.

She kissed my forehead and stood up, leaving alone as the tub filled with warmth, surrounding my shivering body. I assumed she was leaving to go check on my brother still at the dining room table. My clothes were in a pile on the floor, droplets of spaghetti sauce covering Barbie’s face on my pink t-shirt. My blonde hair still had noodles in it; my mom hadn’t picked them all out before leaving the bathroom.

How hard it must have been to be a mom of two, trying to be in multiple places at once. Needing to clean me up, her eight-year-old daughter who sat silently in the tub, covered in Dad’s plate of spaghetti. Needing to make sure my brother, her son, was okay and safe. And needing to find her own sense of safety; wishing she could be anywhere but there, loving him with all her heart but hating him at the same time. Being away from him meant breaking up the family and their Catholic marriage vows; so instead, she silently acknowledged we weren’t the happy family our two-story home and white picket fence led us on to be.

5 minutes earlier

“I said drop it, Lori!” My dad’s words came out like fire, accompanied with droplets of spit landing on the plate of garlic toast at the center of the table. His eyes were bulging, and his face was red. It was a sight I wasn’t unfamiliar with.

My brother Derek and I hadn’t said a word since we sat down at the table. Their bickering since Dad got home was a red flag. We had a good idea how the night would turn out—one where we hid under our covers as soon as we had the chance. Dad had already gone through three beers and who knew how many margaritas Mom had had. Derek and I knew to stay silent and to stay hidden unless we had to come out of our rooms. And at dinnertime, we had to come out.

We ate every meal at the family table. My dad, my mom, Derek, and me. For as long as I could remember, most nights we walked on eggshells. But some nights were like walking on broken glass; every step we took made us bleed. We were better off pretending to be invisible and not saying a word than to get in their way. Some nights it was better to pretend we were never born.

They were screaming at each other for an hour, but my mom had finally gotten to the point where she needed to wave her white flag to give up the battle. It was an hour of shouting and door slamming, circling around and around on a topic that wasn’t even worth remembering. I couldn’t tell you to this day what 99% of their arguments were about. I wonder if they even remember.

“Can you please calm down, John?” my mom replied, her tone quiet, dropping an octave as though that would help prevent the neighbors from hearing them. Her head was down, her eyes on her plate. She hadn’t touched the dinner she spent 45 minutes preparing.

Her attempt to calm him down was the final straw. It was like any last word she had to say, regardless of what it was, was going to be the word that sent him over the ledge, the ledge that turned him into a monster.

And the monster came out.

“God damnit, Lori!” He shouted as he slammed his fists against the table. I closed my eyes in terror and all our plates and forks popped up from the table as though there was an earthquake. Derek and I sat silently with our hands in our laps as Dad grabbed his plate of spaghetti topped with red meat sauce and Parmesan cheese and tossed it into the air. It spun in circles, barrel rolling toward me as spaghetti flew everywhere. The plate landed in front of mine, shattering into large ceramic pieces as the noodles and sauce found their way to my hair, face, and pink Barbie t-shirt. Dad didn’t even look at the mess he made of me but instead screamed final curse words at Mom before storming out of the house, slamming the door behind him. I didn’t see him until the next night.

5 minutes later

I sat in the tub and watched Mom carry Derek, who was only four at the time, to his bedroom. I saw his face as they passed. It was completely blank, as if his soul was hiding within his body. He was physically okay from what I remember, but what was the yelling doing to him emotionally? What was the daily fear doing to his happiness and his innocence? Would he grow up to be a monster too?

I couldn’t wait for school the next day where I was able to giggle with my friends and where I received praise from my teachers. I did well in school. I was happy there. I remember wondering, do all kids live like this? Is this what home life is supposed to be like? But at the same time, how can I escape?

May 2022

I’m 48 years old now watching my daughter, Aubrey, straighten her graduation cap and unbox her graduation robe. I snap photos while my husband, her father, slides the robe over her dress and buttons the back for her.

My daughter, graduating with honors and a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University. I am incredibly proud. She spins around with the biggest smile on her face; she is glowing.

“Oh honey, I’m so proud of you,” Matt says. His eyes are sparkling with tears of pride. He’s been the most incredible husband and father.

He turns to me and asks, “Sara, can you get a picture of us?”

I hold up my phone to snap a picture, wishing I could go back to when Aubrey was a little girl, and we could do it all over again. Live life together again. We had a happy life, a full life, and there wasn’t much drama other than those teenage hormones the other parents warned us about when the doctor told us we were having a baby girl.

It was only once that Matt and I got into a disagreement where his voice became louder than simply that “stern” level of a heated discussion. I can’t remember what it was about, of course, but all I remember was Aubrey was 8 years old, the same age I was when my dad threw his plate of spaghetti.

I believe that when parents scream and yell, it wires children’s brains differently. Isn’t that what the research shows? Google says, “It’s been shown to have long-term affects like anxiety, low self-esteem, and increased aggression.” Maybe I’m proof of that. Being around yelling is a PTSD trigger for me. I promised myself I’d never be in a relationship with someone that I fought with like my parents fought. They fought more often than they didn’t.

Every day I am thankful I found Matt. He is amazing. It was only once that he raised his voice at me. It was one line, one sentence, and I was triggered. I was taken back to my childhood and needed to run away to my place of Zen: my closet. There I was, cowering on the floor, afraid, just like I used to do when my parents fought. There were times my mom hid in my closet with Derek and me. I remember telling her, “Mom, he can’t do this to us. You can’t let him do this to us anymore. We can’t live like this. It’s not fair.”

As I sat on the floor in the closet, Matt in the living room, my body trembled. It was the first and only time I thought I was afraid of Matt. Was I seeing a side of Matt I never knew existed? Was he going to turn into a monster? I feared that I was failing to break the cycle of parental fighting, anger, and a home life that children shouldn’t have to be subjected to—one they can’t wait to get out of. But when he found me in the closet with my tear-soaked shirt, terrified and triggered, he crouched down beside me and held me tight. He apologized the way my father never did. And I never saw that side of Matt again. I realized I wasn’t afraid of Matt; I was afraid of being in the type of relationship my parents and my grandparents had, and what would that do to Aubrey?

It wasn't until I was older that I realized we never had company over to our house. Was it my parents' choice, because they couldn't go a night without fighting or bickering? Or was it everyone else's choice, not wanting to be around that?

I know my mom’s parents fought too. So, it makes me wonder why she didn’t want a different life for herself than the one she had growing up. But that’s incredibly naïve to say. She had to have wanted a different life. I can’t imagine my dad started their relationship as the monster he would eventually turn into. I wouldn’t know. But the cycle of abuse was not broken from my grandparents’ generation to my mom’s generation. She suffered, and Derek and I suffered, just the way she had when she was a little girl. Maybe she married a man like her father; maybe it was familiarity for her. I wanted and I needed to marry a man the complete opposite. And I did.

“Aubrey, I am so proud of you!” I said to my daughter as I put my phone away and hugged her tight.

After a moment, I released our embrace and looked her in the eyes. “My sweet lion cub. You’re all grown up and are a lioness yourself now. You must be. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior. You are strong. You are brave. You are a warrior. And you are worthy. Your life is your own story to write. You hold the pen. Write the story you want to live. Seize the day, Aubrey.”

I kiss her on the forehead, and she stands up a little straighter.

She looks me in the eyes, smiles and says, “I’m so proud to be your daughter.”

Aubrey waves goodbye and skips out the door to hop in an SUV with her friends to head to her high school graduation, Matt and I following closely behind. Right before she opens the door to leave, she turns to me and blows a kiss before saying, “Rawr.”

I’d do anything for my Aubrey. And for her, I’ve broken the cycle.

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