Updated: Jul 18, 2022
Mother and Walter
By the time she was eleven, Jasmine Ramirez had heard the phrase enough times to recognize it. People in Hell want ice water. But she wasn’t in a pit of fire and brimstone. She was in a hell made by men. Or rather mankind. Specifically, Walter Smith. Jasmine wasn’t aware of the exact date, but at some point after school started in August, Walter Smith decided that he would be her bully. And she would be his victim. Initially, the pain he inflicted was minimal. Whenever he flicked her on the ear, called her mean names, or pushed her down at recess, she’d always give him a blank stare until he walked away. In October, two days before Halloween, Jasmine walked up to the desk of her English teacher, Ms. Phillips and handed her a yellow spiral notebook. “Could you read it please?” She asked softly. “Of course.” Ms. Phillips replied, smiling. Inside the notebook were well-written, organized paragraphs depicting Walter’s behavior towards Jasmine over the past two months. After reading all the paragraphs, Ms. Phillips handed the notebook back. “Have you shown this to your mom, sweetheart?” “Yes,” Jasmine replied. “But she can’t help. So I wanted to show you since he’s one of your students. Can you make him stop?” “I think so,” Ms. Phillips replied, “I’ll talk to him.” “Thank you.” Later that day, as Jasmine was walking home, Walter found and cornered her.
"You little snitch," he spat, "I'm going to make you pay for this." The next day, it was raining, so there was no recess outside. Instead, the class went to the gym for free time. While the teachers were leading a different class in fitness circuits, and Jasmine was off to the side hula-hooping, Walter decided it would be fun to send a soccer ball flying in her direction. Since her back was turned, she never saw the ball. She just felt something slam into the back of her head. She fell forward, her head hit the wall, and her chin hit the floor. In the nurse’s office, Jasmine sat still while Nurse Wilson put a bag of ice over the knot forming on her head. Then Mother walked in. She was smiling, but Jasmine could tell that she was furious. Her being here meant that the school had called her from work, and Mother hated to be called away from work. She was a senior corporate executive at a big firm, so it was important that she get her rest and never be disturbed. “What is wrong with you?” Mother hissed after Nurse Wilson stepped out. “What kind of idiot can’t tell if a soccer ball is headed her way?” Jasmine knew there was no right answer to those questions as she held the ice pack in place. But she also knew this wouldn’t end here. No, this was just the beginning. Mother came closer and put her hand behind Jasmine’s head, filling it with a chunk of her curly, black hair. “You embarrass me,” She said as she tightened her grip on Jasmine’s hair and yanked it back, forcing her head up towards the ceiling. “And you misbehave. So I will show you what happens to girls who misbehave with me.” Suddenly, Nurse Wilson walked back in. Mother let go, but moved closer. “My sweet baby.” She said loud enough for the nurse to hear. Then she stood and turned to face her. “Is she going to be okay?” “Jasmine’s going to be fine.” Nurse Wilson explained. “She needs to get some rest and not do too much moving around. The swelling should go down in about a week, and she might have a headache for the rest of the day, but as long as she takes it easy, she’ll be just fine.”
The slap Jasmine had been expecting was delivered almost as soon as the door to the apartment closed, and it knocked her to the floor. Then Mother started screaming.
"What have I told you?!" She demanded as she picked up the belt she always left on the living room table. "What have I ALWAYS told you?!"
Jasmine wasn't given any time to answer before Mother swung the belt across her back.
"Go to school and behave!" Mother continued. "That's all you have to do, but no. You choose to be a bad girl, don't you?!"
Right. Jasmine thought as she laid on the and fought back tears. Go to school and behave. Behave, be quiet, and toughen up because hitting others is what people do in life.
That's what Mother had told her after reading her spiral notebook.
'You take whatever hit he throws and get your ass home.'
Mother's belt fell again and again across Jasmine's body before she got tired and went to her room. For two hours, Jasmine stayed on the floor, aching all over. Feeling weak. When she felt strong enough to move, she got up, walked slowly to the bathroom, filled the tub with warm water, and took off her clothes. Without her jacket, shirt, and pants on, the mirror showed Jasmine everything Walter and Nurse Wilson couldn’t see. Fresh and fading bruises covered the backside, legs, and arms of her normally brown skin. Now, there was a knot on her forehead, a scratch on her left cheek from Mother’s slap, and her back was burning from the belt. Jasmine got in the tub and sat down, drawing her knees up to her chin. Tears welled in her eyes, and this time, she let them fall.
It wasn't fair.
Two years ago, when Father had packed his bag and left, he'd told her it wasn't her fault.
'I hate having to leave you sweetheart, but your Mom just won't quit. I've tried to do my best with both of you. God knows I've bent over backwards for years. But she doesn't want to change, and I can't make her.'
Jasmine had been nine, but smart enough to understand. Mom drank too much, and usually screamed a lot after doing so. After Father left, the drinking and screaming was accompanied by physical abuse. That's also when Mother started leaving Jasmine home alone for days at a time. She always came back, but it was only to prepare for her next departure after work. She'd stock up the refrigerator, shower, sleep, and be gone by the time Jasmine left to walk to school.
Father had been right. Mother hadn't changed. At least not for the better. Her excessive drinking and anger towards Jasmine hadn't diminished and now, she was the reason her body was covered with bruises. Walter Smith was a problem she was expected to tolerate so no one had reason to question Mother's behavior.
But Father had been wrong too. Wrong to think that packing a bag and leaving was the only solution. Wrong to hope that by letting her know it wasn’t her fault, she would be better off. Wrong to leave Jasmine with someone like Mother without thinking about the aftermath. Instead, he had left her with a monster and closed the door behind him without looking back.
As Jasmine sat in the tub with her thoughts, they circled back to that familiar phrase. People in Hell want ice water. Well, she had an important advantage over them. She was alive. Able-bodied. Fully-functioning. But she knew her chances of staying that way would dwindle if she let Mother and Walter's behaviors continue like this. At some point, she would have to set things straight.
November began, and Walter remained a problem at school. Jasmine started finding dead roaches in her desk and backpack after lunch every day. During recess, he never failed to push her off the swing or slide when the teachers weren’t looking, and if they did see it, he always pretended to be sorry and help Jasmine off the ground. One time, he dragged her to a nearby ditch and threatened to bury her there if she told again. “That’s what happens to snitches.” He snarled in her ear after clamping his hand over her mouth. “They wind up dead where no one can find their bodies. And no one’s going to find yours if you get me in trouble again.” Jasmine wrote everything down in the yellow notebook, which stayed at home now. There didn’t seem to be a point in telling because nothing had stopped. Things had just gotten worse. As Jasmine walked into the apartment on the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, she thought about how foolish it had been to expect Mother’s help in the beginning. It was still early. Mother wouldn't be home for hours, if she decided to come. Jasmine was trying to figure out what she could do to kill time when she heard a loud thud and a scream. Opening the door again, she looked around and gasped. One of their neighbors, Mrs. Ericson, was lying on the ground next to a few bags of groceries at the bottom of the stairs. Jasmine raced down the stairs and to her side. Mrs. Ericson was an elderly black woman who lived two doors down from Jasmine and Mother. She was always using the excuse to borrow something to cook with to check in on Jasmine, so Mother thought she was too nosy. "Mrs. Ericson, are you okay?" Jasmine asked. "Oh dear," the woman said softly. "I scraped my knee slipping on those stairs. But I think I'm alright." Jasmine picked up the bags and walked Mrs. Ericson upstairs. When they got to her apartment door, the older woman asked if she wouldn't mind coming in and helping her put everything away. Jasmine hesitated for a moment, but said yes. The inside of Mrs. Ericson's apartment held everything Jasmine hoped to have in the future. Paintings and framed pictures decorated the walls. There were glass jars on the kitchen windowsill, and each one held a small but sprouting sunflower. After putting away the groceries and taking a seat at the kitchen table, she found herself staring at them. "You've never seen sunflowers before?" Mrs. Ericson asked. "I never thought people grew them inside like this." Jasmine replied. "It's beautiful." "So are you," Mrs. Ericson countered, "and you'd look much more alive if you let some sun get on your arms and such." Noting the change in the woman's voice, Jasmine instinctively crossed her arms over her stomach. Her school uniform consisted of navy blue pants, a collared, yellow t-shirt, and a navy blue sweater. She hadn't changed yet, so there was nothing for Mrs. Ericson to see. "Honey," the woman continued, "I may be a lot older than your mom, but I can still hear her when she yells at you. And I hear the hits that go along with it. Hits I don't hear when I know she's not there for a few days." Jasmine's thoughts raced as she kept her eyes on the sunflowers. She knew. She knew about Mother's behavior. Mrs. Ericson stood up and put herself between Jasmine and the sunflowers. “That scratch on your cheek along with your silence tells me I’m right.” She said softly. “You don’t have to go back there, honey. You could stay here with me, and I can call---” “It's not my Mom.” Jasmine replied, lying without knowing why. “There's this boy at school. He's the one who hurts me alot. Mom...Mom just screams.” Thinking she'd have time to deal with the situation later, Mrs. Ericson decided not to pursue the matter any further.
That night, when Mother came home, she went straight to her room and turned on the shower. Lying awake in bed, Jasmine relaxed. Mother always went to bed after taking a shower. For now, she was safe. The next day was the first day of Thanksgiving break. Jasmine woke up and took a deep breath, inhaling the smells of fresh biscuits and bacon. This was how Mother liked to apologize around the holidays or occasions where company was coming over. It would usually start with a home-cooked breakfast. Then, they would do something fun or relevant like go shopping at the mall or take a walk at the park. If Mother was feeling extremely generous, she’d buy Jasmine some kind of toy or gift. This was a regular thing in the days that followed Father’s departure, but as Jasmine had gotten older, Mother’s regularity had waned. ‘I’m not made of money.’ She’d said after a few months. ‘Take care of what you have.’ After that, Mother would only replace the clothes or shoes when they got horribly torn or frayed. When Jasmine got to the kitchen, Mother was pouring cracked eggs into a frying pan. The biscuits and bacon were already sitting in an aluminum pan on the counter beside the sink. “Good Morning.” she said quietly. Mother looked away from the eggs with a smile on her face. “Hey there,” she said cheerfully, “grab some milk out of the refrigerator. The eggs will be done in no time.” Jasmine took a deep breath and went to the fridge. She would have to keep her guard up. Safety for the holidays didn’t last long. Once school started up again, it would be back to the bruises. “Today needs to be a good day.” Mother said once the eggs were finished and they had started eating. “I want you to behave yourself for Mommy.” After breakfast, Mother told Jasmine to put on some day clothes and the two of them went downstairs with a bucket of cleaning supplies and washed the car. While Jasmine swept the floors and carpets with a small broom and dustpan, Mother worked around the outside. She left the keys in the ignition so the radio could loudly play R&B slow jams, and even smiled and waved at Mrs. Ericson when the older woman looked outside to see what the noise was about. When they finished, it was lunchtime. Mother made sandwiches. After they ate, both of them showered, changed clothes again, and hit the road. Later that evening, Mrs. Ericson was coming back from checking the mail when she saw Ms. Ramirez’s car pull into a parking spot. She watched from in front of her door as Jasmine’s mother got out, picked up a sleeping Jasmine, and along with several different bags on her arms, walked carefully up the stairs. “Here,” Mrs. Ericson said politely “let me help you.” Smiling, Jasmine’s mother handed the older woman the key to the door and stepped back while she unlocked and opened it. Then, surprisingly, she invited her in. Without hesitating, Mrs. Ericson stepped inside and looked around. The inside felt too clean. There were clean dishes sitting on a drying rack by the sink. There were faint smells of bleach and Windex in the air. The carpet looked recently vacuumed and the kitchen floor recently swept and moped. As Mrs. Ericson watched, Jasmine’s mother set her down on the living room couch, put down all the bags, and turned on the television. “I’d invite you to stay,” the younger woman whispered “but it’s time we turned in for the evening.” “I don’t blame you.” Mrs. Ericson said softly. “One quick question though.” There was a flash of annoyance in her face, but Jasmine’s mother quickly replaced it with a smile as she nodded. Looking over to where Jasmine lay, Mrs. Ericson asked, “Isn’t it a bit warm today for her to be wearing a sweater?” “We were at the mall earlier. They keep it almost as cold as the hospitals there.” “Pants too?” “It’s better when she wears them at the park. I’d rather her dirty up the pants than skin her knees falling in the dirt.” “I see.” Mrs. Ericson murmured. “Alright then, I won’t hold you. Have a nice night.” When Jasmine woke up, she found herself lying on the living room couch with her head in Mother’s lap. The shopping bags with some of her new clothes and shoes were sitting under the coffee table. Four bottles of beer were sitting on top of it. Three of them were already empty. The television that Jasmine was normally never allowed to touch was on, but she doubted that Mother was actually watching it. Just staring at the screen. Without looking down at her, Mother rubbed one of her hands up and down Jasmine’s bare arm, her fingers lightly touching each of her bruises. “Mommy did good things for you today.” She said calmly. “Didn’t she?” “Yes ma’am.” Jasmine replied. “She took care of you. Made sure you were fed. Clean. She bought you nice clothes and let you have fun. What should you tell Mommy now?” “Thank you.” Mother smiled and took a long gulp from her beer bottle. Then the smile vanished. “That nosy old lady was here. Helping me inside after I carried everything upstairs by myself. Even you. I saw her looking around. Snooping. Judging me. As if I care what she thinks.” Jasmine wanted to move, but knew that doing so would make Mother angrier. Instead, she spoke. “Why do you hit me?” “Don’t act stupid,” Mother answered. “I punish you because you misbehave. You know that.” “But at school...I didn’t --” “You’ve been a good girl today, Jasmine.” Mother said dangerously. “Don’t upset Mommy with questions.” They sat there like that for another hour. Both of them stared at the television without watching the specials that were being aired. Finally, Mother sent Jasmine to her room with her new clothes. In the days that followed, the apartment’s mood changed. The radio and television in the living room came on alternatively during the evenings. Some days, Mother took Jasmine out for breakfast or lunch. Other days, they stayed inside preparing simple, but delicious meals for themselves. Thanksgiving day was quiet. Mother spent most of the morning asleep in her room. Meanwhile, Jasmine decided to rearrange the bookshelf in her room. Mother was rarely against her having books, so she’d accumulated quite a lot. It took Jasmine about an hour and a half to get everything the way she wanted it, and once she finished, there were only two left in front of her. One was the yellow spiral notebook she used to record Walter Smith’s behavior. The second spiral notebook was for Mother’s behavior. It was red and three pages away from being full.
Christmas came and went along with New Year's. The weather of the holidays had a bad effect on Mrs. Ericson and resulted in a near fatal heart attack. Having no living relatives, she moved out of her apartment and into a senior living facility. Back at school, time stood still for Jasmine as she looked at the blood dripping onto the concrete. Her blood. Flowing from her nose where Walter had hit her. Even though it was early January, it wasn't that cold outside. Despite that, she found herself shaking as she got off her hands and knees and stared at him with rage in her eyes. By Mother's definition, she'd behaved herself. Kept quiet about most of the things Walter did to her. Bleeding had only ever resulted from the severity of Mother's hits. Jasmine had no choice but to tolerate those from her. But Hell would freeze over before she tolerated it from Walter. The bully was smiling as he leaned on the new red-and-black bicycle Jasmine had ridden to school on. Deciding that the bike suited him better than her, he'd pushed her to the ground before she could get on to head home, then punched her in the nose when she'd tried to get it back. Now, he mounted the bike, fully intent on taking it home. Suddenly, a pair of hands grabbed him roughly from behind. The world spun crazily as he was pulled off the bike and thrown to the ground. Looking up, his eyes widened in disbelief. Jasmine had taken off the thin, leather belt she wore with her uniform and wrapped it around her left hand. All around, other adults were directing bus-riders towards the bus ramp or car-riders to their parents' cars. No one was paying attention to them because the walkers were supposed to have already headed home. Different noises made everything else hard to hear. It was perfect. Jasmine went about punishing Walter. Punching him. Making him scream. Cry. Whine. Bleed. And when the punching stopped, she rolled him onto his stomach, pulled down his pants to expose him boxer shorts, and loosened her belt and let it fall on his bottom five times in swift succession. Then, as quickly as she'd started, she was done. Watching him pull up his pants, Jasmine felt powerful for the first time in her life. Strong too. She didn't like that she'd had to act similar to Mother to do it, but that was what it had taken. She took a step towards him as she put her belt back on and he flinched, still not fully comprehending what had just happened. With blood still flowing from her nose, Jasmine moved forward until Walter's back was pressed against a wall. His face was marked with indentions from her belt, the buckle had left scratches on his cheeks, and his left eye was starting to swell. "From now on," She explained briefly. "If you hurt me, I'll hurt you back. Do you understand?" Unable to speak, Walter just nodded. When Jasmine got home, she took care of her nose and wrote down what she'd done in the yellow notebook. For the first time in a long time, she wasn't scared of the consequences. She had proof of everything that had built up to this point. It was simply a matter of whether she would need to use it.