By Austin Rutland
I watched my 10-year-old brother as he stared at the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that sat on a cracked beige plate.
You’re going to hurt Momma’s feelings, I thought. Just eat it.
I kicked his foot under the table and shot him a nasty look. Even though he was a year older than me, he didn’t realize how to mask his emotions for the sake of my mom’s feelings. But it was too late.
“Baby, don’t you like your sandwich? I made it the special way,” my mom said as her cheeks turned crimson. For as long as I could remember, she would hide the peanut butter and jelly from our eyes, so she could make it “the special way,” which consisted of mixing the two until they combined into a deep magenta spread.
“Why do we always have the same thing for dinner?” my brother whined. “I want a steak like Daddy makes for me.”
Oh no. Now you’ve really done it, stupid.
“I’m sorry baby, that’s all we have right now,” my mom said almost inaudibly as she got up and walked into the bathroom. The door closed slowly behind her. I leaned back in my chair and sighed. This same ritual happened every time she got upset. She came out after what felt like several hours with runny, black mascara under her eyes and arms that dangled like wet noodles. From the blank expression on her face and the familiar stench that clung to her clothes, I could tell that she had broken into the assortment of pills and marijuana that I discovered in a dented Christmas tin under the sink a few months before. She scooped up my brother and I in an uncomfortable hug and said in an unrecognizable voice, “It’s o.k. baby, I’m all better now.” Later that night, I walked across the apartment complex parking lot and threw the Christmas tin into the stained, black dumpster across the street. I was glad that tomorrow our visit would be over.
My dad was already standing outside when we pulled into the long driveway that led to a three-floor, brick house with pearly white columns in the front. When I hugged my mom goodbye, she whispered in my ear, “I’ll see you in two short weeks, baby. Love you to the moon and back.”
Walking back into my dad and stepmom’s house after spending the weekend with my mom was always like stepping into a different world. They had been divorced since I was two, but I still wasn’t used to it. I traded peanut butter sandwiches for quiche and a rusty basketball hoop for an in-ground pool. Instead of baggy gym shorts I wore Ralph Lauren khakis, and instead of sharing a cramped room with my brother, I had my own room filled with enough toys and books to entertain an entire classroom of kids. I never understood why my dad could buy me a saxophone with the swipe of a card while my mom struggled to pay the rent for her worn-down trailer.
I sighed with relief as I jumped onto my soft, queen size bed that felt like a cloud compared to the narrow mattress I slept on at my mom’s. I began to wonder what she would do tonight. Maybe she would work an extra shift at Applebee’s to earn some extra cash. Maybe she would break down in one of the hysterical sobbing fits that she could no longer hide from her oddly observant son. My pillow was wet with tears as I struggled to understand why my dad wouldn’t help her. Why he slept next to a woman that pretended to be my mom. Why he cut into a juicy steak while she washed down crackers with water out of a stained mug.
Eventually exhaustion took over and I dreamed of playing piano in front of a sea of men and women in tuxedos and dresses. When I woke up, I knew what I had to do. All my life, I was told that I inherited every characteristic of my mom. But my grandpa once told me that my dad gave me the “gift of dreams and ambition.” I realized that my mom never talked about her dreams. My young mind, not yet tainted by the burden of maturity, came to the conclusion that one thing could solve all of her problems: the gift of dreams and ambition.
So I jumped out of bed and ran to my basement, where I picked out the biggest Christmas tin I could find. I wrote down my dreams and favorite things, and stuffed them inside. Scribbled music notes covered one piece of paper, representing my dreams of becoming a pianist. Another was blue and decorated with fish stickers, illustrating my dream to learn how to scuba dive. Two short weeks later, I gave my mom the tin without any explanation.
Now you have the gift of dreams and ambition, Momma.