By Allison Carroll
More vividly than anything else, I remember the taste. Mostly, wood. Bland, but strangely very strong and hard to get out of my mouth. Then a tiny bite of metal. The taste of rubber, like used gum. Salt from my tears. The sliminess of mucus. And even a little bit of metallic blood from the cracking of my stretching lips.
It happened seven years ago when I was eleven. It started with an innocent crush I had on a boy in my sixth-grade science class. He was cute. His black curly hair, blue eyes, and first name were all I knew about him, but it was enough. After all, I was never going to talk to him. But I did watch. I noticed in class that he constantly chewed on his pens. As he sat at his desk, deep in thought, he just chewed and chewed and chewed. I childishly attempted to get him to like me by starting to chew my pens. In my imagination he saw me doing this and married me. We lived in the doggy igloo in my backyard, and he supported us with his paper route.
My little fantasy never came to fruition, but a new habit that left bite marks on all of my pens did. Not long after, I joined a very tense dinner with my family. Those dinners had been worrisome ever since my mom married Jim six years before. I learned something then about marriage. When you marry someone, you don’t just marry them; you marry everything that comes with them. When Jim moved in, he brought all these new rules of etiquette and recipes for food my brother and sister and I did not want to eat. After growing up on mashed potatoes and chicken nuggets, we couldn’t appreciate the taste of bell peppers, sweet onions, and my mortal enemy, coleslaw. But we had to eat it. It didn’t matter how long it took us. If we still picked at it when our bedtime came along, Jim put it on the table for breakfast. And it didn’t matter how many times we vomited.
Of course, there was the yelling. Then again, Jim didn’t yell. He roared. He raged. He seethed. Sometimes so loudly, I thought every house in the neighborhood could hear him. In my eyes, he was a time bomb, and anything could set him off, whether it was the way I ate or I said something careless. His thundering screams would shake my very bones and ring in my ears for hours afterward. When he yelled, I wanted to run and never come back. When he became angry enough to yell, Jim became a monster not confined by books or television. I did everything I could to prevent him from screaming at me. I didn’t speak unless spoken. I started lying, not because I was dishonest, but because I desperately didn’t want to get in trouble. But I never was a good liar. I got yelled at often. However, the more I tried to escape punishment, the more Jim punished me.
So, during this dinner, I was naturally eating quietly, focusing on not screwing up. Tonight though, I was surprised. Jim wasn’t pointing out all the wrong ways I was eating. He didn’t call me out using his usual barrages: Scoop towards the center of the plate, Allison! Saw, don’t push! Don’t put your arms on the table! Sit up straight! Smaller bites, Allison!
I hoped I could make it through dinner without getting in trouble. I had almost made it when Jim’s voice reached me like a white-hot electric shock.
“Allison, what’s that blue stuff on your lip?” he asked. His booming voice transformed my heart into a pounding sledgehammer. I froze. I didn’t know what about he was talking.
“Well?” Jim was growing impatient while I tried to think quickly. His intense stare probed my face for answers. My words came out in desperation without me giving them any thought.
“Maybe from a pen…” I tried with an inaudible squeak.
Jim glared at me even harder now, and with a horrible realization that sent my stomach churning, I knew I had said something very wrong. “Why would you have pen marks on your lip?” he questioned.
I wanted to change my story, but I couldn’t stop. “B-because I w-was chewing on one…”
Again, wrong answer.
“Why were you chewing your pen?” he demanded.
“It’s…It’s just a habit I developed,” I whispered. After the words left my mouth, I knew it was the worst thing I could have said.
Jim stared at me and sat back in his chair. It was even more disturbing that he wasn’t yelling at me. Instead, he was eerily silent. His long grey hair framed his face, chiseled with lines of anger.
“Allison,” he said quietly. “Stay after dinner.”
I knew how bad it was—staying after dinner was a death sentence. The meal continued with a strained silence. My brother and sister wisely looked at nothing but their plates. My mom’s eyes shifted from me to Jim as if she wanted to say something, but she just sat there. I was shaking like I had hypothermia.
After my brother and sister had excused themselves and offered me sympathetic glances over Jim’s shoulder, Jim crossed his arms over his potbelly and glared at me. “Allison, go to your room and bring every pen and pencil you have.” I obeyed, trembling the entire time.
I staggered back to the kitchen table with a bundle of pens, pencils, sharpies, and highlighters. I had brought anything I could find that could mark.
Jim told me to open my mouth as wide as possible and tilt back my head. When I obeyed, in a flash, I saw myself squirming in a dentist’s chair while a man in a white coat shoved drills, blades, and other implements of destruction into my mouth. The daydream ended. I tried not to think about it. Then it started. Jim took a pen and slid it into my mouth. My eyes opened wide. What was he doing? He slid in another pen. And another.
“This is what you look like when you chew pens! Do you want to look this way?”
I couldn’t even shake my head. I couldn’t make a sound.
I don’t remember when the tears started to fall, but at some point, as Jim was putting in the pens and pencils, tears glided down my cheeks to mingle saltiness with the taste of wood, plastic, and rubber. I started sobbing, a strenuous activity when you can’t move your jaw. Added to the terrible mixture was a repulsive stream of snot. My throat was raw, and it felt like sharp claws were scraping the flesh. My red, swollen eyes and strained muscles burned as if my face was in danger of spontaneous combustion. Then there was the pain of my stretching lips drying up and cracking as my mouth had to become bigger and bigger. I could hardly breathe. I urged to choke and cough and vomit.
My mother started sobbing too. Her wails were not strangely muffled, not as hoarse and scratchy as mine. I looked at her out of the corners of my burning eyes and saw her sitting in her chair. Tears streaked down her face. Suddenly my anger from this humiliation flared toward her. Why is she letting this happen? Why isn’t she protecting me?
More pens and pencils slid past my lips. I imagined myself with my mouth open like a fish, with pens and pencils spilling out, my cheeks bulging to accommodate them. A scared, morbid side of myself imagined Jim shoving one in so hard it would impale me and emerge from the other side of my head. Then I saw another dark fantasy of Jim using the pens to poke bleeding holes all over my face. One would go into my brain. Death by pen. Death by pen.
I don’t remember how many pens and pencils he put into my mouth, but it seemed like a vast amount. I don’t recall how long it took, but it felt like I was standing in that kitchen for hours. But eventually, he stopped and started taking them out. Soon I could breathe again. I massaged my aching lips and cheeks and wiped the tears, still profusely coming. I vaguely remember a long, loud lecture on why I shouldn’t chew pens, but I don’t recall what was said. In shame, I carried my saliva-covered pens and pencils back to my room as sobs still rattled my chest.
I must have been six when I dared to love Jim. He played something called The Toilet Song on his guitar. He read me Way Side Stories and made me laugh with his funny voices. I can still hear him doing the voice of evil Mrs. Gorf. He used a shrill falsetto that managed to sound ominous.
I remember when my siblings and I learned to hate Jim after our mother came home from Boston with a ring on her finger; and our lives were never the same. That was when the yelling started and nothing we could do was right. One day Jim walked down the hall, and my sister threw Beanie Babies at him. They came flying from the depths of her room toward him. They were colorful and cute weapons of destruction. My sister was protecting the house from invasion. Too late. Too late. We were infiltrated.
One night in those early dark days, I couldn’t sleep. I crept to my sister’s room, and she let me rest nestled up against her body. The pillow we shared became damp in the night.
After being used as a human pin cushion, I withdrew into myself and became a self-contained prisoner in my own home. I never left my room. When I did emerge, I listened for Jim to prevent an unwanted altercation. I paused before the corner at the end of the hallway leading to the living room. If I heard him, I once again banished myself to my prison of books and daydreaming.
When I was about sixteen, I remember my mom telling me, “Jim wants you to succeed so much that he is willing to forsake any relationship with you if it means you’ll become the best you can be.” I remember thinking what a shitty justification that was.
Most people seem to think time heals all wounds. That works for a fortune cookie, but I know better. Instead, I tried to forget, never think about or acknowledge the pain. Mostly I pretended that it never happened. It was a nightmare, a strange story my mind conjured one day when I was bored. And that explanation was more real to me because who would do such a thing? Really? To this day, I have never talked about what happened that night with my family because talking about it would make it true.
I could pretend all I wanted, but the terrified little girl inside me never really died. The pens never came out. The taste never seemed to go away. I vividly remember the taste and texture: the wood, the plastic, the rubber, the salt, the blood. Whenever I got in trouble because I lied, because I did something careless, whatever it was, when Jim yelled at me, the taste returned. It was so strong that the pens were scraping my mouth again, a sickly taste like the part of the envelope you have to lick to seal. It’s a stain that hides in my stomach but comes up like vomit now and then. How can I wash it away? How can anyone rid the taste of their childhood?
When I think back on that night now, I realize I haven’t chewed on a pen since. But then, I haven’t had a good relationship with my stepfather either.
About the Author:
Allison works on both prose and poetry. Most of her poetry is about violence, war crimes, political and social repression, and injustice. She covers the topics of anti-war, feminism, disability, and mental health. Allison’s first publication was her poem Light about her visual disability. The literary magazine Suspension published it. In prose, she also writes short stories, but her major project is her novel Blades and Fire. It is a young adult fiction fantasy manuscript. She’s finished the first draft, and is working on revisions and editing.