Matthew Stith attends a community college where he started his studies at age fifteen. In the future, he plans to design games and write novels. His work will appear in the 2012 issue of Under the Clock Tower.
When our stepmother, Mandy, had been outside for more than half an hour, I knew something was wrong. When she was depressed, she usually would walk out of the apartment for a while, either for privacy or need of a less cramped space for a few minutes. But half an hour was a bad sign. My suspicions were confirmed when Dad told us that she was upset that we hadn't given her a Mother's Day card. He asked us to go apologize, and assure her that we were grateful for what she did as our second mother.
Terrified, we tried to think of a good way to approach her before she got back. We paced around in our room, throwing ideas back and forth. "Give her a little hug," Dad suggested, to our immediate rebuttal. This was in 2009; I was fourteen, and my brothers, John and Jason, were eleven. We had been homeschooled all our lives, and knew very little about the politics that surrounded human relations. We had upset a few people in our time, but we never needed to make up for it afterwards, beyond a simple, muttered apology to the person's feet.
The front door opened, and a red-eyed Mandy entered with her head down. Jason immediately ensured our failure by exclaiming, "Happy Birthday!" Before anyone else could get a remedial sentence in, she was in tears and retreating to her room. We followed quickly, emboldened by the fact that at this point we had nothing to lose, and tried to console her. We assured her that, no, she wasn't stupid, and no, her weight had nothing to do with our assessment of her, and no, our other mother wasn't vastly superior to her. Trying to convince Mandy of that last point was the one time I've wished I didn't have such a great biological mother for her to compare herself to.
Mandy was adopted, and being "abandoned" by her birth parents has made Mandy believe she is inadequate in every way. Constantly, she makes negative statements about herself, perhaps to procure pity or assurance from those around her. More likely, in my opinion, it is a way to vent frustration. I myself know the satisfaction of self-punishment; it's a way to accept one's failures and fix one's faults. However, while I will say to myself, "Damn, it was stupid of me not to give Mandy a Mother's Day card!" she will say to everyone around her, "I am stupid. Period."
She threw in as many of these statements as she could as she lay prone on the bed with her face in her Hello Kitty pillow. According to her, forgetting to give her a Mother's Day card was obviously a sign that we didn't care about her. In her mind, we doubtlessly didn't like her because she was unintelligent and fat. With frantic urgency, we tried our best to disprove her claims.
Self-deprecating statements are strategically genius. When she says something like, "I'm a moron," it's checkmate for us, because we only have two options. We can deny the truth of the statement, only to be immediately written off as "just being nice," and possibly launching an irresolvable debate over the evidence for and against her worth as a human being. Or we can say nothing, causing our lack of disapproval to indicate agreement. That day, the best way to make her believe us when we wanted to refute her negative assertions was by crying as well, so before long that bed was getting both crowded and tearstained.
It might have helped if we had been a little less rude to her since she and our dad married. She thought our neglect was a sign that we didn't care about her and didn't feel close to her. What she didn't seem to realize was that rudeness from us was more of an expression of closeness than distance. When around family, we tended to relax, speak our mind, and let our social radar go to screensaver. We knew we could spare ourselves the trouble of being polite. Our family loved us unconditionally; they were stuck with us. Besides, being "just kids" allowed us a lack of responsibility. Anything mildly inappropriate we did was simply chuckled at, with a "Boys will be boys" remark and little to no consequence. When Mandy joined the club, we assumed she would be no different.
But that night I realized we weren't going to be kids much longer. We would soon be exposed to a world where a misplaced word or action could result in the loss of a job or friend, so we couldn't continue being oblivious to the feelings and expectations of others. It was time to read that book about manners that our mom bought us. We were teenagers; our dialogue and deeds had power behind them now, and if Spider-man taught me anything, it's that great power brings great responsibility.