“Hot Mouth” A Memoir on Memory” by Nicola Preuss

August 2006 was the beginning of third grade at my new school. I tried on many made-up personalities the first few days, picking them out like dresses from my closet. I tried having a sassy attitude and that didn’t work in my favor, so I tried to be obnoxious with loud, usually unnecessary laughs, but I was too annoyed by the fakeness of my own voice, as if I had practiced each word in front of the mirror that morning. So I tried on silent and obeying, and that wasn’t exactly me either. My skin told me it wanted to burst. Maybe my uniform was too tight.

I wore glasses on the second day of school, they were a cheap pair from Walgreens or some other drug store, with lavender rims and rectangular lenses, but they got uncomfortable so I took them off. Can’t you not see without your glasses? I lied to them, saying that I was getting new ones. I didn’t need glasses though. I just wanted to look smarter, more unique, more un-me. Smothered like a worn book, buttered like bread at the dinner table, stuffed like a turkey.

I called two peppy blonde-haired girls, Keely and Rita, my best friends. We ate the same flavor sno-balls on Thursdays at lunch and laughed at the same things, so we were good friends. Weeks passed slowly and I was formally invited to my first sleepover. We made cookies with Keely’s mom and then jumped on the trampoline. I didn’t like trampolines; I felt out of control. I didn’t know where or when to land and that uncertainty stained me, nudged me. There wasn’t enough room in the bed, so I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag. I was freezing but I did not ask for extra sheets. I used my forearm as a pillow. I wanted to be in my own bed, with my own mother, my own food, my own blankets and my own dog.

That night I dreamt that I could not open my eyes and I couldn’t tell if my father or my mother was yelling at me from across the street. But I could taste. I tasted cherry jellybeans and spearmint gum, sitting in the cave of my mouth. I did not want to be red anymore; I did not want to feel so red. I wanted to be bright blue flying through polluted air and exhales, having no spare time for fear.

I woke up early, around eight o’clock, and pretended to be asleep until the two girls woke up. I looked at my feet and saw a puddle. The puddle had just been electrocuted. I looked again and there was no puddle. There was no ground. There were no feet. But I could taste. I could taste the dry cereal stuck between my back teeth and snow, I tasted snow but there wasn’t snow. It doesn’t snow in Louisiana. I looked outside the bedroom window and there was not a sun, either. I was the night sky. When the ceiling greeted my face, I smile. The fan was on, moving full speed in my body. whirr whirr whirr. How many seconds did I have left to wait? I think I had grown a new skull.

Makeovers were suggested. I didn’t know what this meant entirely but I knew I wanted to put makeup on. I knew I wanted to be pretty, or to feel pretty, or to feel, or to be. I knew I wanted that. I was twelve; I wasn’t ready. Keely’s mom allowed us to use her old makeup and we locked ourselves in the guest bathroom. They blindfolded me with toilet paper, pressed brushes and their fingers onto my eyebrows and cheeks. I felt beautiful, even though I could not see myself, I felt prettier than I was thirty minutes ago. They giggled to each other, which they did often, so I didn’t think much of it, I giggled too.

About fifteen minutes must’ve gone by when they took my blindfold off, laughing hysterically. I looked in the small mirror next to me and saw a monster, saw a girl who was not me. They made me a clown, put bright red lipstick all around my mouth, touching the tip of my nose, alarming. They put mascara on my eyelids and colored my eyebrows black. I laughed, still as a bird, but I remember feeling ill, drained, almost. Maybe I wasn’t still, maybe I was shaking. My mouth was dry, though.

They skipped their own makeovers and decided to go outside, as long as I put on an old Halloween witch costume and didn’t wash the makeup off. I was too scared to say no. Or maybe I did say no. But it didn’t matter, didn’t change the storyline or the time or the date or the foundation choking my pores. I tasted a bitter taste, like salt and nail polish remover, settling onto my tongue and my throat. We went to the backyard, and thankfully, there was no one outside, but then appeared the next-door neighbor, who looked at me and looked down immediately after. I was too embarrassed, or too stupid, to move. I told them that I was too cold or that I needed to use the bathroom. Doing so, I called my mother, I don’t remember how I did because I didn’t have a phone, but somehow I reached her. And soon enough, I was in the passenger seat crying so hard my mom stopped the car at a gas station to buy me some lollipops. She held my face, or the steering wheel, probably the steering wheel, and said sorry, as if it was her who painted storms on my face. I tasted baby wipes and the steam from the hot shower I took when I got home.

Childhood was not a challenge; it was a form of dedication, something dancing in between wonder and a will to live. I did not know the difference between existing and surviving. I still question it.

I exist. I exist. I exist.

My mother raised me, with occasional help from my father, whose job was to take me out on fun dates, like the park or the local swimming pool. She, my mother, always asked me to thank my doctor for checking my ears for infection. Instead of just smelling, sniffing the air like a dog, I tasted antiseptic, hand sanitizer, soap, the nurse’s perfume, and the cold pressing against my skin. And how could I forget my camp counselors, who made me do laps with the other girls when I was terrified of the green, mucky, Tennessee lake water and what was swimming underneath my toes. I tasted sweat on my upper lip. How could I forget the school nurses who called my mother about seven times a month because I could not, did not, understand why other kids enjoyed teasing me about my height and making fart noises. I tasted anger on the car rides home. It was red and hot in my mouth. I tried sucking lollipops but then I tasted sour anger. And I did not like that taste.

A journal entry:

“I smelled rain but the sun was out,
shining on my face,
turning my skin
a darker shade of pink.”

I will not forget the beating inside my head when I tried to break my hand against my bed frame just to get a cast. I tasted x-rays and the gauze I stole from the medicine- cabinet. I tasted attention that kept me full for a few days, but then left me even hungrier. One time I lied about not believing in God in front of my Girl Scout troop leader, I tasted my thumb and the shocked faces of my peers. Shock was what I valued, what made me feel special. The night I ran away into a section of trees in the golf course and waited for my mom to come looking for me, I tasted gold. Maybe I had a war dancing around the floor of my knees. Maybe I collapsed. I wanted to be a building. I wanted to touch the sky but only if I could stand still with my feet grounded.

Pressing my bobbed head onto streetcar windows, I tasted my grandmother’s hand lotion, and walking on Bourbon Street when I was thirteen, seeing too many screaming drunk men without shirts on, I tasted a Shirley temple. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, I cried of happiness, but not because the Saints won the Super Bowl, because the whole restaurant was jumping up and down and screaming and hugging each other. I haven’t seen excitement like that again. I tasted my dimples. I will not forget my first movie night with both boys and girls invited. I was hoping that a boy would sit by me and share his popcorn with me, but I sat on the last seat of the girl’s row by a girl named Sam, who was also pretending not to be ignored, while everyone else was jumping from one seat to another, and one girl was even making out with a boy and it was the first time I’d ever seen someone kiss like that in public. I tasted the edge of my flip phone. I bit down.

I was alive. But when I tried to feel my heartbeat, I could only feel the incline of my breast.

Did I have a place to fall down or was it rock bottom? Maybe I was at the bottom of the ocean. Maybe that’s why I felt fins brush against me instead of hands.

I remember the meals I rushed through. I watched my mother as she watched me from the corner of her eye. She probably noticed the way I ate, hurried, and maybe how angry I got when we discussed abuse together. It sank into me, but did it sink into her? They flourished inside of me, my beliefs, my attention seeking hobbies, my drawings, my need for special thoughts of me. I believe they were a part of my making, my body, and my skin. I would sometimes feel her glance at me in the car while driving, so much defeat and fatigue in those cheeks that caved in. All she saw was a blank slate, but maybe she felt thousands of pricks underneath her feet and palms. \

Doctor’s visits were not the hell other mothers told her they would be. There was no excessive crying or stubbornness at the doorway of the clinic, but there was something else throughout the years that grew with each doctor and each cold, fluorescent-lighted room. She watched me as I had my ears prodded and breathing checked. I felt her watching me as the male doctor pressed down on my stomach, asking if anything hurt.
She did not cry when I went to camp for two weeks, at least I didn’t see her cry, but maybe she did when she noticed the sadness in my first two letters and my doubt about flying on the airplane. I was always nervous walking through security, somehow convinced that inside of me was a hidden bomb. There were no cell phones or email permitted, but I needed to talk to my mother. I needed to get out. I called her from my camp leader’s cell phone. Something probably like:

Hi, it’s….from… Nicola is here with me. She needs to talk to you.

Hello, we miss you at home. What’s been happening?” straight to “Mom, I need need need to come home. I am crying a lot and there are so many big bugs in my bed I cannot sleep. There is too too too much and no breaks in between. I have no friends and I am scared and I don’t like tennis.

School wasn’t always so difficult. Most days, the earlier ones, when motivation and routine went hand-in-hand, I would tumble right out of bed to eat breakfast and get dressed in my school uniform. However, there were days of refusal, days of sickness, days of frustration, and of sadness. Only in eighth grade did I begin to not wake up when my mother went to my room in the morning, but she kept checking, constantly, kept popping her head through the door or calling my name from the kitchen, the three loud syllables stumbling from her mouth, still dry from night. She couldn’t worry about why. She had to worry about me missing school. That was her job: to get everyone to work, school, or appointments on time and safely; that was her job. Looking back, those mornings must have seemed nearly impossible.

I had unraveled and was spreading like a pool of water. A spark went out and I missed the chance to save it. We both did. There were days when I could get out of bed, to the kitchen table, and out the door in thirty minutes, but they usually followed by calls home, telling my mom that I was not feeling well enough to be at school, and that I’d like for her to pick me up early. Did it scare her? She must have had her doubts. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to school, but that I did not have the ability to. My body ached all the time and I was exhausted, always looking for my next nap or my next meal. Sleep took me away, buried me under the covers for hours after school, and stopped me from doing my homework or talking to my family. I would wake up and still feel tired, mentally and physically. My bones felt heavy against my skin and my ears rang and my fingernails were bitten to the cuticle and my face was being picked at and bled and my hair started falling out in the shower so I stopped showering and then my body needed more food so I ate and ate and ate until I could no longer feel the empty shell around my stomach. I tasted stomach acid. I tasted bile. I tasted air.

I hated discussing religion, trying to convey that the concept of God is full of shit. But my argument was weak; in fact, it almost always included me raising my voice and shaking my head, saying, “I can’t talk about something so stupid.” It amused her, my mother, but I imagine it also warmed her, how I was so willing to disagree. I don’t know where the hate came from; I just remember it happening instantly, as if I had changed my mind about the world over night. My mother never made me pray, never forced me to church unless it was Christmas Eve or Easter, never bought me a bible. So when I first told her that God wasn’t real to me anymore, as with Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny, I wonder if it hurt. God meant faith. Faith meant hope. In her eyes, no matter if God was real or not, the thought of salvation calms her when she becomes cynical. But I didn’t have that. I didn’t have that faith that so many kids my age had, it vanished and she had not seen it coming so soon.

I drew myself every chance I got; I’d pull out a box of crayons and markers at the dinner table and draw the same picture over and over again, in different colors. The girl was a stick figure with brown square hair and a smile so big it almost touched her button eyes. Sometimes I would draw us both, my mother and I, standing side by side, with that huge little-kid sun in the left corner of the page, electric yellow or orange, sun rays reaching her hair. Journal entry, 2013:

there’s a rock in my boot
And the dog is scratching
at my door again
I found your necklace
in the backyard by the tree
A sheet of dirt

I’ve been pressing
a hot rag to my cheek
to clear the mountains
sprinkled on my salt skin
There is no warm water left
and the kitchen is not clean,
in fact, it might be gone
Empty coke cans align the hall
to my noise and my room.

Momma, my stomach has a pulse.

Does she remember my dimples? She saw those so often and now does she forget that I have them? When I speak, the skin under my eyes curls up, and the two dimples at the sides of my small mouth are deep, soft indents.

Nicola Preuss is a Creative Writing student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. She started journaling four years ago and discovered poetry, which led to an intensive study of various writing genres, such as fiction, prose, personal essays, playwriting, and magical realism. She recently won a Gold Key for the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and will be receiving her award at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She enjoys Virginia Woolf, creative essays, discovering new music and taking care of animals.