By Raquel Penzo
This is not the story of how I killed my stepmother in the basement of our brownstone. Of course, you already know she’s dead because you saw it on the news or you read about it on your morning commute, and you know I killed her because you saw me doing the perp walk from the police car to the police precinct where I was processed. You sat there and did the whole, “That poor woman!” and “What’s wrong with kids today?” without even knowing the full story. Without even knowing what fresh brand of hell Marcia was. You just sat there with your Lean Cuisine dinner or morning sugary pastry and tall cup of caffeine and made crazy assumptions about my level of psychosis and her level of saintliness.
No, no one wants to know about that terrible “murder.” You think you do, but you don’t. You watch police dramas and think you can stomach it all, because just last week on your favorite forensics show, you saw a fake prostitute who was fake bludgeoned to death, and she had fake blood and brain bits all over her and all you did was wince. It didn’t stop you from eating all the lo mein on your plate. You watched that whole episode, including the autopsy scene, like a pro. Like a champ. So you’re thinking “Give me your best shot, kid,” and you think you want to hear about this murder. But you don’t.
I will tell you that it was messy. Did you know that real murders are a lot messier than TV murders? The amount of blood in the human body… you’re just not ready for how much of it there is. You most likely saw a few “leaked” crime scene photos and think you saw a lot of blood, but what you saw was the basement after my dad cleaned it up a bit. I can tell you’re starting to get horrified because what you saw in those pictures what a shitload of blood and now I’m telling you that wasn’t even half of it. There was so much more blood. It was almost spread out across the entire basement floor, and it was definitely smeared all over that one wall, the one she tried to hold on to. What a stupid woman she was—do you see why she had to die? Who runs toward a wall when their sworn enemy attacks with a hunting knife?
It was also loud. Could you imagine the level of noise involved in taking a life? When she saw me, she tried to talk me out of it. Apologizing without knowing what it was she did wrong. That made me angrier than anything else. How could she not know why I was stabbing her? How could she make me stand there and yell it into her ear as if she were a naughty child instead of the demon wildebeest she’d been since my father first brought her home to meet us?
What you didn’t see on that news report, where the anchor threw all objectivity out of the window and used a certain tone of disapproval when speaking of me, is who Marcia really was and the wedge she drove between me and my father. You weren’t privy to the dinner that my sisters and I were forced to attend where dad introduced his new friend. Right away we knew friend really meant lover, and it was not okay. My mother was barely in the ground. We hadn’t even thrown out her medication; six pill bottles still decorated Mom’s side of the bathroom sink in the master bedroom, all while Marcia sat in that restaurant, ordering some vinaigrette “on the side” because God forbid she allow a seasoned chef to determine how much dressing should go on her salad.
The news also left out the part about Marcia moving in only six months after meeting us, and how she convinced my dad to let her turn Mom’s old office in the attic into her meditation room. I mean, what kind of harpy finds it appropriate to meditate in a dead woman’s office? No, you weren’t sitting on my living room sofa helping to comfort my baby sister as we watched Marcia put our mother’s belongings in a box for Goodwill: the guitar her great-grandfather left her, her ballet clothes and toe shoes, bundles of yarn, and what seemed like an endless amount of tailored suits and smart-looking heels. We weren’t allowed to keep anything more than photographs of my mom in her family home in the Dominican Republic, and some of her jewelry. Dad tried to convince us it would help the family move on because that was the script Marcia gave him to follow. She had him by the balls and all we could do was watch our memories loaded onto the back of a truck. We were nine, seven and six years old, and thought losing our mother was the worst thing that could ever happen to us. Until we also lost our dad to Marcia.
No, this won’t be about that day in July when, as you were all preparing the grill for dinner, and kids were starting to come inside after a full day of tearing through the streets without worry, I tried to grab Marcia from behind as she emptied the dryer. My intention was to glide the rugged blade across her neck, same way we slaughter goats on my Nana’s ranch in Sosua, to bleed them before we roast them in the outdoor pit. Nana taught me to block out the animals’ cry and remember that I wasn’t being cruel; what I was doing would feed the family for many days. It was the goat’s purpose. Nana taught me to hold it by the mouth, tilt the head up and slice, then hang it upside down so the blood would poor out into a bucket. But with Marcia there was no time to be that precise. As soon as she caught sight of me and the knife she turned her whole body to face me, and then threw herself backward into the wall to avoid the inevitable. I had to throw more strength behind my left arm and my legs as I tried to steady Marcia’s body. But she was strong and squirrely, and there was, of course, all the yelling to distract me. Why, Naome? What are you doing? Why? Marcia would not let me slice her throat like a fatted goat for the slaughter as I had planned, so I was forced to stab it.
But this won’t turn into the story about Marcia’s murder, or about how her blood went everywhere after I stabbed her—on her new front-loading, high-capacity washer, her fancy cotton sheets, her dainty Prada sandals. I remember when she came home with those sandals, and told us girls that she was thinking of wearing them when she and my father go to City Hall and get married. She waved those shoes around, singing some old song about going to a chapel and winking at me. As if we were friends. As if she hadn’t been on the phone the previous day telling her mother that she’d try to get pregnant right away because she didn’t want to raise some dead, schizophrenic’s spoiled kids, and how my sisters and I would do better to be raised on Nana’s ranch among family. She winked at me as if she hadn’t turned around, caught me listening, and told me to leave her kitchen and do something useful. Like packing for camp. That was my mother’s kitchen, bitch. That was where she taught us to decorate Christmas cookies and fed us sancocho on cold rainy afternoons. That was where she taught us the importance of not being upset while you’re cooking. That kitchen, which my mother decorated with pilones from Nana’s town, commemorating each visit she’d made to the ranch, was where she helped me with my homework, and where she sat and took pill after pill to end her life when the voices became too much. That was the kitchen Marcia threw me out of and she had no right. I should have killed her with those damn Prada sandals back then!
I’m not going to get into how Marcia struggled for her life; how she scratched at my face and arms, convulsing as her poor, adrenalized heart pumped more and more blood out of her wounds. Some of the scratches were so deep that I needed stitches. I could tell that the nurse in the emergency room was not happy to be treating me. She finally sighed and said, “Why you do dis ting?” The nurse reminded me of the woman doctor who came out to the waiting room of this very hospital to tell me and my dad that she’d tried everything to resuscitate my mother but it didn’t work. “De bible say honor your mudda and fadda. Why you do dis ting?” she asked again.
“That woman was not my mother.” Those were the last words I’ve spoken to anyone since.
I don’t think you realize how truly gruesome it was. You probably convicted me and labeled me a psychopath the minute you heard the news. You probably assumed that I enjoyed taking a life, that I took it all lightly and didn’t care that Mr. and Mrs. Tomasino had to bury their daughter. No one should have to bury their children. I know this. Nana explained it to me after my mother’s funeral.
After her sister died in a horse-riding accident as a little girl, Nana’s mother stopped sewing. Then slowly, their ranch began to lose animals and crops. And finally, she lay down on her bed and never got back up. That was the day Nana took over the ranch. “This is what happens when you lose a child,” Nana said to me. I suppose I’m what happens when you lose your mom.
I thought about Marcia’s parents a lot. Mrs. Tomasino likes to paint, and her studio is full of watercolors that will never see a gallery, and Mr. Tomasino still works at City Hall. Doing what, I forget. But they had full lives when I was deciding to kill Marcia, and it hurt me to think that Mrs. Tomasino would probably never paint again, or that Mr. Tomasino would retire early, the grief of losing Marcia taking over them until they are unrecognizable.
Still, I don’t want to talk about the look in Marcia’s eyes as she lay in a growing puddle of her own blood—so much blood!— realizing and accepting the inevitable. It’s enough for the memory to play itself out in my dreams every night. She knew she wouldn’t be saved in time to see my dad again, or have that baby she had been plotting since day one, or trash-talk me and my sisters and my mom to her mother. She knew I had won our little domestic war.
Sitting here on the hard bed of my cell, with no one to talk to, no window to the outside world, with no family to visit me or even a cellmate to fight, the last thing I want is to tell you about how Marcia died so you can pity her more.
This, instead, is the story of how Marcia ruined my life.
Would you like to hear it?
Raquel I. Penzo is a Brooklyn, NY, native who has carved a career for herself as a writer, editor, and literary event curator. She hosts the New Voices Reading Series each quarter in NYC and works as a copywriter at Brooklyn Public Library. Raquel authored the self-published My Ego Likes the Compliments…And Other Musings on Writing, and the short stories, “Grey Matter,” published online at Blue Lake Review, and “On a Blue Day,” published in the zine You Should Be Here. An anthology of works from participants of her reading series was released on April 29. She can be found online at www.RaquelPenzo.com.