At Twelve Years Old, I Draft a New Custody Agreement

by Ariel M. Goldenthal



(Original Version)


1. [REDACTED: There’s a face Mom makes just before she grabs my wrist and drags me up the Pepto Bismol-pink-rugged stairs. If I see the face, if I’m near the door, if my shoes are close, I can run.]
1. When I am at my mother’s house, I can leave at any time to spend 48 hours at my father’s house while she calms down.

2. [REDACTED: Metallic fear drip-drops down my throat to the beat of my racing heart when I pause at the halfway-point stop sign. I escape once a week, always wearing the same bruise-purple fleece, the one with pockets deep enough to shove my hands still clenched in defense into. It’s not thick enough to protect me from the wind or from her.]
2. Whereas the current custody schedule includes going back and forth between my father’s and mother’s houses every other weekday and every other weekend, I propose that I spend a full week at each parent’s house.

3. [REDACTED: Minutes after I get to Dad’s house, the phone rings and I hide between last year’s dance recital costumes in my closet. The tulle muffles my breathing and dulls Mom’s shrieky threats. Dad comes to find me once she’s hung up on him for the third time.]
3. If I am at my father’s house during a time when I am supposed to be at my mother’s house, she can call me on the phone once a day to talk, but I do not need to talk to her if I do not want to.

4. [REDACTED: I build a fort out of my four-poster bed, tie up fleece blankets along the sides, and burrow in the warmth instead of going to my first-period pre-algebra class. I’m at home when the police bang on Dad’s door, say Mom has accused him of kidnapping me, and threaten to hurt my dog if she doesn’t stop barking. She scampers up the stairs and I pull her into my fuzzy safe house.]
4. My mother cannot call the police when I run away to my father’s house.

5. [REDACTED: Mom doesn’t hurt my brother who has wavy hair like hers, who is quiet and contemplative instead of loud and assertive, who isolates himself in the study playing World of Warcraft.]
5. My brother can visit my father’s anytime when I am there.

6. [REDACTED: If I don’t see the face, if the back door is locked, if my purple fleece is upstairs, I race to the far corner of my room where she can’t find me. At the top of the stairs, wide blue eyes stare from the crack in the doorway of my brother’s room, but I can’t stop. He’s safe by himself, I tell myself as I slam the door.]
6. If my mother ever hurts him, he gets this same agreement.

7. [REDACTED: I miss so much school that my teachers say I might not be ready to move to geometry next year. My brother won’t let go of Dad when he comes to pick me up for my doctor’s appointment to look at the shoulder that I worry Mom sprained when I twisted trying to resist being dragged up the stairs. I see my fourth therapist who says she wants me to feel like I have control even when I’ve never felt weaker.]
7. I retain the right to revisit this agreement at any time.



Ariel M. Goldenthal is an assistant professor of English at George Mason University. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Flash Frontier, MoonPark Review, and others. Read more at or follow her on Twitter @arielgoldenthal.

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