I never liked the Solomon story. You know the one. Two women come to the wise King Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of the same baby. King Solomon tells the women that since there’s no way to know who the real mother is, he’ll just cut the baby in half. One woman calmly accepts his proposal. The other falls to the floor, pleading that Solomon not harm the child, that he let the other woman raise the baby. This display of maternal selflessness is all the proof Solomon needs to identify the real mother. The baby is hers.
I first heard this story as a child in Hebrew school. As I sat on the carpeted floor that smelled like lemon cleaning solution, I wondered why the first woman was so ready to accept half a baby, or rather, a dead baby. Surely even a non-mother would prefer a live child to a dead one? And what if King Solomon’s plan had backfired? Even his false proposal of infanticide seemed strange and cruel. The story nagged at me, with all its horrible potentialities, its myriad loopholes.
But I also couldn’t help but dwell on the idea of cutting a baby in half. I was obsessed with the violent and graphic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, especially the one where the little girl begs an executioner to chop off her feet because they won’t stop dancing. And in the Torah, God was always coming up with creative and horrific punishments—wiping out entire cities, killing off the Egyptians’ first-born children, making the Jews wander in a desert for forty years, flooding the world. Slicing a baby down the middle—splitting its skull like two halves of a peach—didn’t seem completely farfetched. In my own gruesome version of the story, the baby survives, and each woman leaves the palace with half a baby cradled to her chest: one arm, one kicking leg, one watchful eyeball, one dimpled butt cheek. Each half baby would grow to be a half child, a half adult. Half a mouth, half a brain. Haunted by the desire to be whole.
As a child, I too felt split in half—pulled between the disparate worlds and needs of my divorced parents. Every child wants to be wanted, and I was wanted, but I did not understand the depth of that desire, its bitter vastness. This is what the wise king knew: that it is possible to become a fanatic of wanting, wanting what you cannot have, depriving others of what you yourself are deprived. That bitterness can taste sweet, like honey drizzled on unripe fruit. Nevertheless, the body is indivisible—singular, whole, or nothing at all.
The old house is how everyone in my family refers to the house in Park Hill, the brick bungalow with the porch swing, linoleum kitchen floor, and the single stained-glass window by the fireplace. My parents purchased the house when they moved to Denver in the early 1980s after graduating from Washington State University with twin masters degrees in geology. For me, the story of the old house is my origin story, the place where my parents’ marriage began and ended, the first place my brother and I called home.
Most of my memories in the old house involve my mother and Sam—who was born three years and three days after me—and later on my stepfather Cecil, who joined our family toward the end of the old house’s tenure. After my father moved out—and before Cecil moved in—we’d take Sunday afternoon naps in my mother’s waterbed, Sam on one side of our mother, me on the other. She’d always play the same cassette tape: thunderstorm sounds. We’d fall asleep to the low rumble of thunder and the patter of rain, even as sunshine streamed through the bedroom windows. My mother was tired in those days—work-tired, single-mom-tired, depression-tired. In the waterbed, she could let herself float away for an hour or two. Years later, I would think of those thunderstorm tapes and yearn for rain, for an escape from the high desert plains and unrelenting blue skies.
My father is largely absent from my memories of the old house—he was often working late and taking night classes to get his MBA, but he also moved out when I was four, and childhood amnesia has erased most of those early imprints. The memories of him come after the separation and divorce, when he’d come back to visit. He’d pick Sam and me up from the house and we’d go downtown to the Warwick Hotel where he was staying and order room service hamburgers. We’d jump on the springy hotel beds, dip cold French fries in ketchup, and look out the window at the sky scrapers. Then he’d take us back home, back up the smooth cement steps, back to our mother.
The only memory I have of both my parents together and married takes place in the bathroom of the old house. It was a small bathroom with a tiled floor, pedestal sink, and a tub where I once fell and split the soft skin under my chin. In the memory, the air is steamy because my father has just taken a shower. I am in the doorway, holding on to my mother’s leg. My parents are talking, their voices drifting over me like clouds. I am listening quietly to their conversation, though I don’t understand it. I am always listening.
My father is naked, his wet feet planted on the bathroom rug. He is a giant, his legs covered in soft hairs which are now wet and stuck to his skin. I am looking up at his naked body, which—in my memory—is clouded as if behind steamed glass. Suddenly, he looks down at me, startled by the intent curiosity of my gaze. Get her out of here, he tells my mother, and I am shooed out of the room, the door closed. Memory over. For the first time, I am aware of a body’s nakedness, aware of myself as a single body, a body existing apart from my parents’ bodies. A calving glacier. A splitting.
And yet, in spite of this Freudian remnant, I was never curious about my mother’s and father’s once romantic relationship, about the shattered past which had brought me and my brother into existence. I only knew or cared that I was half my mother’s and half my father’s. Half Jewish. Half Catholic. My brother had my mother’s looks; I had my father’s. I might as well have been grown in a glass jar, as I believed so-called “test tube babies” were. In middle school, when a close friend began to lose her hair from the stress of her parents’ divorce, I was strangely callous and unsympathetic. What’s the big deal? I thought. That your parents don’t love each other? So what?
I liked feeling jaded about the realities of love and marriage. In my high school journal, I wrote that my secret desire was to someday live in a cottage by the ocean with my “illegitimate daughter.” It would be just the two of us, the ocean and the beachy dunes, a garden full of blue hydrangeas. Nobody else but us. This vision of my future daughter and me arrived fully formed, signaling a deeper, subconscious desire. My imagined cottage was a protective enchantment, an inner dwelling built perfectly to size like a hermit crab’s shell. Inside my cottage, my future coexisted with my past. I was my own guardian, my own child.
I was seven when my mother sold the old house to a young couple who would go on to finish the basement and “pop the top,” doubling the square footage. We moved to the suburbs for the same reason white, middle-class families have been moving out of the city and into the suburbs for generations: the schools. Our neighborhood was called Cherry Creek Vista, one pocket within a vast sprawl of monochromatic subdivisions, big box stores, and shiny-windowed office parks. In Cherry Creek Vista, we could no longer walk to the museum or the zoo or the public library. But we could drive anywhere on the widest, smoothest roads I’d ever seen.
The new house was twice the size of the old one, and it backed up to a public park and the neighborhood swimming pool. In the summer, we would wake early on Saturday mornings to the sound of swim meets: whistles and loudspeakers and cheers. My new school, Cottonwood Creek Elementary, was on the other side of the park. I remember seeing the school library for the first time, a sunny atrium filled with books and colorful bean bags. It was at least ten times larger than the cramped, one-room library at my old school.
Two months after we moved into the new house, my father and soon-to-be stepmother moved back to Colorado from Houston. Or more specifically, they moved to Cherry Creek Vista, to a pale yellow house less than a mile away. This move was my family’s watershed moment, a decision that irreversibly changed our lives. The current parenting dispute was precipitated by Mr. Rhoades’ move back to Denver in June 1996, Dr. Katz, our family’s forensic psychologist, wrote in the parenting time evaluation he conducted later that year. It had been three years since I had lived in the same state as my father. Now, he and my stepmother wanted fifty-fifty joint custody. As the psychologist noted, the disagreements and disappointments my parents faced existed prior to the move but were less overt…when the parties lived in other states. Now, in close proximity to one another, my parents’ simmering disputes turned volatile, and the deluge of lawyers, mediators, child psychologists, and court dates appeared only to fan their bitter flames. But no one stoked the flames more than my stepmother.
Sometimes I forget that there was a time before Krystal, my stepmother, existed in our lives. As one psychologist delicately put it, she was an extremely outgoing, vivacious person whom others tend to either really like or really dislike. In other words, she made an impression. Decades later, when I find Dr. Katz on the internet and meet with him via Zoom, he confesses that he doesn’t remember my brother or me. But despite having evaluated hundreds of families, he remembers Krystal. Who was this woman who shouldered her way into our family?
Just a year earlier, Sam and I had spent a week with her and my father in their Houston condo. When we returned home, I reported matter-of-factly to my mother that Krystie—as her friends and family called her—had a lot of mirrors, and that she was often looking into those mirrors. Gilt framed mirrors on the walls, mirrors on the antique vanities, full-length mirrors in the bedrooms. She was a woman who admired her own reflection, who needed to be admired by the people around her. Krystal was a former prom queen, a beauty pageant winner, the captain of her high school’s cheerleading squad. She could knot a maraschino cherry stem in her mouth in under a minute. She liked to say, without a trace of irony, that blondes have more fun, before flashing a bright white smile, brushing back her highlighted hair. She wore make-up and expensive jewelry. She thought drinking beer was unladylike. She loved that her co-workers called her Barbie.
In trying to make sense of this woman, I had already begun to compare and contrast her with the most important woman in my life: my mother. Krystie liked gold, while Mom liked silver and turquoise. Krystie’s hair was thin and light and straight, while Mom’s was thick and dark and curly. Krystie owned silk nightgowns and floral kimonos, while Mom slept in an old, baggy T-shirt. My mother, whose nails were always unpainted and uneven, called Krystal’s long acrylic nails red daggers. She referred to Krystal as the live-in with such vehemence that I knew I should hate my soon-to-be stepmother, too. And though Krystal did frighten me, I was also involuntarily drawn to her, fascinated by her luminous smile, her jewelry box and make-up bag, her curling iron and collection of lotions and floral perfumes.
That winter, as lawyers haggled over drop-off times and divvied up holidays and school breaks, my father and Krystal married in the living room of the yellow house. My stepmother wore a maroon dress, her highlighted blonde hair teased, back-combed, and hair sprayed into a puffy cloud. I wore a matching maroon velvet dress with itchy wool tights and Sam wore a little V-neck sweater and slacks, and after the ceremony, we played upstairs with the neighbor kids whose parents were drinking champagne in the kitchen. It had been six months since my father and Krystal had moved into their new house, and already she knew everyone on the block, had invited everyone in the vicinity to witness her newfound marital bliss. Like a self-appointed queen bee, she had already begun to orchestrate her world so that she was at the center, while the rest of us hovered around her, dutifully playing our parts.
Krystal made the yellow house her own—she painted all the bedrooms, furnished every room with mahogany antiques, hung oil paintings and crucifixes and mirrors on the walls. She made Sam and me her own, too—picking out our clothes, decorating our rooms. Perhaps that’s why she chose my father in the first place. She thought he would give her what she wanted: a beautiful house, two children, a picture-perfect life.
In just a few months, Sam and I had gone from sharing a bedroom, to having two bedrooms a piece. Unlike the children in fairy tales, our lives had not been diminished by the arrival of our stepmother, but divided and then multiplied. We had not been banished to the cellar or the forest. Instead, we were now in the land of cul-de-sacs and castles, with two second-story bedrooms, two wardrobes, two lives.
From the beginning, Krystal wanted us—her stepchildren—in a way that confounded me. Most stepparents have a benign tolerance for their stepchildren. A tolerance that might lead to acceptance and eventually grow into love. The worst stepparents are, of course, the evil stepmothers in fairy tales, the ones with ulterior motives, who make their stepchildren sift through ashes, or banish them, or gift them poison apples. Sam and I already understood the concept of a stepparent: we had Cecil. I knew that Cecil cared for us, and even loved us. He cooked us dinner, dropped us off at soccer practice, washed our laundry, read bedtime stories to us in a monotone voice. But I also was vaguely aware that he did these things because of our mother. He loved us because he loved our mother. Without her, there would be no Cecil.
Krystal, however, came into our lives with a strange intensity and passion, a love that hinged on possession. I had no precedent, no framework to help me understand our relationship. In his observations of our family, even Dr. Katz noticed how Krystal took over and attempted to control how the children played, and how confused Sam and I became, responding with increased agitation, refusal to cooperate, and shutting down.
And yet, I soon began to confuse my stepmother’s intensity for love. She physically grabbed Sam and me, raked her long, red nails against our skin in a way that raised goosebumps, kissed us on the mouth, took us to Christmas gatherings with her family. She taught me the words to the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father,” and gave me a slender gold ring inlaid with tiny rubies and diamonds, an enchanting little talisman that I wore to elementary school on my middle finger. My father was certainly under her spell. He was going to Catholic mass regularly now, for the first time since graduating from a Catholic high school. He listened to the music she liked, paid for the vacations she wanted to go on, and fought for his children the way she wanted him to, with no holds barred. Dr. Katz reported that my father had a difficult time providing his own clear self-definition, that first he had allowed my mother to define who he was. Now he was allowing his new wife to do the same.
Sam and I adjusted, grew up the dual citizens of these two warring fiefdoms. We were fluent in the customs and rituals of both places. At Dad’s, we held hands and prayed before we ate: Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. At Mom’s we observed Shabbat. Sam and I would fight over who got to strike the match and light the candles, and then we all touched our pinkies to the challah as we sang hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we give thanks to God for bread... At Dad’s we were taught to answer the phone with Rhoades’ residence, even after we got caller ID. The TV there was kept in a locked box, and video games were not permitted. Mom, on the other hand, never hesitated to give in to our requests. She and Cecil bought us a golden retriever puppy and a Nintendo 64. On weekends, we could watch cartoons while eating cereal on the couch, something we would never dream of doing on Krystal’s white antique furniture.
My allegiances were constantly shifting between parents, and my actions often seemed like a series of betrayals. I became a double agent, a diplomat, a secret keeper, a liar by omission and commission. The first real betrayal took place when I was eight years old and stole a piece of crumpled paper out of my mother’s trash can. At the time, I was obsessed with Harriet the Spy and had taken to hiding and watching members of my family, making notes about their behavior in my notebook. Surveillance, I quickly learned, is a mostly dull job, and so I looked to other forms of snooping.
The crumpled paper I found was a letter my mother had drafted to her lawyer, Mary Davis. A lawyer, I vaguely understood, was someone who went to battle for you. These battles happened in court, which was a place with wood paneling, where a judge in a black robe made decisions about your life, much like King Solomon. My parents’ lawyers existed for me as disembodied names overheard in adult conversations—Mary Davis, Lucy Benson. I had never seen them, never heard their voices, and yet they took on mythic proportions in my imagination. Mary and Lucy wore power suits with padded shoulders and high heels; they yelled at each other about who was best—mother or father. I was afraid of them, of how deeply my parents trusted them, of the enormous power they seemed to wield over our lives. In the letter, my mother’s words were angry and unfamiliar. I read phrases like Mary, you wouldn’t believe… and in violation of the parenting agreement. My father’s name was in it, as was Krystal’s. The children… I read over and over. The children…
Suddenly it became clear what I had to do. Like a good spy, I would show the letter to my father and stepmother. I smoothed the crumpled paper, folded it, and hid it in my backpack, waited a few days until I knew I would see them. Then I proudly pulled the letter out and showed it to them as if it were a school project.
Look, I said. Look what I found.
My father and stepmother enjoyed the letter; they scoffed and snorted while reading it. Clearly, they understood more than I had. Krystal suggested that my father call Lucy and tell her what the ferret was up to. They told me what a good girl I was for helping them. I had wanted to help them, but I wondered if helping them meant hurting Mom. I felt acutely, suddenly sad. I was imagining my mother in our house—your other house, as Dad and Krystal called it—without us and the image of her overwhelmed me. Mom was alone. Yes, she had Cecil, but I knew she missed her children, the ones who once curled around her body in the waterbed, listening to the sounds of thunderstorms. I regretted what I had done and resolved never to tell her, my treachery compounded by my absence. As far as I know, she never learned about my spying. If she did, she never told me.
After that, I would often wonder what my parents were doing when we were not there. A strange thing, to only know half someone’s life. To leave your bedroom empty half the time. I would avoid going by the other parents’ house when it was not their assigned day. When it was unavoidable, like if I forgot a school book, seeing them felt somehow like cheating, or awkward, like saying goodbye to someone, and then crossing paths an hour later. I could never give enough of myself, could never properly dole out my affections in a way that felt equitable.
For many years, I thought that something was wrong with me. Without clearly understanding what it was, I thought I might have multiple personality disorder. What else could explain why I behaved so differently at each house? Even my best friend said she could tell whose house I was at depending on the way I acted at school, what clothes I wore. Was I carefree and goofy? Wearing my slim cut bell-bottom jeans? Must be at Mom’s. Was I serious and quick-tempered, wearing turtleneck sweaters? It must have been Dad’s weekend.
A few months away from my high school graduation, I pondered what my life would look like in college and beyond. I wrote in my journal, What kind of person will I be? I feel like two people now. When I have a husband and children, will I act differently at one house? Will my kids like one grandma better than the other? Will I be happy? Will I pursue what I want?
I could not imagine what my life would look like as a single, undivided human. Who would I be? I had lived two half-lives for so long. I had two religions, two senses of humor, two sets of clothes. Would I settle somewhere in the middle? I understood intuitively that things could not keep careening forward like this, with me hovering between the poles of mother and stepmother. In the unfathomable future, the hypothetical grandfathers didn’t worry me, but the grandmothers did.
In The Uses of Enchantment, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim argues that fairy tale evil stepmothers serve as emotional scapegoats for a child’s feelings of anger and animosity toward their own mother. By placing blame on the stepmother instead of the mother, the fairy tale suggests how the child may manage the contradictory feelings which would otherwise overwhelm him. As a child, I was often overwhelmed by contradictory feelings, and yet I was unable to locate an emotional scapegoat. When Dr. Katz asked me what it was like to go back and forth between houses, I said I kind of missed whatever family I was not with, but that I tried not to think about it that much. I was obsessed with fairness, with making sure each house had its equal share of me.
Half the time, I saw my mother as she appeared before me. My mother, with her high cheekbones and round face framed by thick, dark hair, her silly dance moves and her heightened sensitivity. I saw myself—my own silliness and sensitivity—reflected in her. The other half of the time, I saw my mother filtered through the eyes of my stepmother—my mother was the ferret, the birth mother, the poison pen. Which version was true? And which version of myself was real? I was squinting at my reflection, at my stepmother, at my mother, trying to figure out which one of us was standing in front of a funhouse mirror.
Bettelheim says that similarly, a child may split themselves in two, unwilling to recognize their bad behavior as their own. As the parent in the fairy tale becomes separated into two figures, representative of the opposite feelings of loving and rejecting, so the child externalizes and projects onto a ‘somebody’ all the bad things which are too scary to be recognized as part of oneself. This explains how I could love my mother and spy on her. I was simply scared of myself, of my warring impulses. Even now, I do things in my dreams which appall me when I awaken. I cheat on my husband, I lie to my best friend, I scream in Krystal’s face, and then grab onto her arm, which falls off in my hands. I am still scared of the half that is hidden, and of what that half might do.
I was in my early twenties when I saw my parents’ wedding photos for the first time. My grandmother had kept them in a box, mixed in with other family photos. Nearly fifteen years had passed since my father married my stepmother in the living room. I hadn’t seen Krystal since I was nineteen, shortly before my father told me they were getting a divorce.
Surreal then to be sitting at my grandmother’s glass-topped kitchen table, to see photographic evidence that my parents had once held each other’s hands, fed each other cake, smiled lovingly into each other’s faces. The baby’s breath in my mother’s hair, her off-the-shoulder gown. My father’s hay-colored mustache, his tuxedo and thick-rimmed glasses. I felt slightly ill looking at them, at their gross display of togetherness, which I had known only for the briefest of moments. Any memories I had of their love had long been cannibalized by my child brain. I had almost forgotten that Sam and I were products of this pair, the union of two incompatible people.
When I think about the Solomon story now, I think of my mother and stepmother, and their bitter showdowns over who was the real mother and who was the imposter. Perhaps, as one psychologist suggested, Krystal was unaware of the underlying competitiveness, hostility, and interpersonal difficulties in the family situation. Or maybe, she thrived on competition, on the thrill of a fight, even as my mother retreated like a wounded gazelle.
The Solomon story played out over and over again, in the absence of any judge or jury. It played out at the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, which took place in the elementary school gym. For weeks, Sam and my father had spent hours in the basement of the yellow house, transforming a block of wood into a miniature, aerodynamic race car. Dozens of Cub Scouts, parents, and family members gathered in the gym to watch the hand-painted cars hurtle like Hot Wheels down the wooden tracks. Being in the same space as my mother and stepmother meant I was breathing with a sandbag on my chest. It meant time slowed down and the mental calculations began—who would I sit next to? How long would I speak with each parent? Would I wave goodbye or cross the room to give a hug? Each word, each gesture became freighted with meaning as the two versions of myself played a violent game of tug-of-war inside my gut.
Weeks earlier, I had taken the after-school bus to Dad’s house when I was supposed to go home to Mom’s. My father wasn’t home, but Krystal was. She made me coffee and we ate banana bread at the kitchen table like old friends colluding on secret plans. Meanwhile, Cecil was wondering where I was. He began calling my friends’ parents, then drove to the middle school to find me. It was snowing that day, and the roads were tire-tracked and slushy. When I got home later after Krystal dropped me off down the street, Cecil asked me where I had been. I lied, and said that I had just been talking to Krystal at the bus stop. He told me he had waited at the bus stop, and I hadn’t been there.
You’re killing your mom, he told me. You’re killing her.
That night, even as my mother assured me that Cecil had only used a figure of speech, I lay in bed shaking with a fever, afraid of the terrible power I wielded. For each of my actions, there was an equal and opposite reaction. What was pleasing to my stepmother was painful for my mother.
Now, at the Pinewood Derby, I felt paralyzed. Sam was sitting up front with the other Cub Scouts, wearing his crisp blue uniform. Krystal was crouched near him, whispering in his ear. I remember the cheers, the people crowding the gym, how my jaw felt carved out of stone. I do not remember who won the race. I will never know what Krystal whispered in my brother’s ear, or where my father was in that room. In most of my memories, my father’s presence is eclipsed by the presence of his wife.
But the scene comes back to me as I read my mother’s account of that day in her “Parenting Diary,” a document she had been keeping for her lawyer. My mother writes that a woman named Carolee had asked her who her child was, and when my mother told her, the woman looked confused.
Then who is Krystal? Krystal told me that she was their mother. They both glanced over at my stepmother, whose arm was around Sam’s shoulders. My mother began to cry and left the gym. When she came back, the races were over. She watched as I left with Krystal and my father, my eyes glued to the floor, refusing to meet her gaze. Only Sam ran over to her and gave her a hug.
My mother must have felt hollowed out as she watched her daughter walk away from her, refusing to meet her eyes. Maybe Cecil hadn’t meant what he said as a figure of speech; maybe he really did believe I was killing her, a little bit at a time. I wouldn’t have blamed my mother if in the interest of self-preservation, she had contemplated the possibility of giving me up, letting my stepmother have me, if that’s what I wanted. But my mother never relinquished me. She clung tightly to the half that was hers, even as I pushed her away.
And in the end, Krystal left without saying goodbye, without a fight, or a final parting word, to me at least. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, when my father told me that she was gone. I was home for the weekend, and we were eating dinner at a new restaurant that had just opened in the neighborhood.
She has a trigger, he said, and once you flip it off, you can’t flip it back on.
He explained how Krystal had come to believe I was a spy for my mother, even though I was living in a dorm an hour away. I had sensed that Krystal had been pulling away from me ever since I left for college—it had been months since we had spoken—but now it seemed as though my father was talking about a stranger. After all, it was my mother I had spied on, not my stepmother.
Of course, it was not my fault, my father assured me, not my fault at all. He detailed the ways in which his marriage had begun to rot from the inside out. He was now a stranger to me, too, my father. He was beginning to cry. Neither of us had touched our food. Who would define him now that Krystal was gone?
I wondered if my stepmother had only wanted me as her daughter so that my mother could not have me, if the simplest explanation could be the right one: Krystal was jealous of Mom. When she knew she couldn’t have all of me, she chose… nothing.
I was left to ponder what this meant now for my life, my future. I was alone, standing on the cold stone floor of the palace, facing the judgment of my past. Maybe I could become whole again. My ears, my eyes, my brain, my body—unsplit.
is a writer, gardener, and new mom living in Jackson, Mississippi. Her essays, fiction, and book reviews have been published in the Southwest Review, StorySouth, Variant Lit, the Mississippi Books Page, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of a 2019 Tent Fellowship at the Yiddish Book Center, a finalist for the 2020 Indiana Review Creative Nonfiction Prize, and a finalist for the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. Lauren received an MFA from the Mississippi University for Women. Her website is laurenrhoades.com.