The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The Leaving Deficit


Barbara and I exchange gifts at her door before I tell her why I left my husband. I give her a silver ring with a large, handcrafted blooming flower. She holds the three grams in her hand like it’s heavy. She tells me to wait and bolts throughout the doublewide trailer and reappears with a sweetgrass braid as long as my arm, still wet from the braiding. The gifts are ritual and plenty—yellow roses and basil and tobacco and books we like and things for ceremony.

She thinks my husband doesn’t understand how to communicate love and I think he’s impotent.

“White men,” Barbara says.

“His anger just wells into nothing.”

We give different theories to each other and conclude that maybe he’s not the problem. Maybe there’s no problem, and I can’t deal with that.

Every time I leave, my husband says that he can’t make me stay. Can’t you make me? I think, every time.


My mother and I found an eagle carcass on our way to the river. With the feathers plucked we saw its sinewy skin.

“White men,” Mom said.

Feathers are a gift and flexible protein. Mom put down tobacco and ran her fingers over its exposed parts. She told me the salmon run is coming and this bird would have wanted for nothing.

She wanted me to see the deficit that white people leave.


Nobody wants to know why Indian women leave or where they go. Our bodies walk across the highway, from the dances of our youth into missing narratives without strobe lights or sweet drinks in our small purses or the talk of leaving. The truth of our leaving or coming into the world is never told.

While my ancestors’ bones lay proud and dull in the grave, mine were hot light ready to go.

Larry was my mother’s boyfriend. He started to walk across the halls naked. I thought it was a corpse. He played a ghost looming between my mother and I. He went to the kitchen and never ate. His insides were rot. He drove me to school holding a beer can, a tangible thing in his unstable hand. My mother didn’t believe me so it was always an unreal taking.

I searched for irrefutable things to tell my mother. None of it compared to the days they went clamming together or collected Devil’s Club in the valley. My mother never liked the beach until he came around with his rake and gloves. They waded in the gloomy water as I watched from the truck. They seemed content. It didn’t matter if he groped my cousin or me. None of that mattered.

I saw my mother differently. She stopped bringing Larry home. Instead they went to his place in the city. I took a bus there to find her. There were only so many places where men like him could live.

Larry lived on the first floor in a drug house. Native women, girls like me, sat outside on couches with babies, stood inside the hallway, and made tea in the kitchen. I knocked on his bedroom door. My mother was ashamed in bed. She rummaged through her purse and handed him twenty dollars.

“Here,” he said. “Go back to the rez.”

This is how rez girls go missing.

This is how rez girls decide to leave.

mailhot2I left on Valentine’s Day after the dance. The rez hall wasn’t even decorated. The girls and I stood in circles with strobe lights against our backs and sweet drinks in our small purses and my talk of leaving.

“Fuck it,” Lucy said. “Don’t come back.”

Lucy was shorter than all the Chehalis girls, but she walked up to them anyway to start shit. We left, drunk, and went out onto the highways. The trucks honked at our silhouettes. Nobody wants to know how rez girls leave. I only had one bag to pack and I didn’t have money. My boyfriend let me live with him in his mother’s home.

His whole family is large and Republican. I acclimated from my Marxist-Leninist mother to their lifestyle. We ate top sirloin and fried shrimp and Bush became the President. They asked me to vote and drove me to the polling station and I went in and stood there long enough. Every day was like that for me.

I called my mother to show her I could leave.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Not be there,” I said.

“Where are you?” she asked.

When a man’s hands become a ghost there is no way to strip them from a body. Haunting what a mother does not see. Native women walk alone from the dances of their youth into homes they don’t know for the chance to be away. Their silhouettes walk across highways and into cars at night. They are troubled by nothing but the chance that they might have to come back someday, to bury their mothers.

My mother died on Thanksgiving. My brother was watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the next room. Larry was already dead from liver failure. I flew in from a place far removed. I worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I prayed over her body and touched her delicate skin. A bloat protruded from her neck and I felt that too. I felt the deficit.

I took her house and its contents and let her ghost in. The people said to put away the pictures but I didn’t. They said to cover the mirrors but I didn’t. The ritual of death disinterested me. And then I left her home again.

I found humor in the leaving.

I left a boy with a fork in his chest. He heard me when I said no.

Another dug his knuckles into me. I didn’t cover the marks. He gave me his credit card and I bought diamonds and hammered silver.

Another I left in the waiting room of his lawyer’s office. He was trying to prove he didn’t sleep with a high school student of his, failing lie detectors, his body told enough. He gave me three thousand dollars and I bought summer classes. When I graduated he asked for a picture but I didn’t reply.

Another I left in Miami. He didn’t think I was like that, but I was clearly like that. I only smile at the room service.

“What do you want?” I asked.

Another one has white guilt and thinks it’s progress to bind me.

“Can you say all you want from me in one breath?” I asked.


Barbara asks what I get from leaving. I tell her that my husband left me in the hospital once before we were married.

“I guess I took him back to leave him.”

He visited me in the hospital for finality. Suicidal ideation troubled him too much. I asked if he felt culpable. There was a crafted tree on the walls for the sick women made of paper and crayon and glue. The tree had leaves, thirty different colors, with words on them like ‘Intelligent,’ ‘Smart,’ ‘Brave,’ ‘Bold,’ ‘Strong’… My husband pointed to ‘Sexy.’ I put the leaf in my pocket and used it as a bookmark for a year.

Barbara tells me to go back. The wet sweetgrass she braided is dry and straight. She puts it below the windshield in my car and when I drive back I’m not sure I will stay.

Her house is a lot of old pictures and plants and draped scarves. A blue budgie sings in her office and there are a few old drums around. It is everything of my mother and home.


I hold my sons at night and they are so still, like rocks. I run my fingers over their foreheads and wonder how they don’t collect dust. Boys sleep and I am still a rare carcass in the river, bloated with deficit. Every time I see live wings flap I think of leaving. It used to feel like breaking vertigo and now it is just breaking.

Now that I stay we have the same fight.

“I’m trying not to be an asshole,” he says.

“Sometimes trying to be the absence of something makes you that very thing.”

I understand I am talking about myself and leaving. We can sit together for hours with the deficit and it’s not unusual anymore—it’s ritual. Us both, trying to be the absence of something and forgiving each other for the children we have become. I think about my mother knee-deep in the beach with a rake, smiling at Larry. I think about myself in the back of a truck wanting to deny the man she loved. And after all of this there are still rocks in the old home I grew up in, the one that burned down. There are lava sweat lodge rocks sitting underneath grass that overgrew a fire pit. There is stillness even in my history and I simply need to imagine to believe.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Band. She graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, Feminist Wire, The Toast, and The Offing. She works as a columnist for Indian Country Today. More from this author →