Split Ends | Kristi D. Osorio

45 mins read


Four days after my wedding, my mother posts on a popular question-answer forum asking strangers to help her kill herself in our garage. Nathan and I are in Palm Springs, trying to escape 118-degree weather waist-deep in the bright blue pool taking tequila shots. We order smoked salmon and avocado toast, watch the drops of hot sauce float on the surface of the water, and I try not to think of my mother. I try not to think of how she looked when I’d last seen her, crying on the curb outside of our apartment with a cigarette hanging from her lips. 

Nathan and I almost never indulge, so the drunken pool-side mountain of oily fish in a town full of Instagram models feels like a treat. A year and a half earlier, we drove his car from California to New Mexico to pick Mom up after thirteen years in prison. She’d been told she had another tumor—this time, in her liver—by the prison doctor, just a few years after they’d removed the one from her intestine. The same parole board that denied her medical parole, or compassionate release as it’s more widely known, suddenly had a change of heart. 

You’re her only family member, said the prison official who called me to tell me the news. You have to pick her up on Friday morning. The call was so anonymous, so nonchalant, that I’d almost thought it was a prank. 

You’re not supposed to think about that during your honeymoon, I remind myself, trying not to look directly into the sun when I throw my head back to take another shot.



I’m drunk with my legs dangling in the deep end of the pool when a guy named Jason or James or Jack says he wants to get to know me. 

Y’know, like, what do your parents do? he asks, pushing his glasses up from the tip of his shiny nose. My friend’s roommate said she wanted to sneak into the pool at a nearby apartment complex with a small group of friends and a twelve pack. 

Even though I’m twenty-one now, I’m new to drinking, holding a 32-ounce bottle of malt liquor in a brown paper bag. 

40s are illegal here, bro, said the man who handed it to me. I’ve never held one before, and I don’t even like the taste, but drinking is what college kids are supposed to do. By 11:30, the small group becomes a pool party and I’m slurring my words with Jason’s hand on my knee. It must already be midnight by the time I ask him if he wants to hear a story about Mom and me. 

I’m a psych major, he says. Everyone’s always talking about how they’re turning into their mothers. I tell him how I’d thought the suit would look good enough on her, that I used to think anything looked good on her. 

I didn’t know what you were supposed to wear to a murder trial, I say into the crumpled brown bag. Something professional and conservative, something that made you look good but not too good. After all, a murder trial is different for a woman sitting at the defense table than a man. It isn’t the first time I’ve ever told anyone, but it is the first time I’ve ever told anyone after I’ve been drinking. 

I had never seen Mom wear a suit before, and this one was a little too big for her, draped over her narrow shoulders like a hand-me-down or a last-minute Halloween costume. It reminded me of how once, in elementary school, my brother Nick had to dress up as one of the Founding Fathers for a school project with a group of other boys. He needed a suit, something grown up, and Mom pulled this big, purple blazer out of her closet and handed it to him. 

On her dresser in her bedroom was the cemetery of orange pill bottles she relied on each day. 

I need a tranquilizer, she’d always said, since as far back as I could remember. Then she’d pop a Klonopin into her mouth, sometimes swallowing it dry without even a glass of water. Then her voice would change, and she’d start acting almost like a child, her mannerisms and speech pattern exaggerated, but she didn’t seem to notice. 

The next day, when Nick wore the purple blazer to school, alongside the other kids wearing little-boy-sized black suits, he looked out of place, nothing like a Founding Father. I didn’t know where the jacket had even come from, or what Mom had worn it for in the past. Even as a kid, I wondered what other sides there were to Mom—what other selves she might have hidden all these years. 

The weird thing was, I tell Jason, choking down another sip, I never thought she’d kill anyone but herself. 



Some days, when Mom and I are alone, she talks to me like I’m a grown up about things I won’t understand until I become one. 

She tells me things like how much she wants to die.

I don’t want you to find me, she says. I can’t do it in the house. Sometimes it gets so bad she says she wants to lie down on the street in the middle of traffic. I’ve always known about the gun in her room—the black nine-millimeter pistol—because that’s how she proves she can really do it. Sometimes she tells me she’ll drive out somewhere far from home and do it in the car. Other times, she says she’ll stand in the middle of a forest where no one can hear the bullet leave the barrel. She always says she’s going to wear a lot of makeup the day she finally dies, so when they find her, wherever she is, she’ll still have her beauty. 

When she says she’s going to do it, I like to picture her in a field, someplace pretty with daisies or tulips or wildflowers. She’ll hold the black handgun up to her head with black Maybelline tears rolling down her cheeks. Or maybe she won’t cry at all. Her manicured finger will pull the trigger, and, in an instant, I think, my only mother will be gone. The petals in the field will be stained now, redder than the collection of lipsticks lined up in the medicine cabinet above the sink in the bathroom. 

When you’re little, and your mother is everything to you, it’s hard to understand how someone so glamorous can be so sad. She’s everything I want to be when I grow up, the most beautiful woman in the world. And that gives her power. Men always come up to her while she’s pumping gas or loading plastic bags into the back of the car just to ask if she’s really my mother.

No way, you must be sisters, they say, eager and smiling. You look too young to be anyone’s mother

Once, when one of her boyfriends rushed out of the house after a fight, he turned to me in the doorway and said, Your mom is a beautiful woman, but those pills make her crazy. 

I love watching her put her make up on, mixing two or even three shades of foundation on her hand to match her skin tone perfectly. She’s always doing something while she looks in the mirror—exfoliating or moisturizing or dabbing cotton balls in olive oil to prevent wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. 

Her hair and nails seem to change color weekly, but she never gets them done professionally. So many nights I’ve watched her open a box of drugstore dye and slide the clear plastic gloves over the shiny nails she filed and painted on a stack of fashion magazines on her bed. Her hair is always different, as she switches from light to dark and back again whenever she feels like it. She always seems to be chopping it off, too, claiming the damage she’s done to the ends with bottles of extra strength bleach and boxed dyes can never be repaired. 

Getting a trim helps it grow faster, she says, though it never seems to make it past her shoulders. 



Nathan tells me he thinks I’m going to die. The words are shocking coming from someone else, from someone I love. But the feeling isn’t new. I’ve been afraid of dying for fifteen years, since the bad night. Once you wake up to that high pitched screaming, the kind that the women—because it’s almost always the women who die—do in the movies, you become afraid of dying. Once you find out how much blood can come out of a single person, you become afraid of dying. Once you hear Nick, the hero of your whole entire teenage life, the one who drives you everywhere, the one all the girls always ask you about, telling the 9-1-1 dispatcher that he’s scared, that he doesn’t want to check the body for a pulse, you become afraid of dying. 

Being in a dark room is never the same again. Locking a door is never the same again. Going to sleep is never the same again. Everything you used to do becomes something else: you wake up, you could die. You go to sleep, you could die. You’ll always wonder if Nick thinks that way, too, but you’ll never ask. 

I’ve lived with this—the fear of dying, of being killed—since I was fifteen years old. Most days, I manage it. I can push it down long enough to get through to the next day. Unless I’m watching one of those gory movies that show the bloodstained knife too many times. Or if I see the blue-red lights of a police car shine against my window on the way to a scene that has nothing to do with me. Even though I’m thirty now, those things take me back to the bad night.  

When Nathan tells me he thinks I’m going to die, it’s not because he thinks I’m going to be murdered. 

It’s the fear, he says. I’m afraid you’re going to die from the fear. 

After the honeymoon, we knew we had to leave. I never told Mom I’d read her post about killing herself by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage. When Nathan and I got home from Palm Springs, her parole officer said he wanted to 5150 her for suicidal threats during his routine visit that week while we were gone. But I did wonder—and continue to wonder—about her method. The garage. Her car. The car she’d fought so hard to get after she got out of prison. The only thing she actually owned.  

Ever since she was released from prison, she’d been asking her doctors to give her Klonopin again, listing a variety of reasons she needed it, like insomnia and panic attacks and anxiety. She’d been on it for more than twenty years by the time she went to prison, where she was forced off of it and then experienced a days-long withdrawal period of unbearable physical illness. Body aches. Vomiting. Cold sweats. Most doctors were against giving it to her, citing the highly addictive nature of the drug and her decades of dependency on it. Somehow, she’d recently found a doctor in another state who agreed to work with her remotely to prescribe it to her. 

Don’t do it, Mom, I pleaded. That stuff is so bad for you, remember? You don’t need it. 

Yes, I do, she said. There’s nothing for me out here. It helps me.

A few months earlier, I had reached out to a local nonprofit that specialized in restorative justice. A mild-mannered woman named Claire met with us on Zoom—Mom, Nathan, and me sitting side-by-side in the kitchen—to create a safe space for a conversation focused on encouraging Mom to move on from the past and begin her future. While I had hoped it would be inspiring and empowering for Mom, the meeting didn’t go as planned. Right before we started, Mom popped the tiny pill into her mouth, and as the minutes passed, became more and more disconnected from the conversation. In the following weeks, she became defensive and standoffish at home. Since then, as the apartment became more tense, our relationships—mine and hers, Nathan and hers—had begun to spiral. 

Following a particularly fraught argument between Nathan and Mom, she stopped eating meals with us. She brought her food to her room and ate on her bed in front of the TV. She didn’t say good morning or goodnight anymore. In the evenings, she’d cry loudly as Nathan and I watched TV or played video games, and in the middle of the night, she’d wander through the halls, walking back and forth or sometimes talking to herself.

One morning at work, I googled, Klonopin sleepwalking, which led me to, Klonopin suicidal ideations



It’s the night before our engagement photoshoot. We thought splurging on a photographer was both embarrassing and indulgent before we got engaged, but a few months into our wedding planning, we booked one. After hours of researching and interviewing photographers, we found Tom, a local high school teacher turned wedding photographer. Tomorrow, we’re driving to Big Sur to meet him for the shoot, so we’re going to bed early after following an unnecessarily excessive skincare tutorial I found online.

In the middle of the night, we wake to the sound of knocking on the front door. I look at my phone and see that Mom has been texting me all night, asking me to come out of my room. When I answer the door, two police officers stand on the patio, asking me if anyone in the residence is suicidal. Mom has been on the phone with a suicide hotline, one of them says, and the person on the other end sent them to check on her. 

Do you believe your mother is going to hurt herself?

Has she ever threatened to hurt herself before?

Are you concerned for her well-being?

 I already learned on the bad night how you’re supposed to answer police offers’ questions.

No, I say.

Not that I know of, I say.

No, I say again.

Thank you very much for coming by, I say, smiling through my night retainer. And hey, haven’t our dogs played together at the dog park before?

Well, have a good night then, says the officer, and he and his partner turn and leave.

A few hours later, when it’s time to get ready for our photoshoot, Nathan and I stand puffy-faced and swollen-eyed in the mirror.

I hope I can stop crying before we meet Tom. 



In the pool, surrounded by drunk college kids, I try to tell Jason about Mom’s beauty. How, when I was little, I used to love wearing her clothes when she wasn’t home, and sometimes I’d sit in front of the mirror with her eyeliners and lipsticks and blush to make my face look more like hers. When she had dates or parties to go to, I used to love watching her get dressed to go out, the way she’d swipe golds and browns and greens across her eyelids and blend the colors together with her fingertips. 

Men always notice our eyes, she’d say proudly, blinking again and again to coat her eyelashes in black mascara, to make them look longer and younger. I loved that she said our  because it meant we were the same. Now, I don’t know what it would mean if I looked like Mom, acted like Mom, wore the same clothes as Mom. When I saw her in the courtroom at the trial, I wondered, what would I look like if I were going on trial for murder?

Damn! Jason says. That’s just like TV, like some Law & Order shit. He’s hooked, excited. Insatiable. He wants to know if my hand was on the bible and everything when I went up to testify. He wants to know if I had to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth so help me God. I don’t know why, but I won’t stop talking about it. For some reason, I can’t stop. 

I tell him what it felt like to see Mom for the first time in the courtroom, how different she looked sitting at the defense table. She had become unrecognizable because she had become so plain. I was only used to seeing her beautiful and glamorous, with full make up on almost all the time, even for trips to pick up fast food or make a deposit at the bank. 

You never know who you might meet, she said as she dusted her nose with powder or glossed her lips in the rearview mirror of the car. She used to pride herself on her beauty, always reminded me of the importance of blinking slowly while applying mascara and using a sponge to blend liquid foundation in smooth circles across my skin.

When I saw her in the courtroom in her suit, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was like a stranger to me, a woman who’d spent over a year living in a jail cell. Someone who looked almost nothing like the mother I knew. I couldn’t stop staring at her hair. It was limp and longer than I’d ever seen it, gray roots sneaking out from the crown of her head. 

Jason doesn’t care about any of that. He just wants to know about the weapon. The word comes out of his mouth slowly, like it’s the first time it’s ever really meant something when he said it. He wants to know what kind of murder it was. A shooting? Or worse? Was the weapon a gun, a knife, something even stranger? Was it something I’d used before, anything I recognized from around the house?  

I tell him the truth: I don’t know, even now. Maybe it had been a knife, but they never found the thing because of how fast everything happened that night. The cops had taken my protractor off my desk and added it to the long list of sharp objects they’d found during the investigation. Years later, I still find myself wondering: can you really kill someone with a protractor? 

Jason is pretending to be concerned now, staring down at my nervous hands wrapped around the brown bag. Maybe he’s imagining the contents of the glass bottle swimming through my veins, like the half-naked sorority girls coming up for air at the surface of the pool. Mostly, I assume, he wants to walk me to the car and take me to his place, show me the coffee table where I can put down my purse. Maybe he’s been wondering if there is a weapon—a knife, or maybe even a black handgun—hiding somewhere inside of it.

You have beautiful eyes, he says, even though it’s dark outside.  



The day after my wedding, I sit beside Mom and across from Nick at Panera Bread. Aside from last night, this is the first time they’ve spoken to each other in a decade. While I’d kept in constant contact with her while she was incarcerated, my brother chose to stop answering her calls and letters a few years into her sentence. She had always doted on him, as some of her boyfriends used to describe it, so many of our phone calls were about Nick. What’s Nick up to and How’s Nick doing and Has Nick said anything about me lately. By the time our fifteen minutes were up, I sometimes never even had a chance to tell her anything about my life. 

Since she’s been out of prison, she’s tried to call him, and once she discovered social media, tried to follow him on every platform, but he still won’t respond. At the wedding, when our photographer asked all the family members of the bride and groom to stand up for a group shot, I asked Mom to stand right next to me. She’d missed so much else: my high school graduation, my prom, my college graduation, my master’s graduation. This was the first time she’d seen me dressed up, hopeful, crossing another bridge into a new chapter of my life. 

I didn’t have a wedding party, didn’t have a group of women I’ve known all my life standing beside me. Instead, Nick was my best man, and he stood next to me as Nathan and I got married. When Mom came to stand next to me during the photo, she turned back to look at Nick. 

Smile, said the photographer, but she didn’t turn back around. 

Instead, she asked, Nicholas, will you go to lunch with me tomorrow?

Mom! I said, looking around to see Nathan’s family, all facing forward with genuine smiles on their faces. We’re taking the photo! You’re standing next to the bride!

All night after the ceremony and pictures, Mom kept following Nick around. I stayed on the dancefloor trying not to get Aperol Spritz on my dress, watching each time she’d follow him around a corner. A friend came up to me and said, Wow, she really wants to talk to him. You’d think it was his wedding. I managed a half-hearted laugh. 

This morning, Nick said he would only go to lunch with Mom if I agreed to go, too. So here I am: I’ve been married for less than 24 hours and I should be packing for my honeymoon. Instead, I’m sitting exhausted on the green vinyl seat of a strip mall Panera Bread, bracing for what might happen during this conversation.

How have you been doing all these years?

Do you ever think about me?

What would it take for you to talk to me again?

I want to be in your life.

Don’t you need your mother?

Nick’s answers are curt, monotone. Soon, as the conversation goes in a different direction, I’m watching my mother cry into a chicken sandwich. Somehow, suddenly, she’s running out of the restaurant, tears streaming down her face.

Mom, let me drive you home, I say, chasing after her. 

Not gonna happen, she says, and she slams the door in my face.

Nick and I leave the restaurant, finding her car still in the parking lot, empty. We sit in his rental car, watching, waiting until she comes back. 

Did she leave the car?

Where did she go?

I feel the sting of acid in my stomach. It’s that same feeling I used to get as a child: my mother is going to hurt herself. 

A few minutes later, she comes barreling across the street. She’d gone to a 7-11 to buy a pack of cigarettes, though she hasn’t smoked since she went to prison more than fourteen years ago. Instead of getting in the car, she sits down on the curb, rocking back and forth, and lights the cigarette, wailing. A mother and daughter walk by on their way to Panera, looking concerned. The mother shakes her head and they continue walking. More people pass by, looking curiously at the woman crouched down crying out loud. Maybe they’re wondering: does she know how loudly she’s crying? Nick and I just watch. 

I almost think of the bad night—of he and I watching her from the back of two police cars, but I can’t do that now. 

Should we go? I ask. 

Let’s just see, he says.



I haven’t slept through the night in weeks. Not since I got the call from the police officer. Unlike all the police officers I’d talked to on the bad night, when they walked in and out of the house with their flashlights and their guns strapped to their waists, this officer seemed to feel bad about what he had to tell me. 

It was a suicide attempt, he’d said. Someone was walking his dog near the house I’d rented for her and found her unconscious in her car. 

I thought she was dead, the man would later say. Or at least in a coma.

The police officer told me she’d left a note in the passenger’s seat. It said CALL MY DAUGHTER with my phone number written on it. By the time he’d called me, she was already in the ambulance on the way to the ER to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. 

I was on a work call when the police officer told me about the attempt. That night and the following day, I called the hospital over and over, trying to find out if my mom was going to live. 

She asked us not to disclose any further information to her daughter, said the nurse. 

In the virtual support group for family members of people with mental illness and addiction, I try to explain it all in under two minutes, each participant’s allotted time, without crying. 

She tried to kill herself in the driveway of the house I’d rented for her under my name and left my phone number on the seat. How much more can I forgive? I ask the 30 tiny square faces staring back at me. How much more? 

No one responds, so the facilitator moves on to the next person. I sink down into my chair, turn my camera off. I guess I sound cold-hearted. They must think I’m a terrible daughter, like the ER nurse did. They probably think, she should show her mother a little mercy.

By the end of the night, three other people will describe their family members’ suicide attempts, the terror they felt when it happened. The guilt. The responsibility. The fear—mostly the fear. How, eventually, they had to stop killing themselves to try to save the other person. 

The fear might be killing you, Nathan says. Then what?

Most nights, I try not to wake him up, but sometimes I can’t help it. Like tonight, when I feel the walls of our bedroom shrinking around me, the floral-patterned pillows suffocating me. Every night, I have visions of my mother dying. Or chasing me. I keep wondering what she looked like the day she tried to die: did she really put on a full face of make up before she got in the car? Nathan holds me for a while as I cry into my pillow.

My therapist recently gave me a list of exercises for insomnia.

If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, stop trying. Get out of bed.

After Nathan falls back asleep, I decide to get up. I walk around the living room and look for a long time at the framed photo on the wall. 

It’s from our engagement photoshoot last year. Nathan and I stand smiling in the sand at Big Sur, a bit of sweat glistening on our faces after our hike down a steep trail amongst the blooming white lilies. I’m wearing a flower crown I made from supplies I bought at Dollar Tree, and he’s wearing a pink suit that fits a little too loose around his legs. In the background, the bluest water you’ve ever seen: rough and intimidating, dotted with glitter.

I don’t want to look at this photo and think of my mother wanting to die for the rest of my life. 

When I was trying to fall asleep, I could have sworn I heard her speaking to me.

You have to call me, she said. You have to talk to me. 

But I’m not ready, I say now, to the photograph of Nathan and me. What if I don’t want to? 

The next day, I ask my therapist if I should write a letter to Mom. 

I’ve never not talked to her, I say. Maybe I should explain myself. 

After she was transferred from the ER to a psych ward, she started calling me every day, sometimes twice a day, despite what the nurse had told me before. She leaves me voicemails, each time sounding like a different person than she did in the last.  

Sometimes she’s angry. She says she can’t believe I won’t pick up.

Do you even give a fuck about me? she yells into the receiver, pissed off. 

Other times, she wants to know how I’m doing, if I’m okay. 

I love hearing your voice on your answering machine, she says, sounding like a little girl. 

It makes me think of when she was in prison, how, even if I couldn’t take her call because I was at school or work, I’d still pick up, just to hear the part of the automated recording where she said her name.

When I’d slide the button on my phone to answer, the robotic voice would start, This is a call from, and then Mom would say her name before the robot would continue: at a state correctional facility. Press one to answer. Press seven to decline all future calls. Sometimes I just wanted to hear her voice. 

My therapist wants me to write a letter to myself instead. She says I need to stop centering my mom and try to center myself. 

I like that idea, I tell her, smiling. I’m going to start tonight.

For two days, I try to start. Should I write Dear Self, or should I write out my own name? I stare at the blank document, getting nothing done, and I close my laptop. The next night, I try the old-fashioned way: pen and paper with a glass of red wine. I write the date in the top right corner because that seems important, so I can remember the first time I centered myself. I pull out my phone and type in: how to cut your split ends. I get up, walk to the bathroom, and take out a pair of scissors. 

I follow the woman in the video: I tie my hair up into two ponytails and cut in a straight line. I think of all the things I can’t say to myself on paper. That it’s okay to stop answering. That it’s okay to need space. That it’s okay, this time, to choose myself. That every night isn’t the bad night. That the fear isn’t going to kill me. That I can move on even if I don’t have any answers. That two things can be true: I can be relieved that my mom isn’t dead and also that she’s not a part of my life. That maybe the damage can never be repaired, but I can find a version of myself that knows how to live with it.  This is just to clean up the ends, the woman in the video instructs. I’m not a professional. Make sure you don’t cut too much. But I keep chopping, until I look down and see four inches of my hair on the ground, coarse and golden like a haystack. 

Kristi D. Osorio is the winner of the 2023 Indiana Review Nonfiction Prize. She is at work on a memoir that blends cultural criticism around violence in popular culture and her personal story as the survivor of a violent crime. Her work has appeared in Blue Mesa Review, The Adroit Journal, New Delta Review, and elsewhere. She enjoys running, watching baseball, and spending time in nature