40 Kingston Road
(part 1 of the childhood home here)
My step-mom’s deep laugh. The flickering light of the tv. It was movie night. Uncle John was over. I don’t know where my dad was. Maybe he was up there too. I couldn’t hear him laughing.
I snuck out of my room, first floor, end of the hall. I snuck into the kitchen and reached up into the cupboards. I pulled down the cookie jar hoping for Oreos but there were only Vanilla Fingers. I took three and wrapped them in a paper towel. Silently I took a glass down from the shelf. I pulled ice from the ice cube tray without cracking it. Silently, silently. I filled my glass with ice.
My step-mom’s deep laugh from upstairs. It was movie night. Uncle John was over. They were laughing at jokes they didn’t think I would understand, didn’t think were appropriate for me. It was past my bedtime.
I think my dad was up there too, but I don’t remember him laughing.
I was out of candy that I’d stashed in my closet. Plus I liked cookies better. I don’t know if I’d already had cookies that night, or had been punished and not allowed to have cookies. I don’t know if I’d had dinner that night. There were rules about dinner, rules about dinner in relation to me. There were things that needed to be done, things that needed be done in order to earn dinner. The main thing was getting the table set by 6 pm. If the table was set by 6:05 pm, the deal was off, and I’d be setting the table for a meal I wouldn’t eat. I always found that crushing, setting the table knowing the meal was not for me. It’s why I kept candy hidden in the back of my closet, along with photos of my mom, and my little brother D, and menstrual pads that I’d stolen from the nurse’s office at school because at a certain point I was too afraid to ask for them at home. They were big, bulky things, and if I close my eyes I can remember the feel of them chafing my thighs.
I don’t remember if I’d had dinner that night or had been too late. I know that memory is unreliable and little things can become big things as we march through time, and the memories are reremembered again and again.
My typical routine was to stealth the cookies and glass of ice back to my room, to eat them under the covers of my bed with a flashlight and a book, or a pen and paper.
I’d been writing at least since middle school. My friends and I ate lunch together in the library, avoiding the awful people. There are just so many awful people in middle-school.
We wrote primarily dirty stories, pass around stories, where everyone took on the task of writing a chapter, an episode, in the life of a traveling reporter. She would find herself with a broke down car by the side of the road, only to be rescued by some dashing, bearded trucker who would take her in the rain, in the cab, in her mouth.
I think I knew the jig was up when I dumped the pages into the garbage pail in my bedroom. I’m almost certain there had been a precipitating incident, maybe even a phone call from a friend’s mom to my step-mom. I dumped the evidence, it never occurring to me that my step-mom would sort through my trash and find it. She told my dad, and they were both angry. They were probably also scared, like the time my dad grabbed my arm in 7th grade to see what was up with the red marks on my arm. He thought they were track marks, but I’d just been making dots on my arm in social studies class, during the slide show in the dark.
I didn’t know what track marks were. I didn’t know the implications of writing dirty stories, either, but I knew that the feeling it gave me deep in my stomach was something to be ashamed of, something to keep to myself.
The night they read my pages we sat at the dining room table. My step-mom had made one of my favorites, cheesy spaghetti and broccoli. I watched it get cold on my plate. My back was to the sliding glass door, to the deck, to the Massachusetts cold, and I could feel the darkness like a vacuum outside. I hoped it would suck me in. My parents looked at me with hard, sharp eyes.
My step-mom’s eyes, when she was angry, would dart back and forth in her face like a mouse stuck in a cage, growing more and more frantic as her anger rose. She would grip my arm with her long-fingernailed hands, her grip growing tighter as she willed me to understand what I had done wrong. I would stare back into her eyes. Even when her nails dug in, even when her face was a mere inches from mine, I would not cry. I would bite my cheek, and when that didn’t work, I would write with my tongue on the roof of my mouth “cry and die.”
I did that at the dinner table that night. They stared at me and I looked back unflinching. My dad asked me what made me think of it.
I didn’t tell him that it had been his Esquire magazine in the bathroom, the stories in there, or the flickering skin that appeared late night on Cinemax. To say that would have seemed like a betrayal somehow. My dad asked me if my mom had told me about the these things. I said no, but I didn’t tell him about the discarded black and white newspaper that was underfoot when walking through Times Square, or asking my aunt about blow jobs, only to have her tell me to ask my mother. I didn’t tell him about how me and my neighborhood friend had quizzed her mom about exactly how lesbians engage in sex.
Instead, when he asked what made me I think of these things, I said I just thought of it.
After the unsuccessful interrogation, I was told to clear the table. I was putting leftovers in the fridge when I felt my dad behind me. I turned around and he asked me one more time, but I still didn’t know the answer, or which one was okay to say.
“I just thought of it,” I said.
My dad punched me in the face and I fell down.
I was on the floor and he started kicking me. My step-mom threw herself on top of me and cushioned me from the continued blows. She pulled me to the bathroom under continued fire and cradled me there, keeping herself between me and the door, the door between her and my father. Once he’d gone she tended to my bloody nose.
Did he hit you with his hand or with his fist?
With his fist.
She asked over and over, but was never satisfied with the answer, so she asked again.
Did he hit you with his hand or with his fist?
With his fist.
And she asked again.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been hit, and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was the most violent. I’d been pushed down the stairs, whacked with a broom, sent to bed without dinner, woken up in the middle of the night to clean some pan I’d left soaking for too long.
But tonight, with that punch over a year behind me, the only thing I cared about was getting my cookies back to bed without being discovered, getting my flashlight and cup of ice back to my room.
My step-mom laughed upstairs.
I was fifteen years old. I was a sophomore in high school. I wasn’t allowed to write, ever since the erotic fiction incident, as I’d come to call it in my head. My dad had said in all seriousness that the idle mind is the devil’s playground. At first I hadn’t written anything down, but I still went about the business of composing poems in my head and memorizing them. I would recite them to myself while raking the yard or doing laundry.
But by now I’d gotten a little complacent with the punishment, and I’d take a pen and paper under the covers with me. I’d been thinking I might do that tonight, but I was thrown off by the vanilla fingers, and the laugh.
Just as silently I took a knife from it’s wooden sheath. Just as silently I held it up in the flickering tv light filtering in from upstairs. I imagined my blood on the linoleum floor, impossible to get clean. I drew the blade across my left wrist. When nothing happened I drew it again until I drew red.
I guess it hurt, but it didn’t feel like anything physical. Suddenly I was on my knees, the knife clattering silently to the linoleum at my side. An image rose up before me. An image of red, an image of open hands, an image of tears.
I knew Jesus was there because he loved me. I knew it because be said so.
He said clean the knife and put it away. He said bandage your arm with a paper towel. He said take the vanilla fingers and your cup of ice and go back to bed. He said enjoy the vanilla fingers, enjoy your cup of ice.
I did as I was told.
I’ve tried in life to be obedient to God. I try, and fail, every time. Then I muster up my courage, dig into my heart to find his love, and try again.