Home Is a Four-Letter Word

…so then, yes, I was born. From what I gather, I was a rambunctious baby. I laughed a lot. My eyes were big, and bright, and hazel. But time’s a spiral not a straight line, so let’s start at right now and circle back to my beginning.

Number one life lesson learned so far: Memories manifest themselves in many ways. No two are ever quite the same—each one a psychological snowflake. How memory is triggered and then recalled depends on the sense through which it was conceived. One sees a memory, one hears a memory, one feels a memory, and so on. 

And when I reflect on my earliest years, the memories are mostly visual: tacky Hawaiian-print kitchen wallpaper, brown and orange shag across our family room floor, a stained yellow ottoman and swivel rocking chair. Our house looked like the 70s threw up everywhere. Despite Mom’s bold decorating fails, she tried to make the place seem nice. That’s one thing you can say for sure, appearances meant everything to her.

Next, I’ve got my sonic memories: slamming doors that rattled our house, screams reverberating down halls, the dishes Dad shattered in fits of rage, his Oldsmobile rumbling in the driveway. This was the soundtrack to my childhood; it rings through my psyche, still today. No matter how far or fast you run away, some noise can’t be unheard.

Suffice to say, Dad was one scary dude—more führer than father, really. I’ve got maybe two nice memories of him. The rest are waking nightmares. I rarely saw him happy. He was mostly mad. And since he truly wanted a son, he resented me for being female. A man who’d deny the existence of his child because she wasn’t who he wanted. We never stood a fighting chance. Dad and I were doomed from day one.

With each coming day, Dad’s rage increased. Neighbors heard him yelling from the street. While some asked questions, few cared to intervene. Most people didn’t really want to know. Except for Mom’s friends, the Petersons, who lived one block back and two houses away. Their sons were close to my sisters in age. I used to hang out at their place all the time. But we didn’t always go over there for fun—Mom confided in them more than I knew—they were protecting us from Dad. The physical body holds memories too.

One snowy, moonlit February night, while I was getting ready for bed, Mom and my middle sister Stef were packing for a slumber party—Not just any slumber party, mind you. Stef’s Girl Scout troop was spending the night inside a science museum—Mom volunteered to chaperone, so Daniele and I were stuck at home with Dad.

An unsettling stillness filled the house. I brushed my hair in the bedroom mirror. As soft bristles split long, brown locks, I wished to be a big kid too. I wanted to go to the museum with Mom and Stef, to escape Dad’s volatile temper. I might have been six, but I wasn’t naive—he was on the verge of a meltdown. Mom came in to say goodbye. She seemed distant and resigned. “If anything happens, call the Petersons,” she said and walked away. Descending the staircase, her footsteps grew further…fainter…gone. I held my breath for who knows how long. The tiny muscles in my body clenched.

Roughly twenty minutes passed, then “Goddamnit!” Dad screamed and stormed out of his room. Mom hadn’t cleaned his toilet right, so it was time to teach us a lesson. How dare she leave him with this filth? What kind of crap wife was she? Charging down the hall, he came straight for me. I made a beeline for the stairs. One step down, Dad grabbed my arm. I turned around and saw a monster. His rough skin red. His lips pursed tight. The white of his eyes distended. “Help!” I screamed, struggling to break free. He tightened up his grip. I tried again, and he released. Suddenly, I was airborne. My body pinballed between banister and stairs, then I landed on cold tile below. Dad must’ve lost his balance and let go. Otherwise, he pushed me.

“Run!” Daniele cried. We raced out the door. I saw my breath against black sky. This, the only evidence that oxygen was passing through me. Icy snow stung my bare feet. Winter bit my cotton nightgown. Adrenaline rushed my bursting veins—I’d never felt so afraid. The Petersons weren’t surprised to find us on their porch. They let us in and led us down to their basement. Then they gave us blankets, told us to keep quiet, went upstairs, and locked the door. Stunned, I stared straight at Daniele. She stared back at me. We had no words. We weren’t there. We weren’t anywhere. I think I passed out on a couch after that. Next thing I knew, Dad was one floor up. I couldn’t tell what he was saying. He was clearly upset. The Petersons wouldn’t let him see us.

Mrs. Peterson paged Mom down at the museum. She showed up at their house an hour later. Mom talked to Dad, said he’d calmed down, and everything would be okay. Driving us home, the desperation in her voice matched the deadness in her eyes.

We weren’t going to be okay.

She was trying to convince herself.

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