Laying in the dark on my bed, I listen to the crickets chirruping under the honeysuckle bushes outside my open window. It’s deep summer. No breeze stirs through the window screen, just the sweet warm molasses night. I lay there wondering if this is the time, the correct and appointed time to leave. To leave him.
In my daydreams I always head west, but I embellish it boldly: The Great West. I envision it, the stretching endless roads and neon truck stops, the vast plains lapping up against hard, grey mountains. Go west until I hit the sea, and then I'll stop. Don’t all journeys end or begin at the sea?
But what will I do for money? Or food? Shelter? Will I even be able to pull it off without getting caught? Dragged back to Illinois amidst cops and newspaper reporters and flashing camera bulbs. Him waiting until the cameras had gone, the door finally closed, and then the inevitable tight hand on my shoulder, fingers digging into the tender base of my neck, the air suddenly hard to breathe and…
The lightning bugs whirr and lazily glow like fairy traffic signals on the branches of the honeysuckle. Just a short drop to the ground and I'd be free. The crickets urge me to action, the lightning bugs’ blinking turned urgent, the dark unknown inviting.
A brief window of opportunity.
Remember: I'm twelve. A couple of weeks ago I dared to disagree with him, and then realizing what I’d done I tried to backpedal, fight the current sweeping me toward a familiar conclusion. I’m standing by my bed, him in the doorway looking down on me. Before I can even react he's on top of me, his hot hand on the back of my head grinding my face into the carpet, his body straddled over my back, crushing, heavy, his low harsh voice taunting in my ear, asking me to repeat again what I'd said, mocking. Are you going to say it again? Huh? You going to mouth off to me again? Say it again. What's that? I can't hear you. What? Say it. Yeah, that's what I thought. And then just as quickly he's gone, leaving me there on the carpet. The beige, ordinary, neutral carpet. If I focus on the patch right in front of my nose, I can pretend it's a strange jungle, an alien landscape far away from here. I do that for a while, populating the loops and valleys with a wee, beige people going about their carpet lives undisturbed. Normal. He comes back about five minutes later, I think. Get up off the floor. You're not hurt, get up. You always overreact, you're so stupid. Stop crying. Now go wash up for dinner. You’re keeping us waiting. Now.
Then everything is back to normal, everything is fine, nothing happened, he smoothes over the bumps and cracks in his reality like smoothing icing onto a cake, until everything is gooey and sweet and seamless. Don't disturb the icing. He can have his cake and eat it too. The cake is not for us; his reality is not our reality, our reality isn’t listed on the can, doesn’t exist on the packaging. Everything is fine. Nothing happened. If you hadn't mouthed off, I wouldn't have had to do that. Don't disturb the God Damn icing.
You can't walk on eggshells without them breaking. Walking through the icing leaves tracks. Always. This has consequences. Every unscheduled, unsupervised trail through the icing has consequences. Be sure to wipe the icing off your shoes before you come in, or go out.
I didn't leave. Because it wouldn't have mattered how far I'd run, I'd still be in his world, not my own. Eventually, I'd be returned to him. And that would be unimaginable. Better to stay. Stay and pretend everything was normal, praying and praying every day into a semblance of normality.
Everything. Is. Normal.
I made my own world, in response to his.
He never knew the secret names or found the sacred places, never heard the voices pitched only to my ears or saw the lights meant only for my eyes. He could be power, principality and dominion, could manipulate and charm until night seemed day, day seemed night, but the pure, true things I hid from him were safe.
I tried to restore the spirit to the things he’d crush, give them life again, so that even when he’d grab at them impatiently, pop them like the fragile, colored-glass balls my younger brother and I used to hang on our evergreen-scented plastic Christmas tree, he’d never really steal their essence. Even when he shook me like a sapling in a storm and bellowed until I felt the fragile glass ball inside me break, it was never really me he shattered. I’d say to the wee, beige people in the carpet: Here. Take this quickly. Hide it. I’ll come back for it soon. Or I’d suddenly be a cloud of invisible moths circling his head, dancing and diving, and as he swatted at the insects he could feel but never see I would smile to myself, knowing he could never really catch me. He could never erase what I could remember.
Remember: Under my patchwork quilt, warm and close within the dim amber glow of a failing flashlight, a complete world unfolds between the pages of a worn, thick paperback book. The characters and images enthrall me, and so vivid and real are they in my mind that I forget to be mindful of certain noises. In particular, the tiger-soft padding of footsteps in the hall, the warning creak of a floorboard, the protesting eeeeee-eeep as the clear glass doorknob of my bedroom door slowly turns. As the door shudders open I react instantaneously, switching off the flashlight, flattening myself under the covers, holding my breath and waiting, waiting…
“Are you awake?” my father says.
I don’t answer. I lie still and begin to breathe again, slowly, evenly, although the panic is screaming silently in my head, each hot breath hoarse in my throat. Important to keep calm, calm, if I don’t move he’ll go away, if I don’t answer he’ll leave.
“I know you’re awake, I could see the flashlight through the quilt. You know you’re not supposed to be up this late. I want you to give me your book. Now.”
I turn over slowly onto my back, folding the quilt down over my chest. In the dim moonlight coming through the window blinds, I can just see the dark shadow of him standing in the doorway. He clicks on the overhead light switch, everything leaping into sharp, bright definition as he comes into the room and stands over my bed, right hand outstretched.
“Give me the book. If you waste any more of my time, it’ll be a while before you get it back. Don’t make me come get it.”
His hand is thick but not big, with short fingers and neatly clipped fingernails. It’s an average hand, unassuming, not a hand that would obviously wield power or close a deal on the strength of a handshake. But I’m still a child in this memory, his child, and his hand is an extension of God. His hand always requires an offering.
As I hand him the book, sweaty now in my grasp, it turns in my hand and falls to the carpet at his feet. With horror I watch it fall, knowing that he’ll think I did it on purpose, did it for some reason, any reason. I grab at it quickly, twisting out of the bedcovers to get it, and his fast hard knuckle connects with my right temple in a burst of stars, white magnesium flash pinpricks and I gasp and slide out of the bed onto the book onto the carpet blankets and all in a heap and he starts swearing at the colossal inconvenience and drama caused by me, yet again.
“Shit! God fucking DAMN it!” he growls and slurs, kicking me off his feet and grabbing the book, tearing the cover off in the process. His face is red and tight, his eyes beady and grey, which is strange because normally his eyes are pale blue, I think. When he wears blue shirts, they really show off his eyes. I think about the different blue shirts he has, and how nice he looks in them, and then he finally stomps out, shuts off the light, slams the door. Only then, in the dark, do my emotions catch up with the situation, and I cry silently for my poor book. Silently, because if he hears me he’ll come back, and when he comes he demands an offering to his anger be it book or head or heart.
These “situations” always seem to happen near my bed, or at least in my room. Have you noticed that? Good. I appreciate a reader that’s quick on the uptake.
After a while, all the memories of him run together, become hard to tell apart. Instead of panning for gold, washing the grit and slurry around and around the pan, intent on discerning that bright wink of yellow, I pan for anti-gold, original sin, archetypal Him. The vise-like hands, serpent swift. The grey eyes devoid of reason. The words like hot, honeyed knives.
When I find them, the bits wriggling in the pan, I pin them down so they can’t scurry away. See the tasteful collector’s case, all burnished wood, precise steel clasps, polished glass? Any entomologist would be envious. My specimens are neatly labeled: Latin name, date and location caught, wounds garnered. The black wasp in the bottom left hand corner, abdomen convulsing, stinging and stinging the empty air, remember that? That was the time he picked me up by the neck and carried me over to my bed; easiest way to keep me quiet, he said. And the great water beetle in the center, iridescent mandible jagged and twitching; remember? That was the time he put his hand through the wall outside my bedroom door; good thing he tripped when he lunged at me. Or the glossy centipede with its candy apple red carapace, thrashing on its pin… If I had a scratch or strategically knuckled bruise for every thrashing leg, there still wouldn’t be enough.
These are stubborn bugs of memory. They hum and click in their case, refusing to die like normal insects, and I am forced to be their guardian, their prison warden. Without them, I would have no proof that they ever existed, that they’re real. There are those that don’t believe in them anyway.
Beds are where we’re most vulnerable, where we need to be safe.
When that’s taken away, nowhere is safe.