Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Christmas 1977

Sunshine finds its way around the ratty fabric of the curtain. Opening my eyes, I see my sister sleeping across the room. She looks like I feel most days. A prisoner behind bars. Only, her bars are a shiny white and can slide out of the way at my mother’s will. Mine are more metaphorical. I hold my breath and listen for the sound of footsteps or the percolating of coffee. Hearing nothing, I assume my parents are not yet up.
My father just came home a few days ago. Things have been relatively fine. He’s smiled more than I have seen him in the past, but I still feel uncertain around him. I don’t tell anyone, but I am glad that this is just a short visit. He’ll be back on the big airplane soon. I pretend to be sad when they remind me of this, but inside I do a little happy dance.

Slowly, I get out of bed. When it was just mom, Jenny, and me, I would rush into her room and give her hugs. When my father is home, that affection is not well received. I was reminded of this when I burst through the door the other day. I expected a spanking, but all he did was yell and push me from the room. I tried to open the door again, but the handle wouldn’t turn. Then I heard Jenny start to cry and I ran to comfort her instead.
We play peek-a-boo with her blanket. She likes the game. I throw it over her head and duck down. She pulls it off her face and throws it over the side of the crib. I pop back up and she giggles and claps. She just learned to clap last week. She reminds me of the Monk Seals that swim up to the rocky ledges on the shore. Their bodies look doughy and wet. They bark and clap at each other, their heads wobbling unsteadily on their raised bodies. It always makes me laugh and so I laugh at Jenny, my sister, the monk seal in the small island of her crib.

We play like this until my tummy hurts from hunger. Jenny has become fussy and it takes more and more effort to keep her from becoming upset. Her diaper is starting to smell too. Already there are little gray spots on her sheet. Finally, my mother comes into our room. Her robe is wrapped tightly around her thin waist and a cigarette dangles at the edge of her lips. Her long fingers reach up and take it up. “Hi girls! Guess what? Santa Claus was here? Do you want to go see what he brought?”

I rush out of the room leaving Jenny behind. In the living room, several bright packages sit beneath the little plastic Christmas tree. The lights are on, but I can hardly tell. The sun is high enough in the sky that the colors are washed out. Even the white walls look blurry. On my knees, I touch the different presents gently. I am dying to know what is inside. This is how my mother finds me when she comes into the room. Jenny is bouncing in her arms, oblivious to the treasures under the tree. She is gnawing at her fist.

Mother makes us a bowl of cereal and pours me a glass of milk. I eat rapidly, hoping we can open our gifts after breakfast. I ramble at jenny non-stop. I don’t realize that my father has come in the room and has overheard my wishes. “Jesus Christ!” he says loudly. “Don’t you ever shut the fuck up?” His eyes squeeze shut and his teeth clench. I can see them through his parted lips. I stop talking immediately. Turning to face him, I knock my bowl on the floor. Milk spills across my legs. Cereal splatters on the carpet. My father turns toward the door. He punches the door frame and walks out. The door slams.

I see his profile as he passes the window. His head hangs low and is shaking back and forth. He is muttering about something. And then he disappears.

I look to my mother for comfort. Jenny starts to babble again. She throws her bottle on the floor thinking it is a game. It hits my mother in the back. She whips around smearing cereal across her robe, the dishcloth dirty with it. “Look what you’ve done now!” Her face is twisted in anger. Tears spring to my eyes and I lower my head in shame. I’m not sure what I have done, but it must have been pretty bad. Excusing myself, I go to my room and lay on my bed until my muscles are sore.

My father doesn’t come home that day, or the next. We don’t open gifts until he comes home.

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