“Over my dead body!” she shrieked, in response to my request to spend the night at my friend Ronni’s, and for a brief moment, it was as though she had read my mind. Watching my mother, standing at the sink pretending to be busy, when she had already sponged the same plate twice, I wished she would disappear down the drain among the foam and slimy suds made by the overzealous use of her favorite dishwashing product: Joy.
Once again I was being punished, though I didn’t know why. Usually, the stiff sentence that confined me to my attic room on a Friday or Saturday night had something to do with me answering back one or both of my parents at the dinner table. Though whenever I did so, I thought I was having a conversation, and it had simply been my turn to speak. Or perhaps my middle brother, Marky, and I might have been caught kicking the other under that same table, or pinching the mushy skin of each other’s thighs, or I, alone, committing the greatest sin of all — spitting a mouthful of peas and carrots into an oversize Hudson napkin, which might have fallen from my lap, revealing that I lied.
Blatantly lied, when I’d smiled and said that everything was delicious, and, yes, I ate every bit of the colorful mix from my plate, when to do so would have caused me to vomit.
As the youngest girl in ninth grade, at 14, I was trying out a feisty new version of me. I’d memorized a few pointers about assertiveness in speech class and wanted to practice them at home, but somehow anything I said seemed to fall on deaf ears, or, conversely, turn uproarious.
Standing beside my mother in our cramped, blue-and-white-wallpapered kitchen, I continued to press for an answer. I couldn’t bear the thought of staying home on a Friday night, of all nights, missing the Temple Youth Group attended by all the cute boys for whom I carried a multitude of crushes. Afterward, a bunch of us always went to Joe’s for ice cream sodas, and then, hand in hand, Ronni and I usually walked the half-mile to her house singing “Eddie My Love” and dreaming about Eddie Pollan, the handsomest boy in junior high, who wore pastel-colored, button-down shirts that perfectly matched his eyes.
I did not want to spend the weekend having to listen to my brothers shooting off their cap guns in their shared bedroom across the hall. One of their favorite ways to torment me when my parents were out was to jump from love seat to love seat while I sat trying to read my Modern Screen magazine. Or, worse, they sometimes hid under my big canopy bed, and when I finally turned the lights out, they would crawl out and pummel me with their smelly corduroy pillows.
“Please, Mom,” I asked, close to her heels, expecting my mother to make a move toward the fridge to grab some celery from the bin. But then her mouth contorted into tight, purplish lips. I jumped back, though not fast enough. Her left hand lifted and came crashing across my face. The sound was familiar, like a twig snapping from a big branch. Usually I got away in time, but this time her hand was wet and her engagement ring, a beautiful, square-cut diamond, must have been turned around, because for a second I thought my face had been ripped off the bone. Wordless, and hysterically crying, I ran through our tiny dining room, plastic-slip-covered living room, and up the narrow staircase to my bedroom, where there was no lock, nor on the tiny half-bath, next door, that I begrudgingly shared with both my brothers.
As my crying subsided, a fiery anger seared through me, moving from the top of my head to my toes. One by one, I grabbed and kicked my stuffed animals around by their furry limbs until the room looked like there’d been a massacre. Synthetic fur flew everywhere: purple poodles, panda bears, and pink Siamese cats lay on the linoleum begging for mercy. They, too, had no idea what they’d done wrong.
I blocked my bedroom door with a round leather Ottoman and piled a desk chair on top of that, but, because the floor was uncarpeted, anyone with a morsel of strength could gain entry. Weighing a little over 90 pounds, I was hardly a threat to my two hyperactive, fast-moving brothers. At this point, Marky and Scott were in the hallway chanting a string of ha-ha-ha’s about my impending punishment while trying to push open my door. As soon as Marky managed to wedge his skinny arm in, I scraped him with my hairbrush, causing him to howl. He promised to get me back later, and I was certain he would. Marky lived for retaliation.
Out of breath and chest heaving, I sat down at the vanity table and examined the crimson streak that stretched from the corner of my right eye down my cheek. I lifted a tear onto my fingertip and pressed it into the scratch. I was not about to fetch a towel from the bathroom in the hall. My face stung, and, as more tears poured from my eyes, it felt as if I’d been in the sun too long. It was only March, I reminded myself, one week after my birthday, and I knew that for three long years, until I went away to college, I would have to live in this room — this prison, where there was absolutely no privacy. Here I would always feel cut off from the world, mostly because nobody, not another person under this roof, understood me.
I didn’t remember lying down on my bed, but when I opened my eyes, I was surprised to see my clock radio glowing with the information that it was half past 6. My father would be home from the city soon; I heard the trains as they pulled into the station, less than a mile away. Usually I found that comforting, but not that night. I was sure by now my mother had slipped off her floral bib apron, powdered her nose, and reapplied a frosty shade of pink lipstick.
Most likely, she was already double-parked and waiting for him, waving her cruel, cold hand the moment my father stepped off the train platform. Not wanting to upset him, she would act as if nothing had happened and everything was perfectly fine. When she spotted my father, she’d be wearing that ridiculous expression, puckering her lips for his kiss. I pictured her as she shimmied closer to him in the seat of our black ’57 Caddy so my father could then take the wheel and drive.
As they neared our corner, she might rest her head on his broad shoulder and sigh. A deep sigh, as if she were in the early stages of labor, while she explained to him how difficult I had made her day. When deep down inside, she knew the truth: I had spent less than five minutes with her in the kitchen after coming home from school. And this punishment was all about last night and some remark that I couldn’t even remember. That is why, she would say, our daughter is not going to Temple Youth Group tonight. And there would be no need to call a babysitter, because their daughter would be home, and the movie that my mother had been dying to see started a little after 8, and dinner was already on the table waiting.
Hearing the car in the driveway, I sat up against the headboard. Dizzy, I tried to breathe deeply, tried to recover from the darkness and tunnel sounds clogging my ears. My skin was wrapped in a cold sickly sweat. And I looked down to find my favorite black Esterbrook pen clutched in my hand. Thank God I hadn’t dropped it on the white organdy spread, or I might have been sent away to reform school.
Slowly, I regained my focus and began searching the red rose wallpaper with eager eyes. Hadn’t I stood on my tippy toes to write my message before the cold sweats and nausea? I remembered thinking: I wanted to be like the Egyptians and create the hieroglyphics of this important time — my own teenage years. Here, lived a girl, barely past 14 who . . . what?
I was surprised by the neatness of my cursive and how perfectly I’d curled each letter, entwining every single word around the pointy leaves of the vine on which the roses bloomed. “April showers bring spring’s flowers.” I stared at the words I’d written, though I don’t remember writing any of them. They were buried, yet bold, and seemed almost alive. Opposite the sweet, sensitive rhyme was my hidden message: