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Lithium Familiarity: what it was like to grow up with a violent father

Nov. 17, 2017
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I was at the age where I wore pigtails to sleep but woke up without them. It was always a messy bedtime sleep of pink duvets and legs unable to hang off a twin frame. With ears twitchy from the cold, I’d awake to find my quilts fallen into a heap on the bedroom floor, a casualty from fighting off nightmares or having sporadic fantasies in my sleep. It would be hours until I moved from the bed to the kitchen, finding constellations in the popcorn ceiling and curling up to stuff animals. When I stumbled into the kitchen with astronomy lessons in my mind, my father would be running out the door. He was late often, but this meant that I got to eat his leftover Benedict eggs.

My father’s lateness shortened his time for breakfasts and mornings with his kids. The scuttling of his billfold and briefcase left no time to say good morning or leave a kiss on the cheek. A conversation in the kitchen with my father was a delicacy, and not only with him was this infrequency found: the kitchen was not used for talking. When such things happened, the talk was mundane. It was the childhood equivalent of small talk. My brother and I laughed and giggled at sneaking sweets into our pockets; my father and mother caught up on each other’s days by either saying nothing at all or saying everything too loud, with the sink failing to tune it out. I could count on my fingers the number of times my father spent more than a moment in the kitchen. 

In my pajamas, I would clumsily attempt to make my father’s morning with a Good morning, Dad! It was too optimistic for an introduction, a little too hopeful for a four-year-old girl. He straightened his back and peered out from the fridge, the sparking light bulb waving a shadow over his face. He didn’t say anything but conveyed a smile like the good businessman he was. My mother brought me a plate of eggs. Walking over to the coffee pot, she asked my father what time he would be home for dinner. It seemed that all she did for him was make meals. 

“Whenever we close tonight. It was ten last night, but did you know that we’ve sold twenty-three cars this month?” The six-foot man unapologetically paid no attention to his wife. He was making conversation like he was in the middle of the used-car lot. 

Forced and coated in dirt, my mother replied, “That’s so great, honey!” 

“It’s because it’s March. Everyone is coming in with those tax refunds.” 

“Well, that’s a good thing. Don’t forget to wait on Bryce, he’s almost finished getting ready. I can pick him up from school this afternoon at two.” My mother looked at me from over her shoulder. “Sarah and I are going to be cleaning the house today. By the time you get home, this doublewide will look like a glimpse of heaven.” 

“That’ll be the day, won’t it?” My father picked apart the optimism in the air and I could see my mother mentally coating her husband's mouth with chloroform. “Tell Bryce I’ll be waiting in the car.” He grabbed the cheap, disposable cup my mother put his coffee in and left. Watching my mother scrap the egg residue into the trashcan, I wondered where my father was always off to in such a rush. What made the idling car so important that he couldn’t spend his spare time in the kitchen? My mother took a short breath and clicked off the coffee-maker. 

“If he’s sold twenty-three cars this month, why is the phone bill still not paid?” She poured herself a cup of pale brown coffee into a chipped mug and took a sip. “How are you doing, sweetie? How did you sleep?” My mother was leaning up against the counter in a knee-length Guns n’ Roses t-shirt that was pinching up behind her. 

Wide-eyed and innocent, I replied,  “I slept well.” 

With that, I began to stare at everything that surrounded my mother. The unimpressive interior of the kitchen uprooted the walls. We only had one entryway to our house and it was through the kitchen. I wanted the framing to be yellow, and I halfway got my wish when the white began to age. The rest of the kitchen was a brown that followed me into adulthood. To this day, if I receive a compliment about my brown eyes, I instinctively mold the kindness into an insult. You wouldn’t like brown if you had seen this brown. I have flashes of the kitchen floor being an off-brand game of checkers. I would sit there in my pajamas on the different colored spaces, spinning myself around until my brother would yell at me for bruising up my knees. By the end of the week, our games were more threatening than anything else: one time, Bryce popped a blood vessel while he was spinning, resulting in a hospital trip. We ended up calling the game “Erupted Milky Way”. It was my father’s favorite game for us to play. He always told us to keep spinning: his greatest alibi.

“Bryce! Bryce!” The laughter got louder with each pivot. We were a set of sibling spinning tops on a kitchen floor, each trying to balance on one specific tile. “You’re going so fast!” I giggled. Being much older, my brother was more skilled in the ways of childhood games. I took in everything during these visual whirlwinds. The way I moved felt like I was hovering over fault lines and meeting the distance between continents.

“Sarah, you can’t keep bumping into the cabinets!” Bryce urgently grabbed my bony shoulders and pulled me to a halt. “Mom’s going to come in here and say we’re making too much noise.” 

“She’s taking a nap.” This recklessness, the wildfire burning from my undeveloped vocal cords, was always the thing that got me in trouble. 

“That’s exactly why we can’t be loud. What if you make a dent in the cabinet?”

“My knees aren’t that strong.”

“Sarah… this is a maybe situation.” 

“Well, maybe you’re being too boring.”

Bryce huffed and lunged towards me, tickling my sides, which forced my voice to carry throughout the whole house. So much for asking me to be quiet. We did this for hours after he got home from primary school: together we pretended that the kitchen floor was a shelter from the knuckles of parents and the rawness of the small relationships we had with them. There was no discipline on the kitchen floor.  We were just small insignificances in the vastness of the light coming in from the window. 

“What’s going on here?” We both instinctively stopped at my father's voice. He stood in the door frame, hovering with his knuckles around the handle of his briefcase, letting the sun filter in for a few seconds. It was odd to see my father in natural lighting. His brown skin was usually covered by an aged newspaper, or else lit by the fluorescent floor lamp in the living room. He looked vulnerable in the sun, less powerful. There were no inky hands to reach out through the darkness at me. Instead, I could clearly see what was about to consume me. The light made the kitchen a mix of sunbleached and dingy. It was like an abused dalmatian. 

“Sarah and I were playing our spinning game.” Bryce spoke first, playing the big brother role.

“Where’s your mother?” 

I piped up, striving to make the sentence sound like a threat. “She’s taking a nap in the living room.” If Bryce could speak up, so could I. I could be as brave as my older brother. I wanted to sound like I wasn’t about to tiptoe out of the doorway as soon as my father turned his back.  The door closed behind my father as he stepped onto the tile, his face becoming ink-stained and blotchy again. He dragged his feet through the kitchen and made his way to the living room. I heard him place his briefcase on the floor and kick off his ten-pound work shoes. Hearing him walking back, Bryce grabbed my hand. 

“The bruises came from the cabinets, okay?” he whispered in my ear. The fragility of my bones became the best thing I had to offer.

There was no table to sit at for meals in the kitchen. I would stand eye-length with the counter so I could see all the small cracks in the wood and the occasional ant making his way to the rolled-up potato chip bags on top of the fridge. The sink was piled high with plastic containers and rust. We had a microwave that could have been found in the employee lounge of a gas station. There was no piece of furniture to symbolize community. It wasn’t because we could not afford a table; we didn’t think the effort in obtaining a table would do any good at bringing us together. There wasn’t a table in the space that was supposed to be the dining room, either—that was reserved for paperwork and a bulky computer. 

“Bryce, stop hitting the keys so hard.” It was usually a Sunday, after church, when my father would be working at home. My brother and I would beg to be taken to the park or spend some time playing board games after a service. We were always denied, but we were compensated by being allowed to play on the computer. When I say play, I mean maybe being able to pull up virtual solitaire or pretending to be a secretary by hitting the shift key and saying “Right away, ma’am,” in a snotty voice. 

“I think I can work with this…” My father mumbled under his breath. He ripped off a sticky note to press on the top of a spreadsheet. “Bryce, I already told you, don’t hit the keys so hard.”

I had my father’s business process memorized: fiddle with his wedding band, write something down after touching the tip of the pen to his lip, pull the sticky note off and smooth it onto a manilla folder, flip the page. If I didn’t follow this process, there was no room to ask childish questions. There were obstacles I had to get around in order to talk to my father. The split second in between him smoothing down the page and flipping it allowed me to twiddle my chubby fingers and ask, “Dad, when can I get a turn?”

“When Bryce is done.” 

It was deadpan and I wasn’t satisfied. I saw Bryce continuing to aggressively hit the keyboard.  I felt like I deserved to play on the computer. “Bryce isn’t going to be done.” I waited for him to take hold of me. I wish I knew how to fight without bruising. 

“Yes, he will.”

This answer was still not substantial enough to me. Cutting at my father’s throat was a destructive way to bond. There was this captivity that I could hold him in for a short amount of time before he pushed continents apart to get to me and the rifts in my shoulder bones. “Do you think we can go to the park next Sunday?” Then, the distance would be gone. The chair he was sitting at would be knocked over, the coming earthquake cracking our backs wide open. 

I repeated this taunting until his irritability made a shove. I repeated it like I had somewhere to retreat. There was familiarity in this. Bryce shuddered, and there was a smattering of sunlight across my cheek. All yellow and hopeful, I fell into my father's cupped hands. “Do you think you could stop being so goddamn annoying? Go tell your mother to take you next door to play on their swing. I’m working.” He paused. “Bryce, stop with the keys. Go with your sister.” 

I would watch my mom in her knee-length shirts as she heated up meals for us. It wasn’t warm bread and wine, but it was the best food a stay-at-home woman could make: funnily-shaped chicken nuggets, corn, and cosmic brownies. With my father, it would be apples and sweet peas, or chicken if he asked for it. She cooked not out of a desire to receive a smile from her husband or kids so much as to fulfill the obligation of feeding all the mouths in the house. The cooking was limited, but I was always my mother’s shadow when she was rummaging up something for lunch. 

I would flip on the stove light switch to watch biscuits rise, staring at myself in the metal through the heat. When I outgrew being unable to see my reflection in the stove, I moved to staring at my face in the vase on the windowsill. It had spiders all along it; very rarely were there flowers. This illusion that something pretty was supposed to be there was a pressing matter. Every time my mother made me lunch, I felt like something was missing. I wanted to be on the other end of all this swelling hurt. The vase had dingy water floating around, and I felt like if I drank it, it would be similar to the gut fear I couldn’t quite place about my father. How can you feel unsettled about something you know you should love? Why did I keep all the bruises?

I stood on my tiptoes to see my lower jaw in the reflection. I pressed my tongue down on my chin as far as it could go, letting the saliva grow over me. If I had roots, they would be there: dark little roots poking out between the freckles. I would have let moss grow there, tangling everything that had ever touched me. 

The click of the microwave door quieted my mind and distracted me from the unflowered vase. There were a few minutes to talk to my mother about this rumor I had been telling myself. If I closed my eyes, maybe the answer wouldn’t really matter. 

 “Mom, I don’t think Dad likes me very much.” I said this in the dark. Out of desperation, I put my cold hands on my color-changing cheeks. I felt like I was wearing a coat that was too heavy. 

There was something inhuman about my mother's response. She turned into a loveless creature. “I don’t think Dad likes me very much either.” My skin tightened around the knots in my stomach. The sunlight twisted as she placed lunch on a paper plate. 

“Why?”

“Some grown-ups just don’t get along.” Even now, these fragmented words keep rowing in and out of my mind like identical suburban houses. I didn’t want that to be the answer. I needed something worse, something that would allow me to consider myself the victim and let people into this kitchen with caution tape. If I taunted him more times than he had cut me, was there a crime scene? My mother was living in the same kitchen, and we were both living the same honest things. 

“I want to get along with Dad.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, baby.” She was making this easy. The rumor kept me standing in the kitchen howling about the desire to be loved. My mother wouldn’t even mention his name. When he left us all in the doublewide for the first time, it all failed.

Violence is more than just the hitting. I wish someone would have spoken to me about it when it first happened, because not a single phrase or word, any syllable or sound within my mother's tongue could describe abandonment. I heard her go into hiding. Elsewhere in the house, I could hear my brother shutting the front door and clattering into the kitchen, undoubtedly tracking mud the entire time. My mother’s high murmurs traveled from room to room like the blare of TV static. If I close my eyes, I can still picture them all perfectly. I knew this domesticity by heart. I would listen for a cue to get in a closet or run down the street for help, as though a killer had snuck into our home to slaughter us. But it was just my father. Would I have run next door to tell my neighbors that my father was leaving bruises on my mother in the comfort of our own home? Would I have let the rumor publicly stink of captured meat, a mangled carcass left out in the clean streets? 

It feels like he forgot his body at the door. It feels like the door never slammed, like how a peach without a pit feels. Seven years of my life were clawed around the frame of that kitchen. My muscles still keep twitching like I’ve got a heavy secret. The wreckage and the seeds that were created forced me to feel every stage of grief before I had even lost anything. I starved for seven years and eighteen hours and still stayed alive within that kitchen.