“Hi beautiful angelfish! Have you had a mermazing day?” The words vomited out of her mouth as if she rehearsed them religiously before my brother and I arrived.
“Yeah it’s been pretty good,” I tossed in to the stale air of that apartment room on the second floor. I was taught to treat everyone with respect. Had my mothers’ voice not have been disturbing my quiet thoughts, I would have walked right through the door without hesitating to ignore the girl. That’s what she was to me. The girl.
I dropped my things on to the carpet next to the couch. It was a dull couch, smelling as if it was something they got for free somewhere, maybe sitting at the end of a long driveway with a “please take, it’s free!” sign leaned against it. Cigarettes, cheap ones, and the stench of a litter box protruded my nose. They didn’t have a cat. I had no other options, being that the living room consisted of the couch, a small tv on a stand, and now my stuff, so I sat down.
“So glad you could make it baby, where’s Daniel?” The words fell off my dad’s lips in one long breath, slurred together as if he was talking in cursive.
“He was right behind me, should be in here any time now.” As I glanced around locking my eyes with anything other than my dad’s, the door opened and my brother walked in. I could tell he didn’t wanna be there. I couldn’t say a thing though. I didn’t either. The corners of his smile stayed pointed down, just like they were stuck. And he never lifted his head completely straight up anymore; he just lifted it high enough to see you.
I stayed put on the couch for a while. I had nothing more to do other than find something interesting on my phone. There was a boy I went to school with. I threw myself all over him even though his hair and his voice bothered me. I didn’t mind; I took what I could get. You would think a 12 year old girl would be getting lost in a diary or in a game. I was getting lost in people, creating versions of the ones around me that were better than they really were. It was easier that way.
My dad came near to me, falling into the space to my right. I didn’t want him to get close; that’s when I cold see his eyes. They were foggy and shadowed like when you’re driving late at night in the rain. The car headlights uncover only a few feet in front of you. The rest is hidden and dark and not a place you want to shine a light.
I could tell when he opened his mouth. The smell still assaults me and it’s been 8 years. I can’t smell alcohol without feeling as though I need to tie my heart together with a rope to prevent it from falling apart all over again. I smell alcohol once and then I smell it everywhere. I create the smell when it’s no longer there, determined to find someone new to blame. Marsala wine. He was drinking Marsala wine. I could tell because he made Chicken Marsala all the time. I could never forget the way he cooked the mushrooms, garlic, and thyme in a blend that tasted better every time I put it in my mouth. His favorite part was the alcohol.
He placed his left hand on my legs for far too long. He laid his head on my shoulder, “I love you baby. I loveyou, I love you, Ilove you. So glad you’re here baby. You’re here, on Christmas, Eve. I love you.” He spoke to me in a tone that made it hard to understand who he was trying to convince. I knew he loved me, but the more he said it the less I knew.
The girl stayed off in the corner of the kitchen for a while. My eyes would catch her pacing during commercial breaks of River Monsterson Animal Planet. I really didn’t care to see some guy catch the world’s most venomous animal by hand, but it put my dad to sleep.
The interruption of her shrill voice woke my dad from his nap. “Rheanie, let’s play a board game or something.”
The 4 of us made our way to the kitchen table. It was bigger than I thought it would be. It filled all the space allotted for a dining room. I couldn’t tell you how long we played Pirate’s of the Caribbean Yahtzee, or what we ate for dinner that night. But I remember the girl’s face. She was 21, barely. She appeared as if she was 13. Her glasses were brown and the frames were thin. Her hair was pulled back in to a low ponytail containing her stop sign strands. I was a child and even I was judgmental of her Sleeping Beauty t-shirt. Her mermaid-scale pants. Her purple shoes. It didn’t make sense.
She would bite her nails starting from her thumb to her pinky and back again. My body knew she was nervous before my head did. I couldn’t shake off my thumping heartbeat and my bouncing leg.
“Come here baby, come here.” I hesitated but obeyed my dad’s command to come sit on his lap. The closer I got, the faster I wanted to run. I didn’t want to smell him again.
I sat across his legs, our bodies making an x. He laid his hand on my legs for far too long. He pulled the hair off of my right shoulder, and tucked the locks behind my ear. His breath was warm and rich. His lips lined my ear and his new catchphrase started as a whisper.
“Renee, you are so selfish. You are so selfish. You are so selfish. I want you to know that. Daniel, you know your sister is selfish? You are so selfish Renee.”
“Dad, enough, Please stop.” My brother released the words I couldn’t. It didn’t change a thing.
His whispers grew in strength. “You are so selfish. You’re such a butthole. Why do you have to be so selfish Renee? I want you to know you’re a selfish butthole.”
I ached. I had never ached before. I also froze. I caught a glimpse of a passing car outside the living room window. Where were they going? To dinner? Home? I wanted to go home.
“Renee you are so selfish.”
“Dad let her go. Renee come on, Renee come on, Dad stop, let her go.”
I tried to stand in reverence to my brother’s wishes. I couldn’t move. My dad had his arms wrapped fully around my chest and back. He was squeezing, and tightening, and fixing his grip. He was holding one wrist with the other hand, using his joints as support.
“Dad, that’s fucking enough!”
I shook and bent like a fish in someone’s hand. I leaned forward and back, and forward and back.
My dad soon released, as if he was unaware that he had a hold on me for so long. I stood and ran with sights on my brother’s long arms.
“Dad. What the fuck! I’m so, damnit. I can’t do this!” My brother slammed his hands to his temples, running them along his head. His fingers gripped, pulling so tightly on his hair that his head lifted. His eyes pointed to the ceiling but they remained shut.
The girl sprung from her chair as if she was chained and they finally broke. “Let it out, Daniel, let it out. It’s okay.”
I looked at the girl. Her eyes swelled and her face became the color of her hair as if they had bled together. There was no longer a line to separate the two. The girl was red. Red.
“We come all this way to see you, dad, and this is what you do? You act like this? I’m so fucking done dad.” My brother paced the tile floor for so long a pathway began to form. Like years ago when travelers made their way through the forest in the same spots leaving trails of where they had been.
“You’re drunk. You’re so drunk, you’re always drunk. I can’t stand to be around you anymore, I can’t do it.”
It was in this moment I witnessed what it looked like to watch someone lose themselves. My brother was collapsing under the weight of all that second floor apartment kept concealed. I wanted to stand there in awe of him yelling at my dad for hours. I didn’t want him to stop.
I turned to face my dad, preparing myself to see him retaliate. But, he remained in the chair. He sat there unaware. Daydreaming, probably, about when we would finally leave. If we left he could get in his car in search of something stronger than Marsala wine. He could approach the girl again, and he could shower her in affection and assault, compliments and attacks, sex and abuse. She was already red.
I didn’t care for the girl, so I was ready to leave.
My father turned his head in my direction. His face was pointed toward my feet, but his dirt eyes lifted and landed right on mine. I couldn’t look away. I forgot how.
I saw myself being carried out of Walmart on a summer afternoon. I was being held as if I only weighed 2 pounds. My dirty blonde hair was flowing over the back of my father. I was almost asleep, getting lost in his arms and tangled in his Jesus tattoo. I felt heated fingers press against my cheek. My father brushed my hair off of my right shoulder, and he tucked the locks behind my ear.
“Renee, we need to leave now. We can’t stay, can’t stay here like this. I don’t care if we leave before we planned to. It’s really time to go.”
I broke the daze between my father and I and turned to gather my things. I hadn’t stayed long enough to take anything out, so it was accomplished in an instant.
“Here, take all of yall’s gifts. Please take them I’m sorry we couldn’t open them.” The girl hurried around, throwing a stack of presents in to one larger cardboard box. Did she think that’s why we came? Did she think that’s what we wanted? Was she jealous that we could leave that place and she was stuck?
My brother approached me, enclosing my baby hand in his. His hands were wet and balmy and safe. We exited the second floor apartment, fleeing toward the steps, skipping 2, and then 1, and then 3. We were running and rounding the corners of the buildings. His blue car was lost in a field of others who were unlucky enough to call the vicinity around that second floor apartment home. I wanted to keep running until my ankles disintegrated. I wanted to run out in to the street alongside the cars. I wanted to run through the red lights and back again. I wanted to run back in to that apartment building and break my dad in to a thousand shattered pieces. And then I wanted to run those pieces of him to the bridge above the interstate and release them.
But my brother and I got in his car and we went home. Neither of us said a word.
I still feel my dad’s arms around me. Tightening, squeezing, gripping. I’m always reminded of how I can find security in his large arms but I have yet to fully trust them again. How am I supposed to be held by the man who gives me the reasons to need an embrace?
I still feel my dad’s hand on my legs for far too long. Never crossing the line but coming close enough that it’s only blurry now. He tells me I look beautiful and it makes me feel violated. To wear a crop top, a swimsuit, or a tight dress is something I try not to do around him. He fell in love with the girl and got turned on when she would come home in her Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and Ariel hair. Why should I expect him to look at me like I’m just his daughter and nothing more? I know he would never take anything too far. But, has he thought about me the same way he thought about the girl when he saw her for the first time when she was 17? Does he look at his daughter and see the same thing?
I still feel my dad’s hand brushing back my hair. I feel it maneuvering the locks in to place behind my ear. I hate the way I look with my hair behind my ears. I feel like a doll. I don’t feel like a daughter. I don’t want my hair pushed back anymore.
Art by Sarah Simic