My sister is wrong. She said he never hit us, but that’s not true. When you grow up in a big family it can be easy to forget your story isn’t the only story. It can be easy to forget your breath isn’t the same as your sisters’ or brothers’. When you grow up in a family sometimes you forget to breathe. Sometimes you give your breath away. Sometimes someone takes it from you. My sister is a liar. She doesn’t mean to be. It happens sometimes. This happened—
My father hit me, just once. When: I was old enough to know better, young enough to still believe in fathers, I think, but probably not. I’m just being honest. This is such a stupid story. I don’t know why I’m telling it.
My sister, not the lying sister, but a different sister on the phone with some nameless White boy she liked, or maybe he was Mexican. He could’ve been Black. This detail only matters as much as this detail always matters. Me, picking up the phone in another room. To her and the nameless White or other raced boy I say something dumb, something hilarious. I crack myself up. I embarrass my sister. My sister says she’s telling our father. I’m telling, she says, I’m telling. She’s serious as a heart attack, which isn’t what killed our father, not a heart attack but something else that doesn’t make sense even though they have a medical name I’ve looked up hundreds of times. You have to understand:
We never told our father anything. This isn’t true. Some of us told our father some things. Some of us didn’t tell him anything. Some of us told him some things and not other things. In a big family it can be easy to forget who told what to whom. Forget when and why. Don’t remember how. How and what and who and when disappear underneath the couch cushions with old pennies and Lego parts and bobby pins. Forget why ever happened. Why is never enough, never what you want, which is closer to the wish of finding something underneath the couch cushions, not the actual discovery, which is rarely what you want, not even pennies or missing Lego pieces and never a Cherry Jolly Rancher or a quarter, rare as a bird contemplating suicide. Wishing’s the better thing. Wishing is the worst suicide possible. That’s what they say. Once, Another Stupid Story:
My oldest brother did something when we were playing outside on the street, some minor injustice I thought important then but can’t remember now. I remember Angry and Hurt. I remember Embarrassed, maybe as embarrassed as my sister, not the lying one. I remember I threatened my brother with our father. I held our father up for the neighborhood kids like we all did sometimes, the way we let each other imagine our monsters. We didn’t do it often. We did it often enough to know we were serious. Look, I said. My Father Monster had five heads and six legs and twelve arms and nine tails and three wings made out of the manhole covers we used as bases for Pickle. Look, I said to my brother. I’m telling. I’m telling. My Father Monster flapped his manhole covers in the air. I remember
my brother’s face. Fear and Desperation. The brother I looked up to, the one who gave me poetry, had disappeared his face, had turned into my other brothers, turned into the sons my brothers would have one day, the sons they would never have because they didn’t want to turn into the fathers they knew they’d become, turned into my father and his father and all the fathers afraid of their own monsters. Please, said my brother with all his faces, please. Don’t tell.
We were standing on our driveway. My brother was in front of me, blocking my path. Maybe his palms were up. Maybe he promised me things. Maybe he apologized again and again, for what? I can’t remember. The details are never as important as we think they are, only what’s left in their wake, get it? We’re at a wake. It’s okay to laugh. You have to laugh at all of this, you have to. Maybe
my brother did the fast-talking you do when you’re down to your last chance. Maybe it scared me. Maybe it thrilled me a little. Maybe it made me hate and feel sorry for my shrinking brother. Maybe it embarrassed me then and now, remembering how much I liked it, the power. Maybe I still do sometimes. I guess I’m sort of like my father in some ways. That’s what they say. I’m just being honest. I didn’t tell
my father anything. The truth is I wanted my brother’s face back. The truth is I valued my brother’s safety more than my own hurt, which is an old story of birds crashing into windows. My father would say every bird has a choice. My father would say you don’t get that many choices. You get the windows and doors you’re stuck with, whether you like it or not. You raise a family and stay in a job you hate, a job that kills you a little bit every day. You send money home to New Orleans sometimes. You try to appear whole in the splintering respectable to people who would pay good money to watch you die, to people who make you pay good money and watch you die for free. The truth is I don’t know what my father would say. I don’t have a clue. But my sister:
She tells my father about the stupid thing I said on the phone while the nameless White or other raced boy was listening. I wait in a room somewhere while my other sisters avoid me and shake their heads. It’s your own fault, they say with their soft beaked mouths. Soon after forever he calls my name. See my dad standing at the bottom of the steps. Come here, he says. See all the sad monsters in his face. I walk down to the largest step. To my left is the front door. I don’t remember if I imagined escape. Probably not. When it comes down to it, the truth is I’m not that inventive when it comes to my own freedom. I’m pretty sure I thought I deserved whatever was coming to me. I’m pretty sure I thought I had no choice at all. I don’t think I imagined he would actually hit me. I’m not sure what I imagined. My dad
was generally a fair man, except when he was drunk. I don’t believe he’s drunk in this moment, although it’s almost certain he has been drinking something. He asks me if my sister’s accusations are true. In retrospect, I appreciate his willingness to hear both sides, even though I’m sure he already believed my sister’s version of the story. In retrospect, it’s kind of funny, my father’s attempt to model fairness in the face of blatant guilt. Remember, you have to laugh at all of it. What if I’d told him no, my sister was lying, what then? I’d be telling a different story. But there was no point. In a big family you grow up understanding the meaning of futility without ever knowing the word. In answer to his question, I nod. Yes, I say, it’s all true. See my dad
shaking his head. He can’t look at me. He’s embarrassed for us. He has put himself alone in a corner surrounded by doors and windows of his own design. It’s my fault. He tells me to put my hand out. A slotted metal stairway gate separates us. I put my right hand between one of the slots. We stare at my hand. Everything is so serious I want to laugh.
I hate to do this, says my father. He slaps my hand, just once. It stings more than I think it will, but not enough to feel any long lasting pain. I’m sorry, he says. I never wanted to hit you. I didn’t want to do this. Please don’t make me do this again. I don’t know if he said any of this but he could have easily because
my father is talking to me, but he’s talking about something else. This happens sometimes. In a big family you learn when someone screams about the dishes not being washed they might be mad at last week or three years ago or at something they can’t remember or at the dead bird splattered on the ground outside the window. My father is talking about a monster bigger than anything I can imagine and it lives underneath his face and maybe my face and all our faces. I understand this, sort of, as much as I can. I don’t understand it at all.
He might have said don’t do it again. I might have said I won’t. I felt badly. I wanted to feel badly. Maybe I thought, that’s it? Maybe I tried to look mournful. I wanted him to understand he didn’t hurt me. I want us to believe this together. My poor father,
whose father hit him so hard later I learn he still had scars on his back. His father, who may have seen something of himself in my father who may have loved men and women, or maybe mostly men, who might have felt he couldn’t breathe in public the way he wanted and so we all suffered his suffocated life. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like living in the daylight of someone else’s murdered birds. When you grow up in a big family sometimes there are shadows you never discuss.
When I look up the etymology of grief it tells me about the weight of things, it tells me to see “grave.” When I look up the etymology of my father it tells me to see grief and smoked oysters, which he loved. Speaking of words:
I didn’t think my father had anything to do them. I didn’t want to give that to him, these words of mine, this language that sometimes saves and strangles me. It’s only in his death I remember his letters to me written on notecards or on yellow legal pads. Sometimes he wrote me silly poems that rhymed: Roses are red, Violets are blue, something something something, I love you. It’s only in his death I realize my father was a writer. Once, the job he hated gave him an award and he wrote a speech. One note he sent on an index card: “Though you are my fourth daughter chronologically, you will always be first in my heart. Love, Dad.” See:
Like all great writers, my father knew how to lie, just like my sister. The truth is we, my brothers and sisters, were all first in his heart. He loved each one of us the first way he knew how, which wasn’t always the best and was sometimes, to be honest, the absolute worst. Sometimes he loved us like displaced Lego parts or sweet Cherry Jolly Ranchers, and sometimes like birds contemplating suicide. Like my sister said, he was a hard man to live with. I loved him as much as I could, and sometimes I wished he would die. I’m just being honest. Maybe I only wanted him to go somewhere else for a spell. He could have done better. He did the first he could. That’s what they say. Sometimes:
In a big family you breathe away skin and tissue and bone to get at each other’s hearts, to scrape or swallow them whole like the heads of small suicidal birds. Sometimes Nothing remembers. Everything remembers. And sometimes, you breathe each other awake if you’re lucky. Sometimes, more than once, we’ve been lucky. We have been. What I’m saying is I don’t really believe in luck. That’s not how this works. All I’m saying is my father did hit me, just once though, and what he might have said is probably most likely true — maybe it did hurt him more than it hurt me. I don’t know how you measure something like that, but I know a Sparrow’s heart might weigh .21 grams and a Mourning Dove’s heart could weigh .50 grams, both of which are just as much as a human heart if we consider the overall weight of our bodies, not including the etymology of our grief. It’s all relative. I’m pretty sure that’s true. I just wanted to set the record straight. That’s it. Thank you.