My father kept saying he was going to leave us: at the grocery store, while driving too fast, during the intermission of a Christmas play. I prayed for him to stay, cried and begged, wrapped my arms around his thighs. And then he left. It was February, a week after my ninth birthday.
I looked at the spaces where his desk, his recliner, his lamp, had been. I talked to his empty chair at the table. My mother called Maintenance and they sent Nolan to change the locks. Nolan, a former boxer who slept in his clothes, broke as many things as he fixed, and was fiercely protective of my sisters and me. He confided in my oldest sister that he was tripping on LSD, and couldn’t make the new locks fit.
My mother took us across El Camino to Lucky’s. We spent our last seven dollars on frozen pizza. Walking home, trailing behind my mother, we practiced breathing in and out, a skill we had lost as the fighting got worse.
My father was gone. And while Nolan fumbled with the locks, and the pizza warmed, my mother cranked up the volume on the Shirelles, pulled us into the living room, and she and my sisters and I danced barefoot, twirling one another across the floor.
We sang on the drive to school in the morning, the drive to locked wards, the drives to nowhere.
Please, let’s not go home, we would plead, unable to forget what it was like before he left: chasing us into corners, broken treasures scattered on the floor, him patting the phone out of reach in his pants pocket. And because our mother felt the same, she would pull into and out of the apartment driveway, turn the car around and drive, miles and miles into the night, to San Francisco, Morgan Hill. It didn’t much matter where. It didn’t matter how long. What mattered was that we were not home. We were safe in each other’s company, girl groups on the cassette player, girls in the car.
Apartment # 131
My two older sisters said the men came out of the woodwork, but it was more like they trotted over from the next aisle in Longs Drugs, sidled up too close at the mailboxes in our lobby, slunk around the counter at the car repair shop. Men kept trying to make eye contact, slip torn pieces of paper with their phone numbers into my mother’s hands.
My big sisters would grab her, pull her down the aisle, out the door, crab-walking as they doubled over with laughter. Why don’t you go out with him, my sisters would ask. Our mother would shake her head and drop the crumpled paper in the trash.
You should go out on a date, they said, puckering their lips and batting their eyelashes, the word date taking on more syllables. At fourteen, twelve and nine, my sisters and I saw only romantic possibilities in these moments, these scraps of paper, and the equally exciting prospect that we might be without supervision if our mother went out nights.
We knew what she wanted most was to check the locks, leave the phone unanswered, spread the denim quilt on the living room floor, and curl up with us at the end of the day. She liked living in a girls’ dormitory, bras hanging in the doorways to dry, doors left open while we shopped each other’s closets, dressed and talked.
We had nightly picnics on the blanket spread over the worn wall-to-wall carpeting. We were too old for bedtime stories, although our mother would have gladly tucked us into bed, read Snow White and Sleeping Beauty endlessly, as she had when we were younger. Instead she settled for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and what my sisters and I called her sleep movies, grown-up lullabies which sang us all to sleep. She would unfurl the quilt on the living room floor, a victory pennant waving briefly, and slide Shall We Dance, Swing Time, or Sleepless in Seattle, into the VCR. Our private film festival. She would rewind favorite scenes, as though she might have missed something while we were talking. We watched the same movie every night, for weeks, a month at a time, until we knew every line by heart. Scarlett once dared us to go a single day without a movie reference. We didn’t last an hour.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Michelle Oppenheimer teaches middle and high school Core at an independent school on the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. She holds an MFA in writing and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and an MA and ABD in American Studies, Brown University. Her work has appeared in the Bennington Review and Enizagam. Michelle was a finalist for the 2013 Enizagam Literary Awards in Poetry and Fiction. Her short story, “Tell Me About Her,” has been nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize.
To read more about the girls eating Top Ramen or starting an unaffiliated chapter of Insomniacs Anonymous, order Four Chambers 01 here.