The first thing I noticed about the house that my father chose after my sister was born so that we could move out of the one-bedroom apartment in Paterson, New Jersey, and move to the suburbs, was the rats.
Actually, since I was only four, I thought they were small gray cats. They sauntered across the yard as if they owned it, just like a neighborhood cat would. Of course, being four, I ran closer to them, calling, “Kitty!” And, of course, my mother grabbed me by the hair and yanked me back through the knee-high grass of the unkempt yard.
“You stupid little brat!” she snarled. “Those are rats!”
In less than a blink she’d turned toward my father and changed the pitch of her voice from shrewish to a whining implore.
“Phiiiiiil,” she sniffled, “do we have to move here?”
My father sloshed phlegm back and forth in his throat as he did whenever he had to take charge of things. He curled his fists against his hips as he surveyed the white clapboard house surrounded by a meadow of weeds and grass.
“Well, Betty,” he said, molding his face into a bland let’s-be-reasonable expression by raising his bristly black eyebrows so high that they touched his hairline and rounding his eyes in such an innocent way that no one would ever believe that he was prone to rages.
“Well, honey,” he amended, sloshing phlegm to emphasize his sincerity. “We can’t live in that tiny apartment with two kids.”
“But this place is falling down around us!”
My mother’s voice had drifted even closer to childhood, becoming soft and babyish. She shifted my baby sister into the crook of her left arm and poked her right thumb into her mouth as tears trickled down her cheeks. Even though I was only four, my heart sank as I watched the exchange. I was too young to have words for what was happening, but I watched their body language closely.
I’d learned very early to watch my parents’ body language. Not directly, of course. Just like staring at a wild animal can be seen as a challenge, I knew better than to watch their exchanges openly. So I pretended to hunt for bugs in the tall grass, keeping my eyes and ears open to what my parents were saying.
Even as a toddler, I knew that when my mother tucked her chin into her chest and sucked her thumb, that she was going to order me to vacuum the floors or make her toast or even go to the store for cigarettes. Yes, the vacuum was almost as big as I was, and yes, I burnt myself on the toaster. And no, the store clerk wouldn’t sell me cigarettes and instead sent me home with a police officer since I was too young to be out alone.
But when my mother’s body language shifted from resentful wife to sniveling baby, I knew that nothing I did would be right anyway.
My father’s body language was more subtle, and more dangerous. The worst my mother would do was make me do chores, grab me by the hair, or whip me with my father’s belt. It was a very funny thing, and by funny I mean interesting, like an interesting phenomenon, not ha-ha funny. Anyway, it was a very funny thing to watch my parents.
My mother seemed more helpless and childlike in public, but in private she could say words that were so mean that my ears felt scorched after hearing them. My father appeared to be a diplomatic, everyone-get-along kind of guy. So gregarious, in fact, that unless a person watched him closely and without judgment, no one would suspect that beneath his public veneer lay a layer of fierce rage that was colder than ice.
So as my mother crumbled into weepiness and allowed my two-year-old sister to slip from her arm to the ground where she scampered through the long grass, giggling, partly, I thought with joy at being free and partly with relief at being away from my mother, I tilted my head just enough so that I could see my father through the blades of grass.
Would he do It here? Would he show all of his new neighbors, who were inside their houses, snatching glimpses of the new family to the neighborhood through grimy little windows, how he became volcano Phil whenever my mother sniffled?
My father worked his lower jaw, grinding his teeth like a wild mustang testing a bit. I wondered whenever I saw him do that what my mother was thinking when she left the genteel mansion her family owned for this untamable man. I watched now as the muscles of my father’s body tensed until he transformed himself into an immovable wall of granite.
My mother’s tears had often tried to erode that granite, but the waterworks tended to make stronger the sheer cliffs walling him in. Stiffly, as if his knees had suddenly ceased working, he stepped closer to my mother, gripping her elbow in a viselike grip.
“Ow,” my mother’s whine grew louder. “Phil, you’re hurt—”
Her words were cut off as he pulled her into the house. I knew that meant that I had to watch my little sister. I kept one eye on her as she plucked white clover flowers, and one ear on the thin walls of the house.
I wondered, as I heard my mother cry and whine about how she wished she’d never left her father’s house, and my father growl about how she had told him her father beat her and how his house was full of prissy garbage, if they knew how well sound carried through those thin walls?
Their voices continued to rise, my mother’s shrieking incoherently, my father’s turning into petulant protests like, “You know this is all I can afford!”
Then there was the crash of breaking glass. Then silence.
I moved closer to my sister, positioning myself so that none of the anger that had built up in the house could be directed at me. I was doing what I was supposed to do, watching my sister, even though I hadn’t been told to, and even though I was only two years older than her, in many ways, still a baby myself.
I watched the peeling blue paint on the back door of the little white house and waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Finally, my parents emerged. Calm and collected, as if their inner violence had been private.
“Let’s go, kids,” my mother called. “Your father is treating us all to ice cream at Carvel’s!”
That’s when I knew that like the rats, we were here to stay. I looked at the moldering house and the weedy yard and also knew that while my mother sipped Chablis and smoked while watching her soaps, I’d be pulling weeds, painting, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.
I knew it would never be enough.
As we drove away, I saw a red balloon floating into the sky. I watched until it became a tiny speck, knowing that it would eventually pop, just like my childhood and leave behind a few scraps of latex as a remembrance of what could have been.