Tara lived on my block with her parents and her older sister Stephanie. She lived right next door to the creepy, longhaired guy that had a massive, stone potter’s wheel in his front yard. We would hang out under his living room window for hours and pretend that the wheel belonged to a bright yellow school bus that we would drive to far away, exotic places, such as Florida and California. I realize now that we probably annoyed the shit out of that guy by making all of that noise in his front yard. But he never yelled or caused a fuss so we just kept going back to his wheel whenever we wanted to get away.
At the time we were both in second grade at St. Lucy’s, off of Green Lane in Manayunk. Tara’s mom drove her to school in the morning and since my mom didn’t drive, she arranged for me to tag along with them. I was too young to remember it but the last time Mom had driven, she’d ended up wrapping the front end of her car around the trunk of a very thick tree. She was liquored up at the time but managed to walk away from the accident without a scratch and luckily there was no one else in the car with her. The incident scared her away from ever driving again but unfortunately it had absolutely no impact on her compulsion to drink herself into a blacked out oblivion on a very regular basis.
I would leave my house every morning at 7:30 and walk to Tara’s. When I arrived, she would be finishing up the last few bites of her breakfast while her mom puttered around the kitchen assembling lunches and dividing up milk and pretzel money. I loved the way their house smelled of fresh coffee, melted butter and maple syrup in the morning. I loved the way Tara’s mom would write her name across her brown paper lunch bag in soft cursive letters before stuffing it in her back pack. Sometimes the dryer would be running and the sweet smell of Downy softener sheets and Tide would swirl up from the basement, adding yet another layer of calm to the morning. I would only be in Tara’s house for a swift 15 minutes before we headed off to school, but I looked forward to them every day simply because mornings in my house weren’t anywhere near as consistent or normal as at Tara’s.
If Mom wasn’t hung-over, she would set me up for school but most of the time I had to fend for myself. I had a special routine for those mornings that involved doing everything on my tiptoes so as not to make any unnecessary noises that would wake up Mom. I’d creep over towards her bedroom, holding my breath, as I lightly pressed my ear to the cold wood of her door. If I was quiet enough, I could hear her breathing and know that she was still alive. Once I was dressed, I’d make my way downstairs, keeping my back against the round curves of the banister because most of the steps creaked in the middle. I would bag my own lunch, pull together some crackers for breakfast and, if getting my milk and pretzel money meant having to disturb Mom, I left without it. Getting out of the house quietly was my top and only priority. But one day I accidentally broke from our normal morning routine and the outcome was so traumatic that it still haunts me today.
I was standing in the kitchen when I heard the gold knob of Mom’s bedroom door slam open into the wall. I could feel the weight of each step she took as she tore down the creaky stairs. I could hear the skin from her palm rubbing hard against the handrail of the banister. I caught a quick glimpse of her silhouette on the white wall across from the kitchen and a deluge of adrenaline shot up my backside causing my knees to buckle. All other sounds except for Mom’s labored breath were swallowed up in the silence. I dropped whatever I was doing at the time and tore out of the kitchen to meet her at the bottom of the stairs. I threw my palms up to chest level to soften the blow and even though I had no idea what I did wrong, I started screaming, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Mom went right for my left ear, as she usually did, and used it to yank my head down towards my shoes so that my chin crashed against my knees.
She was screaming a garbled mess of words that slammed at the back of my head like a mallet; I made out “You noisy little bitch!” and “You ungrateful fucker!” When she finally tired, Mom released my ear and I fell to the floor, my entire body shaking and my left ear throbbing. She picked up my backpack, opened the door and motioned for me to get up and get out and so I did.
My body was shaking so violently that I could barely lift my arm to ring Tara’s bell. Her mom met me at the door and as soon as she saw me, she gasped and covered the horrified look on her face with both hands. She then gently wrapped her arm around my shoulder and pulled me inside. By that point I was hyperventilating, my chest heaving in and out under the buttons of my shirt. Someone placed a cold glass of orange juice in my hand. I raised the tip of the glass to my lips but I couldn’t hold my mouth still long enough to take a sip. The three of us just sat there in silence until my breathing returned to normal and my tears dried. Neither Tara or her mom asked me what happened which was fine with me because I wasn’t allowed to talk to people about what when on at home.
By the time I got to school I was practically catatonic and still in shock from what happened that morning. So I just sat at my desk quietly dazed and exhausted, watching as the hands on the clock, above the black board, ticked towards the end of the day.
When I got home, Mom was sitting on her corner of the couch, legs crossed with a lit cigarette dangling from her mouth, immersed in the latest drama unfolding on People’s Court. She didn’t apologize or show any remorse for what she did. Instead she ignored me until the next morning when she woke up sober and helped me get ready for school in silence.
Instinctively, I knew that my life at home—the drinking, drugs and explosive violence—was far from normal but there weren’t any sane adults around to validate my hunch. So I went out into the real world and studied other families such as Tara’s and struggled to make sense of the glaring differences. Was it normal for my mom to drink so heavily? Was it appropriate for her to come at me physically? Was it normal that I didn’t feel safe at home? Did it make any sense that I was forbidden to talk about the bad stuff that happened?
Over the years I stopped looking for the answers to my childhood questions because I realized that there are no sane explanations. Instead, what I focus on now is figuring out what feels normal for me. And as long as what I continue to discover is far removed from the abnormalities of my childhood, then at least I know I am on the right track.
This essay and the accompanying image originally appeared on After Party Chat