He rolled over onto his elbow and squinted at the flashing green dots on the alarm clock. It was 7:45 in the morning. “What’s Mommie Dearest?” he asked.
“What?”I jerked up in bed and yanked the covers off his legs. “You don’t know about wire hangers and Joan Crawford?” I was appalled. “You’ve never seen the movie Mommie Dearest?”
Ryan shrugged. “Nope.”
Here’s the deal: at precisely 7:45 every morning, the woman who lives directly above us goes crazy ape-shit on her daughter. And although I’ve never met the woman, I’ve grown to loathe not only the sound of her nasally voice but also the way that she screams at her kid.
“I can’t believe you don’t know that movie.”I shook my head then asked, “But seriously, do you think she ever abuses her daughter…like physically?”
Ryan was already out of bed and headed for the shower when he turned back around. “Well I don’t know about that,” he said, “but she definitely sounds crazy.”
I refocused my gaze back towards my neighbors muffled voice as it punched through the ceiling. “Hmm. Well, maybe I should…”
“Dawn, stop obsessing about it already,” he said. “All right?”
I rolled my eyes, laid back down and kicked through the sheet that was coiled around my left leg. Picking at and examining the little yellow crystal remnants of sleep that had collected in the corners of my eyes overnight, I thought, Fucking allergies as I curled up into the fetal position. And just as I closed my eyes, a throbbing thud came crashing through the ceiling, directly above my head, followed by a thin painful scream. It was the kind of scream that could have only come from the frightened mouth of an eight or nine-year-old little girl. It was a sound that I unfortunately knew intimately. I snapped up out of bed and held my breath. There was another hollow thump followed by the monstrous roar of the mother’s voice.
I tossed aside my comforter and drilled my heels into the floor, I’ve had enough of this shit, I thought. I’m going up there. I adjusted the zipper on my hoodie and ran my fingers through my hair. I thought about brushing my teeth first but then I decided that I didn’t give a shit if that woman smelled my hot morning breath, Maybe she’ll choke on it, I thought.
I had made my way down the hallway towards my front door when I stopped. “Wait, what am I doing?”I said out loud to no one. I hadn’t considered what I would actually say or do once I got upstairs. What if she opens the door and she’s drunk? Maybe I should just call the cops and let them handle it? What if I’ve got this situation all wrong? A relentless swirl of questions got jammed up in my head until I fizzled out. Maybe this morning was just a one time thing, I reasoned as I backed away from my door and headed towards the bathroom to brush my teeth.
Later that day I found myself sitting in Starbucks staring blankly into the white foam of a lukewarm cappuccino and wondering if I did the right thing by not confronting my neighbor that morning. And then I started to think about my dysfunctional childhood and the terror of living with two dangerously unpredictable, alcoholic parents. I thought about our neighbors on Cresson Street and wondered if they could hear my mother scream through the thin walls between us when my stepfather repeatedly bounced her head against the living room mirror. I thought about my second grade teachers, Ms. Lisa and Ms. Diane, and wondered how they rationalized the bruises I constantly showed up to school with. And then I thought about my extended family and questioned whether or not they really believed that my parents were just social drinkers or that the purple welts ringed around my mother’s neck were actually hickeys and not thumbprint bruises. Were these people totally clueless or were they so wrapped up in denial that they just couldn’t see the truth? Were they too afraid to get involved? Did they just not care at all?
Sadly, I could only think of a small handful of people that cared enough to offer to help when things got really bad at home. My nanny, who was my dad’s mom, was always one of them.
Even though my parents had been divorced for several years, Nanny always kept in touch with my mom. Sometimes, when my alcoholic stepfather Joe would leave for the bar already dangerously intoxicated, Mom would call up Nanny and ask if we could spend the night. It didn’t matter if it was a weeknight or early on a Sunday morning; Nanny’s answer was always yes.
Mom and I would have to move quickly to get out of the house and into a cab before Joe got back and realized we were gone. So we’d hustle out the door leaving behind toothbrushes, pajamas, clean underwear and clothes for the next day. If I acted fast enough, I’d have time to dash upstairs and scoop up my collection of stuffed animals. There was no way I was going to leave them behind with Joe.
When we would arrive at Nanny’s house on Auth Street, there’d be a kettle of hot water boiling on the stove. She’d offer mom a cup of tea and I would indulge in a tall cold glass of milk. We wouldn’t be there for very long before the phone would start ringing. Nanny would pick it up carefully and without saying a word she would hand it over to mom. Of course it was Joe on the other end, always hysterically threatening to show up and kill all three of us if Mom didn’t come home immediately. Mom would lie and tell him that the cops were on their way and hang up. But Joe would keep calling back until eventually Nanny would disconnect the phone. She would then head upstairs to her bedroom, while Mom spread a fitted sheet on the living room couch and I curled up on the floor with my stuffed animals.
In the morning, Mom would smear a fat glob of gooey toothpaste on my right pointer finger so I could brush my teeth. Then she would fill up the bathroom sink with warm water and wash her bra and underwear with hand soap. She’d dry them briefly with Nanny’s hairdryer before she put them back on and headed downstairs to call Joe and let him know that she had arranged for a cab and that we were on our way home.
Once, as we were getting ready to leave, Nanny pulled mom aside in the kitchen and gently urged her to look into AA meetings to deal with her alcohol issues. She then passed her a wrinkled slip of lined paper torn out from a notebook with the name and number of a local battered women’s shelter. Mom smiled and stuffed the paper deep into her front jean pocket; when the cab pulled up outside and beeped, Mom gave Nanny a quick hug and then we were off and on our way home to a hopefully sober Joe.
Initially Mom didn’t move on Nanny’s suggestion to check out AA simply because she wasn’t ready for it at the time but eventually she did get there. And even when Mom ripped up the phone number Nanny passed to her and buried it in the ashtray of the cab door, it wasn’t because she didn’t want help; she was simply too afraid of what Joe might do if he found out that she was planning to leave him. But what meant more than anything, to me at least, was Nanny’s unconditional kindness in the midst of a horrific situation. She helped us as much as she possibly could and that was far more than most people were willing to do.
A couple of days ago, I bumped into the little girl that lives upstairs floating around the lobby of our building. She had on a puffy white dress that was decorated with little yellow flowers attached to swirly green stems. Cinched around her waist was a plastic pink belt that matched the headband in her hair. I looked at her and grinned; a sheepish smile crept out quietly from the corner of her mouth. She looked okay to me. There were no visible bruises on her arms or legs and she certainly didn’t seem scared or afraid. But I’m sure that there were plenty of times when I was a kid that I seemed okay even though I wasn’t. In all honesty, I don’t know if I’ll ever end up confronting my neighbor. I realize now that I simply don’t know enough to make any drastic moves. But I will keep paying attention to the situation. Maybe, just maybe, I can do one iota of what Nanny did for me.
[This essay and the accompanying image originally appeared on After Party Chat]