The Things I Couldn’t Name. By Janine Canty.
I was five or six the day I let my mother’s jade necklace fall out of a window. One minute it was there. The next it disappeared into thin air. Like a cheap magic trick It was early evening right before the streetlights come on. Homework was being cleared off of dining room tables. The ugly landing outside smelled like sausage and Del Monte carrots. Inside of apt.3, on the second floor, I was bored. Frightened and angry. Emotions cooked inside of me like soup. I couldn’t name them. I couldn’t control them. I hadn’t asked for them.
The rest of the world was getting ready for dinner. Mothers were burning palms on gravy steam. Fathers were arriving home with shirt collars loosened. Armpits an oval of sweat.
My Father Wasn’t Coming Home.
My Daddy wasn’t like the other daddies. He punched another type of time card. He rolled out of sheets stinking like vomit every morning. He didn’t reach for coffee. He reached for a white and red can. He lit lucky strikes with shaking hands. His eyes were red. His hair needed washing.
My Mommy wasn’t like the other mommies. She had a disease I couldn’t pronounce. She shot herself with needles. She kept sugar cubes in her purse, and on the kitchen counter, and beside her bed. Sometimes she’d slur, and stumble. Sometimes she’d fall down in public. Sometimes she’d sweat in the middle of January. Sometimes, she wouldn’t wake up. Daddy was on a bar stool somewhere, threatening a 6 foot asshole with the broken end of a beer bottle.
I grew both taller and smaller in the middle of my parents drama. I learned my ABC’S. I learned to tie my shoes. I learned how to pour orange juice down my Mothers throat. I learned how to call the paramedics. I learned how to clean puddles of beer, and piss, and blood. While other little girls were playing with baby dolls, I learned how to dress my 2 year old sister in the dark. I learned to be invisible. I learned to keep us safe.
During the earliest days of my parents court mandated separation, my Father looked at his new version of the world through the grimy window of a rooming house. I was crying myself to sleep on a top bunk. The brand new silence of our living room didn’t feel any safer than the raised voices. The breaking of furniture, and flesh, and hearts. The rooms were silent. Empty. Like a boxing ring, after the skin and teeth have been mopped up with a bucket full of bleach.
Dad did the things of a recovering alcoholic. He drank weak tea out of a Styrofoam cup in a church basement. He handed out chili and advice to the winos at The Pine Street Inn. He talked God with a Franciscan Monk in a room dusty with disuse and parrot feathers .
I did the things that a child of an alcoholic does. I learned my Catechism on Monday afternoons during CCD. AKA: Monday School. A special room in Purgatory known only to boys and girls growing up in the ’70’s . I sneezed from chalk dust. I bowed my head and prayed. I prayed for Daddy to come home. I prayed for a Cher doll with long black hair. I prayed to feel safe after dark.. All these things you do after your family has been broken without your permission. All these things you talk about and wish for. While you’re waiting for the dust to settle and the glue to dry. While you’re waiting to see what you may grow up to become. While you’re praying for the past, and afraid of the future.
I missed the concept of my Father. The Daddy who sang me to sleep, and bought me ice cream. The Daddy who was strong, and walked in a straight line with clear eyes. I missed the smell of tar and lucky strikes. I missed that version of my Daddy. The version that lived in a pretty little room in my head. Like “The Wizard Of Oz”, and the sears wish catalog. I didn’t miss the smell of Budweiser and certs. I didn’t miss watching my Father coaxing his courage from a can. I didn’t miss sticking my fingers in my ears to block out the screaming.
I didn’t miss peeing my pants from fright.
I wasn’t old enough to understand things like court orders. I just saw things the way a six year old sees things. I saw things a six year old shouldn’t see. I saw my Father choosing 12 ounces of alcohol over me, and my Mother, and my baby sister. My sister won’t remember the way Daddy looked walking away.
She won’t remember what he looked like drunk. Dirty and defeated. She won’t remember what he looked like on his knees, covered in beer foam, and snot, and blood.. She won’t remember what he looked like in handcuffs. She won’t remember feeling abandoned . She won’t remember what it is to feel like an old cast off. An empty watermelon rind.
She won’t remember what it feels like to hate your own Father when you’re six years old.
She will never have anything she needs to forgive him for.
You don’t process feelings when you’re six years old. You don’t give a name to the thing growing under your skin like a cancer. You cope. You survive. You cry a lot. You pee the bed and start sucking your thumb again. You become defiant and uncontrollable in your quiet, invisible way. You drop your Mother’s Jade necklace out a window.
I don’t remember a lot of details about the room. The room itself was of no importance. It was the stage. The rug may have have been brown. Or blue. Or gray. Or puke purple. I don’t remember the pattern on the bedspread. I don’t remember the pictures on the walls. I don’t remember the color of the paint.
There was a Crucifix over the bed. Irish Catholics kept a Crucifix over the bed. It’s supposed to be a symbol of protection. Peace. All bets are off when you’ve got an Irish Catholic, Alcoholic, Father, and a Protestant Mama with a temper.. My Father’s pillow was alone on the bed. It looked small. Broken. Lonely. It smelled like Tide and Budweiser. Everything in that apartment smelled yeasty like beer. It seeped into floors and upholstery. It grew like hair and fingernails.
My Mothers pillow had been relegated to the couch. She rose each morning with puffy skin. Circles under her eyes, and a red indent from a couch cushion across her cheek. She was a woman who didn’t feel safe when her husband broke his promises. She was a woman who didn’t feel safe when her husband opened his third beer in 30 minutes. She was a juvenile Diabetic left alone to care for two small girls. With food stamps, and orange juice, insulin needles. Paramedics and nosy social workers
She was the one who was there. While my Dad was breaking his hand open on a drunken strangers overbite. She was there with her sugar cubes and her life cereal.
She was safe to blame.
I felt pity for my Father’s pillow laying there by itself. I wondered if the lady at the rooming house bought fresh pillows each time a new man crossed her threshold. Or did hundreds of exiled men put their heads down on the same pillow? Exchanging hair, and oil, and particles of dandruff ? “Sesame Street” was playing from a small black and white TV on a dresser my Dad had dragged home from an estate sale. The jade necklace was sitting beside it, where my Mother had dropped it that afternoon. She dressed up the curler and bandana look, with a small piece of Jade each afternoon, while she strolled through Coolidge Corner. Buying eggs and tater tots from a Korean grocer with two teeth. Browsing through Barry Manilow records, while I begged for the new Beverly Cleary book. Cheryl dropped a soggy graham cracker to the ground, and screamed for another.
At some point I stopped hearing “Sesame Street” . Cookie Monster pissed me off with his inability to share the cookies. Defiance tickled my skin like a cats whiskers.
I picked up the jade necklace.
I was a six year old. With the soul of a 75 year old. I had emotional heartburn that it would take a therapist years to soothe. Not to cure. To soothe. Some broken things you just can’t fix. No matter how much glue you use.
I didn’t know the necklaces origin. I didn’t know if it came from China. Or a cheap display case in Woolworth s, next to the “Windsong” perfume.
I didn’t know if it was a gift from my Father on the day I was born. Or if it came from another man. A boyfriend in another life. Before my sister and were ever conceived of.
It felt like a puddle. It felt like everything I didn’t know about my Mother.
In the palm of my hand.
What scared her. What animated her. What she had wanted to be besides my Mother. What made her strong and weak and human. It felt like everything I knew about my Mother.
In the palm of my hand.
She was stubborn. Proud and beautiful. I mean drop dead, exotic, beautiful. Whether she was cleaning the oven. Or serving me lucky charms. With her hair wrecked, and couch lines across her puffy face . She was fricking gorgeous. Whether she was wearing a stained Ihop uniform, or a black cocktail dress, six months pregnant. She could make hands cracked from dishwater glamorous. She was fucking beautiful. Whether she was plucking her eyebrows. Or she was burning the toast, while giving herself an insulin shot in the gut. She was fucking beautiful . Bloody blue jeans, Caesarean scar, and all.
I held her beauty and her magic. In the palm of my hand.
This is what control feels like to a six year old.
I wasn’t looking to be punished. I wasn’t expecting to wake up and have the world suddenly be fair. The world, and my parents, had already shown me how very fucked up love could become.
When you’ve been the invisible kid between your parents. When you’ve been the object that kept them from killing each other, as they ripped at each others clothes and hair, like prizefighters.
You want very little from life
As I stood at that window, with the streetlights coming on. I held control in the palm of my hand. As the jade tumbled into the bushes, I begged to be seen.
I wanted to be heard.
My name is Janine Canty. I have been writing since age 11 when a teacher told me I had “talent.” Writing has always been a tonic for me. Being published is a pretty little dream I keep tucked away in a safe place. I am not a professional writer though the passion for it has stayed with me like a campfire. I make my living as a CNA- Med Technician in a busy nursing facility in a tiny Northern town almost no one has ever heard of. I dabble in blog writing, and all things Facebook. I fail at tweeting.
Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif. over New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (2 spots left.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.