A sticky silence befalls the house for many weeks.
We will go, wherever you want, whenever you wantmmm
Of course would think his summer flu was an excuseshemust
Instead of speaking up, the girl had feigned great interest in her chore. Mincing a row of garlic cloves, she teleported herself back into their old kitchen. It was nothing special, that kitchen. A narrow afterthought on permanently stained linoleum squares. Bars on its single window despite being on the fifth floor of the grimy apartment building. Compared to the boyfriend’s wide marble island, shiny double-oven, rustic brick wall, and polished chrome hardware, the old kitchen barely qualified as a kitchen. But it was synonymous with her parents being in the same room, brushing against each other, against every appliance, happy and together. Also, oil heated faster and higher in the small space, which made for tastier plantains. The girl missed it.
“How do I land these shady assholes,” her mother had told the auntie.
The girl brushes her teeth and runs up to the master bedroom. She finds her mother is waiting for her in a parka, the overnight bag plopped at her orthopedic shoes. It is almost time. Her mother remarks that the girl did not finish her plantains.
“I wasn’t hungry anymore.”
“Some children don’t get to eat,” she replies.
Then send it to them, the girl thinks. “Sorry,” is what comes out.
“Okay. Are you sure you don’t need anything else from downstairs? Because once I set the house alarm, you cannot leave the second floor. We’ve talked about this.”
She wishes her mother would just go.
“Yes, mommy. I am sure,” she says with a phony evenness.
The girl accepts the Post-it Note on which her mother has scribbled the after-hours number for Pinehurst Care. And just in case, a number for the boyfriend’s hotel on this business trip.
“But if anything happens, you call me first,” her mother says.
Nothing to worry about on that front, the girl thinks. Her personal list of objections and grievances against the boyfriend spans the three years of their relationship. There’s the wavy hair he touches up with iridescent streaks of silver and sculpts with gelatinous concrete. Also: the loud motorcycle he keeps at the sea house. The discrete earring he dons exclusively on weekends. The corny folk songs he composes on acoustic guitar then records on cassette tapes that he forces on them during the four-hour drive to the sea house. The most unbearable ones are about her mother, whom he calls his Black Beauty.
No—the girl would dial Pope John Paul II before looking to him for help.
“Then I’ll see you in the morning,” her mother says, with a peck to her forehead.
“Be good,” says the girl.
“You too,” her mother replies.
The alarm beeps three times after the front door shuts. From her own bedroom down the hall, the girl cranes her neck out the window. She watches the headlights pull out of the driveway, disappear into the black night. An eerie silence envelops the house. Returning to the master bedroom requires bypassing the boyfriend’s guitars, which are lined up on the long wall of a slim hallway. Three too many, each of their bodies a deep primary color. One is painted with the face of a brunette who smiles a strange, crimson smile. Passing her, the girl wonders if she should have agreed to being watched by a babysitter.
Her mother deems them bulky—art should not force them to hug the opposite wall just to reach her room. (“They’re not just art,” the boyfriend would argue.) More unsettling to the girl is the height at which the instruments hang, a risky three or four inches above her head. At least once a day, she imagines an earthquake rocking the guitars off the wall right as she passes underneath them. And then: stars, swirling about her face, like a cartoon. But the guitars precede mother and girl, and so up they remain.
Safely back in the master bedroom, the girl fans out her favorite movies onto the carpet. She does not want to be scared and she does not want to cry. On a night like this, the girl wants to feel . . . comforted. She tosses The Lion King, Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire to the side. Hook it is. She loves this one despite the fact that it was the boyfriend’s Christmas gift to her. For eight months, the VHS tape had languished under her bed. And it would have continued to collect dust there had her mother not demanded proof that the girl still had it. The girl had stomped upstairs, wounded by the insinuation that she misplaced everything, even if it was a little bit true. Holding the tape in the afternoon light, her mother had unpeeled the plastic film from the cardboard sleeve. “He really is trying,” she had said to the girl. “Can’t you give a little? For me?”
Her mother’s side of the bed smells like fresh magnolia blooms. Curled under the soft floral cotton sheet, the girl feels toasty and protected. She has watched Hook so many times that she can almost recite the entire script from memory. I’ve just had an apostrophe. I think you mean an epiphany. Her one rule is that the boyfriend cannot be home when she watches. The girl has been looking forward to this all evening. She fast-forwards the VHS tape to her favorite scene. Peter Pan and the children of the forest use will to conjure beloved foods. A food fight ensues. She rewinds to catch the exact moment when the food appears on screen. She never can.
A part of her accepts that the magic in these films is not real. That, for the worse, children cannot make ice cream appear by believing in it hard. And that, for the better, the gargoyle statues crouched in the church square cannot wake up from their petrified state the way they do in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Still, some nights, the girl wishes a force would rewind the clock and will her parents back together.
He does try though, the boyfriend. She remembers, one afternoon, when her mother asked for her opinion on swing sets. Taken aback, the girl considered the abstract question a moment. “I like them?”
“Good, good, good,” her mother said while pounding beignet dough one last round. She dropped a small fist of the viscous mix into a sizzling pot. The mix solidified into a white ball that buoyed to the top of the frying oil. Rich, creamy batter permeated the air.
The girl thought nothing of this exchange until the day school let out for summer. She had walked home alone, climbing the hill until she reached the terra-cotta roof and stucco walls of their house, which again belonged to the boyfriend, even if the mother decluttered and arranged and pruned with the dedication of a homeowner. She found them waiting on the velvet sofa, for her.
Her mind had raced. Had she not locked the front door on her way out? Or again forgotten her cereal bowl on the countertop? Had her teacher heard her swear at recess? What had happened now?
“Come here,” the boyfriend had said, taking her little hand.
The gesture felt deeply unnatural to the girl.
“Go on,” her mother said encouragingly.
“After you, m’lady,” the boyfriend said with false reverence.
The girl followed him to the French doors. A tall industrial-sized swing set had been grounded firmly in the furthest part of the garden, a short walk from the cedar trees and rose bushes. Too close to the neighbor’s overgrown field and his weird family of life-size statues—not gargoyles, but not exactly inviting either—carpeted in moss. But the mother and boyfriend were watching her with pregnant expectation, so the girl felt she had no choice but to squeal with delight.
She used the swing set a handful of times after that day—typically when the mother made phone calls to relatives, gossiping while pacing the misty grass. But she stopped when the short, dark days cast long shadows that frightened her. She thought nothing of it until one school night, months later. Her bedroom door had swung open.
“A spoiled brat!” a low voice shouted from the master bedroom.
And in her doorframe: “Don’t you see he got it for you? Why do you have to go and make things so difficult? Who taught you to be like this, huh?”
She looked up from her desk to find her mother standing in a power stance, eyes bloodshot with fury. The girl’s head spun from confusion and hurt. It was late November. The cold weather should have been reason enough. And the monstrous installation was their idea, not hers. If anyone truly cared about her wants, they would have asked her if she liked swing sets enough to want her own. But they had not, instead setting some kind of test that began without her knowledge.
The girl has been asleep for some hours when a sudden, intense need to pee yanks her back to consciousness. Forgetting about the toilet right in the master bedroom, she makes for the half bath downstairs, the one she uses when her mother and the boyfriend are home. The weight of her mistake hits her at the bottom step of the staircase. The girl freezes. For a crumble of time, reality feels suspended in the chilling air. Then comes the blare: a disorienting pulse at decibels intended to bully intruders into retreat. The girl considers her options. She might as well relieve herself. Maybe the alarm system will shut down once her shadow is out of sight. She tiptoes up the stairs, crawls back under the sheets. The alarm system does not shut down.
It is three in the morning when she dials the first number on the Post-it Note. Her hand trembles—when her mother picks up, the girl will probably wish for an earthquake. An answering machine comes on. The girl hangs up without leaving a message. What next, what next. She cannot bring herself to try the boyfriend yet. Instead, she dials 911.
But they had not, instead setting some kind of test that began without her knowledge.
The woman who answers keeps calling her “honey.” A kernel of hope forms: If the responders remain this kind, she might convince them to keep this whole thing secret. Within the hour, the boyfriend’s front lawn is inundated with flashing red and blue lights. A fire truck threatens to raze the pampas grass. The police officer parks on the street. The girl puts on her Strawberry Shortcake slippers to meet them. If her dark skin surprises them, the men mask it well.
“Where are your parents?” asks the firefighter with thinning red hair.
“At work. And her boyfriend is away on a business trip.”
“Right. And how old are you?”
“Nine,” she tells him. “Nine and a half.”
As the police officer scribbles that down, another firefighter emerges from the house. They’ve tried everything, this one reports. But without a code, the team will need to cut off the alarm’s wiring. That option would require drilling into the wall. The girl hesitates. A hole seems extreme. And it would likely mean a lifetime ban on seeing her friends out of school. But her mother is unreachable. The firefighter asks, “Is there anyone else we can call?”
The girl hands over the Post-it Note and sits on the gravel. The boyfriend answers on the second ring. She watches the police officer disarm the system. When the sirens finally stop, the entire lawn applauds. The redheaded man asks her if she can spend the rest of the night alone.
“Your dad seemed to think you can. But you’re welcome to stay at the station too.”
“He’s not my dad,” the girl responds.
The firefighters wait for her to wave from her bedroom window before departing. For hours afterward, she lies awake, willing time to slow down. She pictures the boyfriend sounding out her first name slowly, the way he does when he is so angry that his voice quivers. As for her mother, she pictures a loaded nothingness, the absence of sound.
When she wakes up, she scurries downstairs. She finds the two of them are standing on opposite ends of the kitchen island. Her mother is nibbling at her lip, in a way that reminds the girl of a horse anxiously chewing hay. The boyfriend is holding two bottles of Moët by the necks. They stop speaking the moment she enters the room. The girl is surprised to see him here. His business trip was supposed to be much longer. He casts an icy glare in her direction, though it’s unclear if that glare was meant for her or her mother.
“Hi,” the girl says.
“I’d better get going,” he tells her mother.
“Wait,” the mother replies. She pulls a ribbon out of a drawer and ties a bow around each bottle.
“Now you can go.”
The girl is dying to know where he is off to but is in no position to ask questions. The front door slams. She feels her mother’s eyes trained on her as she pours breakfast into a bowl and tries to chew her Corn Flakes noiselessly.
A sticky silence befalls the house for many weeks. It is not just that her mother and the boyfriend stop asking her about books, about friends, about the swing set, or that they speak her name only to call her down for supper. They seem to have stopped talking to each other. Worse yet, it feels to the girl as though the house is in on it. Each smooth surface and guitar cavity swallowing the clangor of life out of the air. Even the smile of the woman on the guitar has warped into a sneer.
The girl spends most of these days upstairs, convinced that grounding herself out of sight, without being asked, will better things sooner. Her invisibility turns into a game of pretend. She is a whisper, a breathless ghost. Only her mother’s forgiveness can make her reappear. After a while, though, it occurs to her that her mother would have to notice her absence for this plan to work. But her mother is preoccupied. On the phone, the other day, she was telling the auntie that she, too, wishes she knew where the boyfriend was off to.
Fall break offers a respite; finally, the girl can visit with her father. He takes her to the aquarium, plays board games with her, and treats her to a root beer float four nights in a row. It is so good, being in the care of her father, in the apartment with the old kitchen, that she dreads boarding the train back at the end of the week.
To her surprise, the mother who greets her with a warm hug at the station is in better spirits than the mother who dropped her off. She hums the little tune all the way home. The girl feels as though she has permission to exhale.
In the spring, the boyfriend books her a birthday party at McDonald’s, complete with face painting and a Ronald performance. The girl is so thrilled by the news that she wraps her arms around him and lets him twirl her around the room. When a boy in her grade turned ten there, the party was the talk of the school for months, garnering heights of attention the girl thought was only possible with a broken arm and white cast for the whole class to sign.
Perhaps the boyfriend is not so bad, she thinks.
Without fanfare, the girl makes her way to the swing set after school one day. She has no agenda in mind. In fact, on her first return, neither the mother nor the boyfriend are home. It is just for her. She likes to talk to herself out there, to think out loud in this place where the neighbors’ mossy statues cannot judge her. She goes alone until a classmate from down the street hears about the swing set and invites herself over. Upon seeing the backyard for the first time, the classmate cannot stop marveling at how large and sturdy it is—a real specimen, as good as the school playground set.
The next time her new friend comes over, a rainy weekend afternoon, the girl asks the boyfriend permission to grab Hook from the master bedroom, so they can watch it downstairs. As they march down the hallway, her friend pauses in awe. That face—she has never seen any guitar like this. The girl would be lying if she did not admit that her friend’s admiration endears the boyfriend to her a little more.
One evening, her mother summons her to the kitchen. The girl watches her shell peanuts for a stew. Her mother would like her to sit at the table instead of standing in the doorframe “like that.” The girl obeys.
“Are you happy here?” her mother asks. “I mean—do you like this house, this family?”
The girl is thinking. She understands that she must answer fast. Any delay can morph into an infraction. On the one hand, things are much better now. The boyfriend had offered to teach her guitar, provided she kept up the good work at home and at school, which she did. (Asked what hobby she preferred, the girl would have answered with ballet. But this was him trying, so she thanked him and started practicing her chords.) Her mother had stopped working nights, which made her less tired and irritable. On the other hand, something told the girl it would not take an earthquake to threaten their delicate balance of contentment. But until then—
“Yes, I am happy here,” the girl says.
“Good. Then I need you to do something for me. Something important.”
The girl is listening.
“I need you to call him Dad. Can you do that, for me?”
The girl loves the mother dearly; for her, she can.
At dinner, that very night, she asks the boyfriend to please pass her the potatoes. She can sense her mother begging her telepathically to make good on their deal, to do it now. When he hands her the glass dish, she mumbles it.
She cannot bring herself to look up but feels them beaming at each other.
That night, the boyfriend rewards her cooperation by bidding her good night with a curt shoulder squeeze. Dad. Dad. Dad. She feels like her dinner is sitting on top of her stomach, ready to roar back up.
The third, fourth, fifth time does not feel any more natural. What is she supposed to tell her actual father about this? She wishes her mother would have warned her of the stakes. There is no un-calling him Dad now. Any reversal will constitute a demotion, an escalation, a personal affront that could shake this house to the ground. If only she could press fast-forward to summer break. Unfortunately, time flows at the speed of the girl having to utter the word dad again. The girl finds workarounds. She doubts her mother notices her gradual avoidance of the word. And if the boyfriend does, he does not show it. Then again, to show anything, he would have to be home.
There is no un-calling him Dad now.
It takes the girl a few weeks to notice the uptick in his business trips. Indianapolis, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, Sacramento, Provo. Three days, one week, two weeks. His itineraries blend together, spill into the end of the school trimester. She stops asking if he’ll be around this weekend. The guitar lessons take place less frequently, then stop altogether.
It is not that the girl dislikes him personally—not anymore. Rather, the house feels more like theirs with him away. Her mother makes dinner only when she feels like it, spicing it to their higher tolerance. She does not bother with lipstick when they are simply home. She does not “joke” with him that he’s stopped writing songs about his Black Beauty. She is present, interested. The girl realizes she does not know how to miss him, only how to pretend to.
Then, one day, the guitars are gone. When the girl asks her mother about it, she is told that all three have been relocated to the sea house.
“But why?” the girl asks.
“Because they’re his.”
“I know, but why did he take them?”
“This bothers you,” her mother half observes, half questions.
The girl is not sure why. Maybe because she misses being grazed by their curves on the way to her bedroom. Without them, the walls feel askew.
“Are you going to hang something else?” she asks her mother.
“You’d have to ask him.”
“But he’s never here.”
The girl is still riding the high of her successful birthday party when her mother and the boyfriend ask her to join them on the velvet sofa. It is unlike him to be home in the daytime. Something about his appearance has changed, though she cannot pinpoint what. They scoot to each end, making room for her in the middle. The boyfriend rests a stiff hand on the girl’s shoulder. She sinks her fingers into the space between the cushion, stretches the nervousness out of her legs. Her toes, which reach the ground now, make a cracking sound. Her mother winces but does not scold. For a while, no one speaks. Then he tells her:
“I have to go to Buffalo. For a new job.”
“For the weekend?” the girl asks.
“To live there.”
“But I don’t want to move to Buffalo,” she says, on the verge of tears.
Her mother interjects. “You’re not. You and I are going to stay in this town. In a different place, probably an apartment, but here.”
“Because your mother and I have to figure some stuff out.”
“Okay . . . but how long is that gonna take?”
“A while, I think,” her mother says.
The ex-boyfriend rubs the girl’s shoulder. It does not feel natural; it does not feel real. She would shirk away if it did not risk hurting their feelings. She sees it now, the thing that changed about him. It’s his hair. Without the gunk, it flows beautifully. Her mother must have noticed it too. The lump in her throat is a surprise. This is the best news the girl has ever received. Her mother can be all hers again. She will never have to call another man Dad again. But how can he abandon them now, just as she was beginning to stand him?
On the day the girl and her mother pack the kitchen, the final room in the house, the ex-boyfriend is in Buffalo. He can hardly fry an egg, so they take the pans and most of the important cooking stuff: the slow cooker and spice rack, the good knives and cutting boards, the lemon press.
“You don’t seem terribly sad,” her mother remarks.
“I think I should be,” the girl says. “But I dunno.”
“That’s all right. I’m not sure I am sad either.”
On their last scan of the property, the girl finds the Hook tape under her bed. She considers bringing it to the stuffed car but changes her mind at the front door and drops it in a cardboard box labeled with his name. Her mother is in the lobby, hugging a potted ZZ plant.
“Was it because of me?” the girl asks.
Her mother mulls the question over. The girl feels as though she can practically read her mind. A kind mother would lie, but a good mother would tell the truth. The girl is not sure which to hope for.
“It’s never one thing or even one person,” her mother answers. “But children can complicate things.”
“I tried to give a little. Like you asked me to.”
“But you also stopped calling him Dad.”
“After Easter. You stopped. Didn’t utter it a single time.”
“Oh,” the girl says, because it is true.
“I’m sorry, honey. I’m not angry. I just think . . .”
Her mother pauses there, like a character glitching in a Nintendo game. The girl worries her question has soured the mood. Until now her mother seemed in unflappable spirits. She’s accepted a new job, cleaning offices at a government building downtown. And she’s signed a lease on a spacious two-bedroom with a decent kitchen. The girl overheard her tell the auntie that their new home is near a little ballet studio. If it could salvage this moment, she would rewind the tape and not ask as many questions. Or she would simply call him Dad a few more times.
“Maybe we were all trying a bit too hard,” her mother finally says. It takes the girl a minute to catch up to those first words, unprecedented in their admission. But before she can respond, her mother goes on, wondering if they have everything, “because once I set that alarm—well.”
The girl nods; she knows: After that third beep, there’s no going back.
Vanessa A. Bee is a consumer protection lawyer, essayist, and the author of Home Bound: Reflections of an Uprooted Daughter. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in N+1, The Cut, The New Republic, The Nation, and Guernica, among others. She lives in Washington, DC.