My mother always claimed I was talking before one, talking gibberish and that nonsensical baby talk that we often find so endearing and sincere. I spoke full sentences quickly, and although this is all speculation, I’d bet it would have had something to do with that driving curiosity that seemed sewn into my nature. I spent my time with all adults. My pretty, blonde mother, twenty two now, spent all of her time with me. We were together 24/7. I have dim recollections of this, of her and the team we made. I can clearly recall tottering over to the window and calling, “where’s Daddy?” who could have known how many times that would be repeated during my lifetime.
“Clap hands, clap hands, ‘till Daddy comes home. Daddy’s got money and Mamma gots none!”
It was a game akin to peek-a-boo. We played it often. When Daddy did come home, I never saw him; it was often late at night. I was already tucked into bed. However, when I did see him, there was always a bright colored box housing the newest Disney figurine or Spice Girl’s Barbie doll nested in his hands. I can’t remember if I’d attack the box like a starving vulture, cardboard ripping, making a mess in our small living room. I certainly hope not though, I wouldn’t like to think I started feeding so hungrily on what was dead so young.
Three and Four.
On the off chance my daddy was home, the three of us would eat dinner together. I, like thousands of other children across the nation, was forced to endure the grueling torment of eating vegetables. Asparagus made me gag. The fumes from cooking it conquered my whole kitchen. How could something resembling a fairy’s wand smell so repulsive?
I looked at my mother, my eyes pleaded to her, “Please! Don’t make me eat this nasty, disgusting, sorry excuse for food! I’m a good girl! Please?” She gave me a sympathetic smile and her gaze dropped.
“Eat it. All of it.” My father had a deep, commanding voice. If he wanted me to eat, I had to. Heck, if he had wanted me to assume world domination with my asparagus as soldiers, I would have had to. No one ever said no to him. “You eat now or you sit at this table all night.” So I sat there. I played with my food, making faces on the plate, or building towers, like they were green Lincoln Logs. My parents cleared the table. I took pretend bites. They left the room. I sat there. They checked up on me, I pretended to eat. This happened for a good two hours. Finally, I got wise; I stuffed all the green spears of torture in my mouth, and ran to the bathroom. I spit all of them into the toilet and watched the green mush; looking more like moss than food, spin down, down, down, into oblivion. I washed my hands and cleared my plate, and then I went to join my parents in bed.
On weekends my mother would encourage me to spend time with my dad. “You talk about seeing him all week, and now that he’s here, you act like you don’t even know him, Tiana.” So I would venture into the unknown and find my father with the remote in his hand and hear the obnoxious voices of the men on the history/military/Discovery Channel chat about some nonsense that was irrelevant to our lives. He would hold out his arms to me, and I would lie down next to him. He would fall asleep and his snores would reverberate around the entire den. His fingernails were always dirty, and I would be trapped, stuck in between his arms for hours, listening to the drone about automatic machine guns and World War Two veterans.
I would then complain to my mother about it. I secretly loved it.
I went to kindergarten. I’d swing on the playground. I’d comfort the crying girl who missed her mommy. I’d take the boy’s whose teeth “fell” out down to the nurse. I’d practice the alphabet. I’d ride the bus home. I’d walk inside. I’d see Daddy playing videogames. I’d see pixelated characters scream in horror on the television. It didn’t bother me. I’d sit down on the floor and watch him play. He’d ask me if I wanted to play. I’d smile and shake my head no. we’d repeat this for moths. One day I stayed home with a case of the sniffles. Daddy was at work, so I set up the game system and taught myself to play the game. He came home from work and found me playing. He grinned, “Atta girl.” We became gaming partners for life.
We sat in the neighbor’s yard, for a summer’s evening barbeque. My mother with her sun kissed skin glowing and the orange sky reflecting perfectly on her blonde hair, and my father, although the image distorted, sitting next to her, the bolder, the rock, the wall. They were discussing their respective children with the neighbors. A boy my age sat playing with his electric toy boat in a plastic pool. I can recall pitying him, because he didn’t even have enough imagination to make his own boat, or his own stories. He was just moving his boat back and forth making noises that I’m fairly sure were supposed to imitate an engine’s. And there I went, the little girl, telling him where his ship was going and why it needed to leave, and how the water would crash on the beach and the sand would smash and everything would coincide with perfect harmony. I remember him going, “why?” and myself exclaiming, “why ever not?” I can flawlessly recount simultaneously eavesdropping on my parents and the neighbors conversation, and how their oldest daughter, like my own parent’s youngest daughter, was a daddy’s girl, and they were right on the spot with that. I remember them pointing out the similarities that both of their sons seemed extremely attached to their mothers, and exchanging stories of climbing into bed deep into night, sons in toe, and such. And I can most accurately recall them collectively gazing upon me, and saying, “Oh and Tiana was just always independent, she-.” I glanced up claiming, “I never needed anybody.” It was meant to be taken as a joke, we all laughed, and I remember how apprehensive my father looked, sickened. It took me years to figure out why.
My mother’s father was diagnosed with cancer. I had no idea what this meant; I did understand it to be bad. My mother wouldn’t let me go and visit him, probably due to my rapidly changing emotional state at the time. He passed away. My mother said I was old enough to go to the wake; she made me sit in the funeral home’s basement with my cousins. One by one parents would come to retrieve their children, to say goodbye. Eventually all the children had been collected. I sat there alone. I watched a huge fish tank intently. I felt empty. How ironic to be so young and alive, but to be sitting in the basement of a funeral parlor, already swimming with the fish. My Poppy was the first man to leave, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last.
My sister and I shared a room. I called seniority and claimed the top bunk for myself. It was there that my life was spent. I kept candy and a flashlight inside my pillowcase, and had books upon books to read into the dark hours of night. I’d hear them yelling, screaming, crying. He’d say she was cheating; she’d say he was crazy. He’d call her a slut; she’d say she was home with the kids all day and I would cry. Actually, I did a lot more than cry. I’d weep until my whole body shook, and the sobs were muted, my entire being rocking. I couldn’t catch my breath. My own heart was rebelling unto itself. I felt like I was dying, and maybe I was.
A few weeks later my mother sat me down on the couch. She said that she and my father were getting a divorce. She asked me if I knew what that meant. I did. She told me it was okay to cry; I smiled. “Mommy I just want you to be happy.” Always so delayed, I had been crying for months and she hadn’t heard a thing, and now the war was over, and she wanted me to be sad? Incomprehensible.
My Daddy disappeared. He called rarely, and always claimed to be working a lot. He said he missed us when he did call. He swore he wanted to come home. I went to school. I lived my life. My mother enrolled me in a children’s of divorce program at school. I listened intently on their stories. The world kept rotating and revolving. I guess there is comfort in routine.
My father moved into his brother’s house and rented out the bottom floor. He lived in Queens; it was quite the trek for my mother. We three children would spend the weekend there, every other week. It was different, because he was all rested up for us. He had energy. We played videogames and ordered pizza and watched marathons on the History Channel. He’d ask me to clean the apartment/do the dishes/ put my siblings to bed.
“That’s your job.”
“No, Tiana, you’re old enough to realize that you are a young lady now, and this is your job. Now go do it.” It didn’t sit right with me. It left a bad taste in my mouth, but I did what I was told. What reason did he have to lie?
My yia yia was an eccentric old woman. She would watch Greek soap operas and taught me how to belly dance. She was also a diabetic, and was on a pill for every day of the week and one every color of the rainbow. I had only ever visited her on monthly basis for no more than an hour. My father told me we were staying there for the night. He had work that night. What work a man can do for his job with the Housing Authority after 9pm I never could put together. He said he was busy, and not to call unless there was an emergency. I begged him not to leave us. He pushed me away, bolted the door higher than I could reach and left. My yia yia went straight to bed, locking her door. She would be so out on medication that if anything had happened, she would definitely have not woken up in time.
My two younger siblings were crying. My brother, three, was an asthmatic. You could distinctly hear the wheezing between each sob. My sister was seven. She always looked identical to my mother and her body quivered. I was eleven, not much older, not much smarter, no less scared, but I shut my mouth and smiled. I pulled out the rusty bed from the sofa and searched through closets for sheets. I switched on the television, and only late night Greek dramas would play. I had them go get their pajamas on and brush their teeth. I tucked them into bed and promised them they didn’t have to worry. I told them stories and repeated the prayers I heard my mother recite in their rooms each night. I kissed them goodnight. None of this was entirely difficult, but it took a toll on me all the same. It created a clear division between the end of my childhood and the teenage years. I crawled into a chair. Pomonok housing off Kissena and Parsons Blvd. was dirty. We could hear the rats scampering up the walls, there were traps in every corner of the room; it made me feel sick. I didn’t sleep that night, I watched my siblings sleep. I wasn’t going to risk anything happening and I not being there for them. In the early morning hours they awoke, I made them a simple breakfast and entertained them until my grandmother’s nurse cam to wake her at noon. Unfortunately this would not be the last time this would happen.
My father never planned for anything. He never knew what he would be doing that day until he woke up and some divine inspiration would come to him. What I mean to say is, he was always quite impulsive. He woke me up early on a brisk morning and told me to get my siblings ready; he wanted to see the Intrepid. It was early autumn and the wind was just starting to get a bite. I dressed them warmly, packed snacks, the inhalers, the necessities. A young woman appeared at the door. Obviously very Greek, her name was Aphrodite. She wore too much makeup and had a heavy accent. She was young, too young for him. I kept my mouth shut on the matter. He introduced her as his friend, but I knew better. We all stuffed ourselves into his truck, I, of course, wedged in between them.
The day was lovely. The tour was excellent. We stopped into the café to get lunch. I told my father to take my brother to the bathroom to wash his hands. I took my sister to wash hers. I came back and only Aphrodite was at the table. I inquired where my father and brother were. I received a blank stare. I asked again, she pointed to the gift shop for my father. I ran in there, I demanded to know where my brother was, he gave me a nervous look, “I told Aphrodite to-“, his voice shook. I walked away, ran through the store. My brother was five, and he was very much my own child I felt. He often slept against me, his little body curling to mine. He came to me only when he was crying to comfort him, and sometimes, when it got really bad, he would call me mom. I ran like a mad woman, up and down stairs, peering through crowds, if any man look suspiciously I would go right up to them and ask if they had seen a little boy, searching their eyes for pupil dilation to see if they were lying; to see if they took him. Fifteen minutes later my brother came down the steps. He had an airplane from the gift shop in his hand, and asked me if I would buy it for him. I couldn’t breathe. My body shook with sobs.
I think I lost years off my life that day. My father felt guilty, he bought us all these expensive t shirts and toys there. I wouldn’t speak to him. We rode home in silence. When it was time to say goodbye to Aphrodite, I whispered one word into her ear, “Bitch.” I had never used words like that, but it seemed fitting, that girl didn’t know a thing, and she needed to leave. I never saw her again.
The year I became a teenager, we all learned how out spoken I was. I was taken by as much surprise as my father, I was never very confrontational. When his best compliment was that I would make a good wife, I challenged him. When he told me to do the dishes, I told him it wasn’t my house. When he bought me girly things, I challenged the gender roles, the double standards. He hated it, I didn’t get why it stressed him out. He was always screaming, I was always crying, but together we learned how much we we’re alike. We were both exceedingly stubborn. Our relationship became more and more strained. His infamous line after every argument, “I need to go for a smoke,” always choked me up. He would disappear for a bit, and come home with an empty cigarette case.
He called me worthless. It was out of nowhere, no identifiable catalyst. We were coming back from a Greek specialty deli. He told me he should have left when I was born. It was casual conversation to him, I kept my mouth shut.
Sometime soon after I got word that my yia yia passed away.
Later that month I sat at United Skates with my friends, my cell rang and I could barely hear it above the music. His deep voice resonated that he was at the airport that he was leaving. Impulsive, impulsive, impulsive, I wasn’t worried or surprised, until I heard his voice change, his tone dripping with finality.
“Daddy, you’re not coming back are you.” He didn’t answer, it wasn’t really a question. He told me he loved me and hung up. That was the last time I heard from him for months and months.
It’s funny that you never realize the depth of people’s influence in life. I didn’t cry when he told me he was leaving, I didn’t cry that night, or the week after. I didn’t cry that whole month. I did cry, walking to my aunt’s house, when I saw a little girl and her assumed to be father walking down the street hand in hand. I lost it; it was the first big blow. My father would never walk me down the aisle. There were hundreds of little hits like that for that whole year. I cursed all men, the whole lot of them. My personality also died at their feet. I became submissive.
I knew very clearly what was happening. I flirted with men way too old for me. It was ambivalence, disgusting, but I needed the confidence boost, and the confirmation, that there wasn’t something wrong with me, but him.
I met boys and men who would never be my type, who didn’t know Socrates from the president and who could care less. I was always a good girl, but I would sneak out. I let boys kiss me and even older ones touch me, touch me in places that hadn’t been on my mind since whispered playground games of “show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine.” I read about Freud and his theories on women’s sexuality. They repulsed me. Men repulsed me, and most importantly, I repulsed myself, because I couldn’t stop.
Told no one, my friends all still think I haven’t gotten my first kiss. They didn’t know about the guys who I would have park a block away in the middle of the night who I would run to greet. They didn’t know about their dirty fingernails. And what could I really tell them? My friends were a circle of purity ring wearing A.P. students. I shut my mouth about it. I lived a double life for a while.
I quit it cold turkey. Reading psychology book after book convinced me. By letting men near, I was a mausoleum to my father’s abandonment. I wanted to be myself, not the person adapted to him. Now, I work to be better. I don’t sneak out; I couldn’t if I wanted to, my mother put in a new alarm system. I figure its better that way.
At 711 I see a guy in his twenties who made a joke to me once at a party when I had told him my age, “I could get arrested talking to you.” He had laughed; I didn’t think it was funny. He gave me a look. My hair wasn’t done up, my skin had no makeup on, my hair was frizzy. I smiled at him, he went to walk over, and I left the store. That part of my life is over. The big looming question now is, what’s next?