Don’t be fresh. It was scary when my mother said that. It was a threat. I knew not to go any further. I never understood what I was saying that she didn’t like, but I knew not to take whatever it was I was pursuing any further.
Don’t talk back. I never understood that one either. These phrases would shoot out of nowhere like bullets stopping me, forcing me down, before I was done.
The miniature house with the dull green carpeting, not our house, a rented one, none of it really feeling like ours. It was too small to be real. It was a tiny house, but with four bedrooms, a living room big enough only for a two-seat couch and one armchair, inches apart. There was never much reason to be in that strange little room. My father stayed in his room when he was home – reading there, doing his bills at the desk by the window. All the furniture came with the house, like a hotel.
We stayed there five years, longer than what that house was really capable of. It was a place for a weekend, or for a couple, but we lived there. In the dining room where you could only just get around the dining room table.
It was into this house that my father brought, during the last two months of our stay there, two large new pieces of furniture, both went into the dining room. He replaced the rectangular table that had come with the house with a polished wood table with thick carved legs and a glass top. The table came with six matching chairs, with high backs and soft green velvet seats. He placed against the wall a tall armoire – that’s what he called it – a wide cabinet that reached almost to the ceiling with glass doors on top that each closed with a little key and below three wooden doors each also with a key. Behind all these doors were shelves.
These two pieces of furniture gobbled up the almost non-existent space of the dining room.
My father said they were my mother’s birthday present, but I knew they weren’t. They were his birthday present and they didn’t fit in the room. It was so obvious and transparent. I knew my father didn’t like my mother, that he tried hard to be away from her as much as possible, that she just made him angry. She made me angry too. Why did she keep doing – mostly saying – those things that instantly set his teeth on edge?
I am quiet when one comes out of her mouth, tense now but superior because I know better than to say something so combustible. I sit to my father’s right at the dining room table, she at his left, getting up to bring things from the kitchen – not much, nothing fancy, though we like it – mashed potatoes, roast beef maybe or pork chops. And this is only on weekends. We eat together like this only for Saturday and Sunday lunch. The rest of the week my father is away and my mother and I and my two little sisters eat in the kitchen.
I clamp down when the words zing out, when my father tenses and pretends not to hear. “I am reading an excellent book,” he beings, leaving my mother’s question unanswered because it was only asked to irritate. “Yeah?” I say, minimal but not non-existent. That would cause too much attention.
Or if the zing has gone in deeper, my father tenses and says something in a low warning voice without looking at her. “Now, Joan –“ and she will say it again like someone driving with a blindfold on – while I pass the potatoes down to my sisters, wanting to be far far away with people who are young and hip and cool, in my own apartment somewhere in a city.