You had to take sides in my house because there was a fight going on all the time. Usually, especially during the day, you couldn’t hear it. You could hear it at night, sometimes, after you went to bed. I could hear it from the darkness of my single bed, coming from downstairs, my mother’s raised voice, my father’s angry but fiercely controlled replies. That sound made me rigid with fear. I willed it to stop.
During the day the fight, the war, the battle was more subtle and you could pretend it wasn’t there.
The worlds of my two parents seemed like two different places that did not intersect except for the strange mistake that brought them together under this one roof.
That’s why it was easier when my father went away. Even though I liked him so much better, even though he was the one who did the fun things, it was easier when he didn’t come home. Then I just had to live in one world.
I noticed that I didn’t like him coming home when we were living in the small white house in England, when I had moved back home from boarding school. I was used to liking my father. “You’re Daddy’s girl, aren’t you?” the old nun had observed one evening after my father had visited and I had demurred proudly. I had never heard that expression before – Daddy’s girl – and thought the nun had created it just for me.
But now it is Friday afternoon and I am sitting alone in my mother’s bedroom, the one with the pink and white striped drapes that don’t look like curtains that belong in a room with my mother. this is a rented furnished house and so we live with what is here.
I am sitting alone in my mother’s room, watching our small black and white TV set. I like just sitting here, watching the afternoon kid show.
My father comes in downstairs. I hear the front door close and I hear him walk up the carpeted stairs, slowly. He always moves slowly. He has been gone all week. That’s what he does now. He lives in an apartment in the city during the week and comes home on the weekend. I have never questioned this pattern. It fits my father. It feels natural. His office has always been central to his life. It defines where we live – what house, what country, what school I go to – it takes him away on business trips. He carries a briefcase because of it, wears suits and ties, has heavy leather luggage.
Now he opens my mother’s bedroom door and peers in. He doesn’t come into the room. “And what are we up to here?” he asks. He has a smile on his face, but not the kind of smile that makes me want to smile back. It is a smile that is forcing me into some kind of corner. I don’t want to talk. I want to be alone and watch my show. “Ahhh!” says my father, his eyes falling upon the screen. “I see you are watching something very important.” A man on the screen is strumming a guitar, sitting on a high stool, and singing a song that is not a love song or a folk song. I want to listen to the words. I want to understand the song.
I know my father sees a useless person on the screen, some idiot with a guitar. He already knows what kind of music is the best – Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach, Schuman, Schubert, Verdi – that’s about it, plus Hungarian folk music, many songs of which he likes to sing in the car. That is music. That is the end of it.
So I know when he sees me watching TV he sees a girl who is not as special as he would like her to be. She is wasting time, doing something very ordinary. He has tried so hard to make her special, but she is ordinary. Like her mother.
I don’t look at him. “Hi, Dad,” I say. I don’t want him to know how I feel. I disguise it thinly but just within the line of acceptability, a borderline I know well --- how much fight is allowed to surface and how much must be held back inside the dam.