The Cheek, the Jaw, the Eye, the Lip
The throb of my mother’s sewing machine. Her foot depressing the pedal as the pool of fabric on the floor next to me disappears, fed carefully through the needle. Her hands, pulling the fabric flat. Her sewing corner, the only corner of the apartment that is just hers. The metal thimble covering her thumb cold against my cheek.
The bedroom I share with my younger brother. Because I’m first born I get top bunk. A scar the shape of a butterfly’s wing on my knee from banging up the ladder. Too rough with the world for my own good, Mom says. She protects us. She brooks the gap between my father and our bunk. My father says, “I know they’re awake.” His words slur and slip into a rumble. We never spend a night in the dark, we always leave the door open. I pretend I’m asleep or dead or disappeared and I wait.
At school, they pull me out of classes. They sit me on a beanbag chair in a room I’ve never seen before. A woman with round glasses asks me questions. She asks me if I want to draw with crayons and stubby pencils. She says the words “home life” too many times. She asks, “Have you ever seen your father hit your mother?” And I know how to answer this question because Mom told me. I don’t talk about home and I don’t talk about life.
My brother laughs as he rockets skyward on the playground swing set. The sky is a calm summer blue. His body bumps around the safety seat as I push harder. Now we are astronauts, now we are anywhere else but here. We both pretend we are other people, people who aren’t us until our names are sung from the apartment balcony by Mom. Soon, we hold hands and head in the direction of that song.
I drop flailing men from a helicopter into bales of hay on the computer, while my father watches TV. I sit cross-legged for an entire afternoon clicking the computer mouse in the same cloth-backed director’s chair my mother sits in when she sews. I ask my father when Mommy will be home with my brother. When the man lands in the hay another character in the corner of the computer screen does a backflip for me. When my father gets up from the couch, I look away at him opening the cabinet under the sink in the kitchen, pulling a shiny can out of a plastic bag. He puts the can to his lips, takes a drink. He asks me if I’ve beat his high score yet.
Clutching at Mom’s light blue dress as she sits on the playground park bench. The summer light has been soaked up already, but lightning bugs still swirl around us. The smell of sand and damp grass in my clothes. I wrap my arms around her waist. “Ten more minutes,” I beg. Up the hill, the dark apartment strobing with television light. I don’t want to leave. I walk back with my mother in the new dark, my hands again grabbing at her dress, following her wherever she is leading me.
My nose presses against a corner of the apartment after a fight with my brother, after being a little shit, after arguing. My nose presses against every corner of the apartment: bedroom, living room, bathroom, kitchen. “Stand up straight,” my father says. The smell of old paint. The sense that the world will be closed off forever. Minutes pass and pass. Eventually, my father’s hand on my shoulder spins me back into the world.
My mother stops me still in the hallway, asks what I’m hiding in my pocket. I pull out the pocketknife I swiped from a kitchen cabinet. Her hand skims over my cheek, rests against my shirt, feeling my heart beat. I tell her, “It’s to protect us.” She asks me to give her the knife. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you guys,” she says. I wrap my arms around her neck and bury my face in her shoulder, wrap my legs around her waist and hold on even though I know I’m too big for her to lift. Too big for her to carry.
The bottom of a shopping cart, my feet skimming the floor, my hands smudging whatever food is reachable from the cart. The same grocery store every Sunday. The same fluorescent lights buzz. Same long aisles filled with the things I see in commercials that we don’t buy, things I want but can’t have. My mother pushes the cart next to my father. My brother is wedged into the cart’s top seat smiling at Mom. Then my arm knocks over a display of pickle jars and a mess of glass and green liquid spread across the dull white flooring. My father yanks me out of the bottom of the shopping cart. Pulls me by the armpit toward the huge metallic double doors at the back of store. This is where the jackals, the hungry animals that eat bad children live. My father tells me this every time I act up. “You want me to feed you to them? Do you?” I look back for Mom, but she’s gone down another aisle. I’m alone with my father, crying, telling him that I’ll be good. “That’s not enough,” he says. And I know there is more to fear than the jackals.
Fingers spread across the hard stitches of a baseball. The snap of my father’s glove. My mother watching from the balcony with my brother. The smell of charcoal, smoke spilling from another balcony in the building. Summer spreads across the complex—people jogging and walking dogs down the asphalt path near the playground. The sound of my father laughing as I bounce a throw to him. My father’s glove on my shoulder as my mother snaps a photograph of us together, happy.
We wait in the backseat of our silver Toyota in front of a brown house.. My brother, sleeps. His car seat smells like peaches. Two black duffle bags rest between us, my school backpack on top. “I’ll be right back,” my mother says before she gets out of the car. She looks tired, her eyes red, a small bruise on the inside of her arm the same color as the house. The tall trees of the front yard are heavy with leaves that fall slowly to the ground. I wake my brother so he can watch them. We never see where they land. They fall away. We count the seconds it takes until they’re out of sight.
My father holds my throat still against the hallway. My body presses back against one of the off-white walls. I count scuff marks and outline the rectangle air vent on the wall on either side of my father’s frame. The tough skin of his knuckle pressing under my jaw. My mother in the living room or her bedroom, silent. Waiting until she can do what she can do for me when he lets me go. She talks to me in a low voices as sunlight streams through the blinds in my bedroom. She tells me it’s okay, that I’m okay, that she’s here. It takes hours for the apartment to feel safe again.
My father in the bedroom doorframe holding a pair of scissors in one hand, the dresses my mother sews for herself in the other. “Is this what you care about?” he says. Mom sits on the floor beside our bunk. Mom is crying, she repeats the word, no. The scissors cut through the dresses, one by one, until my father’s scuffed white tennis shoes are swimming in a pile of fabric. He presses the cut fabric into her face. The cheek, the jaw, the eye, the lip, a message Mom sees coming. She coils. He slaps her. “Is this what you care about? Do you care about this?” I hold my breath in bed, listening. I try transporting myself out of the room by imagining every other place I know.
The tall downtown buildings of the closest city to our small town. “Ter, look at the star on top of the mountain,” my mother says and points. “See how big it is?” It is big. It looks like the stars we’re learning to draw in art class, except colossal and shining light on top of the mountain.. Deeper in the city we stop at a building near a river where I see my father smoking. He’s dressed in white pants and a white shirt, a pack of smokes rolled up in the short sleeve, the exposed skin of his bicep red and bumpy. He sits on a park bench next to Mom and they talk. I take my brother’s hand and lead him to the river where we listen to the water rushing over rocks and sticks, always leaving wherever it’s coming from. My brother and I pick up rocks and toss them at the water, but it’s unstoppable, it goes on for forever it seems.
Every night in bed, listening for the slam of the metal front door. The shake it makes some nights a warning shot. My brother asleep in his bed beneath me. The different way my room looks in the near dark, and the way the world looks through the blind of my bedroom window—the playground, the asphalt path, the other apartment buildings that look exactly the same as ours, the insides of other apartments, the rooms of other boys and their brother in bunk beds, the other mothers, the other fathers.
Terrance Wedin is a bartender and an adjunct instructor at Columbus College of Art and Design. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Hobart, Barrelhouse, The Fanzine, and other publications.