Monday, April 11, 2011

The First Hurt { Excerpt from A Split-Level Life}

At precisely five o'clock, Fred Rogers’ hypnotic voice fills our large, rustic den. Lana and Becky sit squeezed together, holding hands on Donny's faux leather recliner. Mesmerized by the hospitable gentleman inviting them on his daily journey, their tiny pink tongues poke out and lick the dryness from their lips, and my heart aches with tenderness. Look, Nana, these are your great-granddaughters. Becky's named for you. She has your long, beautiful fingers and silken hair. I have always maintained an open line to my maternal grandmother, who disappointed me only once, by dying.

The automatic garage door rumbles, and I swallow hard. This, the only sound the girls hear over the clanging of the trolley in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

"Daddy's home," Lana announces before returning her thumb to her mouth.

I hear the familiar heavy shuffle of Donny’s feet as he walks through the doorway that connects our garage to the den. His wiry brows are knit together and his shoulders are hunched to his ears, hinting he’s had one rough day at the factory. Donny is no longer the aspiring attorney his father once bragged about. Since his father put him in charge of a brand new division at H. Pearl and Sons, he is an employee, capable of screwing up like all the others.

I cower behind the dining room wall like a cat that’s been shooed away from the table. Donny makes a pit stop into the powder room. I listen to his long, never ending stream. He’s left the door wide open, and I refrain from scolding. But as soon as he charges into the den and lifts Becky and Lana to give them rough nuzzles on their necks, I rush forward and tug at his shirt- sleeve. I've never done this before. In fact, watching Donny with the girls has always filled me with immense pleasure, but now I need him separate — no delicate and fragile props like our children.

"Hi," he says, his kiss missing my cheek as I pull back and stiffen. "What's up? Okay, what did you burn?" He follows me into the kitchen, glancing at a few bills on the table and the blackened Pyrex soaking in the sink. He shoots a sympathetic grin. "I can pick up Chinese?"

"I'm not hungry. I want to talk. Let’s go sit in the living room."

Becky and Lana, having abandoned their fish sticks, are slurping chocolate milk through striped straws. Their rapt attention is on Mr. Rogers, who has just zipped up his beige cardigan.

Donny’s concern is woven with impatience. He passes our white spinet piano and lingers, hits a C chord like in a television drama. Looking at his watch he plops down on the loveseat beside me. I wait while he removes his lenses. Here comes the ritual of rubbing his eyes. If only he could see me now, really see me; but without his "eyes" he's close to legally blind. He hasn’t noticed my sunburn or the mascara streaked beneath my lashes making me look like a baby raccoon.

"Shoot," he says.

"I got a call this morning from Mrs. Byrnes." He looks blank.

“Who’s that?”

“She’s the mother of Colleen…our sitter, remember, Don?” My voice cracks. I take a deep breath and rally to regain my composure. Donny leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He pushes his glossy auburn hair back with his hands, and I see his smooth profile, how uniquely handsome he is — how any young teenage girl might confuse his intentions. But, having said her name again, I am trembling. Donny slides over and kneads my shoulder. I can’t, won’t look in his eyes. Instead, I stare at a pulled loop in the area rug, praying Becky and Lana stay put in the den.

"Mrs. Byrnes said you took Colleen to the high school parking lot last night. Why didn't you take her straight home? What the hell were you thinking?"

Donny turns mute, which only frightens me more. I wish he’d say something, anything. When I turn and look at him, he appears filmy through my tears. He is still in profile. His jaw, once hidden by his goatee, sets firmly, and juts forward.

"I thought Mrs. Byrnes was lying, Donny. I screamed and hung up on her. She wasn't lying, was she?" Donny’s face is bloated as if it’s about to explode. I yank away from his firm hold, but he grabs me and presses me hard against his chest. "Tell me why." I am talking into his work-shirt and taking in the dizzying aroma of sewing machine grease.

"I don't know, Alex,” he says somberly. "It was nothing, really. The kid said she was afraid to drive. I told her learning to drives was a snap. All I did was ask if she wanted to try. She said yes. We were in the parking lot for ten minutes at the most."

I try to wiggle away again, afraid that I’ll scratch out Donny’s beautiful hazel eyes. He holds me tighter as if to say, yes, do it if it’ll make you feel better. Hurt me back.

Maybe because of fear and the realization that I have no choice, I begin to picture the stupidity, even find innocence in Donny's act —that childish need of his to feel important. But I can’t forget that the incident occurred way past midnight, and that Colleen is in high school, and he might have been arrested and ruined all our lives.

Alex Pearl, suburban housewife 1974


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