Today's Reading

I closed my eyes and wished for a time machine so I could go back to just last year, when my parents still talked to each other. If I could just pinpoint that moment right before everything went wrong, I could fix it somehow and prevent this day from ever happening. Maybe I'd show them the forgotten box of Kodachrome slides in the basement, the evidence that they loved each other once. When I first held the paper squares to the sunlight, I'd discovered that Mom's face was once full of laughter, and she used to wear short dresses and shiny white boots and smoke her cigarettes through a long stick like a movie star. She still had the same short boy haircut, but it was a brighter shade of red then, and her eyes seemed more emerald. In every slide Mom was smiling or winking over her shoulder at Dad. He took the photos not long after he'd spotted her registering for classes at Monterey Peninsula College, and invited her for a drive down the coast to Big Sur.

He'd recognized her from a few summer parties. She had been the one with the loud laugh, the funny one with a natural audience always in tow. He noticed how easily she flowed in a crowd of strangers, which drew my quiet father out of the corners. He was raised never to speak unless spoken to, and liked to study people before deciding to talk to them. This made him slightly mysterious to my mother, who was drawn by the challenge of getting the tall stranger with the dramatic widow's peak and smoky eyes to open up. When he told her his plan to join the navy and travel abroad after college, Mom, who had never been outside California, was sold.

They married in 1966, and within four years the navy relocated them to Newport, Rhode Island, where Matthew and I were born. After his service, Dad worked as an electrical engineer, making machines that calibrated other machines. Mom took us on strolls to the butcher and the grocery store, and made sure dinner was on the table at five. On the outside, our lives seemed neat, organized, on track. We lived in a wood-shingled row apartment, and my brother and I had our own rooms on the second floor, connected by a trail of Lincoln Logs and Lite-Brite pins and gobs of Play-Doh dropped where we'd last used them. Dad installed a swing on the front porch, and we played with the neighbor kids who lived in the three identical homes attached to ours. On weekend mornings, Dad came into my room and we identified clouds as they passed my bedroom window, pointing out the dinosaurs and mushrooms and flying saucers. Before going to sleep, he read to me from Grimm's Fairy Tales, and even though every story ended in a violent death of some kind, he never said I was too little to hear such things.

It seemed like we were happy, but my parents' marriage was already curdling.

I imagine they tried at first to manage their squabbles, but eventually their disagreements multiplied and spread like a cancer until they had trapped themselves inside one big argument. Now Mom's shouting routinely pierced the walls we shared with the neighbors, so their problems had undoubtedly become public.

I opened my eyes and saw Mom standing there in position, ready to throw the pot of American chop suey. Their threats arrowed back and forth, back and forth, his restrained monotone mixing with her rising falsetto until their words blended into a high-pitched ringing in my ears. I tried to make it go away by softly humming "Yellow Submarine." It's the song Dad and I sang together with wooden spoons as our microphones. Back when music filled our house. Dad recorded every Beatles song off the radio or vinyl records onto spools of tape, which he kept in bone-colored plastic cases on the bookshelf, lined up like teeth. He listened to tapes on his reel-to-reel player, and lately he preferred "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," the one about the man who bludgeoned his enemies to death, blasting it from the living room until Mom inevitably told him to turn that racket down.

I was somewhere in the second verse when I saw her lift her arm, and the pot handle released from her palm seemingly in slow motion. Dad ducked, and our leftover dinner flashed through the air and slapped into the wall, where it slid down, leaving a slick behind as it pooled with the peppercorns on the floor. Dad picked the pot up from near his foot and stood, his whole body quivering with silent rage. He dropped the pot onto the table with a loud thud, not even bothering to put it on a hot plate like he was supposed to.

Matthew was wailing now, lifting his arms to be picked up, and Mom went to him, as if nothing had just happened. She bounced Matthew, shushing softly into his ear, her back to Dad and me. Dad turned on his heel and escaped to the attic, where he would spend the night tapping out Morse code on his ham radio in conversation with polite strangers.

I didn't bother asking permission to leave the dinner table. I made a run for the staircase, two-stepped it up to my room and slammed the door. I pulled my Flintstones bedspread off and dragged it under my bouncy horse. It was a plastic horse held aloft by four coiled springs—one on each leg attached to a metal frame. I put my feet under its felt belly, and pushed it up and down until I'd established a soothing rhythm. I curtained my eyes with my shoulder-length hair, blotting out reality so that I could almost believe that I was safe inside a yellow submarine, below the surface, alone, and so far down I couldn't hear any voices at all.

Although I didn't understand why my parents fought so much, deep down I understood that something significant was shifting inside our house. Dad had stopped using his words, and Mom had started using too many. I tried to make sense of it by gleaning bits of information I overheard whenever my godmother, Betty, dropped by while Dad was at work. Mom and Betty would sit on the couch and talk about all sorts of things while Betty would play with my hair. Matthew would go down for his nap, and I'd sit on the carpet between their legs where Betty could reach down and absentmindedly wind long strands of my brown hair around her fingers. She'd twist my locks into knotted snakes and then let it unfurl, over and over, while she and Mom worked out their problems. She'd coil my hair tight, then release. Twist, tug, release. Twist, tug, release. It felt like getting a deep itch scratched, a tingling scalp massage that could go on as long as it took them to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes.

They talked the afternoons away, and I stayed so quiet that they forgot about me and got to discussing things I probably shouldn't have heard.

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