This is about me, so let’s start with “I.”
People say my eyes are beautiful. Even as a child, with hollow rings beneath my hazel green eyes; even as a teenager with eruptions of volcanic acne; even as an adult, with exhaustion and motherhood; people always comment on my eyes.
They’re doing the same with my daughter now. She is two. When you have a baby, you make many silent wishes. Pennies, birthday candles, wishbones, 11:11 on the clock.
I wish for a night where sleep encumbers me.
Where the hauntings don’t last beyond my REM.
Not the band, you understand.
Anyway they haven’t had a hit in a while. Neither have I.
I remember pulling out the cassette of R.E.M.’s Out of Time album from my cousin’s suitcase when she visited. She was three years older and knew of such things like music and boys. And also love and safety.
She asked why we had a rusting grocery cart in our living room.
Next to the big A&P on Central Avenue was the A&P liquor store. Our Civic hatchback idled while my father went in and came out with clinking things in brown paper bags.
I don’t remember when the grocery cart got there, but it felt like it’d always been part of the furniture. Today, I think of a grocery cart as the epitome in domestic tools; child in front, boxed mac and bananas in the back.
When I was ten, we adopted two orange tabby cats. That was a bad idea. The life already in the apartment was unsustainable. When one of the cats pissed on the mauve and cream sofa, my father threw the cats against the wall. Thud. I heard it, but didn’t see it. Thud. There went the second one. I was in the hallway waiting for the elevator. The slick black garbage bag my father carried out drooped, heavy in the middle with the soft tabby corpses. You weren’t allowed to have pets in the building. It never ended up being a problem.
I could never find the exact spot where the kittens hit the wall. I’d stand on the back of the couch and place my cheek on the cold walls to try to feel their ghosts. I’m not sure what I was expecting. A phantom mewling? An indentation? Blood? Small fibers of orange fur matted into the paint? The walls were still white.
In high school, my bedroom walls were covered in Mylar balloons, Absolut vodka ads, and cut out images of George Clooney. In school, when it was someone’s birthday, friends chipped in to buy a bouquet of balloons for the birthday girl. They were tied to a binder or backpack and followed them throughout their day, buoyant and shiny. Sometimes I went to the stationery store by the Carvel and bought myself some.
“Someone’s special day?” I was asked when I entered the ice cream shop to get a soft-serve vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles, balloons trailing me. I nodded. Ate the cone before it could melt. When the balloons deflated, I taped them to my walls and ceiling. Sometimes I popped them myself, early—stuck a pin in them, sucked the helium and talked to myself. In a squeaky chemical voice, I’d lie on my bed and read the messages on the balloons out loud Happy Birthday! Sweet Sixteen! Celebrate!
I’d fall asleep staring at the balloons that were not gifts. Maybe it’d be a Tuesday, so my father would come in. Or a Wednesday or Friday or any old day, actually.
Sleep was a thing to be interrupted. Elusive at eight, at twelve, at sixteen, and now twenty years later, I never found the map. Never received the keys. I was always tired.
When I was in kindergarten, a neighbor who cackled at my mother’s crippled gait, glued the lock of our apartment door. We had to call the police.
Usually we were not the ones to call the police. That was the neighbors—the ones who did not glue our locks. The ones who wondered about the ragamuffin kids in apartment 6F. The ones who heard dull mallet-sounds on the walls and didn’t think: fireworks. The ones who heard my ten-year-old soprano cries through the walls and knew it wasn’t the T.V.
Our front door was made of steel. From what I recall, at least three inches thick. In so many nightmares so many monsters tried to get past that door and were unsuccessful.
But really, it was the monster on the other side—the same side as me—that I needed to escape from but, that too, was unsuccessful.
I live in a house now. Front door, back door, garage door, so many windows. So many ways in, I fear. But also, so many ways out. If I had to.
We are leaving an event with Daniel Tiger, a character out of Mister Rogers, who now has his own hit TV show. Big with the tykes. Big with my own tyke. As we are leaving, we are given balloons. My daughter takes them and bounces them around and turns to me and says “You should have these.” When I ask why, she says that she loves me.
When we get home, I carefully and successfully transfer my sleeping daughter to the couch. I set the balloons down, weighted as they are by small disks in the shape of hearts. I hear a thud, it is our cat, Cleo, jumping off her perch on my dresser. Down the seven stairs, and meows at the sight of us. She notices the balloons and with slow feline strides, she bats at the white string attached the balloons. She is playful. She is safe. I look to my sleeping girl on the couch, now curled up, a small dollop of drool staining the couch below her open lips. She too, is safe.
She is almost three. More birthday wishes and balloons headed our way.
I’m happy and don’t wish for much more than this.
Kristy Lee, in fifth grade said I had cat eyes. Stealthy on my feet, I think of that often. I could swipe at any time, scratch thin but burning marks into your face. But pet me softly and scratch my ears and I’ll rub against you.