Equinox by Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez
"Don't ever air your dirty laundry," said my mom, pointing at me with a carrot. We were in the kitchen, her favorite room, and she was stacking vegetables on my sandwich.
"Why not?" I said, resting my chin on the kitchen counter.
She bit into a celery stalk and gestured toward the neighbors' house. "Maggie Pie is such a gossip." Maggie Pie was her nickname for our neighbor. My mom was an ornithologist and one of her favorite pastimes was to come up with bird nicknames for each person she met. "I'll be outside working in the garden and she'll start airing her dirty laundry at me."
I was ten. I tried to follow her advice. What kind of family secrets were hiding behind that phrase, why it was so important for my mother to keep them secret—I’d no idea. I kept some secrets as well. Maybe because of my mom's saying, I never did tell them what happened with the blue bottle.
My parents had been living together for thirteen years. They'd met at AA. My father's fingers were those of a pianist. He would never kill a living thing. My mother wore long flowing skirts as if they were dresses, pulling the elastic high over her breasts, giving off the impression that she lived in ankle-deep water and didn't want her clothes to get in the way. On special occasions, she strapped a small belt around her waist.
She did this with a wine-red sash the day Stephanie came to visit. When Stephanie set the blue bottle of merlot on the table, the bottle took root. The table, made of glass, reflected the bottle back at you twice no matter what angle you looked from. I circled the whole table looking at it. After I was done eating, I crawled under the table to see if I could also see the bottle's reflection from below. But my jacket button latched onto Stephanie's boot, so that when I moved, I pulled her leg. She let out a little "oh" like a ghost.
Neither of my parents would touch the blue bottle or even refer to it with words. I had the sense that the slightest hand gesture toward it would mean betrayal. It stood between my parents, impervious, as if it had grown muscular vines, anchoring it. They wouldn't even offer Stephanie a bottle opener. She finally went searching for one herself and came back with a Swiss Army knife.
Stephanie broke the stalemate: she opened the bottle and drank half of it. "You're a handsome boy," she said, as she opened the Swiss Army knife's various arms and pierced the cork. "Do you think you'll grow a long beard like your father's when you grow up?"
Later, she cried a little, wiped her eyes on the white tablecloth, leaving black stains from her eyeliner. "Such an inspiration, such a, such an inspiration," she blurted. She was talking about my parents' love. Stephanie had tried to kiss my father the night of my parents' wedding. She'd run into the men's bathroom and tugged at his tie. Flopped the hem of her maid of honor dress over her shoulder to expose her freckled skin. But my father had said no. Walked out of the bathroom, his ears red.
From that moment on, Stephanie was in awe of my parents' love. She baby-sat me while my parents went out together. She though that some of their energy would stick if she spent enough time in the house.
"Don't open the door to strangers," my parents said, as they left. And don't air your dirty laundry, I thought.
My father had a fancy bottle collection. On his free days, he liked to rearrange them: one day by color, the next by size. He was compulsive in that way. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I'd wake up to go to the bathroom and find him inspecting his collection.
"What's happening?" I'd say.
"I can't sleep," he's say, stroking his beard.
"Me neither. I've been counting sheep since—“
"You're too old to believe in counting sheep." He always looked so sad at midnight. He massaged a bottle. He was impish and a little theatrical. He yearned. He looked embarrassed to be discovered counting his bottles. He wouldn't look me in the eye. He looked at my feet instead.
"You're not wearing socks," he observed. "Go to bed."
Later that same night, I heard noises from my parents room. I put on the socks balled near my pillow and walked to their bedroom. The door was ajar. The sounds became louder as I drew near, animal-like sounds. I thought my mom must be in pain. Then that sound disappeared and a lower, more guttural sound replaced it. I peeked into their bedroom, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw my mom kneeling in front of my dad. He was standing, holding her head between his legs. I'd felt scared and hadn't mentioned it the next day.
I found my mom inspecting his bottles one time when he was at work. "Just checking to see that everything is in order," she said. I heard her counting the bottles under her breath. I had the sense that they had some kind of bet going on between them regarding the bottles. Or a promise.
I wasn't sure why my mom was troubled by my father's bottle collection. She had a collection of her own. My mother's bottles were red and green and orange and purple and she'd had them cemented into the wall so that when the sun dropped to the horizon, light filtered into the room and cast colored shadows on the floor. I loved lying there when my parents weren't around and the sounds were peaceful through the half-open window. I liked pretending that chunks of my body really were different colors, that I was a chameleon.
I'd never seen my parents drink in my presence. Instead, they guarded their bottle collections zealously. I knew that as soon as Stephanie left, there was going to be trouble over the blue bottle. Stephanie would disappear around the front bushes, and my parents would pounce on the bottle. My mom would have blue on the wall. Or my dad would have a greater chance of falling asleep at night.
But that night, neither of them touched the bottle. Nor did they the next day or the next.They left it on the table, slightly off center, where Stephanie had left it.
A week after the dinner with Stephanie, I overheard my parents talking in the kitchen.
"We need to do something about that bottle," said my dad. He had a tiny pair of bathroom scissors in his hand and was pruning his beard in front of the kitchen's round mirror. Little reddish hairs fell into the sink.
"'We' as in 'me'?" asked my mom. She looked ready to battle the blackberry bushes taking over the garden. She had on thick, elbow-length garden gloves, and knee pads under her skirt. "I have to do something about it?"
"I just mean that it's a public hazard. I mean, it's glass. Dane could break it or—"
"Or what? Why don't you just pour it down the sink if it bothers you so much. Don't be such a delicate pansy." My mom often called my dad a delicate pansy but usually in a quite different tone.
"I'm not going to go back on my word," said my dad. "I said I wouldn't touch it."
"You could put it in your precious cabinet," she said, "along with the rest of your collection."
"What are you insinuating?" said my dad, looking at my mom through the mirror. "Those bottles are all pre-AA."
"Your face is pre-AA," said my mom, rummaging in the plier cabinet. "The way you snore, your ugly tight shorts are pre-AA." She held up a pair of hedge clippers, triumphantly. She turned to face my dad, opening and closing the hedge clippers as she talked. "Everything, the way the bottle is off-center, just a couple of inches toward the window—it's driving me crazy. Why don't you just pour the damn thing and be done with it?"
I couldn't stand it any longer. I marched into the room, slamming my feet on the hardwood floor with each stomp. "The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah," I said, loud enough to cover up their voices.
"Dane, be quiet," said my dad. "We're having a conversation."
"Dad," I said, keeping my distance. "Could I have some money for a school project?" My parents did not believe in exposing children to the world of money. I had to get them now, when they were sufficiently distracted.
"What kind of project do you need money for?" said my dad. I needed Styrofoam and pins and insects that were hard to get. I didn't want to get into details. A month ago I'd told my parents I wanted to be an entomologist when I grew up. It seemed to go well. They told me they were proud. They hugged each other. I wanted to surprise them.
"There's plenty of things around the house and yard," said my dad, "that you could supplement—"
"Dane, come here," said my mom. "I have a favor to ask you." My mother's voice had changed drastically. It dripped sweet, honey-coated. It scared me that a person could change so much in a matter of seconds.
"What are you going to ask him to do?" said my dad, twitching his whiskers like a nervous cat. "It better not—"
"Little sparrow," my mom said to me. "Could you fetch that bottle for me and pour it into the sink?"
I looked out of the square window above the door. Outside, the world was a magical place and a bird sang. I slammed the door behind me as I left. I could still hear their voices, now muffled as if someone were pressing a pillow against their faces. Behind the bushes, out of sight, I knelt and dug my hands into the ground. I was going to build a hole where neither would ever find me. I pushed a log off the leaf-matted ground, disrupting a cricket and three slugs.
I knew some middle-school kids who tripped Robitussin behind the school, under the bushes by the river. My parents didn't want me to hang out with them. There'd even been talk of switching schools after this year was over.
I needed money for my insects. There was this one kid, Jared, who I thought I could approach because he wouldn't tell on me, but he was dangerous to associate with. My grade was afraid of him. Last year he'd punched a younger kid who'd called him a faggot and stuffed a hunk of dirt into the kid's mouth. The kid had bled and cried and said that he didn't even know what the word meant.
I also wasn't sure how I could get Jared the wine without my parents noticing.
The house creaked in a patternless way. Not footsteps. Sunlight made a rectangle of orange light on the wall. My parents were not there to disturb the light, to send it scattering with their unreliable voices.
I needed an implement, a container with which to proceed. The stuff in the kitchen was out of the question. Bowls, plates, and Tupperware were my dad's domain and he counted everything and left everything just so. I had to resort to my mother's: the piles of jumbled objects in cardboard boxes under the sink and in the low cupboard.
I stuck my hand under the sink and rummaged around. It was dirty in a sticky way and smelled of mold, and I did not want to put my head in there. My fingers rummaged through pliers and hedge clippers and landed on a plastic cylinder. I brought it out. It was a syringe. I washed it in the sink and stuck it in my pocket.
The next day, during recess, I slipped through the gap under the schoolyard wall, and came out on my hands and knees as if emerging from a trench. I was wearing my mom's old pink sweater and got momentarily caught in a barbed wire. Under a crop of firs, I found Jared. He was on his knees, kneading the needles of the fir, digging at the crusted ground. He put something in the hole and covered it. Then he saw me looking.
"What are you looking at?" he said. A folded red bandana pressed his bangs against his forehead. He scowled and motioned for me to approach. I hesitated.
"Come on!" he said.
He was still kneeling. I felt good about this. Jared was much taller and I was a little scared of him.
"Why the fuck are you wearing those pussy clothes for?" he said. I froze. He cleared his throat and spat on the ground. "Where is it anyway?"
I showed him the syringe.
"Put it in my mouth," he said. I did. I approached him and put the syringe into his mouth. Then I pushed the white lever and the wine slid out. His lips sucked on the syringe and I could see his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallowed.
I felt excited. It felt good to give Jared my parents' wine. To be taller than Jared. To feel Jared's tugs on the syringe as he sucked. I felt like going swimming with him right then.
My parents didn't catch on to my secret business. I'd gotten most of the way down the bottle. Then the disaster happened. Usually I brought the bottle to my room and did it there, but my mom was taking advantage of the Indian summer to paint flowers alongside the dinosaurs on my wall because she though the design was too gender normative.
So I brought the bottle to my parents' bedroom instead. I was always too nervous to do it in the kitchen because it was so near the front door. What if my dad came back just at that moment? The wine sloshed as I clambered onto the queen bed. Someone had pulled the comforter all the way back, exposing the white sheets. I should have known it was a bad idea. But I hadn't anticipated the flies.
There were a lot of flies inside because my mom had left all the doors open to get rid of the paint fumes. Two had followed me into the room even though I'd closed the door behind me.
I put the wine bottle between my knees, and holding the neck down with both hands, I pulled the cork out with my teeth. I'd done this many times—there was a dent there that my parents hadn't noticed. I took the syringe from my pocket and tilted the wine bottle, enough so that I could pull the liquid into the syringe with my right hand.
The fly posed on my hand.
It startled me. The syringe went flying and the bottle tilted over.
I snatched the bottle, too late. Wine seeped into and across the sheets, staining them a deep magenta. I stood very still and listened for the door, but all I could hear were my mother's thumping strokes as she attacked the edges of the wall with the paintbrush.
I stuck the cork back into the bottle. I untucked the sheets from each corner and gathered them in a ball. To my horror, the wine had sunk through the sheets and a large stain was spreading on the mattress. I dabbed at it with the rolled up sheets. I pulled new sheets out of the dresser and made the bed, then took the stained sheets to the bathroom. The hamper was hidden under an enormous pile of dirty laundry. My mom did laundry every other month. My parents didn't mind the musk—my dad said it smelled like decomposing leaves. When I complained about the smell, he said, "Here, wear these," taking a handful of my mom's childhood clothes. "I don't know why she keeps these here anyway. It's not like you're going to have a sister out of the blue. There's no point keeping them in the closet."
I made a hole in the mountain of clothes, stuffed the stained sheets inside, then covered them with a baggy green sweatshirt.
In my dream that night, my mother's voice came over the water: "It's open. Our son is coming, he's coming. To ruin. He's bringing the ship down." I saw the ship coming across the water toward me. Strapped to the prow was a bust of a siren. No, my mother, naked, lugging seaweed. Her hair and breasts turned to wood. I brought the bottle down on her as she passed.
I woke with my hair pasted to my forehead. I slid off my bed. When I was younger, my parents had let me into their room whenever I had nightmares. I walked through the dark house, feeling my way along the walls. A corner of the roof creaked. Maybe they would let me sleep between them, even though it had been years since I'd done that. I needed to make sure my mom was okay.
Their door was open. I could see the lump of the bed, but it was very dark in their room. I could hear my mom's voice. I stood on the threshold, relieved to hear it.
"You say that as if it's part of his identity," my mom said. "Dane is a lonely child."
"I mean," said my dad, "I've tried to approach him. But he's as skittish as a colt." They weren't whispering, but my dad's voice was coming from the opposite end of the room. Sometimes his back would hurt and he'd take out the inflatable mattress he kept propped up behind the door and sleep on the floor. He said it helped him sleep.
I could hear my mom twist in the sheets. "It's hard to get a straight word out of him," she said. "God! Sometimes—"
"Does he hate us?" my dad interrupted, feebly. I could tell by his voice that his back must really hurt. I wanted to go in and throw my arm around his shoulder.
"He must hate us," said my dad.
"He's too young," said my mom. Then, in a change of tone, as if trying to brush it off: "Anyway, he probably shouldn't wield so much power."
"He'll probably grow into a disturbed human being," said my dad. For a second, no one said anything. Then, reproachfully, as if correcting something my mom had said, my dad said, "It's not his fault."
"It's not my fault," said my mom. I shrunk back. I could see her now, straight-backed against the bed's headboard.
"It's how we raised him," said my dad. "What could we have done differently?"
"Nothing," said my mom, flatly. "I wanted him to have two parents, did you? Didn't you?"
"A complete family."
"You sound so sarcastic. We still gave that to him."
"But it's been hard, Lisa," said my dad. "Sticking it out."
"Why? Is the mattress too hard?" said my mom. I heard a chuckle coming from the direction of the bed, then a sigh. I was getting creeped out. What if that was the mattress chuckling? I could see my mom, triumphant, on a chuckling mattress. My dad, several feet below.
"He isn't ungrateful, is he?" said my dad.
"At least he likes nature," said my mom. "That's good—we've encouraged him in that respect."
"But now he's been killing bugs," said my dad. "It's like he's taking out his unhappiness on nature instead."
"Is he unhappy?" asked my mom, surprised. "He seems fine to me."
"Have you asked him?"
"He's ten years old! Why don't you ask him if you think that's a good idea?"
"I don't know how to ask. I bet it's someone else's fault."
I couldn't follow their conversation. It didn't make any sense. Maybe these weren't my parents at all. These were some impostors, lying on my parents' bed, imitating their voices. I ran back to bed and covered my head with my blanket, tunneling deep, deep underground.
The next morning, my mom and I sat at the table for breakfast. I could hear the scrape-scrape as her knife grazed the piece of toast she was buttering.
"Where's dad?" I asked.
My mom stopped buttering. My mom could only do one thing at a time. "Oh," she said. "He just went to get supplies for the party this afternoon."
"What party?" I asked.
"Fall equinox," my mom said, resuming her buttering. "Didn't your dad remind you it was today?"
I shook my head, munching on my cereal.
"It's his favorite holiday," said my mom. "I prefer solstice, personally."
She bit into her toast. She chewed for a few seconds, then she got up and walked toward the sink behind me. After several minutes of silence, I turned around. My mom was staring out the window. She noticed me looking.
"I forgot what I came here to get," she said. Her face reddened. She opened her mouth again as if she were going to say something. Then she closed it.
"Dane," she said. "If dad doesn't come back today, don't worry about it, okay?"
"What?" I asked. The cereal felt soggy in my mouth.
My mom came over to the table and held my hands. "Remember that bottle of wine that was on the table?" she said. "Your dad has been drinking most of it. I told him this morning and he looked a little angry. I told him that maybe he should go back to AA, just in case. Then he left."
My mom was looking intently at my face. I looked out the kitchen window. I wondered how many bugs lived beneath our house.
"Turtledove," said my mom, squeezing my hand. "He'll probably be back soon. He just needs to think a few things over. Realize that his actions have consequences sometimes."
I turned to face my mom. "Can I skip school today?" I asked.
"Of course," said my mom, hugging me toward her. My parents didn't believe in school anyway.
At the party, Stephanie said, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" We were outside on the porch. The bushes were decorated with crisscrossing ribbons and the guests milled around the tables that had been set out in the front lawn. It had rained last night and the grass was lush. Brown leaves curled under the gutter like tiny fists. Boot heels sunk in the wet ground and came out with a suction sound, dragging mud behind them.
"He's going to be a scientist," said my mom. She and Stephanie sat on the porch in the white garden chairs. "Right, honey?" She kissed my hair. "Dane, go to your room and get your insect collection." She turned to Stephanie. "It's a school project. He's displaying them in a fancy box! Just wait until you see it."
I leaned into my mom, dismayed. "You saw it already?"
"When I was cleaning your room."
I didn't want to go upstairs. I could see Peggy, the local blues player, in her faded jean jacket, strumming on a guitar under the lilac bush. A handful of couples were swaying to her music, clutching each others shirts. Our neighbor Bob talked to Peggy's husband about the pros and cons of mowing your lawn, as his plump hand followed its own agenda in a bowl of kale chips.
"What are you going to be when you grow up?" I said to Stephanie. She laughed, tossing her hair slightly. She was so different from my parents' other friends. She wore white heels and her legs were smooth. All of her movements were contained. I even liked her coppery hair, though my mom had made fun of it when Stephanie wasn't around, because "it wasn't her real color." Stephanie looked into my eyes.
"Hey, Dane," she said conspiratorially. "What kinds of bugs do you collect?"
I ran up the staircase, excited to show Stephanie my collection. But it wasn't ready. I wanted to turn back time, to a moment when my mom hadn't seen it. The way she said it so casually at a party. I wanted to lie on my bed and not come back down. My insect collection had lost all its value. Why did she have to go nosing around my room? If it was a secret 'till I was done with it, it would be perfect and good, like injecting wine into Jared's mouth.
Air seeped through the screen door, making the house cold. Light fell from the window halfway up the stairs: first a pale beacon I climbed toward, then a spotlight shining on my back. My shadow fell in front of me. I retrieved my insect collection from under the bed. Where could I have hidden it so that my mother wouldn't have found it?
I was passing by my parents' bedroom when my dad motioned me over from inside. "Dane," he said in a whisper. "Come in the bedroom for a second."
"Why are you whispering?" I said. We were the only two people in the house.
I left my insect collection leaning against the wall outside my parents' room and I entered. I didn't want my dad to see it yet. My dad was sitting on the bed, holding a wooden chest in his lap.
"What's in there?" I said.
"This is your mom's greatest secret," said my dad. Immediately, my interest was piqued. "She'd never show it to you because she thinks it would freak you out." My dad laughed softly. "Isn't it funny," he said, "that your mother has secrets? Don't you think that's strange? She doesn't seem like she'd be capable of it, does she, Dane."
I didn't understand what he was trying to say. It sounded like code, though I sensed there was something he wanted me to learn from this conversation.
I was starting to feel unsettled. I paused at the end of the bed, leaning against the mattress. I thought I saw the sheets on the bed and panicked, thinking that maybe I forgot to hide them away after all. But no, they were rolled up in the laundry basket. My heart thumped loudly, then settled. It would take my mother ages to do laundry, and by that time, this thundercloud tension in the house might have completely blown away.
My dad was smiling. "Do you want to know what's inside, Dane?"
My heart started pounding again. A secret.
"You have to promise me you won't ever tell your mom that I showed it to you."
I nodded, my eyes still on the chest.
"Is it a treasure?" I asked.
"Your mom thinks it is," said my dad, giving that same little bell-like laugh.
I reached for the lid, but my dad placed his long, slender hands on top of mine. For a second, I thought he'd changed his mind. I looked up at him, confused. There was a determined look on his face that made me scared.
And something else: he had cut off his mustache. His beard was still there, but where his red mustache used to be his face was smooth. His beard seemed to float on thin air, to be completely disconnected from his face. I could tell he had carefully combed it, here in the bedroom while my mom entertained the guests outside. Something about that felt slimy. I slithered to the floor. He looked like a stranger.
"Why did you cut your mustache?" I wanted to say. But I was afraid to. I was afraid that he would get angry at me. My father had always been a gentle man, but this man didn't look like my father at all. I could see his naked upper lip and it looked like a lip that could get angry. I wondered if my father had been angry all along but in a quiet, waiting kind of way, a way that could be covered by a mustache. Then I wondered if my real father was outside with my mom and the guests, that that, not this, was my gentle daddy.
"Sit up, Dane," said the man. I did, by the force of the command. "You have to promise me that you will never in your life tell your mother about this."
I was scared to make a promise to this man, scared not to. "Daddy---" I said.
"I promise," I said. He lifted his hands off of the lid. The picture on the depicted a snake eating an elephant. I opened the lid. Inside something was coiled. I screamed and the lid bounced off my hands. I scrambled across the room.
"Dane," said my dad. He sighed. "Come back here." The chest was wide open and whatever was inside there could have gotten out, but my dad held the box in his arms, unmoving. I went next to him. "Daddy," I said again, pleading, looking into his eyes, not daring to look inside the box. He did not place a hand around my shoulder. He did not give me a kind smile or anything. He held on to the box.
"It won't hurt you, Dane," he said. He sounded a little impatient. "Just look." I looked. Inside, something coiled and dark.
"Do you know what that is?" asked my dad.
I shook my head. "Is it dead?" I asked. "Is it a dead snake?"
My dad laughed, this time from the pit of his stomach. I felt strangely comforted.
"Not at all! It's called a placenta. It was attached to your belly button when you were born."
Attached to me? I thought. I was horrified. I wanted to cry. I gripped my father's shirt, twisted it in my small fist. There was a part of me dead in that box.
"They cut it after you were born."
Because I was disfigured. I thought. They cut me because I was a monster.
My dad leaned toward me and whispered, "It came from inside your mother."
A shudder went through my body. Outside, someone laughed. My dad slammed the lid shut.
"Okay!" he said, in a completely normal tone of voice. "Time to get some cake!"
This was what we had in common: we loved the woods. They were dense behind the house and the tree branches hung like braids. My father called the large oak tree in our backyard "Grace." We would go from tree to tree, calling out their names. All three of us, we took turns. Sometimes, in the spring, it would rain for days. In the fall, it was like that with the leaves. We would sit with the couch pulled close to the window and watch them fall in a constant trickle. My father would run through the house, making our names echo against the dark wood walls, saying, "It's time for the fall from Grace." We would sit on the couch and watch the oak, while I absent-mindedly pulled a loose thread from the cushion.
When I was seven, my father used to take me to the woods. I'd say, "Mom, we're going on an ornithological expedition." She'd laugh because I was too young to be using such big words. My dad and I would take the boom box with large batteries into the woods where the leaves were yellow and falling and we'd listen to Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
"How do you think you're going to see any birds," my mom would say, "if you're making such a racket?"
Outside, Stephanie was leaning in toward my dad, showing him the tattoo on her wrist. She had a hand on his shoulder—she didn't seem disturbed by the mustache's disappearance. I showed her my insect collection. "It's not finished yet." I turned my back toward my dad, trying to keep the bugs hidden from him. It was a fierce, last hope. If I could let the surprise build—but he had seen.
"What do we have here?" he said. He pulled the board out of my hand.
"Look, everyone!" he said, holding the board of insects up. "Dane's going to be a serial killer when he grows up." His face floated above his beard. It wasn't just the bare lip, I noticed now. Something was wrong with his eyes. They seems to look at me through a fog. "Right, Dane?"
"Shut up, Michael," said my mom, coming across the lawn with a glass of sparkling cider.
"He's already doing it—look!" said my dad, holding up the box. "Each one of these insects," he gave one of the insects a pinch and a jiggle, "he killed himself! He wanted to make sure they were killed properly. He's turned death into some kind of aesthetic experience."
My mom protested.
"You know what?" said my dad. He swiveled in his chair and looked at mom directly in the eye. "I didn't tell you, did I. I ran into Freddy's mom today. She told me something very interesting about Dane. She said that he's been selling wine at school with a syringe." My dad smiled triumphantly. "Told you he's fucked."
"And you believed her just like that?"
"No. I didn't believe her—but I found this under the sink." My dad slipped his pianist fingers into his tweed coat pocket and brought out the syringe. He pushed it under my mom's nose. "Smell that. It still smells like wine."
My mom tugged at her hair, pulled it across her face as if shutting a curtain.
"Mighty education we gave him," said my dad. "Remember when we used to say we wanted to raise our kid in a commune so that he wouldn't have two parents but many? That's the level of responsibility we wanted. Look at him! It looks as if he was raised by wolves."
I could feel my mom looking at me from behind the curtain of hair. She tugged at my shirt sleeves, which almost reached my elbow.
"I talked to Mrs. Mills today," she said. The sound of her voice was low and guttural, like a growling dog. "She says she's concerned by Dane's feminine behavior. I told her not to worry, that it's just that his dad is a faggot."
My dad's face was red. My blue desk had been pushed against the outside wall of the house. He put a foot on my desk and hoisted himself up, wobbling uncertainly. That desk had always had a shorter leg. "He's fucked up!" my dad shouted onto the front lawn at the mingling crowd.
I turned to see my mom's reaction, but she had fled. All I saw was the screen door banging shut.
The guests had gone quiet and were trying not to stare. Peggy held her left hand on the chord she'd been playing, but she'd stopped strumming. Someone's mutt ran under our porch and started barking from under the floorboards. I felt small beside my towering father. I had to crane my neck to see his face above the beard. I felt the eyes of all the guests on me and I wanted to run off, to go wherever my mom had gone.
My dad was chuckling a little to himself as he tried to maintain his balance on the table. He ruffled my hair.
I heard the sound of wood banging against wood coming from above the porch. Everyone on the lawn turned to follow the sound.
"What's that racket?" shouted my dad.
I stepped out onto the lawn. I looked up.
My mother was at the window. For a split second, I thought, She's going to hoist herself up and roll down the roof.
Instead, she stuffed something out the window. A sheet fell from the sky, a wine-red stain ballooning in the air. The crowd moved out of the way and watched the sheet land on a rose bush. The sheet collapsed and deflated and I remember thinking how anti-climactic it all was.
I turned around and ran. At first I didn't know where I was going, then it became obvious. I ran past the yellow trees, over matted lawns still green but crusted in ice. Fall and winter had come at the same time that year, were battling it out. When I tired of running, I jumped into the river. It was ice cold and the current was swift. Behind me, I could hear shouting receding in the distance. I would run away, they would never find me.
I didn't need to swim—the current took me. I paddled to stay above water. I reached the school quicker than I'd expected. I saw the building and was past it before I could turn for the shore. Swept along by the current, I couldn't grab a clump of the long grasses that grew by the shore. Then I caught a black branch jutting out of the water. I pulled myself out and the cold air hit me. Shivering, I clambered back through the path in the woods.
The school was dark and empty. It looked haunted. I fell to my knees under the pine and started scratching at the crusted needles, scraping them away. My fingers were shaking. I couldn't break the thin film of ice that had formed on the ground.
I grabbed a sharp rock and pounded on the ice. Little by little, I started making a dent, then a hole. The ground got softer the deeper I went. How did squirrels ever find their acorns? I knew it was there, I saw him put it there, and yet---and then I found it. A tiny toy car covered in mud. I stared at it on my palm.
Infuriated, I threw it against the tree trunk and started to cry. Why would Jared care so much about a toy car that he'd hide it under the ground? What did it mean to him? I was filled with jealousy over the car. I was filled with jealousy and fear over the umbilical cord. The world was infinitely mysterious and flawed.
I heard voices above the roar of the current. I looked up. I saw flashlights bobbing over the dark bushes. Those scampering yellow lights looked happy. Why did I care so much about my insect collection, about making it perfect? I was soaked through. My body felt heavy. I would abandon myself to the first set of arms that reached me. I would let anyone carry me back home and lay me out on any mattress.