This is by Christen Noel
There’s a wrong way to leave a husband. A bag with clothes for one night. Half a tank of gas. A man crying on the floor.
Snow concealed the ground, abandoned breath cemented in the empty space of the doorframe. The car was in the garage, but front doors prove better exits; even now I wouldn’t change the way the door quietly shut, the tongue of lock sliding into the tongue shaped hole as it closed. The soft sound. The brush of steel and the sanded wood. Barely an echo in the cul-de-sac. A circular dead end, the symmetry of going back the way I came.
In summer we take new names, make wild calls to the honeysuckle, and live in mulberry trees confined by the chain-linked fence. Jesus loves you written on a Ping-Pong paddle. Blue fly swatter testifies to bare legs and jelly shoes.
I am fighting with the crawdads, smearing their inch-mud dresses on the cuff of my shorts when Dad gets home from work. This is when we hide in forts. This is when we sail with Pan to back corners of the yard where robins lay their eggs in wait. It’s time to come in, we hear. My brother and sister move first. I take the long way, past the sycamore where a Michelin tire swings from a rope. The sandbox is filled again with rubber snakes and small cars buried like dogs. It takes time to travel the distance of a game. What took so long? When I say come, you come.
These are words I know.
He is holding a torn kite, its tattered tail limp to the floor. Other things are scattered: A pink fairy doll with wings that move, a dinosaur missing scales, jacks separated from their ball.
What happened to the kite, I ask.
Why do you kids leave your stuff on the floor? When will you learn to do what I say?
The kite is tossed in the trash with a dinosaur and doll. My brother cries first. He is small. Then my sister. She’s afraid to let him hear her; she puts the floral pillow to her mouth. Thistles, violet blooms nestled in thorned leaves, touch the tip of her nose and disappear into tight seams. I am last. It takes me longer to feel things, to let it rise from my toes, into my knees, up through my chest, and then finally let it spill on my face like milk. He doesn’t like it when we cry.
In the next room, his voice grows like cancer. It spreads to the kitchen and climbs up the stairs. It pounds against the windows, but no one lets it out. We hear him throw a book against a chair. We hear him slam his fist on the desk. We hear him yell for kids he wants to have. The kind who pick things up and listen when he calls.
These are things I know: Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about. Stop acting like children.
When Dad comes home, this is when we play in our rooms. This is when we turn sheets into tents, build campfires from flashlights, Barbie dolls placed in a pile like logs. Cotton balls roast on open flames, allowing two women and a man the key to survive a harsh Alaskan wind.
There’s a wrong way to love someone. Slumped in lazy boy-silence hinged on the clink of a bottle.
I was locked in the basement with him. Spinning wheels in ruts made of paystubs and pools of Skyy. His voice growled like closed fists and seeped deep into the rind. Beer cans couple with walls; my name the sound of cunt. Stripped to the thighbone high in an empty room. This is where we sleep. No sound. Mortarless bricks in the bed.
In autumn, we make homes in piles of maple leaves. At the foot of our grandmother’s porch we migrate with crows from clothesline to telephone poles sunk down into the earth. I am tracing rings of the woolly worm when Dad calls my name.
People want to hear me sing. A big voice caught in the chest of a girl, he taught me from the piano, taught me to squeeze the glue that binds the broken vase. You sound like your dad, they say, and he’s promised me to them. But I am lost in worms and candied handlebars. Bubbles shifting shape and size in flight. There’s no time for singing now.
This is how he shows me I am loved.
He takes me to the room; a patchwork quilt spreads its color onto the bed. His sleeves roll back with work. I remove my grass-stained jeans; Care Bear panties pulled down past my knees. Then the familiar smack of his hand, the hard claps of the things I learn.
You have too much will, Dad says.
We do this every day.
This time, we return to the room where the waiting wish they were deaf. I can see their faces sink like the poles, thoughts hidden in the folds of their chins. I pretend I am somewhere else. Rolling in the tall grass behind the shed where I once saw the head of a possum abandoned by a neighbor’s tabby cat. I could tell by his smile he’d fought until the end.
When the tears are gone, I sing whenever he asks.
There’s a time to burn white flags.
A decade of tree frogs calling from the screen door, their answers returned from the field behind the house. There are memories that descale us like fish before the plate. I hold them in my shoes, in the crease of an arm, in the lines of a palm and the ways I hear my own name.
When I finally find home in winter, my dad is there. He holds me in the kitchen like I am a child – let’s me cry down the stripes of his shirt. Why didn’t you leave sooner, he asks. Why didn’t you know you could leave him?
I don’t know the answer. I’m lost in the way it feels to be real, to be held.
This is the tall grass behind the shed. This is the tent made of sheets, but I still feel the loss of the kite. The weight of its pull in my hands.
Christen Noel is currently a MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University where she also teaches and works as an associate editor for Passages North. Most recently her work can be found in The Rumpus, Appalachian Heritage, and Word Riot.