by Cyndy Muscatel
The wind lashed against the French doors in her living room, whistling through the cracks. The sound was her companion. She sat in the dark, sipping hot chocolate. It was nothing new, her insomnia. The only variant in the ritual was the choice of beverage. Until recently, it had been scotch.
A psychic healer once told her she fought sleep, that she considered it a waste of time. Olivia had been impressed the man knew she didn’t sleep well. But he was wrong. She liked to sleep and to dream. Unless her dreams were nightmares of helicopters breaking up and spilling its G.I. Joe-like figures helter-skelter through the air.
She shook her head, trying to erase last night’s dream. She pictured the healer instead. He’d been a little older than she was. Strands of gray threaded the Chinese-straight hair falling to the middle of his back.
“How’d you know?” she’d asked him. “I’ve never been a good sleeper, even when I was a kid. It’s because there’s so much I like to do. I can’t fit it all in during a day.”
“That is why you push the envelope of time for bed. Your mind, it does not still, not ready to retire,” he said.
Olivia figured it was an inherited trait. Her aunt had trouble sleeping, too. Aunt Rose used to say that when her head hit the pillow, all her worries came to the surface. Loch Ness monsters lurked. Let loose by the quiet of the night, they haunted her. Did it still happen now that she had Alzheimer’s? Rose’s memory length was in five-minute segments. Did Rocky, buried at three, still come to visit when the lights went out? Or did she sleep through the night, her dead son finally forgotten?
“There is so much sadness in this world.” This refrain punctuated her father’s last years. She’d believed it was old age but came to realize that melancholy was his natural state. He’d just expressed it through Beethoven before the stroke made his hands incapable of hitting the keys. She had loved her dad with single-minded devotion. As a child, she’d sat puppylike at his feet.
Olivia put down the cup and buried herself into the wings of the chair. Sadness, inherited and accumulated, seeped into her bones. I am as chained by my childhood as I’ve ever been, she thought. The sins of the fathers, of the mothers, revisit generation after generation, Hallelujah.
Her troubles beat a tattoo in her head as loud as the rain on the roof. She used to think she could change the world—a youth’s delusions. People didn’t change and neither did the world. Years before, when the Berlin Wall had fallen, she’d believed people would beat their spears into pruning hooks, and there would be peace among the nations. But it was the reverse. Ancient blood feuds and greed had created a world filled with butchery and ruin. Who needed to worry about global warming when nuclear winter seemed a foregone conclusion?
She’d seen a guy this afternoon in the pet store. He’d seemed a little odd in his movements. And he scowled at everyone, except for the son by his side. Him, he just ignored. Behind them in the checkout line, she saw that scars ran down the middle of the man’s head like the seam on a football.
The boy had turned to her. “I’d like a goldfish,” he said. “Do you think those tanks are real expensive?”
Before Olivia could answer, the father grabbed him by the sleeve. “Esteban, shut up about the fish.” His voice was like twisted metal.
In the parking lot she’d seen them drive away. On the back of the truck, a red-white-and-blue sticker proclaimed Support Your Troops. The pieces of their puzzle clicked into place. Olivia wondered what the man had been like before he’d been a soldier. Had he been a better father?
She’d once thought she could change the patterns of her family. How stupid. She hadn’t done a better job than her mother—maybe worse. She’d tried—tried damn hard—she had to give herself that. Unlike her mother Olivia hadn’t pursued the career she’d wanted. It would have taken too much time away from Max and Lindsay.
The joke was on her. Her kids were still screwed up. Maybe if Max hadn’t been so sick with asthma, things would have been better. Had she given so much of herself to Max that he felt stifled and Lindsay felt shortchanged?
Olivia shivered in the dark. She was no nearer sleep than she had been hours ago. She longed for whiskey. It would make her forget for a while. She started to get up, then sat back down. No, she would not go that route again. She’d promised herself.
She swallowed hard and settled back into the chair. “Do not dwell on the past,” she said aloud. To do so would lead her into a quagmire of what-might-have-beens. She’d gone wrong somewhere with her children—you couldn’t dispute the evidence. But she had to go forward. Was it the lecture on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in her child psychology class that had stirred up old recriminations?
“Being seen, being heard—these are the most basic of our needs after shelter and safety,” her professor had said. “This isn’t happening for many of our kids. And I’m not talking just at the poverty level—it’s at every level.”
He’d peered over the top of his glasses at the class. “Parents don’t even look at their kids when they talk to them. They’re too busy working or driving from one activity to another. And parents don’t take their eyes off the screen—whether it’s television, caller ID, the computer, or their BlackBerry—to look into the eyes of their child, to acknowledge their existence. Without this connection, there’s no way a child will develop self-esteem.”
Olivia had cringed at the words. The professor was describing her—the way she’d been with Max and Lindsay. Always doing two things at once. She should have stopped doing so damn much for them and simply paid them more attention. Then she might have noticed the sweet pungency of the marijuana that scented Max’s clothes. She might have realized that Lindsay’s hours on the Internet had nothing to do with researching her paper on the Salem Witch Trials.
Robert blamed her for both of the kids’ problems but especially Lindsay’s.
“That’s not fair,” she’d shouted at him the night they discovered Lindsay gone. “You’re her parent just as much as I am.”
“You’re the one who was supposed to be there. How couldn’t you know where she was going after school? Where the hell were you?”
Olivia’s stomach clenched as she remembered the nightmare of filing a missing person’s report and dealing with the police. It was as if it happened yesterday instead of five years ago. They’d found Lindsay soon after, but it hadn’t been soon enough. She’d never been the same. Neither had Olivia or Robert. Or their relationship. Robert barely talked to her. The loneliness drove her first to drink, then back to college to get her counseling degree. If she couldn’t help her own children, she would learn to help others. And she could fill up her hours with work.
“Most babies are looked at. In fact, the mother makes eye-to-eye contact all the time, bringing her face close to her infant’s,” the professor had said that morning. “A baby is accepted for what he or she is. If they’re not, they wither physically and emotionally. Or they become sociopaths. When does it start? When does a child begin to feel unimportant?”
He took off his glasses, setting them on the lectern. “When did it happen to you?”
He’d dismissed class a few minutes later, after giving them the assignment to write about the last time they’d felt seen by their parents. Most of the students in the class were in their twenties—they wouldn’t have to delve as far back. For Olivia it would be an ancient history assignment.
She sighed and turned on the lamp next to her chair. She couldn’t stop thinking about Max, about Lindsay. She took her cup to the kitchen, rinsed it, and put it in the dishwasher.
A few minutes later she sat in front of her computer, eyes closed, trying to remember the last time she’d felt seen by her parents. Her mother, probably never. It was rare for a bipolar narcissist to think of someone other than herself. Olivia’s childhood had revolved around her mother’s moods. Her dad had acted as a buffer. Like the night they walked to Uncle Sol’s, just the two of them. She began to write:
It is summer—maybe August. Maybe 1955.
The apartment is hot—the air stifling in the small bedroom I share with my brother. He’s gone to stay overnight at his friend’s house, so I am all alone. I can’t sleep. In the shadow corners the Monsters, who are under a magic spell during the day, begin to slither out of their beds. They loom at me.
I escape—go out into the living room. Mother is sitting on the brocade davenport, a book in her hand. Her eyes stare out the window. Dad is across the room, playing a Beethoven Sonata, his fingers above the keys so as not to disturb the silence. I am quiet, too, but he must hear me. He turns when I come in.
“I need a glass of water, Daddy,” I say. “I’m so thirsty.”
He smiles at me and gets up from the piano bench. “Go get your sneakers, Livvy,” he says. “And I’ll get you a drink.”
I run back to my room, flip on the light, and open the closet door. Daddy comes in with the water. He ties my shoes, tousles my baby curls, and says, “Let’s walk to Uncle Sol’s.”
We live in an apartment complex called Edgewater—New England-style buildings that sprawl along the edge of Seattle’s Lake Washington. My aunt and uncle live six blocks away. To walk that far with my dad would be an adventure. To be alone with him is a treasure beyond compare.
Daddy takes my hand and we tiptoe out of the drowsy apartment, leaving Mother still staring. I wonder what she sees but I don’t linger. I’m anxious to escape with my prize before it is taken from me.
Safely away, we stroll along—me in my footed pajamas, Daddy in his shirtsleeves. We pass the building next to ours. Raised voices blare out an open window. I move closer to Daddy.
Two more blocks and we’re past the bus stop with its wooden enclosure, where other monsters lurk. Sometimes when we wait for the bus, the rain drums so loud on the tin roof that I have to put my hands over my ears. But tonight the sky is clear, a silver-blue as the light leaches away. The twilight paints the street with rose-colored magic. The World War II houses glow in the pipe tobacco-scented air.
I smile and take a little skip, unable to contain my joy.
I am with my dad. He is with me. For this one moment in time, he seems to need no more.
Olivia’s fingers hovered over the keyboard. Did she want to write more? Had she left anything out? She had forgotten so much of her childhood until these words had poured out. She reread what she had written, then leaned back in the desk chair. She was finished.
A tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away. Could the last time she felt seen by a parent have been when she was so small? Maybe she was just being melodramatic. Her parents had come to her performances, to her concerts, to her high school graduation. They’d seen her then, hadn’t they?
In the bathroom off her office, Olivia looked at herself in the mirror. She stared into her eyes, trying to see the person behind them. She reached out a hand to touch her reflected face but found it impossible. She couldn’t penetrate the hard coldness of the glass.
Only when she actually cupped her cheek with her palm did the mirror reflect her soft touch. She nodded at herself. “I get it now. I see me and that’s enough. I need no more.”
She patted her cheek once and then turned off the light.
Category: Fiction, Short Story