Late summer left the earth begging for relief – dried grass needles cutting the bottoms of my bare feet, air above the surface of the pool smoking and bending in the heat, and my face peppered with brown specks which only appeared in the August sun. I sat on the pool-side deck of our middle-class suburban home, flaunting my favorite tankini and discussing with my mother our impending trip to Claire’s, a mere two days away. Accompanying the seventh year of my life was my self-proclaimed promise to pierce my ears without allowing a single tear to slip past my eyelid. Only adults had ear-piercings, and they never cried. I was to finally experience adulthood.
“We can go when I’m out of work on Monday?” my mother suggested.
“Yeah! Let’s go!” I responded excitedly.
“Will you need me to hold your hand?” she teased. My eyes began to drift backwards – the beginnings of an eye-roll – but my father interjected, saving me from the wrath of my mother’s rule. Following the pattern of a stereotypical father, his question shifted our conversation to what he wondered about while the ladies talked.
“Are you sure you didn’t want any friends over today to celebrate your birthday? This is the only day we’re able to celebrate,” he reminded me.
“Yes, Dad. I told you, I’d rather just hang out with you guys.” I recently decided to cease the use of the childish title “daddy” to speak to Dad. It was rare for me to hear my friends talk to their dads in that manner; they thought it weird to call their parents “mommy” and “daddy.” I was about to get my ears pierced, after-all. The ring of our house phone interrupted the conversation. My brother and sister, both reclining on the deck with us, made no movement, and I followed suit.
“I’ll get it . . .” my father sighed, having been fated to answer it. He started toward the ring. Several moments later, the sliding glass door to our pale-yellow house opened. He stepped through it and looked at my mother, intense and subtle, like a pencil dragged across the surface of the skin, indenting and discoloring, but never lacerating.
“It’s for you,” he said as he handed the phone to her.
“Hello? Yes, this is she,” she elegantly spoke as she wrapped her fingers around the device. Then she stood from her chair, gesturing for my siblings and I to continue the fun without her. She walked through the doors, taking extra precaution that they had completely closed behind her. I glanced toward my little sister with concern from the exchange. Meanwhile, my brother, being eleven years my senior, seemed unbothered. Still, when my sister and I silently agreed to follow the commotion, creeping towards the phone conversation we hadn’t yet been permitted to hear, he followed. The anticipation of a reveal hovered around us as we tiptoed toward the living room where my mother stood. As we closed the glass doors behind us, we proceeded through the sunroom, which was coated with textured white paint and numerous windows. We carefully stepped over the small lip in the floor where the room merged with the living area. Upon taking the first step into the living area, the ground creaked for both the first and the last time. I sat on the green love seat while my siblings sat on its sister-couch, and we watched my mother converse with the unknown voice on the other end of the line.
Emotion gathered in her eyes. They were glossy with the formation of tears that had not yet fallen from her face. She was waiting to release them, but it was unclear for what she was waiting. My mother paced the floor, striking its surface with the heal of her foot, an impressive exertion of energy rippling the ground beneath. Intensity hung in the air, choking me as I watched my mother’s every move, examining her mannerisms until she ended the call and looked toward my brother. Her first tear escaped, and thousands more followed. On that day, August 7, 2008, my brother’s father died.
As I watched my mother grieve, I naively thought to myself: he cheated and disrespected her – there was a reason for divorce, and she loves my father, so why cry? I remained unmoved on the couch holding my breath in fear that if I allowed myself the luxury of oxygen, I might laugh– an unreasonable response concerning the situation, yet every desire in my seven-year-old body urged me to do just that. I bit the inside of my lip to redirect my energy from sheer laughter in hopes it might ease the tension in my muscles. It wasn’t until my mother exited the living room that I truly relaxed. What about my birthday? My mother re-entered the living room, looking at me this time.
“E.J., I’m so sorry,” she spoke, “but I have to make some calls, and it may take the rest of the day. We aren’t going to be able to celebrate.” She seemed truly sorry for the inconvenience on my day.
“It’s okay, Mom. I understand. This is much more important,” I replied. Luckily, I had already opened my presents, but there would be no perfect, adult birthday. I supposed that I could wait another year, considering the recent news of the man who was not my father, a horrible lover to my mother, and the disruption to my perfect idea of family – a mother, father, brother, and sister. I never knew the man, but I’d make an exception for him – as long as I’d still get the chance to pierce my ears on Monday.