The Table of Unheard of Obscenities
The door splintered inward, the lower right corner poking into my side with each kick my sister delivered, as I pushed my full weight, a mere 75 lbs against the particle board, trying to keep her from gaining access to me. We were always separated by doors, flimsy and bending to her violent will. Not one door in that house was fully in tact. All the doors were peeling up at the corners, with holes revealing their shoddy section 8 construction of cardboard framing inside. The knobs had all been removed in prior episodes of terror, round gaping holes through which she could assault me better with her words; “fucking bitch”, “piece of shit”, and her ever so favorite “I’m going to fucking kill you”.
When Jess would have what we called “episodes” in which she would violently attack me and sometimes mom, mom would hollar at me to run. If I could make it to a room down the hallway, I would immediately slam the shallow and broken door behind me and turn on my tape deck. “Welcome to our tragic kingdom! Cornfields of popcorn have yet to spring open” Gwen Stefani of No Doubt would whinny from the speakers. Louder and louder, I would try to drown out her insults, waiting for the moment to pass.
Gwen, Delores of the Cranberries, and Alanis Morisette were my female warriors during those times, my back rocking with every blow Jess delivered to the door, my feet planted firmly on the ground, pushing against the fear and pain, waiting for her to run out of steam.
I remember sitting in a cold waiting room while Jess met with a psychologist. He promised to get me ice cream and I spent my time in anticipation of the treat, reading my books about dinosaurs. I wanted Jess to get better. I wanted us all to be ok. But more than anything, I wanted her to love me. If I could only be better, stronger, smarter, prettier, than maybe she wouldn’t hit me so much. It was hard to explain the bruises at school, the splint on my arm, the gash on my leg. They always looked at my mom as my possible attacker and I found it strange that she seemed like the only option in their minds. The doctor opened the door to the hall that led to the room where Jess was being seen and invited me back. I always needed an invitation to be in the same space as Jess since I would “set her off” simply by being present. I learned from birth to be quiet, invisible, complaint. I felt that I had this horrible thing built inside me that would give no other options for anyone aruond me but to fly into a violent rage, I incensed them so, that I tried my best to hide this incindiary quality.
I followed the doctor to a room where Jess was sitting in a chair, her demeanor different than I had ever seen before. She was calmed and even smiled when I walked in. “It’s a trap” I thought.
The doctor presented me with a large ice cream cone and I consumed it with a hunger that was in no way physical.
There were many times I could not make it down the hallway to put a door between myself and Jessica. TImes like this, I fled outside and scurried up my tree that stood strong and heroic just outside my bedroom window.I had tied a satchel full of granola bars, candies, and books at the top of the tree if I had to spend a few hours there until it was safe to come down. I even brought a strong leather belt up to the top of my tree with which I could strap myself to a branch so I wouldn’t fall out when I would doze off into the early evening hours.
When things were settled down and we would all sit in the living room watching TV and eating whatever meal mom had been able to concoct in the microwave since we did not have a stove, I would feel myself coming apart inside, wondering if it was all a lie, if the violence and pain had really happened, or if I was the problem in the family, the blemish that caused the bouts of violence. I would gingerly touch my most recent bruise, scar, cut, or sprain, and in that moment, I would remember that no matter the cause, the pain was real.
It was then that I took to crawling under the coffee table. I would sometimes watch TV from under the coffee table, but more often than not, I would bring my pencil with me and relent to the words that swirled around my head and heart, releasing the ache inside. I would lay on my back underneath that table that hid so many of my secrets and I would begin to write in bold lettering every filthy obscene word and phrase I knew on the underside wood.
“SLUT.” “DICK”. “SHIT HEAD”. “BOOBS” “PENIS BREATH” (courtesy of the wonderful 80’s film ET). “ASSHOLE” “FUCK”. “FUCKING ASSHOLE WHORE SLUT SHIT BITCH DILDO” I would retrace these words over and over, darkening the lines until they began to etch into the wood itself, each line a release of the infinite ugliness that is born of fear.
A wonderfully filthy and liberating collage of all the words I had hurled against me through the holes in the broken doors was memorialized as the years passed underneath that coffee table, all while my mother sat peacefully on the couch watching home shopping networks and drinking diet cokes.
We were Jehovah’s Witnesses so everything that was a tremor in our household had to be passed by the elders of the church, a group of older men who had worked their way to the top of the hierarchy through lifelong dedication and service to the organization. Mom was single so since there was no man of the house to make decisions, she would have to turn to the elders for any life changing advice or decision making.
I couldn’t hide the large knot on my head that had raised quickly after Jess had taken my own hairbrush to my skull. My hair couldn’t hide the large crude welt that had raised just outside of my hairline near my forehead. Teachers were asking questions, calling Child Protective Services and here we were as a family, stalling inside the Kingdom Hall, begging the elders to assist further in the conspiracy to cover up the truth behind our battered and closed doors that hung precariously on their stressed hinges.
“Rebecca,” Elder Little said, leaning forward in his chair, resting his elbows on his boney knees, “Where were you keeping your hairbrush so that Jess was able to get it?”
I knew it had been my fault. Jess no longer allowed me into the room we were set up to share years back and I now slept under the coffee table with my precious secret profanity and honest dialogue of a girl lost. I kept my hair brush and other grooming accessories in the hallway now, a known hot zone for Jess’s outbursts.
“The hallway,” I replied, looking down at my long ankle length skirt, smoothing the cotton over my thighs, wishing I could disappear like my legs had underneath this clumsy frock.
“Do you realize the stress this puts on the family when you are careless?” Little said, leaning back in his chair having received the answer he knew he would. “Where is your brush supposed to go so Jess can’t hit you with it?”
Jess sat on the other side of mom, looking at the elders flatly.
“I can’t use the bathroom, it angers her. I don’t have the room….” I trailed off, feeling a deep awakening making me aware of the silly injustice of it all. I was tired of shuffling around my existence to make myself disappear to convenience the people around me.
“Nevermind, I know a place.
The hair brush fit perfectly next to my pillow, blanket and beloved pound puppy, aptly named Tuppie, there underneath the coffee table of countless obscenities. I began to plot my revenge.
“Are you STILL alive?” Jess asked, momentarily pulling the pillow aside from my face where she had been holding it in an effort to suffocate me. She had me on the couch next to the table again. I had learned from many other attempts before to turn my head to the side, making room enough for me to breath while she pressed the pillow firmly onto my face. She laughed, pushing the pillow back down, pressing me further into the couch. Mom was expected back soon from her door to door service for the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I positioned my feet slowly underneath Jess’s stomach, bending my knees like a frog, cocking back all my power to deliver a single blow strong enough to move Jess far enough away that I had time to escape her retaliation. In one swift move, I kicked my legs straight out, punching my heels into her stomach, knocking the wind from her as she flew upward and sideways off of me, landing on the coffee table.
It splintered under her weight, my secret diary of concealed emotions, my collection of words bubbling underneath the surface for so long in rebellion to the silence that pervaded my life.
Instead of running from her, I was frozen there on the couch, struck with a mixture of awe and power. Jess froze too, except for different reasons, for this was the first time I had fought her off with any real effect. In that moment of stunned silence I knew the ugliness that would soon reach the light of day by this turn of events. I got up from the couch slowly, as an animal may move around a predator expecting it to at any moment strike, and then found my way outside. I scurried up my tree, passing the more beautiful words I had lovingly carved into it’s truck, tatooing it for life with names of kittens we had raised, hieroglyphs from Egyptian lettering I had learned in school, and also new words I instantly fell in love with like “charleton” and “incandescent”. While the coffee table hid all my darkness, my tree showed all the hope I still held in my heart for myself and the world.
I climbed and climbed until I reached the top, strapping myself to the tree with my weather worn belt, expecting the stay to be eternal upon this revelation that was about to unfold. I watched from above as mom’s 87 Honda pulled into the parking space in front of our apartment. I watched her as she walked inside.
The sun began to set before she came out to look for me. She hadn’t yet discovered the heights of my tree and would only look for me on the bottom branches before calling my name throughout the neighborhood, imploring for my return. I watched her call in vain, safely tethered to the one place no one could harm me, three stories above the apartment rooftop.
Night began to fall and a chill ran through the breeze. I knew I would be more comfortable at home, but I did not know where I would sleep that night without the cover of my “FUCK WHORE BITCH….” table that sheltered me from so much violence and reminded me of the truth made visible so no one could deny it.
I slowly slid down the tree, embracing the trunk as I went, knowing I would return soon, because in real life, sudden explosive events to not stop the ugly things from happening again. There would be no change, no break through, just the splintered truth on our living room carpet.
I walked barefoot across the damp grass, over the graves of kittens who had not made it past infancy in our prior litters, and stopped, listening at the red-orange door. Silence.
I pushed the door open to see mom sitting on the couch, diet coke in hand, a movie we had seen a thousand times playing on the VCR. The table lay with the ugly words lying face up, no longer hidden, no longer my secret.
When she noticed my arrival, she put down her diet coke. I crawled into her arms and she stroked my hair, rubbing out the ugliness with the magic of a mother’s touch.