Content warning: domestic violence and abuse
When I was seven and we lived on Scovel Street in Nashville, there were no reality shows, except the ones playing out in the streets with young protestors dressed for work and marching downtown to demand justice. One bitter spring day, after white agitators bombed the house of Alexander Looby, the attorney who often represented the protesters in court, our mother forbid us to watch the 5:00pm news for a while. Instead, we could watch the Three Stooges on weekdays after school and cartoons on Saturday mornings. I watched the Three Stooges’ practiced idiocy, but I grew tired of Moe who seemed meaner than he was stupid and I felt sorry for Larry, who eventually grew a callus on his cheek from where Moe had slapped him so much. At least that’s what Larry said years after the group broke up.
I probably invented my secret friend out of boredom. My friend’s home was the closet of our bathroom. We lived in a two-bedroom mud-colored stucco bungalow with a low-pitched roof and porch supported by four squat wooden columns. We were the next–to-last house on the street, which dead-ended at the crumbling gates of a church school, long since closed when we moved there and now occupied by squatters. Our house wasn’t meant to hold six people, (four children, then five) and two adults. Cracked and peeling paint marred beige walls but not in an interesting way. The rooms were mostly filled with used furniture, except for an imitation case study daybed wooden frame with thin blue and black striped cushions and a piece of cobwebbed driftwood that they’d discovered together on a night walk on the Texas Gulf. It was effortlessly beautiful, until they shellacked it.
The house was coal-heated, but winter mornings were always chilly, because the fire had burned low during the night. The bathroom was usually a degree or two colder than the rest of the house because of the porcelain tub, sink and toilet. If that’s not true, then I remember it as always winter in that room. At the head of the bathtub, high above the faucet was the linen closet. I rarely opened the door to the closet, because it was hard to reach. There was nothing remarkable about it, but its very blandness made me uneasy. It looked as nondescript as any other closet in the house, just as we looked like any other family in the neighborhood.
One night, I decided to make up a story about what was behind the closet door and whatever it was would be my friend. I never went beyond imagining it was my friend, because how can you give shape or features to a feeling like winter?
I then told everyone in the family, or at least I told my mother, who told everyone else. Together, we had a big laugh about it, just like they laughed the night I told them I saw Frankenstein’s hand reaching for me from behind my bed frame. After things settled down, I still had to sleep in the same bed where the hand was waiting in the dark. I lay in the dark too, listening to my heartbeat.
I didn’t care that they laughed at my imaginary friend, because I wanted attention. I wanted my story to be a momentary distraction from the hard facts of our lives at that time, the hard fact that disputes were settled in our house with fists. My mother and father so often took center stage with their intense arguments, which could quickly escalate to something vicious and sad and desperate, throwing people and things into disarray. We thought we were silent spectators. We didn’t then see our potential as protestors, recorders, and years later, judges and jury.
“Tell ‘em how you disrespected me in front of my friends,” my father would say while trying to hold my squirming mother.
“Call the police!” said my mother to my oldest sister, as she scrambled around the room, though she never tried to get out the door.
“Don’t you pick up that phone or I’ll . . .” my father would say, and we didn’t. Had we been on reality tv, a caption would run across the screen, saying, “Should she call 911?” Enter #888 245 3333 for “Yes” or #888 245 3334 for “No.”
Sometimes, I bathed while everyone else watched television in the living room, and while the rest of the house might have seemed warm, the bathroom was cold and strange and quiet. I filled it with imaginings of a friend I couldn’t see, a friend without a real shape, a friend who didn’t even like me, because when I talked to it, it never responded.
“I know a poem about the dark. I’ll tell it to you.” Silence.
“I know a song.” Then I’d sing a popular ballad of the day, something that I could put my whole heart into and sing as loud and hard as I could, because I could stuff my feelings in my voice, instead of “acting out and sassing my elders” or being “impudent,” or acting “grown.”
One Friday night, after I’d had my bath and rushed into the living room dripping wet in my pajamas, my sister teased me, “What did your friend say this time, sister?” but no one laughed. My father’s mind was on other things. He held an empty whiskey glass in his hand and glared at my mother. My mother seemed distracted and watched the tv sideways, as if trying to see in two directions at once. When the fight erupted, we were already in bed. My father and mother tumbled out of their bedroom, my mother twisting in my father’s arms and saying something muffled that sounded like, “ I will not I will not I will not.”
My father responded, “Oh yes, yes you will.” Twisting and twisting. He was 5’11, and she was 5’8, maybe half an inch less.
“I’m going to choke you!” announced my father. My mother said nothing, but grabbed at his hands around her throat. He forced her into the bathroom and into the bathtub, his hands still around her neck. All the while, I felt bad for my mother, because I knew the bathtub was cold and hard, and there wasn’t really any friend in the cabinet to watch her or feel anything for her as she endured that. At this point, the cameras would squeeze into the bathroom for a close-up of my mother’s face, her ordinarily lovely mouth twisted in distress, and we wouldn’t be saved from witnessing the visual effect of broken blood vessels.
My older sister tried to quiet the younger children who were frightened at the sounds of struggle that weren’t coming from tv but from our own bathroom. My imaginary friend dared not come out of the closet while the combatants weren’t bathing and the cameras weren’t whirring. Only when she thought she might die in the bathtub did my mother scream loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
“Elizabeth, help! John, help! He’s trying to kill me!” she yelled to our next-door neighbors. The neighbors, being good neighbors, pretended they didn’t hear all the noise and “goings on,” because to hear was to come over, knock on the door and be prepared to defend someone else’s wife, someone else’s mother, someone else’s sister, someone else’s daughter. In that moment, my father was not an educated man attending post-graduate school in preparation for his life’s work as a healer. My mother was not a schoolteacher who was responsible for the music education of high school students at one of the leading high schools in the city, and we were not children. They were two people in combat, and we were a captive audience. And so my father shook my mother around in the bathtub like a rag doll, before finally dropping her and stepping out of the tub, as if he had been forced to participate in an exercise that disgusted him. This would be the point at which he would hold up his hand to the cameras, not wanting them to see his face where she had scratched it in a wild attempt to make him stop what he was doing. No cameras panned to his lean figure brushing past us as if we weren’t there and limping to the tiny master bedroom, where he stripped down to his underwear and went to bed. After a while, we heard him snoring.
“Go to bed! Now!” my mother said in a croaking voice. She would have made an excellent figure for pity on a psa, as she struggled to get out of the bath tub holding her hand to her neck, shielding it from view, as if she didn’t want to share anymore of her demeaning and painful experience with us and certainly not with an imaginary public. We who had no cameras or rights to speak of the spectacle we had just witnessed, didn’t dare say to her we hadn’t wished to participate, even as observers. We couldn’t explain to her how we hurt for her or that the struggle was mismatched, if she wasn’t willing to even things up a bit by wielding a stick or a gun or the nearest piece of driftwood. So we went to bed and fell asleep as soon as our racing hearts and bruised feelings would allow us.
The next morning we all avoided each other’s eyes that held, like unsyndicated re-runs, the memory of the previous night. We hurried through the morning rituals of showering, eating breakfast and gathering books, bags, coats and hats. I heard my mother call in to her job and say she had a bad cold. Her hoarse voice sounded authentic, and if they had seen her bloodshot eyes, they would have told her she needed to see a doctor immediately. It would happen over and over again in the coming years, same show, different scenarios that featured busted furniture and torn or swollen flesh. Usually, my father saw himself as the victim, the reasonable one who was just trying to get my mother to see the error of her thinking. My wife my wife my wife is stubborn, never admitting she’s wrong and always having one more thing to say about it, one more thing and one more thing. For her part, my mother knew she was losing ground, but, she also thought she held the high ground, if that makes any sense. She would run sometimes but never far. You know that I love you and you know what love endures. Like the song Billie Holiday sang with a mixture of sadness and conviction, “Don’t Explain,” Mama never blamed our father to us and she never explained. Sitting with her on the hard church pew one Sunday morning, I thought about my imaginary friend and wondered if God was like that, too. After awhile, I stopped talking about my friend in the linen closet, because the bathroom reminded everyone of the bathtub and the thing that had happened there, but I had to tell it to someone, since we didn’t have a reality show and no chance of being in a documentary, which as I said at that time would most likely have been concerned with black people marching in their good clothes and on their best behavior as martyrs, soldiers, and pilgrims for freedom. The bombing of Looby’s house triggered a mass march to City Hall, where students held a prayer session and asked the mayor to answer for the cowardly acts of the agitators. They marched with the honor and idealism of youth against tyranny and injustice. I vaguely understood their bravado and righteousness, but I never considered protesting to my father, and I protested once to my mother who slapped me for impudence and for meddling in her “business,” because she was, after all, a “grown woman,” as she so often reminded my father, when he was slapping her for impudence. I did ask my mother for a five-year diary for my tenth birthday and discovered in its lined pages my own closet, where I could tell and tell for my mind and heart’s unburdening, my story.