*Featured Artwork: By Mali Fischer
By Sara J. Sutler-Cohen
Had I learned to reach out and stake a claim of need, look my father in the eye and tell him to help me, reach me, perhaps he would have. But he may not have.
Sitting beneath the chipped oak desk, rocking back and forth in the dark, my faded eyes beg for light. I spend the in-between hours of the dark testing my night vision for survival, yearning to see when the moon’s sliver bears no shine in the sky, the pavement blackened by the night’s shade. My ears spike at the sound of a spider’s legs creeping up the wall before it finds a place to spit its silk into milky spinnerets in the corner of my room. I often sit in a tight mass of bundled fears and nests of worry over everything, over nothing.
I was a confused kid, and confusion scared me. Life was a growing question mark, and guidance was my own. So I keyed myself up for survival, inventing little tricks here and there toward making sense of things; what it meant to be me, in the most visceral sense, how to navigate my parents and siblings, predictably unpredictable as they were. So I’d lay awake in the night undisturbed, silence producing promises I imagined hid under a towel, beneath my pillow, or in the crevices within the room where only gentle whispers found their rest. In the daytime, I busied myself with cranked up music and bits of drugs to better hide in plain sight before the darkness, my real refuge, fell across me again.
Had I learned to reach out and stake a claim of need, look my father in the eye and tell him to help me, reach me, perhaps he would have. But he may not have. This was the crux of my fear, asking for help. I needed help because of the risks I faced living with those who cradled me, but they were also the only people I ever thought to ask for help. So, I didn’t. I was left alone to fend for myself; my mother made absent from the trials of mental illness, my father absent by self-absorption, and my brothers absent by escape route. So I laid awake at night, wondering, imagining a life I might have had under different circumstances and hoping to make it to the next morning. You might say I sought out my solitude, but I didn’t; it was all around me. So I learned to embrace it.
The desk, heavy and thick, took up more space than I dared to and the bulk of it took up half my room. Its top chipped with knife cuts, bits of powdered wax, pen markings, indented memories. Dad and I loaded it down with magazines, candy wrappers, chewed-down pencils, the beginning remnants of trash, but with space for the tools of Dad’s trade: a scale, Bic pens, and fitted Ziploc baggies stuffed with shiny, white square sheets to fold into tiny packets for cocaine. My dad, distant, even while standing in the door jamb, smiled down at me and I’d close my eyes at him and try to hear his heartbeat. We were silent, looking past each other, trying to find the connection we had when I was His Little Girl, and he was My Daddy. Now, entering adolescence, I faced the Terrible Darkness of depression and madness, and Dad got lost in a dominating arrogance. I was afraid to ask for anything. I hid under the desk for solace, warmth, solitude I at once dreaded and craved. Alone, I never had to ask for help, but couldn’t if I wanted to. That desk stood its ground, bulging and dense, soaking up whatever touched it and carried the scent of its hostages: stale tobacco, settled dust, sticky rings of flat beer and soda. Even the essence of the cocaine sunk into its weary cracks and bore the most decadent aroma of all.
My room was the base of operations for Dad’s drug dealing enterprise, a career he must have selected—I imagine in hindsight—to sustain his life as a musician. His business thrived in spite of my little sleeping bag on the floor, which Dad trod on sometimes when he needed to weigh drugs on the scale, which rested tirelessly, permanently, on the desk. I felt like an intruder. Occasionally, in a fit of weak rebellion, I’d shut my door and listen to records on my phonograph I had set up beneath the desk. I’d huddle there listening to Judas Priest and Dad would bang on the ceiling for me to turn it down so he could watch this aerobics show on cable television. Echoes from below, I hear, ‘do not over exert yourself.’ When I knew he was watching this, I’d sneak down the carpeted stairs in our apartment and peek over the banister down the hallway to the back of the living room where the television rested in the corner, between his piano and our sliding glass patio door. Crane my neck to see a circle of women fill the screen with flowey hair and intimidating makeup, blowing hot breeze out of their mouths like they were getting fucked and the music was like some low-budget porn soundtrack. The camera zooming in on their g-stringed leotards, their powdered brows never catching even a bead of sweat. Dad would just stare at the screen, head tilted to the side. I dreamed of being dramatically sensuous and imitated their movements in the middle of the night, alone.
When Dad measured, I’d scoot to the corner of my room, sitting on my sleeping bag on the floor, using my pillow to lean back on, and read tattered copies of Ray Bradbury books. He’d hum and then swivel around smiling, “Wanna learn something cool?” and I would never answer, just get up and receive a lesson about weight and money and how he had “the best shit” and would I please take out the Bic and write out ½ on this square and ¼ on that square and make the piles and then, “watch how you fold those” and this would be our routine. He’d kiss me and thank me and tell me when to expect dinner and promptly leave my room.
Shutting the door behind him, I’d often take out one of his unloaded pistols and point it down like I could blow him away if I wanted to and even sometimes I would stick it in my mouth just to see what it felt like; the coolness of it, how hard it was. I would handle the bullets, rubbing them between my fingers and I never got farther than that because he would always call up, “Sara! I need an opinion!” which was his way of sharing something incredible with me from the kitchen like a braise, a sauce, a dressing and I’d startle easily because feeling the bullets in my hands muted everything. This contradictory life with Dad was an awkward juxtaposition of love and danger.
I don’t remember why I never had a bed; I probably said, “No it’s okay really, I don’t need one.” To cope, I embraced the desk, craved it. I sat beneath its solid frame and found peace. The desk made me feel safe.
Inevitably I ran away, as I was wont to do, bound for the streets of San Francisco and dark nightclubs, my father waist-deep in cocaine deals, my mother neck-deep in histrionic madness, and my brothers on their way to separate lives. I learned to survive alone, but I missed the desk, which came alive in my muddled memory, spouting fleshy limbs, whispering deep and reassuring thoughts to me.
Dad came to my aid when I was seventeen after I’d spent five years on the streets, in and out of juvenile hall, in group homes and foster homes. He’d stopped dealing drugs and edged away from arrogance enough to humble himself in front of an altar, where he found some semblance of peace. His new fixation on Buddhism was startling, but I was tired and emotionally malnourished. I needed him.
Cardboard boxes of my keepsakes, records, books, pens occupied the space where the desk once lorded over my room. Dad stood behind me, and we both looked at my sleeping bag. Still no bed. I still didn’t ask for one and Dad hugged me, said how happy he was to have me home and safe. I was too embarrassed to ask him where the desk had gotten to and far too afraid to admit the love affair I’d had with it, so I mourned its absence alone and moved the boxes to the other side of the room, leaving the space it once occupied empty. I bunched up my sleeping bag in the corner and picked up where I left off, halfway through The Martian Chronicles and listened to my dad shuffle around in the kitchen.
“Hey, Sara! I need an opinion!” He wasn’t a drug dealer anymore, and we were poised to survive. Alone, together.