Dad locked my sister Nan and me in the bathroom when he had girlfriends over. This was always late at night, after his shift at Bavo’s Bar. He thought Mother would have taken us when she left. I was twelve and Nan fifteen.
He said this was all temporary, that she’d be back. It was logic. She had to come back. Mothers didn’t just run away without reasons. He said it with the desperation of someone who couldn’t shove a trash can shut, but also the desperation of a man wandering through a dark wonderland.
Initially, we sat on grimy floors, talking of school, movies. Rebel Without A Cause, unloved characters. James Dean screaming of being torn apart. Plato without his mother, always traveling. We spoke of Fats Domino, tried to sing his standards, our words trying to drown out Dad’s lovemaking, which Nan said was fucking. Fucking was for drifters, but lovemaking was for real and tender souls.
So many girlfriends streamed in, but we tried not to hear their names. They had lilting voices, voices like Lauren Bacall, voices with European verve. Dad said he was just trying them on, as if a girlfriend were a fedora. Said he wanted someone who could appreciate a bartender’s life, a man who poured liquor, a man who was a receptacle for people’s waste. He told us little of them, but we knew they were young, that they had lives full of possibilities. We could tell from their lilting laugh, the clickety-clack of heels, the rush of words.
Our own stories formed from constraint, bathtub a throne. We proclaimed ourselves monarchs of constrained spaces. Boundaries soon expanded. We arrested Dad’s coterie when he released us. Ordered Dad to say he loved us. Love. What a word, tender, foreign, harsh, a word that echoed with precision.
We ordered Mother to return, but she didn’t hear that edict either.
Dad told us to not be fatuous. To leave him be, to let him make a new life. He said we didn’t understand bills, obligations. Said he needed a piece of something good.
We could have called social services, but we heard rumblings. Whispers here and there among neighbors who didn’t see us. They whispered things about people being taken away. Would they take Nan and me away from each other? Lock us up somewhere? Would they ask us a lot of questions we couldn’t answer?
Instead, we issued commands outside the bathroom. Threw away Dad’s beers. Tried to clean the fridge and stock it with tomatoes and carrots, apples, things that we’d once eaten when Mother was there. Of course, we organized the foods in order of health value or what we knew of it, anyway. We called Dad’s girlfriends Mother, sent them scurrying into the night’s long shadows.
Dad made homes with various girlfriends. Stayed away for a night, a week. Two weeks. We counted down the days but felt relief. Until he just disappeared one night.
We sat astride the throne, constrained by openness, waited for him to burst through. But I knew it wouldn’t happen, felt a sensation darting about me. So did Nan, I think. We sat there because the door was open and there was so much to figure out. The fridge was bare, the walls were dented with ghosts of beer cans past. Mother was gone into the word, social services crept closer and closer. We had our throne. But now thrones seemed too darned big.
We abdicated. But no one heard.