It happens to us all at some point in our childhoods. That just doesn’t make it any less traumatic.
In case you haven’t gotten the picture yet, my mother’s a real piece of work. My father moved us all to Georgia, and she let him know about how unhappy she was every chance she got. When she got a little lubed with liquor, which was pretty often, she’d let loose even more. He’d hang his head and suffer through it for some reason, and go on his merry way being spinelessly ignorant of his options. To get even for being forced to live in Georgia, she’d make him send us back to “visit” her family in California as often as they could scrape the money together. That wasn’t often, but I don’t think he saw his family more than a handful of times in my memory. If we made it back to California two or three times during our time in Georgia, that was a lot more than he got back to see his family, before we got there or after we returned.
One of those trips at least was during the summer. My brother and I weren’t in school and the oppressive, thick heat of Georgia was dripping over everything like hot syrup. You’d sweat and never dry off. Our lean-to little shanty of a house didn’t have any way to cool down except box fans, and those did a lousy job of it. When we got back, I don’t think we were even unpacked completely that night. It was just too hot to do anything except spend time with our dad and go to bed.
Bell Avenue is dark at night. Really dark. There was only one street lamp that I can recall, and it was far enough away from the house not to do anything helpful. Even if it could, there was a terror of a bush standing higher than the roof of the little crackerbox house that sprawled like a Kraken threatening to drag down a ship, and it was positioned between that pathetic, weak light and the front of our house. We lived in its shadow in the day, and at night it shrouded the house in a blanket of pitch that was impenetrable. Add to that the pea-soup humidity that moistened everything, and the light had no hope of making a dent in the blackness.
Waking up in the night, then, got pretty interesting. The room my brother and I shared had two windows in it: one that faced into the belly of that beast of a bush — and we couldn’t see any light through it in strong sunshine — and was shielded by it; the other was on the wall adjacent and looked down the gradual slope of Bell Avenue to the north, toward the Tennessee border of State Line Road. There were lower, less dense bushes around that one, but if you looked out the window, you could see the dim candle of a lamp standing in the street a few houses down. It did nothing to light up the inside of the room, but you could see it.
Waking up at night is something I’ve always done. I have no idea why to this day. I wake up probably two or three times a night on a regular basis, and I always have. At 12 years old, waking up in the night meant one of three things. Either I had to go to the bathroom, I was having an asthma attack, or I was hungry.
Having to get out of bed for two of those three things became something of a chore living in that tiny asbestos block. The first thing you have to do is let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Even though your eyes have been closed, I guarantee whatever backlighting your brain uses to show you your dreams was brighter than the light that managed to pick its way through the murk of the Georgia night. It was like living in a black hole. Whatever light there was got sucked into a void and couldn’t escape.
That first night back from California, with its brightly illuminated San Franciscan suburbs and busy streets, took some getting used to. It was quieter on Bell Avenue than anywhere I think I’ve ever slept before. When you grow up with the background noise of a more urban area, the quiet’s unnerving a bit. Waking up to the soot blackness and the morgue quiet made you sit up straight in bed, afraid you’ve died.
When I woke up that night, I had to figure out what woke me up. Instantly, I knew it wasn’t asthma. I was breathing fine, and was getting stronger every year in my resistance to it. I listened quietly in the stillness for that familiar rumbling that would let me know if my stomach, seemingly always empty regardless of how much I threw down my gullet as my teen metabolism began to fire up and burn calories faster than an American V8 burns Arabian oil, was the culprit.
Nope. Not the gut. But I could’ve used something to eat, I noted.
That only left one cause for my bout of consciousness: my bladder. I waited for the signal … and there it was. Gotta pee.
So now, adjusting to the darkness and the stillness of the cemetery-creepy night, I drew a heavy sigh and resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to plod over the leaning house and into the single bathroom between my parents’ room and the dining room.
I waited quietly, hoping to go back to sleep and that my urinary tract would forget what it wanted. No suck luck.
I had to pee and it wasn’t going to wait until morning.
For some reason, I had the covers on. Normally, I wore the standard kid uniform of sweatpants and a T-shirt to bed. But at 12 years old, I also still slept under my covers. I can’t recall now whether those constituted a blanket or not, but it seems goofy to me now. It was so hot, I really didn’t need anything. I had to kick them off me, though, and then I lay still for another couple of minutes to muster the energy to make the walk to the bathroom.
It was a real problem. When I got there, I’d have to turn on the light to see the damned toilet so I didn’t whiz all over the floor or whatever else was around the commode. That meant burning my retinas, and turning the light off would leave me next to blind for a few minutes. Throw in the fact that rhinos have better eyesight than I do, and getting back to the room to bed usually meant a bunch of stubbed toes, wall-bumping and walking around like Frankenstein’s monster, arms outstretched and lumbering to avoid breaking a foot or nose crashing into stuff.
I heaved myself out of bed, dreading the walk. I could finally make out the dim shapes and shadows that constituted my world at night without my glasses, and started to make my way toward the bathroom.
That tiny house was too small to house all of us and all our crap. I don’t remember if the room my parents had never had a door, or if my genius old man took it off. Either way, the decision was made that they’d open the bathroom door all the way and it would block their room, acting as a door of sorts. That’s how small the house was — one door, two rooms. The tiny bit of light that spilled from the bathroom window behind the chipped, ancient tub and shower gave me something to aim for as I shuffled through the abysmal dark to relieve myself. My room was adjoined to the living room, and those windows faced away from the light, so the biggest hazard was getting through there without breaking a bone or falling. Once you made it to the kitchen, abutting the living room through a narrow doorway, it was relatively smooth sailing.
When I got through the living room without getting hurt, and got onto the cool linoleum floor of the kitchen, I figured I was home free — at least until the way back.
I was dead wrong.
I felt my way through the opening that led to the hallway with the bathroom straight ahead of me. I took hold of the door to my left … and I heard an unfamiliar sound.
I thought my parents were awake. But it was the middle of the night, and I was sure my father had to work the following day. What would they be doing awake?
I poked my head around the door.
I bit my tongue to keep from screaming, my eyes bulging so wide they nearly fell out of my skull. I wish they had.
My mother’s legs were wrapped around my father’s torso and the bed clothes were strewn all over the place. What I thought were words being spoken were guttural, carnal grunts and moans.
I couldn’t move fast enough. I slammed the door shut behind me and never turned the light on. I ripped my pants down furiously and the urine stream began to flow, far too slowly, so I pushed it with all my might, trying to force it out of my body like I was giving birth. I made as much noise as I could to alert everyone to my presence — I turned on the faucet behind me and rinsed one hand while I pulled my pants up with the other, and then flushed. While the toilet was still sucking water loudly down its throat, antique pipes slurping and clanging with the effort, I crashed through the door like a charging bull, and banged it back into place, bolting like a chased gazelle through the kitchen and living room, recklessly ignoring any potential for injury, running with my feet pounding hard against the floor boards as I sprinted for my room. I dove, crashing the bed springs and bouncing, clutching the bedding for dear life. When I landed I pulled the covers over my head, eyes squeezed shut as tight as I could, weather and humidity forgotten. I waited for someone to come up and check on me, to make sure I was all right. I jumped at every creak and groan the old house made as gravity tried to pull it to pieces. Thankfully, no one ever followed up.
No matter how I tried, though, that image was seared into my brain like a brand on a cattle’s hindquarters. I couldn’t clear it from my memory no matter how I tried to distract myself with thoughts of sports, girls, food … nothing worked.
It still doesn’t, frankly.
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