Our apartment building in Williamsburg was razed to the ground after a year and a half. We got $4,000 to move out, which at the time seemed no different from $1 million, but later we realized how paltry a sum it was, and how little we had been valued. We spent the money on the apartment in East Flatbush.
I didn’t like my new school. On the first day, my teacher sent me to ESL even though I was born right here in Mount Sinai hospital on East 96th, and I wanted to tell her that I knew English better than her stupid round sweaty thin-lipped veiny bulging-fat-yet-still-flaccid sagging face did, but I didn’t say anything and while everyone else was in art and music I spent two hours in ESL class, where I was forced to participate in activities so humiliating that I understood why the kids in Special Ed acted out all the time.
We had to do things like write out the word chair and then draw a picture of a chair underneath the word, only I drew pictures of women with huge breasts and big dongs so big and fat that they went off the page, because I wasn’t going to let the stupid administrators of PS 84 bully me just because my parents weren’t present on the first day of school to tell the ladies in the main office that I was a native speaker. I had only been left back because I sucked at school in general, not at speaking English.
I hated school so much that by the time winter rolled around, I was only going to school two or three days a week. My parents let me skip school whenever I wanted, and they thought all of my reasons were valid, just like they thought it was OK for me to get Cs and Ds because they knew they weren’t there at night when I was supposed be to eating dinner with my parents, and they weren’t there when I needed them to check over my homework, and they weren’t there to read me bedtime stories so that I would love reading, and most of the time they were gone before I woke up in the morning for school.
When my third grade teacher, Mrs. Heyward, sent my mom the “FOURTH AND FINAL” notice that she needed to attend a parent-teacher conference pronto or else I was in danger of being left back again, my mom tore up the notice and said, “I’m worried we aren’t letting you grow up. Are we stifling your development, baby girl?”
“Let me worry about that, Mom.”
“Let you worry about that? You can hardly be the one worrying about yourself.”
“Why not? I’m me. I know what’s bad for me and what’s good.”
“Wrong,” my mom said. “That’s exactly what you don’t know.”
“How?” I said.
“How what, my stone-tough peach?” asked my dad, coming in through the front door on his day off with two bags of groceries in each hand.
“What took you so long?” I said, running up to him. I took a bag from him and carried it to the kitchen. “Mom thinks I should sleep by myself tonight.”
“You know I agree, tartberry,” my dad said, unpacking the groceries, which were all nonperishables because our refrigerator wasn’t working well and all the food we had bought the week before had soured.
The only good thing about sleeping by myself in my own bed in the Williamsburg apartment was, firstly, it was just a smaller mattress on the floor next to my parents’ bed, and, secondly, I was still close enough to hear them whispering to each other in the mornings when they thought I was asleep. Sometimes, my fraudulent sleep lasted for what felt like hours, but there was not enough time in the world to help me understand what they were saying. I gave up at some point on trying to figure out their whisperings and would instead bolt straight upright and start to get dressed, knowing my mom would ask me to stop what I was doing and slide in between her and my dad just like I used to when I was itchy all the time, and I would say, “How come you don’t need me to be independent now?” and she would say, “I want you to be the hot dog and your dad and I will be the bun,” and I would jump in between them, and my dad would say, “Or what if our lovely daughter is turkey and you’re cheese, my lovely wife, and I’m the lettuce?”
“Then who’s the bread? And who’s the mayonnaise and who’s the mustard?” And the work of parceling out who was who and what made each type of sandwich or burger or hot dog or any sort of meat-between-bread thing so delicious was a project that we devoted ourselves to until the morning sun became the afternoon sun and our arms were cramped from holding each other, and I knew somehow that I wasn’t supposed to like this, that I was supposed to want to go over my friend’s house, and I was supposed to want to paint my nails and play tag and jump rope and do the things that kids my age did, but the truth was, I only ever wanted to be sandwiched between my parents. I only ever wanted them to need me, and I only ever thought about them and all the ways I could please them or, better yet, impress them with how much I wanted to remain their daughter and how much I wanted them to remain my parents.
“You know,” my mom said, “one day you’ll be a parent, and you won’t feel so much like our daughter.”
“That’s right,” my father said. “Because you’ll also feel like a mother. And the feeling of being a mother can be so much more extraordinary than the feeling of being a daughter.”
“And your own daughter won’t ever look at you and think that you must also be a daughter, you know what we mean, sour candy?”
“I think so,” I said.
“That’s why I wish you could stay this age forever,” my mom said. “What if I could always be 32 and you could always be nine and your father could always be 35. What if, honeybee?”
“I’ll do that,” I said right away. “I’ll stay nine. I don’t want to be someone else’s mom.”
My mother pulled me close to both her and my dad. “You can’t give up the rest of your life to stay this way.”
“I want to. I like the idea of staying here.”
“I really do, Mom. This is what I want. To stay like this forever.”
“Let’s ask the gods for help,” my father suggested.
“OK,” my mother said, and we got out of bed and into a circle, the three of us, and we stomped our feet and shouted, “Let us stay, let us stay, let us stay, let us stay,” until our voices got hoarse, and the next day mine was squeaky and my mom’s was sultry and my dad liked the way she sounded and I saw them holding hands and my dad fixing my mom’s shirt collar in the morning and I felt like this was the reason why I would never want to get older, because why move forward when it was so brilliant to just remain as we were?