We shuffle into the familiar diner, forcing our eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, taking up the tiny entrance. While my mother asks for our reservation, I hide among my group, my brother, aunt and uncle standing with me. I rub lightly on my arm, provoking my oatmeal wash to fill my nose, reminding me that I am cleansed. The fragrance of my perfume, given to me as a birthday present, mixes with the oats, deliciously tinting me in vanilla affection. It wraps me in its cozy aroma, taking me to a place I wish existed, sprinkling my wild fantasies in possibility.
“Let’s go, we have a table.”
My mother turns her head; wispy black flashes the air, falling back on her sharp shoulders. I watch her hips swish, striding as her thin legs kick at her dress with every step. We follow her deeper into the place, a waiter guiding us through the maze of chairs and tables, leaving the stale arrival in my mouth. I watch the seated people, causally eating, turn to stare at our infamy. I can feel their eyes resting on my shoulders, tearing the seams of my dress off, exposing the frayed skin underneath. I’m quick to pull out my grey sweater, tucked in my armpit, to shield my insecurity.
“Here we are! I’m Manda, your waiter for tonight. Please take your time to pick from our delectable menu! Can I get you any water, or bread to start the evening?” The bubbly girl’s condescending smile never wanes as she impatiently waits for an answer.
“Thank you, but we’re fine.” Mother is quick to shoo Manda off, letting her squawk in silent discomfort, until she goes. She takes the menu, placed on the table, and starts reading it quietly to herself, hoping for us to pick up the cue. I watch the waiter go, disappearing into that shady back room, off from the kitchen.
“Mommy, I don’t want to eat here. Sam always picks this place, it stinks!” My brother kicks at the table’s leg, rocking it awake. Mother’s cerulean eyes dart to her foolish son. I didn’t pick this place; it was always mother’s go-to birthday abode. It was cheap, only a crack in her wallet, no bigger than my own flaw. It also made her remember Father for a meal. My fingers play with the pleather seat, digging into the fold where the seat meets the backrest. Crumbs borrow under my nails as my hand wanders further between the cushions. I want to leave, now.
“This place is special. We always celebrate her birthday here. Right, Sam? It’s tradition, after all.”
Her gaze meets my own unfocused one, mentally begging me to tell the agitated boy that this is customary: Take Sam to the dingy restaurant down the street, so Mother saves a buck, with family. I nod, letting my eluded thoughts run back into the reaches of the padded booth. My brother sulks into the seat, sighing in agreement with her choice of eatery. I crassly twirl my raven hair, wishing for someone to save me from this place, as they all pick from the set menu in front of them. I study my aunt and uncle, who took the time out from their retired lives, to visit us.
I would retire from this world if it’s possible; there’s less to understand and more to indulge. And after my experiences, life seems too tarnished to save from the landfill that is my family, to become something new again. I know it’s all for support, bringing my aunt and uncle here, trying to console the ugly written in the Turner last name, but it won’t excuse the acts committed.
“Sam, are you excited? You’re an adult in an hour, can you believe it?! Eighteen!”
My aunt flounces, shaking her thick frame in happiness. She sets her glasses higher up her sweaty face, needle-like strands of white hair unbinding from her bun. She cools down after a few seconds of momentary joy, while her husband pats her back, helping her dying lungs from giving out on the table top. From years of smoking out her anger, it’s no surprise she won’t live to her seventies. My uncle’s aging fast, too, with his hairline receding and crows clawing at the corners of his eyes, leaving nicks. They don’t mind the old age creeping in; they welcome it for breakfast with a glass of Southern-brewed tea. My uncle helps his wife continue searching for a pleasing meal that will fill her full stomach more, leaving me to decide as well.
I thought transitioning into adulthood would be a big event, but I lost that spark years ago in the greasy carpet that covers the restaurant’s secrets. I believed the day would be exciting, yet it was awarded to me in the backroom by my father himself.
“Hey, guys! Sorry, almost forgot you were one of my tables! So quiet back here! Have you all decided?”
Manda reappears after twenty minutes, sickly cheerful like the first time she was here. We all list our orders, her hands jotting down our words on a notepad she carries, scratching out our eight o’clock demands. She tells us she’ll come with food and drinks the next round. We thank her, and then she scurries back into the dubious room from before, as I sit uneasy next to my brother. The memories of that room’s yellow walls suffocated me in his musty smell, his low, maniacal laugh.
How he would call to me, repeatedly saying this was his love and that pain was a side effect. My hair would stick in clumps on my forehead, as I cried for Mother to save me, not knowing she was somehow in on the performance. The constant sway of his employee shirt front hovered over my worn body, as he wrought more into my muffled screams. He would demand me to stop my whining, complain that he’d be fired if anyone heard us.
“Mommy, I really hate this place!” My brother starts again, huffing more. His green eyes, dark like Father’s, squint in displeasure. “Daddy would’ve taken us for pizza, not to his work!”
My eyes trace Mother’s face that tense at the mention of Father. Her frown lines crease her beauty, making her mouth a tight line, stretching thinly like her patience. She has told us countless times not to talk about him, that after being incarcerated he should merely be an avoided thought.
“Sweetheart, Daddy doesn’t work here anymore, remember? He got laid off and was put in time out, okay? So stop with the questions and enjoy tonight.”
She forces a motherly smile, her yellow teeth displaying the abuse brought down on her by tiresome legal nights, discussing her hold on her children. I cast my head down, swerving from her flare of hatred towards me. She knows he wasn’t laid off, and that “time out” would be life.
“I miss him. Daddy was fun, unlike you and Sam.”
I don’t react to his comment, knowing full well that he’s never seen Father for who he was – a deadbeat husband, pampering his own needs in that private room with his imprudent daughter, who’d cover for him every time. I’d sit in that back room of this diner, cleaning up evidence from our errant meet, cooing to myself that all fathers did this. It was always after my birthdays when he’d tell me to come to his workand“hang” with him for the evening.
“Yes, I know, but Daddy needs time alone. He’s thinking over some things.”
He’d tell my mother we were dropping by the diner to do a last minute task, and that I’d be tagging along. His words would always be, “We’ll be back in fifteen, don’t wait up.” My mother’s expression would contort, changing into a dull stare as we left my birthday party, bustling with my Father’s extended family, including my aunt and uncle, heading across the train tracks to the restaurant. There he’d grab the rusty handle and pull me into the mysterious room, releasing the obscurity and subtle smell of cardboard. I’d yank at Father’s grip on my wrist, desperate not to be put in this room again and feel his overbearing desire for me. But it was never any use.
“When will he come back?”
He was cunning, sobbing to me that this was the only gift he had to offer for my birthday, that spending wasn’t an option. I never wanted him to buy me things; I just needed the fear to stop. I wanted the chance to have a birthday dinner without his groping hands circling my back, or his lingering smell staining my mind for another year. My hopes were answered one night when a customer forgot his wallet, coming back to the diner only to hear the shushed growls from behind the orange door that concealed us. That’s when light filled the room, beautiful in the dank silence, and found my father scampering away from between my legs.
“Daddy will come back later.”
I had cried from embarrassment, pleading with the man not to tell my mother, that it was my own fault. He called the police, mortified by the scene, while my father tried debating with him. It ended with my father being arrested and me going back home to my mother, away from that man I called Daddy. Mother is now fighting for our custody, not that there’s anywhere else for us to go but foster care, even as she’s resentful of me and frantic to keep the last false recollection of her husband alive.
My hand aimlessly runs over my pullover as my brother continues to fight with mother. I pick the fluff off my sweater, rolling it between my fingers, then resume massaging my arm. I’m clean, he can’t defile me anymore, and he’s locked for good in the protection of prison.
“How long is later, Mommy?”
“He will be back later! Now stop, James Michael Turner, Junior, with the questions!” she yells, staining the atmosphere with a quiet stress.
I decide to ease the strain the only way I know how. I lean over to my brother, close to his ear, and whisper to him, “He’ll be back in fifteen, don’t wait up.”