When our mother emerged from her bedroom, the banging of the door slamming shut behind her—like a rifle shot through crisp air—jolted us upright in our beds. Andie and I were already awake, having stirred when our bedroom was first brightened and then filled with shadows by the headlights of our father’s Delta 88 as it turned into the driveway from the 1:00am quiet of the street. After several minutes—which we knew must have felt like time moving in slow-motion—of fumbling with the keys in the ignition, our more-than-likely-drunk father turned off the engine and the night was once again quiet. When the headlights were finally diminished, our room again grew dark. Our curiosity was fueled by the insistent scraping of the skeleton key inside the lock, and, when we finally heard it catch, we knew that father had been barred admittance to the marital chamber by an enraged chatelaine. As soon as our eyes readjusted to the darkness, my sister and I jumped out of bed, scurried to our bedroom door and peeked through the crack between the door and the jamb. Our bedroom door was always kept slightly ajar, allowing for light from the bathroom across the hallway to stream diagonally through our room. I was then still afraid of the dark and believed that this light, much like a sanctuary lamp, indicated the presence of some invisible God who would protect my sister and me from the demons I believed lurked in the dark. The light divided our room into two triangles, and dared any demons to cross over to where our bunk-beds stood against the far wall.
Andie, who was two years older and several inches taller, stood behind me as we peered through the small opening in the doorway. I slouched so that the top of my head was beneath her chin; positioned this way, we could both watch our mother stalk down the hallway like an ancient huntress, her flame-colored hair twisted around hard plastic curlers which were bouncing up and down atop her head and against her neck and shoulders as if alive. With its train of white lilies and pink rhododendrons, the long, polyester housecoat our mother ceremoniously wore to bed skimmed the floor, and we could still hear its rustle against the ocean green carpet, like great stalks of wheat swishing in the wind, when she began descending the stairs. I could feel the cool dampness of my sister’s hair, not yet dry from her bedtime bath, brushing against my neck with its soft, blunt ends. She let out a breath and moved insistently against me; I felt the same shiver of voyeuristic excitement, and the same gooseflesh on her arms that had erupted on mine as our skin touched. During the past few months of our father’s wayward behavior, my sister and I seemed in temperament and proximity to be that close.
On late nights like this one, after opening our bedroom door slowly, millimeter by millimeter, until there was just enough space for a thin girl to squeeze out sideways, holding chin to chest and holding her breath, Andie and I surreptitiously tip-toed down the hallway, huddled against the wall as if bound to it by a vertical form of gravity. Silently tip-toeing with out feet pressed securely against the baseboards, so the pressure of our footsteps would not cause the floorboards under the faded ocean-green carpet to creak, we crept cautiously to the top of the stairwell. Feet first and supported by our thin, freckled arms, we scooted on our backsides down to the landing, where, peeking through the openings in the railing, we could see all that was to transpire from a large mirror hanging over the sofa on the far side of the living room. The mirror, which was shaped like a shield, reflected the portion of the room we could not see from the landing, and, more importantly, the archway separating this room from the dining room.
That mirror told no lies. Within its frame, we could see our mother pacing back and forth in front of the dining room table, her face crinkling angrily until it seemed that her eyebrows were knit so tightly they would continue to knit right over her rage-squinted eyes and connect to her cheekbones. The faster she paced, the more the curlers, and the flame of hair wrapped around them, seemed to move as if alive, thrashing about like hairy snakes, slithering around her face and down the back of her neck. Occasionally, a curler fell unnoticed onto the floor, leaving a piece of hair to spring forth unleashed, where it was free to frizz or hiss or tangle, or fall loosely about mother’s face, attempting to soften and make it more human. However, what now stood reflected in that mirror was no longer the woman who was our mother, but a monster.
Her hands were busy about the zipper of her housecoat, which was pulled up to the jointure of her clavicles, unzipping and zipping as if she were ripping in half the stems of flowers and then trying to piece them back together again. The harsh whiteness her neck-skin glowed in the light of the electric Lucite chandelier and her voice erupted from her mouth in a tirade as soon as the key fumbling at the back door finally sprung the lock. Andie and I heard the door bang against the wall of the mudroom separating the kitchen from the basement stairs. We then heard our father, as he made his way up the three stairs to the kitchen, trip (as he always did), bang his head or shoulder against the wall, and then curse like a drunken sailor. My sister and I, still co-conspirators at this point, looked at each other and mirthfully giggled. As our father reached the kitchen and saw our mother, we heard him collapse to the floor with a groan and begin to remove his shoes, which, depending on his state of drunkenness, he would proceed to line up against the wall or throw down the steps to the basement.
As our mother, still delivering her harangue of accusation, disappointment and fury, stepped back and out of the frame of the mirror, we saw our father emerge from the periphery to take her place, as if surfacing from some unfathomable depth—because our mother had willed it so—into her line of sight and into the reflected line of ours. The instant he looked at her, at that frenzied flaming hair, rage-whitened face, and scowling lipless mouth that pronounced his sentence to drunk-deaf ears, our father stood frozen, his mouth agape but voiceless, his hands suspended in front of his chest as if in appeal or for protection. He was so still that he seemed neither to tremble nor to breathe under our mother’s gaze. And then he sank under that gaze, like an abandoned ship; all of his faculties of protestation, persuasion, and skirting issue having jumped overboard in search of the silent safe haven of oblivion found under the heavy waves of drunkenness. Much like the body of a drowning man who finally relinquishes his strength to the sea, our father’s body grew slack and then slipped to the ocean green carpet, and seemingly, beneath, for his reflection disappeared from the mirror.
Neither Andie nor I ever risked descending further down the stairs for fear that even our slightest tread on the next step would be heard by that fuming and monstrous madwoman who now only slightly resembled our mother. Our fear was not that she would chase us back to our room, blue curlers bouncing and red-flamed tendrils dancing around her face, and punish us. Our fear was that she would know that we had spied, that we had witnessed a confrontation between a wife and her husband inappropriate for the eyes and ears of little girls. This was the fear that made us hesitate taking another step. Even the next morning, when she would remove the pins and rollers and free her hair from its bondage, smooth it’s curls and waves with a brush and tint her good-morning smile with sheer pink lipstick, she would remember that we had seen who our parents became at night after we were in bed and asleep. She would know that we had heard how our parents talked to each other; that we had listened to the words they used, saw what gestures they employed, and witnessed what words and gestures were absent.
In an attempt to see what the mirror no longer reflected, Andie, whose feet in their loose socks were firmly planted on the first step just below the landing, slid her gripping hands down the staircase handrail. She leaned out over the steps at an angle, stretching her skinniness out until she was straight and seemed much skinnier than when standing upright. Sitting on that same first step below the landing, and more satisfied to listen to the cadences of my mother’s voice rise and fall upon my father like waves crashing against a helpless beach, than to actually see their confrontation, I watched Andie contort her arms and legs in order to steady her quivering, my eyebrows raising with each inch my sister stretched. The more she elongated her body, the more her body trembled. Next to me, her feet shuffled as she tried to hold her balance; one of her socks was caught under her other foot and she could not separate them. Sitting there, watching my sister’s feet wrestle, watching her arms tremor as her strength to hold herself in this unnatural position was about to give out, I believed that she, my older sister, could not fall. She turned to look at me, her mouth open and her brown eyes large with terror. I heard her voiceless gasp and only then realized that she had lost her balance and tumbled down the stairs. My sister was lying motionless in a lump, silent tears slid down her trembling face, in hope that our parents hadn’t heard the noise of her body bouncing off of each step and crashing down upon the next.
I stood up. Placing one hand on the rail, I extended the other in an offer of symbolic help, but remained stationary, not daring to walk down to her, help her stand up, and scurry us both back to our bedroom before we were discovered. Shifting my eyes from my sister to the mirror, I saw my mother’s face, eyes glaring, mouth open and then abruptly closed, eyebrows straightly disturbed. The only sounds were Andie’s near-silent whimpering and our father’s sloshy breathing. Then there was a rustle, and our mother appeared from the portal of the mirror into the living room, hair alive and raging around her still anger-whitened face. Her eyes followed the staircase railing upwards to the landing and, seeing me, she raised her hand and pointed an accusatory finger. Those same lips that had just yelled at father opened in anticipation of pronouncing my punishment for the next few months. No voice erupted from that volcanic mouth. Her arm fell and slapped against her thigh. Both hands rose to her bosom, then to her mouth. She had seen the hair, the glowing girl-skin of arms and legs, the nightgown and socks, the lump that was Andie lying at the bottom of the stairs.
Andie looked up at me disdainfully and, wiping a hand across her check, tried to sit up. Seeing the movement, mother, shuddering now with waves of relief, began to approach her daughter, but abruptly stopped when, sitting up, my sister turned towards the rustle of the housecoat, looked up at the face of shock and anger and discipline, at the snake-haired monster our mother had become, and screamed.
Motionless. We were all motionless now. Father: still lying on the floor of the dining room, below the surface of the mirror’s reflection, or so he must have been because I could not hear him sliding against the wall, which he certainly would need to do to support himself in the act of standing up. Andie: half sitting, half lying, her mouth hard and ugly in a scowl of revulsion. Mother: standing stationary in the act of movement, as if running in place, her eyebrows now furrowed in confusion, hair and curlers frozen in bounce like shackles on a mean dog. Me: riveted to that top step, my mouth trying to form the words I was afraid to utter for fear that I would be punished because I was not the daughter who was hurt, because I was not the one who had been brave, because I was not the daughter who had dared and fallen, because I was not the daughter for whom she would feel sorry, because I had been passive in my rebellion, because I had let my sister fall and not rushed to help her, because I had been afraid.
“Mommy, y-your hair!” The words rushed like wind from between my lips, which moved without feeling their movement, like when your foot falls asleep and you can still walk, but can’t feel yourself walking.
Our mother’s hands rose above her face and neck, over her head, just above the hair-wrapped curlers that stood the highest, in an attempt to tactilely understand what I had said. Moving quickly, in a madness she could not understand, because hands cannot, no matter how experienced, visualize, her body turned, mechanically, as if moving simultaneously to my wishing it to move. I could see not only the back of her head with its raging, flaming hair, but also her face as it saw itself reflected in the mirror, at first void of recognition, and then horrified as it saw what was mirrored before her eyes. She was seeing what, at any other moment, she could not have seen, not even while rolling the curlers into her hair after washing it or removing them in the morning. She saw what at first was only her hair, and then, as she lowered her hands to her face to rub out the lines of anger and frustration, recognized the monster, the mythical creature that Andie and I, and our father, saw.
Slowly at first, and then with methodically increasing speed, her hands flew quickly about her head like little birds attacking the creatures of hair and curlers as she removed hairpins, unwound curlers, and let them fall onto the couch, the floor. She moved her fingers through her hair, smoothed it with her palms, and pulled it toward her face where its luster warmed her skin and its softness smoothed the anger from her sharp features. The monster had been beheaded, not by father or Andie, but by the slice of my words.
Andie rose and stepped quietly toward our mother, who slowly sat down on the couch and, turning toward her daughter, beckoned with outstretched arms into which my sister ran and folded herself comfortably. She wound her own thin, freckled arms around mother’s shoulders and buried her face against mother’s neck, beneath the gleaming, lustrous, hair that now looked softer than cashmere. I watched as my father’s image resurfaced in the mirror on the wall above their heads, and then saw him materialize into the living room as if emerging from the depths of a calm sea. His steps were staggered and lumbering, as if urged on by waterlogged and swim-weary legs, but his feet led him where he wished to be. He stumbled over to the sofa and sat down next to his intertwined wife and daughter. Taking a curler in his hand, he rolled it around and around, as if rolling invisible hair, and then gazed nostalgically at the hair from which it had been released, the hair that it had released, the hair that now framed his wife’s neck and shoulders like a pair of luxurious velvet curtains. My father’s hand moved the idle curler toward mother’s hair, as if attempting to return it to its rightful place—a gesture which I had seen once as a child of five in my first act of mirrored voyeurism. Sitting alone upon this very same landing—I’d not invited and never shared this revelation of parental intimacy with my sister, whose prudish disdain of sensuality and selfish clamoring for attention would have denigrated the beauty of what I had witnessed and dismissed its occurrence as idealized romantic fantasy, for our parents could never love anyone more than their first-born child, not even each other—I watched with hypnotic intensity as my father, amid mother’s gentle tussles and flirty giggles, rolled curlers around her flaming locks and secured them in place with wire hairpins. After each curler was rolled properly into place, mother turned up her face as if inviting my father to kiss her. When a curler would not stay put, he tried to kiss her anyway and she coyly turned her head away, and he kissed a bare shoulder instead. Their faces and mother’s bare white shoulders, lit by the softly dimmed and broken light of the chandelier, glowed ethereally as if they were not merely my parents, but transfigured, haloed saints or tritons frolicking beneath flickering water, the blurred sacred and mythological renderings of my first glimpse of intimacy between sexual beings. Father seemed to recall this memory, too, for he held the curler closer and reached his other hand to grasp a slithering curl that had wound itself across mother’s check. The marble-hard glare that met his gesture froze him in time—as only the gaze of even that beheaded gorgon could—and he held this pose of hands stopped in midair for what seemed like hours, but was only seconds. Repelled by this invisible barrier of coldness, father’s hands slowly fell into his lap and I saw his taciturn gaze follow them and then meditatively watch the turning of the curler he continued to fondle between his fingers, as if it were alive and quivering, and could respond to his touch.
* * * * * * * * * *
Two months after Andie’s tumble down the stairs, father moved out and mother cut her hair short; those fierce, red straggling snakes now curled up against her neck and no longer required curlers to style. Thrown out into the garbage were those ugly curlers of hard blue plastic and the metal hairpins which had kept them positioned around the contour of her head like a blue halo. Mother bought soft, pinkish-beige sponge rollers for Andie so that she could roll her own hair up when she wanted curls like those mother used to have. She rolled Andie’s hair the first few times, but it was too coarse and heavy, and the rollers weren’t large enough, to roll them completely up to her head. They dangled about her neck and shoulders like branches weighted by wet snow.
After the first time mother rolled her hair, my sister stood up on the sofa, making sure that mother wasn’t around, and, demanding me to watch, jumped up and down in front of the mirror in order to make the hair and curlers come alive around her face. Contorting her mouth in scowl and smirk and rapacious grin, her voice a loud, raspy whisper, she commanded, “Look, Percy! Look at my hair!” And then she stopped bounding. The rollers settled back onto her shoulders, moving slower and slower until they were motionless. I could see my sister’s disappointment reflected in the mirror. After redirecting her frown from her reflection to me, she fell limply onto the couch and looked down at her empty hands.
“You can never make it as scary as she did,” I retorted, after which I walked up the stairs to the room we still shared and sat down upon my bed, now unbunked from hers and on the opposite side of the room with my things, across an invisible diagonal that was never illuminated because the bathroom light was left off during the night now and our bedroom door left open. I bent over and turned my head upside down, and ran a brush through my straight, short hair until it was charged with enough electricity to stand up straight around my head. Then I licked my hands and ran them through my floating hair until it was slicked back in the same way father wore his. I didn’t need a mirror to see that I’d gotten it right.
Never again was I afraid of the dark. I was now apprehensive during the daytime, but not because of Andie or mother when they were alone. I was afraid when they were together and often found my body trembling like it had when I stood at the top of the stairs witnessing the embrace from which, whether intentional or not, father and I had been excluded. Now when Andie and mother embraced in my presence, it somehow reinforced what my sister referred to as her position of favorite daughter. I found it difficult to embrace mother, who now looked and acted like a stranger. It was my secret wish that father would return and put things right again, but I knew that things hadn’t been right before his departure. Although she would never admit it, my sister kept trying to resurrect the monster mother used to be so that maybe I, like father, would leave too.