“Emily, come here. I’m going to teach you how to read. Aside from everything else I’ll teach you, this is going to be the best because books will unlock the doors to success, okay?”
I smiled up at him, transfixed by his beauty.
“Okay, dad, but can I choose the book?”
He picked me up, sat me down on the dining chair and showed me the books he’d already laid out.
“No need, baby. I already picked your favorites.”
He was my first love, and he was also my savior. He did no wrong in my eyes, not even when he got angry. To others, it might’ve been a fault; it might’ve been a flaw, or a hidden scar that showed its true colors in times of brutality. But to me, it was an extension of our reality. I thought everyone’s daddy got angry. Sitting there at the dining table, with mom in the kitchen baking a banana pie, my insecurities were being illuminated by the light in my father’s eyes. He flipped to a random page, put his finger down on the first line and said, “Read.” He made everything seem as if it were so simple, as if it were common knowledge. Along with many other things, weakness didn’t have a place in our home, and at that table, patience didn’t exist either. Though, what did rear its’ ugly head was pressure. My father radiated pressure. It oozed out of his pores, and clashed with his anger; the anger that hid inside of my closet and tried to capture me in the middle of the night, time and time again. I tried to take my time, but the pressure that seemed to be living and breathing personified itself by turning into beads of sweat on my forehead. I began to curl my toes nervously, over and over until strength found itself in my voice. The ticking of my father’s watch seemed to be taunting me. It seemed to glorify every second that went by; every unsuccessful second I didn’t open my mouth to read. Finally deciding to try, I looked down at the page and the seemingly jumbled letters jumped out at me. If I just looked at it, they were perfectly typed words that had been strategically splattered on a blank, white page. Yet, when I tried to read them, they appeared to have creepy, long arms that wrapped around my neck and sucked the life out of me. I just couldn’t do it.
“Daddy, it’s hard.”
“What do you mean it’s hard? You didn’t even try. Come on, what’s the first word there? Come on, give it a try.”
It was a trap. At five years old, I knew that my father wasn’t a tender man. When he used that voice, it was his way of calming not only himself, but the other person as well. In that case, it was me. My mother and I briefly made eye contact as she removed the pie from the oven, and I happened to be searching for courage. Her eyes told me that I could do it, but also that I shouldn’t make my father angry. We’d been having a calm evening. She smiled softly, winked at me, and nodded. My mother had the softest heart of anyone I’d ever known, and if she said I could do it, then I knew I could. She was my guardian angel. Looking back down at the page, my father’s finger directed me to where I should start. I opened my mouth, and uttered a silent and timid, “T-t-the.”
My father’s thin mouth formed into a tight smile.
“Good, keep going. Just sound it out, and you’ll be fine.”
He encouraged me to read the second word, and having been fueled from my success of reading the first word correctly, I rushed myself.
“The…k-kids…in…the! I knew that one, dad! I remembered it from before! Am I doing good?”
“Well, Emily, it’s ‘am I doing well,’ not good. And yes, you’re doing fine. Keep going, the sentence isn’t finished.”
“Okay.” I furrowed my little eyebrows. Just once, I wanted him to be proud, and I was determined for that moment to be that moment. I would read the whole page flawlessly and he would lift me up in the air, call me his princess, and we’d all enjoy banana pie together.
My mother walked over from the kitchen, and stood over my dad’s shoulder. She placed her arm around him lovingly, and said, “I’m proud of you, honey. That was very good.”
“No, mommy, it’s ‘well,’ not good.”
They laughed. Not understanding the joke, I joined in very quickly, and then hushed their excitement so I could continue.
“Okay, guys, listen! The kids in the…um…daddy, this word is hard. The letters look funny.”
“Sound it out, Emily. I’m not going to tell you that again.”
Stricken with fear, I knew that I was running out of chances. I had to straighten up.
“The kids in the…s-h-h. Um, s-c-c…”
He slammed his hand on the table. “School!”
Both my mother and I got startled, and an eerie silence fell over us all. No one moved a muscle.
“Adam, what good does it do if you tell her? She’s learning. You have to give her time.”
He slowly turned his head towards her and said, “School isn’t that hard of a word. How many times do I have to tell her to sound it out?”
Embarrassed, I felt myself beginning to cry. If I showed any signs of defeat, my father would devour me, so I stared at the vaulted ceilings I liked so much, and tried to tune them out as best as I could. My toes began to dance wildly, but this time, my fingers joined the party. Anxiety was taking over me.
“I understand that, but she’s five. School may not be a difficult word for us, but you have to admit, it’s kind of a weird letter combination. Look, the pie is done. Maybe we should all take five to cool down, grab a slice, and then come back to this.” She reached down to close the book, but my father’s reflexes were quicker than the speed of sound. He nudged her hand away, and said, “Maybe you should go, honey. We’re fine here.”
Hearing those terrifying words, I looked at my mother with wide, frightened eyes, and silently begged her not to leave me alone with him. Seeing my fear, she tried to fight it, but it didn’t work. He won the battles in this household.
Not needing any words to get his point across, my father glared at her, and that was it. The argument was over.
“I’ll becoming back to check on you guys in a minute.”
Before she left, my mom gently kissed my cheek, and softly whispered, “I’ll be watching from the corner. It’ll be fine.”
I watched her leave until all I could see were the invisible footprints of her feet. I continued to stare, but my dad tapped my arm, and said, “Emily, continue.”
Every bit of courage that I had left was no longer existent. I felt stuck and trapped inside the cave of a hungry bear, and there was no way out. The only way I could get off of that table was if I continued to read, but only if I did it correctly. Not wanting to anger him any further, I read.
“The kids in the school…s-s-stood in the…hawlway…and..ttth…ey..they…um…
“Emily, did you even look that word?”
“Yes, daddy, I did. It was confusing.”
I couldn’t hide it any longer. My ability to confidently read in front of him had flown out the window, gone forever and no longer retrievable.
“I’m letting your mother deal with this shit.” He started to get up from the table, but I stupidly opened my mouth and said, “That’s a bad word, dad. Mommy said you’re not allowed to talk that way.”
Too afraid to make eye contact with him, my eyes were aimed directly at the table, and I didn’t dare look up. I could feel the heat sweltering, and I knew I was in trouble. He bent down towards me; his face inches from mine, and just stared at me. He didn’t move, and he didn’t speak; he just stared. I waited for my mother to come out from wherever she was hiding to cause a distraction, but it never happened. My father continued to lean over me, looming like a lingering dark cloud that would begin to thunder at any given moment. Then in a dark and deep voice, he said, “You want to hear a bad word? Read that word right there.”
He was testing me, and somehow, I knew this wouldn’t end with me being thrown in the air. Not the way I wanted to be, anyway. I looked at the word he was pointing at, and inhaled a sharp breath. Before I could stall any further, my father said, “Go ahead.”
His patience had run out, if it was there at all to begin with. Going to school every day seemed like a capital punishment, but in that moment, I wished nothing more than to be sitting in Ms. Hamp’s class doing math.
His silence let me know that I had the wrong answer.
“Do you see an ‘A’ in there anywhere, Emily? Since when is there an ‘A’ in ‘line’?”
I slightly shrugged my shoulders and said, “Daddy, I…”
I had a friend named Lina in school. I knew how to spell her name because of her name tag, and in that moment, ‘line’ looked just like Lina. I tried to explain to him that the familiarity threw me off, I was forcefully being pulled out of the chair, and my head hit the floor brusquely. As if they had been on their way during the fall, tears were already halfway down my face and I was loudly calling out for my mother. I heard her footsteps getting closer and closer, but by the time she reached us, I was already being lifted up by my hair, and being thrown into the wall.
“ADAM! LEAVE HER ALONE!”
My mother screamed and cried until her voice gave out. She rushed to my father’s side and aggressively pushed him out of my way, but her strength was no math for his.” I always appreciated her for trying, though.
“Brenda, Ive already said that this has nothing to do with you.” He grabbed her by her shoulders and pushed her aside, causing him to accidentally slam her into the dining table. I watched her slowly slump down onto the floor. A line of blood gradually ran down her face, and I closed my eyes. I no longer wanted to see anything. I felt my father approach me, and I tried to raise my arm as high as I could, but it didn’t happen.
“Daddy…I-I’m so sorry. Dad, p-please.”
My weepy eyes made contact with his, and as much as I searched, I didn’t see my dad anywhere within them. The eyes I stared into were bloodshot and filled with so much rage than my little body began to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t sure who that monster was, but I just wanted my dad. If he looked into my eyes long enough, I knew he would resurface. Over from the corner, my mother offered her voice weakly, and through bloody tears, she said, “Adam, just stop. She can’t take anymore. Please, let it go.”
In a cold and sharp silence, we awaited my father’s next move. He took a final look at his surroundings, and swiftly walked out of the house. He didn’t say a word, he didn’t grab his keys, all he did was leave. My mother immediately rushed to my side and scooped me up as she cried heavily.
“It’s over, baby. He’s gone, alright? He’s gone.”
It might’ve been over now, but he would be back. We would mess up, and the monster would return.