Once, at a coffee shop, I watched a man—a big man, with muscled arms exposed and a hat twisted backwards—dip an animal cracker into his coffee with such concentrated tenderness that my eyes dilated like a lover’s. Outside the window a woman crossed toward the sunny side of the street, a branch of lilac tucked into a paper cup in her hand. Oh, to know each stranger in this particular way, to magpie each moment feathered in springtime, afternoon light. Here, the paramour, his thumbs roving carefully around the plastic lid of his sweetheart’s cup to keep the liquid in, away from her pretty scarf, the boy rushing toward a fallen dime, handing it to his mother like a gift. Forgive me, for once I watched the world without loneliness.
Thirteen to your brother’s eight, he’ll keep those rounded cheeks for another few years and you won’t realize they were something you could miss until they’ve gone lean. You’re wearing a red sweater, stained under each arm from sweat, tip-toeing around your grandmother’s mean cat, but stopping to pet the one gone patient, or at least slow, with age. It’s Christmas so the heat is on high for company, the kitchen windows fogged, the icicles outside bleeding slowly from the warmth of the house.
Something is wrong. Where is your mother? Each holiday hums the same rhythm, a comfortable beat of food, presents, football, but now there is quiet, now yelling. You can’t understand your grandfather, but you know he is angry. Next, your mother’s voice—fuck you, fuck you, go to hell. At some point there must have been an announced break, the adults retreating to grind their teeth, but you can’t remember that, only this moment, a sustained fissure, like the first bright seconds after waking from a dream. Your aunt quick to distract your brother, taking him to the dining room for another round of Uno or maybe Candyland. Your grandmother, washing dishes. And you, ever the observer (perhaps sneak), here, tethered to the bottom of the staircase, the voices above.
You know bits of this. You’ll learn more later, piece it together eagerly, secretly, from tongue-slips and well-timed questions. Summers in the Black Hills, the heat trapped in your mother’s lungs, the dirt gritted in your grandmother’s teeth. The family car, always covered with dust, which he took to Vegas one morning. No note. That first uneasy truce, the final trade of sobriety for martyrdom. Later: a late night phone call from your uncle’s wife (the bloodline letting), your brother passed out on the front lawn fourteen years after (everyone saw this coming).
But for now you have only these small and stolen seconds listening by the stairs, loyal to your mother’s anger, wild, unleashed. There is powdered sugar on your pants and you lick your finger to make it disappear. When you leave that evening, head back to your own home, you’ll ask your mother if you can wear her scarf, wrap it tightly around your neck, watch as an icicle breaks, falls silently into the snow, steadfast.
Kristen Zory King is a writer and artist facilitator based in Washington, DC. Recent work can be found in Electric Lit, Past-Ten, District Lit, and SWWIM among others. Learn more or be in touch at KristenZoryKing.com.