by Susan Carpenter
The tension around the dinner table is palpable. My father sits to my left closest to the electric ice box and to the kitchen door which leads to the common hallway. My mother sits opposite him nearer the stove and the windows overlooking what I wish was a courtyard but what is, in reality, an alley between the two back wings of the apartment building. It is covered with so much soot and coal dust that even the hardiest weeds refuse to penetrate its surface. I sit at the table’s open drop leaf, a full plate before me. Daddy’s always telling me to act like a young lady, but I’m only five. I don’t know what a young lady is supposed to act like. I’m aware that I’m the cause of the tension tonight. It makes my stomach hurt.
Every dinner with my father is an unspoken battle of wills. Most rules are clear: your food to your mouth, not your mouth to your food; elbows off the table, napkin in your lap, chew with your mouth closed; and don’t pick at your food. Other rules are less obvious. When the food in my mouth has been chewed to the consistency of paper pulp, I’m expected to swallow it. I wipe my mouth with my napkin depositing the inedible mass therein. Later I will ask to be excused to the bathroom where I will empty my napkin as well as whatever else has accumulated in my mouth into the toilet. Nothing I do tonight seems to please my father.
The kitchen smells like my mother’s dry, overcooked pork chops and cinnamon applesauce. I eat my meal in my usual fashion, beginning with what I like best, and leaving the worst for last for last hoping I won’t have to finish. It never fails to irritate my father. I can feel the change in the atmosphere when he is displeased with me as he is now. I am dawdling, as my parents call it, over my now cold mashed potatoes. My Father tells me a story about a little boy who ate his food like me, one thing at a time. This, he tells me, is how they discovered that the boy was retarded.
I don’t want to be retarded. I always knew there was something wrong with me. I know that I don’t easily fit in, that I’m more comfortable with most adults than with kids my own age. Now I know why I don’t fit in: I’m flawed. I don’t like the word “retarded,” so I will keep this my secret, too painful to put into words.
Lying in bed surrounded by all my stuffed animals, I try to go to sleep, but I keep hearing the word “retarded.” It’s in my head and It’s keeping me awake. I try to make it go away. It doesn’t work. I try to pretend I’m a princess and a prince will come and rescue me. That’s how I always fall asleep. But deep inside I know no prince will ever come for me because what prince will ever rescue a flawed princess when he has so many others to choose from.
I guess I must have fallen asleep. My mother’s telling me it’s time to get up. The lingering smell of my father’s bacon and eggs floats all the way from the kitchen. Mommy wakes me only after my father leaves for work so I can enjoy my breakfast alone with her. My eyes open and light peeks in from the sides of the window shades. It’s a school day, but I’m still sleepy. Then all of a sudden, I’wide awake and cold. I shiver as I recall my father’s awful words last night. “Retarded.” Everything feels different now. I’m different, but I’m the same me I always was. It doesn’t make sense.
I walk to Kindergarten beside Joey’s mother. I like talking to her. It’s her turn to take us. It’s not far, but we have to walk in front of Superior Spring. It’s a huge brick building where they work on really big trucks, and sometimes the trucks back up across the sidewalk. It’s very dangerous. The other kids are in front of us. I don’t talk to Joey’s mother. After last night, I don’t know what to say.
Kindergarten only reinforces my awareness that I’m different. My school room is at the end of a hallway. It’s small with tiny wooden chairs lined up behind long tables; but then we are tiny as well. Louise is sitting in front of me chewing on one of her braids. For some reason I don’t like her but can not remember why. Perhaps it’s because one day in class she threw up all over her table. I remember the smell, like something left in the ice box too long.
Miss Harris is my teacher, an old lady by my childhood standards, and very strict. I don’t think she likes little kids. We never play or have fun in her room. I mostly remember nap time. I stopped taking a nap when I was two. Every day, despite spending only half a day in school, Miss Harris tells us to put our heads down on our tables. It’s nap time. The first time she said this, I told her I thought it was a childish thing to do. The next thing I know, she’s sitting in my little chair and I’m standing, her hands clutching my arms. I don’t remember what she said, but I know it wasn’t pleasant.
My other really bad memory from that particular room (other than Louise throwing up) occurs when we’re learning the alphabet. I already know all the letters. Last week Miss Harris told us to draw something that begins with the letter “P.” When I’m done, I look up and she’s staring at my drawing. She asks me what it is. I think she hopes I’ve gotten it wrong. She’s like that. She doesn’t like me. I tell her it’s a Pink Lady, something my mother drinks when we go out to dinner. After all, it’s a cocktail glass and I colored it pink. Miss Harris (everyone says she’s an old maid) is not happy with me, not at all. Everyone turns to stare at me. My face is hot. I want to disappear. She must know my secret, my flaw.
Mrs. Martin is the other kindergarten teacher, younger and prettier. I adore her. Her next-door classroom is at least twice as big as ours. We sometimes go there to play with the kids in her class. There are two playhouses on the side of the room, one is a little kitchen with a stove and a refrigerator. I want to play with the make-believe food and the pots and pans. I wonder how many times her class gets to play with them. There are lots of other toys as well. We have none in our room. The difference in the classrooms is unfair even to a five year old.
Mrs. Martin is a cheerful woman. She has fun teaching, seems to enjoy each moment with her small herd of students. There’s laughter there. We can hear it from our little room where silence reigns.
Off the main room of Mrs. Martin’s class, there’s a little room where musical instruments are stored. There are triangles and wooden sticks and tambourines and bells. We’re standing in a circle, singing, and playing our instruments. My stomach is itchy. I don’t have my overalls on. The school says I have to wear dresses now. So I pull up the skirt of my dress and start scratching. Miss Harris is looking at me. In front of everyone, she tells me to pull my dress down, says it’s wrong to lift up my skirt in public. Everyone is watching me. She is reprimanding me in front of both classes. I want to cry. It hurts so much. I wish I could sit down and cover my face with my skirt. No one would see me and I wouldn’t have to see their faces. I’d breathe into my hands and the yellow cotton of my dress would get warm, and then I would be safe.
This is the third time Miss Harris has made everyone turn to stare at me. This is the third time I’ve been humiliated, always by her. She makes me feel naked. My flaw has been exposed for everyone to see. My father is right: I am retarded. Parents don’t lie about things like that.