It’s time to go home. Not because I want to, but because Susie’s family is ready for their dinner. I put on my snowsuit and wrap the scarf twice around my face; one rotation covers my forehead, and the second one covers my nose and mouth. Only my eyes are left exposed. The winter sun is setting, and the sky in the distance is pink. I look back at Susie’s house as I crunch down her driveway. The snow in her front yard glows amber from the reflection of the lights in the house.
The family gathers around the table as Susie’s mother brings in the food that had been filling the house with Sunday afternoon smells, even though it is only Tuesday. I hesitate at the bottom of the driveway, unable to tear myself away from the coziness of this scene. Susie’s dad takes off his suit jacket and lays it over the back of his chair. Standing with his hands clasped before him, he bows his head, and I see his lips move as he blesses the meal. I had hoped they would have been invited to stay, but Susie’s mom told me that I should get on my way before it got dark.
Susie and I had been best friends since the second grade, when she leaned over her desk to offer me a card with a Bible quotation on it, courtesy of the Salvation Army. She was one of their soldiers collecting souls for their crusade out of our little elementary school. As the new girl in the school, without a single acquaintance, I accepted it gratefully even though my soul was already accounted for by the Presbyterian Church.
That prayer card, now long forgotten, bonded us together through the era of rainbow suspenders, feathered hair, and the Bay City Rollers. We were currently half way through our first year of middle school, wherein Susie and I were consumed with the business of growing up. Periods and bras had just been introduced in our health class, and we spent a good portion of our free-time trying to figure out how the jigsaw pieces of human anatomy came together.
From the end of the driveway, I could see Susie’s sister, Jacqueline, rise from the table and disappear into the kitchen. Her dark, Dorothy Hamill-hair swung like silk behind her. As an official teenager in high school, she was our idol. We mimicked the way she spoke, introducing her high-school slang into our everyday middle-school conversations. Jacqueline taught us to use colored ball-tipped sewing pins for earrings on our old Barbie dolls who were maturing alongside us. She had helped Susie and I that afternoon with our matching chocolate brown corduroy skirts that we were making for home economics. Jacqueline came back into the room with the jug of milk and before sitting down, she glanced my way. She pointed at me and the whole family turned their heads to look. Embarrassed at being caught spying on their family time, I turned and continued towards the street.
The best part of Susie’s house was the overwhelming sense of calm that softly blanketed me when I crossed its threshold. There was none of the chaos that blew tornado-like through my home, fueled by the winds of five children. At Susie’s, I never had to worry about stepping on sharp pieces of Lego that were sprinkled around our floors like mines in a warzone. Her mother, unburdened by babies, made the beds every day, not just on the weekends. After school, we were allowed to drink all the milk we wanted with options of turning it chocolate or strawberry. At my house, we were offered the powdered version in order to save the real stuff for the tea that helped our mother survive the cold Canadian winters.
We never sat down to eat together like Susie’s family, because seven people around our small table was too claustrophobic for everyone. We ate in shifts, with my father taking the last stint so he could relax over his food. My mother would occasionally sit with him, but more often than not, did the washing up, while chatting with him about the day’s events. She rarely ate from a plate to avoid adding more dishes to her burden, preferring to pick from the kid’s leftovers. Dinners were often miserable affairs punctuated by arguments over the minimal requirements of overcooked food that one had to eat in order to be excused. My mother had a dread of parasites lurking in undercooked food from her upbringing in Africa, and even though it was not a major health risk in Canada, she was determined to save us from intestinal worms by burning everything she made, including rice. My father, who was simply happy to have food in front of him after growing up during the war in Europe, never understood our objection to our mother’s meals and would yell from the living room for us to swallow five bites or else.
Ice formed on my scarf as the moisture from my breath froze. I took a last look at Susie’s perfect family enjoying their meal. Little did I know that late afternoon, that the foundation was cracking beneath this happy tableau. Susie’s parents would divorce that summer, and she would move away, leaving her father and me behind.
The sidewalks were unpaved, forcing me to walk in the frozen tire tracks on the road in order to save energy. When cars came towards me, I scurried into the closest driveway for safety. When they passed, I resumed my trek in the street looking over my back for the dreaded blades of a snowplow. A child of the north is raised on stories about little children whose bodies were caught in the sharp blade of the plow and then dragged for miles. We were haunted by the possibility of stray limbs left in snowbanks, only to be found with the spring thaw. It hadn’t snowed since the previous weekend, but a crust of ice still covered the roads and I figured that was enough reason for a snowplow to be out in search of prey.
After safely crossing over the “big” road, I had half a mile to go. The houses in my neighborhood were mostly single storied bungalows. We climbed the roofs when the snow was piled high, and jumped back into the soft piles, pretending that we were jumping into swimming pools. The only two multi-story homes in the neighborhood were across the street from where I was currently walking, built side by side to keep each other company.
The first one was alive with color. Through the windows, I saw modern works of art hanging on brightly painted walls. Tiny ceiling lights shone down on each piece. After Susie was gone, I would befriend the girl who lived in this house and get to examine the pictures up close. Her mother, the artist, had included a nude self-portrait in the entranceway. The upturned breasts with perky brown nipples would draw me to it whenever I entered the house. The only other breasts that I had seen belonged to the women in the Playboy Magazines found at my friend Jeff’s house, who lived further up the road, and neither this painting nor the Playmates resembled the ravaged remains of my mother’s chest that came from nursing five children. Tonight, I had not yet met the girl who belonged to this big house, so I didn’t linger.
The twin to this house looked like a dowdy sister. It had once been dark green, but the current owners had never felt the urge to repaint it. Brown patches had developed where the paint had peeled, giving the house the appearance of a spoiled vegetable. The driveway was unfinished and covered with white rocks. It was rumored that the father of the four girls who lived here would make them kneel on the white rocks for punishment during the warmer months. They were the only children on the street who didn’t go to the local school. They took a bus, adorned with a cross on it, to the mysterious Saint-Something-School across town, where a student had hanged himself from a pipe in the basement the previous year. The notoriety of the suicide had followed the girls home to their rotting house, and they were never invited to come out to play. The drapes were pulled tight, as was usual, giving me no insight into their lives.
I felt the temperature dropping. Unable to find matching mittens that morning, I picked out a couple of orphan gloves, one of which had a hole at the base of the thumb. I put that hand in my pocket for protection. Car lights approached quickly, not giving me enough time to get to the next driveway. I climbed the closest snowbank. From the top, I saw the ruins of the snow forts that we had made during the last storm. The neighborhood kids had spent the day building citadels and stocking them with ammunition for an apocalyptical snowball fight, which like all greatly anticipated moments, was over in a few minutes. The remnants of our battle had frozen in a state of decay.
Jeff, the boy who lived here had moved in two years earlier, and still carried the stigma of being the new kid. His father had a Burt Reynolds-mustache and owned the stack of Playboys that were left out in plain sight in the living room. When his parents were out, we rifled through them fascinated not only by the pictures, but also by what the magazine stood for. I assumed that Jeff’s parents were constantly engaging, or preparing to engage in, sexual acts so I never entered his house alone for fear of catching them at it. The previous summer when no one was around, Jeff, who was unfortunate to have been born with a white-kid afro, tried to kiss me, confirming my suspicions that the whole family was a bunch of perverts.
From my perch, I could see Jeff’s father sitting in his La-Z-Boy lounger drinking a beer. He was reading the paper. From the kaleidoscope of colors on the wall behind him, I could tell that the television was on. He lifted a cigarette from the bronze standing ashtray next to his chair and glanced in the direction of the screen. Jeff would occasionally steal a few of his dad’s Pall Malls for us to try. We smoked them in the backyard hedges, not knowing enough to inhale. One day I took a beer from my dad’s stack to go along with our cigarettes, and we all agreed that the combination was much better. The fact that our parents never picked up the smell of cigarette smoke on our elementary school clothes, was a testament to the prevalence of smoking in the 70’s, and our exposure to secondhand smoke.
Jeff’s younger sister floated through the room. She stopped in front of her father. He pointed at her belly with his cigarette hand and she laughed. The mom came out with a tray and set a T.V. dinner in front of him. I had begged my mother to buy us frozen dinners, but she claimed that they were made with cheap ingredients. In my mother’s mind, cheap was the worst thing a person or object could be. Once something or someone was deemed cheap, there was no going back in her mind. Nevertheless, I argued, Swanson could solve all our dining dilemmas. Not only would she not have to cook, but we could eat all at the same time in the living room while watching television. I imagined the sections of each tray filled with delicious tidbits of unburned food, as I watched Jeff’s dad stub out his cigarette, and pick up his fork.
I slid down the snow bank on to the road. The sun had set, making my black snowsuit invisible against the inky sky. I was a ghost haunting the families of the neighborhood. Their windows offering me snapshots of their lives as I passed by. The silent cold of the evening infused each scene with its own sense of warmness from which I was excluded.
At the corner of the street, I saw Mrs. de Haan’s silhouette framed in her little kitchen window. Her head tilted to one side to protect her eyes from the smoke rolling up from the cigarette that hung from the corner of her mouth. The shadow of the cigarette moved up and down as she spoke to someone behind her. Mrs. de Haan was one of those special people who could smoke a whole cigarette without ever having to touch it after it was lit.
Most days, I walked to school with her son, Johnny. He was my occasional boyfriend, and second-best friend after Susie. Summer evenings, he and I gathered the local kids together to play kick-the-can or capture-the-flag until the fireflies came out. When the dark was complete, parents would call through the screen doors for us to come home. We ignored them at first, knowing that they didn’t really mean business until the third or fourth summons. Eventually, detailed descriptions of our punishments were shouted out into the neighborhood. Adults had no fear of being labeled as child abusers back then as they tried to outdo each other with their threats of bodily harm. The kids made fun of my sisters and I when my father whistled for us like dogs, instead of joining along with the other parents’ taunts of spankings. We ran home with our dirty bare feet, promising to return the following night.
If Johnny wasn’t waiting for me at the bottom of his driveway in the mornings before school, I was forced to knock on his door, where Mrs. de Haan would ambush me with a hairbrush to attack the rat’s nest of tangles that lay hidden in my fine blonde hair. My mother, having long ago given up, combed the top layer over the knots and sent me on my way. Mrs. de Haan took me on as her personal project while Johnny laughed at me in his small foyer. One day, frustrated by a particularly awful ball of knots that she hadn’t been able to make any headway with, Mrs. de Haan picked up her sewing scissors and cut it out, leaving a noticeable gap when I lifted my hair into a ponytail.
I could never tell my mother about Mrs. de Haan’s interference in my appearance, knowing that she would take it as an insult, especially from someone she had long ago declared as cheap. I had made the mistake a few years earlier of bringing home Mrs. de Haan’s recipe for roasted chicken. When I had asked for it, she had looked confused as there was nothing but salt added to the skin of the chicken. It was her lack of fear of worms, that had allowed her chicken to remain moist and fall from the bones. When I proudly handed the recipe to my mother, thinking that I was doing the whole family a favor, she glanced at it in confusion before slapping my face. There was no way I was going to risk that again.
Next door to the de Haan’s lived a French-Canadian family. Their front yard had snow covered mounds, just like every other house with children did, but under these lay decaying cars on cinderblocks instead of snowmen. In lieu of curtains, they tacked sheets over the windows like the black-out curtains used in the WWII books that I was reading at the time. An edge of the sheet had come undone and I could see a sliver of light but nothing else.
Our friend, Grant, lived there with his two older brothers, who had sprouted downy mustaches by the end of grade school. Grant had been held back a year somewhere along the line. He was so good-natured about it, that no one ever teased him for flunking. He rarely invited us in to play because his parents liked to keep to themselves. While waiting for him to come out to join us, I would often cup my hands around my eyes to peek through the screen door at the disarray that lay beyond. The coffee table was covered with overflowing ashtrays and empty beer cans. As fond as we were of Grant, we were careful to not get too close to him because he carried the stale smell of his house on his unwashed jeans.
The arctic air burned the insides of my nose through the scarf. Everything about the night was sharp and crisp. There were no clouds to insulate me from the icy galaxy, whose stars were starting to reveal themselves. I could see my house now. It lay at the end of the street as a last beacon of light before the black field beyond it. My father’s car pulled into the driveway. He would be disappointed that I wasn’t home to make his scotch and soda. I was the only one who knew the correct ratio of ice, Canadian Club, and Seagram’s soda water. The trick was to take a sip of it to know when it was just right. My siblings, who were less committed to the task, refused to drink alcohol, granting me the title of bartender. I picked up my pace, hoping that I would make it home in time.
Walking against traffic, brought me to the large parking lot across the street from our home. For safety reasons, I walked through it. A girl in my sister’s class, named Connie, lived here with her father, who ran a small garage from the house. She had a creepy older brother who watched us when we made up dances to the songs on the record player. She didn’t have a mother, and we never knew why. It was never discussed, and I don’t remember anyone asking whether she was dead or had just left. My mother had a soft spot for Connie and allowed her to watch television after school in our house, even though she made the rest of us stay outside. If we wanted Connie to play with us, we found ourselves in the awkward position of knocking on our own front door.
Her father was putting the cars to bed. He was a giant of a man, who always wore a shapeless blue-grey mechanics uniform regardless of the season. He waved at me and I waved back. It was dinner time, and I knew that no one was inside cooking for him. They ate a lot of take-out, which my sister and I thought was wonderful. We would occasionally initiate a play date at the end of the day in the hopes of being invited to eat the Colonel’s fried chicken, or Chinese food. As a result of their dining habits, Connie was fat. My sisters and I, on the other hand, were praying-mantis thin—all limbs with protruding joints.
I walked to an opening in the snowbank that was directly across from my driveway. My father’s car was in the carport. The car battery was plugged into the outlet in the wall to keep it warm overnight. There were two large picture windows at right angles to each other in our living room that I would often sit in front of in my bathing suit to try and get a tan, not realizing that the UV rays couldn’t penetrate the glass. The curtains were open, and the house buzzed with activity.
My mother walked out of the kitchen with a dish towel over her shoulder. I was relieved to see that the casual observer could not tell that it was an old cloth diaper that had been recycled for another purpose. She picked up my youngest sister and settled her onto her left hip, which was permanently thrust out to the side from carrying babies. She used the cloth to wipe my sister’s nose before bringing her into the kitchen for her turn at the dinner table.
My mother looked tan from the road, as if she had just returned from a fancy tropical vacation. She was still pretty, and despite all the pregnancies, had managed to keep her girlish figure. Lately, she had taken to eating bags of carrots to remain trim, but they had the unfortunate side effect of turning her orange, which from where I stood, made her look exotic. I don’t think that even she knew, this night, that there would be another baby girl to occupy that hip in eight months.
My only brother walked into view. At the age of six, he was still everyone’s favorite. He stood hesitantly at the entrance to the kitchen unsure of whether he wanted to take his chances with dinner. His collar of his t-shirt hung wet and soggy from where he sucked it. My father patted him on his head, like Benny Hill did to the little old man on his show, as he walked by into the living room. My brother thought better of going into the kitchen and followed my dad. My father sat down in his leather chair with his scotch to watch the news. My brother plopped down at his feet pulling a dinosaur out from under the chair.
Jealous of the rare moment of solitude that my brother was sharing with my father, I crossed the street to break it up. My sister, Tina, beat me to it. I watched her walk into the picture from the back of the house and gently lowered herself behind my brother, whereupon she grabbed his T-Rex and began banging it on his head. My brother’s mouth opened in a cry, and my father swatted at my sister with his hand. My mother came from the kitchen, swinging the diaper until my sister retreated out of view. My mother took hold of my brother’s arm and marched him into the kitchen.
At this period in my father’s life, he was still granted time to unwind from his busy day at the office. I watched him sitting there, staring at the news, and sipping his drink, waiting for his turn for dinner. The house looked warm and inviting from where I stood. From the outside, my family appeared ordinary; no different than the ones that I had spied on during my walk home. To go in now would break this sense of normalcy, but I was too cold to be a specter any longer.
I opened the door to a din of noise. My sisters argued from our bedroom, my mother’s voice rose in frustration from the kitchen as she tried to get my brother to eat some rice, my father sat silently as the television blared. I unwound my scarf and laid it stiffly into a basket. My hair was wild with static cling, and my cheeks burned from the rush of heat. I went to lean on the back of my father’s chair. He asked me if I had homework, and even though it had all been done at Susie’s house, I told him I needed help with my fractions. I sat on the edge of his chair as he showed me how to cross multiply. My gaze drifted towards the window. Could there be someone out there on the street watching us? Yes, my eyes acknowledged to the imagined stranger, we are a perfect family. At least for the time that it will take you to walk on by.
Claire Cronin is a practicing surgeon in the Boston area with an interest in writing. She graduated in 2017 with an MFA in creative nonfiction at Lesley University. Her essays have been published in General Surgery News and the Worcester Medical Magazine. Claire has been the recipient of the Massachusetts Medical Society creative writing contest twice, in 2011 and 2013. She also has a chapter in Being a Women Surgeon, which was published by Gordian Knot Books in 2015.