I was scared that Mom or Dad would kill me in my sleep. Dad was an FBI agent and he had a gun that he sometimes kept in the house. I thought even he was afraid of Mom, who screamed all the time, got hysterically mad and spanked me when I was little. It was her I listened for as I laid in bed in my thin yellow nightgown, reading Nancy Drew by the light of my night-light, while I tried not to think about getting murdered.
My parents’ bedroom door opened and I heard Mom’s sharp footsteps in the hallway. They sounded mad. I waited curled on my side with the book under the covers and screamed No, Mom, No! inside my head. If either of them came for me tonight, I’d jump out the window. I didn’t care that my room was upstairs. I’d jump anyway, land mangled on the driveway and run across our yard as fast as I could. I’d pound on our next-door neighbor’s door. If she answered, I’d tell her my parents were chasing me and beg her to protect me. If she didn’t believe me, I’d run faster and pound harder at the next house and go through the neighborhood with wild desperation until I found someone who would keep me safe. It might not last. My parents might follow me, shoot into the distance or use the authorities to take me back, but that was like the second story window and the driveway; if I wanted to survive, I’d have to think about it later.
The bathroom door opened and Mom went in. I kept freezing. She finally stalked back to her room and I breathed. The quiet lasted a few full chapters.
I got up and went to my window. It faced the driveway and our front yard with its giant tree. The moon was out, maybe full, I couldn’t tell. It was big and white and round and it cast shadows through the branches onto the grass. I had a huge feeling of dark and mysterious magic in my chest. If I could touch it, it would be like touching my soul. It would make me huge too, and magic. I stood watching the moon, the tree, and the shadows until I was finally tired.
I woke up early for school. I woke up alive. I went downstairs and talked to my dad about the weather as I got ready for school. I talked to him as cheerfully as possible and asked a million questions in hopes of hearing his usual cheerfulness back. It was reassurance that I would be okay. He was a good way to gauge if anyone was mad at me, because Dad agreed with everything Mom thought. Being downstairs helped me eavesdrop and figure out where everyone was and put me in a much better position to run if I had to. When I walked out the front door, I felt like I could finally fully breathe, and drank in deep breaths of fresh air.
During recess on the playground, I played with my best friend Maya, a quiet girl with the straightest, longest brown hair in our grade. We sat in a tunnel and played Outer Space, which meant we named ourselves after planets.
“Do you like New Kids on the Block?” she asked me.
“What’s that, Mercury?”
“A music group. Everyone loves them.”
I shook my head. “I never heard of it.” At my house we only listened to Sesame Street and Disney.
“Oh,” Maya said. “Hey Jupiter, let’s go to the tower.” I liked being called Jupiter. I played it over and over in my head as we walked across the wooden playground. I wanted to be someone else.
“Ewww!” yelled Awful Andy as we passed by his group of boys on our way to the tower. “Everyone get away! We’ll get Jordan germs!” The boys scattered and shrieked. One of them stopped running, turned and asked, “How many fingers am I holding up?” in a taunting voice. I could see the blurry shape of his hand, but it was too far away for me to make out individual fingers. I would never admit that I couldn’t see well enough to know. It would prove they were right in their teasing, and give them more to use against me. Instead of answering, I ran after the boys as they dove away in horror. “I do not have any germs!” I screamed.
They were too fast for me to chase. “You can’t catch us, Grandma!” yelled Lance. I knew it was him by his voice, and because he always called me Grandma, for my white hair. “Grandma’s too slow,” he said to one of the other boys in the group. They were about ten feet away, and it was hard for me to distinguish their faces, especially because they were boys. Girls were easier to tell from far away because their clothes, backpacks and hairstyles were more unique and distinct. The boys all wore dark colors and had similar short haircuts, so I would’ve had to be closer to discern the details and separate them by names.
Maya caught up to me as I made mean faces at the boys in the distance. We could still hear them talking. “She’s a ghost,” said one, and I cringed. I hated when they called me that. “It’s good we didn’t catch her germs,” said another, kicking at the gravel and stirring up clouds of dust I could see. “Did you ever notice,” asked yet another boy in the huddle, “that every time she sharpens a pencil, she puts it so close to her eye and stares at it?” That must’ve been Curtis, because he always laughed at me after I came away from the pencil sharpener in our classroom and studied the tip of my pencil to make sure it was sharp. “She’s a freak,” he said.
“Come on, Jupiter,” Maya said quietly. “Let’s go to the tower and play Outer Space some more.” We walked back to the castle but I kept looking back at the boys, my mouth slightly open. I wanted to run after them, prove that I wasn’t a freak or a grandma and it wasn’t my fault I had to look close at things like pencils to see if they were sharp, or hands to see how many fingers they were holding up. And that I didn’t have germs.
Deep down though, I felt like a ghost, a weirdo beyond weirdos, and even though I wanted to, I felt like I had no solid grounds to defend myself. I sat in the tower with Maya, and felt more like a mealworm than a celestial body.
Maya came over my house that afternoon. “Well, how was school?” Mom asked as we settled in with my brother Randy for an afternoon snack. It had to be healthy so we had peanut butter crackers. Mom sat down at the table with us.
“They did the ‘Jordan germs’ thing again,” I said and bit into my cracker.
“Did you provoke it?” She was across the table so it was hard for me to see her features, but her voice made it sound like they must be hard.
“No,” I said right away. “They’re mean, Mom.”
“It’s really stupid,” Maya chimed in my defense. “I mean, they’re just so dumb. You don’t have germs. And even, let’s say you really did, it’s not like you catch them just like that.” She tapped me quick on the shoulder. “Boop!”
“Right,” I said. Even Randy, who was two years younger and probably didn’t know what germs were, nodded his head.
“Actually,” said Mom, “germs do jump that fast.”
I couldn’t finish my crackers. Sometimes it felt like she thought I had germs too. She didn’t ever touch me. I had the strong feeling that she was ashamed of my albinism, of having a child who was such a freak. It was a topic we never touched. That shame seeped into me like osmosis.
After Maya went home, I stayed in my room and played dolls by myself. Other than Lisa, I didn’t have many friends. Mom told me all the time that I needed to make more effort, invite people over. Every time she said that, I felt acute pain. The people in my class made fun of me and never included me unless the teacher forced it. If they came over, it would be because their moms said they had to, to be polite. The truth was, I liked playing alone. It felt less lonely.
Mom came in to talk to me about chores. I glanced towards my desk and hoped she wouldn’t notice my necklace sitting on top of my school folder. A few days ago, I had twirled it in my hands trying to find a way to see it as pretty, and it fell apart. Mom stopped talking and looked at the desk like she could hear my thoughts. “What’s that?” she asked.
Oh f-word. I went over to it, shoved it into my desk drawer. “Just my necklace.”
“You broke it!”
“It was an accident!”
“Everything’s an accident with you! I can’t believe you broke this!” Her voice got hysterical, up in a shrill rage range I was used to. It made me think she might lose it, stumble over some invisible edge and grab for Dad’s gun, since inside, I was sure she wanted to be rid of me. “You don’t even deserve to have it!” she yelled about the necklace. I wondered if she thought the reason I broke it was because of my eyesight somehow, or just because I was bad. She stomped out of my room. I went back to my desk and pulled out a notebook and sat down to write a mystery story about secret passages. For part of the afternoon, I lived in a different world.
My little sister June came to my door. “Want to play school?” she asked in her baby voice.
“Only if I can be the substitute,” I muttered.
She knew what that meant and brought her dolls over anyway. I took my favorite, Jenny, and put her in front of the class. I had June hand out and collect papers. I asked hard questions and made the dolls answer. “Hey Jenny,” I said in the meanest boy-on-the-playground voice I could muster. “What’s 2 + 2?”
“I don’t know,” I squeaked back.
“Well you’re stupid! You’re the stupidest doll ever.”
“You love Jenny,” June said. She sounded so small.
“No I don’t! I wish I never had her as a doll!” I picked Jenny up and smashed her onto the bed. She was my baby, my favorite. I loved her so much I wanted to hurt her. I pushed her face into the blanket, hit her on the back of the head. June was six and a half years younger than I was. She cowered in the corner about to cry and I smirked. I pushed Jenny off the bed and stepped on her. “She belongs in the trash!” I folded her up, put her in my garbage can. I looked at June with mean eyes as I did it.
“I’ll keep her until you want her again,” June said. She took Jenny out of the garbage and cooed soft things to her all the way to her room.
At dinner Mom remembered what she wanted to talk to me about before she saw the broken necklace. “Did you clean the bathroom sink yesterday?”
“Well, it doesn’t look clean. Either you didn’t do it and you’re lying or you did a horrible job. You need to do it again.”
“No buts! That’s your second warning.” If we did anything bad, we got a warning. If we got two warnings, we had to go to bed at seven. I was sent to bed early a lot, sometimes for weeks at a time.
“I never got a first one,” I protested. I was so sick of punishment.
“I said, ‘no buts,’ and I meant it! You have two warnings and you’re going to bed at seven.”
I looked at Dad, pleading for him to notice the injustice. “You should’ve done your chores,” he said in his usual off-hand, upbeat way. His voice was almost like the kids on the playground, it had a hint of taunting. I looked at my plate and imagined smushing my food in their faces. “Oh is someone not in a good mood?” Dad asked in an obviously teasing tone, sensing my rising anger. If I wasn’t totally terrified of them killing me, I would’ve totally smashed my plate on his head. Dad loved to make fun of us if we were upset, to take that upsetness and push and prod it until we were so furious we could barely contain it, but we had to, if we didn’t want to be in serious unimaginable trouble.
Dad treated everything, happy, sad or in-between as a meaningless cheerful joke, which sometimes was worse than Mom’s hysteria. The few times he did get mad, maybe every other year, his voice got growly and low and he almost frothed at the mouth. He was a completely different person, sighing angrily and turning red. My dad was like a volcano that laid dormant for years, but sizzled under the surface. I wasn’t actively afraid of him the way I was of Mom, but I wasn’t not scared of him either. I didn’t know what would trigger an explosion. It was too rare to observe. The way he incited our anger though, made me feel like he wanted to turn us into volcanoes too. I held my fury inside, gripping my fork hard in my hand, hoping no feelings would leak out my eyes.
Randy and June didn’t say a word throughout our argument. They ate their dinner quietly, barely looking up from their plates. They knew better.
“It’s supposed to be a nice weekend,” Dad said, like his optimism could be a band-aid over everything sad, like he could cover it all up.
No one cared about my plight. I started crying. I couldn’t help it.
Mom’s voice got shrill again. “If you’re going to cry, go somewhere where I don’t have to see it!” she screamed.
I ran upstairs. I heard Dad say, “Someone’s having a bad day. We better not bother Emilia in her bad mood,” in a whiny, babyish voice that was supposed to mimic mine.
In my room I missed Jenny. As soon as June came upstairs, I asked for my doll back and took her with me to my jail sentence bedtime. I felt Mom’s hatred, the power she got when she raged at me, like the power I got when I trashed Jenny. It was the opposite of the big feeling of trees and night and moon. I shivered thinking of twisted black meanness oozing out of Mom and wondered if this was the night I’d wake up dead.
It was still light out. I pulled out my book and it began again. We lived just outside Buffalo because that’s where Dad’s job sent us. Mom went to lots of meetings and counselors, but came home a monster. These were my Dark Ages. I was seven. I was eight. I was nine. I was ten.