Everybody knows that when you are about to enter a dark room, you stand just outside the door, flip the light on, and wait to allow the cockroaches that were cavorting there minutes before to scurry off and hide. Same when you open a drawer or cabinet. Open, wait— and this waiting can be interminable—then get what you came for.
There aren’t many cockroaches in the Pacific Northwest, where I live now as an adult, as a parent. And still, I pause when switching on a light, strain my ears to hear the faint skitter of the vile things. They aren’t there and still I think I hear them, haunting me.
A book out of line with the others will send chills down my spine. A sprinkle of dust in a hard-to-reach spot, I feel nauseated. A towel left wet for too long makes my ears prickle. Plates and glasses are cleaned immediately and returned to their cabinet homes. Sheets pulled taut, pillows fluffed. Spots on windows eradicated as soon as they are made. I clean the soap dish every time I wash my hands. On my knees, I wipe down the floors with cleaning wipes. If a single insect makes its presence known, I call in exterminators and don’t sleep for days, feeling phantom antennae on my neck. A drip of milk, a ring of coffee gone almost before they can spill.
And, related, I hear a flurry of police sirens and I freeze.
When I am really young, Lila comes in and cleans the house on Fridays. She cleans and smokes and is kind to me. When I return home from school it smells like Ajax and lemon and cigarettes and there are vacuum lines in the carpet. The smell of cigarettes mingling with any kind of soapy scent will always say this is clean to me.
Lila stops cleaning at some point while I’m in grade school and the mess accumulates quickly. Crayon scribbles the wall beside my father’s bookshelves: Mein Kampf, books on bonsai, interior design, and conspiracy theories. The roaches settle into our space and the dirt cakes with the collected skin cells and the debris of a family gone mad.
Also on that shelf, books from my father’s conversion to Judaism. His mother had refused to come to my parents’ wedding. A Jew? You’re marrying a Jew, she had said. This was sacrilege, blasphemy, heresy. Dirty. And now you are one? said the woman of hardy German stock to her son. Vermin. Rats. Roaches. She was eventually convinced to attend the wedding. She wore a silver long sleeve dress like mercury. I have her name as my middle name. It’s attached to me, this witch-hunter’s name.
A shopping cart is perched on top of a mound of the detritus of our lives: clothes, towels, books, binders, plants, and spilled potting soil. Tilted at an angle and taking up a fair amount of space in the middle of the living room, the cart is like Iwo Jima, like a prize, something to be won. It is rusted in parts; I’ve licked it and I thought it tasted fresh and clean, but it was just iron and time.
In the corner of the dining room is a computer, an off-white box with a black screen, green text. But that must be earlier because later there are multi-colored images. A new box, a new computer. My father spends hours on it. Come here Jenny, have a look. This is where I first learn about pornography.
There are many different kinds of filth.
Later, when I want to use the computer for research, he shares a digital encyclopedia with me. My fingers shake and I can’t click what I need to. He holds his fat hand over mine, clutching it too tightly, guiding my hand. I use a computer at school but stay away from the one at home. It is the house of unclean things, a microcosm of our own home. I pull up information about harbor seals, about shtetls beyond the pale, about optical illusions. I print some out for a school project. Do you see a duck? I ask. No, I see a rabbit. Do you see an old woman? No, he says, astringent breath wafting from behind his teeth. I see a beautiful young lady, like you.
We don’t see the same thing.
I have only a few friends in childhood. Some are not permitted to visit my house. I don’t blame the mothers who made these decrees. After a while, I stopped inviting people over anyway. But not before a Valentine’s party in the third grade where I invite people over who are not my friends. Why do I do this? Maybe to convince myself that the lack of chirpy Valentine’s Day cards in my custom-made, half-paper-plate holder at school is a fluke. I make little canapes, buy tiny cupcakes with hearts on top from the grocery store. Make my mom promise to stay in her room. Ensure the party will end before my father returns home from work. I can’t recall many of the details, but I remember sitting on the couch in awkward silence. I had diligently moved the piles of detritus to the edges of the room, as if that could hide the mess. I don’t allow anyone in the kitchen, taking my role as hostess seriously and hoping I can keep the roaches from view.
I go to the bathroom for a brief break, scratch my head, and watch tiny lice fall into the shell-shaped sink. It disgusts me but does not alarm me. I am known as “Knotty Hair.” These parasites and I have more of a symbiotic relationship. The all-too-common lice checks at school and camp fill me with fear, not because of the bugs themselves, but because of the embarrassment of being combed out and called out in front of my peers. When David Linn called me a dirty Jew, I believed him; he wasn’t wrong. The day of the party, I pull my hair up into a ponytail and go to hand out conversation hearts. B Mine. Crazy 4 U.
Tara leaves the party first, after just a few minutes. At least take a goodie bag, I beg, holding out the beribboned bag filled with hearts of all sizes.
More calls from parents come in; my mother twists the phone cord in her fingers. In short order, all the party guests are gone and I am alone with ten bags of Valentine’s Day candy and novelty gifts. I try to undo the ribbon on the cellophane bags – I had recently learned to do that thing with scissors and ribbon to make pretty curls at the ends. But I have to cut the bags open, I’d tied them up so tightly. I use pencils with hearts on them well into fifth grade, rubbing down into nubs the heart-shaped erasers.
A kitchen sink is only a sink when it’s not a vestibule for dirty dishes and remnants of meals half-eaten, when not crawling with cockroaches, their antennae signaling to each other great discoveries. A neon curve of macaroni, red sauce like tempera paint splattered on plates. I think a lot about how tempera paint is made from egg yolks when the stainless of the sink and the walls behind it are Pollacked in yellow. In a gallery, this would be called art. In a home, it is called neglect.
There is no more room in the sink, so we use the counters, the top of the fridge. Sometimes the dirty items don’t even make it back to the kitchen. On the backs of toilets, in hallways. A stale glass of flat Coke sits on my mother’s bedside table amid copious office supplies: post-its, highlighters, binder clips, colorful paperclips. With every thud of my father’s angry feet, the surface of the old soda trembles. Like in “Jurassic Park.” Maybe that’s why she keeps it there – a warning signal.
His cruelty is like the stuff on the fridge door handle. Viscous. Tacky. I have to touch it to feed myself. Every time I do, I cringe, tell myself to wash my hands diligently afterward. But I always forget. The milk sighs a pungent breath; the orange juice has separated. The butter is dotted with a hundred and one crumbs and there is a small plate of hot dog bites, cut that way for my sister, so the young one doesn’t choke. A matte layer has formed atop the ketchup. Congealed drips and drops splatter the plastic shelves. A Chinese takeout container of hardened rice. The stench, the stench is gruesome, a body decaying and rotted wood and hot sauce. Every so often the smell of overripe peaches takes over, like something was once sweet here. Once.
When the police come, always in the dark of night, they ask if my father did this, does that. No, I say, he did not. He does not. They’ve been summoned, again, by well-meaning neighbors who heard the screaming. I lie; that should be obvious. The cops never talk about the filth, the state of the apartment. Though they undoubtedly have to climb over things, the commercial-grade rock tumbler my father purchased but never used, the books, the grocery bags filled with candy – my mother’s meals of choice. But not the vodka bottles; those collect and hide under my parents’ bed.
So do the guns. So do the bullets, rolling around like marbles, like playthings. His collection of weapons is also in drawers and closets throughout the house. There are swords, Nunchaku, as well as an impressive array of knives and guns. Is the collective noun of a bunch of weapons called an “intimidation?”
It works. I lie to the police. I lie to the teachers. I lie to the guidance counselor. To the principal. To the school nurse. To the therapist who says I have ODD. Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I do not. But this is how I grow up. I cannot yet connect the things that happen at my father’s hands and my behavior in school, my insubordination. But I know enough to know I should be opposed to his actions. And what does that mean anyway, “disorder?”
I am very adept at lying.
From room to room, on the beige carpet are spilled lines of Coca Cola. From my mother’s trembling hands trails a line of sugar and corn syrup everywhere she goes. They are desire lines. When she is cowering in her room, I sometimes follow these lines with my toes, wonder if they will lead me to her, but they never really do.
In the bathtub in my bathroom, my father creates a wine-making set-up. Giant jugs of purple fill the tub, the dark dark color that I imagine blood looks like when it’s on the inside. To bathe, I have to use my parents’ bathroom. I have to lock the door. I have to open the built-in hamper so that it and the door will jam up against it should someone come in. I have to curl myself into a towel and run to my room when I’m done. A towel is flimsy protection, you should know. Also, our small porch is filled with the accoutrements of this wine project of his. At some point, the stoppers come out and the jugs are gaping mouths. I scrape at the fake snow he put on the windows for privacy. Tiny flakes drift down and settle into the liquid. I don’t tell him, but I wonder if it might be poisonous. I had read V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, surreptitiously, giggling, curious. I wonder if this could be like arsenic.
At some point, he pours out all the jugs into the tub. Years of his work. Great gushes of blood-colored liquid. I think of murder, of carnage, of guillotines, of period blood. I think of grape juice at onegs. I think of a scene from “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
I begin a campaign for a daybed—just like my beloved older cousin’s, whom I want to model my life on so relentlessly I spend hours studying her room when I visit them in Los Angeles.
Eventually, my parents relent, and I am gifted a shiny pink daybed
Now I am one step closer to that imagined life, that healthy childhood life, that T.V. family life. The metal frame of the bed curlicues along the backside and around the sides. I pile decorative pillows along it and fall into them. The whole setup is fit for a princess, I think. Along the four corners are porcelain white knobs with delicate pink and blue flowers painted onto them. It holds so much promise and beauty, but it is denigrated within days of receiving it. At my father’s heft and hands, it becomes a den of iniquity and abuse. Of fear and hiding out. I clutch the metal, feel the cool on my palms and it is the only thing that feels right in the world, even while the rest of my body is being attacked. Two of the knobs fall off and are never replaced.
At 12, I start to fight back. At 16, I can finally say stop. I threaten to say yes to the police, to the teachers, to the counselors. To say, no, I do not feel safe.
Many years later, my father is dead. My two aunts descend on our little apartment, shocked at the filth. Exclaim over the vodka bottles, the guns. I sneeze and my eyes water because of dust allergies, not sadness. I am yelled at to clean out that closet, this drawer. Why are you just standing around? my aunt asks, the day after the funeral. The rabbi had said lovely things. Said lovely things about my father that were not true. My aunts, living out of state, are seeing this for the first time. I blink a morse code to them, can you see what I’m trying to say but can’t? I blink and I blink and one of them tells me to take a Benadryl.
A new feeling fills me like those jugs of wine. It is the color of blood on the inside. The aunts stop asking me questions about it. Carloads of bags go to Goodwill, to the dumpster. The house is scoured. Bombs of insecticide, powdery coating on everything. It smells dangerous, but a new kind of danger, one I’m willing to accept. My father’s name comes off the buzzer in the lobby, peeled from the inside of the mailbox. I move out. My mother and sister live on there without him. The soda desire lines are still there mapping out trails that never lead anywhere.
I am a parent. I am a partner now. My father is dead. The only desire lines in my house are the ones my feet make when they go from my room to my daughter’s to tuck her in, to kiss her, to revel in how I made this creature. I take my responsibility very seriously. She is loved and knows it. She is fed. She can have friends over.
I have years of damage to scrub from my body. I was not the one who made the mess, and still, durable remnants of that life hide in corners and are hard to even see. Like the most minuscule of crumbs, the most tenacious of stains.
I tell myself I do not need to clean the piece that covers the sink disposal every day. Through clenched teeth, I will myself not to get up to straighten the hanging towel, to tuck in that bit of sock sticking out of the drawer. It’s impossibly hard to ignore these compulsions. I knock my fingernail against the bed board, then my upper knuckle, then my other knuckle to fight off the need to get up and clean something.
My anxiety is a bleaching agent. It cleans, sure, but it can burn holes in the process. But that’s what it is, a process, steady movement toward an outcome.
But here’s what I know to be true: I am safe. I am loved correctly, and I am not and never was the filth.
Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, No Tokens, and elsewhere, including the 2019 Best Short Fiction anthology. She is the author of the flash collection, The Predatory Animal Ball. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021