Almost Whole by Amber Christopher-Buscemi
Light. My mother’s voice. Soft. Clear. Singing. Love. Her hands holding me. Rocking. Heartbeat. Love. Rocking. Heartbeat. Love. Heartbeat. Heartbeat. Heartbeat. Sleep. Darkness in the light.
From the time I was three until I was ten, Mom, Sister and I lived with my maternal grandmother, Nana. We probably named her that because my great-grandmother was still alive and living at her beach house a couple of miles away, and my mother always had called her Grandma, so Sister and I did as well. Nana never really had a choice, but she decided to embrace being the Nana, accepting out of habit the notion that her mother came first.
In Nana’s house, we were guests—sometimes much wanted and other times inconvenient. My mother’s sister, Aunt Pam, lived there as well; and Nana’s husband, whom we called Pop, had married Nana after her divorce from my mother’s father when Mom was barely a teenager. The six of us lived there as an extended family, unusual for our suburban neighborhood in the 1970s. Even then, I knew we were a different kind of family.
Most of Nana’s house was dark. The living room, while well-supplied with windows and lamps, was decorated in deep maroon and black, colors that absorbed the light. Each night, Nana sat in her maroon chair, reading or playing games with Sister and me. In one hand she held a lit cigarette and a short glass with clinking ice in two inches of scotch. I remember it as one of the sounds of nighttime at Nana’s house. The carpet held a dark pattern, but it was faded so that I couldn’t tell what kind of flowers it was supposed to be. The unidentifiable flowers were surrounded by squares in some kind of muddled formation. The fireplace was the center of the living room, outlined by dark red brick that had been stained over the years with black ash and smoke. The whole wall had the appearance of smoldering.
I am six. Sister is eight. When we play, we laugh, and our laugh is the same. Our faces are round like our mother’s face, but without the look of knowing that she pinches between her eyebrows. I call it the look of knowing because it means Mom knows something—too much of something. It’s Mom’s look when she’s in her sad mood. When she has that look, we leave her alone and play together in our bedroom or outside. It will go away, but it will come back when Mom is serious—when she is thinking about something. Mom’s eyes are brown like Sister’s, and she can make them wide. Sister can make her eyes wide, too, but she can’t make the look of knowing. That belongs to Mom.
Sister knows something that makes her cry sometimes; the thing that makes her afraid to go to sleep at night; the thing that makes her go to Mom’s room in the middle of the night to check on her or be with her—or just to see. It’s the thing that she keeps separate from me. She doesn’t want me to know about it. I would not be safe, she says. I would not be comfortable at bedtime anymore or fall asleep first the way I like. So, I don’t ask Sister to tell me. I think it must be like Mom telling us it’s not safe to cross the street when she isn’t there to hold our hands.
There is something for Mom and Sister that is not for me. It is for older girls, just like the way Mom only carries me now, not Sister, because Sister got too big. I am supposed to be smaller, stay small. Sister wants to look like Mom. She follows Mom and tries to make the look. The knowing is in the black inside the brown of Mom’s eyes when they are wide. I can’t figure out how eyes become wide or turn brown. I used to think my eyes would be brown someday, too, when I got big like Sister. But Mom told me that my eyes will stay green like my father’s eyes. I’ve never seen my father. I don’t know what to do with my narrow green eyes. I can’t make them wide like Mom’s and Sister’s round brown eyes. And I can’t make the look of knowing.
The kitchen, located between the dark living room and darker den, was bright with sunlight—at least in the mornings. It was inviting when I’d wake up, rise from the bed that Sister and I shared, and go downstairs for orange juice and cereal with Nana. It was my favorite time with Nana, just the two of us, awake before anyone else and practicing a routine that made us both comfortable. I don’t know if it was the light or simply the absence of the darkness that brought us closer together in the mornings than we had been the night before when Nana clutched her clinking glass and I played along with whatever game she offered me. I liked the way Nana always offered to stay up late and play with me, but I didn’t like how her mood would change based on how many times she refilled her glass.
“Where’s your sister?” Nana would ask each morning.
“Upstairs, still sleeping,” I would report. That had become my role in our household—to report what I’d witnessed in another part of the house.
“She went to Mom’s room in the middle of the night again,” I’d tell her.
Nana would look for and accept this cue to act. She’d pour me a glass of juice, tell me to choose a cereal from the cupboard, and direct me to go wake my sister and mother while she prepared my cereal with too much milk, making it soggy before I had a chance to take the first bite.
My morning walk up the wooden stairs with patches of nailed-down maroon carpet on each step was familiar, if dreaded. I’d grab the post at the end of the stairway, and swing myself onto the second step, skipping the first, and hop on two feet, hands-on-railing, up the steps. At the top and to the right was Nana and Pop’s bedroom, the master bedroom, which always had the odor of Ammens Powder and White Shoulders Eau de Toilette. It was Nana’s combination of practical and extravagant, the combination that made her actions difficult to predict. To the left was a long, narrow hallway leading to my mother’s bedroom, my aunt’s bedroom, and the room shared by Sister and me. I’d confirm that Sister was not in our room, and I’d know she was in Mom’s room. I’d listen at the door, certain that they were continuing to talk about whatever they’d secretly discussed the night before when Mom made Sister leave her alone. That’s when Sister would return to our bed with wet eyelashes, slide under the sheet next to me, and rock us both to sleep. I could feel her lashes on my back or shoulder. She’d move just enough to rouse me and make me stir, letting her know I was with her. If I tried to ask her what she’d been talking to Mom about, she’d tell me to go back to sleep – it wasn’t for little girls to know. Mom was just different at night sometimes. It wasn’t important, Sister would say. She used the phrasing grown-ups like Nana used: “It’s not for little girls to know,” and I’d wonder why she didn’t consider herself a little girl. After all, she was less than two years older than I.
I know more than Sister thinks I know. I know that when she says “Mom is just different at night” it means that Mom was out late and came home smelling like Nana does when she has the clinking ice in her glass. I know Mom doesn’t do it all the time, but when she does, Sister goes to her and keeps her to herself.
I would wait for Mom and Sister to suspect my presence at Mom’s door each morning, and they always would. They’d open the door and invite me in, or send me back downstairs to Nana. It depended on Mom’s mood. Either way, though, she’d give me a kiss and ask, “How’s my littlest girl?” My answer would vary depending on her look. If she had “the look of knowing,” I’d scan Sister’s face for a cue to my reply. If she was smiling—really smiling—I’d answer with “‘kay, Mommy” and reach up for a tighty-hug, my name for a squeeze around her neck until she tickled me to let go. If 29 not, I’d simply tell them that Nana said to come downstairs.
We would all go downstairs together, and Nana would start in on Mom. She always was angry at Mom on those mornings—for getting up too late, for coming home too late at night, for telling Sister things she shouldn’t hear at her age—and it made me want to yell at Nana to stop making Mom look at the ground and get quiet. I wanted to stop the look of knowing, but I couldn’t. It was always back when Mom didn’t know I was looking. It brought the nighttime into the mornings, as if we hadn’t moved beyond the night before—as if we never would.
Sometimes, in the mornings after the nights when she was out, Mom does the dance with me. She picks me up and dances me into the living room, or the dining room, or the kitchen. She swings me around until I feel dizzy, and I laugh in my laugh that sounds like Sister’s, and I watch everything spin around us. I can hear Mom’s giggle that sounds almost like crying, and I want to feel Mom holding me and swinging me like this all day. We don’t stop until we have to. Sometimes we hit the wall or fall onto the couch, but it usually just makes us laugh.
This morning we are swinging and swinging. Too fast, Mommy, I want to say, but it’s too late. We fall onto the living room carpet. I put my hands out and feel the scratchy carpet on my palms. Mom starts to cry. Sister comes in from the kitchen and says, “No, Mommy.” She pulls us up to a sitting position and leaves Mom on the floor. She grabs my hand and leads me to the kitchen—to the light—before Nana sees us on the floor. I’m not crying. It didn’t hurt, I tell Sister. But she won’t listen. I just want Mom to stop crying. I just want to do the dance. I tell Sister that, and she tells me that the dance is bad, and that I shouldn’t like it so much. She doesn’t know everything—the dance is for me. She can’t have it. She is too big. I have to stay small if I want to keep dancing with Mom.
When I was eight years old and Sister was ten, Nana and Pop decided to turn their two-car garage into a large bedroom for Sister and me. We were getting too big to share a full size bed in that small bedroom upstairs. It was nice to have the space, but the distance from Mom’s bedroom made Sister nervous. She started going upstairs to Mom’s room every night.
In the afternoons, which were different than morning and nighttime at Nana’s house, Sister and I would come home from school, let ourselves in with a key, and have a snack: toast with peanut butter or cheese on crackers. Sometimes Sister would play with me, but other times she’d act as if she was an adult and I was a child. I didn’t understand this difference because when other people were around we both were children. I always liked when we both could be children, and I think Sister liked that best, too. We sometimes would play school. I’d have to be the student, but I didn’t mind because I liked school and all the questions and games involved with it. Sister liked being the teacher because she always wanted to boss me around. After about an hour, Nana would come home from teaching kindergarten and make us do our homework. Later she’d make us dinner, something greasy, overcooked, and filled with pepper; and then she’d put us to bed, always kissing us too hard, hugging us too tight, and turning out the lights before I was ready. When Mom came home after we were asleep, she’d kiss us each on the forehead. I didn’t always feel her kiss, but I knew she did it because she told me she did. I decided early on to believe her.
On nights when Mom was still at college, where she went straight after work, and Nana and Pop were out with friends, Aunt Pam would take care of us. She wasn’t always home because she was young, in her early twenties, and she sometimes had boyfriends who took her out at night. I liked it best when Aunt Pam sat up with us at night. She never made us turn off the lights before we were ready. She was supposed to make us go to sleep at nine o’clock, but she never did. She’d sit and watch movies with us, make us popcorn, and laugh at the silly people on TV. She always had a joke about the TV people, even during the serious parts. She said it was okay to make fun of them because they weren’t real.
Most of the time it was fun like that with Aunt Pam, but sometimes I’d cry for Mom. The night I found out Mom had left that afternoon and she would be away for weeks, I used up a whole roll of toilet paper with my tears and snot. Nana had told us that Mom would be away for a while this time – she was at a hospital “getting well.” Nana said it was for her drinking, but I didn’t know if I should believe her. Mom hadn’t even said goodbye, and I didn’t think that was like Mom not to say goodbye, or at least kiss me on the forehead when I was sleeping, or something. When Nana and Pop went out, Aunt Pam made us popcorn and put on movies, but I still couldn’t stop crying. Finally, she told me we wouldn’t be able to go to the bathroom unless I stopped crying. “You’re using up all the toilet paper, silly girl,” she said. “What’ll we use now? Oh well, I guess we can’t go.” She was trying to be silly as a way to make me stop crying but I could tell she felt bad after saying it because I believed I’d done something wrong, and I still couldn’t stop crying. It was the first time I heard her take something back. I guess it wasn’t okay to make fun of me when I was serious and sad. After all, I was real.
When Mom came home from the hospital one month later, everyone said she was “all better.” She kept working toward her degree to become a teacher. She’d been working on it since I was too young to remember, and by the time she was “well,” I was nine. She’d go to work until five o’clock, then straight to her classes, and come home around ten o’clock at night. I would see her in the mornings, when she’d put my hair up in two ponytails with my favorite light blue ribbons. She always would leave a note on a napkin in my lunch: “I love Amber—she’s the one for me!” she’d often write, referring to lyrics of a little song she’d sometimes sing to me when we were alone. The notes always ended with “Xoxo, Love, Mommy.” I tried not to let anyone see the note at lunch, but after a while my friends knew it was there. Most of them didn’t say anything, but some of them took it as an opportunity to make fun of me. Jennifer Doran taunted me with, “Aren’t you too big for your Mommy to leave notes in your lunch?” Eventually, I learned it was best to take the note out of my lunch and hide it.
Once I was nine, I began to grow less content with not knowing things. I needed to know why Mom had to go to work. I didn’t understand why we always had to be so different. As far as I knew, no one else’s mom went to work. Why did my mother have to go to the Social Services Office every weekday for “work?” So I asked her. She said it was so we could be together one day—just the three of us—without Nana’s help. I wanted that, so I kept waiting for it to happen. It had never occurred to me that we could live separately from Nana and Pop. I added it to my prayers at night: “God bless Mom, God bless Sister, God bless Nana, God bless Pop, God bless Aunt Pam, God bless Grandma. Please, Dear God, help us to be together without Mom’s work or Nana’s help. Amen.”
One day, when I was ten—it finally happened. Nana and Pop sold the house, sold extra items of “clutter” for 25 cents apiece (regardless of its actual value) at a yard sale, and retired to a mobile home park thirty minutes away. They wanted something easier, something with less maintenance, something more affordable. They had just retired, and it was time for them to start thinking of themselves, Nana said. Aunt Pam got a teaching job in Texas, put all the things from her little bedroom into her car, and drove from Long Island to Texas alone. It had never occurred to me that Aunt Pam could go live somewhere else all alone. Her move felt sudden, but even if Aunt Pam had been thinking about it for years, I wouldn’t have known about it.
With everyone off thinking about himself or herself, Mom, Sister and I moved into a little house right down the road from Grandma’s beach house. It was time for Mom to try what she’d been hoping to be able to do for years. She had 33 finished one degree and was about to start another one. She got a job as a teacher, and we could afford rent on the house, but not much else. Sister and I had to start using the special lunch tickets that allowed us to get free lunch. Not many kids used them, and the ones who did had been known as “lunch ticket kids” since first grade. Jennifer Doran told all the other kids, and they giggled when they saw my ticket; but I didn’t care. I knew it meant we didn’t need Nana’s help anymore.
Here in the house that is almost ours, we are almost whole—the way we’d always imagined we’d be outside Nana’s house. We only come apart when Sister gets angry. She is often angry now about things I don’t understand. Mom says it is because Sister is twelve years old, and I’ll be angry, too, when I turn twelve. I don’t understand why she should be angry. We’re together, without Nana’s help, and we’re supposed to be happy. But Sister isn’t happy. I know it has something to do with those middle of the night talks she shared with Mom before Mom went into the hospital. Even now that things are supposed to be all better, it is keeping me separate from Sister.
Our house is small: two bedrooms, a dark kitchen, an empty, whitish living room, and a pink bathroom. It belonged to an old woman, Mrs. Henderson, whose husband died in a red chair in the living room years ago. That’s all I can think about when I’m in the living room. I listen at the doorway before I walk in, but I never hear anything. The house must have been quiet before we got here. Sister makes the most noise in this house. She picks fights with Mom when Mom is most certain. I like it that Mom knows what to say to us now, since she came back from the hospital; and she knows even more since we moved away from Nana and Pop. But Sister doesn’t like it. It makes her angry. She reminds Mom of times when Mom didn’t know what to say or what to do. Mom apologizes and says she can’t go back and fix the past, but she can do her best in the present. That’s one of those phrases she’s started using since she got home from the hospital. I want Mom’s best. I want her solid voice and certain answers. I want to know that she’ll be home at night when she says she will—home in time to kiss us goodnight before we go to sleep. I like that Sister doesn’t go to her in the middle of the night. I want to believe that we’ll be okay—without help from Nana. I’ve almost convinced myself of it, and I would have by now if it weren’t for one thing: Mom always has the look of knowing. I can barely remember her without it.
We went on like that—my mother and sister fought and I listened from other rooms— until our near wholeness melted into something else, and none of us could get it back. Mom tried to create girl games that we all could play together: tea party, school, beauty salon. Sister said those games were stupid; that she was too big to play them; that it was too late.
Too late for what? I don’t want it to be too late. I want Mom and Sister—at the same time—drinking tea or combing hair. But when I get that, they end up fighting, and I walk down the road along the harbor to Grandma’s beach house and stay there until Mom comes to get me.
Sister and I sleep in separate beds in our new house, so I can only tell how long she stays awake by her breathing. It is shorter and faster than mine—as if she is trying to keep something close to her by drawing close breaths.
Our new bedroom is blue. I like the way our room is light blue in the day and closed in on us with dark blue at night. I like that Mom is next door instead of around the corner, up the stairs and down the hall, on the other side of Nana and Pop. But I know this closeness makes Sister somehow farther from our mother. I want to go to Sister’s bed, butterfly kiss her cheek with my dry eyelashes, and rock her to sleep as she used to do when she came to our bed after going to Mom’s room in the middle of the night. But I know Sister wouldn’t let me. That is her role, the role of the older sister, and I don’t dare take anything else away from her.
I wait for her breathing to slow, but I feel safe before she does, and safety always brings sleep. I fall asleep to Sister’s quick breaths, imagining that her eyes are wide like Mom’s eyes. As I fall asleep, I dream of Sister’s face. She is Mom. Then she is Sister. I dream that she has the look of knowing. I try to wake myself, and I realize that I am alone, even with Sister here. I fall back into my dream, I look at Sister’s face, and I wonder how long we can stay like this—half asleep and waiting.
Amber Christopher-Buscemi teaches Writing and Literature at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, where she lives with her husband and two sons. She received her MA in English from The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Her essays have been published in Foliate Oak Literary Review, The Collapsar, and others. She is currently working on a memoir of essays.