It was six flights up to the apartment that smelled of forgotten dirty laundry in corners of closets that were never opened. Most of those dragging days in the summer of my eighth year the apartment rang with my mother’s voice. She bellowed out creative insults against the anger that echoed back and forth in her head, while all I yearned for was to be away from the people-smelling city, and home to the fields and forests I was used to.
“You drunk bastard!” she’d shout at her father. Slumped on the sofa, he watched the Baltimore Orioles on a staticky, portable black and white. His bald head showed red in protest against the temperature in the tight apartment. He wore an over stretched dirty vest that hung loosely on his body covered with a fine, white fur. He rarely responded to his daughter, who had been confirmed crazy by the doctors who examined her inside and out after her first attempt at ending her life. He hardly noticed me.
I was spending the summer with this stranger called my mother, so that my father could move his new wife into our house. My mother, between her required fights with her father, tried her best. I breakfasted on ice cream and had trips to concrete covered playgrounds with red plastic ponies that bounced back and forth on giant springs, and I feigned gratitude but wished myself anywhere but there.
I cried most nights into the grey pillowcase in the tiny room in which my mother slept. I cried as the concrete of the city suffocated me. The concrete stairwell leading down to the patch of concrete fenced with a gate opening onto the concrete back alley where I spent most days watching the sinewy street cats dig through the rubbish bins. Any life in the lifelessness around me was welcome.
At night I dreamt of lying under spreading oak trees, rolling in the fresh grass, picking apart the purple clover flowers and sucking out their sweetness. I’d wake up with the sugary taste still lingering on the tip of my tongue until the concrete wiped it clean. I counted off the days on the calendar pages I had folded up in my red suitcase I never unpacked. I thought my unhappiness was not seen by the two adults I lived with, who could not find space in their ritual of hostility for me, but I’d been wrong.
“I have a secret place I want to take you to today,” my mother said that morning. She smiled and her green eyes, normally damp and grey from medicine and torment, shown emerald.
A humid, organic smell filled my nose when we entered. At the door, a bath tub held slippery frogs and lazy turtles that swam between lily pads floating on the water’s surface. A room at the back had big trees where parakeets and canaries sang from high branches. An African Grey Parrot sat on a perch keeping a careful eye on what went on, commenting with, “I’m a pretty bird” whenever attention drifted from the glory of him. The oppression of the concrete melted away.
“It’s nice here,” I said to my mother.
“I thought you’d like it.”
For the rest of that summer, my mother and I made that trip to the pet store each day. My mother was different there and so was I. And though the summer ended and I went home to my old house with a new mother inside, my pet store mother was the one I searched for in my memories when the dark days that were to come descended.