1985 The Fourth of July
IT WAS A moonless night. The four of us sat on the rooftop of The New House, right outside Mom and Dad’s bedroom window where the wooden slats flattened out to create a wide fold of space. It was mesmerizing to see the curve of the universe above us, a big black lid of sky. From this height, the distance felt empty and dark without Manhattan’s towering buildings or flashing lights and city sound.
Mom’s garden was invisible in the darkness below but her newly planted nightshades cast a terrifying fairytale feel to our yard - the choke of purple eggplants buried in blackness, their vines sneaking in growth, creeping forward while the rest of the flowers slept. I imagined them advancing later in the night, their tentacle greens wrapping around the house, squeezing tightly, suffocating me while I dreamt about The Dead Girl.
In the daytime, I barely thought of her, too taken with the beauty of our new suburban neighborhood where I could ride my bike past yard after yard of mini-mansions and looming trees as I listened to the neighborhood kids’ screaming Marco, Marco Polo in their big New Jersey pools. These were daytime sounds I could hear even as I sped toward “town” – a slender street with a gas station and a grocery store, a linear strip of shops two miles from our house. But tonight the neighborhood sounded different. Even the smells were different. Mom’s lilacs and gardenia, normally so fragrant were overcome by the scent of bug spray and barbecue chicken burning on the grill, smoke from our next door neighbor’s bonfire mixed in with spilled beer. Other than Mr. and Mrs. Miller, we didn’t know our new neighbors. We didn’t even try. As soon as we moved here, Mom had groomed our rose garden like fences so we could have privacy without seeming rude.
We could hear the sounds of the Fourth of July party disbanding next door, a party we hadn’t been invited to even though the daughter went to school with me and my older brother. We had been living in New Jersey for a year, but its near quiet at night still seemed scary, how specific and identifiable the sources of each neighbor’s sound were, and the embarrassment of knowing if we could hear the neighbor’s noises, they could probably hear ours - Mom and Dad’s half whispered fights in the bedroom, the squeaking hallway stairs followed by footsteps, one of them moving downstairs to sleep on the couch. Had the neighbors heard them yelling at each other, even though everything was supposed to be perfect now that we’d moved?
Several cars idled in the driveway next door. From this height, I could see them backing up to pull out onto the street. Then, I heard the sound of glass breaking onto other broken things in the garbage cans as the party disbanded and clean up began. In the midst of this, our family lay back on the roof and searched the sky for stars. Mom sat with a bowl of ice cream balanced on her knees, pretending to share with Dad. Even their shadows refused to touch. Mom grabbed my arm suddenly, a spoonful of ice-cream still in her hand. Before she could say ‘look,’ I saw it – several stars shooting across a spangled sky. The night grew wild and bright, a smatter of gold flecked speckles moved light across the sky. Mom’s cheek was so close, I could feel her smiling. ‘Starlight, star bright,’ she whispered in her sweet Texas twang. But when she reached for my brother Max’s hand, he quickly pulled away.
“They aren’t really shooting stars,” Dad said using his professorial voice. He had this special elevated pitch when he spoke that I loved. It made him sound informed without being arrogant. I could listen to him talk about nearly anything. “The dust is cosmic debris.” Glasses edged toward his nose. “When it hits the atmosphere.”
“Goodness sake! Clayton, we know. Can’t we enjoy God’s beauty without a science lesson, just once?” Mom tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.
“But science can be beautiful, can’t it?” I asked quietly, but it was too late. Their argument had already started.
“See how she does that now, Clay? Because you call it science, even stars are worth your daughter defending.”
“She’s defending dust.” Max pulled a pocket knife out of his shorts. The silver “blade trembled against the palm of his hand. My brother had the same long fingers as me, piano fingers, like the hands of a Gibbon but they were part of the reason he was so good at swimming. “It’s pathetic. Fourth of July without fireworks? We should have driven to Florida if Mom was suddenly too afraid to fly.”
“That’s enough, son,” Dad said, the New York accent coming out strong.
“But terrorists can be anywhere. It’s not like they only hop on airplanes or blow up tourists on a beach. What about the local fireworks here, even that’s too scary for Mom now?”
“Max, I said that’s enough!” Dad sidled closer to Mom, but still not close enough to touch.
“I’m just saying there are all kinds of ways to die. If one of us were to stand up on this roof too fast, we could slide right off. The blunt force alone would shatter our skulls. See, even dust can be dangerous.”
“The way you’re talking right now is dangerous,” I said to Max under my breath but Mom still overheard.
“I’m not going to lose my temper. You don’t have to treat me like glass. Max, instead of being angry with me for being afraid, I would think you’d have some kind of sensitivity after an airplane explodes in the air.”
“You don’t need to scare the kids, Elle!” I could hear the subtle shift in Dad’s tone, the consonants softening. “We’re safe. That’s all over now.”
“Well, of course it’s ‘over now.’ Those people are dead!” Mom set her ice-cream bowl aside and put her hand under my chin to tilt my face so I would look at her. “Get your guitar, love. We can sing like last year. A little music and it will feel like Fourth of July, even without the fireworks.”
Even though Mom was smiling again, I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I was too busy watching Max push the blade of his knife against the palm of his hand, just hard enough that the skin changed color because of the pressure. There was something small hidden inside the tightness of his other fist, a sham of whittled back wood. The thing looked skinned and pale, like a rabbit’s foot with the luck peeled off. Max moved the knife away from his palm to torture the wood with his blade while Mom spoke.
“Where’d you get that?” Mom reached across me toward Max. “That’s from my arbor. You’re carving things from my garden to design one of your architectural models?”
“Yeah, so? I thought you’d be glad I had a hobby I could do from home. Now, the only thing you’ll have to worry about before I leave for college is one of us dying from boredom.”
“So you’re ruining something of mine because you think I ruined something of yours? I should’a known this new whittlin’ thing of yours was emblematic.”
Before, Max and I would have teased Mom for saying emblematic, the kind of word she used for lyrics in her songs. We’d have sung different rhymes, stringing together a made-up tune - buzzing out ‘emblematic, highly erratic, constant static.’ But things were different ever since The Dead Girl and neither of us sung a thing. But to me, it didn’t actually feel like Mom was afraid of us flying. It felt like she’d cancelled Florida because she didn’t want to go on a family vacation with Dad and even Disney wasn’t enough to make her want to pretend otherwise.
It had only been a few weeks since the Air India flight exploded from a bomb over the Atlantic, killing three hundred people. One of them was Dad’s student from Columbia University. Two weeks later, on June 14th, the Hezbollah captured a plane. President Reagan already welcomed the hostages home but Mom still cancelled our flights and insisted we avoid large crowds. Big events. Just. In. Case. It made no sense coming from Mom who dragged us to the Macy’s Day Parade last year, Mom who demanded we travel by public transport instead of relying on cabs when we were living in New York - Mom who stood on stage and sang for strangers in crowded Manhattan bars.
“You could have at least let me hung out with the swim team,” Max complained. “None of their moms are afraid of them being in a crowd. I thought you said we’d always be New Yorkers, even after we moved to New Jersey.”
“It’s a mother’s job to keep her children safe…to protect them at any cost.” Mom looked at me for reassurance, but I didn’t care about fireworks or not going to Florida for vacation. There were different things about summer I was excited about and I had to look away before Mom or Dad or Max could see the burn in my cheeks and guess.
“It’s beautiful,” I murmured as several meteors dissolved into nothing above our heads.
“Whatever.” I wasn’t used to seeing Max act like this. I thought of the Max imprinted in the Senior Yearbook, a smiling face surrounded by capitalized words listing out his social credentials – BEST SMILE! NICEST LAUGH! But when he spoke, his voice sounded defensive, angry, hostile.
“Tell one of your corny jokes.” I tried to diffuse the tension, pressing my hand against the Pentecostal tiles of our roof where several squares snagged up, exposing a raw underside. “Tell the one about the goat and the light bulb or the one where chicken egged the other on. Please, Max,” I whispered. “Otherwise, they’re going to keep fighting.”
But instead, he stood up, the blade of his knife snapped back in the case so the sharp part was hidden. “That one looks like an airplane, doesn’t it?” He pointed toward the sky where a wide scathe of blackness blistered with stars.
I felt the stillness of Mom’s breath as the ember of light fell from the sky. The brightness rushed toward us like sirens. I wanted to hold Mom’s hand then, to calm its shaking. But under her nails, there was a rim of dirt from the garden, as if the darkness went all the way inside her now and I knew, no gesture could change what happened Before.
“Jayney, darlin’, please. Don’t make me ask again. Get your guitar!”
“She doesn’t want to. Nobody wants to pretend this is like last year. Everything’s changed because of what you did. Florida was supposed to be your apology! Somewhere we’d all go together instead of you just leaving and taking off on us. Do you really think any of us believe that was just because you got scared?”
“I’ve been back for over a week! If you think I still owe you an apology for anything than…”
“Elle,” Dad nodded almost imperceptibly toward me. “Let’s just try to enjoy our evening. Now isn’t the time to talk about the rest.”
“Well, when is! Look at us Clay, out here in the dark. It isn’t just in poetry that kind of metaphor means something. You hear the kids. Until we talk honestly - nothing is in the past!”
What was she doing? There had been an implicit understanding we were never going to discuss what had happened - me piecing together the dynamic between Dad and the student who died in The Crash. How Dad winced, while he spoke about “her” with far too much familiarity – ‘her wide-eyed innocence, a brilliant mind encased behind a beautiful face’ - words far more potent coming from Dad who typically never spoke poetically about anything other than science. Then, Mom’s immediate five-day absence after the victims’ names were announced on the news when The Dead Girl was revealed to be eighteen. Her real name immediately became an unutterable word. Why was Mom talking about Before now when since her return nine days ago, nothing had been explained?
A catch of breath tightened in my chest while I waited for her to speak. “I’m glad we stayed here,” I said. “Florida doesn’t smell like this. With Mom’s gardenia, so fresh in the air?” I tried to make my tone like sea glass - the sharpness rubbed away, no longer broken bits of a Heineken bottle - but treasures that had been polished into something smooth, things that could be held without hurting, words that brought back memories of a happier time. “It’s beautiful being home to enjoy the garden.”
“Stop doing that, J,” Max taunted. “You don’t have to keep pretending like this is all okay.”
“Pretending?” Mom set her empty ice cream bowl down hard on the roofline. “Is that right? Alright then, let’s have the conversation we’ve all been avoiding. The conversation that it sounds like you two must have already had behind my back. Max, you’ve made yourself very clear but what about you Jayne? Do “you have questions about what happened before or not?”
“She’s not going to question you, Mom. She’s too afraid you’ll leave again if she says or does anything that makes you mad. Jayne, come on. How come you’ll say it to me but you won’t say anything to her? Don’t you see it, that kind of dishonesty, faking your feelings, that counts as a betrayal too. You’re better than that, J. Tell her what’s on your mind.”
“Oh for goodness sake!” Mom straightened the bottom of her skirt until her bare feet were visible. “Jayney, he’s right. Either ask now or consider the conversation closed! Because I can’t keep getting punished by the both of you.”
“You’re getting punished?” Max paused. “You know how much Florida meant to me, training in the open water, warm water, not cold like here. I could shave time off my stroke, improve my times before college. But what I want never matters. Jayne, you’re really not going to say anything to her about it at all?” Max touched my shoulder gently. “I can’t keep sticking up for you if you aren’t even going to try to stick up for yourself.”
I swallowed hard and look away as Max stood up. It amazed me he could move so fast when he was in water because out of it, he was slow - the delay of those hands leaving his hair, the hesitant blink as he stared over at me, even his expression, it took so long for the anger to wipe off his face. I waited until Max climbed in through Mom and Dad’s window before I finally spoke. “He can swim “at the Jersey shore.” I took Mom’s hand again, suddenly protective, straightening out her bracelets one at a time. “So what if it’s cold. It’s still an ocean. He’s going to do great when he gets to NYU. He doesn’t need to get any faster.” It was nervous running water talk that I couldn’t turn off.
“Don’t deflect! How come you didn’t want to get your guitar and play with me? Clayton, stop giving her the eye. She’s old enough to answer for herself. You’ve nearly given up on music since I came home and I know why. Just say it. Max was right, wasn’t he? You’re still angry too.”
“But I already said I’m not.” The lie made my heart race. “It’s just hard to play when it’s dark out. I’m not like you. I have to look at the strings still. That’s all. I don’t care about Florida. Really, I don’t care about Florida at all.”
“I’m not talking about Florida!” Mom stood up. “And to be honest, neither is Max!” Her bare feet knocked against the ice-cream bowl. The spoon tipped out and slid along the tile, clattering against the ceramic before pushing the bowl over the edge where it fell into broken cleaves, shattering below.
“I’ll get it,” I said, peering down, wondering if the neighbors were listening in but Mom rushed inside ahead of me. Her wild hair swallowed the space where my shadow should have gone so instead, there was nothing. Her darkness had engulfed me completely.”
“Dad slid closer while I ran explanatory formulations in my head: it had been 9 days since Mom’s return. In biblical numerology, 9 represents The Judgment. In math, it’s a positive perfect power. These two possibilities encapsulated the wide swing of Mom’s personality. But how long had she been this way? I tried to remember the months before the Air India crash, back to when we moved here a year ago and started claiming this house as our own - the rusted wheelbarrow, bags of manure in the back of Dad’s car, how funny it was for a family of New Yorkers to smell like a barn. Why hadn’t we been laughing, even then?
“Here.” Dad pushed binoculars into my hand.
The lens brought the sky to my lap. The crescent moon peeled away into a fake smile of light but I didn’t feel like searching the darkness for planets. “Why can’t you two be happy anymore?”
“Oh, Blue Jay. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.” Dad reached over to focus the lens like he used to when I was small and first started asking about the planets and stars. “Jaybird? Aren’t you going to take the binoculars? You can connect the dots for the Big Dipper.”
Dad was being nice but staying out here with him felt like a betrayal. Deep down, I knew why Mom had left our family, why she had cancelled our family vacation, because we didn’t feel like family anymore. But it didn’t seem possible for Dad to be someone else’s boyfriend like Mom thought. He wore a tie and glasses every day. He had wrinkles and grey hair. I didn’t want to be mad at both of them. When things felt hard, Dad had been the one who stayed.
“Why’d she have to bring me into it?” I set the binoculars down. “Max was the one breaking her things. He’s an emotional arsonist. He lights situations on fire and then leaves everyone else to deal with the consequences.”
“I know things feel hard but you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. You’ll figure out how to get through. It’s the scientist in you.”
“Better not let Mom hear you. I’m only supposed to like music now, not anything that’s yours.”
“Maybe it feels like that. But no one is expecting you to make a choice between science or music. It is possible to love two very different things at once.”
My arm grew rigid. Loving two different things at once? I wasn’t worried about people loving two things. I wanted reassurance Mom and Dad still loved one – each other!
“You know about Meiosis and Mitosis, right, Jay Bird? How multicellular organisms renew themselves after damage?”
“Division is an essential part of the process. Things divide then heal.”
“Damage in people is different, if that’s what you’re trying to say. Besides, we already had our division. Mom left. Now she’s back but it’s pretty obvious no one is ready to heal.”
“Let me finish. The cells that get produced afterwards - the new cells are called Daughter Cells. They have similar atomic contents to the parent cells but they are actually their own things, Beautiful, self-sufficient Daughter Cells are a new life, a clean slate after all the despair.”
“So, I’m supposed to be the eraser who cleans the white board? Maybe I get the clean slate.”
“Wow, even without fireworks, this truly is starting to feel like Independence Day.”
“That still counts as a pun, Dad.”
“Indeed it does.” Dad patted my shoulder affectionately and laughed.”
I smiled, but didn’t understand it. If Dad was such a great scientist, how come he had no theories about Mom, like why she was angry when we were the ones she’d abandoned? Or why Mom bothered to come back if she was still unhappy? I didn’t want to believe the things about Dad that Mom did but why hadn’t he even tried defending himself against her? Why didn’t either of them even try to explain?
How different things were last year. Dad was still tenured at Columbia instead of teaching Intro to Physics at Community College here. We’d stood together on the roof of our old building in New York, Mom and Dad’s arms linked playfully. Fireworks sputtered behind us, the force shrunk down by the distance. We were too far to hear the violent after-boom but the brightness was still visible. When Mom got her guitar, I marveled at how easily she rhymed “different professors’ names, distilling stories about Dad’s colleagues into funny rhythmic phrases, making music on the spot. She played like the guitar was magic, every muscle in her face relaxing as she strummed, an easiness taking hold of her. I remember watching her fingers, trying to match my hands to hers, wanting to replicate their beauty with my guitar. I was so enveloped in Mom’s music, it wasn’t until afterward that I understood the fireworks were over. We’d missed the finale but I didn’t know when the ending had come.
A month later, we moved here. I wanted to feel the excitement of our adventure - a new house in the suburbs, winding roads where I could ride a bike without red lights. It was fun sleeping in sleeping-bags when our beds didn’t arrive! But what was this eerie silence between Mom and Dad, and the trance-like way Mom moved through the house? When Mom led us to the roof to show us our own stretch of sky the first night, Max hadn’t even pretended to act impressed. ‘Back in Dallas’, Mom teased, ‘everyone talks about seceding from the union, but we’ll succeed at our own!’ And Max usually the one with all the jokes, was suddenly full of questions. How come Dad hasn’t unpacked any of his things? How come no one is answering the phone, even though it keeps ringing? I hated how familiar things felt in a place that was supposed to be brand-new. Had I looked away too long again, unaware another ending had already come?
The holiday was over, but someone in the neighborhood set off a firework anyhow. There was a flash of light, then out past the thatch of oak trees bordering Mrs. Miller’s yard, the darkness deepened. I tried to find the outline of Mrs. Miller’s house. We’d spent the night there when Mom first left. It had seemed strange then, staring out Mrs. Miller’s window at our house, how our couch indented where Mom frequently sat and Max’s room, the things in his closet were organized so tightly the slightest bump could push everything out of order. It was the first time, other than vacations and visits to Gram that I’d spent the night anywhere except home.
Mom’s voice came through the window, her words suddenly Texas soft as she broke the silence. “Jayney. Time for prayers,” she called out. I loved how she said my name with three syllables. Jay. Uh. Knee, like it was hard to let the sound leave her mouth with only two. But even in her gentleness, there was the quiet manipulation. Would I still do as I was told now that she was back?
“Shall we,” Dad asked, already climbing through the window.
“But I shook my head, feeling a thrill of defiance. “I’ll come in a minute.” I stared out at the city skyline blinking in the distance. In less than three weeks, I would be going back to New York for Science Camp. I couldn’t wait to be back, not having to walk on egg shells all the time, back to the constancy of other people’s presence, the tidal rush of traffic, ambulatory sirens, loud streets, taxis, surrounded by dorm room walls and auditoriums filled with science theories and lectures.
I couldn’t wait for my clean slate, where everything had an answer and I was the one in control of how much I wanted to know.
Excerpt From: “SongsFromTheOtherSide_Interiorebook_4.21.21.” Apple Books.