Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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My sister Asia loved to kick my ass. The violence began when she was ten and I was eight, after our mother started dating Freddy, a tall, bulky, dark-skinned man who chewed his tongue between sentences and had a booming laugh that sounded like it could topple buildings and crush small boys. I don’t remember exactly how Freddy came into our lives; he was just suddenly there — first as boyfriend and then as stepfather, when he moved into our apartment on Tiebout Avenue in the Bronx, New York.
By the age of ten Asia had become secretive and obsessed with her body. When she wasn’t writing in the notebook that she carried clutched to her stomach and slept with under her pillow, she was checking herself out in the bathroom mirror. She’d pull her blouse tight against her flat chest and, with her back to the sink, stare over her shoulder at her reflection while running a hand over her small behind. If I whined that I needed to pee, she told me, “Piss your pants.”
One day Asia discovered I’d gone through her things. I’d been acting out a military fantasy: I was a cunning soldier called upon to rescue prisoners of war who were being held deep in enemy territory. With a toy M-16 in my grip, I was crawling elbow-to-knee along the carpeted floor between our beds when my sister dropped a foot into my back that pushed the wind out of me and pinned me to the floor. Then she snatched from my head the dark bandanna I had borrowed from her drawer and smothered my face with it, as if she expected me to snort the cloth up my nose.
“Didn’t I tell you to keep your hands off my stuff?” she whispered close to my ear. “Huh? Huh?”
The bandanna was an essential part of my lifesaving mission that day. The same was true of her eyeliner, which I’d used to paint black lines on my face. For that she twisted an arm behind my back, scraped some of the makeup off with her fingernail, and smeared it over my lips.
“Get off me,” I cried, spitting out the gook. When I began to call for help, she dug her knee into me harder, wringing the air out of me like water from a sponge. My left cheek was pressed against the floor, and tears spilled across the bridge of my nose and disappeared into the carpet.
“Cry all you want, you little faggot,” Asia said. Then she flipped me over onto my back, still keeping me down with her knee. The bandanna was crumpled in her fist. “Whose dresser did you find this in?” she asked.
“Yours,” I said, though we shared the dresser. Only the top three drawers were hers.
She leaned into me harder. “Whose?”
“Yours!” I groaned.
Finally she got up and stood over me, giggling in that familiar, slow, wicked way that made me think of her as a monster. I couldn’t remember if our mother was home or not; if she wasn’t, and I called out for her, Asia would make me hurt even more. I pushed myself up on my elbows and lay there, tasting the salty tears and makeup on my lips. A rage swelled in me until my face felt fat with electricity. Asia continued to hover like the villain she was. Growl-crying through gritted teeth, I glared at her hard, hoping to set her on fire with nothing more than my thoughts.
And as though she had read my mind, Asia cocked her fists and came at me again. I fell backward and kicked at her with both feet. A blow to her stomach sent Asia backpedaling, and she fell to the floor hard. I’d never hit her before and couldn’t believe how easily she’d gone down. I felt as if I had superhuman strength. We both jumped up at the same time, and before I could decide on my next move, she caught me in a headlock. Then she reached between my legs, pinched my penis between two fingers, and yanked it as if snapping a rubber band.
The scream that burst from me rattled my chest and set my throat on fire. Asia released me just as our mother turned the corner into our bedroom, already working the belt from around her waist.
“He be touching my stuff,” Asia said calmly, moving into the corner between the radiator and the wall and acting bored, as if she were standing in a long line.
The belt swished down and popped like a firecracker against her arm.
Beat her ass, I thought.
Asia took most of the whipping the way she did all the others: after each blow, she touched the hurt part of her body as if shooing a fly and sucked her teeth. This drove Mommy wild and made her bring the belt back over her shoulder and swing it with both hands.
“He be touching my stuff. He be touching my stuff,” Asia kept saying.
When my sister finally broke, she dropped to the floor and blanketed her head with her arms. At one point she kicked out, trying to block the strap with her foot. Soon her legs and arms tired, and she rolled onto her side and took the blows along her back and ribs, wailing louder with each strike.
That’s enough, I thought. She’s learned her lesson.
Mommy just kept on swinging. Finally Asia was able to scurry past my mother on her knees, push herself up, and run for the door. With one last swing of her arm, Mommy threw the belt at Asia, but it missed her and fell to the floor. Only when my sister was trying to escape these beatings did she seem to me more like a little girl than an enemy.
The beatings I received were baptisms rather than outright whippings. There was an elegance to my mother’s discipline when she hit me, her blows meant more to correct than to punish. The pain she inflicted on my sister, on the other hand, was clumsy and passionate and vicious. This disparity, I know, drove Asia wild, and she would kick my ass in part because she got her ass kicked so much for kicking my ass all the time.
What I didn’t know, but Asia did by then, was that our mother and stepfather were drug addicts. They spent hours sequestered in their bedroom while thin sheets of smoke slipped underneath the door and into the hallway. The odors of marijuana and crack were sweet and magical to me, but each time the smoke drifted out, it wasn’t long before Asia was punching me or bending my arm or smothering me. My screams would bring Mommy slowly and softly into the room, the belt unwound from her waist. She’d stare at Asia with sleepy eyes while motioning with the belt and whispering, “Cut the shit.” She never hit anyone at those times but just turned and left, the belt dragging the floor as if she had forgotten it. After our mother was gone, a quiet would fall over Asia, and she’d leave me alone for the rest of the night.
My sister and I both attended P.S. 58 elementary, a forty-minute walk from our apartment. During journeys to and from school Asia was a different sibling than the one I knew at home. She became my guardian, an invincible bionic sister. One day after school I begged her to cut through a field of debris where a building had recently been demolished, because it reminded me of a battlefield. Asia saw the stray dog charging at us before I did. Knowing we couldn’t outrun the animal, she put her body in front of mine and brought her book bag down on the dog’s head. The animal took off yelping in the other direction. Other days she was quick to offer a Fuck you! and a middle finger to cabbies who blasted their horns at me for crossing the street too slowly because I’d been daydreaming. Once she spat on a drunk in the stairwell of our building, telling him there wasn’t no reason for his nasty old ass to be staring at her little brother like that.
And yet as soon as we got home, she transformed back into the sister who, at the first hint of the sweet, magic smell from the bedroom, could pin me down and make me feel her pain.
In one of the duffel bags Freddy had brought with him when he’d moved in, I found a picture of a woman with bright red lipstick wearing a white graduation cap with a yellow tassel. On the back of the photo it read, “Forever, Kim,” in elegant script over a heart with an arrow through it — the same kind I’d seen in the notebook that Asia kept cradled against her body and slept with underneath her pillow. When Freddy found me with the picture, he wasn’t upset. I asked who the person was, and he said, “The woman I should’ve married.”
I had no understanding then of the enormity of his remark, nor of how improper it was to make to a stepson. But I understood enough to know that Freddy felt he had made some kind of mistake in relation to the woman in the photograph and my mother. For that reason alone his comment stayed in my mind over the next decade, and as my parents’ relationship corroded and finally succumbed to the crack pipe, Freddy’s words glowed hot with meaning.
I have only vague memories of affection between my stepfather and my mother, and I still wonder whether they ever actually loved one another. Whenever I decide they did — they must have — I’m forced to consider other questions: What happens to the love between two people who diligently pass the crack pipe back and forth? Did it slowly seep out every time their eyes rolled back in their heads, intoxicated with a fix? Did their affection for the drug take the place of their feelings for one another? And are the children of addicts ever able to care properly for one another as siblings, or love themselves, or recognize and receive love from another?
This last question must have plagued Asia — my sister, tyrant, and protector — while she stood before the mirror and waited for her body to develop, or wrote the names of boys next to hers in the notebook she cherished, or snapped my penis like a rubber band just so Mommy would put down the pipe and behold her children.
During this period of my life, when I hadn’t yet been confronted with the evidence of my parents’ drug use or the far worse reality of their addiction, I still witnessed their brutal fights. My mother’s attacks on Freddy were Socratic: First she’d question him with a relentless, pleading tone I was sure would make him embrace her. Then, when his response was neither suitable nor quick enough, her voice cracked like a whip, and she answered her own question, saying he’d fucked up again as a man. Freddy’s technique was to laugh her off at first, but when he could no longer take her berating him, his voice became a knifelike whisper. That scared her quiet, and he’d mock her until she found the courage to go at him with another bitter tirade.
One night I awoke to the sound of furniture crashing and the sight of Asia sitting on the edge of her bed, hugging her legs against her. At first it pleased me to see her rocking back and forth peacefully in the dark. Not until I realized she was crying did I pay attention. The bedroom door was open, and light from the kitchen spread across the hallway and illuminated the floor near the foot of our mattresses. A shadow of a person played along the wall in the hall, and Freddy spoke: “You a damn lying bitch, woman.”
I heard the clap of skin against skin and understood my sister’s tears. I seemed to float out of bed, but Asia was right there to catch me before I could step into the hallway. “Don’t,” she said, her voice panicked. “He’ll hit her more if you go out there.”
Asia and I dropped to our knees at the bedroom doorway and peeked into the corridor. Freddy’s bare back was to us. Mommy faced him, leaning against the wall where the large, oval mirror had hung, but was now in pieces at their feet. They looked like they were dancing, the way Freddy’s left hand guided Mommy from side to side in front of him, glass crunching beneath shoes. I knew this was no dance when his right hand fell hard against her temple. I wanted to rush into the hall and rescue our mother, though I couldn’t imagine what I would do once I stood between her and Freddy.
Each time Mommy tried to move past Freddy, he flung her back in place. Between blows he asked her where she had been all night and said that she best not lie to him. Mommy didn’t respond to any of his questions, just watched his hands as they came at her.
“Tell me where you been all night,” Freddy said.
Before she could answer, he popped her in the mouth with the back of his hand, the same way Mommy did Asia and me when we got fresh.
“Answer me,” he said and popped her again.
“Oh, OK, Freddy, I see how it is,” Mommy said. “Keep it up. Real nice.”
“Where were you tonight?”
He landed a flurry of blows with both hands against either side of her face, her head like a ball he was tossing back and forth from palm to palm.
“Why you gotta hit me in the head, huh? Why the head?”
“You think shit is funny all the goddamn time,” he said, hitting her once more. She stumbled against the wall, her legs buckled, and she fell to her knees on the glass.
“Are we done yet, Freddy? Come on, let’s be done.”
Freddy stood over her and breathed, “Yeah.” As Mommy pushed herself up, he nodded like he’d just scored a basket.
“More?” Mommy asked Freddy.
When he lifted his fist again, I bolted from Asia’s grasp and into the middle of the hallway, where I collapsed onto the floor crying. Asia came to my side, telling me to get up, but I let out another roar, hoping the sound of my voice would act like a grenade and blow this scene to pieces.
“Oh, look at the little faggot crybaby,” Freddy said, laughing his massive laugh. “Aww, go to him, good mother,” he added. “Go protect your little boy from the big, bad man.”
© Radek Cermak
Freddy didn’t stop her this time as she limped past him, scooped me up in her arms, and brought me back to my bed. I clutched her around the neck with no intention of ever letting go. We trembled against each other as she tried to rock me silent, saying, “Shh, baby, it’s OK. Mommy’s OK now, see? I’m right here. I ain’t going nowhere. Come on, calm down.”
At daylight I woke to find Mommy gone. Asia had taken her place in bed, and I’d slept with both my hands gripping her arm. I had a faint sense that the battle between Mommy and Freddy had been just a bad dream, until I let go of Asia’s biceps and saw the purple-red indentations left by my fingers. Those marks slowly made undeniable the memories of the night before: Asia crying, our parents’ harsh voices and shadows along the hallway wall, and my mother falling to her knees on a bed of broken glass.
After that night Freddy continued his violence toward our mother, who didn’t let up in her verbal abuse toward him. Their battles now began and ended behind the closed door of their bedroom, but the wall between our room and theirs was thin, and my bed rested against it. The sounds of hushed, angry dialogue and the muffled skidding of feet and crashing of furniture planted images in my head of the barbarity on the other side of the flimsy sheetrock. Not seeing the violence kept me from crying out, but whenever silence fell, I feared my mother was unconscious or dead. Many nights, before the quiet came, Asia would pull me from my bed into her own and place me against the far wall and press her hands tightly over my ears, and I would escape into a fantasy of being a superhero or a commando leading my men to victory, and finally I would fall asleep.
I spent each school day frightened of what that night would bring at home. Asia talked about running away, and I clung to her side more than ever. The thought of her absence made her seem even more necessary to me. I knew the only way I’d be able to survive the ordeal of our home life was if I kept within arm’s reach of her.
Instead of running away, Asia began disappearing with boys behind a huge boulder atop the steepest hill in Claremont Park. The warmer it got that year, the more we’d hang out in the park after school with a group of kids, mostly boys my sister’s age, instead of going straight home. No sooner would we get to the top of the hill than Asia would have one of those boys by the collar, yanking him behind the boulder.
Once I scaled the rock and crawled along its ridge to get a peek at what was going on. I could hear panting and lips smacking. Edging farther, I saw Asia caressing the top of the boy’s head like he was a baby doll as he jammed his pelvis into hers over and over again. They both still had their clothes on. “Baby, baby,” he repeated, and Asia asked, “Do you love me?” When he didn’t answer, her voice got sharp: “Say you love me, or I’ll make you stop.” The boy said, “I love you,” quick and kept humping away. “Say it slow,” Asia commanded. “Say it a lot of times.”
And the boy did, and Asia brought her lips to his forehead, then rested her cheek against his scalp.
For years my mother and Freddy both worked the same shift at the post office, but then she switched to nights, and in the evening, while Freddy slept, Asia began sneaking out of the apartment to see boys. A truce had fallen between our parents. Every night Freddy got home around six o’clock, made a plate of food, and took it to the bedroom to eat. Our mother would sit in the living room and stare vacantly at the television until it was time for her to go to work at seven. Once she was gone, Freddy would come out of the bedroom, drop his plate in the sink, and watch a basketball game or a police drama before heading to bed. That’s when Asia would lace up her shoes, slip a few girl items from the top of her dresser into her pockets, and make me promise not to tell.
The violence at home had brought Asia and me closer. She’d been a gentler sister to me since that night we’d watched Freddy beat Mommy, which made it impossible for me to snitch on her — but also impossible for me not to be jealous as I watched her sneak out to meet boys. She was going to secure more of those confessions of love instead of remaining a warrior sister by my side. As possessive of Asia as I had become, and perhaps always had been, I would not rat her out. I hoped that, in exchange, she would still offer me a spot in her bed if and when the war between Mommy and Freddy erupted again.
On the weekends we seemed to transform into a normal family. After payday on Friday our parents moved about the house together and called each other by their first names and occasionally left the apartment for a few hours. Asia stayed put on her bed and wrote in her notebook until Mommy and Freddy returned, laughing and leaning into one another and usually carrying Chinese takeout. Before they disappeared into their bedroom, they’d give us permission to eat on the living-room floor in front of the television and stay up as late as we wanted. Every so often one of them would come out, grab a bite of food, say something loving to us, and then disappear again. Never once did I hear a raised voice or banging furniture. I did my best to freeze these moments and make them the only ones that had ever existed.
Asia remained unaffected by the semblance of harmony on the weekends. She rarely seemed happy as we stuffed ourselves in front of the television. I think she longed for the weekdays — or, rather, the weeknights.
With each Monday my fear returned, and Asia was back to checking herself out in the mirror and making sure I wasn’t going to tell on her. Now eleven, she had developed breasts and a bigger butt. Her hair grew longer, and she stopped wearing makeup. Instead of the My Little Pony book bag she’d used to ward off the stray dog, she began carrying a shoulder bag made out of a fabric called “hemp,” and she wore a wristwatch, which she checked most nights before calmly gathering her belongings and strolling out the door, no longer concerned whether I would inform our parents. Her violence toward me had all but vanished. Something was happening to Asia that I didn’t understand and couldn’t prevent, but I didn’t care: just as long as we breathed the same air at night while we slept.
On our walk home from school one day, just a few short blocks from Claremont Park, Asia noticed an older boy leaning against the door of a building with his arms folded across his chest, and she stopped. She put a hand on my shoulder and whispered for me to wait where we were standing. Instead of talking to him, Asia walked right past the boy and then paused, looked over her shoulder, and locked eyes with him. Her stare seemed to pull him off the wall like an invisible leash around his neck, and I was certain he was the one she’d been sneaking out to see.
Asia moved down the block, the boy several feet behind her, and I followed about fifteen paces behind him. Every so often Asia would shout for me to hurry up, and the boy would look back at me with a sharp gaze.
After a half block he was at Asia’s side. Then his arm was around her shoulders, and he leaned close and whispered in her ear. She wriggled free of his hold, but his arm came back, this time on her ass.
“Get away from me,” she said, and she shoved the boy. I couldn’t remember the last time Asia had pushed a boy away.
The boy stood with his fists on his hips, but Asia kept walking. I made a wide circle around him and fell in beside my sister, asking what had happened.
“We have to get out of here,” she said, her eyes wild. “This nigger is crazy.”
I looked back. The boy stood smiling, his hands shoved coolly into his pockets. Then he started after us.
“Don’t run,” Asia said. “Just walk.”
Don’t run? “We have to run,” I said, but Asia turned to me with a pleading look. “We can’t,” she said, breathless. “He’ll catch us — and then he’s gonna rape me.”
Rape. It was one of those words I knew was bad, but I had no inkling of its meaning. Rape. It was some unstoppable evil force, one that left my sister with no options.
“Come suck my dick, bitch,” the boy called from behind us.
“Leave us alone,” I shouted back at him, trying to sound tough, but the kid just laughed and said, “I’ll kick your fucking ass, little nigger.”
Asia and I cut into Claremont Park. I hoped we would come across someone who might give a damn what was happening to us, but there was no one in sight. We took a path that ran alongside a steep, grassy hill. Thinking there would be some kind of savior on the other side, I held Asia by the forearm and led her toward the slope. The boy was behind us, still walking, but each time I looked he seemed closer than before. Suddenly he moved fast: slipped between some benches, hopped a chain, and took the hill in long strides. At the top he was on us.
The boy grabbed me by the collar and flung me down the other side of the incline. Asia screamed. I hit the ground as if sliding sloppily into a base, then got up and balled my fists. The boy pinned Asia against a tree and worked his knee between hers, trying to pry them apart with the weight of his hips. Scratch his eyes out, I thought, but she just whimpered and said, “No, please,” beating his shoulders with her palms. Who was this sister?
I knew what I needed to do: charge him and lay into him with my fists until he fell to the ground, then stomp his head into the earth until it was nothing but snot. But I’d only ever done something like that in my imagination. I stood there a moment, picturing myself doing what I couldn’t. Then I took off down the hill to look for help.
At the bottom was a tall chain-link fence that separated a basketball court from a tennis court. Beyond the courts were the distant sidewalk and street. A group of men were playing a pickup game of basketball, unaware that my sister was about to get raped. I bent over to catch my breath. I wanted to yell for help but was choked into silence by the shame and embarrassment of what I believed my family and I were: This is what you get for having a mother who chose an evil man to be her boyfriend, I thought. This is what your sister gets for staring at boys like that and wearing those skirts. This is what you get for not being brave enough to break a beer bottle against the ground and push the jagged end through that evil kid’s ear!
Just then the basketball game ended, and the men moved to the gate. One of them stopped at a water fountain close to me. I tried to speak but couldn’t. Instead I edged closer until my elbow touched the hand he used to work the fountain.
The man raised up. He was shirtless and covered in sweat. “The hell’s wrong with you?” he said.
I started crying, which is when I found my voice and managed to get out that an older boy was trying to rape my sister up there against a tree.
“Boy, you best not be lying to me,” the man said, and he took off up the slope.
Trailing behind him, I kept saying, “Right up there. Right up there against that tree!”
The kid still held Asia in place. His underwear and jeans were at his ankles, and he had a handful of Asia’s panties, stretching them. Her legs appeared joined at the knee in an X. Kill him, I thought to the man. He was out of breath, but his voice was like a cannon. He told the kid to leave that little girl alone, or he was going to cut off his dick and shove it up his ass.
The boy spun around fast and stumbled as he tried to pull his pants up and run away at the same time. Then he was gone.
Asia cried silently on the walk home, favoring her left leg. I told her not to worry, that she would be OK, and everything would be fine. It felt good to say this, so I said it again. That’s when she started crying for real, gasping and shuddering. For the rest of the way home Asia kept a tight grip on my forearm.
Asia and I never talked about her near rape in the park. The attack didn’t stop her from going out at night on Tiebout Avenue or on Harrison Avenue, where we moved before the end of that school year. In our new apartment we each had our own room. Hers was bigger but closer to our parents’ back bedroom, and I was grateful for that. The drama between Mommy and Freddy would subside over the next year with the birth of their first child together, then begin again with more vehemence once my baby brother began walking and talking and demanding attention.
Now when Asia and I fought, we mostly yelled at one another. I was taller and stronger by then, and the few times I sought revenge against my sister for those days of torture yielded minimal satisfaction. More than that, Asia, at thirteen, had fallen in love with a boy five years older than her, and the drama between us felt more like a desperate attempt on my part to return to the days when she pressed her hands over my ears to calm my fears. The truth was that I missed my sister, but at that age I couldn’t have said so.
One day I followed Asia two miles back to Tiebout Avenue, where this older boy lived, to see how she was spending all these hours away from my side. It was odd to see our old building after two years and to look in the first-floor windows that had once been ours and see strangers moving around the kitchen and living room. I trailed Asia a half block more, then ducked behind a stone cherub at the entrance to a building and watched her cross the courtyard to a row of benches where an older boy was sitting. He had dark, curly hair and wore sunglasses and a blue windbreaker with the collar turned up, and his thumbs were hooked into the pockets of his acid-washed jeans. He looked like he’d just climbed off a motorcycle. Asia took his face in both her hands and leaned down to kiss him. He held her at the waist. They looked like a regular boyfriend and girlfriend, not like a couple whose battles would lead to one of them getting slapped so hard she’d fall to her knees onto a bed of shattered glass.
Beyond them was a patch of grass and an iron fence with tall, pointed bars. On the other side of the fence the ground sloped down into an artificial gorge about fifty feet deep. The bottom was a flat wasteland of beer bottles, cans, used diapers, and garbage that people in neighboring apartments had thrown into it. The weeds grew as tall as your shoulder. When we’d lived nearby, I’d gone down into the gorge many times, hoping to find loose change or dollar bills, or pretending it was a jungle deep in enemy territory. But older kids visited the place only to have sex. So when the boy took Asia by the hand and led her through the fence gate (the lock had been busted long ago), I knew exactly what they were going to do.
I slipped over to the bench where the boy had been sitting and watched the two of them hold hands and look over the edge of the gorge. For a second I thought they might jump, but then the boy pointed to his left, and they trotted down a steep dirt path to the floor of the ravine. Asia held on to him from behind, one hand on his shoulder and the other at his elbow, as he slid down using his back foot as a brake. After they dropped out of sight, I stepped through the gate and hid behind a tree near the ravine’s edge.
The path they took ended at a three-foot drop into the weeds below. The boy hopped down with ease, then reached up for my sister, slipping his hands beneath her arms and lifting her into the air. She looked like a child being helped from a set of monkey bars by her father. The boy held Asia above him for a while, smiling up at her, and she laughed: a quick cackle that echoed throughout the gorge. After the boy set her down, he took off his windbreaker and spread it on a spot clear of debris where the weeds only reached their ankles. Asia lay down atop his jacket. The boy got on his knees, and Asia pulled him on top of her. His body blocked nearly all of my sister. At some point during their sex I stepped from behind the tree, my chest filled with anger, and picked up an empty soda can. I didn’t care if they looked up and saw me. I wanted them to. I brought my arm back as far as it could go, did my best to turn the can into a grenade, and heaved it into the gorge, hoping the explosion would blow them both to pieces. But my weapon just drifted down and disappeared into the brush and garbage without a sound, nowhere near the lovers’ bodies.
Akhim Yuseff Cabey