Stephanie's Hour

October 19, 2009
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In the late night shadows, in the dim light of that surreal hour beyond dreams and nightmares, Stephanie lies awake. She listens to a foggy faraway siren, the laugh and scramble of two teenagers passing under her window. She listens to the silence that rings her ears, and finally for the crescendo of her parents’ footsteps. She slithers out of bed, pads across her soft carpet and cracks her door ajar, listening for their muffled shouts. They still think she can’t hear them.

Victorian lamp shadows flicker on the yellow wall; her mother’s gangly arms Spanish-dance. Father clenches his fists, voice rising until Mother’s wild hand reaches out to slap him. Their shouts cease, anger vibrating in the air and seeping in through the slit in Stephanie’s door. Father turns, hurt, clutches his face in his hands and Mother hisses at him. You’ll wake Stephanie. But Father sinks to the ground, all the pain Stephanie’s ever seen in the world collaborating into one black figure. He is like whimpering puppies and ice cream cones splattered on pavement, bicycle skinned knees and toys in doll hospitals, missing arms and eyes. She is sure a cry escapes him.

Stephanie wonders what it can be, what makes her mother’s fierce arms fly, what makes their voices climb. Was it the day she’d spilled the hot cookie plate, blue china splintering to the floor, when her mother had screamed, Goddammit, George! Was it Carol, Stephanie’s old babysitter, sitting on the stoop in a red dress with her father one evening? Stephanie remembered the glare on her mother’s face as she watched them through the lace curtains. Was it the white stack of envelopes piling on the dining table? Or was it simply grown-up stuff, stuff that belonged to the world of “money” and “work” and parties with high heels and tiramisu, stuff miles beyond Stephanie’s comprehension?

Age old story, falling in love and a big white wedding, buying a house. Father reading the paper, Mother rocking her child to sleep by the windowsill...how did anyone know it was all going to turn out right? How did anyone separate happily ever after from late night fights, dishes cracking and heels stomping out the linoleum flowers? How did anyone know?

The shadows grow still, and after the climax of midnight the world settles in. A stray leaf skids down the sidewalk, and their bedroom voices fall to a hush. Father’s fingers fumble with his buttons and broken zipper, and he closes the door quietly as he slips out, swallowed by the night. Mother drowns in the pool of orange light, her scrawny wrist clenching a fistful of graying hair, nightgown loose at her knees. Stephanie waits for the car’s ignition and the blinding lights through the window against her canopy. She pads back across the soft carpet and slides under the covers, numb but no less surprised, not even worried. She’ll hear his car once more just before dawn, and he’ll slide back in to make a cup of coffee just before she gets up. He’ll plaster on that clown smile and say, “Hey, kiddo!” Like nothing’s happened. And Stephanie will smile back, will catch his eye and search for an answer before glancing away.

They still think she doesn’t know.





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