Smile

It’s spring, and I’m eight years old. That puts us at 1998. Mom and Dad are heading out for a couple hours, leaving Drew in charge of the place. They’ve got to run a few errands before coming back to pick us up so we can all do family pictures at Sears. We’re supposed to go through our closets and find our Good Clothes. Our Good Clothes are the pants that we can still hold up with safety pins, the shirts whose holes are low enough where we can hide them by tucking them in.

My Good Clothes are hand-me-downs from Drew’s old Good Clothes, and the sizing is all off. After Mom and Dad leave, Drew starts vacuuming. This is weird, because they didn’t ask him to, and Drew never vacuums. I sit on the couch like a lump while he moves around the apartment, not quite knowing what to do when it gets to the couch. I scoot to one end of it so that he can clean without me in the way, but I keep getting in the way. He detaches the hose from the vacuum and starts to clean the couch cushions. I get up from the couch and start to walk away. He tells me to get out of the fucking way. I yell that I already did, partially because the vacuum is running and I have to yell to be heard, and partially because I’m angry. He drops the vacuum but leaves it running and walks toward me.

Before I can respond, he’s punched me in the stomach so hard that I can’t make a sound when I hit the ground. When I can move, I start to get up, but he pushes me from behind. I scramble around and get to the back of the couch, but he’s already there. From here, no one could see me. With the vacuum on, no one could hear me.

Drew starts hitting and kicking me. No method, no technique, just anger. I’m crying by now, trying not to because apparently that makes me a little bitch, and I’m doing the best I can to kick him and get back to my feet. In this moment, it hits me for the first time that you can be completely trapped. That you can be hurt and hurt badly with no chance of escape. That the people who hurt you can be the people who love you. I thought those things in simpler terms as I saw Drew through a cloudy bubble world of tears, trying to catch my breath and reaching up to grab his arms as they came down.

When I can, I get back up to my feet and run for the vacuum’s power cord. Drew chases behind me, tries to stop me, but he’s too slow. I yank the cord out of the wall and run for the other room, yelling for someone to help. I hardly finish the word when my legs are pulled out from under me. My face hits the floor, and when I can turn over and open my eyes, nothing seems to be put together just right.

I take slow, deep breaths. The vacuum is back on. For a moment, I imagine that everything that just happened was a dream, that I fell asleep, or fell down and hit my head, and I imagined everything. That Drew was finishing up the vacuuming, and we’d play some N64 after, maybe race in Mario Kart. But that’s not right.

Drew is walking over to me with the vacuum still on in the background to cover up the noise. I can’t be sad anymore, so I get angry. I think of the words I’d heard hurled between Mom and Dad, the words I’d heard the big kids use. Drew pulls his fist back, and I scowl at him:

“Fuck you. I hate you.”

I brace for the hit and take in a breath. The hit never comes. Instead, Drew studies me like I’m a lizard who said the same words. He doesn’t know what to make of it.

By the time Mom and Dad get home, I’ve already cleaned up and gotten dressed for family pictures. When we get to Sears, the photographer puts the family in every configuration possible–Mom and Dad, Dad and Drew, Mom and Drew, me with both, the whole family. Then:

“Let’s get the brothers.”

The photographer has Drew and I get in close with an “act like you love him” that he immediately laughs at right after he says it. We get a little closer for the picture. The photographer adjusts our posture while a void opens up between us. It seems like there is no light and no sound. He tells Drew to put his arm around my shoulder, and Drew does. When he’s satisfied, the photographer gets behind the camera and looks at us:

“Smile!”

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