On an early summer morning, I moved around our tiny ranch house in New Jersey getting ready for work. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe 13.
My dad opened our family-owned deli at five and came back for me a few hours later. My mom, a nurse for the elderly, left early, too. So for a few hours every morning, the house was quiet and I was alone.
I loved opening all the windows and doors open so that I could hear the leaves in the backyard rustling right before I felt the cool breeze whoosh through the house. Before I left for work, I would close up the house in anticipation of the midday summer heat and my mother’s hostility toward ever turning the air off.
Some summers I worked for my dad and some I worked with my mom. That summer was a deli-summer, and although my dad let me sleep in until nine, we didn’t get back home until ten at night. He owned the deli with his brother, but he was always there, opening and closing, serving fresh, hot bagels straight from Manhattan to early morning commuters and lunch leftovers in the evening. We always smelled like sandwiches and grill food, which was not a good smell according to my mother.
I heard a car pull up and went to look, but it wasn’t my dad. It was him.
My heart pounded and a haze of panic descended.
I paced the house for a few seconds like an anxious dog unsure of how to handle an approaching stranger. But, of course, he wasn’t a stranger.
Had he seen me? Could I hide?
The front door was wide open. That’s what I remember most — the early coolness of the summer morning and the front door wide open. A screen door guarded the front but at the time it seemed liked a thin veil, a spider web, a suggestion.
I ran to my room but when I heard the front screen door open, I ran out again. No way was I getting caught in my room. It only took a few strides to the front door.
He stood just inside with his hands in his pockets. Then he stood some more. His manner was serious and stormy. While keenly aware of those certain facts my mind spun, trying to catch up with the unfolding events, making everything else blurry.
Our house was so small, as small as a shoebox, leaving me nowhere to go, no escape, and nothing between us except a few feet of carpet. The longer he stood there doing nothing, the more alarmed I became.
I began walking backward, slowly, making my way past our dining room table, a solid hunk-of-a-thing. It took up the entire dining room and half the hall. I thought of throwing it.
As I walked backward, I mumbled, “My dad will be here soon. He’ll be here any minute. He’ll be here soon.”
On the other side of the table were the sliding glass doors that led out to our back patio and yard. I walked backward until I stood right in front of the open doors.
After stepping inside our house uninvited, he had not moved.
Positioned by the opening, it suddenly came — a calm and clear focus, as if an angel laid its gossamer wings over my head and I could finally see. I could think again.
He had moved. I had moved.
He stood. Now I stood.
My calm became the air we breathed. I was no longer a pawn in this game, no longer an ignorant child. I wasn’t happy to see him. No more pretend politeness. One more step and I would run. And he wouldn’t catch me. You can’t catch me.
I dared him to move. I dared him to continue what he had set in motion. I stood there just so he could see — he had no moves left.
Get out. Get out of my house.
I stood quiet and waited.
And then he turned and walked out. He was gone.
I don’t remember anything else. I didn’t watch him drive away. I probably would have closed all the doors and locked them. I would have kept myself busy until my dad arrived. I would have gone with dad to work. And I wouldn’t have said anything. I know that part for certain. I would have done everything to avoid anything more happening. So, I didn’t do anything. I buried it. Deep.
I know that I didn’t say anything because the memory only surfaced again as a little wisp in high school, one night with a boy who would later become my husband. We hid in the dark, on a soccer field. When he held me, I cried. Another 20 years later and the memory surfaced again a little clearer. Who knows why then? I think it was my kids.
I guard that memory, holding tight, never letting it slip away again.
It was real. I’m not crazy.
Standing solid, strengthened by the openness behind me, I shifted the balance of power. He was the one in danger.
That was when I took charge.