My father’s day off from work, he waded through emails at a kitchen table: a laptop playing Daddy for eight years—my appah.
“Is there a spider monkey?” I asked from behind his screen.
So early in the AM he hadn’t brushed a thing, hair like Al Einstein or Christopher Lloyd, but we’re family. No need to cup his breath for Crystal. I was eight years old.
“No such thing as spider monkeys, babe.”
“But your hair, Daddy, you look like a spider monkey.”
Late for email, Daddy told me point blank:
“Less talking, more eating.”
And I stayed Crystal-quiet the rest of the day.
Soggy emails. Frosted Flakes. I was ready for school, wounded by words in new ways. So bothered by his looks—disheveled, wild-eyed—he was breakfast beard ON, computer turned ON, had “prospective clients to type to, don’t you understand?” But I didn’t. We had NO interest in public space together. So I told Daddy to “visit a bathroom mirror and repair.”
I was too embarrassed to walk next to him, the three blocks to the bus stop, on Daddy’s day off. But who cared? Funny that way.
A father half-awake, half-combed, and it really wasn’t for an 8-year-old girl to wonder why Daddy needed a job “sooner than later,” and why he spent his nights on living room couches more and more these days. I heard things from Mom, too: “What will she think of you older, 15 and 40, if you’re not a man—in this girl’s eyes?”
His tumbleweed hair. We had NO interest in public space together.
“Bathroom mirror and repair!” I yelled again.“It’s Picture Day!”
The other girls would be looking pretty, boys in dark ties, everyone’s hair would be combed. Everyone’s.
I could hear Mom and Dad in the bathroom over sinks, their anger set to scathing. And whatever water was hidden in shared spaces, a bathroom shout made me quiet: blank spoon in my cereal bowl.
“She’s the one taking the fucking picture!” I heard my daddy say.
And it’s me who went to a mirror to repair, threw my backpack on. I was beside the front door. I looked at my green Velcro sneakers in the tall mirror and didn’t care if we didn’t match. I stepped out the front door.
I walked three blocks to the bus stop, not talking to strangers; two neighbors noticing, calling out my name, but I ignored them. I saw them with their own children clasped tightly beside their legs—good parents—holding their children’s good hands; while I—holding a heavy backpack slung over the limpest of t-shirts in cold November, alone—was determined to walk to the bus stop. Alone.
Thinking to myself: There is such thing as spider monkeys.
The last child to board the bus.
I heard the driver ask, “Crystal, where’s your mother?” and I shook my head no, sitting down beside Dana, who in a pink bubble jacket scooted over for a best friend.
Dana all bundled up.
I rubbed my arms and felt the spider monkeys crawling up my skin, hairs swinging. It was that cold.
On the way to school, Ms. Kent, the bus attendant, nodded her head, whispering over her Walkie-Talkie. Static from my father to the school to the bus I was freezing in.
Ms. Kent was scolding. “No, no, no. Crystal’s right here. Very underdressed, I might add. But she’s sitting right here. Not missing.”
Missing. My parents had only seen how I left it, that front door wide open. They had tumbled outside, two adult bodies staggering mad, shaving cream across the street—one end of a block for my father, the other streets my mother’s pain, her fire-faced cries, and screaming.
They said the word seventeen times.
Neighbors streamed out of their homes.
“What's all the yelling?” “You left Crystal where?”
Mom and Dad glared at those mirrors: “What do you mean she might’ve boarded the bus?!?!”
All because of me; because my mess of a father hadn’t combed down his hair on a Monday morning.
There are two kinds of people in the world, darlin’, those who believe in spider monkeys and those who don’t. And who will you be? If Daddy had only said those words. Then all the might’ves would be sprinkled into zoo-spider cages, where little monkey-girls like me could belong. Dana’s parents would’ve said something like that. And I would’ve told Daddy, at bedtime, how their flying table-keepers folded-up computers at night and said, “Less eating, more talking” and “How was your day?”
Two parents standing guard by a Honda Odyssey double-parked, in front of school, before the bus even arrived; they waited. They waved their arms like hurricane trees outside my window, their whole world shaking, since such a thing as a home without me entered their belongings, and they were possessed, outside an orange school bus. I saw my father crying for the first time. Because he saw me, his Crystal bouncing through bus aisles, while other kids pushed; we were little ducks jumping off bus tires onto liquid pavement, pond safe.
On the sidewalk, I did not rub my arms cold; I smiled for Daddy, a silly man pantomiming curved hearts above his head, the corniest ballet move ever danced; and in 30º weather, I just kept the smile closer because he was wearing my favorite: orange and blue. We were both Mets fans. Daddy in my Mets hat. Colors I had given him last Father’s Day, before couches, before screaming and cursing and an imperfect us would type Anger.
Daddy’s upgraded from a laptop to an Ultrabook now. Mommy stopped reading the fine print, too.
I began to accept that behind the certificates of birth, the tae-kwon-do trophies, elementary-, middle-school transcripts and plaques, behind the Honor Roll bumper stickers pronouncing Proud Parents of--, my mother and father needed their girls to have more identifying marks, something that would tell the world: She is ours. No room to tuck in our achievements. No reason to risk it.
All hidden safely in purses and wallets were two other children, my sisters; and how they bloomed; three girls grown taller—taller and brighter; and we’d show our parents how a life could be fail-proof; that no matter the distance, the station, if later the let-go, we could re-make ourselves—into Picture-Day perfect. And our appah would finally find the time to tell his young daughters all about Crystal; how she believed in spider monkeys. And who will you be?