How to Bleed a Child
You are eight. Or else nine. And you are standing at the mouth of the hallway, in your mother’s house, that stretches to your bedroom, a bathroom, your mother’s room, the movie-watching office room, and ends at the concrete bust of Aphrodite.
You’re wearing a baggy sweatshirt from your local fire department to cover the unruly boobs that you strap down with limp Target-brand sports bras that your daddy bought you—too soon in your opinion—so that he could be the first, before your mom, that bitch, always beats him to the punch, he said, that day, when you hid on the other side of the clothing carousal, and it didn’t matter, you said, because you didn’t need any bra, anyways. And he said that actually, you did.
The sweatshirt has a black-armored fighter on one side aiming a hose at the steadyback retreating wave of red, orange, yellow, so pretty, aggressive, that you try to copy them onto journal paper—fiery flickering flames. Plus, the sweatshirt is loose, not too hot, you can wear it in June, with shorts, and not sweat or draw attention from your friends.
That year, you refuse the fifth-grade coastal sleepover at Pigeon Point if you are on your period.
With a rare stroke of pubescent mercy, it comes early, and your mom insists that you will be done bleeding by the end of the carpool drive to the beach, so you concede, with anxiety, to throw away the evidence at the last gas station bathroom on the way.
In the third seat of Kendall’s mom’s suburban you cast paper spells in pink notebooks, under guises like MASH and SHAMPOO, to divine where you will live, what you will do, who you will love, in your life, no forever, or okay, Jane will do yours again.
But that part comes after the part where you stand there, still, at the vortex gaping maw of this hallway, and listen to your mom through the sliding glass door, on the porch, talk to your father—or more listen—on the phone, but her eyes are saying something.
She hangs up the phone abruptly, presses her lips together, dials again.
She only pushes three buttons to place the next call.
She faces the yard while she speaks.
And she nods.
You crawl slow closer.
Then she turns toward the house. You repel backwards, backstep pedal onto your heels toward your room. But the gaping, arching mouth of the hallway is as far back as you make it when she slides back the glass door and suspends you there, frozen, with the upright, outstretched palm of her hand.
She crosses the living room floor toward you.
And you remain.
Okay. She says.
She’s right here. She says.
She extends to you the cordless phone. It is white, light gray, and blocky. There is a peeling paper sticker of a pair of rainbow splattered cartoon puppies, that you put there, at some point, before now.
She has to shake it toward you, to get you to shift, lift your arm, accept the weight of the receiver, hold it.
You blink at it. Looking. Thinking. Lean your head away. Pause time.
Mom lifts it, in your hand, to your ear.
Stands, watches, has been crying.
So you listen.
In that moment is when I get up from this computer and gently take the phone out of your hands, get there in time, hold you both to my chest, stroke your heads.
In that moment is when I square up the phone’s white plastic face with my own, take a breath, use my thumb, press the button with the red X at the top, to silence the policewoman on the other end, with conviction, who is angry, who wants you to know, that your mother is in danger, that your daddy is crazy, that he’s bad, do you understand? He is bad.
I understand, I tell the policewoman, help her relax, feel better too.
And I hang up before you hear her loud voice.
She doesn’t tell you that your daddy plans to kill your mom. Doesn’t explain that after your dad describes her own murder to her over the phone, he tells your mommy he will dance on her grave, will piss, and spit, and parade on her grave, will laugh, will delight, will be free.
She doesn’t ask you to understand, to make a promise, to help out.
You don’t cry, you don’t drop the receiver, you don’t run to the carpet of your bedroom, to your toys.
Since you don’t hear any of this, you remain free.
Your focused worries continue to be that you’ll have to change in front of friends at Jillian’s birthday, that red blood will stain your shorts, will leak in the pool, will expose you to elementary legend, sacrificial slaughter that will ask, demand, you adorn PE clothes in 6th grade, in the locker room, with other girls, who are flat, who are clean, who get to be children.
You still have to write letters to the court, have to hide for weeks in local campgrounds, sneak with your mom out of parking lots where you see your dad’s heavy Ford next to the Long’s or the Post Office, or Truckee Bagel Co. But your primary betrayal remains your body. Your parents are still—imperfect—but contained, distinct, in established, in stable, separate frames. And you don’t have to carry them both in your arms, all the time.
You are able to worry about shaving your armpits before your aunt’s wedding, to dance when others prompt you, to participate, in sports, in games, in a play. You are able to love equally, without anger, without guilt and guarding, without fear. You don’t quiver at the thought of adulthood, and though you continue to bleed regularly, for the rest of your life up to now, there’s less risk of murder in your heartache, and you don’t think of the entrance to your childhood hallway as a mouth.