Mom rang the dinner bell at six o’clock. We took our places as she put the last, hottest dish in the middle of the table. She sat down, bowed her head, closed her eyes, and stretched out her hands. She was waiting for us to join her in prayer, but she was not waiting for Dad.
“Heavenly Father,” — she began, with a deep breath — “we thank you for –”
Dad came into the room and pulled his chair back from the table, taking a seat. Mom only paused for a second.
“– and please bless this food to our bodies. Help it to nourish and strengthen us. Make us clean, give us peace, show us mercy. Amen.”
She began to eat without another word. Dad looked at each of our faces with an unearned smile as he unfolded his napkin. He had been in the process of painting the upstairs hallway that connected all of our bedrooms. The color he chose was a deep crimson like the color of actual blood.
After dinner, us kids ran to the backyard to play till bath time. When Mom had finished cleaning the kitchen, she called us back inside. We were old enough to bathe ourselves, but she still sat outside the bathroom to remind us to be quick. I went last. Mom agreed to read one book while I waited, even though I wanted her to read ten. We sat together on a folded drop cloth, our backs against a wall in transition from color to color.
When it was my turn, I washed every part I could remember. It was only my third or fourth time in the bath alone. After about ten minutes, Mom knocked on the door, which was the signal to drain the water and dry off. I put on my pajamas and she ushered me into the master bedroom to say goodnight to Dad.
“Did you wash everything?”
He asked without looking up.
I said, trying to figure out what was written on the papers spread across his desk.
“Inside your ears?”
“Do they feel slippery or dry?”
I felt my ears. They were slippery. I must have washed them because soap is slippery.
I told him the truth. I had nothing to hide.
“You didn’t wash them. They’re slippery because you didn’t use soap” he said.
He leaned over and kissed my forehead. I shuffled past Mom who had remained in the doorway.
As soon as we were tucked into our beds, lights out, doors closed, I heard Mom go into the master bedroom. Minutes later, Dad went downstairs.
I lay awake in the bottom bunk, underneath my brother, staring at the glowing yellow light leaking in below the door. When Dad returned to the hall, I heard him shake the paint can and pry off the lid. I was comforted by the sound of the paint pouring out of the can into a dish for the roller — a soft pitter-patter at first, then a steady flow.
For a while, I was content listening to the slow, sticky swiping of the roller against the wall, the occasional metallic clicking of the roller in the dish, and the flow of paint from the can when the dish was dry but the wall needed more color. Dad was silent and I was silent. I couldn’t sleep for wanting to be with him. He didn’t realize that we were sharing this moment. All I could see of him were the narrow shadows of his feet as I tried to decide whether or not to join him in the hall.
I rose and floated from my bed toward the door. Sliding my toes under the door, I placed my right ear against it, trying to be as close as possible while hiding. His breathing was calm and steady. In the darkness, I felt close to him. I thought I knew what was happening in the hall. I thought I knew how he spent his nights. I looked down at the door handle. I grabbed it to open, but released it almost immediately, thrusting my arm back down against my side, as stiff as possible, terrified of myself.
A lifetime passed. I looked down at the handle again. I reached for it more slowly than before, knowing how desperately I wanted to be with him, knowing how impossible our connection seemed. As I was about to pull the door open, Dad stumbled against the wall and I heard paint spill on the carpet.
I jumped back and bumped into my dresser, knocking myself down. I tried to remain as still as possible. I didn’t want Dad to be mad that I was awake. He threw the roller to the ground and stood breathing heavily for a moment before turning to go downstairs in search of a sponge and a cleaning agent.
In the silence that followed, I slithered back to my bed and hid deep within the covers, trying to control my heart and my fear. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the door to the master bedroom open.
Perhaps Dad had not made enough noise to wake Mom. Or perhaps he had made enough noise to wake her, she was just avoiding the argument. Or perhaps she had already been awake, standing as close as possible to her own door, afraid to enter the hall, knowing how desperately she wanted to be with Dad, knowing that their connection was impossible.
When Dad returned, he began working to eradicate the stain. I lay on my bed, imperfectly still, hypnotized by the variation of shadow and light under my door as Dad cleaned. The sound of furious scrubbing lulled me to sleep.
This piece originally appeared in the fall 2016 edition of Dialogue [49.1] the Creative Journal of Calvin College.