I've had night terrors since I was a kid. My older sister Katie said that they started the night after a tornado tore off part of our roof, but that seems too ominous. The tornado had torn through our neighborhood on a warm, muggy Friday in June. I was seven at the time, Katie was nine. Tornadoes were what we feared most.
The night of that tornado, we huddled together in our mom's closet, turning the volume up and down on her small, red battery-powered radio. I still remember curling up in Katie's lap, my screams muffled by her thin legs. Over and over again, she stroked my long, dark blonde hair. Her blue pajama pants were soft against my cheek. Next to us, Mom was on her flip phone, frantically texting our father, who was on a trip for work and wouldn't get in until a couple of days later.
When he finally did get back, he looked at our house and the wreckage in front of it with wide, darkened eyes. On the right side, nearly all of the red shingles had been torn off. Scattered across the grass were tulips, roses and scraggly branches, remnants of the garden that had withstood every storm but this one. After perusing the scene for several long seconds, he looked at his wife and daughters with disdain, as though we had caused this mess.
“We got the worst of it, didn't we?” he asked in a raspy voice on the verge of rising in volume. I couldn't tell at first if he was talking to us, the house or God. Maybe he was screaming at all of us, letting out the anger he let build inside of him quickly, always hot, pouring into his body and becoming hot ashes when he let it out through his hands and fists.
* * *
Whenever I thought of the eye of the storm, I'd always imagined a tranquil, glowing space at its center, like a light in the middle of darkness. I learned later that the eye of the storm doesn't really look like that; it's just a space where the destruction of the storm happens to not reach. But even after I'd learned the truth, I imagined that the very center of a hurricane or tornado had a glowing eye at its center, even a tiny one. Something had to penetrate the darkness, to remind it that, one day, it would have to end.
* * *
I knew that traces of that night and its aftermath would reappear in Katie's work. A comics artist from a young age, she'd spend hours at her mahogany desk, pencil moving slowly over one sketch pad after another. Sometimes, in passing by her room, I'd sneak a glimpse at her work, but Katie would cover the paper with her arm before I could get a good look at it.
“Not today. Sorry, Daphne.”
I tried not to let myself get too offended. Still, I knew that Katie hid them for a reason. Mostly, it was because she knew our father hated The Stargazer, a character she'd been drawing for as long as I could remember. In the sketches I did glimpse, he ran through dark streets in a light brown hat, a middle-aged man with stubble and big eyes, often red-rimmed with dark circles beneath them. A drug addict and alcoholic, The Stargazer fought crime in his neighborhood, even when his own destructive tendencies threatened to overwhelm him completely. Occasionally, when Katie wasn't home, I would read some of the comic strips, watching The Stargazer resolve kidnappings, stop abuse and protect the girl he loved. I wanted to believe that I could have that sort of power, too.
“You should stand up to him. Call the police on his sorry ass,” my best friend Raquel said. At the time, we were sitting on my twin-sized bed, listening to Kygo and Avril Lavigne. Her dark curls spilled across my fuzzy, lime green pillow.
“It doesn't work that way,” I mumbled. The music suddenly seemed muffled, like I was underwater. Raquel started saying something else, but I wasn't listening. Eventually, silence fell on us, as heavy as the hot, humid weather outside.
Raquel knew about the lashes and slaps my father gave. About all the times he yelled at Katie, me and our mother, or simply stood in silence in the kitchen or his room. Raquel even knew about The Stargazer. I'd told her to keep it a secret; If Katie found out that I had told her, she would get angry at me, grow silent, the silence always worse than the anger itself. A part of me didn't understand why I couldn't tell my best friend about my sister's comics and what they meant. Yet I also understood that Katie was waiting until the right time to send them out for publication. When she finally did, a few years after going off to college, she changed her last name on the book cover of her first graphic novel, as well as under the magazine strips. Her author bio mentions nothing about her family, only the places where her work appears and that she attended Sewanee: The University of the South in middle-of-nowhere Tennessee.
* * *
Our father got arrested one day when he started hitting Katie. I had been on the phone with Raquel in my room when I heard loud noises coming from downstairs. When I got to the kitchen, I found him holding Katie down. After a lot of shouting, he lunged at me, but Katie blocked his path. In my memory, there is a blur between that moment and when the police showed up. I vaguely remember sitting out on our front steps, a plaid blanket wrapped around me. One of the neighbors, Mrs. Giddings, had come over and sat beside me, offering me an orange popsicle.
“Everything is going to be okay, sweetheart. You are a brave girl,” she said, her green eyes wrinkled at the edges.
I tried to remind myself of those words in the days that followed, as my father was thrown in jail, awaiting trial. Soon after, Katie left for Sewanee, where she had gotten a full scholarship.
“I'll come back and visit as often as I can. I promise,” she said tearfully before leaving. I watched her leave, then thought about high school. I would have my very first day the following Monday. As I tried to imagine what school would really be like, plus life at home without Katie or our father, I thought of the words of Katie's favorite song, “Gifts and Curses” by Yellowcard, the ones that said, “And my worst pains are words I cannot say, still I will always fight on for you.”
* * *
The only person who I could ever really talk to about the Mrs. Giddings incident was Taiel, my high school boyfriend. I'm not sure why I never told Raquel about it; maybe because of her advice about my father, I thought she wouldn't understand why I kept going back to Mrs. Giddings, the orange popsicle and the Yellowcard song. Maybe I was wrong. But I was certain that Taiel understood, because I'd seen that glimmer in his eyes whenever I talked to him about it.
I first met Taiel at a party that I wasn't even planning to go to in the first place. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I had spent most of the summer volunteering at the food bank and homeless shelter in the afternoons, then working at at a tiny pizza place, Flying Pig Pizza, alongside Raquel, in the evenings. Partying was the last thing on my mind.
Then, one sweltering day in early August, Raquel called me to announce that she was planning to have a party at her house. While she claimed that she wasn't “much of a party girl,” Raquel went to a number of parties, most of which she held at her house, which was conducive to that sort of thing: a living room with four leather couches, a kitchen with a large island and several cabinets where it was surprisingly easy to tuck away alcohol, plus acoustic foam in multiple rooms, one of the perks of having multiple musicians in the family.
“It'll be a good party,” she coaxed. “Come on. You'll like it, I promise. A bunch of my cousins are in town and will come. You can sleep over afterwards. My parents will be out of town for the weekend.”
“And they're okay with you doing this?”
“I mean... they don't know all the details. But it will be fun!” Raquel exclaimed. “And you and my cousins will get along, I'm sure of it.”
“You know how awkward I am meeting people,” I whined, wishing that I had a better excuse not to go.
“Yeah, but you're cute awkward,” Raquel replied nonchalantly.
I laughed and finally agreed to go, but still couldn't help thinking of all the possible awkward scenarios that could occur. What if Raquel's cousins looked down on my beginner-level Spanish? They could probably hold their liquor well, or at least better than I could. So I took my time getting ready and made the fifteen-minute walk there turn into a twenty-five-minute one as I thought about what I might say. I just told my mom I was going to a sleepover at Raquel's, which was still true.
Most kids had an older brother or sister who they could ask for advice about parties or talking to their crushes, but Katie didn't really go to parties and, to my knowledge, had never formally dated anyone. There was one girl, Grace, a pretty redhead who always spoke highly of Katie's work and often came over to study with her. Katie said Grace was her best friend, but I was almost certain there had to be something more there.
One night, shortly before a big exam they had in Calculus, Grace spent the night. On a surface level, at least to my parents, it seemed normal. When my night terrors woke me up in the early hours of morning, however, I wandered down the hall to my bathroom and found Grace there, washing her face and trying to fix her hair. At the time, I'd never even kissed a boy, but I could see in Grace's posture, her messed up hair, the way she half-smiled and bent over to splash water on her face, that something else had happened that night. I didn't approach her, just waited until she had gone back into Katie's room before I went to wash my own face. I still remember the look in her eye, the one I caught briefly in the mirror, the look of one who is tired but satisfied.
* * *
Out on Raquel's front porch were several people smoking and talking loudly in English and Spanish. A couple of them looked at me briefly, then returned to their conversations. I felt for a moment like I was at the wrong party, even though I knew I was at my best friend's house, one of my few safe havens throughout my middle and high school years. Looking down, I tugged at my black summer dress and walked inside.
The front door led immediately into the kitchen, where several bottles of alcohol and a few beer cans were spread out on the island. Raquel stood amongst at least a dozen others in the kitchen. Catching my eye through the crowd, she parted her bright red lips in a smile and waved me over. I'd never seen her wearing lipstick; it looked so pretty on her.
“You're finally here!” she shouted over the noise. “What took you so long?”
“Sorry, I got held up at home,” I replied. Then, looking back at the kitchen counter, I exclaimed,
“There's so much alcohol here.”
“Of course there's alcohol, chica. What did you think, that we'd be playing Scrabble or something?” Raquel threw her head back and laughed. “Come on, let me introduce you to one of my cousins. Isa's right over there.”
Making our way to Raquel's dining room, a tall guy bumped into me. Slicked-back brown hair, black Yellowcard T-shirt. His big, brown eyes met mine. Around his neck, the dog tags glinted in the yellow light. I found myself quietly shaking.
Raquel looked at him and half-smiled. “Hi Taiel,” she called out before walking into her dining room.
In the far right corner of the dining room, a girl in a black pencil skirt and multicolored tank top stood holding a bottle, filling a shot glass with what looked like tequila. As we got closer, she noticed Raquel and smiled at her.
“Daphne, this is Isa,” she said, motioning to girl, who had curly black hair like Raquel's, but much longer, and wore bright pink lipstick.
“Hi. Nice to meet you,” Isa said, leaning in to kiss me on the cheek. It was an Argentine custom that I had grown used to from dinners with Raquel's family.
“Daphne. I don't think I've seen you around here before,” came a voice from behind me. I turned around. The Yellowcard T-shirt guy who had been staring at me had followed us. I hadn't thought he would, but here he was, looking right at me.
“She comes over here all the time, Taiel,” Raquel said. “You're a bit of a newcomer yourself, aren't you?” Turning to me, she said, “Taiel is one of my cousins, too. But he was living in Maryland up until a couple of months ago.”
“What made you leave?” I asked, taking a step closer. He smelled like mint and hair gel.
“Well, my mom got a new job here, so we'll be here for a while. But when college comes, who knows? I could stay here in the States, or go all the way back to Buenos Aires and study at the UBA. At least it's public.” Then, probably realizing I didn't know what UBA was, he added, “It's the University of Buenos Aires. You don't have to pay tuition. It's basically free. You just pay for your books and travel fares.”
“That sounds amazing,” I exclaimed, thinking of the scholarships I'd been applying for and the thousands of dollars my family would probably still have to funnel into my education.
“It's not as great as it sounds,” Isa interjected. “They don't have housing. Plus, there's so much upheaval with the strikes and demonstrations and all that. And you know how far Diana travels by bus to get there? Two hours there, then back, four days a week.”
“I might still go though,” Isa added. “It would be a good experience.”
“What do you know? You've hardly been back to Buenos Aires since you left,” Taiel retorted. “When was the last time? Two years ago? Three?”
As Isa and Taiel started bickering, I quietly slipped away and up to the second floor of Raquel's house. I crept up the winding stairs, across the carpeted floor and out to the balcony that faced the street, just above Raquel's front patio. Noise from the party still got through, but it felt more like I was hearing it from underwater. I pressed my hands into the cool, metallic railing of the balcony and sighed. Breeze blowing softly against my face, smelling of flowers and cigarette smoke, I descended into my own thoughts, barely noticing the sound of the door opening as someone else came out on the balcony.
I jumped a little bit when I heard Taiel's voice. He approached me slowly and took his spot by me, grasping the railing tightly. I observed the features of his face, thinking of how I might draw them: a strong nose and jaw, pronounced cheekbones, smooth skin. When he looked over at me again, I turned quickly to look out at the bright streetlamps, but could still feel his gaze on me.
“You left so suddenly,” he said, his voice softer than before. “Are you okay?”
When I met his eyes, they were wide and honest. I thought of lowering my head, sealing my lips and keeping him from the thoughts that were throbbing in my head, but I couldn't look at him, with his honest eyes, and just keep my mouth shut.
“It was just so loud in there. And school is a lot right now. Family, too. I-I don't know where I'll end up, either. I just want to end up somewhere away from Memphis.”
“Yeah. You and me both,” he replied, laughing softly.
“Do you really think you might go back to Argentina?” I asked.
“I don't know. At this point, anything could happen.” Then, noticing how I gazed at his dog tags, he took them off and handed them to me. “The smaller ones are mine. The others were my grandfather's. He was a combat medic for the Marines. Saw the Lebanon War, so many people dead... I'm sorry. I don't want to bore you with all this.”
“No, actually...” On my lips, a smile lingered. “Can we just stay here for a while? And you can tell me about your grandfather.”
He smiled. “Okay. But then you have to tell a story, too.” Then, slowly, he put his hand on top of mine. I spread out my fingers so that our hands laced together on the balcony railing.