“It’s my turn to deal,” I said, pulling the loose cards on the kitchen table into the space in front of me. I was spending the night at my grandmother’s and Anne Marie’s apartment on Glenwood. I began flipping over the cards that were face-up, which were many, because we were playing super rummy, using two decks of cards.
“Hurry up, Michael,” said Anne Marie, impatiently. “We ain’t got all night.” Always the sense of urgency. Always the putting of me on the spot. Always the exerting of control.
“Alright, I’m going as fast as I can,” I said, nervously fumbling the cards. My grandmother started to help me. We turned all the cards face-down then I squeezed them into a tattered disk, clacked them against the table, and arranging them into a perfect stack. I was excited to debut the shuffling skills that she had been teaching me.
“I’m growing old here,” Anne Marie said. She huffed loudly to show her annoyance, to make me feel uncomfortable. Always the fear. Always the anxiety. Always the bullying. I reverted to drowning her out with my thoughts. I consciously focused on ignoring her. I’d become good at it. After eleven years of dealing with Anne Marie’s anger and watching my grandparents kill themselves with substances and hate, I’d become good at calmly blocking things out.
“Michael, COME ON,” she yelled, twitching her head and shoulders forward, making me flinch. She knew she’d put me into a position where I compromised my own sense of pride. My hands started shaking.
“I can do it,” I said. My voice cracked falsetto at the end of the sentence. I started crying.
“Anne, let him do it,” my grandmother said.
“He should fucking learn how to deal before he comes to the table!” Always the jealousy. Always the drive to defeat, to crush, to humiliate.
This is how things were. I was eleven. Anne Marie was almost fifteen. We’d grown up together. We’d lived our entire lives together. She was more like a sister to me than an aunt, more like a master than a friend. She did what she wanted. She was the baby of the family – her parents’ youngest child – but I was her oldest sister’s first son, her parents’ first grandchild, and the first boy born into the family in twenty years. After she and my grandmother left Gus, my grandfather, and moved into the house on Glenwood, Anne Marie constantly swore and screamed and bossed and nobody could do anything about it. Her mother put up with it. Her mother was usually on enough pills to tolerate anything; plus, she’d lived with Gus long enough to adopt his apathetic fuck-it-all-to-hell attitude.
“Just give me the cards,” Anne Marie said, not asked, and she grabbed them from out of my hands. Always the intimidation. Always the instilling of subordinance into me. Always the continual chipping away of my self-esteem.
“No,” I yelled. I grabbed the cards and pulled them away from her; cards flew in all directions and fell spinning onto the linoleum kitchen floor.
“You don’t talk back to me, god-damnit,” Anne Marie yelled. She stood up with an aggressive jerking motion that sent the chair beneath her screeching into the wall behind her. Her eyes gazed hard into mine, punctuated by that question-mark gesture on her face that asked, “What the fuck you gonna do about it? Huh? Huh?”
I didn’t look away. I looked straight into the black of her eyes, but all I could see was every detail of the rooms and the house around me. In the periphery of my vision, I could see the orange, 1970’s geometric mandalas on every square of linoleum tile covering the floor. I could see the fake mother-of-pearl covered table that my helpless grandmother clung to. I could see the horribly rusted metal legs of that table and next to it in the kitchen’s corner the steel-frame utility cart filled with Tupperware and spatulas and next to that a big yellow-green refrigerator. To my left, I could see the double-range stove facing the refrigerator. Behind me, I could see the wall of greenish cupboards and countertop and sink. Outside of the kitchen, through the closed door, I could see the tunnel of stairs going down to the empty apartment that my mother and new father and I had moved out of. I could see the basement. I could see the roof of the house. I could see the big yellow house where I’d grown up eight blocks away. I could see into its rooms at the crackheads who’d taken it over. I could see the bar where Gus was at, trying to find a place to stay, explaining to anybody who would listen that he’d gone home one night and thugs had moved in and kicked him out, but there was nothing he could do because the police wouldn’t care and he hadn’t paid mortgage in five years anyways. I could see every square inch of every place I’d ever been in my entire life, and I saw nothing that didn’t boast the shame of my cowardice and humiliation time and time and time and time again.
I punched Anne Marie in the face as hard as I could.
She fell against the wall behind her and slid into her chair. Her face registered shock. She moved her hands to her jaw. My knuckles tingled. My whole body tingled. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was still scared, but in a different way. The feeling was no longer terror. I recoiled my arm, ready to throw another punch, ready to protect myself and fully expecting her to charge, but she covered her eyes with her hands and started to wail. She ran into her bedroom and slammed the door.
By the time I could breathe normally again, my grandmother had shuffled the cards and dealt two hands. I don’t remember who won the game. I just remember the sweet silence that my grandmother and I enjoyed while we played. When the game ended, I went to bed.
“Good night, baby boy,” she said to me after she kissed me on the cheek and gave me a big, long hug. Then she got on the telephone until the wee hours of the morning, telling everybody in the family that the day they’d all been waiting for had finally arrived.
The following Easter, I found the naked bust of a chocolate woman in my basket, a gift that my grandmother reserved for the men in the family.
First published in The Boiler, 2012