I sat on my deck perched on the edge of a chair. Rainy days mean soaked cushions. I had to choose between a wet ass or balancing on the metal frame.
Spring had reached the adolescence of it’s life, but still felt like a baby. The air was warm, but the bite of winter remained in the breeze. I listened to the sounds of the afternoon. I faced the thrum of interstate traffic from a couple miles away. Behind me, I could hear a train rumbling on the tracks a few streets over.
I heard a girl scream.
This wasn’t a scream one would expect from a little girl getting splashed by a puddle or losing her turn on the swing. She screamed like a camp counselor in a slasher film.
Then, I heard giggles.
Just some kids playing. I felt the blossoming old lady who lives inside me perk up. “Is it necessary to scream like you’re being slaughtered, little girl? Why don’t we bring the drama down about 38 notches?”
Part of my crabbiness came from envy. What would it feel like to scream like that? To scream outside with abandon? I’m not talking about the scream therapy we do on occasion in our cars. I’m talking about outside, in your yard, without regard to the neighbors. I’m talking about throwing your head back with outstretched arms and screaming like you’re being audited while hitting your toe with a hammer.
I strained to catch a glimpse of the children, but they were hidden behind a line of dead trees and a honeysuckle forest.
I wondered if I screamed like that as a child. I don’t recall having a sense of abandon.
There are two rules that every child of narcissism learns:
First, you must always be exactly as your parent wants you to be. Second, you can never be what your parent wants you to be.
My father has narcissistic personality disorder. A child raised by a narcissist learns how to be small before she learns her multiplication tables. A child raised by a narcissist wants to believe life is more safe if she keeps her elbows clenched to her sides. The child of a narcissist learns that she must never make waves. She can’t make waves with her arms tucked in.
My range of motion was stunted and bound by straps that exist only in my mind. The fact they have no physical substance doesn’t detract from their strength.
My father had to be the center of every conversation and orchestrate every drama. If one of his children shined, then he better be able to directly relate their success to himself or an unholy rage would be unleashed. If he found himself relegated to the sidelines, then his anger, contempt, and resentment turned everything to ash. He demanded payment for these incidents. Someone would pay.
I found his price too steep and thought it best to not shine. I thought I would be safe if I allowed myself to be bound.
I was wrong though. There was no way to be small enough.
Being alive was enough of a crime to warrant punishment. I learned that being wrong was shameful. I also learned that I was nearly always wrong. I learned my opinions were worthy of contempt, so I never bothered learning how to form them.
I sat on my deck, perched on the edge of a chair and felt my elbows by my side. I imagined the skin on my sides were worn to a soft patina from decades of my elbows sliding back and forth over the same spots. I wondered if I would be able to hear my shoulders creak if I suddenly threw my arms out.
I considered these bindings of mine. How they didn’t protect me. I’m noticing, after so many years, how they chafe.
The little girl behind the honeysuckle forest screamed again and then laughed. This time her screeching summoned an adult. A screen door slammed and I could hear the irritated voice of a man. Probably her father. I couldn’t make out his words, but I recognized the cadence.
In my head, he wore a white t-shirt, faded jeans, and work boots. He carried a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger with dark hair drooping over one eye. My father as a young man.
I tilted my head toward the sound of his voice and tried to hear his words. I couldn’t, so I supplied my own.
“You run like a girl.”
“Why can’t you be prettier?”
“You embarrass me.”
“My life would be better without you in it.”
I wanted to leave my deck, claw my way through the honeysuckle, and protect this little girl from my father. I wanted to make him stop yelling.
I wanted to force him to understand how his words carry more weight than he knows. How his words will continue to whisper to his daughter into her adulthood. Would he listen? Not if the man in the other yard was really my father. He wouldn’t care. A narcissist would brush away my admonishments as inconsequential or wrong. She would pay, the little girl. Oh yes, she would pay. He might act like my criticisms went unheard, but he would hear them and find them intolerable. I would fix nothing by making demands of her father. I could only cause her harm.
Maybe, he’s not the one I need to talk to.
Maybe, I need to turn my back on him and focus on the little girl.
I need to tell her that no matter what she does, she can’t make him love her. No matter how quiet she is, he will still attack her. The bad shit happens no matter what. I would tell her to keep her voice. I would tell her to wave her arms and continue to run into life with abandon.
I didn’t leave my deck. I didn’t claw my way through the honeysuckle forest. That would be ridiculous. I would be the crazy neighbor butting into something that is none of her business. That, and I was afraid of the anger I heard in his voice.
The man’s voice died away, but the muscles in my thighs were still tensed. Was he gathering steam? Would she dare disagree with him and find out how huge his voice could become?
I heard the screen door slam again. The muscles in my thighs released. I leaned back, which was a mistake, because the cushions were still wet.
I stood and brushed the back of my pants, then leaned my forearms against the deck rail. The breeze had picked up. I thought between my body heat and the wind my pants would dry before I had time to get too annoyed from wearing damp clothes. I stared into the honeysuckle that surround a smattering of dead trees. I wondered who owned the largest tree. Was it on my land? If the tree fell and created damage, would I be responsible? Or was it his tree? Would he be to blame for the damage? I wanted it to be his fault.
The little girl was hidden, but I could see her. Her knees pulled up to her chest as silent tears cut through dirt on her face. Her lips pressed shut as her huge eyes saw her life in front of her dancing, just beyond an abyss.
I heard the girl scream again. Then laugh.
I didn’t hear fear in her laughter. Her scream didn’t lack volume.
She wasn’t afraid.
Maybe, the man who slammed the screen door didn’t look like my father. Perhaps, he is a loving, but slightly annoyed, father. Perhaps, the screaming girl’s range of motion isn’t in danger at all. Maybe, his voice wasn’t as harsh as I imagined. Perhaps, when she grew tired of screaming outdoors, she would go inside and be engulfed in her father’s love.
Many years have passed since I sat on the ground with my knees pulled into my chest while tears cleaned the dirt from my face. I have watched my own children grow and start families of their own.
I haven’t been that little girl for years. I have always been that little girl.
I heard a screen door slam again and was left with nothing but the sound of the interstate. I smiled and wished my screaming friend peace. I hoped that she never loses her voice or inhibits her range. Scream on, little sister.
When I sat on my deck, just minutes ago, my intent had been to avoid cleaning up after dinner. I hadn’t planned on feeling the bindings that have been holding my elbows to my sides for so long. I didn’t plan to acknowledge them. My plan was to hide from the dishes in my sink for a few minutes, not to question why I am who I am.
I stretched my arms over my head and I felt the straps twitch. Was it possible to let them drop? Do I have to keep them forever? Did they ever keep me safe?
I have spent decades taking shallow breaths.
I am ready to breathe deep. I am ready to wave my arms. Perhaps my shoulders will always creak like rust on a hinge, but if I can learn to love the sound of a child screaming like a banshee, I can learn to love my own sounds.