Dad tells only one story about me, his middle child, a toddler, found pecking the buttons on the television console with a fat, sticky finger. He scolds me, tells me to stop. I ignore him, keep pushing the buttons, switching the channel each time. He raises his voice, and I ignore that, too. He smacks my outstretched hand. Hard, he says. But you don’t cry or wince or turn away. You set your jaw, raise your hand, keep pushing that button.
Mom reminds me how, when I was a teenager and arguing with her every day, she started putting this hex on me: When you grow up and have children I hope one of them is exactly like you.
I think now that maybe that hex came through: If I tell my daughter to stop jumping on the bed, she climbs onto the dresser. If I ask her to behave while I take an important call, she throws a tantrum before drawing a beard on her face with a red permanent marker. If I tell her to pick up her toys in the kitchen, she empties a box of cereal on the floor. I might put her in time out, or yell until I’m blue in the face. She does not cry or wince or turn away.
It makes me furious. I want her to behave, even just a little. But she fights me about which shoes to wear, which bowl to use for cereal. She fights me about which clothes she’ll wear and ruin. She fights me about the punishment she gets for fighting me. She can’t win these arguments, because no matter how big and loud and strong she gets, I can always get bigger, louder, stronger. I want her to be a little afraid of me. It’s the only way to break her, I think. This defiant, fearless child. And it’s all I want right now: to break her. Just a little.
But then we are driving to the house where my daughter attends preschool; she is thrashing in her car seat, screaming at the top of her lungs. The body takes a breath, turns up the radio. My daughter spits milk in a wide stream on the upholstery of my first-ever brand-new car and pushes Goldfish crackers irretrievably into the horizontal crevice between the back passenger window and the door. The body takes a breath, adjusts the rearview mirror. But when my daughter starts kicking the back of my elbow with the pointy toe of her pink cowboy boot, I snap, and lean into the backseat of the car and smack her knee. Hard. Hard enough that she grows silent and stares out the window with giant tears rolling down her cheeks. I drag her and her tiny little backpack into the preschool house. The teacher greets us at the door. Before my daughter has taken off her tiny little coat I’m driving away in the car.
I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t talk to myself or roll down the windows. I try to relax in the silence of my solitary body, but all I can think about is the force of my hand coming down on her knee. I hit her, hard. For nothing at all. For being nearly three. I hit her because she doesn’t know how to control herself, and I don’t know how to let go.
I know how to tighten the cold hard fist of my heart.
I don’t remember how to open it.
The small space of my car closes around me. The air grows hot and stale, and I can’t breathe it in. My back sweats; my heart races. And just as I’m about to let the panic wash over me, I start screaming. It’s not a scream that comes from my throat, or from my lungs, but a scream that comes from the shut place I carry inside me, a scream that could swell and swell without end. It’s made of equal parts terror and rage, multiplied and multiplied by the silence of all these years.
By the time I get to work, I’ve composed myself again. I’ve cleaned the streaked mascara off my face and reapplied my lipstick. I don’t tell my colleagues what has happened in the car: not about smacking my daughter’s leg, not about the screaming. I teach a class. I meet with students. I eat lunch at my desk.
At the end of the day, I drive back to the preschool house to pick up my daughter. When I knock on the door, I can see she’s just inside, waving to me, her mouth stretched open in a crooked, gap-toothed smile, her arms open and reaching toward me, her eyes open and shining with joy. The door opens and she throws herself into my arms. She holds nothing back.
With her head against my shoulder, the weight of her tiny body against my chest, I hold her tight and don’t let go. I want nothing to break her. Not even me. Not ever. Not even a little.
Lacy M. Johnson is the author of Trespasses: A Memoir. She is currently Director of Academic Initiatives at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, where she teaches interdisciplinary art. She lives in Houston, TX.