My sister’s boyfriend is hiding in the closet. I can see my sister’s chest rising and falling, her face panicked. Every day, they come home from community college to watch television together—The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 90210, basketball. He loves the Knicks. They eat greasy hot fries, licking electric orange dust off their fingers. They slurp up the remains of chicken curry from their bowls and wrestle each other and argue and laugh uncontrollably. Sometimes, they let me into the pileup, squishing me under their combined weight. Other times, they close the door to the room the two of us share. If I cup my ear to the door, I can hear low murmuring, yelps, little giggles and moans beyond. I wonder what they’re talking about, imagine their legs intertwined. I lock myself in the bathroom and kiss the back of my hand softly.
At five-forty-five on the dot, he picks up his schoolbag and leaves through the back door, so as not to get caught by our mother. She would disapprove of his hulking frame, hate his ink black skin. None of us wish to get caught out in one of her wrathful deluges. Our mother is terrifying when angry, her eyes narrow into slits and she spews venom like a snake that’s been stepped on. Her rage often involves condemning us all to hell, her arms swinging wildly, spittle flying out of her mouth. No matter that she is dark-skinned herself, a village daughter who barely had electricity growing up. The colonizer’s religion and immigrating to the US have made her superior, especially to Black Americans and other immigrants.
On this day, my mother has arrived home thirty minutes earlier than usual, inciting a panic. We heard her car in the driveway, way too late to shove him down the stairs and out the door, so instead, my sister pushed him forcefully into the closet, shushing his protests. I imagine him stuffed in there behind the slatted white doors, among our sweaters and smelly sneakers and my itchy Catholic school jumpers, his 6’5″ frame crouched down low, head scraping the ceiling.
Our mother stands in the kitchen, eating sardines out of the can. She digs out the salty, oily morsels with her fingers. The creatures are full of dainty bones which she chews up greedily. This is her ritual, she arrives home and removes her shoes at the door, then goes straight to the cupboard and peels back the lid of one of the bright green tins. Relishes her snack leaning against the scratched Formica counter. She must think about those little fish on her commute home from her secretary job. Crave their saltiness, the crunch of their tiny bones.
When she’s done, she mounts the stairs slowly, humming a church hymn under her breath. I am running around in circles on the landing, also singing loudly and shouting bits of nonsense, made hyper by the drama that is undoubtedly about to unfold. My grandmother sits in front of her television with a bowl on her lap, calmly rolling bits of mincemeat and rice into balls between her weathered, tissue-soft palms and feeding them to our dog, who begs at her pink-slippered feet. Her English is broken but she loves The Price is Right, standing up to yell, Plinko! anytime Bob Barker introduces the game. Our grandmother has never betrayed my sister’s secret; in fact, she seems to co-conspire with them—making double portions of curry, saving him all the choicest, most succulent pieces of meat. Privately, I think my grandmother has a crush on my sister’s boyfriend.
My sister sits at the edge of the bed, wringing her hands. She must sense him just behind the closet door, breathing hard, mind racing. How will she get him out of the house? One can only pray it’s one of our mother’s choir nights, or Bible Study, or Legion of Mary meetings. If that’s the case, she’ll sit around for a few moments and then get back into her old boat of a Ford Taurus to head to the church. Since our father works in the city and doesn’t get home until close to midnight, those are the best nights, when we’re free to mind our own business. But when the church doesn’t require her holiness, she spends her evenings terrorizing everyone around her, forcing us to say all five decades of the Rosary plus the Novena on our knees, backs straight. She wonders out loud why none of us practice the piano or have any real talents, yells at anyone listening to popular music, or, God forbid, watching MTV. The devil’s news, she calls it, always shaking her head disapprovingly.
“No homework?”, she calls out to me, before unhooking her floral-patterned nightdress from the back of the bathroom door. Uh-oh. Looks like she’s staying home. I see my sister’s eyes flit wildly from side to side. Our mother emerges from the bathroom, the loose-fitting nightdress billows behind her as she descends the stairs, headed back to the kitchen. Every sound is amplified, like a coin skittering across a tile floor. We hear her stop abruptly as she nears the bottom of the staircase, then spin around and stomp back up. “Who… is… here?”, she demands threateningly of my sister, who’s now practically cowering in terror on the bed. “N-n-n-no one,” my sister responds, pathetically. Our mother’s eyes widen and she storms around the room, flinging open drawers, as if about to find someone curled up inside. A petite brown dervish, she slides papers and books to the floor and rips the covers off the bed. I am now running up and down the stairs like a banshee loosed. My eyes stop on the pair of gigantic blue-and-white sneakers atop the tumble next to the back door. Dumb, dumb, dumb. In the chaos of the unexpected homecoming, they forgot his shoes were still downstairs.
A pair of bodies comes tumbling roughly down beside me. My sister, followed by her boyfriend, both of them disheveled and shell-shocked. I can hear my mother yelling upstairs, invoking the name of God to curse this house, lamenting the bane of such a disobedient, ungrateful daughter. My sister is cradling her arm gently, it seems bent at an awkward angle. I wonder if she’s hurt. Her boyfriend stuffs his feet into the offending sneakers and she slides on a pair of rubber flip-flops. “You are not welcome in this house!” The screech comes from upstairs as the door opens, then shuts, a blast of frigid air sneaking in. I turn to see my mother framed at the top of the stairs, her round form cast in shadow. “It is not what God wants,” she says quietly before turning, her head bowed. I am left sitting on the bottom step, hugging my knees, worrying a hole in the worn, rough carpet with my toes.