My two older brothers Jason and Brian, my parents and I are having family dinner at a nice restaurant. The food is good. The conversation is boring, but no one has started arguing yet, and we are almost done eating, so it’s o.k.  Brian is talking about something he learned at school, some political concept or something.  Mom says she’s never heard of this.  So my father leans in and starts to explain it. He says “It’s like in Israel, when they–“ “What do you think, I’m an idiot?” my mother cuts in.  “I know what he’s saying; I just didn’t know the word.  I know you all think I’m stupid.”  “Nobody thinks you’re stupid, Sara,” says my father, trying to placate her. “Oh, don’t give me that voice.  You treat me like I’m an idiot.  I’m not a child,” she replies. My father takes a deep, dramatic breath. “Saki, please. Don’t do this now. Let’s just change the subject.”  “Mom, nobody said you were stupid,” Jason chimes in.  But my mother has gone down the wormhole; there will be no backing out now.  “You all think I’m stupid. I know it. I don’t care,” she says, her voice rising.  People at neighboring tables begin to glance at us. Of course, because there’s five of us, we can’t fit in a booth, so we’re sitting at a round table, right out in the open, where everyone can see. My father says something, his voice getting tenser.  Jason says something placating.  My father says something in Hebrew.  Here it is.  Mom’s eyes are on fire.  She curses my father out in Hebrew, loud. (I’ve never learned Hebrew. It’s the language that they do their dirtiest fighting in, and I am just as happy not to understand what they’re saying. Hebrew also happens to be the language of people getting shoved into ovens and gas chambers. So there’s that, too.).

Mom gets up now, throwing her napkin down on the table as she says, “I’m leaving.”  Through gritted teeth my father says, “Saki, please, sit down. Stop this show.”  My mother glares at him, spits something out in Hebrew, turns on her heel and stomps out the door.

My father signals the waiter for the check.  He says to us, “Well, your mother is putting on one of her shows. Are you done eating? We need to leave now.”  My brothers and I shuffle into our coats as the waiter brings the check. My father is already at the register, handing the clerk a credit card. (I silently hope it’s the ‘good’ card, so he won’t do that thing where he says “Run it again, it should work,” and then ‘That’s so strange, I just paid them’, before handing the man another card from the thick stack he kept in his wallet.  I can always feel my father hold his breath just a little as the second card is run, and I can see the invisible sigh when it is approved.)  He signs the receipt with a flourish, leaving an exceptionally large tip.

We trudge outside, looking for my mother.  She’s already a quarter mile down the road.  “Saki!” my father yells.  She pretends not to hear him.  We hurry into the car.  Since my legs are the shortest, I am always relegated to the ‘hump’, squashed between my two brothers in the backseat, in the middle where some part of the car makes a slight hump on the floorboards.

My father burns rubber out of the parking lot, cigarette burning. The cold air from the window he’s cracked bites us all in the face.  He catches up to her in her shiny down coat, slows down, leans over and opens passenger side window. “Go away. Fuck you, she says.”  My father sucks in his breath.  “Saki, get in the car already. Enough, OK?”  My heart begins to pound just a little bit faster. These arguments happen so often, I almost know the script by heart. Her eyes blaze as she leans in the window. “You’ve had enough? YOU’VE had enough?? I’ll show you enough,” she yells. My father’s nostrils begin to flare like they do when he gets angry.  He turns to Jesse, the older of my two brothers, who is in the seat closest to the curb, and asks him to open his window and try to talk to her.  “Mom, please,” Jesse begs, sweetly.  “Won’t you get in the car? It’s freezing, and it’s too far to walk. Please?”  “No, Jesse. I’m sorry,” she replies, not breaking her stride. “Your father is a son of a bitch.  I’m not getting in the car with him.  I’ll meet you at home.”  Cars whiz by; some people honk their horns, others just stare at us.  “Saki, Please,” my father says again in his super calm fake nice voice.  “It’s dangerous for me to be driving like this.  The children have school in the morning.  Please. Just get in the car.”  Mom stops walking. She opens the door, bringing a haze of cigarette smoke and cold night air into the car with her.  She’s looking straight at the road.  “Don’t talk to me,” she says.  We all sit in silence, suffocating on their fury, while my father speeds home.

As soon as the car comes to a stop, my brothers and I hightail it to the front door.  None of us have our keys; we have to wait for one of my parents to march up and unlock the door.  Mom hurries up the walk, unlocks the door and goes into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.  My brothers and I scatter– Brian and I to the t.v. room, Jesse to his guitar. Upstairs, my father bangs on the bedroom door.  “Saki, open the door, please.  Stop this. Please.  Open the door.”  “Go away!” she replies.  Brian and I flip the channels on the remote until we find something to watch, the music channel that shows cool videos.  We pretend not to hear the stomping and yelling upstairs.

The front door slams.  “Tara, Brian, Jason,” my father yells from upstairs.  “Come here. Right now.” We all creep upstairs. “Your mother is leaving,” he says.  “She just took a bag and walked out.”  This is a somewhat regular occurrence in our house.  Every few months my mother says she’s leaving and takes off in the car, disappearing for hours.  On alternate months, my father leaves, taking off in the other car, disappearing for hours.   Whenever my mother leaves, my father drives around and looks for her for a while (or at least, I assume this is what he’s doing), then eventually he comes home and says dramatically, “I don’t know where she is. I don’t know if she’s coming back.”

No matter how many times I’ve seen this, it never stops being real, and scary.  Don’t leave us, Mommy.  My brothers, father and I sit the kitchen table.  “Don’t worry, it will all be o.k.” my father says in his most fatherly voice.  “She’ll come back.” A few minutes later: “Just go to sleep, kids. Go to sleep.  I’ll let you know if something happens.”  So I crawl into my bed, curl myself into a ball and just lie there, listening.  Waiting for the door to open.  Minutes, hours, eons later, mom stomps in. I hear my father hugging her and know that he is stroking her head.  “You scared me.  I’m so glad you’re home. Let me take your coat. I sent the children to bed.”  My mother always comes to me first.  She strokes my head. “It’s ok, Tootsie.  I’m home now.  I’m sorry if I scared you. It’s ok.”  I hug her tightly.  “Go to sleep, sweetie,” she says, making sure the blanket is tucked around me, kissing me on the forehead.  I hear her move on to each of my brothers’ rooms.   I hear my parents talking quietly in the kitchen.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” they say, one after the other. I fall asleep to the click of my father’s lighter as he holds it to mom’s cigarette.


6 comments on “Butane

  1. Abby Adams
    November 18, 2013

    How I wish this scenario was new to me, but I have heard the exact same words from my mother. She would say, “Why does everyone think I am the village idiot?” at the slightest provocation. I blog about her at Check it out and let me know what you think.


    • definitelytara
      November 18, 2013

      Poor moms, right?
      Love your piece, am going to check it out in-depth when I have more time later! Thanks!


  2. Mrs Finkling
    November 26, 2013

    wow – i can totally identify with the above – the embarrassment is like nothing you have ever experienced right?


  3. pbaerman
    March 31, 2017

    This story reads like memoir rather than fiction, especially since one of your characters is named Tara. Are there different rules for “creative non-fiction”?

    I’m reminded that Nabokov first published a chapter of Speak, Memory as a short story in the New Yorker.


    • definitelytara
      March 31, 2017

      Thanks for the feedback, Paul! I don’t write by rules. Unless you’re submitting something for a specific genre, I don’t really see the point.


      • definitelytara
        March 31, 2017

        Plus, who’s to say it’s not Creative Non-Fiction, or Memoir?


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This entry was posted on April 4, 2015 by in dysfunctional family, family.
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