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Unterberg Poetry Center

It’s too expensive to have the air conditioning on all day my father says, so we shut the venetian blinds to keep out the heat. The apartment is all shadows on this July afternoon. I complain that I have nothing to do, and my mother says why don’t I go bang my head against the wall. She has changed from a housedress into her blue-and-white striped shirtwaist with the wide sash that she reties three times. Finally satisfied with the placement of the half-bow, she uses her thumb and forefinger to fan it out just so.

She announces she’s going food shopping and do I want to come with her. No, I’ll stay home, I say. She shrugs and reminds me not to turn on the TV in the daytime. This is another of my father’s rules. I want to tell her it doesn’t feel like daytime in here and what else does she expect me to do, but all I say is okay.

She maneuvers the folding metal shopping cart out of the hall closet and says she’ll bring me back something from Pulaski’s Bakery, what do I want. An éclair filled with whipped cream, I say, not that gloppy yellow custard she got last time.

In my bedroom I reposition the cushion on the wicker rocking chair, and pull at the hem of my shorts so I won’t get red stripes on my thighs when I sit down to read. I open Pippi Longstocking,the book I took out of the library, the one on Bushwick Avenue. I have to squint to make out the words, and that’s not because I need glasses. I have better than perfect vision. The school nurse said so when we had our third-grade eye exams this year. I want to turn on the lights, but I’m not allowed to do that either. My father doesn’t like us to waste electricity in the daytime.

In summer I don’t care that much about his rules because I’m usually outside jumping rope or roller-skating or playing hopscotch or punchball with Karen from the second floor and Melinda from across the street. But today Karen’s at the dentist and Melinda’s at a piano lesson. I used to spend most of my time with Jenny from next door, but her family moved out of Brooklyn right after school ended in June. Now they live on Long Island, in a house with a backyard.

I lift a slat in the blinds and peek out the window. The light hurts my eyes. There are no kids my age on the street. Just two little boys riding tricycles, and some old ladies perched on beach chairs in front of our building. My mother’s friend Mrs. Wasserman is pushing her son Jake in a stroller. I can make out only his head and feet because a bunch of grocery bags are piled on his lap, all the way up to his neck. Yesterday Mrs. Wasserman complained to my mother that the air conditioner in her bedroom made so much noise she couldn’t fall asleep. She turned it off, but the room got so hot she had to remove her nightgown. And mind you, she hated sleeping naked, she said. Plus, after all that effort, she still sweated through her pillow. My mother said she hardly ever used the air-conditioning overnight, only two or three times a summer, because the master bedroom had cross ventilation. She sounded proud, the way she said master bedroom and cross ventilation.

I’m not sure what cross ventilation is. I go into my parents’ bedroom to see if I can find it. It does feel cooler in there. I lie down on my mother’s side of the bed, careful not to muss the bedspread. The watch my father bought for her birthday is on her night table. The expandable metal band glows in the faint rays of light that drift through the gaps in the blinds. I pick up the watch, stretch the band wide, as if I am about to slip it onto a fat lady’s wrist, and let go with one hand so it snaps back. I turn the watch inside out and back again while I compose songs in my head. Songs for people to someday listen to on their car radios. I am in the middle of one about two lovers who meet in a candy store. The tempo gets fast, and I turn the watch face-in, face-out, back and forth to the beat.

“Just like this lollipop’s red as my heart, I promise we’ll never ever ever part,” I belt out. As I am getting to the last line of the song, I hear a metallic clink.

I gape at the severed links of my mother’s watchband. I beg the watch to be whole again, and squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them, the band is still broken. I stick the tip of my tongue out the corner of my mouth, the way I do when I’m thinking hard. My father makes fun of me if he catches me at it. He says I look like an idiot, and yells at me to keep my tongue in my mouth. He also yells at me for dragging my feet when I walk. And for putting my hands in my coat pockets, because what’s the matter with me, don’t I realize I’ll stretch the material out.

I set the watch back down on the bedside table and match up the broken ends to form a circle that makes the band look just like it did when I came in. Then I race into my bedroom, which is steamy, because there is no cross ventilation.

My heart beats fast. I am breathing hard, panting the way Mrs. Glaser’s crazy Chihuahua Sammy does when he pulls at the leash and runs around in circles.

In my family accidents cannot be explained away. They happen only because you do something stupid. If I spill milk, I get hollered at because I wasn’t holding the glass right. If I trip, it’s because I was daydreaming instead of paying attention to where my feet were going. Things get ruined because I shouldn’t have touched them in the first place. Sometimes my father teaches me a lesson by smacking me with his belt two, three, even four times.

I hear the key in the lock and the screech of the shopping cart’s wheels as my mother pulls it into the kitchen. She doesn’t call out to say she’s home the way my friends’ parents do. We are not big talkers in my family. We don’t say good morning or I’m back just for the sake of hearing our voices.

I scurry onto my bed and plop back against the pillow. I don’t move, not a muscle. I can make out the crinkling of paper bags as my mother unpacks groceries. I pray this will take her a long time.

But soon enough, I hear the click of her heels as she walks toward the master bedroom, where I know she will change back into her housedress before starting dinner. It is quiet for a few minutes, and then I hear her yell a curse word. My parents despise bad language, so this is not a good sign. Her voice sounds like an explosion.

The next minute, she is in my bedroom, standing over me and demanding to know what I did to her watch.

What watch, what are you talking about, I say.

She leans in closer and shoves the watch in my face.

Oh no, that’s your new watch. What happened? Did it fall or something?

She looks back and forth between me and the watch. Her eyes narrow.

I shake my head in disbelief at her misfortune. I keep this up while she stares at me.

She lays the watch flat in her palm and pets it like it’s a dog or something. “I can’t understand how this happened,” she says. Her brows knit together, and she bunches her shoulders to her ears. Taking baby steps, as though the watch might blow up if she moved too fast, she walks out of my room.

I sit up slowly, gulping air. I have never lied to my mother before. God is going to punish me for sure. I wait, but nothing happens. The telephone rings, and I hear my mother tell Aunt Dora about the watch, but also about other things, like how she’s taking me to A&S tomorrow because there’s a sale on summer clothes and I’m growing so fast.

Goosebumps spring up on my arms. I can tell a fib to my mother and get away with it. I feel chilled, as if someone suddenly blasted the air conditioning. But like on the last day of school, I also feel free.

Maybe I’ll turn on the TV for a while the next time my mother goes food shopping. It always takes her at least an hour. Or maybe I’ll turn on the lights and read my book. Or take that china figurine out of the breakfront, crack it gently against the sink so it doesn’t split into a million pieces, and then set it back in place with the parts matched up.

My throat feels dry. I need something to drink. I am not allowed to walk around barefoot, so I step into the ugly brown sandals my mother made me get because they were sturdy enough to last all summer. Instead of fastening the thick straps, I squash the buckles down with the heels of my feet and clomp towards the refrigerator. Maybe I’ll refuse the glass of milk my mother forces on me every afternoon because she insists I’m much too skinny for anyone’s good. I’ll tell her that lately the milk makes my stomach hurt. She won’t want me to be sick. And then I’ll open the refrigerator and pour myself some iced tea from the pitcher she keeps for herself on the top shelf. Later I can use my scissors to make a tiny slit in one of my shoe straps. That way I can pull the sides apart tomorrow when I’m in the dressing room and she’s outside with the salesgirl getting me another size of something. I’ll show her the rip. Stupid shoes, I’ll say. They’re not sturdy like you thought. I need a better pair. Let’s go to the shoe department and find those white t-strap patent-leather sandals I wanted in the first place.

Anna Sabat writes short stories and personal essays. Her writing has been published in Fiction, Crescent Review and Recipes Remembered. She was a finalist for the 2016 Iowa Review Award in creative nonfiction. She lives in New York City.