Another piece written for a creative writing class at university. The assignment was to write a mini-memoir.
The furniture in the house never moved. In front of the couch stood a coffee table. It may or may not have been an antique. Half our furniture could have been bought anywhere like Sears or JC Penny. The other half were antiques passed down from one family member or another. There are two things about that coffee table I remember. Once a week my mother would take furniture polish to it; Lemon Pledge served as its armour against the world. The other was the letter corner. Letters from family members scattered across the U.S. would be placed there for me to read. My mother considered it important for everyone to be kept up to date on family drama. Half the relatives mentioned I had never met. Usually it was from my great-grandmother and a separate note would be in there thanking me for the dandelion seeds. She had a thing for the earthy tea made from the leaves, only they wouldn’t grow in the Florida sand that was her yard. So, she asked me to send her seeds, a simple, yet important job, that any child would be happy to do. I had been sending her envelopes packed with seeds as long as I could remember. She would plant them in small pots that lined her windowsills where they were lovingly tended to. Sometimes there would be a letter from my Polish great-aunt or one of my mother’s siblings.
Opened envelopes with trendy stamps frequented the corner often enough so I didn’t think anything of it when I found the envelope. I didn’t bother to look at the return address, the author would be revealed soon enough by the familiar script. I suddenly wished that I belonged to one of those TV sitcom families where bad news was given at a family meeting and things would be talked out. My bad news was delivered in the form of a random letter sitting on the “read me” spot of a coffee table. It didn’t seem fair.
The letter belonged to my stepfather. The sender was an unknown man from a personals ad, found stuffed away in the back of an unseemly magazine. I imagine it read something like:
“My name is Jack and I’m seeking a little fun in the sun! I’m what most would consider ‘big boned,’ but I also come big boned; use your imagination. So, chat me up and let’s have some fun. There’s no harm in exploring. I hope to see you soon!”
This was not a “getting to know you” pen pal type of letter. I am convinced this letter would have made even Pauline Réage uncomfortable. Once I start reading something, I have to see it through to the end, no matter what. It is my curse. When I was done, I folded the letter back up carefully, returned it to the envelope, and left it as if it had never been touched.
The letter sat there for a number of days, taunting me. Every time I happened to look at it, a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. I never mentioned it to my mother that I read it. I don’t remember if she asked, and if she did, I probably lied about it. There was always an assumption on her part that I had read it. She no longer went out of her way to hide anything. She acted as if I knew; that I had always known; that everyone had always known; that my stepfathers sexuality was common public knowledge. The discovery of AIDS and HIV was still a few years off. “Alternative lifestyles” were kept hidden safely away in the backs of closets, behind the shoes and clothes that had been unworn for years but kept in hopes they would come back into style. She was also rather proud of herself when she outed my stepfathers secret to his parents, who had already shunned one of their sons for being gay.
It would be another two or three years before they would divorce, when therapy couldn’t provide a cure, and only after my mother became pregnant as the result of an affair. I was given all the details at the last possible moment, upsetting what was left of the world I knew.
The furniture in the house never moved. Something in the house, and the family, needed to be stable and unchanged. That was the furniture’s job. To stand as sentinel, watching things fall apart.