Once when I was in high school, my mother froze a dead bird in our freezer. So strange was the morning I walked into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and saw the lifeless body in a plastic bag by the desserts. It wasn’t crystals in my eyes, but sleep, so I thought I was seeing things. I closed the door and walked outside to the patio where Mom sat reading the paper.
“There’s a dead bird in our freezer,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I put him there.”
“So later his wings can thaw and fly away.”
I raised my eyebrow and gave her a questioning look.
“Okay, okay.” She sighed. “It’s for school. But you never know. He might fly away.”
Before she retired, Mom built a life-long career as a first grade teacher. Some of my favorite memories growing up are of the times I helped grade her students’ homework. Every evening after dinner we gathered on her queen-sized pink bed with a stack of papers split between us and Fiddlestick markers in hand.
“Wait,” she’d say, before I was allowed to start. “I haven’t rewound the tape yet.”
She was referring, of course, to the VHS tape that she reused everyday to record her soap operas. When ready, she’d press play and all three of her ABC daytime soaps — All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital — ran in succession as we corrected math problems and fixed spelling errors.
I loved when a paper was perfect or near perfect so I could draw a star and apply a sticker. Or better yet, a cursive O, which meant “Outstanding,” and could easily be turned into a smiley face with two dots and a semi-circle for a grin, just the way Mom taught me.
But what I loved even more than that — though I would never admit it — were the soap operas. Narratives moved so quickly that missing an episode meant missing a pivotal fist fight between arch enemies, or not knowing who slept with whose lover behind their back, or which unbalanced personality had hatched a new diabolical plan to ruin everything. The characters, even the town itself, never became boring. It was unlike anything I’d ever lived in. Or maybe it wasn’t.
It was the mystery that kept me tuned in, the cliffhangers. I had to figure out who the murderer was, who the long-lost stepchild that turns up out of nowhere was. I had to know who the one with the secret identity was, the one he kept hidden away.
For as long as I’ve known them, my parents have slept in separate rooms. The master bedroom became just Mom’s bedroom, while Dad curled up on the living room couch. Mom swore it was because Dad snored too much and just wasn’t a pleasant sleeper to be around. Dad often fell into dreaming with the glow of the television on mute, a convenient nightlight when I woke up for a midnight snack: mustard sandwiches, one of Mom’s go-to recipes that I frequently made.
Growing up, I didn’t think twice about separate sleeping quarters. I didn’t share my bedroom with anyone, so why should they? But the strange thing was that I never saw them touch, and I was aware (from books or films or sitcoms) that they were supposed to show affection as Husband and Wife. I knew them by their labels — Mom, Dad — and by their roles as parents, but I never associated them with love or the act of being in love. Yet logic told me they had to have been in love at least twice before — once for my brother, once for me.
Then, it happened. One night when I was five or maybe six, I was in the kitchen with Mom. We had just finished doing the dishes together. Mom washed and I dried, my favorite chore. I loved holding a fresh, clean, glistening bowl in my hands before packing it away neatly in the cupboard. Dad walked in and I started to leave, but stayed instead.
I don’t remember what brought my parents together that night, or what they were talking about. I’m not even sure what I was still doing in the kitchen when I should have been getting ready for bed. But there I was, sitting on the floor and leaning up against the refrigerator when I saw Mom and Dad hug — the first and last time I’ve ever seen them embrace each other. At least in that way, a way that felt like they meant it. Like it was needed. No, wanted. Desired. Like they were reaching for each other. Like their hands would never be big enough to cover each other. Like it was love.
I remember the brown linoleum floor I sat on and the silver sink behind them. I remember them not noticing me even though I never flinched, enthralled by the sight. I remember the faint light from the only lamp on in the corner of the room, and the warmth emanating from the running refrigerator.
These days, it is so easy to willingly give my body over to anyone knowing that, in the end, it probably won’t matter. It is much harder for me to face down the vulnerability of intimacy. Deep down, I know it’s because I’m looking for a connection so simple, it stems from a hug — a pulsating warmth that begins on the back, then overtakes the whole body.
“What happened today?” Mom says when she arrives home.
I’m a senior in high school and today I’ve taken a mental health day at home. She wants to know what she missed on her soaps.
“Do you really want to know?” I say.
“Yes, tell me. I’ll still watch.”
And then she listens, wide-eyed, as I tell her about the character who woke up from a coma after years of just being a prop. How he’s convinced he’s someone else. How he’s scratching his head and shaking everyone’s shoulders, searching for someone — anyone — who recognizes him for the person he really is.