I am thrilled to be a guest blogger on The Quilt of Life as I share an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir titled, Transgressions in Rouge. This section is from the part of my childhood when my baby brother entered into our lives.
I should note that, after my adoptive father beat two families into hiding, he died a transgender woman, in 2015.
Three Christmases later, the violence swelled at our Flushing home. Mommy and Daddy adopted my brother on August 11, 1968. Like most things experienced once, the second adoption was easier. My parent’s application flew through Mrs. Green’s eager hands. My cheerful demeanor decided my parent’s suitability for another child. For the sake of my brother, who I love with the depth of a caregiver, confidant, and playmate, I wish I’d been sadder.
Mommy filled out the application papers avoiding the truth of her bruised limbs. The brutality of the attacks had waned with my arrival. She was sure a boy would plug Daddy’s mean-streak for good.
From the same crib where they found and accepted me, they scooped up my dark-haired brother. Mommy fell in love immediately. Daddy did not. I stood next to them as he stepped back from the crib. He tilted his head as if inspecting a mosquito, he’d like to squash. Mommy and Mrs. Green chatted about my brother’s long eyelashes, missing Daddy’s agitated reaction.
With my brother’s arrival, our apartment shrunk, and our parents started to talk about buying a house. Peter Mathewson became Robert Selbach. We called him Robbie. No matter what we called him, he was a fussy five-month-old, growing crankier by the month. Only constant human touch quelled his needy howling. I held my baby brother in my lap often. Rocking him, I tried to erase his panicked expression and save him from Daddy’s growing rage.
Robbie’s first birthday was March 13, 1969. Unlike my birthdays, Daddy didn’t take part in planning Robbie’s special day. Mommy chose an iced chocolate cake from her favorite Italian bakery. Standing at the yellow counter-top, she pressed blue candles into piped blue roses. Admiring her handiwork, she winced when Daddy slammed the door. Dropping his lunch box on the kitchen table with a loud clatter, he looked at the cake.
“What’s this crap?”, he grunted.
She hurried to stir the chicken soup bubbling on the stove. “It’s Robbie’s cake.”
“No one’s coming, why we need a cake? He’ll just blubber all over the damn thing. He’s had that cold for a week.”
Grabbing a beer, he pounded past our bedroom. We looked up from our play. He disappeared into the living room next, and I retrieved a Matchbox car from under my brother’s crib. Every weekday after breakfast, I hid my brother’s favorite toy there. A perfect diversion to keep him from crying out when Daddy got home.
With one hand on the toy, I watched Daddy pass again, this time headed to the shower. Most days, he scowled past us in a hurry to rinse away the smell of iron work in the city. Robbie usually cried at the sight of him conditioned to expect something awful.
Daddy stopped in the hall, observing us with a faraway look. For a hopeful moment, I released the toy thinking he might remember that he loved us. I smiled, remembering the day at the park, when he pushed me on the swing, and laughed as I slid down the metal slide face first. I had re-enacted the trick over and over, anxious to capture his smile.
Daddy turned, and left. I diverted my brother’s attention, rolling the car across the floor. “Vroom,” Robbie giggled at the driving sounds I made. Toddling towards the toy, he tripped attempting to catch it and his lip puffed warning of an explosion.
I tossed the car in the air, “Boom” I exclaimed, tickling his tummy to dissuade him from crying. Daddy did not like crying. He also hated burnt toast, blabbering about soap operas, and sloppy towels in the bathroom. Punishment for such transgressions was big-handed hurt.
A few minutes later, the sound of the television reached us. Done with his shower, Daddy settled in for the news. I laid back on the floor, listening.
The reporter announced, “Apollo 9 splashed down in the Atlantic today after a 10-day orbit of Earth. The crew landed within three miles of their recovery ship, about 341 miles north of Puerto Rico.”
The smell of soup wafted in from the kitchen, and Robbie stopped fussing. Using the corner of my blanket, I wiped his runny nose.
Mommy gathered us for dinner before calling Daddy to the table. I placed the thick phone book on my seat, reaching to help Mom lock the tray of the high chair. Immediately unhappy at his entrapment, Robbie’s face scrunched to a hysteric squint. His lower lip quivered. I hurried to jingle the bell of the suction cup soldier attached to the tray. Uninterested in the toy he began to cry.
Mommy removed the soup from the stove. It was the same Sicilian Chicken Soup that my Papa had eaten as a child. “Good chili, good health,” he’d said every time they ate it. She left out the chilies to make it easier on our palates.
Straining a cup of broth for Robbie, who could not chew the bite-sized chunks of chicken, she turned as Daddy’s open palm hit the back of Robbie’s head. My brother’s one-year-old neck snapped forward, stunning him into silence. What had started as a cry of discomfort grew into a wailing state of torture.
Daddy marched toward Mommy who stood motionless, holding the cup of soup out in a beggar’s stance.
“Fucking soup, that’s what you make a man for dinner? I bet those Apollo show-offs had better meals in that goddamned tin can.” Pointing at Robbie, he continued, “Can’t you shut up your idiot kid?”
I slid forward on the telephone book until my toes touched the floor. Scrambling to Robbie, I tried to grab the balled-up fist he banged on the wood tray.
Like an unexpected rain shower, droplets of soup sprayed over us. The salty splatter came from the now empty pot Dad held over the place where Mom had been cooking. She zig-zagged from the room, grabbing her side, as she screamed.
I stared at the rainbow of vegetables on the floor. The slow tremble of shock that always accompanied surprise attacks made its way up my back. I called it ‘the melt’, for the bubbling melt of skin I was sure slid down my face.
I named it ‘the melt’ after spotting an abandoned baby doll on the twisted porch of a burned city dwelling. Soot covered, the doll’s face resembled the half-melted candle mom kept in the junk drawer in case of a power outage. Puckered and bubbled, the doll’s face became a physical representation of my terror.
Robbie wailed, writhing to escape the warm liquid puddled on his tray.
Tremors wracked my shoulders, working their way down until they wobbled my knees. I clasped my hands over my ears, trying to quash the bellowing that swept through the room in a mad gallop. The house was a cave of echoing misery. I looked at the shambles of my parent’s battle, then back at my brother.
Taking a towel from the oven door, I sopped up as much of the oily liquid as I could manage. The tray of the high chair glistened with broth and dead white chunks of chicken. Moving the step stool to the sink, I wrung it out, returning to collect the rest of the boiling soup.
Struggling with the latched tray, I tried to release my brother from his wet misery. As soon as my tiny fingers had one tray latch undone, Robbie pounded his small fists, re-clicking it. I was on my third attempt when I heard the slam of salvation. The crash of the apartment door sent the soup ladle, which hung at the edge of the table, to the wet floor in a quiet splash.
Daddy left our mother in the bathroom, one arm submerged in water and the other covering her face. The hot soup had landed on her right arm, which was beet red and beginning to blister. After smacking her face into the mirror, he marched past us, stopping at the apartment door. He surveyed the scene, wearing a grandiose expression that made me feel we were part of a morbid test. He looked that way a lot after hurting us. I often wondered if he acted out to see how we would react.
He didn’t free his blubbering son from the soupy mess. He exited the chaotic scene, in the same manner, he created it, without regret.
The air in the apartment grew lighter with his departure. I, leaning all my weight on the silver latch, finally managed the simultaneous switch that would give my brother freedom. Robbie slid from the high chair, an escaped squid slipping and flailing. Catching his chicken fat covered body; we fell to the wax-stained linoleum. Rocking my baby brother, I let go of the deep breath I held until he was safe.
As soon as Mommy’s pain eased to the point of mobile tolerance, she made her way to the kitchen. I joined my brother’s agonized sobbing as she knelt to hold us with her unblemished arm. We clutched each other in the glistening puddle, huddled there until none of us could produce another tear. Cemented in solidarity, we would soldier on against the enemy we were supposed to love.
I hope that my words will help to shed light on what can be a dangerous expectation: that adoptees be grateful, no matter the situation, for their ‘savior’ parents and the system that assigned them. For many of us, as adoptees, the gesture of forgiveness is a far more appropriate state.
V.L. Brunskill is the award-winning author of the Savannah novel Waving Backwards. She is also a blogger at adoptionfind, where she shares everything she’s learned on her own search journey that might help you in yours. V.L. also manages the growing Facebook community Adoptees who have found their biological relatives.
Long before she penned her first novel, V.L. was putting pen to paper as a freelance music journalist at Metronome Magazine, North Shore Magazine, CREEM and the Boston Phoenix. From rock stars to rocking ions, Vicki-lynn went on to become senior editor of an IT magazine, and a technical writer in the ion implantation field.
Having found her birth family in 1991, her reunion journey entailed a daunting seven-year-search for her birth mother, and another five-years looking for her birth father.
She moved South to be closer to both.