And a Cherry on Top
It was a brisk January day, the sun was bright and shining. It was the kind of day when I look out the window and the sun convinces me Spring has come early, I go outside and then have to immediately zip my jacket all the way up, pull my collar high around my neck and shove my ungloved hands into my pockets: ridiculing myself for being naïve.
I had just emerged -out of breath with burning thighs from climbing up the too many stairs of the subway- one station early due to ‘track maintenance’ whatever that has come to mean. I was heading toward the bus to make up the difference in subway stops, the combination of hot steamy subway and cold sharp weather jarring my body with discomfort. I distractedly pulled out my phone and saw that I
had a voicemail alert from my not friendly, not communicative, and definitely never calling step-mother. Confusion slammed my thoughts and my unregulated body temperature was violently seized by fear hiccoughing my emotions into thinking the worst thing happened to my dad.
I’m there sitting in the middle of my soft, royal blue
carpet leaning on the side of my small twin bed its
frame, painted a thick coat of dark blue, standing
strongly under a see-through-thin, light-green bed
cover, the Holly Hobby-like girl, wearing a huge
blue bonnet, kneeling and smelling flowers in the
middle with blue ruffles draping off its edges. I don’t
particularly like this frilly, dainty bed cover but I am
comforted by the girl on it, her happiness forever
depending on the simple soft flowers that surround
I’m there alone playing with a mix of Barbie dolls,
G.I. Joe Dolls and Rose Petal Place Dolls (the
scent of their hair: rose and iris the best smells the
world has to offer). I’m there imagining stories,
acting them out – my dolls the main characters –
hoping the stories come from my future adult life.
It’s early morning, I toddle to their room. My eyes
sleepy, He picks me up. He is almost completely
dressed. He holds me close. He asks me which tie
he should wear. He opens his armoire. We peer
inside together. We, a team, a secret, a new day. I
take my time. I look hard. I see all of them. I look
hard at him looking at them. I try to know which one
he’s favoring. I find it, the perfect one. I point. He
lifts. His fingers nimble. He wraps it around his
neck. He and I, proud.
I’m there naked in my room. The sprinkler swaying back and forth, an arc of water and rainbows fanning over green grass just beyond my window. Water droplets dancing wildly on the lawn, I hear some of the wilder ones lightly pinging onto my sill. I stand before my massive mahogany dresser, excited to fling my body around matching the water’s dance. The tall dresser towers over me, four rows of drawers sliding into eternity. I tug on the two bottom handles, the lowest drawer slides and there sits my pale pink bathing suit with white piping, and on the front top panel the most delicious image: a vanilla and chocolate ice cream cone with a cherry on top. The suit beams above the others, having been put back last and on top ready to be worn next.
My feet keep stepping, pulling me past the bus stop. The status quo, a decision without assent, my feet pacing the long way home.
I thumb my phone open, navigate to the small green and white button, the gray voicemail tape ream, to
Trudy, my stepmother’s name, a heavy iron mass rapidly growing in the pit of my stomach. I press her name, bring the phone to my ear, my heart beating too fast and not beating at all. My breath is too loud in my ears, it doesn’t satiate my lungs. I struggle to think. I struggle to not think. I
fear the words: Diane, your dad is dead. I tell myself I don’t know why my mind is going there,
but I do. My body is screaming something is wrong, my brain is telling me to wait. Just wait
Minutes, 55 Seconds
My childhood family friend, Wayne, growing bored
of my dominant brother, wanders up the stairs and
knocks on my bedroom door.
I open my door slowly to reveal Wayne. Soft, sweet
and always smiling, Wayne. His eyes squeezing
tight and turning up at the edges when he laughs.
Wayne has always been tender to me, tender to
everyone. It’s usually Wayne who takes the brunt of
my brother’s torment whenever he and his younger,
cooler, torment-free, brother, Anthony come to play.
Sometimes when they come, I get repose. I get to
hide out, quietly and stay with the group, free of
notice, free of aspersions. I feel pity for Wayne, but
his eyes always turn up on the sides, he always
laughs at whatever arrows my brother slings his
way. I feel badly but I also feel relief so I don’t say
Suddenly, I feel too old for my massive Bardie doll
obsession fanned out just behind my body. I feel
sure he doesn’t want to play with me, with my dolls.
But he is here and there isn’t time to gracefully hide
them, create a cover story, or be more interesting.
He asks to play with me. I open my body, look
around, shrug and sit down. He sits too and we
play, both of us uncomfortable; him, not knowing
how to create stories with my dolls; me, never
sharing this part of myself with a boy. Wayne
doesn’t complain or make me feel dumb. He plays
with them, sweetly, curiously. But he gets up too
soon. His presence is a comfort but I find relief in
his exit. Too embarrassed to enjoy our time
together. Relieved he’s gone, and jealous that he
can vacillate between playing with me and playing
with my brothers.
I jump off the school bus. I run the rest of the wide
concrete street to my house. My backpack slinging
back and forth off my elbow. The sun beaming
down. I see his car in the driveway. I’m bursting to
see he’s home. I careen into the house. I offload
my backpack. I don’t slow down. I bolt up the stairs
looking for him.
I bend over to lift my pink suit out of the drawer, the door bangs open and hits the closet door behind it, swinging back but staying open. Surprised, my hands come back empty, my body stands, I am still. I am naked. I whack my head around to see my oldest brother, Sammy vaulting into my room. His face is red, he’s shouting at me. I stole his toy. I need to give it back.
I think. I’m confused. I can’t know why he’s so mad. I’m having a hard time remembering. I don’t remember his toy. I’m having a hard time thinking about anything other than my bathing suit laying just seconds away from my body. I’m having a hard time remembering taking his toy. I’m having a hard time remembering what took me so long to put it on. I’m having a hard time remembering why I thought it would be a good idea to take his toy. I’m having a hard time thinking about anything other than I am completely naked and he is in my room. I’m having a hard time remembering why I wanted his toy. I’m having a hard time thinking about why he won’t leave. I’m having a hard time thinking about why he wants to be in my room right now. I’m having a hard time remembering why he’s so angry. I’m having a hard time remembering why he won’t go. What did I do to make him not go? What did I do to make him think he can stay? Why did I take his toy? Why does he want to be in here when I’m naked? Why doesn’t he care that I’m naked? Does he care that I’m naked? Why is he here? I ask him to leave.
I beg him to leave.
He tells me he wouldn’t be in here if I didn’t take his toy.
I yell at him to wait one second until I put my bathing suit on.
He tells me if I didn’t take his toy, then he would’ve let me put my bathing suit on.
He says he wants his toy. He says I shouldn’t have taken it. He says this wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t take his toy. He says this is all my fault. I don’t know why he won’t wait. I don’t know why I feel too invisible. I don’t know why I feel too visible. I want to be invisible but I’m visible. He’s here and he won’t leave. I’m here and I can’t leave.
Hours start to melt. I’m at war. my brain is fighting with my body is 5 fighting with my desire is fighting with my brain to run to stay to disappear to stop to go to not care
to not deal to deal to care to scream to cry to disassociate
i dis ass o cia te
i dis a so ci ate
i struggle to untwist verbal truth knots i struggle to stay here to melt to war to scream to cry to struggle i struggle
sense out of words i struggle to
words comprehend struggle
words fix solve deal
i struggle to say leukemia
I’m barefoot in the green grass on the verge in front
of our house, the street one step further. My two
older brothers bolt across the concrete, our
neighbors lagging just slightly behind, trying hard to
keep up. They laugh and yell, they don’t slow down
as they pass. I call, I protest, I stay, wanting to
cross, wanting to be in their pack, forbidden to go
across alone. The street, quiet and empty. My
body, small and unknowing.
he is not dead Flu
he is not, not dead Pneumonia
he is not, a concussion, unconscious, a bad fall,
not, not, an unknown disease, a broken leg, a hospital stay, Alzheimer’s, not, knot, dementia, hyper/hypo thyroid, a few weeks,
knots, verbal truth knots dead a few months cancer-leukemia-one year-then dead
-cancer – he has cancer – my dad has cancer – he is not dead -leukemia- -one year-
-my dad has leukemia-
-my dad has one year-
-my dad has leukemia and will be dead in one year-
-Not Dead-Dead-My dad is dead-My dad is dead-
My feet jar to an abrupt stop. My mind catches up with
my eyes. He is pushing his armoire into the hallway.
He is struggling hard to get it out of his room. I’m
completely confounded. I ask, Daddy?! Why are you
getting rid of your favorite armoire??
He leaves. I stay. I doubt. I chastise myself for being stupid. I was stupid to take his toy. I was careless. If I didn’t take it he wouldn’t have come looking for it. I wouldn’t be naked. I wouldn’t be humiliated. I would be outside dancing. I want to be outside dancing. He wouldn’t have come in. My eyes narrow back to the round delicious cherry on my ice cream cone bathing suit. I stay on the cherry, frozen. I want to move, I’m stuck – I’m holding my breath. He didn’t find his toy, he didn’t really look for it. I’m relieved he’s gone, I feel complicit when I realize I have to close the door. I stay on the cherry, I decide not to put it on my body.
He crouches on the ground/He looks me in the
eyes/He tells me he will be here every weekend/He
tells me he will take us to his new place/He tells me
he’s going to have toys/He tells me we are going on
adventures/He promises I will love it/He tells me/I
am not there/ he’s talking to me/I told him not to
go/he’s comforting me/ I am not comfortable/I told
him I don’t want him to leave me/He tells me I will
love it/I promise I will never love it/He’s doesn’t see
me/I am gone/I left to be somewhere better/my six
year old self is gone/fantasies are cracking/nothing
is stopping/My body is collapsing into my brain/my
adults aren’t listening/My brain is collapsing into
quicksand/My adults aren’t here/He stands/He gets
in his car/It slides out and down the drive/My eyes
are wet/ I don’t feel anything/I am silent/I beg him
not to go/I am silent/I beg him not to go/I am silent/I
beg him not to go/I am silent/He goes/My mom has
vanished into the house/There is no one left/
diane diane diane diane diane diane diane diane diane diane diane diane
diane diane diane
diane diane diane diane
I slowly open my eyes, my brain realizing my name is coming from my ears and not my dreams. Sammy is standing over me. Sammy is calling my name.
I don’t know how long he’s been standing there. I don’t know why he’s standing there. He’s smiling but it doesn’t feel funny. He’s smiling but it doesn’t feel fun.
I told you. you have to wash the dishes, He slowly slides out, his voice smooth, calculated. I sit up, no longer dreamy, I am alert. This is not a game. My face is still. My face is calm, I don’t drop eye contact, I internally scan my room, my body, my demeanor, my face is calm. Am I wearing pajamas? I am wearing pajamas. Did I say anything in my sleep? Did I leak anything he can use against me in my sleep?
Why? Why? Whhyy is he in my room? What happened? Why is he in my room? Why is he so calm? I want to sleep. I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep.
that time when he tied the string around the
doorknob. that time when she couldn’t leave for so
long. his hands sliding on the door, the string, his
breath. his soft giggling.
Below is a PDF of this piece that demonstrates the writer’s intended formatting:
Some children are told their struggles with older siblings is simply sibling rivalry. Some are told they are being overdramatic, annoying, gullible, that they are making something out of nothing. Some are told to simply stand up to their older, more dominant siblings. These types of responses, especially when in actual abusive situations, can end up inflicting even more trauma on the child.
The child relaying the details of what happened during one specific event, may leave out the bigger picture: the fear, the instability, the constant power dynamic. An underlying component that they perhaps don’t notice or think to mention as it has never been any different for them and so they wouldn’t know there was something there to mention.
The listener, only getting a glimpse of the situation, doesn’t necessarily take the story seriously and therefore may end up giving thin advice. Making a conclusion that closer aligns to their own perhaps more stable childhood. They relate the story to their own, more innocent, more normal sibling rivalry. Or the listener simply doesn’t care or doesn’t believe the child, believing instead that children, by nature, don’t know what they are saying.
These offhand responses can make a child feel they are somehow culpable, complicit or even reading the situation wrong. And often the offhand advice giving can make the situation worse: Just tell your sibling you don’t like that. Just tell your sibling that you have feelings too. The older, more dominant sibling takes these responses as either affronts or invitations to push harder and abuse the sibling even more.
When all of this doesn’t work the child is left feeling hopeless, isolated, powerless and can lead a child to start questioning everything. Never knowing if how they feel is real or imagined, made-up or exaggerated. Not able to trust themselves they can start to dissociate, separate from their seemingly untrustworthy emotions. Feeling and focusing only on concrete more obvious needs: eating, sleeping, and physical needs, abandoning the more emotional ones.
I wrote this story to honor the doubt, the confusion and the isolation. To stay on the surface, and not make conclusions for the reader. I wanted to just tell a story, to go from one ‘meaningless’ story to the other with the idea that strung together, what isn’t said starts to stack up: emotionally, physically and mentally. Nothing necessarily happens in each story but there is an underlying current of constant fear, unease and instability.
DIANE TOMASI (she/her) is a queer cis white female dancer, aerialist, performer, choreographer and community maker. She has been an avid unprofessional writer of journals, and personal essays, until about ten years ago when her father received a terminal cancer diagnosis and the trauma surrounding his illness alongside the trauma from her childhood stopped her pen. Many years of therapy later, She decided to pull back the layers and found the courage to reignite her passion for writing.
Diane is also a founding member of a community of artists called This Body. This Body’s mission is to come together to ease the challenging aspects of creating art-work in New York City. This Body produces community events such as potlucks, Thai Massage workshops, open level classes and performances. Diane is interested in bettering herself, building community, challenging internal and external biases and ‘social norms’ through research and then performance.