“I’ve replayed in my mind Suzanne’s death. I wasn’t there, and the details as they’ve been told to me get conflated, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing them over and over again.”
I’ve replayed in my mind Suzanne’s death. I wasn’t there, and the details as they’ve been told to me get conflated, but that doesn’t stop me from seeing them over and over again.
Chrissy is the first to the door. No—first, she and Suzanne are upstairs putting the kids to bed. Suzanne, with her dyed-red cropped hair and loud smile that’s bright from over fifty years of life, bounces her grandson, Alex, on her hip. His mother is in jail for drug possession. Suzanne’s sister, when visiting the house after the blood was cleaned out, washed onto the street in a pinkish flood, would open a cabinet and pull out a small bottle and say incredulously, “Embalming fluid. That’s what they’re smoking these days.”
He wasn’t hers, technically, but he would be a casualty in this, as if he was hers. When Suzanne died, Alex went to Suzanne’s mom, Alice. After kneeling on her hands and seventy-five-year-old knees to scrub the blood out of the floor, Alice would pack up his small clothes and toddler-sized shoes and take him away from his grandmother’s house. She goes to his soccer games and sends him to Catholic school. She is his third mother, so far.
Suzanne watches as her daughter Chrissy gently lays her baby girl in her crib when she hears the door open. Chrissy heads for the staircase.
Suzanne is still upstairs. I like to think she is brushing Alex’s hair for the last time. Or at least running her fingers through it. Alex is a really beautiful kid, with dark eyes that don’t leave your face and these thick, dark, loose curls on his head.
Suzanne’s funeral was a real thing. In an Irish Catholic family like mine, funerals are meant to be so celebratory that the hope is the Devil won’t know the deceased is gone until they are safe in Heaven. Usually, in my experience, my family lives up to this. Suzanne’s funeral was more somber than most. Everyone got drunk, even the people who didn’t always, and the stories came out. About Suzanne’s dancing, her annual trips to Disney World with her children and grandchildren that almost made them sick of the place. Her humor that had cracked inappropriate laughter in the middle of a funeral mass for another family member. They would make sure she got to Peter’s gates safely, now. Her brother Tim gave a eulogy that made the whole room stand still and quiet. I don’t actually remember what he said, but whenever I see him, I see first his face from the podium of the banquet hall, red and bloated and choked with emotion. Even the good stories about Suzanne have been painted over with sadness.
Chrissy opens the door. Her ex-boyfriend, mandated to stay however many feet from her by a court, is wielding a knife. I wasn’t there, but I can hear the sound his pants make, baggy jeans, when they rustle toward her. He lunges at Chrissy, and now I can hear the loud pft of the knife plunging into her, tearing past her clothes and skin and into her muscles. When I saw Chrissy at the funeral, I could not believe she had survived so many stab wounds. Her neck was laced with stitches that glittered in a way that was eerily similar to Alex’s dark irises. They traced her collarbone like some kind of ghoulish adornment. He was really trying to kill her.
She is screaming, she has been screaming since she opened the door and realized who it was. He wasn’t supposed to be near her. She was supposed to be safe. Suzanne probably locks the children’s room before racing down the steps.
When I was around three or four, I took karate lessons under Suzanne’s tutelage. I hated them. In an effort to get out of them, I would tell my parents, “I already know karate.” I remember whacking on a stuffed bear in my room, practicing so that if they tested me, I could show them that I really did know karate. I thought I was strong, no, powerful, and capable of defending myself at the age of four. My parents did let me quit after I finished the lessons they had paid for. When they told me that Suzanne had died, my mother said, not directed at anyone but in terrible anguish, “And she was a black belt. She knew how to defend herself.”
I wasn’t there, and I don’t remember what the house looked like—my mother and I were only there to pick up the two chihuahuas that Suzanne had left behind. They were a mother and a daughter, named New York and Brooklyn. We renamed them Cleo and Malala when we took them home to my sisters, deciding that they needed names from strong women. Cleo is an incredibly skittish dog. She hasn’t made a sound that hasn’t been a whimper since we have owned her. Maybe she’s always been like that.
All of this is to say that I am not actually sure what the staircase looked like, but I can still imagine Suzanne’s red bob bobbing down them after Chrissy. She lunged, we know this from Chrissy, and put herself between her daughter and this knife-wielding lunatic who used to come over to dinner and hold Chrissy’s hand under the table. He looked past Suzanne to Chrissy, and said, “You’re going to watch your mother die. And then I’m going to kill you.”
The order of protection didn’t do a damn thing for my cousin Suzanne. But those words and the fact that he brought his own knife were enough to prove intent and lock up the man for life.
I have five sisters. For as long as I remember, strange older men told my father, “You’re going to have to lock these girls in a tower when they’re teenagers.” It made me uncomfortable before I really knew what it meant. It was usually at church, or at the grocery store. He always laughed it off while they patted my head and smiled and I smiled back, feebly.
Every three years or so, my mother interrupts one of her usual lectures to tell me about “when I was your age.” She’s not talking about walking uphill to school both ways or anything easy like that, she’s talking about her experiences of sexual assault, harassment, and stalking. Every three years or so, for my whole life, she has an anecdote to scare the shit out of me. Because that’s what mothers do.
When I learned that Suzanne had died, I took a day off from school because my sisters did. I was sympathetic for the family, my family, for some reason not including myself in that circle. I can’t say it was a particularly jarring thing for me. The day I came back to school, my precalculus teacher asked where I was. When I told her I was mourning my cousin who had been stabbed to death in an instance of domestic violence, her usually cheery face crumbled. She touched my arm gently and mourned with me. She didn’t need to say anything; now she’s part of my story.
My dad was one of the nice ones, the rare exception to a world of violence at the hands of men. I knew that. I had been told that. I had heard the stories, of how my mother hid under a stranger’s porch on the way to junior high to avoid a man in a truck who was circling the neighborhood and asked her if she wanted a ride. I had heard how he had circled back, and later how she recognized his picture in the paper alongside an article about a dead, mutilated body of a young girl. This is our oral tradition, one that survives from the retelling of survivors. Suzanne’s story fit seamlessly into my understanding of the world, and I saw no reason to be upset about a cousin I didn’t know all that well and a man whose name my family never uttered.
Now I live in New York. There is nothing resting about my bitch face. I look angry all the time because I have to, because if my anatomy is taken to be inviting, at least my face tells things differently. And because I am angry. I walk fast and play my music loud in my ears, and when I’m on my bike, I stay to the side of the road and hop off and walk it around the block to a one-way street in the opposite direction when I’m being followed and yelled at in the Village by a man in a truck. It’s the Village, not my mom’s poor childhood neighborhood, so sometimes the cars aren’t trucks, they’re shiny and black and the man inside probably wouldn’t be accused of having intentions past putting his cufflinks on. I get off my bike and run alongside it when that happens, ducking around to another street where people can stare at me and wonder why I’m out of breath, why my expression has faltered to one of fear. It’s during these times that I think about my mother, because there are stories worse than the one that found her under a porch. I’ve heard worse than that, believe me. I know what her face looked like at the time of each of the abuses because I’ve made all those faces, she taught me how. She has grimaced and paled with fear and been caught by her abusers again and again while telling my sisters and I these stories.
My mother and her stories have taught me to know better than shock. Because I’ve seen Suzanne die. Because I have five sisters, and I don’t want them telling their daughters about me.