Mary Kate Azcuy
For my oldest brother, Charles
In the mid-1960s, my family lived in a northern New Jersey steel-gray, shingle-style colonial. My memories of early childhood are like Van Gogh’s dreary, early work in Nuenen, Holland, gray with a little brown. Then, the Hague and Bulb Fields with the surprising burst of muted flowers: orange, blue, white, red, green, and yellow. I remember colors: the golden-brown car of the man who tried to kidnap me. He called me over, grabbed my arm, and pulled me in through the car window onto his naked, exposed genitals. I remember my nonwaterproof, quilted, red snowsuit. My mother would leave us in the backyard—snowsuited and mittened— all day, into the dark of night, cheeks cracked and bleeding, wet and numb with cold. For shelter, we waited in our smallish yard or detached garage that smelled like wood and gasoline. Our neighbor was a cheerful, young widow who was a schoolteacher, supporting her nine young children. She lived with a man who had Lou Gehrig’s. He sat in a wheelchair and struggled for speech and listened as the elegant, oldest daughter played a harp, a beautiful, haunting sound that drifted over the chain-linked fence between our properties. The widow rigged her younger children to a clothesline that ran between the house and the fence: the children’s grab-bag snowsuits, running, gray, black, and taupe, in perpendicular waves, like a bizarre synchronized flock, trying to fly over the dirty snow mounds and frozen earth. The youngest daughter was my best friend, and we would kiss through the round openings in the fence’s metal design, sticking our tongues onto the icy metal in winter.
I remember the yellow dress I wore when I crawled across the other neighbor’s floor and got a six-inch splinter in my leg. I remember the white nurse in the hospital, her white crisp hat and white crisp uniform. In the operating room, before I was “put under,” she promised me an enormous spiral yellow, red, blue, and white lollipop that I can still see, which I never remember actually getting or eating. I remember my father’s sturdy Cuban-cigar box we filled with broken crayons, useless wax ones that smeared, broken Crayolas with torn paper wrappers, dull-nubbed colored pencils, nests of colorful pencil shavings, small, dirty-white pencil sharpeners, and half-nibbled rubber and dirty-pink erasers. I shoved the stump of a medium-width, navy-blue crayon way, way up my nose, just because it fit. The nurse didn’t bother with the lollipop that time.
But, I am sure the house was gray. The north Jersey sky gray, the winters gray, the constant gray, the color that makes me want to sleep or die, gray, dreary, gray rain, gray winter. My early childhood there was like that—gray, sad, medical, and dark. My nanny was my alcoholic uncle who had been banished by generations of my family. He dropped me down the stairs, was thrown out of our house, and died two days later in a flop house in Newark; he was found clinging to a black-and-white picture of me.
I remember my exotic mother’s downcast face: her long, straight, ebony hair and pale skin that smelled of Pond’s cold cream, her lips of cakey, red lipstick. My rough-bearded father was always asleep under the quilted, dull-green bedcover. His heavy breathing smelled of stale whiskey, rank, old cigars, and coffee. In the mornings, his brown teeth smiled, as he laughed cruelly, downing quarts of coffee and cups of sugar, as he began the day, readying to terrorize us. When he was drunk, he stormed down the hall, shouting: “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.” My father beat my brothers and tormented my mother, who taunted and stood up to him. I think she really just wanted to fight that mother fucker. Then, just like you know, she cowered and folded up.
My oldest brother would scurry the little boys off to closets and under beds. There was a small cupboard on the stairway wall—like a little cave—that my youngest brother hid in. “Don’t shut it all the way,” the oldest would say, as he ran along to hide the middle brother. The youngest brother resented my visiting the cave during the day. “That’s my space,” he’d quip, and then tell me, “Don’t shut it all the way. You need air to breathe.” And, I’d shut the little door. Quiet, warm, suffocating, I’d close my eyes. At night we’d hear banging, screaming, our father’s crying, her exasperation. She’d comfort him until he passed out. If it was an easy night like that, sometimes we’d sleep. I would pull the synthetic, fuzzy blanket that smelled very slightly of urine over my head, breathing the thick, milky air from my heavy breath, kissing my doll, and nervously fondling my baby blanket.
In the cubbyhole, there were brown, red, white, and green chalk drawings that I could see with the door open a bit for light: stick-figure soldiers with wounds, bleeding. My middle brother drew things like this: soldiers, killings, blood, bayonets, hand grenades, dismembered children. He’s the one my father came for the most, the weakest, just to hurt him.
In the cubby, sometimes, I’d shut the door just enough until the second before it snapped, locked. I’d shut it for total darkness and sit quietly in the warm, suffocating air; then I’d open it and let the yellow light and cold oxygen come back to me in a rush. Not like night, when I cried out and he came into my room, shut the door, and undressed my wet baby-body, as I feigned sleep—that felt like I was fighting for my life under the power of a killer August wave, spinning out-of-control, battered against harsh sand, scraped and bruised. During the day, my destroyed, frustrated mother would fight my wriggling body and pinch the fatty parts. She would take me to the doctor, worried about my chronic bloody noses, the red, purple, yellow-green bruises, the bedwetting. My mother never smiled at me; maybe she was angry because of the bruises left on me?
I have a bent and fractured, small, shiny, red-tannish-white sepia photograph of my mother as a little girl standing in the snow with a rickety, porched, wooden tenement behind her, in the backyard of their multifamily house when she was a child in Jamaica Queens, on a street under the L-train that 50 Cent once called Crack Alley. Her little, hooded face in the photograph looks angry. I don’t really know what expression her face shows; she never admitted to my reading of her moods. I wonder if her snowsuit was red, or maybe a mourning mauve, a quieter bit of pink and hopeful purplish-white? I don’t know, but I do know that mine was red.
Red. The color of the stop—at the corner, by the Tudor shops—two doors away from our house’s front yard where the man had watched me, chosen me, called me over, pulled me in through the painful window, zippers grinding, him shaking, laughing, grinning, gaping rotten teeth, pulling me onto his shaking parts, my ribs strumming on the glass, the air leaving my lungs, my voice gagged, pushing back; I fell onto the edge of the road, wet, crawling away, backwards, into the yard, until I righted myself and stumbled back toward the house. They say I recounted every detail. Red, the color of brake lights, as he drove away and hesitated, or maybe he backed up, in reverse, the white lights inside the red plastic enclosure, a medley of amber, white, and red lights coming back for me.
I still get depressed in the relentless, nagging-gray New Jersey winters. Cold, white snow and snowflakes still remind me of an innocent, clean, hopeful childhood that I never lived. I don’t own any red or yellow clothing. I prefer to wear black or white. White lights give me headaches, yet I love white paint, gypsum, the blueish white of titanium and zinc, and the smell of chemicals that cut and blend the pigments. The hard white of curative zinc oxide and Desitin—from the silver tube painted white, lettered in blue, and protected by a grooved, thimble-like white cap—the thick white that caregivers painted on my burning childhood body.
I understand Van Gogh. He moved south into the French countryside and began drawing delightful, swirly, textured oil paintings, a bit of brightness, better weather. Yet, those blazing red-lake pigments and colors fade—from hard lead whites and cerulean blues of big skies, chrome yellows, and viridian greens of the countryside, planted and wheeled tan-beige-cadmium yellow wheatfields, quirky, bold lines of Van Dyke―brown trees and pastel-colored villagers and peasants working—and, then, the wheatfields and sunshine become one blazing, blinding color. And those lit-up churches begin to merge into the truth of night and nature. Poplars are stripped bare moving into the same hues of browns and then grays and charcoal silhouettes of women mourning by shadowy northern graveyards, churchyards, outlines of places in ruins. He survived the asylums and near misses, but gunshots are gunshots all the same, murder or suicide. He bled out for days in the French village boarding house, the home he returned to, protecting the boys who shot him. The room stinking of the foamy lead-white-green breath of the dying—merging with the linseed oil, turpentine, earthy-rich sienna and umber red pigments of his oil paints— still tacky to the touch like the sticky, frustrating, coagulating, drying madder-lake blood hardening and changing to brown on his clothes—the unfinished paintings in his bag, where the black crows are still in a frenzy, forever in a frenzy, or migration, a cyclical migration, roaring up and then returning to that final field where the bullet hit. He understood nature taking things back, the hazards of daytime and too much light: chrome yellow moving into brown, cobalt blue and lead white meeting the charcoal crows, melding to gray. I understand zinc white’s blinding protection, amber’s slow-burning, cautionary sunshine, scarlet red’s final warning—for the violence that was my precarious childhood.
I know it would have been easier for my parents if I’d killed myself. They wanted me to die. They let me practice. They trained me to break, to crack, to end it all. My mother used to tell me I could die if I dropped a pin or needle down my throat; she wasn’t warning me. But, I didn’t die. I’m the least likely survivor, the woman writing this story.