Nana’s Guide to Illusion by JT Torres

boy in front of tvI was eight when my parents started leaving me home alone. As a CPA, my father handled the financial operations for the municipality of Hialeah Gardens. He and my mother often went to dinner parties with the chief of police, his lackeys, the mayor, and his lackeys.

“Not the type of people a child should be around,” my mother said, and left me alone. I’d watch TV as if my life depended on it, never really absorbing the meaning of the flashing images but instead letting the phantasmagoria blur my perception of time—a dream state.

My father had recently bought a satellite dish for this very reason. Hundreds of channels provided me with a spectral reality that would circumvent my curiosity for real reality. In the absence of my parents, I bought into the illusion that there was no absence. I had hundreds of channels, thousands of sequences that strung along a million shards of images a minute. Eventually the box would disappear and only the sights and sounds existed, whirring about the room like rambunctious party guests. So when I made myself a bowl of cereal and spilled some milk on the burgundy throw rug, a pixelated woman, donning a clean white apron, appeared and pointed a static finger at me. She suggested I use her brand of Clorox wipes since her brand absorbed 20% more liquid than the average wipe. The woman’s maternal features appeared in such a one-dimensional apparition that I loved her for it. And when I emptied my backpack onto the dining room table, Zack Morris stood behind me and laughed at my half-hearted attempt to do homework. He was right to mock me. I cared little for school. Even the air in his imagined presence had the slick smell of hairspray.

Most of the time, I could not tell whether my parents were home. The house, so long as it was never silent, never seemed empty. In fact, it made no difference where my parents were. I began to associate their presence with the standard time slots of TV programming. 3 to 3:30 p.m.: Late Lunch with Mom, starring Mom. 5:30 to 6 p.m.: Home Alone Dos and Don’ts with Dad, starring Dad. Their eventual 6 p.m. departures were as inevitable, and therefore emotionally expected, as the end of an episode. And if my older sister was home, which was rare, she became part of a hip, cool cast with a social import that demanded no more than thirty minutes (ninety if she was part of a movie special). I can recall moments when my sister would burst into the house with several of her friends—all glitter-splattered girls with frizzy hair and bright outfits. One of them would pick me up, kiss my cheek, and then hand me to another. That one would dance with me, swing me around, and then sit me on my sister’s bed. They’d discuss important plans for the evening with me in the room. I tried memorizing what was said, even though I didn’t understand the contexts. The tones of their voices signified that the dialogue would be instrumental later in the season. And then they’d leave me back on the couch, illuminated by the dazzling TV screen.

One night, after several hours alone, my parents came home in a season premier conflict. My father accused my mother of flirting with a deputy. She walked past me in such a flurry I thought she had come directly from the TV. At first, I tried recalling what show or movie she was from. Lost in the phantasmagoric haze into which my memory had been shaping, I leaned forward enough on the couch’s edge to see down the hall into my parents’ bedroom. My mother sat at her mahogany dressing table, unpinning her glowing gold earrings and staring in the mirror. She liked what she saw, I could tell. Her smile turned her face apple red. My father stood behind her and his face steamed a different color red.

“If you embarrass me like that again, we’ll get a divorce,” he said. “I promise you that.”

His suit looked too tight on him, ready to rip at the seams. I prayed and prayed that it wouldn’t, that it would hold him inside.

“You are overreacting,” my mother said.

“You can take your son and get the hell out of here with [the deputy]. Live on his shit salary. I’m tired of supporting a whore. There. Is that overreacting?”

“You can do better.”

A part of me felt drunk on what I witnessed. Of course, I didn’t know at eleven what being drunk was like, but once I did I would always associate the feeling of drunkenness—destructive passion and an illogical outpour of emotions—with my parents’ arguments. Another part of me, a much larger part, felt overshadowed, forgotten in the midst of rage. Every audience member imagines himself the protagonist. Everyone wants to be on the other side of the screen, the center of the stage where personal problems become universal and everyone cares about your well-being. The dramatic conflict taking place between my parents seemed much realer than anything I’d ever seen, even realer than Cops and all the other docudramas to which I’d taken a liking. This virtual immersion in reality did excite me to no end. But the truth remained: I was still a viewer, unimportant and expendable.

I climbed down from the couch and stood in full view of my parents. Framed by the rows of picture frames, centrally located right at the vanishing point, and thus telescoped by the long, dark hall, there was no way my parents could not see me. I wanted this scene to include me. I wanted to be part of the cast.

Both of my parents did notice me, signaled by a collective sigh that fooled me into thinking they finally agreed, finally fused their purposes back into a singular one.

“Take your son,” one of them said.

“He’s your son,” said the other.

This is the sad condition of audiences everywhere. They are a burden to the actors, the writers, the producers, the directors, and even the extras. Everything is done for their entertainment, but they are amorphous and without purpose. They have no identity. They don’t matter. And all this only encourages their thirst for drama, because only the drama they consume can fill the void of an empty home with meaning. I was and always have been the prototypical voyeur, burdening those whom I watch with my deep interest in their lives, existing but not really existing. A personified object to be bartered. If the walls could talk, their secrets would be worth millions. And only I would buy them.

“He just wants attention.” Finally, my mother’s voice became distinguishable. She sounded firm and intelligent, confident she knew the problem of my standing in the hall, watching blankly. “We’re never home because we have to appease your clients.”

Her voice sounded like Dorothy Zbornak’s the time she wanted to address President Bush on the nation’s education issues.

“Don’t give me that load of bull,” my father said, sneering at my mother. Already I was forgotten. “Your favorite part is appeasing my clients.”

And they went on like this for the rest of the night.

* * *

My mother woke me the next morning and asked if I wanted to walk to the library. This was a walk I loved taking. Rows of palm trees lined the sidewalk, slashing shadows in the sunlight and allowing me to pretend that I was trekking through a tropical jungle in search of some very important book. The sidewalk led to the bright green fields of the library’s park. I’d cross the monkey bars, run up the slide, and swing on the tire tied to an oak—imagined obstacles guarding the treasured sacred text. Inside the library, I’d spend hours collecting books on astrology, zoology, and ghosts. When my mother let me, I’d also check out anything written by Stephen King. In my mind, these books, left behind by ancient sages, were intended to be read only by me. The library was certainly an adventure my mother knew I loved.

However, on the way to the library, I had trouble entering my reverie. The sun was too close to its zenith, which was too high for the palm trees to cut any shadows into its light. There was no breeze to cool the steaming air rising from the street’s black pavement. An accident had backed up traffic alongside the sidewalk, which spoiled the air with heavy fumes. The constant chug of impatient engines clouded my ability to transform the world around me.

I walked next to my mother and couldn’t help but hold her hand. Stuck in the real world, I felt frightened. I considered asking if we could turn around, but when I opened my mouth to admit defeat, I instead asked, “Why does Dad think you don’t love him?”

My mother wore wide-rimmed sunglasses that shielded her entire face from the sun. They made her appear as though she could see for hundreds of miles. And at that moment her face was so serious, fixed so still out in front of us, that I thought maybe the glasses did enhance her vision. After a few seconds, she stopped walking and pulled me close to her.

“All this traffic is making it too hot,” she said. “Let’s go home. I’ll take you to the library tomorrow.”

We turned around and walked at a much faster pace. My fear grew, rising in my throat. I wondered what she saw: the cause of the accident, a dangerous confrontation between two drivers, a wild tiger that escaped my imaginary jungle and was now loose on the streets? There was no telling what she saw. I did not have a pair of glasses like the ones she had.

By the time we reached the safety of our house, I had begun wondering whether I had actually asked my original question. It would make sense that “Can we go home” and not “Why does Dad think you don’t love him” would spur a sudden retreat. But I couldn’t remember. My heart was still beating from running away from something. Just to clarify, I found my mother fanning herself in the patio and asked her the question again.

“It’s not even summer yet,” she said, staring into the pool with her glasses that probably allowed her to see each hydrogen atom. “Put on your bathing suit.”

Again, I felt uncertain as to what I had just asked. Somehow I couldn’t recall whether I said something about the pool. As we stepped inside the house, I asked her once more. She hushed me and said, “Let Dad sleep. He had a rough night.”

Even to me, at my age, the answer sounded obvious. Really, it wasn’t an answer at all. It was the basis for my question in the first place. I always detested season-ending cliffhangers and all their ambiguity as a cheap way to lure the audience.

A month later, my parents attended another party in the Keys, but this time left me overnight with Nana. Since my mother’s refusal to buy Nana any more birds, Nana had softened. She stopped wearing shoulder pads, for one. She appeared rounder now with sloping shoulders. The loss of sharp angles provided her with a gentleness that invited compassion rather than fear. After a few hours of silently drawing while Nana played the organ, she asked me what I was hiding. Confused, I scanned my sketches of various superheroes, all invented by me, to see if I left anything out. Once I realized she couldn’t see my sketches and therefore could not be asking about them, I looked up at her and some of the fear I felt towards her resurfaced.

“If you aren’t honest with yourself,” she said, “you’ll never transform into a nightingale. Deception is too heavy. Carry it and you’ll never fly.” She turned on her seat so that her back faced the piano keys, simple in their white and black pattern.

All I did was stare at her, twisting my pencil in my fingers.

“Let me make you a mamey shake.” She went into the kitchen and worked with the blender. The shrill of the grater sent waves throughout the apartment. The leaves on all her plants trembled.

After she returned, I tried explaining how I felt during my parents’ arguments: my heart beating faster the louder my father yelled, my head echoing with his anger even after they went to sleep, everything else about me invisible in their eyes blinded by passion. Nana shook her head in that disappointed way that let me know she was on my side. That is when she taught me my first magic trick.

The plan was hers. Instead of keeping me overnight, as my parents had instructed, Nana dropped me off at home a few hours before she believed my parents would return. I chose the largest butcher knife I could find in the kitchen and basted it with ketchup. Then, I sliced a tear in my t-shirt from my collar to the waist, reapplying ketchup as needed. I didn’t know what a suicide looked like. Really, I didn’t know how one committed suicide. So I stabbed everywhere. I jabbed the knife into my stomach. I slashed my thighs and arms. I sliced off my ear, then realized I lacked the necessary supplies to do such a thing so reattached it. I X-ed out my face, mistakenly making the cuts too straight, too deliberate. The steel blade of the knife sent cold shivers into my flesh. My body trembled from its touch. I imagined the knife not cutting, but sewing me together, as if I’d crumble into shards of glass without deeper seams. My pain was a paradox. It always has been. To my chagrin, my appearance began to resemble a sort of spoof on Carrie. I was too young to understand subtlety. My body became a pin-cushion, taking the wanton and gratuitous stabs. When I could no longer stand, I sprawled on the floor, swallowing the ketchup that dripped from my nose, ears, too perfect wounds.

By the time my parents arrived, they found me in a tomato-sauce massacre in the center of the beige carpeted living room.

“Real nice,” my father said, not a smidgen of horror in his voice. “Look what your son did to himself. And the carpet.”

I kept my eyes closed, hoping beyond hope that he would notice me differently. Walk in again a second time. See that his son committed suicide at a startlingly young age. Blame himself, blame my mother. Take notice. “I am also insecure,” my illusion was trying to say.

“Go wash up and get in bed,” my mother said. “We’ll go see a movie in the morning.” Her expectant, unsurprised voice sounded as though I simply had mud on my feet. Still, I accepted the bargain.

The trick wasn’t exactly successful. When Nana heard of the outcome of my first attempt at illusion, she laughed and said I had forgotten the most important ingredient.

What was that ingredient?

“Worcestershire,” she said, her false teeth rattling in her delight, “to darken the unnaturally bright ketchup.”

jt-torresJT Torres was born in Miami, Fla., where only legend told of winter. He imagined snow and mountains, the cloud-covered ground and steep blue peaks. He earned his MFA from Georgia College & State University. Four hundred miles north introduced him to flurries, which were colder than imagined–not the warm downy fluff that fell in his dreams. He bought his first coat. For a year, he lived in Colorado, where he taught composition at Front Range Community College. During that year, he had stories or essays published in The Rambler, Fiction Writer’s Review, Limestone, Brokenplate, Alimentum, Florida Review, Greensilk Journal, and A Capella Zoo. Winter had a positive effect, it seemed. But it wasn’t “winter” enough. (Did you know Boulder, CO averages 300 days of sunshine a year?) Now, JT lives in Alaska, teaching composition at University of Alaska-Anchorage. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s what he’s always wanted, right?

“Nana’s Guide to Illusion” is an excerpt from Torres’ forthcoming memoir-novella, part of the Weathered Edge series from VP&D House.

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