"Evening Conversations"

The rumble and hum of a car crossing rocky earth and bouncing across potholes will always wake me from sleep. Even now that I’ve moved out of my childhood home those cars continue to jolt me awake, sending feelings of panic and excitement that have me jumping from my bed. As a child I would toss the covers aside, throw bare legs to the cold, and slide into slippers and the green bathrobe my mother insisted I wear. And then I would wait—silently sneak towards my slightly open door, stand in just a way so I did not disturb the small beam of light that was allowed to enter.

When I was feeling brave I hid myself at the top of the staircase, hugging my knees close to me as I tried not to breathe. It was a game I played—I held my breath from the time the car door slammed to the time the front door creaked open. It never took very long, and sometimes, when he was particularly fast, I held my breath while he locked the door, a click that always sounded so definite, so safe.

From the top of the staircase I could catch a glimpse of him, watch him remove his green striped scarf and the hat he always hung in the closet. He never looked up the staircase, though my heart always pounded as I wondered whether this was the night he would see me, would invite me down to sit on his knee by the fire. My mother always had his favorites ready for him—scotch in a crystal glass, sometimes cheese or crackers that caused a crunch I imagined I could hear. Their talk was quiet but comfortable, and the pieces I couldn’t hear I simply made up in my head:

“How was your day, dear?” My mother would ask, and I would settle down, knowing there was no chance I would be caught now. He had gone into the living room,had sat down in front of the fire.

“It was fine, but I missed you,” he responded quite often.

“Yes, we missed you too. We had a splendid dinner of lamb chops and peas.”

“I wish I could have been here,” he said with a smile.

Here was the deciding moment of the conversation, and sometimes I couldn’t help sliding down the first step to get closer, hidden by the wall that blocked the entryway from the living room. Would she pose a question to him, inviting him to speak at length about politics or the book he was reading? Or would she remain silent, simply enjoy his presence, the warmth of the fire, the quiet of the house? My mother often remained silent in this way, and when she did I would wait only a few moments before heading back to bed. On those nights, my memories of previous conversations were all I had to lull me to sleep.

“I’d like to go to the theatre this weekend,” she said after quiet seconds of agony. I slipped down the second step, my excitement forcing me closer in an effort to hear all that I could. Now that she had spoken he would begin, and it would be long minutes before he stopped—sometimes I imagined that he talked for hours.

I listened to his gentle voice as he remained cautiously quiet, for he knew we children were asleep upstairs. I listened while he told my mother about the decline of the American theatre and the decreased taste of American society. I listened while he declared it a dead art form—that the only pieces of value were coming out of England and France. I often imagined that I was her, sitting across from him, watching the expressions change on his face and the words come from his moving lips. I loved to fall asleep to these philosophical monologues, passionately expressed in whispers barely audible from the stairs.

Much later, my father would find me curled up on the carpeted staircase, would carry me back to my bed and tuck me in before moving to the room next door to check on Emma and Shelly. I always knew when my father was curious—when he wanted to ask how I got to the stairs—but it was easier for me to feign sleep. I couldn’t tell him that I woke up every night, that I snuck out of my bed and sometimes halfway down the stairs. I couldn’t tell him that I spent my nights eavesdropping when I was supposed to be asleep, well away from the grown up conversation. And so I never said a word. Originally I kept quiet because I worried I would be punished, but later, as I grew older, I came to feel that I was holding onto some sort of secret, that these evening conversations were private matters—that it wasn’t my right to give away the secret.

My father was a very sound sleeper. It was no wonder that he didn’t wake up to a strange car weaving its way down our driveway. No surprise that he didn’t hear the door creak, wasn’t there to see my mother greeting him with a kiss. And of course he wouldn’t be roused by their quiet talks with one another, talks which I could barely hear from the stairs. There was a whole hallway separating my father from those stairs, a closed door to block out the sound that might have traveled up, and a floor to separate my father from my mother and her guest.

“Why doesn’t mama go to bed with you?” I would ask as he pulled the covers up to my chin. I wanted to hear him give an explanation—wanted him to admit that he knew about this strange man who came into our house every night.

“She likes to stay up later than I do,” he answered simply. “She doesn’t get much time during the day to be by herself.”

“Doesn’t she get lonely?” I asked over and over, but my father would simply smile and turn off the lamp next to my bed.

“If she gets lonely she can come upstairs.”

The last image I had of my father was always of his hand, pulling my door closed just enough to let in a sharp line of light. Sometimes, while I watched this familiar image, I found myself promising that I wouldn’t leave my bed. I burrowed myself deep beneath the covers, even placed my pillow over my head to block out the noise of that car. But when the time came, when the unevenness of our driveway seemed to throw the sound into my room, all thoughts of my father were gone. He would forgive me this indulgence, would be glad I was having such fun. I would give him an extra long hug when he carried me back to my bed, I reasoned. Just as long as he didn’t take away my pleasure, this excitement that I thought about throughout the day.

I rushed out of my room in a perfected silence, hearing the moment of quiet that meant he had turned off the engine. Soon he would slam the car door and make his way inside. Quickly, I took my place at the top of the stairs and focused my breathing, for tonight I was prepared to challenge myself: tonight I would hold my breath even beyond the locking of the door, until that time when his hat and scarf were placed neatly inside our closet.