I lie awake in bed afraid of the darkness, knowing how ridiculous it is, but everything can exist in the unknown and my imagination runs wild. Having another warm body in a crib in the corner helps, but my half-sister Regan is a sleeping infant, hardly protection from the bogeyman. Just above me is the underside of the top bunk – ugly, brown particle board holding up the mattress and supported by wooden cross-beams. Sadie originally chose the bottom and waited for me to fall asleep every night before planting the soles of her feet under the board and kicking my mattress upwards about a foot, letting it drop back down with a thud. Mother would poke her head in the room to find us both faking sleep, but eventually Sadie’s birthright was revoked and we were switched permanently. I don’t like the bottom as much. Besides, it was only a matter of time before Sadie changed her tactic. Right when I would be about to doze off, she’d swing her torso over the side like a dead body with her eyes rolled back in her head and long hair dangling down to the floor. Finally Mother split up our bedtimes, allowing Sadie an extra half-hour of television in exchange for a truce.
The bunk beds were a treasure, built by my father after my mother left him. She took us two girls and moved briefly into a subsidized housing project. He showed up one day with a pile of wood and a toolbox in an attempt to make amends. She swears he never lived there with us but I have one very distinct memory of the four of us together. Sadie and I were playing hide-and-seek and he jumped up from the recliner to pull out the freestanding bar and helped me lay down on one of the shelves before pushing it back against the wall. He hopped back into the recliner before Sadie was done counting, and I laid in there for eternity listening while she ransacked the tiny apartment to no avail. Sadie pleaded with my father to tell her where I was. “I flushed her down the toilet,” he said. She continued searching and he continued giving her the same response until she finally believed that I was really gone. “No, Daddy, nooooo,” I heard her moan as she threw herself down on the floor in despair. I couldn’t have been more than three years old but I knew then that Sadie needed me as much as I needed her.
The manager of the apartment complex was my father’s father who lived in the adjacent building and threw tootsie rolls off his balcony to all of us on the playground every afternoon. A steep hill covered in thick green grass allowed us to, by securing our arms flat to our sides, roll a very long way downhill like a log. In the winter it became a dangerous sledding dare.
My only other memory in that apartment is a bothersome one when I woke up on my mother’s bed to the sound of them yelling at each other in another room. Only a small stream of light shone in from the hallway onto a painting of two children about my size sitting peacefully together, one kissing the other’s cheek. Even then the smallest amount of discord upset me greatly, and I found I could wish myself into the painting to tune out the anger. I am too sensitive, everyone says. And such a crybaby. From the time I left the womb I wanted to be held and only by my mother. In the very few photos of me as a baby where I’m not in her arms, I have a red nose and watery eyes, and they must have snapped it quickly before I wrinkled up into the crying face. Sadie refused to be held and was already running laps and breaking things before her first birthday, so my mother didn’t seem to mind my constant need for cuddling.
I can hear them in the living room watching Cheers, which Sadie will rub in my face tomorrow morning because she got to do something I didn’t. As soon as my mother’s silhouette appears in the doorway, my nighttime fears vanish. I love her face and her smile and the little gap in her front teeth. “Night night, shmoe bite,” Henry calls from the living room. Mother always waits five minutes for me to brush my teeth and turn the lights out before she comes and officially tucks me in. We say the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ prayer every night, and then she kisses my forehead and says I love you. Only then am I able to drift safely off to sleep.