The air is heavy with the weight of what’s about to happen. I’m three. I’ll remember it forever and ever, until I’m thirty and old, the flourish of my mother’s paisley blue summer skirt, rising in the air around her calves.
“You wanted a dancer,” she says. “So here, I got you a dancer.”
My father sinks back into the dipped couch and presses a big hand to his face, covering his eyes.
“Well, look, I’m a dancer.” She lifts one leg and twirls on the ball of her foot.
I clap for her. She’s beautiful, twirling like that. My mother is a dream.
“Listen to me, Ava.” My father drops his hand into his lap and tugs at his oil-stained jeans.
It’s the first time I’ve heard my mother’s name, and I think, “Oh, of course that’s her name. It’s the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard, so of course it’s my mother’s name.”
“I’ll never have to listen to you again,” she says. My mother Ava, breathless but still twirling, pushing off from the flattened carpet to spin around again and again. I catch her smiling at me mid-spin, and I beam back at her, at Ava, my beautiful mother.
“I’m a banshee queen,” she says, pausing to bend forward and cough. She straightens, resumes her position, and throws herself around for another fantastic twirl.
“I’m a ban-chee queen,” I say, rising from the carpet, emulating her. I push off and wait for her to clap, but she doesn’t see. Her eyes are wild, trained only on my father.
“Look it,” I scream, twirling again. I fall, but it doesn’t hurt. Nothing hurts if no one is watching.
The twins cry in the back bedroom, Lily and Lea. They’ve got pretty names like my mother, like Ava, and I hate them for that. I’m the only one who hears them crying, so I cover my ears.
“It’s late,” says my father.
“You’re not getting me in bed with you again.” She’s stopped spinning and her face is red. She is still lovely, even with all that blood in her face. “Not again, not ever.”
He shrugs. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
I back into the armrest and push my thumb into my mouth.
“You’ll sleep outside,” she says. Her blue skirt lays flat against her legs. I wish she’d do more twirling.
He sighs the way he does when he’s had enough of me or when I interrupt the television when he’s watching it. “I’m not sleeping outside, Ava. Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s warm,” she says, “and I don’t want you here.”
My father pulls himself off the couch. He’s big. It’s an effort. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll stay at a motel.”
My mother leers at him and then at me, but only on accident because she would never leer at me on purpose. “You mean you’ll stay with all the other assholes down at the bar and leave me here to deal with this.”
“Yep,” he says, fishing in the back of his jeans for his keys and his wallet.
“You mean you’ll take the truck, and you mean that you’ll stay with some other woman and leave me with them.” She’s breathless again and looking at me. I look away. She pretends to check a watch she doesn’t wear. “Happy hour’s over, baby,” she says. “You gonna spend our paycheck, too?”
“It’s my paycheck,” he says, but it’s a grumble, and I know she didn’t hear it because she cups her hands around her ears.
I pull my thumb out of my mouth. “It’s his paycheck,” I say, helping her to hear.
She purses her lips at me, and I know that’s an accident, too. “That’s your kid right there,” she says.
I stand tall, beaming. I am my father’s daughter.
“She’s yours, too,” he says.
My mother snickers. It’s more of a laugh, though. She’s happy I’m her daughter.
“And those are your kids, too, in case you’re in the mood for forgetting.” He points behind the couch into the dark recess of the hallway.
She snickers again; only this time, she means it in a mean way because he’s talking about the twins and not me.
And because my father can’t find the truck keys, and because my mother won’t help him find them, the wine bottle comes down from the top of the fridge.
Quiet. Rustling in drawers.
He clears his throat. “You know I’d never hurt you, don’t you?”
“I get tired.”
“Me too,” he says.
“Sometimes I think about ending it.”
“You won’t, though.”
“I’d never cheat on you,” he says.
“I know. But I cheated on you.”
“I didn’t want to.”
“I hate you sometimes.”
“I hate you, too, Ava. But not all the time.”
“If I left, would you take them?”
“There’s three of them.”
“I know, would you take them?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’d have to think about it. It would be a bad thing not to.”
The wine bottle pops open. They laugh about how it’s gone to vinegar, and there’s a joke about women that my father makes that I don’t understand, but I laugh with them anyway, left alone in the dark living room. My little voice echoing off the walls. I don’t care that they’ve left me to sit in the living room. Lily and Lea haven’t stopped crying, but I don’t have to be in bed in the same room as them, so I sit and pull at a loose thread in the carpet, my favorite thread, the one I pull at all the time when we watch the television together (which isn’t all the time) and feel happy.
Nothing bad is going to happen. I fall asleep on the floor by the couch, hushed into dreams by their laughter. I’m happy to be there, happy to be alive. Nothing bad is going to happen.