In The Kitchen

It happened on a Saturday morning and began with the usual cacophony from the kitchen downstairs. My parents were in the throes of an argument. I was under house arrest, again, so I spent most of my time secluded upstairs in my bedroom. That meant that often, far too often, I would be within earshot of the arguments between my parents once the volume rose past civil. They were pretty good at raising decibels in a hurry.

Nine times out of ten, the arguments were on the topic of me, their delinquent and ever-defiant son. My father wanted to take my freedom away permanently by sending me away to military school, forcing me into some kind of reform program, or leaving me in juvenile hall for as long as the law allowed. As all mothers do, mine fiercely protected her cub. I sat and lamented, plotting how to more effectively conceal my illegal activities so I didn’t end up in the clutches of the law again.

My father would chastise my mother, blaming her for the disobedience of my sister and me. Their children became her children, which in turn became her problem, since she didn’t want to abide by his gritty version of reform. But he would be damned if those ungrateful offspring of hers would jeopardize his freedom or the integrity of his household. They argued in the kitchen, always in the kitchen, and I could hear every word. My headboard leaned against the hallway wall. The words would thunder from the kitchen and festoon the entire house. As I leaned against the headboard,

I could feel his malignant anger swelling, and with it, my blood boiled. Fifteen years old and I sat there brooding like a bitter drunk in the corner of a shanty bar.

My mother had always been a strong woman, a leader, and never shy to give her opinion. My father would yell, and my mother would do her best to retort with confidence in her voice. This particular argument was different, however. In this dispute, I heard my mother’s voice change by an octave. Like most arguments, there comes a point where the power dynamic shifts as one party feels victory slipping away. Pitch, cadence, and intonation convey power and threats in ways words never can. I didn’t catch what he said, but suddenly, she was pleading.

“Please. Please don’t do that!” she implored.

A cascade of dishes fell to the floor. I could hear glasses shattering on walls.

“I won’t live like this! You can do whatever you want, but I will take care of myself. He won’t have that shit in this house so I can go to jail for him!” my father shouted.

I scurried downstairs to witness the commotion firsthand. As I turned the corner to look into the kitchen, my mother was anticipating my arrival and staring in my direction. She had both palms to her cheeks in an over-exaggerated, confused manner. She was scared, and her wide eyes held me frozen. When my mother was uncomfortable, scared, or caught in a lie, she would use the same defensive maneuver to deflect attention. She acted dumb and confused, as if an event completely out of the grasp of known reality had occurred, and she just witnessed the impossible. She stood just in front of the kitchen counter, barely out of range of the flying dishes, looking bewildered.

My father was ducked behind the counter, the small divider between kitchen and hallway, with his head buried in the lower cabinet. He continued to take dishes out and throw them haphazardly behind him, the way a dog throws dirt when digging a hole.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

My father stopped for a moment and pulled his head out from the crevice to glare at me with toxic radiation.

“I’m looking for your drugs!” Conviction and enmity heavy in his words.

“In the kitchen? With the dishes?” I scoffed.

The hubris of a teenager is always thickest when he thinks his opponent exemplifies stupidity. I thought the idea of hiding drugs in the kitchen seemed obviously foolhardy, so I took the opportunity to mock my father with a snide undertone and a whimsical grin.  It only served to enrage him further. I had seen those eyes before. Deeply focused into the apex of my soul, he glared at me with the rage of countless generations of angry, domineering men accustomed to total control of their households.

Seeing the tension between us, my mother stepped in and urged me back to my room. Standing there only served to provoke my father further, and, by Croatian standards, he had every right to tear the entire house apart if he deemed it necessary. I was comfortable in my small victory, knowing he would find nothing. Fresh off of my arrest, well-versed in the routine of probation, and serving house arrest again, I chose to clear my room of the usual paraphernalia, but even that knowledge wasn’t my ace. The kicker, in my opinion, was his obvious idiocy and, by default, my consequent cleverness. My eyes mocked him loudly. He was looking in all the wrong places and making a fool of himself in the process.

Back upstairs in my room, I blasted victory music, Cypress Hill’s first album. I could still hear the peaks of argument bobbing over the music, the way you might catch glimpses of the shoreline when treading water out at sea. I thought about my life and was pleased, at least, to see clearly divided sides. My father was obviously the enemy, and I, the noble, persecuted hero. The police and court system served as his standing army, willing to wage unholy crusades on those deemed sinners. My mother was caught in the middle, unsure how to mediate peace, and I was the valiant Robin Hood, confident of a cause but never being able to articulate it.

The shouting suddenly stopped. I turned the music off but still heard nothing. It was an eerie silence; my heart picking up tempo as my mind raced through possibilities. I opened the door and stuck my head out. It was faint, and I could barely pick it up, but the muffled sound was unmistakable. My mother was crying, and I could hear the whimpers escaping through her attempts at concealment. I leapt down the stairs and into the kitchen hall. My father was now in front of the master bedroom door, adjacent to the dining room, ten feet in front of me. To my right, my mother stood in the same place I had left her, in the kitchen, broken dishes all around her feet. She was holding her mouth with both hands and crying. I remembered the feeling and look of dismay in her eyes because it was the same I had elicited from her each time she picked me up at juvenile hall. She had been betrayed by those she loved most, not by our actions, but by our blatant disregard of her heart.

By the time I turned back to look at my father, he was already behind the bedroom door. Only his head stuck out around the edge to watch for danger. Fury rose from my belly and infected my mind in a flash. I was diseased. I didn’t know whether my father had hit her in reaction to her defiance, in the heat of argument, or if he had done it as a secondhand retribution for my actions. The moment I took a step in his direction, the bedroom door locked shut, and my mother pleaded and shouted my name. She was wailing, and her words became unclear through the gargle of tears and panic.

Demands for battle and curses at God permeated through the door as my shoulder rammed into the barrier between my father and me. I pounded, and I rammed with full fury. My mother was quickly at my side pleading, crying, and dying inside.

My father yelled from inside the room. “Stay away from me! Don’t come in here!”

“Please, Anto, stop it. You will go to jail, or he will kill you,“ my mother begged.

The wood around the lock crackled as it began to give way to my ramrod. Adrenaline was thundering through my veins. Sound became white noise, sight became monochrome, and the only sensory perception left was an undefined awareness: The gravity of rage. In the throes of my insanity, a gentle hand grabbed my arm. It squeezed with compassion and mercy. She didn’t say a word, but her touch conveyed everything.

As my senses came back online, my mother pulled me away with the assurance of her voice and a flood of tears. It wasn’t a dramatically violent scene, her physically wrenching me away, but rather a somber one, with my submission coming more voluntarily than I would have cared to admit. Deep down, I didn’t want to fight my dad; I just wanted him to go away. My mother calmed me down and reminded me of my recent troubles, my current stint on house arrest, and the likelihood of another arrest should any fighting break out in the house. Her tone was soothing, and her logic sound, so I took the opportunity to recuse myself from the case of avenging her abuse.

My mother’s bottom lip had a small swell to it, slightly off center, and she focused on it by poking her tongue at the sore. I knew it wasn’t anything serious, and I chose to stay quiet and simply console. Even as a 15-year-old, I knew the implications of that look in her eyes. The tough character of my mother could have endured a dozen busted lips, and a black eye to boot, but her tender heart couldn’t absorb the weight of such betrayal. After 15 minutes of calm, she finally said something.

“I’m going to the doctor to get this checked out. Just to be sure. Can you please promise me you’ll stay in your room if I leave?”

I agreed.

As I stood in the kitchen, staring out the window, watching her pull out of the driveway, torrents of emotion flooded my heart: relief, anger, confusion, loss, and something somber lurking deep in my belly. Would this be enough for my mother to leave him? Would we be forced to run from our home and flee from my father? One thing was sure: I was officially part of a dysfunctional family now.

Up to that point, my rebellious nature had been something of a mystery to most outsiders. School officials, probation officers, and community parents all scratched their heads at my blatant disregard for rule and law. I was from a nice home, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, yet the chip on my shoulder would lead people to believe I was raised with something to prove. But why? What was I trying to prove? And why did I so desperately cling to the outlaw persona behind which I was hiding?

Nobody understood the feelings that brewed inside me as a child, and I had no proof to present in my defense. So my dad was overly authoritative and controlling in the household; whose dad wasn’t? Especially dads that were within the Croatian community or any old-world immigrant culture. My dad was no different from the majority of stubborn men who hid their insecurity with dominance and assertive control. I couldn’t explain the fear and isolation I felt because I didn’t feel justified by my mild level of suffering. Surely there are more substantial reasons in the world to claim victimization. My father didn’t throw a baseball with me, boohoo, and he had a temper that caused me to walk on eggshells, big deal. So what if I felt I missed out on the basics of innocent childhood because my father simply didn’t know how to engage in a comforting, loving manner? There are millions of children more deserving of a sympathetic ear than I. But now, things were different. The truth would be known, and I would be vindicated.

The anger was far in the background, but I tried to focus on it because I assumed it to be the appropriate response in this situation. Tough guys get angry, and I would rather pretend to be holding up the vale than admit the deep hollow I felt in my heart. I lost something dearly important that day, and I would spend the next 20 years trying to find it.

The truth was I knew exactly what I was doing from the start. When I was ten years old, I began playing the game: I started lying deliberately. I stole money from my parents so I could buy candy and play video games, and I knew I could get away with it. The lies grew as my appetite for instant gratification increased, so by the time I was 13, I was arrested for possession of marijuana at school. The tension in my house became sinister. I kept lying and manipulating my mother to stand in the way of my father.

Now, sitting back in my silent room, it was the first time our house had been void of sound in years. Since my recent arrest, the house had become angry with noise, even if no words were spoken. Our house had squeaky floors and hollow walls, so I could always tell where my parents were and what kind of mood they were in. It was the footsteps that caught my attention most, always fearing the impending march of authority. Many times I would sit, listening to my parent’s conversations for hours; their voices easily carrying from the kitchen, up the stairs, and through my closed door. Discussions about me would end in one of two ways: either my father would yell in anger and berate my mother for her part in the civil collapse of his life, or a quiet tone would precede my mother’s footsteps as she climbed the stairs up to my room, demanding my attendance at the kitchen table for discussion. Yes, it was the footsteps I feared most.

Discussions at the kitchen table never ended well for me, as my grasps at freedom always slipped just a bit further out of reach. I usually sat silent, listening to the lecture and punishment, with as little emotion as possible. When I did speak, I only offered apologies and lies in order to escape the interrogation as quickly as possible. I told them what I knew they wanted to hear, with no real intention of reform. I never once truly listened to what they had to say.

My father always sat in silence, smoking a cigarette, staring off into the abyss of his mind. If it were up to him, I would be shipped off to hard labor somewhere or kicked out of the house, forced to learn the realities of life through difficulty. But he never managed to get his way, and my mother always succeeded in saving her son with one more opportunity at redemption. My father never said a word during those talks at the kitchen table, but he knew every sentence I offered was a lie. He absorbed everything I said without ever looking at me and offered no additional commentary when my mother asked his opinion. These kitchen-table lectures had become a frequent occurrence over the past few years, ever since I began immersing myself into the derelict lifestyle. Anger boiled in my father and resentment brewed in me, but now, sitting still in my silent room, I felt the first moments of relief in years.

An hour or so later, I heard the doorbell ring. I waited for the sound of footsteps to indicate my father was going to answer the door, but I heard none. The doorbell rang again. I reached the bottom step, just in time to see my father heading back toward the same door to his bedroom he had hidden behind a short while earlier. We locked eyes just before he shut the door. As I approached the front door, I heard chatter outside, a combination of a deep male voice and a squeaky feminine sound funneled by something I couldn’t quite make out.

Not bothering to look through the peephole, I opened the door to see a police officer standing a few feet back. My heart rate doubled by the time I exhaled. He was big, I remember thinking, standing higher than I was even though our entryway allotted me an additional six inches to his lowered position. His hair was short on top but full, black and combed back to produce a slight wave in the hairline. He was powerful, Latino, and his eyes were stern and dark. His jaw had muscle tone and his stare commanded authority.

He wore his uniform snugly, probably a size too small. The veins on his biceps were noticeable, crawling up under his short sleeves like worms. My focal point shifted to his silver name tag, and I saw the one name every delinquent in my neighborhood feared most: LOPEZ.

Officer Lopez had arrested nearly every single one of my friends at least once. The mere mention of his name incited fear within any group of stoners, skaters, taggers, or truants. Having only a few arrests under my belt, I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting the fabled arch-nemesis, but I knew the stories well enough.

“Is your father home?” Lopez asked.

“Uuhhhhh,” was the only sound I could manage to let out.

“Are you Anto?”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“I’ve heard about you. We haven’t met yet. I’m Officer Lopez.”

I turned my head back and shouted, “Dad! It’s for you.”

My dad came around the corner, into the hallway, ten feet back from the front door, and looked at the officer standing outside. My father never once looked at me.

“Mr. Lajalick, please step outside here for me.”

Normally my father would take the opportunity to correct the mispronunciation of our last name, but that day he said nothing, and his eyes were wide. He moved with small steps, almost a shuffle, toward the door. The officer spoke into the radio clipped to the shoulder loop on his uniform.

“10-4. Suspect at residence.”

It was at that moment I realized the officer wasn’t there for me; he came to arrest my father. Lopez told me to stay in the house as he took my father toward the police cruiser parked at the curb in front of my house. As I stood in the doorway, I looked out to see a second officer waiting near the cruiser and my mother’s car pulling around into the driveway. Dusk was approaching, and in the background, across the street, I could see our neighbors standing in front of their porch light, just outside their door. The light was at their backs, faces shadowed, but I could feel the condemnation of rumor being whispered as the heads leaned toward each other.

My mother was talking with the second officer when Lopez led my father toward the two to join the conversation. I couldn’t make out the words, but I could see the typical mannerisms. My mother held most of the conversation in her usual animated style while my father stood silent and still. When Lopez turned my father around and began handcuffing him, my mother’s voice rose in volume to desperation. The only word I heard was “please.”

Turned back around and now handcuffed, my father stared at the officer blankly as Lopez began reading the Miranda Rights. The second officer escorted my mother back toward me. She was distraught, but she seemed much more lucid than earlier when she left for the hospital. In the face of adversity or challenge, my mother could always shift gears into business mode. She was explaining to the officer the unnecessary nature of my father’s arrest and very succinctly outlined justification for his release, but to no avail. The cruiser, with my father in it, pulled away as I shut the front door.

“What happened?” I asked my mother.

By law, doctors in California are required to report cases of domestic violence. My mother was not aware of such facts. She had gone to the clinic to have her lip looked at and, through the normal course of conversation with her doctor, it was mentioned that the swelling was inflicted during a domestic argument. The doctor calmly left the room, called the police, and came back to finish the rest of his medical examination without saying a word. The police were waiting for her outside when she left and, in her words, forced her to report the crime.

I didn’t know how to react when my mother told me what had happened, but inside, I felt a growing sense of victory. My father was going to jail, and I was finally free from the reign of the evil king. At that moment, I thought my father would never come back. I thought this event would create enough momentum for my mother to push for divorce and my father never to return. I felt vindicated. All the anger, suspicion, fear, trepidation, and guilt I had lived with for years would now be gone, and I would finally get a chance to live what I considered to be a normal life. My mother was strong enough to stand on her own without a husband. I had my revenge. Things were going to change.

In the weeks that followed, my mother and I spoke often and she confided in me the long hidden truths of her marriage. This event was not the first of its kind, just the first during my conscience memory. The stories were both unbelievable and perfectly predictable.

I felt an amazing sense of connection with my mother after hearing those stories in the weeks that followed my father’s arrest. We spent hours talking, and I felt the creep of maturity crawling up my spine as I realized the severity of the situation. My father had been released from jail a week after his arrest but was not allowed to come back home due to the mandatory restraining order placed on domestic abusers by the state. My mother openly discussed the possibility of divorce with me and the realities of that decision should it come. Things would get ugly, and we would have to settle in for tough times, requiring a great deal of sacrifice and responsibility on my part.

The ask wasn’t anything one imagines in such a difficult situation. It wasn’t like my mother was dependent on my father for income. She was a powerhouse in the corporate world, and she could easily provide on her own, so my required contribution would not be    a financial one. Her ask, directly and frankly, was that I knocked off all the shit I was doing. The attitude, the arrest, the disobedience, the drugs––they all had to go if we were going to make it.

The house was calm and quiet, peaceful, accepting and friendly, comforting, warm and safe. I had never felt this way about my home, ever. I had never wanted to be home before. We talked a lot in the first few weeks, but as time went by, the conversations be-came less frequent. There was only so much detail one could offer before repetition invited dullness. And so, as with many climactic moments in life, much of the awe faded and people returned to routine. Two months passed.

One day I came home from skateboarding to see two cars parked in front of our house that I recognized immediately. The first car I identified as belonging to our close friends, a Croatian family we often had over for the long, loud, drawn-out dinners that turn into political conversations. The other car set off alarm bells, jump-started my heart, and I quickly felt the anger rising from my gut. My father was home.

I stormed into the house, announcing myself as I entered the front door more as a warning shot than a courteous declaration. Immediately, I could smell the cigarettes. I turned the corner toward the dining room to see our family friend, Miro, standing near the table with his typical friendly smile.

“Hii guy. Vat’s up?” Miro rolled off in a thick Croatian accent. The H was too heavy, and the smile far too manufactured, but he was trying his best to convey a sense of calm.

I took another step and saw my mother sitting at the kitchen table with folders and documents scattered in front of her.  On  the table was a plate of homemade apple strudel with a silver serving fork leaning on the edge, a glass bowl of shelled hazelnuts with silver cracker on top, a small saucer with sugar cubes pyramided neatly, a milk serving cup, and three porcelain coffee cups with bits of grounds at the bottom. The dishes all matched in white china base with black and gold trim; the set reserved for formal occasions.

Why is there such a sense of civility being displayed here? I thought to myself.

My mother looked at me and played dumb, using the masterful effect of one inorganic word: “Hi.”

I had seen that look on her just a couple months prior, in the kitchen hallway where I now stood, with broken dishes surrounding her feet. It’s the look of a proud woman trying to hide a sad truth from an angry son. She quickly looked away from me and began shuffling papers.

To her right, farthest around the corner from my initial line of sight, near his usual place at the head of the table, stood my father. His right arm was hinged at thirty degrees as he held a cigarette close to his face. His left arm was limp, unthreatening by his side, and his stance was meek, the way an intellectual might stand unconcerned with posture or poise.

“Hii. Hhowarr yu?” my father asked with slow, heavy, Slavic words.

All I felt was betrayal. My mother had betrayed me, and I caught them in the act of reconciliation. My father should have said more, but he didn’t know how. He was raised in a place void of expressed emotion, so he, too, learned to internalize anything resembling sorrow or pain. It was awkward. I didn’t know what to say. Standing there, I felt a terrible sense of loneliness wash over me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

My mother jumped in and started flooding the room with vague terms and loose concepts. My heart sank further. At that moment, my home became the house of old, and I wanted to run away as far as possible. I walked away from the table while my mother was still spewing lies, grabbed my skateboard, and ejected myself from the house.

I didn’t know where to go but, more importantly, I didn’t know what I was going to do now in the larger sense. Before that fateful day, I had direction, purpose, and meaning. I was a broken child ready to help fix a broken home with my broken mother. Now, I was free falling with no bearing on up, forward, or safe. All I knew for sure was the way down.

I made it as far as 7-Eleven, a mere five minutes from my house, and bought junk food, stole a pack of cigarettes, and shoulder-tapped for beer. Behind 7-Eleven was a small plot of land, a groundwater recharge lake and railroad tracks, where I learned about many truths of life. It was where I first got high, and the place I had my first real fight. Sitting in the back, hidden by the cover of bushes, I looked out across the water and brooded over what had just happened at home. My father was back, or he would be soon, and that left emptiness and resentment in my heart. A few months ago, I felt vindicated because the world would now have proof of what I knew all along: my father was cruel, and my family was a sham.

Although the arrest and pending divorce would secure our label as a broken family, I felt confident in our ability to rebound and, more importantly, in my ability to care. But now, with my corrupted father being reinstated as the head of the household, the title of broken family seemed something to strive for, something sane compared to the charade being perpetuated. I wasn’t broken anymore; I was completely shattered.

When I came home later that night, I asked my mom to explain what was happening. She never came out and admitted she was allowing him back into our lives, choosing instead only to mention they were discussing the details of the restraining order. It was never mentioned again. The restraining order was dropped, divorce talk faded away, and within a few weeks, things were back to old.

My father moved back in and for a while, the energy was different in the house. His tone was soft, his eyes gentle, and he made an effort either to stay out of my way or say little to me when we did cross paths. But it was the dinners I remember most.

My mother was vice-president of a large corporation, but she still managed to come home nearly every night and cook dinner. I was not impressed by her determination to feed her family. Instead, I was astounded by her uncanny ability to step right back into the groove and pretend nothing had ever transpired. We never spoke about what had happened, neither separately nor as a family. Instead, my mother served dinner, and we ate in silence or with the malaise of small talk to cover our emotions.

The scene was always a derivation of a flashback to the origin for me. I was five years old, and we were living in Switzerland at the time. It was dinnertime, and my mother hurried in the door, finally home from a long day at the office. She quickly flung her purse and coat on the sofa and began rustling in the kitchen. The house smelled of cigarette smoke, and I was playing on the carpet, hiding action figures behind the furniture, while my father was in his office.

Dinner was ready, and my mom made her announcement. I ran into the kitchen and hopped up in my chair. As she was serving me, my father walked in, and there was a presence about him. No words were exchanged, but none were needed. Anger fumed from his essence and covered every inch of the kitchen. The anger was from an old world, from a generation not accustomed to female disobedience. I have seen this old world, once, when driving by a city named Zenica, deep in the mountains of Bosnia, where the sky is dark for miles around. At the center lies an old steel mill, built during the height of the communist regime and left unchanged for 50 years. Soot is continually thrown from the central smokestack and covers the people in a haze, bleak and heavy. My father’s anger was like that.

His cigarette burned in an ashtray on the kitchen table as he sat and brooded, still as a leopard stalking in high grass, with only his eyes following his prey. My mother shuffled back and forth from stove to seat, constantly in flux and only managing to consume food in quick, hurried mouthfuls. Something had happened, something was not done according to plan, and my father was trying to force her confession with his silence. A plate of spaghetti was left untouched in front of him, and a vein on his left temple, the color of deep ocean death, swelled as if looking to breech. He fired a verbal jab, a question of foment, and she slipped with sass. Like a horse before an earthquake, I had felt it coming for some time now. The moment before the fury is the center of all creation; everything stands still and no sounds are heard. Then, with the immediacy of waking from a dream, sound is blaring and everyone is voluble. As he rose suddenly, the chair fell behind him, and he grabbed his plate of food and sent it flying across the room. His hand was stern, with one finger pointed sharply out, as he delivered a trembling speech with the conviction and fervor of the great dictators of the twentieth century. I began crying and pissed myself. My mother took me in her arms and began bouncing me, trying to comfort me, while the two of them continued shouting, and I wailed in the middle. When it was done, I was placed back in my chair and told to eat. Eat my boy; all is well.

I remember wondering how many more versions of that same looping movie I would have to sit through during the course of my lifetime. My mother buried the truth, and I hid my emotions, under mounds of food while I uncomfortably retreated to the corners of my mind. It was always the kitchen table that brought events to their confusing conclusion. I ate with silence, or I ate with lies, all the while stuffing the festering emotions further down into my viscera with each bite.

Anto LjoljicComment