He slid down and sat on the floor, pressing his ear to the wall. Defeated, discouraged, and diminished, he could feel his chest tighten and his stomach rise to his throat as he listened without making a sound. He closed his eyes and held his mouth shut with his fingers.
“…I can’t do this anymore…”
They yelled like this almost every night and, like every night, they locked themselves in their bedroom. They thought he couldn’t hear their voices if they were behind a closed door, but he heard. He heard every word spoken, every finger pointed, every tear shed. That which made no sound felt heavy in the air that seeped through the cracks. The door couldn’t shield him from the pain churning within. These walls couldn’t protect him from the anger.
“…I’ve had enough…”
There were flashes of good in his life – a peaceful dinner with his mom, a hug from his dad after school – but those moments were clouded and forced. The tension that lived with them never dissipated, no matter how intensely he tried to ignore it, but he clung to the good times with white-knuckled desperation.
“…why don’t you just go…”
They forgot his birthday this year. When he asked if he could have a party, he got sent to his room. He heard them yelling at each other from down the hall. His mom blamed his dad and his dad said that he never remembered his birthday was so why would she think he’d remember this year. He didn’t need a party; he wished he had never asked.
“…better off without you…”
He felt the coolness of the wall against his flushed cheek. He imagined the wall was made from snow and ice, like an igloo, and his parents were outside fighting a polar bear, their words like swords, slashing and stabbing. The bear would win, because his parents were fighting with nothing but words, and then there would be silence once again. He wouldn’t let his parents back into his igloo. He’d make them stay outside with each other until they promised to never fight again. He’d probably keep the bear to protect him from the shouting, in case it ever came back. But the walls weren’t made from ice and his parents’ words couldn’t be hushed by a bear.
“…don’t love you anymore…”
His heart hurt. It felt like it was slowly being shredded by tiny claws right inside his tightened chest. His heart was speaking to him through its pain. He had a friend whose parents don’t live together. They used to fight a lot, his friend told him, so then they stopped living in the same house. Now they only fight sometimes and it’s much better that way. His heart told him his parents were going to stop living together. His friend said that’s called divorce. His heart screamed obscenities at that word, divorce, but it also desperately wanted peace.
The yelling grew quiet and he heard his mom say that she was done. That meant the fighting was over. Jumping up, he ran back to his room. He climbed into bed and closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep. Someone came into the room and walked over to his bedside. His dad bent down close to him and whispered “Happy birthday, buddy.” He kissed his hair and stood up, took a few steps away and stopped. ”I’m sorry,” his dad said quietly and then shut the door.
He slept deeply on a tear-dampened pillow, dreaming of peaceful dinners, warm, welcome home embraces and a birthday cake with six candles on top.