Where His Eyes Should Have Been White, They Were Red
Serena didn’t expect to go home once, nonetheless twice, in the same year. More so, she didn’t expect her mother to be the reason for both visits.
The four-hour drive to Ithaca, calming while nerve-wracking, had Serena wanting to turn back, away from her home and towards the hustle and bustle of lower Manhattan. She had chosen her school in the city for a reason, a place void of memories of her upbringing. And, for the past three years, she had friends there, people who paid attention to her, who made her feel important.
The black oaks, high and sturdy, had matured since her last visit, her mother’s funeral. Branches now canopied the road to her parents’ house—more appropriately, father’s house—and the lawns of an unfortunate few began to brown. Two months made a difference.
Serena pulled up to the home covered in tan cement siding and windows lined with red shutters. The maple in front had been chopped, leaving the home bare and exposed, unfamiliar even. She loved that tree. It had been there her entire life, resilient throughout the seasons. A man, tall and lanky, with the stomach of a woman in her third trimester, stood in the driveway. He waved her to the spot beside his Corolla, practically skipping in place. Time, as short as it was, pulled and stole any youth he had left. However, it did not steal the small smile on her father’s face.
He opened her door and, before she could fully stand, he wrapped her in a hug. “Serena.” The height difference made him tower over her.
“Daddy,” Serena said, her voice muffled by his cotton shirt. The smell of cologne mixed with his summer sweat ran through her, filling her, a fresh air she didn’t know she needed. Her nerves tucked away for a moment, she closed her eyes, face snug against his chest.
Releasing her, he rushed to grab her suitcases from the trunk as if the moment couldn’t be wasted with such an incidental task. He dragged the suitcases and led her to the front door. The footpath, cement and plain, needed a woman’s touch. In fact, the entire home did. There hadn’t been such a woman in thirteen years and it was unlikely there would ever be. Serena inched to the front door and braced herself for what, or more accurately, who would show her face. Her mother, having committed suicide in the house, should have terrified her more than running into her sister. Then again, Nyssa was unpredictable, and her mother, well, dead. Her father ran up the steps to drop off her suitcases, his legs like twigs on strings, ready to snap at one false step.
Inside, the sweet smells of olive oil and fat greeted Serena instead of her older sister. Had Nyssa gotten her own car? It would have explained why the Corolla sat in the driveway. Serena walked past the staircase to the kitchen, where the smells consumed her. Waiting for her on the stove were sweet potatoes, steak, and plantains, all crisped in the way she liked them, an amount more than they could eat alone.
“Daddy,” she said when he came running back down the stairs. “You didn’t have to cook all this.”
He panted from his exercise. “Of course I did. My daughter is home.” He said it like it was the Scripture, something he had read the Sunday before. And for that, she couldn’t refuse the serving for two he crammed on her plate.
The dining room was saved for special occasions, occasions that never came, but this afternoon they sat across from each other at the eight-seater mahogany table. The room, a nook in the corner of the home, had not been updated in years with a fake plant propped on an end table and a painting from the local home goods store hung on a wall. Pressed against the wall behind her father, a wood and glass china cabinet stored life milestones from baptism to graduation photos. Centered on the bottom shelf, next to the chinaware, a picture of her mother, in happier times.
Nyssa not around, Serena wanted to ask where she had gone. That was the way about their family, learning about the other from another. Instead, she dug through her sweet potato, hoping her father would bring Nyssa up. Her father, in his polo shirt unbuttoned enough to reveal the gray hairs stuck to his dark skin, stabbed at his food, clearly hungry. A stage of grief, Serena was sure.
“How is school?” he asked. He forked a piece of steak. The steak tough, he chewed what he could and swallowed the rest.
“Daddy, the semester’s over. It’s summer remember?”
“I know. How was school I mean?” A poor and forgetful listener, he did that a lot. This flaw annoyed both Serena and Nyssa, a rare shared trait. But now, in the quiet of their home and the six empty chairs around them, his forgetfulness was a comforting distraction.
“It was good,” she said, tucking a curl behind her ear.
Wrinkles hijacked his forehead and cheeks in new places. Like the trees, he had aged, but unlike them, he looked feeble and tired. Mid-chew, his eyes met hers. “What are your plans for the summer?”
“I’ve already applied to some jobs. Waiting to hear back.” Serena hated having to find a job. She already had a job, a summer internship at The Museum of Modern Art, but after seeing her father at the funeral, widowed and heartbroken, she couldn’t leave him alone. And although her father was not only her burden to bear, she knew her sister wouldn’t help. As usual, Serena had to be the good daughter, the one that forfeited opportunities so that her sister could travel or do whatever Nyssa did on a high school diploma. She needed to set her sister straight, something she had never done before. She wouldn’t sacrifice another good thing. If Nyssa planned to live there, she needed to do right by their father. That meant no selfishness or attitude. It meant sticking around.
Then tired of waiting for an organic segue, Serena asked, “Where’s Nyssa?”
Her father wiped his mouth with a napkin and shook his head. “I don’t know. The last I heard she was somewhere south on vacation.” His eyes stuck to his plate.
Though relieved, Serena was more annoyed. Vacation for what? Regardless of their feelings toward their mother, Serena understood that their father had lost his wife and it was not the time to leave him alone with his thoughts, in this house. Maybe later she would call Nyssa and give her a piece of her mind. Just maybe.
Long before the suicide, her father slept in the guest room beside her room, but now, preparing for bed, he was also brushing his teeth in her bathroom.
“Daddy, you have your own bathroom,” Serena said as she entered her and Nyssa’s Jack and Jill bathroom. The house bought when she was a toddler, when they were whole, or at least Serena remembered them as such, her parents must have thought the shared bathroom was cute. In reality, it was Pandora’s box, a place where an unflushed toilet or missing hairbrush led to yelling, Nyssa’s yelling.
“I know. Your mother’s stuff is still in there and I’ve grown used to this one,” he said, tone apologetic.
“Daddy, you haven’t cleaned out her room?”
He shook his head.
“Why couldn’t Nyssa?”
“Your sister left right after the funeral.”
That was Nyssa. The last time Serena had seen or spoken to her was at the funeral where Nyssa wasn’t emotional or all that present. Then again, others could have said the same about Serena. From the outside looking in, they were terrible daughters having just lost their mother and not one tear shed.
Serena shot him a small smile. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Thank you Sesa,” he said, using her nickname, one that came out when he was pleased.
The next morning, Serena began on her mother’s memory. Opening the frosted French doors with a box of garbage bags in hand, she faced her mother’s room. The large room untouched, the sheets were still bunched where the paramedics carried her out; an empty mug sat on the bedside along with her antidepressants and other medications; and clothes, dirty and clean, were strewn in a corner of the room. The room hadn’t seen light in months. The blinds drawn presumably even before her death. And the room smelled old like an attic, stuffy and filled with dead air, air that even the most forgiving house plant would have struggled to survive in. The adjoining bathroom was no better. Serena headed for the clothes when the house phone rang.
Against her pleas not to, her father had left to tend to her car, first for an oil change and then a wash. Home alone, Serena ran downstairs. She almost reached the phone perched on the kitchen counter when the voice mailbox answered. It began:
“Uh . . . dad. I’m coming home tonight. I know you don’t think it’s a good idea, but I’m running out of money and you haven’t been sending enough. My bus gets there around five.” The call ended with a hard click.
Her father had spoken of Nyssa as if he didn’t know her whereabouts. Nyssa’s voicemail hinted otherwise. When he returned home, the car clean and Chinese food from Serena’s favorite take-out place in hand, Serena dug deeper.
“Daddy, Nyssa called saying she’s coming home tonight.” She eyed him. “I thought you said you didn’t know where she is.”
His eyes wide, he swallowed hard, his faint Adam’s apple bopping up and back down. “What did she say?”
Serena told him and his eyebrows, pushed center, produced deep wrinkles. He shuffled on the balls of his feet and his eyes avoided Serena’s, the way they did with her mother when she was in one of her moods, the moods that sent her down a week-long bed rest. “I sent her money once somewhere in Pennsylvania. But I haven’t spoken to her.”
From the steadiness in his voice, he was lying. She wanted to push further, to question his darting eyes and quivering hands, but she didn’t care to know what mess Nyssa set for herself. Her energy needed to be spent elsewhere. She needed to prepare to see her sister, and by prepare, that meant busy herself.
Five years older, Nyssa didn’t often spend time around Selena. In their early years that was more of their mother’s fault; the later years was out of habit. Tonight, after a passing hello in the hallway, Serena and Nyssa kept their distance. Their father didn’t force a dialogue either. The wallflower of the family and rarely home when they were younger, having to work long hours to make one income support a household of four, he avoided conflict.
Serena’s distance was spent in her mother’s room. The day lost stuffing garbage bags with clothes, shoes, and knick-knacks, only the unmade bed and a few photo albums remained. She didn’t bother to ask if anyone wanted her to keep anything because she knew the answer, but the albums, loaded with photos of her mother at Julliard and her early days at The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, would have no home at Goodwill. She couldn’t throw them away either, these albums her mother frequently showed her at bedtime in place of a book. So, she stacked them in a corner.
She ripped the sheets off the bed and found a black moleskin notebook wedged between the bedpost and wall. The hardcover, thick and warm, tickled as her fingers grazed the textured finish. She slid the elastic band loose and flipped the notebook open when, at the back, a photograph slipped out. Though old and faded, the photograph was clean and crisp, unscathed by time. Taken in what looked to be a hotel, sat her mother on the floor with Serena between her legs. Above them, her father sat on the bed, his legs dangling beside her mother, and on his shoulders sat a bright-faced Nyssa with her arms wrapped around his neck. No older than three in the photo, Serena wished she remembered that day. Her mother was not only younger, but with a soft smile on her face, beautiful, gentle, even approachable.
She turned the notebook to its first page dated February 4, two months before her mother’s suicide.
Dear Diary (if this can be called such),
Today was a good day. When Robert went to work, I took a walk. It was cold but the fresh air felt nice. My old therapist used to say writing is a good thing. According to her, it unburdens the soul. She was a bit too
hippie for me but I knew what she meant.
I saw Ny in the kitchen tonight. I almost said something to her. She looked nice. She must have a boyfriend. Robert hasn’t spoken to me much lately. He has given up on me. I know it.
I don’t know how good I’ll be at keeping up with this, but I’ll try.
Only a quarter of the notebook filled, Serena read through it in a hunger, finished in one hour’s time. Positive and hopeful, her mother wrote a week up to her death. Most frustrating, she never mentioned harming herself or suicide.
Serena sat the notebook next to her. Her temples thumped and hands shook. She wanted to stomp the notebook out of existence, only after ripping out each page and flushing it down the toilet. Instead, she stared up at the popcorn ceiling and blinked away her anger.
Curled up on a lawn chair in the yard, Nyssa smoked. The porch lights haloed above her. Serena waited until the cigarette burned halfway before pushing open the sliding door. With her honey blonde pixie cut and dull cocoa skin, Nyssa was unrecognizable. Serena hadn’t forgotten to tell Nyssa off for leaving their father. The newly-discovered journal also had a hand in why Serena dared to close the distance.
Nyssa didn’t lift an eye when Serena sat in the chair beside her. Serena searched the dark unkept yard for words. How else to bridge the gap other than the loose string that held them together?
“I found this photo in Mom’s things,” Serena said as she held out the photo, moving it to catch the light.
Nyssa turned and glanced at the young, happy family. Her eyes remained indifferent, like she did not know the people in the photo.
“She looked so happy here,” Serena said. They never spoke about their mother’s death beyond funeral logistics. “Where did you go after the funeral?” Serena asked. If she crawled to her point it would have been like plucking one hair out at a time. She preferred to get it over with. Plus, was their father at least honest about Nyssa being in Pennsylvania?
“A bunch of places,” Nyssa said as if talking to the trees straight ahead that separated their property line from the neighbors’. “Why are you here?” she then said back to Serena. From Nyssa’s profile, Serena caught the scowl that tightened Nyssa’s cheeks and wrinkled the corner of her eyes. No matter what Nyssa did to her hair, she couldn’t escape their mother’s genes and the scowl was proof.
“Well, I’m here because you left him by himself,” Serena said, waiting for those coal black eyes to turn to her.
“He was fine.”
“He lost his wife, Nyssa,” Serena said sterner than she could have practiced.
“Lost his wife?” She finally turned to Serena. “Sweetheart, she was gone years ago. You should know that or did you forget Ms. College Education?”
“Don’t call me that,” Serena wanted to say but didn’t. She pressed her teeth together.
Nyssa pointed her cigarette at Serena, the ash skating down her fingers. “You don’t know anything. I was the one here dealing with her and Dad’s pain. Were you the one cooking for Dad because his wife locked herself upstairs all day? Did you take him to see every dumb movie he wanted to see? Or did you go grocery shopping with him?” She straightened up, now sitting tall. “Better yet, were you the one that found him crying, I mean hysterically crying, in his room over his wife who hadn’t seen the sun in days?”
Serena and her breathing stilled.
Nyssa continued. “No, you weren’t. The way I see it, everything’s better now.”
“She wanted to get better you know,” Serena said, unsure why she said it the moment it left her lips. The journal had only made her upset. A journal in place of a proper goodbye didn’t give closure, if anything it confused and frustrated Serena, opened wounds she had purposely stitched closed years before. So, bringing up the journal to Nyssa, who was as unforgiving as they came, was pointless. But maybe Nyssa would be able to make sense of it all.
“Oh yeah? Well now she’s in a better place.”
“Why did you hate her so much?”
Nyssa’s face scrunched to mere lines of skin. “Are you seriously asking that?”
Serena sunk in her seat, the weight of that question pressing her down. What she meant to ask was why Nyssa hated her so much.
Nyssa, not Serena, always held the family’s attention. Nyssa was their mother’s dance protégé, or so their mother thought. By the time Serena was born and old enough to understand, Nyssa spent her days, outside of school and dance classes, in her room, practicing until their mother thought she had practiced enough. When Nyssa quit dance at twelve, their mother snapped. Insults became physical, escalating to the point where their mother broke Nyssa’s arm. Eight and desperate for her mother’s attention, Serena had offered to pick up where Nyssa left off, or start from the beginning, having not taken a dance class yet. Their mother didn’t take to the idea. Instead, she made less dinners and used more sick days until she stopped coming out of her room altogether. Nyssa, Serena had learned in the following years, didn’t appreciate her gesture either, seeing it as a betrayal, the antithesis to her defiance.
With this upbringing and the thin, perfectly-lined scars on the underside of Nyssa’s arm to prove it, Nyssa’s response carried an unforgiving edge. Serena headed for the door, her jaw tight with a held tongue. There wasn’t any more she risked to say.
“I didn’t up and leave Dad. He told me to go. He wanted me to get away,” Nyssa said, interrupting the silence.
Serena turned. “Why?”
Nyssa crushed the cigarette against the armrest and flicked the stub of a thing to the grass. “Close the door behind you.”
So, Serena did, and she said nothing about how she had been robbed of a peaceful childhood too. Or how she had reasons to hate their mother as well, her missed dreams robbing Serena of not only a mother but a sister to explain to her how tampons worked, to side with her during bad breakups, and to comfort her in understanding why she now, for the first time, longed to know her mother.
Serena hadn’t missed what Nyssa had said. Their father had sent Nyssa away and at a time he couldn’t possibly have wanted to be alone. As uncharacteristic as it was for her father, Serena pushed the thoughts out to focus on her mother who had her growing attention.
Back in her mother’s room where black garbage bags piled against the wall, Serena searched for another piece of her, an unexpected photograph, or second journal, anything. Something to explain why after all these years her mother suddenly gave up without a goodbye.
The room, left to its bare essentials, was a room with curtains, a bed, bedside table and dresser. No photos. No memories.
No mother. The aging evening peaked through the open curtains like an eye abut a telescope, and with the ceiling light bulb needing to be changed, the room sat dim. This was what a fresh start would look like.
Dust floated up into the air with each drawer Serena slid out and lifted in hopes of a lost explanation. Finding nothing, she sat on the bare mattress. It was much comfier than her own which, considering her mother’s frequent use, was not surprising.
Returning to the journal, she read. Earlier, in the newness of it all, she hadn’t paid much attention to a post only a week before her mother’s death, but now on a second sweep, it read different.
I think I want to teach. I saw a commercial today for a studio downtown. A horrible commercial but the place seemed nice. It must be new. It wasn’t around when the girls were younger. Anyways, I think I want to
teach there. I had a rough day. I cried so much my face is cracked and sore. I couldn’t stop thinking about where my life has gone but then I saw the commercial and felt better and then I looked online and they
are hiring! A sign? I know I haven’t danced in a very long time but the instructors in the commercial seemed rusty too. I could work with young kids or older people who are looking to pass the time. Plenty of those.
That would be nice.
Alright. I’m going to go eat something. Its seven and I haven’t eaten anything today yet. I think I’m going to look at other places to apply to too. I’m excited just thinking about it.
Serena flipped to the next page when a darkness crept to the edge of her vision—her father. The hallway light bright behind him, his silhouette stood at the doorway as though an electric current would have struck him if he took a step in.
He scanned the room. “You did a lot.” His eyes rested on carpet stains that had probably been buried under clothes and trash for months.
“I didn’t have anything else to do, and it wasn’t that much stuff.” She pointed to the bags. “Some of these are garbage. Others donation.”
“You threw out her medications?” he asked.
An odd question. “Yeah,” she said, gesturing to one of the garbage bags.
“Why?” she asked.
He shrugged and shook his head. “Please take everything.” He then turned to walk away and, ignoring his wandering eyes,
Serena jumped off the bed and waved the notebook in her hand.
“I found this journal she wrote in.” She pulled out the photo tucked in the back. “And this photo.”
He grabbed it and smiled.
“Where were we?” she asked.
“At Disney. That was the hotel.”
“Oh yeah, I remember you telling me we went to Disney before.” She peered over the photograph again as if this new information would make the image come to life.
“In high school her dance team won a contest and the prize was going to Disney,” he said. “She enjoyed Disney and wanted us to go every year, but that was the only time we did. We got busy.” His eyes teared. He passed the photo back to Serena.
“Dad.” She regretted bringing up the photo. “It wasn’t your fault. It’s no one’s fault. She was sick.” That was the first time she had ever called her mother sick or blameless. Was this forgiveness?
He set his hand on her shoulder and walked away, leaving her alone in the space that was too much for him to bare and becoming unbearable for Serena herself. Having forgotten to ask why he sent Nyssa away, she stepped into the hall to call for him when Nyssa reached the top step. Nyssa peeked into their mother’s bedroom and Serena turned around and closed the door. She would ask tomorrow. She would have to ask tomorrow. Alone with the garbage bags, she began untying them to pick what she would keep.
That night, on her way to her room with her mother’s scarf, she passed by her father who was kneeled beside his bed.
Praying or repenting, his body quaked and rocked, and from the tone it was because of her mother but why?
Rereading her mother’s journal in bed, Serena met another part of her mother, the happy part she never shared with them, the promising part that forced its way through her clinical depression. Serena fell asleep with the journal, dozing off with what should have been closure but grew as something else.
The next morning, she woke feeling unsettled, her stomach twisted in a fisherman’s knot. She staggered into the hallway to her father’s room. Questions needed answering. Seeping from his room were heavy whispers.
Serena pressed her ear to the shut door to make out Nyssa and her father’s muffled voices.
“I told you to stay there,” he said, his voice rough.
“Why am I being punished?” Nyssa asked.
Like the many times they would plot in Nyssa’s room when she was younger, unsuspecting of Serena’s ear to the door as they planned the sick days Nyssa would fake to get out of dance practice, Serena stood on the outs of what, she didn’t know.
The entire day she hoped they would share their early morning hush with her. Now in the evening, she wasn’t sure she even cared to know anymore.
On the couch, feet away, Nyssa watched television as Serena microwaved the leftover Chinese for dinner. It was a surprise to hear Nyssa’s loud cackling. Serena had forgotten its sound. Like their mother’s, which only came out of her room during Saturday Night Live, it was hoarse and distracting.
Serena was about to ask what show was on when, Nyssa there comfortable and free, it hit her. It hit her like a speeding train, her limbs trying to remain pieced together. The unconscious seed that spoiled her night’s sleep and had her uneasy since last night now grew, making its home where reason and fidelity drew breaths. Nyssa’s absence. Her disinterest. Their mother’s optimistic journals. The secrets.
“Why?” Serena asked from the kitchen. Quiet tears ran down her face.
Nyssa swung her head to Serena. “What?”
“Mom. Why? How could you!” Serena now charged at her but stilled when she reached her.
Nyssa stood up to meet her eye level. Those wolf-like eyes that scared Serena as a child, with their wide set and focus, only confirmed the possible.
“How did you do it?” Serena asked.
Nyssa froze while Serena’s mind bounced from thought to thought like the metallic ball in a pinball machine. Serena was now screaming, her dormant suspicion fully awake. “I accepted her taking her own life, but not you.” Her head, stomach, heart—everything—ached. “You robbed us of a mother!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I do. You hated her.”
Nyssa’s bottom lip quivered and Serena swung her fists only for Nyssa to catch them at the wrists before any damage was done. For all of their differences, they had never argued or fought. Their way was silence followed by someone walking away. Serena was not walking away this time. She pulled free from Nyssa’s grip and pushed her onto the couch where she then slapped her and scratched at what flesh she could get while Nyssa grunted and kneed and clawed for a way out. A ball of limbs, they looked like one as they ripped each other apart.
“Enough!” their father said, running into the room.
Serena ignored him. This fight over due, she used all of her energy to offset her father, who now was pulling her off Nyssa. Heaving, Serena and Nyssa stared at each other. Where they weren’t cut and bleeding, they were red with flush.
“Dad, is that why you sent her away?” Serena rushed out with a breath.
He shut his eyes.
“Mom.” Serena took another breath. “She did it, didn’t she?”
Nyssa blinked at the ground.
“Dad, stop protecting her,” Serena said, her frustration brewing its own source of energy. “You’ve protected her her whole life. She isn’t a little girl anymore!”
Where his eyes should have been white, they were red, his scarlet letter. He raised a hand, but Serena wasn’t having it.
“No. I stayed quiet long enough. It’s always about Nyssa. Or Mom. What about me?” Serena faced her sister, her neck jutting out. “You know the only difference between her and you?” Serena pointed to her head. “She was sick. And you,” she said, stepping towards her sister, “are just an evil bitch.”
Tears ran down Nyssa’s face. Serena brushed hers with her palm. “I’m tired of walking on eggshells. I know you had it bad. I had it bad too. And now I can’t help but think how I will ever forgive you.”
Their father opened his mouth to speak but Nyssa jumped in. Through her cracked voice, she sighed and told the following: The night their mother died, she and Nyssa had a fight. Their first exchange in two weeks. In an episode, their mother said some upsetting things that caused their father to interject, and in turn, their mother’s wrath to redirect. She called him a mistake of a husband and shared that her biggest regret was not aborting Nyssa and leaving him. The insults went on and this rant enraged him. That night, their mother drunk and their father equally medicated with bourbon and rage, he switched her antidepressants with her sleeping pills, knowing she took her medications straight from the bottle without looking. The next morning, finding her cold and gone, he lost it. In his regret, Nyssa found him pouring over their mother, and she switched the medications back, leaving the police and coroners to think their mother took the sleeping pills on purpose. And after the funeral, he had asked her to take some time for herself, meaning he needed time with himself and his guilt.
Glossed with tears, Nyssa’s face was spent and red from the admission. Meanwhile, Serena’s mind traveled back to everything she mistook as grief when it was guilt’s burden. They stood there, the three of them, silent, as if they were meeting each other for the first time. Her eyes fixed on Nyssa, Serena couldn’t bare her father’s tears. And then Nyssa’s eyes sprung open.
“Dad!” Nyssa said. She rushed to their father who, cowered to his knees, clutched his chest.
Numb, Serena watched her sister dial 911 and the paramedics lift their panting father onto the stretcher. She watched as Nyssa frantically explained what happened as the medics carted him into the ambulance. She watched Nyssa follow behind, crying, her hand folded around their father’s. Then she watched the double doors slam shut and the emergency lights blink into the distance with everything she thought she knew.
Beside her, the cut maple. She loved that tree. It had been there her entire life. Why had it been cut?
About the Author
Lexi J. Lee is a writer and lawyer living in New York City. Now, like many these days, when she is not binge-watching Netflix, she is working on her debut novel, which may or may not be inspired by her time at Duke University. She is also a current Creative Writing MFA student. To find her on social media, click below.