It’s summer and I can hear the hum of the refrigerator. It’s old and loud and my sister and I are sitting at the table eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The air is Southern California August hot. I am seven.
We are ravenous hungry little girls. We have just been running through the sprinklers in the grass to cool off. Bikinis. Wet tangled hair. She’s four.
My father’s mother is in another room somewhere out of sight. Our parents are at work. We’re sitting at the kitchen table. It’s the kind that you can take the nobs out of and slide the top over to the side so as to make it a long bench chair. We are sitting at the table that is sometimes a chair.
My sister’s face barely comes up over the top of the table. She’s laughing. My sister, Larissa. Her movements are fast four-year old movements. She’s sitting with crooked feet under her butt on the chair, looking up to me. We are drinking chocolate milk in between bites. We have finally cooled off.
It’s just the two of us. No school. Just hot air and the smell of grass on our feet, dripping wet and hungry wondering what we are going to do next.
“What are you doing?” she asks me. She says it like a song. This is a ritual we have.
“I’m moochi-kaluuiing.” I sing back to her.
“What does that ever ever ever ever ever mean?” she asks me, like she always does.
We repeat this over and over.
We create partial songs together. Songs between sisters.
When I remember the songs I feel a calm in my chest. My kid voice and hers. Making words that mean nothing. Words that mean everything. She still remembers the songs even though she remembers next to nothing from our childhood. I fill in the blanks for her. Some of these blanks she doesn’t like for me to fill in. But she always likes it when I tell her about our songs. Other times, she asks questions. Like she’s trying to find out who she was. I am my sister’s memory.
Sometimes she asks me questions upon questions. Other times, she’s too tired and has to go to bed so she can wake up and go to work the next day and be a mother to her daughters, who just turned seven and nine. She tells me to write down my memories and not worry about how it makes our family look.
I write it down for her. I write it down for me. I write it down so that I can try to remember, because at a certain point the big blank spaces of forgetting was way worse than remembering.
My sister and I are seven and four, and we are in the house where we grew up and we are chewing our sandwiches. Our skin, wet from the sprinklers. I swallow the chocolate milk. The bread is dry and the peanut butter gets stuck in my throat. I shift in my seat. I push long hair out of my face. Lick my fingers. Wipe them on my shorts.
“Wanna go play on the bars after?” she says.
I take another bite and hear the bell at the front gate jingle on the chain link which means someone is there. The dogs are barking. I jump up and sprint over to the kitchen sink, put my hands on the counter and lift myself up so I can see out the window. Feet dangling. Strong arms holding me there, peanut butter still in my mouth and stuck on my tongue. My heart’s racing in my ribcage. I have to know who is there. Who is there at the gate? I see through the window past the daffodils and the asphalt pavement and the tetherball my father tied to a tree. I see all the way to the front gate. There’s a stranger there in a brown uniform. He has driven up the dirt road to our house and is delivering a box. I release my grip on the kitchen counter. Bare feet land on orange and brown linoleum floor and I breathe out. Just a stranger.
At age seven my body repeatedly blocks out everything my grandfather does to me so that I may survive it. I can’t know that I am doing these things consciously, but I am always watching the front gate for him in ways that now I recognize most seven year olds don’t.
I can return to my sister. I did my job. Now we can go play on the bars.
At the time I knew to watch for intruders. I was always vigilant. I had to make sure my sister was safe. I was the older one. I was trained by my father to watch for strangers. We had an escape plan for if someone was trying to break into the house. We did drills to practice it. It involved hiding and scooting through the house until we got to the basement (which was connected to the house), and then crawling under the tiny space under the house to escape out the screened vent on the other side.
My mother’s father rarely visited in the summer. He was often traveling with my mother’s mother in their Lazy Days RV. Summer is my favorite time of year.
That day I could keep my sister safe. We could just keep singing our moochie-kalua songs. We could continue on with our day where just the two of us ruled the house and we could jump up onto the monkey bar that my dad built for us and pull our little bodies up over it and twirl and twirl until we were dizzy and just let go and fly and fly and fly until we would land, bare feet on sand. Summer air on our skin and bellies full of peanut butter and jelly. We could just let go and fly.
I want to call my sister right now and read her this story. I want to tell her how much I wanted to make her safe. I want her to remember the bars, the sprinklers, the brindle Pitbull named Spunky, the table that could be turned into a bench. I want her to remember how much I was always listening for the bells at the front gate. That I can still hear them. How much I was always on alert for her. I want to call her and tell her how much I wanted to protect her. How when she was a baby I would sit on the floor and pet her head with the palm of my hand to comfort her. I want to tell her how I have a vague memory of putting my body in the way so that he could use me instead. I think there may have been more than one day that I kept her safe. Maybe some days everything I did wasn’t enough. But on that day when we were eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On that day when I was seven I am certain I kept my sister safe.
Ari Burford is a genderqueer genderfuck poet who writes non-fiction and loves dancing under the stars by the ocean with their mustache made of glitter. They are currently finishing up a memoir entitled I Knew They were In There, which tells their story as a genderqueer person recovering repressed memories of being raped by their grandfather. The narrative arch involves confronting family about incest alongside other kinds of violence from their ancestors’ history.
It’s a story of resiliency and honesty. They teach in Women’s and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University and have a PhD in literature. They have published academic essays that appear in Genders and The Journal of Lesbian Studies. Now they write creative non-fiction as a way to recover from/in academia.