What happened in the basement

I was 7 years old when Peter and I began our 15-year relationship. He was 51

Topics: Life stories,

What happened in the basement

When I was seven years old, in Peter Curran’s basement, it was easy to forget the outside world. We couldn’t hear much, Peter and I, from within those concrete walls. Not the bumping of cars as someone struggled to parallel park, not teenagers whistling through their fingers, nor two pigeons fighting over a bread crust. In the basement, I couldn’t hear someone wheeling laundry or groceries home in a shopping cart purloined from the Pathmark parking lot, and I couldn’t hear the wheels of bustling baby carriages, or the mothers affectionately calling their little daughters “Mami.”

I had met Peter that summer at pool, when I was there with my mother. He had been wrestling with his two sons, splashing and laughing. He had bowl-cut sandy-silver hair with sixties bangs like a Beatle. He had full lips, a long pointy nose that might have looked unattractive on someone else, but not on him, and a strong pert chin. I had crossed the length of the pool and asked him, “Can I play with you?” He answered “Of course,” and then immediately splashed my face, frolicking with me as though I were his own child.

Later on, he called up my parents and invited me to come over to his house in Weehawken. Pretty soon, I was going there multiple times every week, to play. There, we would invent stories and play games outside that he had made up. When the weather grew cold, we occupied ourselves indoors. We would work on a jigsaw puzzle, and he would give me a swift kiss on the lips each time one of us found a piece, after making sure no one was looking. Peter said it was important that no one see us kiss, because people were so weird nowadays — in this day and age, any show of affection was suspect; back in the days when he was a kid, fathers kissed their daughters on the lips all the time.

That winter, we began spending more and more time in Peter’s basement. Some stray cats had learned they’d get food and milk if they managed to slip into the basement; there was one pretty tabby that had carried a sagging belly for weeks before the afternoon when she wearily lay down in the tightest corner of that basement; the next time we saw her, she had a nest of suckling kittens. Peter said he had named her Little Mama; she’d given birth twice already in this basement. The kittens were so much fun to play with. I had found a small bag of marbles and would roll them across the floor; then I’d watch the frisky kittens try their best to still the quick, slippery balls in their paws, a feat they could never quite manage. “You’re very maternal,” Peter would say as I played with the kittens. “I bet you dream of having a big fat belly someday. I like that little girls have potbellies. It makes them look like they’re pregnant. Isn’t that what every girl dreams about? A baby of her very own to love?”

I hadn’t thought of it before, but Peter brought it up so often when we were alone that I began to fantasize more and more about having a family just like Little Mama.

The first few times we went to the basement, Peter would insist on hugging and kissing me mouth to mouth for long periods of time. The first time we kissed like grown-ups, I thought too much about the largeness of his face and the feeling of his skin close up.

That I couldn’t breathe well bothered me, so I dropped to the floor, pretending to be Sleeping Beauty. While I was positioned on what I imagined to be a bed covered with tulips, I felt like I was really sleeping or in a trance as he continued to kiss me. These games went much deeper than regular playing. As I sat playing with the kittens, Peter would begin to stroke my back, face, buttocks, neck, and between my legs. He always found ways to make me accept more touching when I was past my threshold. For instance, when I sank to the cement floor to show him I’d had enough, he’d caressingly remove my pelt, as big game hunters do to tigers. Convinced I really was dead, I no longer felt the overwhelming sensations.

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As the weather got warmer, Peter suggested I undress, and he’d play hide-and-go-seek with me in my underpants. Peter would count to ten and I’d try to figure out where to go, since there were so many hiding places in the huge basement. A few times, I hid in the oak wardrobe, or climbed into a trunk; occasionally, I crouched behind the motorcycles. It was strange and freeing to run about in just my underpants. Then came a day when Peter dared me to take off the underpants, saying real animals in the jungle didn’t wear clothes. After that first time, I had no problem getting naked; it made me feel less like myself and more like a tiger or a rabbit, or whatever I pretended to be. Often, while naked, I would growl under my breath or lick the Suzuki’s handlebars. Another time I wouldn’t open my eyes or stand up until Peter shone a flashlight in my face. Afterward, he remarked, “Boy, you get so wrapped up in your games it’s like you disappear. It’s a little scary.”

Down in the basement, I sometimes climbed atop the Suzuki nude: seizing the big handles, I pretended to drive. One time Peter slipped the motorcycle key into the ignition, turning it on; I felt a roaring, searing feeling rise from somewhere inside the engine and radiate out, through the cracked leather seat, spreading all through me like the strands of one of the arching cobwebs in the crevice of a wooden beam, and I gripped the handles, barely able to take it, my eyes tearing; I said something weird, that I felt like Little Mama having her kittens; and then this melting, searing, crazed feeling burst like a sac containing millions of dazzling pearl-sized eggs, like pollen swirling through the air, like the white wisps of exploding seed heads. I got off the motorcycle, drowsy, almost falling over, wondering what had just happened to me.

By spring, I was getting naughtier than ever, throwing more tantrums, and bossing Peter around so often that he started to call me Sergeant Ma’am. My mother, who didn’t know what was really going on, often said that he was giving in to me way too much lately, and that if he wasn’t careful I’d be spoiled rotten. I was even starting to do mean things just for the thrill of it, like letting go of Peter’s hand when we went to the playground and running across the street by myself. I also started to deceive Peter by breaking something and then concealing the damaged object, or hiding his cigarettes and lighter and then insisting I didn’t know where they were. “I don’t like deception,” Peter said. “We have a really strong bond now. Every lie you tell, whether large or small, is making a crack in our bond. It’s just the tiniest crack, you can’t see it, but this lying stuff — it only gets worse and worse. Let’s make a pact right now, never to lie to each other and never to break any promises.” We made the pact and, for some reason, I took it very seriously, so I stopped lying. But I still had a habit of being naughty, which didn’t upset Peter as much as the lying had, and he even tolerated downright nastiness from me — cruel practical jokes such as spilling his coffee down the sink when he was in the bathroom, or the times I mocked his false teeth or ugly ingrown toenails.

Mommy told Peter that I had many reasons for “acting out” and they were all linked to Poppa in some way. Recently laid off from work, he now started drinking early in the morning and continued to drink all day. He’d taken to spending the night in my room while I slept in the master bedroom with my mother.

Whenever I went into my old room to get clothes, Poppa would scream at me to shut the door behind me because any light hurt his head. If he was really hungover he’d hurry me to the point where I came out with the wrong clothes, such as two shirts instead of a pair of pants and a shirt. According to Mommy, Poppa burned through his unemployment checks drinking and gambling, and he said if he wasn’t allowed to do either he’d go into such a fit of despair he wouldn’t even be able to get dressed in the morning.

Soon after, on the day of my eighth-birthday party Peter had told me to go upstairs and feed Blackhead, his guinea pig, and put fresh water in his bottle. He also said to play with him for a while because Blackhead was looking a little lonely lately. I was thrilled to be given the responsibility. Peter had never sent me up to the attic alone before. That day, I thought of the nurse’s office at school, which was the most comforting place in the world. I’d been getting a lot of stomachaches lately. Sister Mary, the school nurse, had a very small room in her office with a white ceiling and white walls and stiff white bedsheets and a white fluffy pillow and a small brown cross with Jesus crucified yet looking serene with his arms outspread, his feet nailed safely down, his head bent to expose his crown of thorns.

On the white bed, ankles together, arms at my sides, I would wait for prickles to shoot up my legs, for the blood to thicken in my feet. Slowly, I would spread my arms out to the very upper corners of the bed: right arm, palm up; left arm, palm up. Like Noah leading the animals in pairs to the wide cedarwood ark, I hurried my heart and eardrums and navel into the wide white peace. When every part of me was packed up in the ark and sent down the rolling waves, the peace would come, drowsy as the sun, warming the wood of the cross that Jesus lay upon, warming the thorns that pierced his forehead, winking off the nails in his feet and palms.

Peter and I continued our relationship for fifteen years, and until he died, I was Peter’s religion. No one else would find the twenty photo albums of me alone, or with Paws, or with Karen, or with my mother, engrossing. The two locks of hair, braided together, brown and gray, laminated so they would always last. An album of autumn leaves, the names of the trees that they came from listed underneath: sugar maple, blackjack oak, sweetgum. My glittery fairy wand, my tiny gray felt mice Peter threw out in a fight but later dug through the trash to retrieve, the cast-iron skeleton key we found by the boat docks, my silver bangles and huge faux-gold cross I got from the West Village. All of this, and much more, was stored in a black trunk with a broken latch that he used to keep by the foot of the bed.

Towards the end of his life, Peter couldn’t walk more than a few blocks and he could no longer ride a motorcycle. He walked a little ways to the edge of a cliff at Palisades Park and there he jumped and fell 250 feet, or so the Parkway Police report stated. He left an envelope in my mailbox containing ten suicide notes and several statements on lined notebook paper signing his car over to me. He drew a map for me to find his black Mazda so I wouldn’t be charged for towing and storage. He left me a copy key inside the envelope; the original key he left inside the Mazda’s ignition. I was twenty-two and he was sixty-six.

Excerpted from TIGER, TIGER: A Memoir by Margaux Fragoso, to be published in March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2011 by Margaux Fragoso. All rights reserved.

Margaux Fragoso recently completed a Ph.D. in English and creative writing at Binghamton University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in the Literary Review and Barrow Street, among other literary journals. Her memoir, “Tiger Tiger,” from which this article is excerpted, will be available on March 8.

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