That morning in 1949 begins innocently enough in our one-room apartment in the Ansonia Hotel. I am four. My father gets out of bed and goes into the bathroom. I go over to the bathroom door. The keyhole is just the right height. Curious, I peer through it and see my father. I can hardly believe my eyes. Daddy has a long red pee pee! He makes pee pee standing up! The long red pee pee comes out of his underpants like an animal! It even moves! It’s an animal! At first, I hold in my excited giggles but I can’t hold them in for long.
As soon as my father hears me, he throws open the door. His face is ashen. Strands of thin wavy hair shoot from his scalp in all directions like exploding rays from a lightless sun. Why is he so mad?
“Whaddaya think yer doing?” he bellows.
His anger makes him big. A giant. A powerful giant. And wild as a stallion even Hopalong Cassidy couldn’t tame!
I blink, then blink again. This isn’t Daddy. I try to find his face in the features distorted by rage. But he isn’t there. A stranger has taken his place. I feel white-hot fear as the stranger scoops me up and grabs a leather belt from the closet the color of dried blood. He sits down on the bed and throws me roughly over his knees. I hear the snap of the belt over and over, just before it strikes my soft bottom. I howl in pain and cry at the injustice of my spanking. Why was it bad to look at Daddy’s pee pee? I was just playing. It was like a game. Why can’t Daddy see it like a game?
Four years later when Mrs. Kipp, my third grade teacher, asks the class to write a composition about our favorite animals, the words come so fast my pen can hardly keep up. I haven’t seen my father’s penis since I was four, but the words about his long red pee pee keep pouring out. Without thinking, I hand in my paper like the others.
Mrs. Kipp looks like an old maid even though she is married. She pulls her hair back tightly in a bun on top of her head. Her neck is long and stringy like a chicken, which is why I call her Chicken Neck.
She looks at me strangely after reading our compositions and says in a monotone, “Roberta, see me at the break.”
I don’t hear a word that’s said all morning. I know I did something bad. Very bad. At the bell, my classmates flee. I shyly approach her desk.
“What made you write this?” Chicken Neck asks, leaning forward, her voice tense, her eyes gazing at me intently.
I stare at the scarred wooden floor, old and buckling, shift my weight, say nothing. I want to go far away but my head is whirling–with what? Boobies, my father’s name for breasts? Booboos, my grandmother’s name for vaginas? Showgirls like the drawings on matchbook covers from The Stork Club or maybe the Copacabana? My father’s sexy sister, my Aunt Lil? The autographed photos of Marilyn Monroe my father admired in Playland on Broadway and 50th St.?
My head is so noisy I don’t hear Chicken Neck at first.
“It’s not normal for an eight-year-old girl to write such things,” she says.
“I’ll have to call your mother and have her come in to see me,” Chicken Neck says.
My thoughts stop whirling. Oh no! Mommy will kill me! Her boss will dock her pay. I wish I could hide in a dark tunnel. Am I in for it now!
That evening my mother says nothing after Chicken Neck’s call. But her face looks blank as though she’s in shock. Nana says my mother is going to school the next morning.
I hold my breath till she comes home from work.
But she doesn’t explode as I expected. She only says to me, “You are NOT my daughter!” She has told me many times that they must have given her the wrong baby in the hospital so this is nothing new. But she looks at me as though I was spawned by an alien species. Her looks and silence are even worse than her rage.
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books and a visual artist who has exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Met. She also teaches Micro Memoirs at The New School and conducts private writing workshops. Her website is robertaallen.com.