In my stepdad’s hands with their tattooed knuckles, the avocado, much coveted by my 5 siblings and I, becomes an obscenity, the obscenity of things proffered but always held laughingly out of reach, like the proverbial carrot dangled in front of the donkey’s nose. How apt a comparison, for we are asses if we think that this time will be any different, that this time some appeal to his better nature will inspire in him a sense of fair play.
My eyes are riveted to the fruit, amazed at the delicacy with which he performs its denuding. Already my mouth salivates in anticipation, though I should know by now the outcome of his sadistic little ritual. At fifteen, I know better than to hope for any sign of generosity on his part. Still, I can’t stop my taste buds from yearning for the velvety texture of the avocado whose taste is so subtle as to be nearly non-existent.
The room is hushed as the last of the bark-like skin lies on his plate. He holds his treasure in his big paws, winking at us with his small-set eyes. There is pleasure in that look, a pleasure riddled with sadistic triumph. Something in the way his thumbs caress the avocado turns my wanting into shame. I swallow hard, steeling myself from all desire. He wants me to ache with hunger, and so I won’t. Wants to see the naked desire in my eyes so that he can experience the power of withholding.
I turn my head away from his smirk and stare out the sliding glass door at my backyard fort, longing to climb into its loving embrace and curl up into myself.
Though the stepdad’s strip-teasing of the avocado is meant for my younger siblings as well as myself, I know instinctively that its symbolism is directed toward me, the red-headed stepchild. A deep shame wrenches my heart as something about the motion of his hand as he places the naked fruit on a saucer stirs up an unwanted realization: I have been that avocado, peeled, exposed, gaped at—lusted after.
Next to my stepdad in his Fruit-of-the-Looms, my mother sits tense, her auburn hair wound in pink plastic rollers. Her eyeglasses are pointy at the corners in the popular butterfly fashion, giving her a perpetually startled look. She wears a homemade mu-muu and flip flops, her heavy legs bare. A frown creases her forehead as she leans slightly forward, her eyes avoiding mine.
I’m kneeling across from them on the other side of our marble coffee table, my youngest sister in my lap. My other four younger siblings hunch around the cool marble table in varying degrees of tension; I can almost hear them drool.
My eyes stare trance-like at his hands. How precisely they perform their task, how deliberate their torture, a crucial aspect of this inane ritual we’ve come to know and dread. Someone releases a wistful sigh and from the corner of my eye I catch the pointed look Mom directs their way.
I lift my gaze to the sardonic smile twisting the corners of my stepdad’s mouth. How he relishes dragging out the suspense! My armpits feel sticky. A surge of anger rises in my chest, and I hug my sister fiercely in a surge of protectiveness. I can bear disappointment better than these little ones who forget, from one miserable episode to the next, how it will most likely turn out. Why can’t he just–for once–be human and divvy it up between them?
My youngest brother smiles dazedly at the avocado, and I wince, seeing the stepdad take note of the degree of his desire. Our eyes meet and in his I read the mocking turn of his thoughts. What he sees in mine I have no idea, it doesn’t bear contemplating. I give him a cool look before averting my gaze.
“For crying out loud, honey,” Mom says at last, exasperated. “Let’s get this over with.”
The stepdad smirks, and smiles broadly at my youngest brother. “Want half?” he asks. My brother nods, his entire face lit up with expectation before it crumples with disappointment as the King of the Mountain gloats, “Too bad! It’s Doreen’s turn!” He hands her half, and the rest of us avoid eye contact in the manner of strangers who have witnessed brutality and are uncomfortable with the weight of collective memory.
My sister gulps down her half of the avocado before it can be snatched away from her. Suddenly my stepdad is all irritation and snaps at my mother, “Get these damn kids to bed! What are they doing still up?”
As Mom rises to do as she’s told, our eyes meet for a split second. I can read her warning look plain as day: “Don’t rock the boat, just get out of his hair and let him be.”
And I do. I get out of his bristly hair and carry my youngest sister to her room, gently tucking her into bed with tears stinging my eyes. In the privacy of my own room, snuggled under the covers, my emotions are a tangled mess of shot down desire and frayed nerves. If I have learned nothing else in the past 8 years under this tyrannical regime, I’ve learned the folly of desire and the uselessness of emotions.
And I am poised on the brink of escape, I just don’t know it yet.