Things are very hard in the world of a three-year-old. So much you are born not understanding. You can play in the street but only until supper. You get a spanking for the interesting white balloons the size of sausages you find discarded there and try to blow up. You can’t pee in a bottle like next-door Bobby, so must hurry home or wet yourself. After supper night comes but not always sleep. You are safe while there is light. Then the light gets put out.
Now that you are three, no one touches you. You are too big suddenly for anyone’s lap or to be slung sideways over a hip. Sometimes you say your back itches, “Please scratch me.” But more than likely you will be told, “Rub it against the door frame. That will work.” You will never be kissed now. But you must be loved. Doesn’t your mother boil the water she gives you when you are sick or because there’s polio, to keep you safe?
And there would have been kissing sometime, even if you don’t remember. For instance while she was feeding you like a baby bird. No, passing the chewed peanuts, mouth to mouth, Mommy to you. Until it is a liquid froth you can swallow.
It’s afternoon, and for some reason you are inside, not out in the street, racing or playing hide and seek behind trees or going under the hose a neighbor mother holds, as you usually spend your days in the summer. Maybe Mommy has forbidden you: “Do you want to get polio?” Both of you are here in the small front room off the porch. There is only a chair, maybe two, a straw rug. There are no pictures, not even photographs, on any wall. Your mother sits, unmoved, unmoving. She is looking straight ahead as if in a trance, as if she doesn’t see you although light from the wall of windows falls over you where you lie, face down on the floor. She is in her slippers, as always in the house. Her hands rest on her knees above the rolled-down nylon stockings. You are crying harder than you have ever cried. You can feel your face getting red as you rhythmically bang, bang your sticky, throbbing head against the floor before her.
Elaine Terranova has published nine collections of poetry. She received the Walt Whitman Award and the Off the Grid Press Poetry Award. Recent work has appeared in The Laurel Review and The Alaska Quarterly Review and is forthcoming in the anthologies Being Home and Ecstatic Gods. Tantrum is part of a memoir, “The Diamond Cutter’s Daughter: a Poet’s Memoir” forthcoming from Ragged Sky Press.
Photo by Olive Froman.