The Monster Down the Hall

My father gave me a talk about how I shouldn’t write bad things about people in my diary.

The Monster Down the Hall

Chicken à la King. That is what we had for dinner the weekend I moved in with my father and his new wife, Jeanette, for good. It was August of 1998 and I had just been informed that I would not be living with my mother anymore. My father took me on a drive around the perimeter of Roxboro Middle School that Saturday afternoon. “This is going to be your new school,” he told me as I peered out the window.

My father had just gotten a new position as a correctional officer with the city of Cleveland and things would be different. Things had been difficult since the divorce. My mother and I moved around a lot. We got evicted a few times, shared a mattress on the floor of a spare room in a distant aunt’s house, and finally landed somewhat on our feet in the form of a one-bedroom apartment in Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland. My mother got the bedroom; I slept on the pull-out couch in the living room. My father and Jeanette were buying a house.

“How does having your very own room sound?” he asked.

It sounded great. I was ecstatic. But I was nervous about Jeanette.

Deep down I always got the impression that she didn’t like me very much. The two of us were cordial at best. That night I went home and plopped myself on the bed ready to write about the day’s events in my diary. I loved writing. I didn’t have many friends to talk to so it was such a release for me; it was the only place I could write about all of my dreams, desires, fears and anxieties. I chronicled all sorts of things, like the grown men who had started looking at me strangely since I began wearing a training bra, and Jeanette’s sub-par cooking skills. I wrote about my uncertain feelings for my stepmother. As I reached inside of my nightstand in search of my diary, my heart started beating faster. It wasn’t there. I searched every inch of my bedroom, digging through the closet and tearing through half-unpacked bags, but my diary was gone.

Things were tense later that evening at dinner. My father was working the late shift, so it was just the three of us: Jeanette, myself, and her nine-year-old daughter Monique. As we picked over her tasteless chicken à la king, Jeanette side-eyed me, as though daring me to complain about the food. After dinner she called me into her room. Laying on her side with her hand holding up her head, she had a question for me:

“Seeing as how you don’t like my cooking, was tonight’s meal to your liking?”

I averted my eyes. Shit, I thought to myself. Had she read it all? Why was she doing this to me? How could I be so stupid to leave it in such an obvious place? Finally, my eyes met hers.

“It was okay,” I said.

The next day my father gave me a talk about how I shouldn’t write bad things about people in my diary. I nodded my head but I couldn’t understand — why had she read it in the first place? Why couldn’t I be free with my thoughts without having to worry about what others thought about them? After that, Jeanette and I grew even more distant and any chance of us being one big happy family went completely out the window.

One morning before school, I found a piece of paper in my shoe: a photocopy of a page from my diary. I felt like crawling inside of myself. She was taunting me with my own words. My father and Jeanette drove me to school that morning. I got out of the car and gave a solemn goodbye, which prompted Jeanette to tell me, “You know, if you don’t want to speak to me, Niesha, then you don’t have to.”

Throughout the rest of the fall and winter I continued to find folded-up pieces of paper in not-so-random places. One morning it might be under my pillow. Another day a flat sheet might be layered in between my homework. A few weeks would pass without a note and then I would open up the pages of a favorite book and find one. I grew more irritated and nervous around the house. I hated being at home but where else could I go? My grades began to suffer as concentrating became a challenge all of its own.

Finally, the tension exploded and Jeanette tried to explain herself. I was a brat, she said. You have your father “wrapped around your finger” she said, and she wanted to take me down a peg.

“But why my journal?” I whined. “ Those were my private thoughts.”

“The only privacy you get in this house is in the bathroom.”

After that year I didn’t write anymore. Even after my father divorced Jeanette when I was fifteen, I didn’t write. Until I went to college, it didn’t feel safe. I learned not to trust anyone. I spent the rest of my childhood, teenage years and young adult life putting up barriers so people wouldn’t get too close to me. It’s a habit that I’m just starting to unlearn now.

* * *

Audrey Helen Weber makes drawings and quilts in Brooklyn, New York.