Essay About My Friend Room Escape

The series is featuring occasional works of fiction. This is one.

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One afternoon, when I was 8 years old, I went into my parents’ bedroom and found a coin in the top drawer of their bureau. It was very heavy and had ancient markings written in Arabic or Hebrew or Chinese. I thought it was beautiful and stole it and hid it in the steamer trunk in the back of my closet.

And that was the beginning. Whenever my parents were out, I’d go into their bedroom and rummage through their drawers and closets. I stole my mother’s gold arrow pin, a glass statuette of a unicorn, a money clip with my father’s initials on it, a very small pair of old rimless reading glasses and a ceramic thimble with a picture of a blue rabbit.

Sometimes my mother would ask, “Did you see my beaded necklace?” Or my father would say: “I can’t seem to find my blue striped tie. Do you know where it is?”

I felt they knew I was stealing from them but were reluctant to confront me.

Then one day I found, in the bottom drawer of my father’s desk, a red silk pouch with a gold braided drawstring. Inside were small black-and-white photographs. Using the magnifying glass from my stamp collection, I studied these old pictures in which I appeared as a small child but did not recognize any of the people around me.

In one, wearing a sailor’s suit, I was with a group of bearded men in dark coats, big hats and stern faces standing in a forest.

In another, three people were gathered together in the snow, one holding me in his arms and standing with his foot on a frozen dead cow, smiling at the camera.

Sam Vanallemeersch

In another, I was harnessed to a baby’s highchair in the company of a group of people sitting at a table in an outdoor cafe. They were sipping coffee and laughing and waving at the camera, while the cafe behind them was on fire.

The last photo was taken in a dimly lit nightclub. A man, sitting at a white piano, wearing a bandanna, was accompanying a couple dancing the tango in a very sexually provocative way. On the far wall, I observed a large mural of the baby Jesus. The face of the Christ child bore an uncanny resemblance to the face of the child in the other photos, and I wondered why I’d been chosen to represent Christ in an Argentine dance club. But I couldn’t ask my parents about the pictures, because it would have revealed that I’d been stealing from them.

Meanwhile, I began to notice that some of my own possessions were disappearing bit by bit — a toy soldier, a harmonica, my favorite pair of beat-up sneakers, a boxcar from my electric train and my autographed baseball cards of Bo Hoskins and Victor Kessel.

As more of my things disappeared, I became even more compulsive about stealing from my parents. I stole pendants, lockets, coffee cups, two miniature landscape paintings, a few small cushions from the couch, four incandescent bulbs from the ceiling track lighting and little beads of glass, one by one, from the chandelier in the living room.

Over the course of a few months, the walls in the apartment grew barer and the furniture seemed more exposed, and the house became darker. It happened so gradually that my parents didn’t seem to notice. At the same time, more of my own things continued to disappear. For everything I took away, something was taken from me, as though an undeclared war was in progress.

As we sat at the dinner table talking about the day’s events, my father would stare at me with his brow furrowed, looking around the room to see if anything else was missing, while my mother twirled her hair and drummed her fingers on the table.

There seemed to be an unspoken sense of suspicion, fear, rage, betrayal, the feeling of an imminent explosion, as if we were teetering on the brink of violence, but none of us could confront the other; and in this atmosphere, I still managed to slip the pewter saltshaker into my pocket. Then, when I returned to my room, I found that my bicycle was missing.

By this time, I had taken to wearing a fishing jacket with multiple pockets, in order to stash even more items, and by the end of the day I’d have books, figurines, shoes, socks and gloves, and the steamer trunk in the back of my closet was so crammed with contraband that it seemed about to burst.

One evening, I noticed my parents had put up two surveillance cameras, one in the living room, the other in the kitchen, and posted a uniformed guard at their bedroom door.

That night, I put my chair and desk against my own bedroom door, boarded up the windows and placed a tripwire attached to a spring-loaded catapult that would hurl a firebomb at the slightest turn of my doorknob. As I waited, I continued to obsess about the pictures of me as a child, taken with members of an unrecognizable family.

Finally, I cracked. I marched into the living room, where my mother was dusting a table and my father was sitting on the couch.

“Why did you leave those pictures of me as a child with people who are completely unfamiliar to me?” I said. “Was it to suggest that I have no part in your lives? Or were you trying to drive me crazy?”

“And so, there we have it! An admission!” my father shouted. “You were the one who started this.”

“But I’m a child,” I said “You’re adults. You should have explained to me that stealing was wrong. Instead, you started stealing from me. Now I’ll never be able to trust anyone. I’m only 8 years old, and my entire way of looking at the world has been corrupted. Why did you do this to me? Did you think it would make me stronger? Did you think if you exposed me to betrayal, that you were tempering me to be able to face the realities of life?”

My father’s face reddened, and my mother began to cry.

Finally, I came around to the subject that had been haunting me.

“And why am I the only recognizable person in the pictures you had hidden away? Who are those people? Are you really my parents, or was I adopted?”

“What are you talking about?” my father said. “What pictures?”

I went to my room and returned with the red silk pouch. Using my flashlight and magnifying glass, my parents examined the photos. “Yes, it is you,” my father said. But neither of my parents recognized the other people, either.

We all shared a sense of wonder and bewilderment and retired to the kitchen to get something to eat. But the refrigerator was empty because I’d stolen everything in it, and there was only one chair left in the dinette.

None of us had eaten for three days, so we decided to go to a restaurant around the corner. We felt a sense of hope that together, as a loving family, we would solve the mystery.

Joe Frank has written, produced and performed more than 200 radio programs for KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., and National Public Radio. He has received the George Foster Peabody Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and recently gave live performances in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York. More of his work can be found at his Web site.

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