My sister and I were lying on her bed on another hot summer afternoon in the Palisades. It seemed like we were always lying around when our parents weren’t home and we were done masturbating with my father’s Penthouses and reading and doing our homework. We had a lot of time on our hands because when I was ten and she was six it was 1979 – TBC. The time before cell phones. Usually, we performed plays I had written, going house to house on our mostly empty suburban street. Sometimes the neighbors would give us grapes or candy or quarters. Or sometimes we’d hide in our two story backyard and pretend we were the only members of the Swiss Family Robinson. We’d dig behind our treehouse and find abalone shells we thought were buried treasure or eat baby guavas or swing in our hammock. We were lucky my mom left us home alone all the time because she was having an affair. It was our only respite from our parents’ daily, constant fighting.
I loved my sister very much but she seemed young to me. When my parents fought, she hid out in her room. I was the one who had to defend my mom all the time. I was the one who got the brunt of my father’s wrath. I was always happy the times she did fight on my side, my mom’s side, but mostly she stayed out of it. She liked to map her whole life out on paper, all her dreams: the perfect car, the perfect house, the perfect husband. I thought she was crazy. When I got out, I would be free of family. The last thing I wanted was another family. I just wanted to be left alone. I just wanted to be responsible for myself.
But when I was ten, I was responsible for my mom and my sister. I defended everyone from my dad. He said he hated my getting involved in his fights with his wife. He screamed for me to go into the other room, to leave them alone. He screamed at my mom to get me out of there. He even screamed that I would hate her one day for what she had done.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. There was a fight, he would scream at my mother and my mother would come crying to me to do something about it. She couldn’t handle it she said. Even though I was three when it started, I thought I could.
So in I went, screaming, yelling, fighting. Putting myself, at mom’s behest, in the line of fire. Then we were both running from him, both slamming doors, both locking ourselves in the bathroom. My father would switch his anger from her to me. He could twist my arm without fear of retaliation. He could run me down and push me to the ground knowing I couldn’t get up. My mom would still be yelling, but he’d be going at me.
Compared to all that, lying around alone felt pretty good. Like being in the trenches when the gunfire stops: a moment of respite. But because we couldn’t really leave, it was limited respite. And because I still had to take care of my sister, it was even more limited for me.
I explain all this because I don’t know exactly what spurned me that day to do what I did, to say what I said. I really prided myself on my righteousness and bravery. My honest commitment to a cause. I never lied. But that summer day I told my sister I was an alien.
At first she didn’t believe me – who would? But I dug in deeper. I told her that I was sent to this planet for just a brief period of time to help out the people in this family. As I had just had my tenth birthday, it was time for me to go. Back to my planet. I had completed my mission.
She was a smart kid, even at six, so she shrugged it off. But I began packing a small knapsack. A knapsack she knew was meant for running away. We had tried running away a few times, using this knapsack to pack in money, food, clothes, books. Whatever we thought we’d need on the road. We left the house without our parents noticing – they were always fighting, as I said, but our plan usually broke down a couple hours in. We’d get into town or hide in someone’s yard. Then the unfeasability of living on our own struck us. I couldn’t get a job – I was only in fourth grade. I knew kids could work in the old days, but I thought there were laws against it in 1979. Too bad, I thought. A law meant to protect children was actually hurting me.
Then, how would we sleep outside? We lived in sunny So Cal, but I was haunted by the word “exposure,” and I knew you could die from it though the details were fuzzy. And soon our food would run out. We couldn’t live on guavas and tree-picked fruit forever. Or someone might kidnap us. (This I kind of hoped would happen, but there never seemed to be anyone around in our sleepy little burg.) So usually by the time it got dark, we would trudge home. Our parents would still be fighting – they never even noticed we’d left – but the end of day, dinner, bedtime – broke it up a little and made it finite.
Today, however, I packed my knapsack alone. Before she asked if she could come I said I couldn’t take her to my planet. She asked if she could come. Very maturely, I said, “No. I’m sorry.” She started to panic and demanded to know if I was telling the truth. I stared her in the eyes, and totally against character, lied to her, telling her, “Yes, it’s true.” She said she didn’t believe me, but when I zipped up the knapsack and headed for the door, she faltered.
“Don’t go! Please don’t go!”
“I have to,” I said. And I turned the doorknob, opening our front door. I walked outside into the hot sun. She ran after me. Now she wasn’t pretending not to believe me. Now she was crying, trying to hold onto me, trying to make me stay. I shook her off. “I can’t,” I said firmly. Our house was at the bottom of a steep driveway on either side. I took my knapsack and headed up the driveway, leaving her crying at the bottom. I made one last wave when I got to the top and headed down the street and out of sight.
After a few seconds, I stopped. I took pity. I couldn’t do this to her. If I were an alien I’d have to take her with me. I ran back down to the house. She was still crying in the driveway, alone. I rushed up to her and hugged her and told her I was just kidding, it was just a joke. She didn’t believe me at first. She looked up at me with her tear-stained face, her eyes searching mine. I swore on my life. Quickly her disbelief yielded to anger and she stormed into the house, slamming the door. For a moment, I sat outside alone. I looked up at the hot sun, squinting as it burned my eyes. Then I looked at the front door of my house; and up to the top of the driveway. For a moment, I believed my own mythology. Maybe I didn’t belong here. Maybe I was an alien. And maybe my ship was out there, waiting for me, just beyond our driveway.