Oscar Cuevas is a Brooklyn-based writer from Kansas. His work has appeared in BOMB, DIAGRAM, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. He won the Joyce Carol Oates Nonfiction Award and the Raymond Carver Memo-rial Award for Short Fiction. He’s been a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, University of Georgia Press, and Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. He’s been awarded fellowships at MacDowell, and Syracuse University, where he completed his MFA. His fiction piece “Locked Doors” originally appeared in Tampa Review 61-62.
I don’t understand a door that doesn’t lock. My mother, Rita, used to say honest people don’t need locks. She was quoting her mother, the woman dead before I was born, from too many smoked cigarettes—elegant, I’m sure, in their own forlorn sort of way. I never understood the logic of honest people not needing locks—does it mean people who are honest don’t have to worry about hiding things, or that if we as a people, all people, were honest, we would collectively have no reason to lock anything? I thought of the people so foolishly honest that they had no locks at all, their belongings stolen, their honesty ravaged repeatedly.
When I was three or four, I somehow locked the bathroom door, trapping myself inside. This was at the squat apartment complex I lived in with my mom and baby sister Marcella. Memory hazes, but I remember I was naked and wet against the door, mom on the other side, at first calmly trying to talk me through working the lock, but I couldn’t get it open. She grew agitated and I panicked. I started crying and I heard my mother speaking with a man I did not know.
I looked at the synthetic wood of the door, and in the fake woodgrain I saw the outline of something familiar but unknown to me at the time—a woman, and she might’ve been holding a baby. When I got old enough to recognize the image, I would be uncertain about what I had actually seen. I believed I had had a vision, that I was being comforted by something from beyond, but I alternated between thinking it was either the Madonna and Child, or Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. I couldn’t be sure if what I had seen on her chest was a child or her breasts. Both would’ve calmed me.
The man was the landlord, and he had to pull me through the window, like in the final scene of A Nightmare on Elm Street, when Freddy Krueger’s bladed glove snatches the mother through the glass lite of her front door. I climbed the tub and reached up, waiting for the landlord’s hands, and he wrenched me out, held me tight, and wrapped my naked body in his tan trench coat as he glided through all the neighbor kids who had gathered to gawk.
Nearly three decades later, I asked mom what she remembers. I realized she must have been confused when she started telling the story.
“You were crying, hiding under the bed. We couldn’t get you to go to the bathroom. I caught you pissing behind the couch, and when I tried to take you to the toilet you pulled your hand away and screamed and hid under the bed.”
I have no recollection of this but immediately my stomach clutches, and she goes on.
“You were so afraid. I gave up and just left you there. You crawled out after a while, but you hated going into that bathroom when we lived on Washington.”
The house on Washington is where my stepfather, Dick, moved in with us. She doesn’t make this connection, but I do—and just like that he could cloud the way from anywhere.
What else do I remember? That wide, Kansas country of my youth was so pungent—the green smell of growth, cow shit, and the dense decay of dreams dying.
Now that I live in New York, where the smells are more varied, and must be ignored, I consider that maybe it’s not the place that makes me the more negative, angrier person I fear I’ve become, or cannot grow away from—it’s just a city so tightly populated I’m constantly faced with opportunity after opportunity for this darkness inherent in me to seep out. The dark-ness itself might not have grown.
Though angry in the midst of all these people, some part of me rips when I look at a child. Not every child, but especially the ones who look well-behaved, afraid, nice, the kind who wouldn’t make you want to slap them. Not that I’d hit a child, now that I’m an adult, but I do have my fears, always. A relapse of any kind is a horror you hope isn’t fated.
But this ripping comes when I can almost smell their innocence, how vulnerable and helpless they are to the horrible world with sordid people waiting in the shadows to hurt them—or worse, waiting in gaping daylight in front of everyone, and nobody stops it, even when they know they should. And maybe, probably, every kid I see has already been hurt.
I’m projecting of course, and I know I am trying to find my own lost innocence within them. Can your innocence be lost if it was never yours to begin with?
I didn’t have many pictures from childhood since mom didn’t prioritize that kind of thing. Maybe it was too painful for her to contend with the idea of keeping memories alive when she devoted so much energy to outrunning them.
What I’m trying to tell you is that I just lost it the first time at my grandparents’ house in Mexico when I saw all the photos of me as a child. I lost it in that quiet and guarded way I’ve been tilling since birth, so people watching cannot know the fault-lined wreckage going on underneath, the rending.
Marcella and I sat at the table fiercely together, the only way we knew how to be. It didn’t matter that we were adults now—at any time we could revert to the two tiny, clenched children, holding on while the world around us foundered.
We were finally with our long-lost older sister, Isabella. Isabella, who had never forgotten us when mom left her in Mexico thirty years ago, had never given up on finding us. Isabella, beautiful, irradiant, looking more like our mother than either of us, our mother before the drugs. She wore pale pink lipstick that seemed to give off its own light, and she dyed long chunks of her brown hair bright blonde. I kept catching her in moments framed against the mountains and palm tree greenery, as if waiting to be photographed—fierce, remarkable, with the smile of the older sister you wanted, a protector to be trusted.
Marcella and I were surrounded by family speaking Spanish to us slowly, as if it would help us understand what our gringa mother had not taught us. They smiled and pointed, bringing new handfuls of photographs to go through. I looked at baby me, Oscar before he knew what was coming, nose bigger in his face, eyes still kind of tired and sad, and I want to slap him and I want to shake him and, God, I even want to hug him and something ruptures beneath and I have to leave, so I tell my family, “Voy a el baño.” Isabella’s husband had made a joke that Mexicans always announce when they go to the bathroom because it’s polite, and I thought how I’ve always done that too, and wonder if it’s because of who I come from, if somehow this might’ve been passed on to me.
I locked myself in my grandparents’ bathroom and wept. Why couldn’t I protect the child I saw in the photos, and love him into becoming the person I want to be before it’s too late? Behind every locked door, the snake of time can be heard, always slithering away. The last time I’d cried like this was before I quit drinking, when on blacked nights my hollow sobs were the echoes of a sad, drunk family tradition—my wailing mother and Dick’s friends who stayed over drinking until they couldn’t leave. I’d hide in my room hoping Dick would die before he could get to me.
I always find a way to barricade any door I’m closed behind. When I was a younger, and resources were limited, I’d use furniture—a dresser dragged across the bare floor. When I got older, and lived with roommates, I’d buy those little screw hooks and holes. I know these flimsy kinds of locks are really just suggestions, and won’t stop something serious, but still, it’s better than nothing at all. When I lived alone for the first time, I changed all the locks, violating the lease. I saved the old locks in a box and returned them to their original doors the day I moved out.
I can’t escape my mother, young and beautiful in all the photos, her sorrow bottomless and black, the trapped look in her eyes—or did I only imagine that because of what I knew? At this point I hadn’t talked to her in years, after slowly but plainly pulling fully away from her in the decade and a half since Marcella and I had been knocked into foster care.
My father kept circling the table, looming over me, grabbing photographs before I could see them, shoving others in my face—pictures of him—“Look at your father when I was a child,” he’d say, placing the photo on top of whatever I was looking at. I’d move to another chair, but he’d follow. We’d only just met the day before, and his newfound interest in me and pride in being my father, while slightly flattering, mostly infuriated.
Yet, I was surprised by the inadequacy of hatred I felt when I looked at him. He was almost too pathetic to hate. This monster, whose abuse and destruction I’d lived in the wake of my entire life—I was born in those waves—was just a pitiful man all alone in a small house nobody visited. He was always at my aunt’s or grandparents’, but all our family seemed to regard him as a narcissistic teen who never grew up. Though his anger could still color the room, they seemed more annoyed by it than afraid.
I made my way to their wedding day, in Kansas, before my father had briefly moved us back to Mexico with him. Mom was in an off-white dress in front of wood-paneled walls over dark brown shag carpet. The dress could’ve been white in the yellowed photos, but I remembered she’d once told me, “I clearly wasn’t a virgin, so I couldn’t wear white.” She wore a matching hat, which I’d never seen her do before. Who was this beautiful, spectral woman?
The photo of them cutting the cake—my mother, with a strained smile, is gazing straight forward, not at the camera, not down at the cake, where her hand rests on the knife under my father’s, who is behind her, leaning forward, his eyes almost closed, as if he were caught mid-blink, or he was drunk. His other arm is around her back, holding a coupe glass full of Champagne. I felt my mother’s knuckles tightening on the knife’s handle, imperceptible to my father, and her thought shot through me, rushing and confusing and unbearable, what if I stab him, quick and easy, just turn around and gut him?
I got sick on my last night in Mexico, a parasite, but I was misdiagnosed before I left, put on the wrong antibiotics. On the flight home, the plane’s restroom lock was broken. I had to go multiple times, and each time, I didn’t trust that the “occupied” light was enough to stop people from entering, so I pressed my hand on the door as firmly as I could. I’m like this in any restroom without a lock—if I can’t reach the door, I extend my arm as far as possible, as if I’m casting a spell, willing it to stay closed. After all these years, I’m still unsure of what it is I think I’m doing, or why I feel so threatened if I’m not somehow bolted behind the slab.
My doctor in New York prescribed me the appropriate antibiotics and asked me about my anxiety, since I was so on edge in the examination room.
She said, “What do you do for relief?”
I could not think, except, nothing—I suffer.
Will I always be cursed by the desire to lock doors once I’ve left them, too? If there’s no key, I’d leave behind a room locked and empty. I guess desire isn’t the word, but neither is fear. It’s somewhere in between—I am afraid I may accidentally lock the door as I’m leaving, with no one inside, so later it will need to be broken into. And, if I’m honest, maybe it’s not an accident, so I’m intoxicated by the possibility of doing something so stupid and reckless. Who could stop me?
If telling you a story is like building a house, then my desire is to create in its structure, brick by brick, some place we might gain something from. If I illuminate for you the house of my own life, and we look together, maybe turning on all the lights won’t be as dangerous as I fear. There’s so much I cannot see, do not want to see, may not ever be ready to see. But if I show you, I’m not seeing it alone.
I want you to trust me, because your trust could be the reflection I might believe in. You are part of the piecing I’m doing to become whole, and good, and decent. Gaining your trust feels like a stitch toward grace. If you trust me, maybe I can trust myself.
I asked Isabella what she remembered—I was only two, but she was six when mom left her in Mexico, so she has first-hand memories. Mom had told me stories of my father’s violence as long as I can remember, and they feel entwined with my being, so near to me that it sometimes feels as if I witnessed them myself, or that they happened to me. But I was still not prepared to hear what Isabella remembered.
She didn’t go into detail, and telling me in English made it slow and sparse, but she told me of a time our mother and father were fighting, and mom told her to go to her room and shut the door. But she left a slit open to see them screaming at each other and then our father knocked mom to the floor and she didn’t get back up.
That singular image repeats in my head, of my mother being knocked down—I can hear the scream, the thud of her body, her last gasp of breath when she hits the floor, and then the silence. It happened either right before I was born or shortly after—the timeline, like everything else in our past, is mud-covered confusion. From a cracked doorway, I can’t stop seeing her fall again and again and again, and my father standing over her.
I feel the need to ask you to forgive me for the parts I obsess over, the scenes I heard about— when she was kicked in the stomach when she was pregnant with me, dragged by her hair when she tried to flee in the night—and I wonder, why do I want to be forgiven? These things are true. They happened. They are pieces that cannot be discarded, and so I must tell you.
The next year, on my second trip to Mexico, I went without Marcella. I learned my family celebrated Christmas on its eve, together with a large meal. I was embarrassed I had brought nothing, so I was relieved to find giving gifts was secondary, and there wasn’t a big show of opening them, different from what I had learned to loathe.
My father speaks better English than anyone else in our family, so I was roped to him as I tried to avoid him. This year, though, I felt less burdened to extend so much unwarranted kindness to him. He asked me a lot about myself, but only to interrupt my responses in order to talk about himself. I thought, it’s true—all men really are some form of my father, even if he wasn’t around. So, I stopped answering when he asked me questions, just smiled and nodded, and he didn’t notice and kept going. That this felt like every date I’d been on made my chest cramp.
He asked me why my Spanish wasn’t any better since last year, and, with a wink, if I had girlfriends I could practice with. I had told Isabella I was gay long before my first visit, drunk and crying over the phone. She laughed and asked why I was so upset when she already knew. I asked her to tell our family, and she did this for me.
I looked my father in the eye and told him evenly, “You know I do not have girlfriends.”
Later, he came into the kitchen with bottles of rum and wine, and asked me if I would have some wine, “since it’s not too strong.” More things he knew—how alcoholism worked, that I was in recovery.
“I know your sister Marcella loves rum. I saw her post pictures holding bottles of the Captain,” he said.
Isabella turned from the stove and said, “Maybe you should learn something about drinking from your son.” And then they argued in Spanish too fast for me catch.
I felt the minute attacks, the pointed but possibly oblivious blows. He was a man so small he was too easily blinded by his narcissism. How could a man like him hurt me with the kind of warfare tactics that took other families lifetimes to wage? What could he do to me that would begin to compete with anything Dick had already inflicted?
One of my exes didn’t drink because he didn’t enjoy it, not because he had a problem. He was the first man I dated after I’d gotten sober, but he had no interest in understanding what it meant that I was an alcoholic.
“You can drink in front of me. I’ll make sure you’re okay,” he’d said one night, unprompted. This offer came after I had told him about the blackouts, the injuries, the years of wanting to die.
A man will never give me what I want—not my father now that he’s in my life, not any man I’ve dated, and not my stepfather, who can’t give me anything because he’s dead. Unless his haunting is considered a thing that one gives. But that is a gift I do not want. There is so much I do not want—and yet, I engage it anyway.
Isabella showed me more photos she’d found—unlike the ones from last year, these included Marcella, who was born after we left Mexico. Our grandparents had come to visit us in Kansas, before mom stopped speaking to them. I didn’t know about these visits because I was a baby, Marcella a newborn, but apparently, they came a few times. They never brought Isabella—they told her she was too young to travel, but the truth was they were afraid mom would try to keep her.
There’s a photo with me on mom’s hip and our grandmother holding Marcella in her car seat. Shattered flashes of Marcella and me as children, and I don’t know the little boy I see, why he did the things he did. It’s as if I’m watching someone else, a scene from The Bad Seed—Oscar smacking Marcella for not wearing her glasses in school, for lying to him about where she’d been when she came home late, for overcooking the shells and cheddar when their mom was gone.
Or, sometimes, he hurt her for no reason at all—as if there could be a valid reason. Once, he made her ride a bike in their neighbor’s back-yard, which was a dirt bike course with large dips and hills. He told her to ride though it as he watched from the property edge. Marcella didn’t want to, but he hit the back of her head and shoved her out into the dirt. She slowly cycled through, but came back crying and told him she was scared.
Oscar made her go back out, told her to ride as fast as she could up the biggest hill to make the jump. She went out again, heavily pedaling toward the hill, but turned away at the last moment, circling back to plead with Oscar, begging him not to make her do it.
He whacked her once more, and out she went again and again, turning away each attempt at the base of the hill, and outright beseeched Oscar, “Please don’t make me do this.”
He choked her, lifted her by the throat and said she had one more fucking chance to do it right. He did not have to say, or else.
She rode a final time toward the hill, drifting, the sun beginning to set, the tree’s shadows growing more ominous in the golden afterglow, and she suddenly veered off toward the road. Her heart thumped so loudly her ears could burst, fear pumped her legs harder than ever before, and she briefly escaped into a dizzying lightness that engulfed her, disappearing as if through some cloud come down from the sky to save her.
I think of what that night must’ve been like for her, when she inevitably had to return, unable to truly escape Oscar. Nobody helped her, and I wish I could go back and put a stop to it. Somehow the me of today time-travelling to grab child-me by the back of the neck, yank him away and ask, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The search for the whys and the hows is always the darkest room in the house, and I am so frightened, though what right do I have to be afraid when the monster is me. Am I a monster, or is this what it means to have hurt?
Though, there must be a why. I’ve read that when children are violent with other children, it’s a learned behavior—there are no bad seeds—but I don’t know where I would’ve learned this violence. I don’t think Dick ever hit me. Yet, I know he touched me—it sometimes comes back to me in dreams, when I cannot crawl out of the bathroom I’m trapped in with him, and then, there is a blankness so heavy I wake up choking.
The trip blinded me—hot white light so bright it felt as if I had to have my hands cracked over my eyes most of the time, barely able to see between my trembling fingers. The light cast itself aggressively and unforgivingly on who I was, where I came from, what I did not know.
It roared like fire in the beginning, when I saw my winter depression, which only grows as I age, still hellhounding behind me. The talons of cold sadness dug into me so deeply I felt stupid thinking simply leaving frigid New York for warmer Mexico would stop it. Without Marcella, I alone faced the brunt of this alien familial pressure—pressure to receive the fructuous love of a family I only recently met, whose language I still did not speak.
Yet, it got easier. The light softened, stopped frightening me, or numbed me to the point of fearlessness, and I received such immense moments of joy—watching my grandmother, quiet and serene as she set a table for dinner in my aunt’s backyard by the pool, my 93-year-old grandfather remembering that I liked my coffee black, Isabella proudly telling a waiter concerned I was ordering food that was too spicy, “He is a Mexican.” Isabella laughing on the beach, or crying in her bedroom late at night when she told me how her mission after our mother left her was to be with me again one day, and how all her friends cried with her when she told them she’d found me, that I was coming to Mexico.
“You are my inspiration,” she said. “The way you are so strong, coming from mom and her drugs, and how you keep climbing every year. If I think something is too hard, I think of you.”
Isabella knew everything about me—I somehow trusted her more than anyone and told her everything. She made it so uncomplicated, and I almost didn’t feel the need to tell her again all the reasons why I was nothing inspirational.
These moments, the language barrier was scalable. I told her how nervous I was speaking to our grandparents because they spoke no English.
“Speak with your heart,” she said. “It doesn’t have to make any sense for them to feel what you mean.”
We hugged and cried without speaking, and it was a rare time when I felt present, when I didn’t anxiously want to fill the silence, or wonder how long we would embrace, what I should do with my hands, if my crying seemed authentic. I was truly feeling without being preoccupied with properly showing that I was feeling. I suppose, it was authentic, a reality I wasn’t sure I believed in. I’ve heard that witnessing displays of pure joy can embarrass people, and I believe it. And it seems that feeling true joy is even more terrifying, but what is it like for you? How do you experience joy without the fear of its inevitable expiration shadowing it all?
I considered how nobody could take this away from me, ever. I would go back to the U.S. and be depressed in the city, with a drug addict mother who I didn’t talk to, and Marcella who would not forgive me, and myself—the person whom I hated most and could never break free from. But none of that despair would dampen this moment. I could die on the plane, just as I fear I will every takeoff, but I would die owning this embrace with my sister who’d spent her life trying to get back to me.
Later, I wondered why I am consumed with delineating what can and cannot be taken from me. The touch, the feel of being alone—the panic of our lives.
Christmas Eve—I pulsated with magnetic and snapping power around my father. Something about the way I was dressed felt either indicative of, or responsible for, this magic surrounding me—all black, boots, a turtleneck, the Gothic cross I’ve had since I was a teen, dangling on a long chain. I was the witch I’d always wanted to be. The turtleneck was especially potent—a protection of the throat, the warding off of strangulation.
Once more, my mother’s presence sifted into me, and I thought of the absolute power my father had had over her, holding her life in his battering hands. She had to flee back to Kansas to get away from him, and even then, everything he’d done chased her with bloodied teeth biting at her Achilles.
All those brutally commanding years, and now he couldn’t do anything to me. Though I was courteous and polite to him, it was my choice to be so. A revolution, and a thought—how different could things have been if my mother had returned to Mexico, or left me here? A counter thought—it doesn’t matter. The wild winds of life sailed me back toward this man who could’ve killed me when I was in utero, and almost had.
I was Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth—a movie that came out the year I was born—in the scene toward the end when she realizes David Bowie can’t control her, and she says to him, over and over, “You have no power over me.” My long hair blew in the wind, I held a crystalline sphere filled with light, and a child was saved.
The restroom door was locked at a cafe in Brooklyn. I saw multiple people go up and try to open it after I had. Usually, I start second-guessing my attempt, and wonder if I tried hard enough to open the door, and think, nervously, that I should go and try again, perhaps with more vigor, but after seeing others try, I believed it was truly locked.
I thought of who must be inside. There was a man I remember sitting by the counter waiting for his order, and he was scowling and fidgeting impatiently. Every time a server walked by, he tried to make eye contact with them to convey his displeasure at having to wait. It made sense that a man with that kind of negative energy and entitlement would go to the bathroom and lock himself in there, ignoring the multiple door-knob rattles letting him know people were waiting.
A confused-looking server wandered around the cafe with a plate of food. It must be the horrible man’s order. And he’s locked away in the bathroom, holed up.
I had to pee so badly I went to the restroom again and knocked aggressively this time, and put my ear to the door to listen for commotion, but there was nothing. I imagined the hateful man in there, sitting on the toilet, being completely unbothered and unburdened by the needs of everyone else in the cafe, smugly denying us entry. Surely he didn’t even need to use it, but was taking up the space because he could.
Another fifteen minutes passed, and I started to doubt the man was in there. Or, if he was, he was most likely doing heroin. The wandering plate of food was brought to someone else I hadn’t noticed before, so it was not the man’s.
I went to the counter and asked a server if there’s a possibility the door could be locked without anyone inside, if it locked automatically.
“No. If it’s locked, there’s someone in there,” he said, not making eye contact as he tapped out something on the screen in front of him.
“I knocked, but didn’t hear anyone,” I said.
“That’s weird,” he said.
“I mean, there could be someone in there just ignoring the knocking, but I wanted to double-check.”
“If it’s locked, someone is in there,” he repeated.
I sat down to my computer and tried to focus on the work I was doing, but I couldn’t. All I could feel was the pressure of my bladder, and the slow, chronic rage I hated I could still live in.
A few minutes later, the server put a key on the table in front of me.
“I asked, and apparently the door does lock automatically if it’s shut all the way,” he said and walked away.
I went to the door and hesitated. I imagined finding the angry man on the toilet, pants down to his ankles, overdosed and eyes closed, a needle still in his arm.
I unlocked the door, and when I opened it there was no one inside, just an empty restroom.