When I started college over a thousand miles away from my hometown, my father was in jail and my mother and little sister were barely speaking to me.
They blamed me for tearing the family apart -- not the violence, the fighting, or the years of destruction from two people in a toxic marriage -- but me. After all, I was the one who had called 911 that night in August and I was why my father ended up in jail and subsequently bankrupt.
My parents got married in 1982 in Bangladesh. I was born two years later and they moved to the States by the time I could walk. At first we lived in decrepit, filthy housing in Bronx and Queens with visible pipes, backed-up toilets that never got fixed, and no heat even during the worst blizzards.
My father worked as a line cook and a cab driver before running a convenience store in Houston. My mother worked here and there when she could. We were never wealthy, living frugally like most immigrant families who come here with nothing. My mother couldn’t stand it -- not because she wanted for things for herself (though I’m sure she did) but because we, her babies, wanted for things like new shoes and Hello Kitty bikes.
The family in NYC in 1990. Also pictured: My father’s ridiculous ‘stache.
That’s all they fought about. Money.
Even when I was a teenager and we were firmly in the middle class, the fights never stopped. My mother, all four foot eleven of her, was not a happy woman. She tried going to school, but no one could watch us. She tried volunteering and taking care of the house, but she never was the housewife type.
And my father, a man who loved being around friends and helping strangers but who rarely hugged us, couldn’t fix her or the marriage. And so in violent, sometimes bloody eruptions, they fought.
The summer before my first year of college at Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, MA, I had had enough. There were glasses breaking downstairs, screaming, hitting. I was 18. I walked downstairs determined to stop it, my rage making me just as violent as them.
When he gave me the black eye and then went and got the kitchen knife, I picked up the phone, unwilling to let this go further. I was surprisingly calm and firm. My mother and sister begged me, literally on the floor with their desperation, not to call the cops. But I did, one eye on my heavy-breathing, angry, sweaty father, the same father who had once taught me to ride a bike, drive a car, change a tire.
He went willingly with them, apologizing to us and the two young officers. The third officer, someone I had seen around town, had the bluest eyes I had seen in real life. He put the ice on my eye and asked me if I needed them to call the ambulance. I refused. Already, regret had made me frozen and petrified. What the fuck had I done?
The blue-eyed officer told me about his years in high school, how he hated being bullied. He told me he’d seen a few black eyes himself from other boys. We sat in my kitchen until I couldn’t feel my face, let alone my throbbing eye. Then he gave me the number to his direct line and told me to call anytime.
I left for Massachusetts as planned, my mother helping me move in. She was dutiful and angry but not totally unkind. I was her daughter still -- just not her best friend. My sister was less civil; her teenaged angst coupled with the situation had made her unreachable.
“I just never wanted this to go outside the family, to get the police involved. We would have been okay keeping it private,” my mom told me as we ate Chinese food on her last night moving me in. Later in bed, I cried so hard my other two roommates must have heard me. It wasn’t homesickness that was killing me though. It was relief that I was away and guilt I couldn’t fix the disaster I left behind.
Months later, I flew home for the trial. By then my father had been taking anger management classes and had filed for bankruptcy. We had talked and even saw each other over Family Weekend, strained and polite hugs. He seemed older, calmer.
My sister and mother were less pissed at me but never shied away from bringing up the problems I had caused before leaving them behind -- that was the real issue, I came to realize. I had left them behind on a scholarship with my dreams and suitcases. I was able to forget, even for a few hours, and they couldn’t.
Outside the courtroom, my father’s attorney, morbidly obese and perpetually red in the face, was less accusing and more practical. In the waiting room outside Courtroom 10, he told me that I had to take the witness stand because I was the one on the 911 call.
He also informed me in a very lawyerly way that it was “ABSOLUTELY FINE” if I didn’t remember exactly what happened or if my father even had a knife -- in other words, he told me what I would have to say for the prosecutor to drop the case. I looked at him and then at the floor, realizing how much I wanted to be back in Massachusetts watching "The Bachelor" with wine and pizza and friends.
For a year I had been blamed for this and for a year I had suffered with regret and guilt. I just wanted it all to go away.
My dad and I in Dhaka, 1985
When I got led into the jury-less courtroom with the old, wheezing judge, the first person I locked eyes with was the young officer with the blue eyes. I looked at him, wanting to say sorry for what I was about to say. (A few years later I would run into him at the grocery store and he’d ask how college was and give me a half-hug, leaving me feeling terrible.)
Then I looked at my father in his ill-fitting suit. He wouldn’t look at me. I thought of my mom outside the courtroom. And I thought of my sister who would possibly never forgive me for leaving her behind.
“Ms. Masoom, what did your father pick up and threaten you with on that night?”
“I don’t remember.”
“It wasn’t a kitchen knife, like your statement says here?”
“I don’t remember.”
Somehow, after 30 frustrating minutes, the prosecutor let the case go. I never asked for the details. When they let me leave the courtroom that day, I walked out quickly and proceeded to throw up in the bathroom and punch the walls of the stall until I couldn’t feel my knuckles.
I’m 29 now. I somehow ended up graduating law school and becoming a functioning adult. My parents have since split several times and reconciled, selling our home and downsizing to a condo to pay back years of debt. My mother is trying to start a career at 50 and my father works 16-hour days driving wealthy people around town, a job for a younger, healthier man.
From what I know, the violence has stopped, though they do fight. When I see them interact, I’m always a little sad for them. They never learned what it’s like to be able to talk to someone openly, be their best friend, and be able to tell them anything. My mother is always surprised when I tell her things about my relationship (“You tell him about your cramps? You know how much he makes? He WANTS to cook?”).
I have written about this several times in my head, wanting to come to an answer for myself as to whether I regret forgetting things on the stand or whether I regret ever even calling 911. I still don’t know.
I do know is that my parents and I are closer than ever. I know that I can’t always fix people, especially people who are now in their 50s and need to find their own way. And I know that I am no longer willing to take the punches that weren’t meant for me in the first place.
This is what a functioning, classy, well-adjusted adult looks like, folks.