Color the Walls
by Eli Rallo
Runestone, volume 5
Color the Walls
by Eli Rallo
Runestone, volume 5
When I was growing up my mother only ever went away without my father one time. It was the longest time she’d ever been away from my brothers and I and it barely lasted three days. I was eleven years old—in that strange place between childhood and teenage years that eleven year olds are, trying to be myself as much as possible while also trying not to stand out to any absurd degree. It was two weeks before Christmas, and New Jersey was in a strange spell of weather. It was mild outside, to the point that parkas and hats hadn’t been broken out yet, and people were still in short sleeves. It was warm enough that we still had recess at the fields across the street from my middle school. It felt nothing like Christmas. It was an aggravating thing, having the high temperature in the 60s or 70s day after day. It was uncomfortably hot and that heat had stretched out around me and closed in on me like a bubble I couldn’t escape from.
Just a week prior I’d asked my mother to sit on the edge of my bed as she tucked me in, and I stared at my palms as I told her about these panic attacks I’d been experiencing recently. I told her about the way I forced myself to do things everywhere I was—how I had to blink a certain amount of times before leaving a room or dig my thumbnail into my palm thirteen times every time I got in a car. I told the truth. It was a calculated conversation, on my side… one I knew for a long time I was going to have to bring up. I was scared, I needed help, and I was embarrassed. Something about the idea of therapy at 11 years old felt like something to be ashamed of. I hadn’t even made it to high school and I needed a shrink to tell me my throat wasn’t going to close up, that I wasn’t going to die every day at 11:30 am when I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t make eye contact with my mom as I tried to explain myself. I couldn’t. I sometimes feel like I can’t breathe, but I can breathe, it’s just I felt like I can’t, and it hurts. My mother was surprised but calm and a little sad I think, confronted with the realization that she had a child who’d been suffering quietly—under the radar but right in front of her face. I’d have my first therapy appointment later that week. And I spent the whole hour avoiding eye contact and twisting the wrapper of a butterscotch candy between my sweaty fingers. But I could tell it would help, therapy—so long as conversation of it and any allusion to the fact that I had a therapist didn’t leave the four walls of my mother’s station wagon.
Despite the chaos of the week prior I urged my mother to go away for the weekend. I had been living with panic attacks for months and was no different now that I’d vocalized it. I just needed time to understand that this wasn’t anything out of the norm; rather, I was a normal human being with normal human being issues that so many other people grappled and struggled with daily. Things would get better. I had taken the steps toward helping myself.
So she went.
Normally, when my parents went away, my grandparents would come stay with us to drive us to and from school and make sure a house with three children and three dogs didn’t fall apart. At eleven, I used to think I was old enough to stay alone, but realistically this was just my own adolescent yet brazen confidence. This time though, my dad wasn’t going with her, so he’d be staying with us.
This was strange.
My dad is a chef who owns restaurants, which I now understand is a great deal of responsibility, but then I sort of thought he was just a workaholic. I looked up to my dad like I looked up to no one else as a kid; everyone constantly told me I was just like him. But at the same time, I could count on one hand the days I remember with my dad that didn’t have something to do with work. And all of those times managed to be shared with other people. I rarely had my father’s attention to just myself.
When I was four I used to wake up before 5 am and my dad would pull me out of bed and put me in my car seat in the back of his red pick up truck in my matching pajamas and messy hair and we’d open up the cafe he used to own together. The very first memories I have are of sitting on the cool metal countertop, barefoot, watching my father start to bake bread in the morning. He was meditative when he cooked, treating cooking like a ritual. He cooked as though he was remembering all of these things from his mother, who died when he was a young seventeen. He’d set me there, in the corner of the quirky place, on the counter with a white coffee cup filled with stracciatella gelato. I’d let it start to melt until he’d finish the first batch of croissants. Then I’d dip a chocolate croissant into the gelato and get it all over my face. My dad’s only rule is that you can have whatever you’d like for breakfast as long as you finish it.
It was the only time I wasn’t talking and running around causing some sort of a scene. I was quiet. Observant. And my dad would knead the dough. He’d hum along to the radio. He’d slowly turn all the lights on. And for about an hour, it’d just be us two, the croissants, the gelato, the radio, the sugar on the elephant ear shaped cookies, the smell of warm bread. And then the rest of the world would wake up and interrupt our morning tradition, and I’d wait until my mother would come in with my baby brothers for breakfast.
But that was age four and at eleven there was no longer a cafe or a red pickup truck or any moments with my dad that I felt like were just our moments. I had my mom promise she wouldn’t tell him about the panic attacks, and thinking about it now it’s funny that I ever thought she actually kept something like that from her husband. And it felt weird that he’d be taking off of work for the weekend to take care of my brothers and me. Not weird in any sort of bad way, just weird that we’d have his full attention for 72 hours. Weird like that.
The second day of my mother’s short-lived absence my dad woke us up early. We all got into his Toyota, the car that replaced the red truck. We didn’t drive in his car much. And he normally had a rule that we couldn’t eat in his car. He had it cleaned and detailed religiously. An old Toyota nonetheless—kept spotless. Quite the juxtaposition. My mother is always saying my father treats everything we own like he treats the restaurants. Everything always has to be spotless, as if an inspector could barge through the front door at any minute. The interior of our home reminds me of a museum sometimes. His car back then was that way. We piled into the car, in the sticky heat of a strange Jersey December and drove for twenty minutes. The Christmas radio station played in the background, harmonious with the sound of the twin’s back and forth banter from the backseat. I sat up front with my dad. I inquired about where we were going over and over and over again. I remember him telling me it was a surprise. That he had a plan. That we were going to do something crazy. My brothers were teeming with excitement. But my anxiety was ushered in where their excitement sat. The unknown was perpetually contemptible.
We finally pulled up to the Ye Old Pie Shop– where my dad liked to get cakes and pies from for holidays. He went inside and told us to wait. My brothers begged me to tell them what was going on—but I was as in the dark as they were. He came back with four warmed french toast bagels wrapped in foil and dripping with butter. I remember how they felt as they burned our fingers through the foil and the car filled with the scent of cinnamon. He handed us jugs of orange juice along with the bagels.
“Is that the surprise?!” My brothers cooed from the backseat, their faces smeared with cinnamon sugar and butter.
“Just wait.” My father advised, balancing a cup of coffee on his knee. So we finished our breakfast in near silence, save a few jabs from the twins in the back.
“Soooo… now what?” I can remember asking as the aluminum foil was rolled into a round ball and tossed at my feet.
“I’ll be right back.” My father announced, once again leaving us in the locked Toyota. We exchanged glances. We giggled. I tried to hide my increasing stress to the best of my ability. I dug my thumbnail into my palm. And we waited. About 15 minutes later, my father came out of a hardware store a bit down the street carrying two large and exceptionally heavy brown bags. He set them in the trunk. All of these things were unlike him.
The spontaneous drive. The buttery fingerprints on the leather interior of the Toyota. The way the twins continued to fight and poke fun and he did not scold. The brown bags. The surprise.
We drove home singing. There was this anticipation filling the car. That and the cinnamon smell and the December heat. It felt warm in a good way, in a strange way for a first time in the last few months. There was something secret about what we were doing—it was currently just between the four of us and the interior leather of the Toyota, the way a secret had never been before.
We pulled into the driveway and my dad told us all to meet him in the living room. My brothers went running from the car to our living room which was filled with old antiques and coffee table books. My father entered with a large tarp and draped it over all the furniture. In silence, he unpacked the contents of the brown bags on the ground in front of us, as though it were a production. Lined up in front of his feet was 8 large cans of paint and paint brushes.
“Paint?” my brother inquired, in a disappointed voice.
“Red and green paint.” My father followed quickly looking at us for reactions. Nobody spoke, we all searched for an explanation.
“So I was thinking,” My dad said, with a twinge of excitement– “That we paint the entire living room in red and green stripes. And we don’t tell mom, so that when she comes home, the living room is painted in red and green stripes for Christmas.”
My brothers doubled over in laughter.
“I wanna do it! I wanna do it!”
They raced over to my father’s feet and grabbed at the brushes. He pulled them back with a sense of urgency.
“Hang on hang on! If we’re going to do this, we have to put down some towels on the floor alright. And Eli—turn on the surround sound so we can listen to Christmas music while we paint.”
But I couldn’t move. I was dumbfounded. I was shocked. The man who took everything so seriously, so literally wanted to haphazardly paint the entrance room to our home, which had virgin white walls, with red and green stripes. My father, the man who wouldn’t let us leave our shoes at the front door or our backpacks in the kitchen. The man who wouldn’t let us leave blankets on our couches unfolded, or cups on the kitchen counter. He wanted to paint the walls. The thought was dizzying. It was absurd… it was surprising but something about it made sense. My dad woke up that morning and thought he should enlist two eight year olds and an eleven year old with anxiety to paint the living room walls with bright red and green paint, and this made sense.
“Are you sure?! It’s… it’s the walls…” I tried to object, hoping he’d say he was sure. Hoping this wasn’t a joke. I tried to hide the childlike giddiness inside of me but I could tell my dad shared it too.
“Yes I’m sure. We’re painting the walls. They are just walls after all– after Christmas, we’ll just have to repaint them. No big deal. Now hit us with some tunes.” I retreated to the kitchen slowly, listening to the way my brothers were giggling in the room over, as my dad strategically mapped out exactly how we’d be covering our living room walls with red and green paint.
By the time I returned and Christmas music was filling our home at an absurd volume, the paintings hanging the walls had been strewn in the corner, one shaky red line had been painted straight down the middle of the wall, my brother was covered in red paint, my dog had a splotch of it on the back of his white fur, and my dad was on the phone with half of my extended family and all our friends to come over and help.
It wouldn’t be an event at the Rallo’s without company.
We spent that entire day painting the walls. All of us. We painted terribly crooked lines all across the living room, some dark some light, some curved the others straight. We ordered pizzas and opened bottles of wine and sang at the top of our lungs and we painted.
It was the strangest sight in the middle of the warmest December. All of my family and neighbors and childhood friends, in my living room, painting the walls. It felt so wrong to deface our living room in such an absurd way—but I couldn’t stop laughing, truly laughing, holding the paintbrush from my dad’s shoulders to reach the top of the wall. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t anxious. I could breathe.
We told my mother to expect a big surprise upon her return, and she walked into our front door on an unreasonably warm Monday with a hesitation any mother would have at such a statement. We were sitting in the living room as though nothing had been changed with our shitty paint job still wet; my tiny body curled against the pesky corner of the wall, with a pool of red paint collecting on the wood floor below the dip of the wall. It was a calming motion; back and forth with the brush. No fingernails in palms. No erratic blinking eye routines. Nothing. Just paint. When the door popped open I looked up from where I sat, baggy Hanes t-shirt dipping past my knees with paint caked in my eyebrows and my hair, smudged on my nose and in between my fingers. My mother looked right at me, and she started to cry. She sobbed as she stood in the doorway, holding her bags. It wasn’t an angry cry, or a sad cry—but an emotional cry, a happy cry. A cry that grew and grew as she looked from my body on the floor, to my brothers, my best friends– holding paint brushes in the center of the room. To my father, who stood back, watching it all as if he’d spent his whole life waiting to orchestrate something so brilliant. I really believe he did.
She looked at the walls and back at the four of us and at the tarp covering her coffee table books and she just understood. She understood that walls were just walls. That solace comes from the strangest of places. She’d understood that the paint on the walls was more then paint. That the whole weekend was more than just a weekend she’d gone away. That the man she married wasn’t just capable of creating pasta sauces and flipping pizza doughs – that he too knew how to heal. She exhaled after a moment and wiped her face with a shaky palm and began to laugh. And in that moment, with no exchanged words, we all exhaled. And we all laughed.
My dad didn’t come home every night at 6 PM for dinner when I was growing up because he works in a kitchen and that’s why his hands are so worn and strong. He wasn’t a regular dad– in a suit, with a briefcase. He wasn’t a “normal” father, passing out life lessons like a Hallmark movie. But he did teach me about breakfast—that no day is complete without it and anything can be breakfast as long as you eat it. That breakfast sandwiches should be taken very seriously—that they can fix any broken heart, any bad day. He taught me that there is nothing wrong with a little noise and a little spontaneity.
And he taught me to paint the walls. To put crazy colored and festive paint on walls that have been white and rigid and boring my whole life—that walls are just walls. I needed those walls. I needed those walls and that paint and those empty pizza boxes stacked on top of a tarp and my dog covered in red and green splotches. Maybe that’s why my mom cried when she walked in the door. Because she saw me sitting there, at my most vulnerable and scared and lost, in the middle of a room covered in chaos, and I looked the most okay I had since I told her what was going on. And I felt safe. I felt happy, for the first time in all of sixth grade. I wasn’t just a lost eleven-year-old in overalls who felt like her mental health issues weren’t justified or relevant or significant. For an afternoon, I had let all of that go.
The walls stayed that way till the middle of January. And they went away when my mom finally decided that Christmas was over and it was time for white walls again. And the anxiety went away too—not as quickly or as simply as the paint, but a process just the same. And it became a memory, as I figured out how to handle panic attacks and helped myself to get better. It became a past experience that I had overcome, a part of me. It was under layers and layers and layers of paint that had built up as I changed and ebbed and flowed but it’d always be there, something that I went through. Something that made me weak but built me back up as strong. Something we go back to every time a new December rolls around, with a sigh of nostalgia. Something I will never forget. Something that colored me.
It was warm that December, and the heat had me frustrated. And I was young in the way that I thought that I needed something monumental to pull me from the tunnels of the dark inside of my mind back to a brighter reality. But things happen in funny ways and we’re always saved in the most unlikely of places – like the Ye Old Pie Shop, the front seat of the old Toyota.
And my father’s shoulders in the living room.
University of Michigan
Eli Rallo is a junior at the University of Michigan pursuing a theatre major with minors in creative writing and playwriting. She hopes to work in producing or storytelling, after graduation in addition to continuing to grow her volume of published work. She hopes to tell meaningful stories that have lasting impacts on those around her. She is inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Cheryl Strayed and Hemingway.