Stained Genes

by Rob Kaniuk

CW: abuse 

I looked at my sister and wished it were my turn to sleep on the foldout. I was seven, Colleen eight. We slept here every other weekend per the judge. I still had the blonde hair of my youth.  

I never told him I knew what he did. I’d wait for his clumsy, drunken fingers to stop while I pretended to be asleep. Over time, my bladder began to defend me where my voice failed, and I pissed his bed. “What the fuck have you done? Goddamnit, now I have to change the sheets––what is wrong with you?” 

Like I meant to do it.

Colleen began to notice my terror as bedtime approached. “Robbie, do you want to sleep on the foldout?” she’d ask. I don’t know if she meant to save me from the embarrassment of stained sheets or from him. It didn’t matter. She made it safe. But my bladder didn’t get the message and the assault on sheet and mattress continued. I wouldn’t sleep over at my friends’ houses for years.

As I grew older, my blonde hair, tarnished by the secret, turned a light brown; my crooked teeth piled forward like furniture stacked against the door, keeping me from telling anyone. My chest sank inwards, flaring my scant ribcage, pushing my lungs to the side and squeezing my heart into an abnormal rhythm. It was as if my body adapted, conforming to the emptiness, holding tight the secret.

I never told Colleen he’d been molesting me when it was my turn to sleep in his room. I never asked if he did anything to her, but her hair remains blonde. I don’t know if I should thank her for saving me from my turn or say I’m sorry for letting her take my place. I haven’t told a single person, never did a thing about it—but hate myself, my inherited traits. The hair on my knuckles. The shape of my long, bent-sideways toes. The skin wrapped tight around my wrist. The way my brown eyes would glaze, left one adrift, when I could still get high enough to forget. The dozen or so hairs that tease from my chest. The form and frequency of my lips when I cry of shame. He helped make this body of mine. I see parts of him in me every day. I wish I could change my filthy genes like he did the sheets. Instead, I am left with the stains.

Today my hair is thick, dark brown with anxious gray sprouts. I have the calloused palms of a twenty-year tradesman. Tattoos, a window dressing to distract my eyes from where the nightmares still live. The drugs took my teeth one by rotten one. I have straight white dentures and a festering secret that now has enough room to escape.

Rob Kaniuk has been described as a high school dropout, a good for nothing junkie, a filthy plumber, and a union carpenter. His most proud description comes from his niece and nephew: “Uncle Rob: The Storyteller.” Attended Yale Writers’ Workshop 2018 and 2019. Publications in Schuylkill Valley Journal. Pushcart Prize nominee for nonfiction (2018).

Artwork by: Dominika Roseclay