Dad's Office, My Palace by Eric Passarelli  I think I was 10 —or maybe 11— when my parents instructed me, “Make sure all the doors and windows are locked! Don’t open the door unless you know who’s there! Don’t answer the phone unless you know who’s calling! If you have any problems, call! Love you!” and proceeded to leave me home alone. It was a feeling of pride upon learning I was deemed mature enough to watch myself, yet one that was bittersweet. Until that moment of freedom, I was sent to my father’s restaurant whenever Mom ran an errand or was at work. From a time of not-so-secretly picking my nose at age four to playing Truth-or-Dare with friends at age ten, the hodgepodge of nautical decor and sterile workspace was the babysitter my parents couldn’t afford. The restaurant had deep, royal blue walls, a clay-like pink floor, and bright yellow moldings. From the ceiling hung sea creature sculptures constructed out of rusty wrenches and old screws that I used to brag about, believing my father built these creative pieces until he properly informed me they were made by someone else. The wobbly tables were an iridescent blue, recreating the image of waves reflecting sunlight. Along one wall were three large water tanks with live lobsters swimming within. Even past the age of uncontrollable curiosity, I petted their cold backs before any of them could claw my little pinky. Outside, a vast desk populated by umbrellas and brick-red picnic tables overlooked the Byram River in Connecticut. Hungry families and tired workers stumbled through the glass doors to the restaurant, forming a never ending, chaotic line to place an order. An old, slouched-over couple dining at their favorite restaurant smiled at the young, cool couple behind them, who prayed for a successful first date. A sweet-talking mother took out the hand wipes for her children’s germ-infested paws, while her tired husband tried to grab each of the three hyper children. A young man in a nice suit continued to check his watch and tapped his feet on the ground. Maybe I was gloating over the fact I didn’t need to wait for food, or maybe I was interested in seeing the cast of characters, but I ran up and down the line until my grandma dropped the baked clams she was making in the open kitchen and told me to be careful not to slip. Between the pans clashing against each other, the clacking of heels tapping the ground, the worried pleas of my watchful grandma, and the echoing yells from my stressed father, the restaurant shook in an excitement that was too much for my tiny body. I needed the comfort and safety of my cozy living room at home, but realized sneaking out of the restaurant and trekking thirty minutes uphill to my house wouldn’t be successful. Instead, I happily retreated to my palace containing Staples filing systems, rotting rolling chairs, and binders of tax returns. The compact office in the restaurant beat out any playground slide or Chuckie Cheese’s ball pit. Although it didn’t contain a big comfy couch or a soft rug, I relaxed in the surprising comfort of this bland space. Its floor was refreshingly cold and smooth to the touch. Brushing my bare feet against this tiled floor was comparable to feeling the silk blanket at home hugging my body. Although I’ve always dreaded harsh fluorescent lighting, the office’s was welcoming. The walls were originally white, supposedly, but were now a muted gray with marks and dust, deteriorated by scratches and dents. Whereas the restaurant was a mosaic of colors, shapes, textures, and even fishy smells, the office was a white, gray, and brown desert of possibility; it was a blank canvas for me to paint on. In the back left corner of the office, a standard metal cabinet leaned on the bare walls. Scratching the old Scotch tape off the sides was always a challenge; the unremovable pieces were my greatest enemy. The struggle was worth the satisfaction of finally getting my tired nails under a flap of tape. From time to time, I’d open each drawer and run my fingers through the tens of folders, often shutting the drawer quickly before someone walked inside; reading the papers tucked into the folders seemed too risky. Thankfully, it was magnetic, so the star-shaped magnets I brought from home to hang my crayon, stick-figure drawings worked. I covered the lucky remaining pieces of dirty tape with my childish art pieces. Next to the cabinet, a map of Long Island Sound and a monthly calendar blanketed the marked-up wall. I skimmed through each month to look at the mysterious, moon-shaped symbols inked in the bottom right corner of certain days. Once I was old enough to understand the difference between a crescent moon and a full moon, I realized the symbols marked the moon cycles for each month. When boredom consumed me, I’d doodle on the bottom edge of the calendar before my aunt warned me not to write over her “important reminders.” The map of the water wasn’t like the ones I saw in my second grade history class when I was learning the states and countries. It was cluttered by squiggly lines and random numbers; to me, it was more of a strange drawing than an informative map. The laminate over the map was sharp and unfriendly, stabbing me whenever I accidentally rubbed against it. Before my father or aunt left the office, they violently flipped through the calendar and examined the map. I tried to ask what the map showed or what was important on the calendar, but no one was patient enough to form a satisfactory answer for a seven-year-old boy. I was frustrated. I was glad they would leave. I examined the map and made up various theories as to what it was. My aunt’s writing was too sloppy, and my dad’s was in script, so reading the “important reminders” on the calendar was impossible. May 13- Eric’s Birthday. That was the most important reminder; I wrote it in when they weren’t looking. As I gained courage with age, I sometimes left the office and snuck into the kitchen, hiding behind Bertha while she washed and dried the used dishes. She placed her chubby finger over her lips and said “Shhh!” before she giggled and said something unrecognizable in Spanish. I ran up to my grandma and rested my head on her hunched-over back while she continued working on those baked clams. She put down the clams and turned around to give me a big kiss on my cheek. I ducked under the elevated oven and visited my dad, Ramone, and Omar, admiring their frying skills and laughing at their jokes. I tried to sneak out of the kitchen without Nunzio noticing me, but this grump bumped into me and lashed out insults on how I needed to get out of his way as he took the customers’ orders. I never understood why my dad gave Nunzio the responsibility of greeting guests and patiently waiting while they decided their order; he was the villain of my childhood. I nicknamed him Squidward and rarely succeeded in avoiding his wrath, always sprinting back to the office before he caught me. Back from one of my thrilling journeys, I resorted to my seven-year-old ways and found things to entertain myself. I bounced my cousin’s rubber band ball, which was nearing the size of my head, until it landed in a region out of reach. I stretched out my arms and legs while resting in the swirly chair, spun in circles, banged into the metal cabinet or desk, and entered a state of unpleasant nausea. I prayed the computer would work for once so I could go on the Internet and read about movies on IMDB; praying never seemed to work. The computer was a Dell, equipped with AOL’s despicable dial-up Internet service. By the time I was ten, I was able to sing along with the ugly ringing of the three-step process to get onto the Explorer. I stared up at the ceiling and lay back in the chair when my mind had run dry. I had done almost everything I could think of. I played school when my sisters and cousins joined me in this oasis; I was a pro at hitting the ruler against the wall when the “students” were out of hand. I thought the most important part of being a parent was picking the child’s name, so I decided if I had a daughter, her name would be Sasha. If I had a son, his name would be Maximilian (although I misspelled it as Maximillion), Max for short. I tried to create a comic strip but gave up due to frustration when I couldn’t draw my main character the same in each strip. I wrote my first murder mystery story, and spent more time choosing a font than writing the actual story. I played almost every computer game on Miniclip; the few left were challenging when I was eight but were too easy now that I was ten. I typed up the daily specials when my aunt didn’t have the time to do so, and made sure they looked professional. I got my first paycheck from running food and I gave up Eric’s Lemonade Stand to my sisters because I graduated from 25 cents per cup to $3 tips per table waited. It was fitting that I was old enough to watch myself once the office had run its course. The office didn’t seem or look special on the surface, and to others it was easily dismissed as another bare dungeon harboring torturous boredom. However, I knew it as this safe place overflowing with adventure and covered by physical marks of my childhood play. When my parents left me home alone, I always carried the home phone next to me, even though I told myself I was brave enough that a call would be weak. But if there was ever the slightest creak, I remembered what my parents told me and hit speed dial for safety. It was bittersweet. I was no longer within my palace walls, a place where there were never any problems and I never had to call.