I have an early memory of falling off my father’s shoulders in the front yard while he was running. I remember the absence of all sound as I fell to the ground, landing on my back. I was lying in the grass, the dark green blades were long and cool, probably damp but the moisture hadn’t seeped into my clothing yet. I was looking up at the sky, the only way you should ever look at the sky, by marrying your back to the earth. We had been chasing my sister and I could hear my dad’s voice quiet, far off, asking if I was ok. My sister doubled back, I could feel her in my peripheral, although I didn’t turn to look.
I knew she was high on her own exhilaration being from chased, being the focus of attention. It was all she ever wanted, good or bad. She stood paralyzed equally by her dislike of attention being averted and her joy of harm coming to me. I was always mesmerized by those moments that followed an accident, when things slowed down and you swell with some internal awe at having not injured yourself.
I had been waiting for my father to come home to tell him about a problem I was having at school. I was having trouble with a teacher and it was the most important issue in my life at that moment. I sat down in the blue armchair next to the fireplace as he lowered himself to the slate hearth.
The shoelaces of his construction boots were untied and loosened, his white tube socks peeking out from behind the tongues. The sleeves of his white thermal shirt were pushed up revealing his large forearms. He never wore a jacket, just a thick plaid flannel shirt when he worked outside. His faded blue Levis were sometimes cuffed, he was only 5’8”. Already bald by twenty, he always wore a navy blue or black bandana on his head. The fine black hair he had left, he grew long, sometimes twisting it into a single long braid. His eyebrows formed pointed peaks, like the roofs of houses. I have the same eyebrows. He had a perfectly straight nose that my aunt envied. I only ever saw pictures of him without facial hair. He always had a mustache, a goatee or a Fu Manchu.
Most people were immediately afraid of him. He was stocky and intimidating looking. Once when my father entered a craft store, an older woman working behind the counter became afraid and started retreating backwards. He called out, “I’m looking for some acrylic paint for my daughter. Do you have any yellow ochre?” The woman was relieved and inched forward from her hiding place to help him. My dad told me later, “I think she thought I was going to rob the place.”
In front of the fireplace, he sat still and listened patiently as I unfolded my story. I experienced every emotion fully as I retold it. Afterwards, he paused. I hoped that he would impart some adult wisdom on my childhood dilemma. He said, “If I wasn’t so busy feeling sorry for myself, I’d take time out and feel sorry for you too.”
Sue was roller-skating backwards with the instructor at the center of the rink. They were skate dancing really, one of the queer hybrids still breathing life well into the late eighties. It was the middle of the day and we were at the Skate Station, where everyone in middle school went for birthday parties or just to eat pizza, play video games and wear glow necklaces while skating under the black light. The walls were painted with a rainbow that wrapped around the entire perimeter. Watching Sue move around the rink, I could see the sexuality she exuded, it was what the instructor and probably my father saw in her.
Sue was what we like to call white trash. She wasn’t what I considered attractive; she had that tired I’m-still-hot-for-a-mom look. She didn’t wear make-up or style her hair or have great taste in clothes. She wore cut-off jean shorts with the pockets hanging out and no underwear. Her brown hair was cut short and she wore men’s prescription aviator glasses, the kind a cop would wear. She had a 2-year-old son named Michael, a sweet cherub-faced boy with blond curls who was always smiling. He resembled a baby Phillip Seymour Hoffman. She was a good roller-skater. Her ability to flirt, dance and not wear underpants would be skills I would never possess.
Sue was my father’s girlfriend when I was in the seventh grade. Despite her apparent leanings towards slutty, she had a nurturing, domestic streak that was sincere. Unlike any of the women my father had dated before, she actually tried to be a substitute mom to me. Even if it was a thinly veiled attempt to win my affection, I enjoyed the attention. She moved in with my father who lived in the basement. She cooked all the time, even making noodles from scratch for chicken noodle soup. I didn’t even realize that you could make noodles; I had little experience with food that didn’t come out of a box.
It was one of the first times I remember getting Christmas presents from my dad, well, Sue. They gave me a reversible imperial blue and ivory fleece Unicorn blanket. She even took me shopping; I enjoyed being spoiled for the first time in my life. Once she took me to play B.I.N.G.O. It was a depressing scene, the bingo hall was like a cafeteria serving greasy pizza and elderly obese people smoking. I would inhale the artificial green apple of the bingo daubers to try to mask the thick odor of the cigarette smoke while attending to my cards. I won $50 on my first visit, beginner’s luck.
On one occasion, Sue did my laundry. She turned a favorite red Esprit shirt of mine coral, and for that, I will never forgive her.
My father and Sue had a volatile relationship. The same things he liked about her, would also throw him into a jealous rage. She seemed to know how to push his buttons; he had a tendency towards violence. They dated during the height of my father’s alcoholism, an addiction that fueled his rage. They would argue; he would punch holes in the walls. Screaming matches ended in 911 calls for domestic violence.
I’m telling secrets, but they are mine to tell.
We’ll start with one I know so well.
The sound of too many footsteps in the house,
the cops pacing and shifting their weight, causing the wood floor to creak.
I’m in my bedroom with the lights off, pretending to be asleep.
I’m in the seventh grade.
I’m crying and the cops are asking you “How do you think this makes your daughter feel?”
I’m worried for a moment they’ll come down the hall and ask.
Instead I hear the sound of you being thrown or throwing somebody against the front door,
being pushed onto the concrete steps and into the yard.
The grass is slippery and wet with dew, the night is dark, and in the backyard the river waits.
Then the brutal sound of your body hitting metal,
pinned against the hood of a police car.
In our front yard, on a school night.
You yelling, “You’re going to have to shoot me.
You’re going to have to kill me.”
You are unable to put your arms behind your back, they have to link handcuffs together to accommodate you, there is something written about it in your record. Along with your DUI, DWI, assault, domestic violence, jaywalking and indecent exposure. Some of these came later; for me it all happened at once.
The next morning I had to go to school.
I pretend everything is normal; I want desperately to be normal.
I get called out of French class into the guidance counselor’s office.
Walking towards Ms. Lyon’s office, I was terrified that she knew, that the police had called the school.
I sat down in a chair, facing her at her desk, “So Chandalin, how is everything at home?”
“Oh we are just checking in with the girls, making sure everyone is okay.”
Turned out it was just routine inquiry. Girls had been wearing black, depressed and mentioning suicide. Frances was rumored to have sliced her wrist with a piece of loose-leaf paper, while another girl carried around a plastic knife from the cafeteria. While other people fought for attention, I mastered invisibility. I managed not to exist at all at home.
Sitting there in her office, I considered confiding in her.
I wondered if they sent a social worker to my house if they would award custody to my grandfather and my aunt or if they would put me in foster care. My grandfather traveled all the time and my aunt was a single mom, raising two younger children on her own. The thought of foster care made me keep my mouth shut. I knew enough to know that things could get worse.
My dad had come home drunk when and him and my aunt got into an argument. He set down a Pepsi can on the countertop, accidentally placing it on a walnut, spilling the soda all over the mail. My aunt started yelling at him, he picked up the walnut in question and asked, “This? This is what you’re upset about?” and chucked it as hard as he could, splitting it in two. The next day I found one half of the walnut resting in the oven’s cooking rack. My aunt walked into the kitchen, looked over my shoulder and noticing that the inside of the nut was in the shape of a heart said, “Ironic.”
We lived in the country where we never locked our doors, except when my sister and I were kids. She was two years older and in charge of the key, which on more than one occasion she forgot. We were locked out one time and she threatened to spray me with the garden hose. I dared her. The heavy weight of the water soaked into my brown plaid school uniform. I grew cold as we waited outside. A slight breeze blew and the fall sunlight faded until the familiar crunching sound of tires over gravel could be heard creeping up the driveway.
I don’t know why, but I was prone to daring people to do things that ended badly for me. Once I dared a boy on the bus to give back a playing card he had stolen from my friend’s deck. He was dangling it out the bus window and I stood up on the seat and said, “Give it back, if you have the guts to.” Apparently, he didn’t. The card disappeared somewhere along Route 5. I later remember asking my dad, “What does guts mean?”
This was later; this was different. I arrived home from school to find the police waiting there: someone had broken into our house.
The police were interviewing my dad and my aunt. They asked us to take an inventory of the house and let them know if anything was missing.
I walked into my room to investigate. I was a good detective. I had a small salt and flour mold I made of my handprint as a child. The hook had long since rusted, so I used it as a paperweight for my lunch money. I was missing $1.
I had just done laundry the day before and remember placing my favorite lavender bra in the empty laundry basket. It was gone. I walked down the hall and asked my aunt, “Are you missing any bras?” She went back to her room to check. She was missing two.
My dad was missing his baseball hat and an XL jean jacket.
This was curious.
A transvestite broke into our house and stole my bra. Silence of the Lambs had just come out and I couldn’t help conjuring the image of a man trying to squeeze into one of my tiny bras. As a teenager, my breasts were shallow little parentheses, still struggling to fill out a training bra. The thought a man trying to stretch my bra over his enormous torso, especially the lavender one with a little bow, both haunts and humors me.
Two weeks later, I was home alone after school when I heard someone come into the house. I yelled, “Hello” as I peered down the hallway, just in time to see a shadow disappear out the front door.
We had to start locking our doors.
He was unemployed and unemployable. He lost his license for drunk driving and now he had to walk or hitchhike to the bar five miles from our house. He wrote angry letters to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Pages scrawled out in his cryptic handwriting, enclosed in envelopes address to the Moron Vehicle Association. He would ride along whenever someone was going to the DMV and hand out complaint forms to people standing in line.
My cousin saw me in school and told me that her mother had given my dad a ride home last night. She said that he was going on and on about how proud he was of me. I was embarrassed. I knew he had been hitchhiking home from the bar and was most certainly drunk. I suppose I didn’t feel sorry for him, he was too busy feeling sorry for himself.
I started to feel unsafe at home; a place where I thought my father could protect me. Curious the things that once made you feel safe later become the things you need protecting from. Just before I started high school, Sue moved to Florida and my father followed her, without me. He said that he was going to get set up, get a job, an apartment and send for me later. I remember being so afraid that everything was going to change, that everything was going to be different after he was gone. He was, after all, my only parent, my guardian. The one who would never leave me, left. Nothing changed. I went to school, came home, ate dinner, did my homework and watched television. Nothing changed. There was no difference. No ripple, no murmur, no twinge. How could that be, that my life wasn’t affected at all by his absence? No loss, just wonder and awe at having survived without injury, to exist in his absence.