Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cousins

As a small child I remember being baffled by her girly demeanor. Growing up next door to a house full of boys, I was a combination of awkward bookworm and tomboy so I imagine she was just as baffled by me too.

Her mother dressed her in fashionable dresses, leaving her waist length brown hair loose and lovely, while my mother stuffed me into overalls and cut my frizzy bangs at an awkward angle. When I went over to play there were tea parties instead of teepees made of sticks and dress up games instead of chase. She had shelf upon shelf of Barbies, all in their original boxes, and when I tried to play with them I was reprimanded. She was prissy and I was rough, as different as two little girls could possibly be, yet every time we had to be parted we cried and begged our parents for just a little more time.

At the age of twelve we got what we asked for, but in the worst possible way. Her parents were in a boating accident – her father killed on impact and her mother in a coma with severe brain trauma. She and her brother moved in with our Papa, right next door to me.

I remember fighting my way through the adults until they allowed me to sit next to her at her father’s funeral. I clutched her hand and looked straight ahead. And when the minister finished a monologue with “for all the Days of Our Lives”, we looked at each other, unable to stop the grins and tiny giggles that escaped simultaneously. It was our favorite soap opera, we watched it with our moms all the time, but we knew how much her father had hated it.

I was so excited when she started attending my school. We didn’t have any classes together, but we saw each other at lunch, recess and of course every day at home.

But it soon became apparent that our differences, however easy to work around when we hadn’t seen each other daily at home, weren’t so easy to ignore anymore. She became part of the popular crowd and I took a backseat, watching from the sidelines as she crooked her finger and got all the things most young girls are interested in – the good looking boyfriend, being a member of the cheerleading squad, and being invited to all the coolest events and parties.

I was jealous and resentful that she walked in and things seemed to fall into her lap, but I kept that to myself and I felt guilty for even feeling that way. Her father was gone and her mother was the child rather than the parent, living next door with a nurse maid. How could I possibly begrudge her the attention? She deserved to be happy and enjoy life as much as possible.

But my feelings of discontent grew as, little by little, she developed a habit of putting me down in front of other people. She would have her friends spend the night and I would be there, sitting on the edges, only included as an afterthought or a joke. I would go home crying, devastated about the way I was treated, but too afraid to stand up for myself for fear of losing the good parts of our relationship.

And there were a lot of good parts. When we were alone or just with family, we were the best of friends. We had sleepovers and inside jokes. She comforted me when my dad went on drunken rampages and I comforted her when she was depressed about her family. And the summers were the best – spending every day in our bathing suits with our other cousins, swimming and tubing, riding our bikes barefoot in the hot afternoons, picking handfuls of honeysuckle and exploring every inch of the woods around our houses. She played a major part in a lot of my fondest childhood memories.

Then, when we were 15 and 16, in the summer of 2001, our cousin Ben died in a Jet Ski accident. And we turned to each other first. I was home alone with my sister, doing chores as quickly as possible so we could go swimming, and she was just down the hill at her house, vegging and waiting on us to finish. We each got a call about the accident from someone different, but at the same time. After I hung up I took off running through the house and out the backdoor, across the porch and down the stairs, shouting her name...and she was doing the same. We met with a crash in the grass a few yards from my house and held on.

Later we prayed on our knees and I’ve never begged God for anything as hard, before or since, as I did that day in the hour after receiving the news of the crash, waiting to find out if he survived. And when he didn’t, I became something she was already well on her way to becoming – reckless.

The three of us had been born three months apart – her birthday was in March, mine in June, and Ben’s in October – and though he was the baby, I’d been the only one to really hold back on the partying, only occasionally indulging in smoking or drinking. But soon after his death I was sneaking out of the house with her, getting high most days and drunk every weekend.

She still treated me badly at school sometimes, and even at home if the neighbor girls were around, but the closest I ever got to confronting her then was a letter that she shrugged off. Because of Ben, my fear of confrontation had turned into my fear of losing her...and I was willing to be occasionally miserable in order to keep us close. I made every concession I could and when it sometimes became too much, I avoided her for a week or two to get my head on straight, always eventually giving in. After all, we’d been through so much together.

People began to notice how unbalanced our relationship had become, namely my mother, and started badgering me about standing up to her, about taking instead of always giving. Instead I continued to run when she called and I let all the resentment, all the hurt and anger continue to build up.

After we graduated and went our separate ways, it got a little easier. We still saw each other often, but not every day. In the past my attitude with her had been largely submissive, obviously, but because of the stuff I was going through, every little thing set me off. Combined with all those stored up years of fat jokes and nerd jokes, it turned me into almost as big a bitch as she was. She was thinner and had better hair, but I was witty and well read. I took every opportunity to make her look like an idiot, but with a smile on my face and more cunning than she’d ever managed to use when insulting me in public. And for a long time I was satisfied with that, with what I thought of as subtle retribution.

Over the next few years I still gave far more of myself than I thought was fair, but I’ve always been sort of a masochist. Then (I believe) the addition of being a parent stole the last shred of patience I had for the old games. I finally began to let her know that I thought she was ungrateful and took advantage of me (albeit often with my help), but instead of a reaction I expected (anger, sadness or denial), she practically laughed in my face. That, and an upsetting diatribe about what a shitty mother I was, ended it. I turned my back, ignored her calls, and went on my way.

In the long stretch of months that we didn’t speak, I had plenty of time to think about our situation. I admitted my areas of wrong doing (to myself, and later to her), but I still felt good about my decision to cut off contact. At first I felt healthier, and generally happier, without the added drama.

But soon I missed her to the point of nearly caving and calling. I missed the stories that only we shared, the laughter and all night gab sessions. She’d always been the first person I told everything to and though I knew I needed the space I’d created, it hurt.

It was nearly two years ago that, after months and months of silence, we had our first adult discussion about why things were the way they were. She was living with her then boyfriend and, for reasons that had nothing to do with me, was alienated from the majority of our family. I’d been the last one to cut off contact and the last one she’d expected it from. As I sat there on the couch I could literally see the toll it had taken on her and it shocked me. For the first time since I wrote her that letter in my childish, bubbly script, I told her how I really felt...about everything. And she listened without a trace of a smirk or hint of a laugh.

We were up all night and well into the morning, crying and confessing, hugging and promising. Underneath all the negativity that surrounded our relationship, we’d always loved each other.

And over the past year we’ve really worked at changing the way we interact. I’ve become more assertive and outspoken with her...and she’s curbed her temper, become more thoughtful. But it’s a process and, though she’ll always be my family and I’ll always love her, there’s a scar there. I knew we could never go back to being those two little girls, arguing over which game to play and nothing else, but I hoped we’d still fight tooth and nail to stay together, just like they did. I hoped we’d still go to each other first when shit went down.

I hoped, but until this past Monday, I really wasn’t sure.

*****

I woke at 5:15 to the radio alarm playing Lady Gaga and the phone bleeping and flashing red. I switched off the music, reached for the phone and turned over on my back, squinting at the bright screen. Three missed calls, all within the last 10 minutes, were from her.

And then I saw the text message, sent a mere three minutes before: “He shot his self in the face beside me. Help.” I jumped up and fumbled for my glasses, putting them on to make sure I’d read it correctly. Unfortunately, I had.

I hit redial and she answered immediately, sobbing and managing to tell me that she was going to the hospital; he was still alive. “I’m on my way”, I said. “I’ll meet you there.” The moment we hung up I ran around my room tugging on clothes. I grabbed my purse, slipped my feet into flip flops, alerted my mom and ran out the door.

It takes an hour to get there in good weather, but it was freezing and pouring down rain that morning. And while I navigated the dark, wet roads at a pace I wouldn’t normally, I thought about what I’d say to her. Even without knowing all the details I was horrified. I wasn’t thinking about him at all – I didn’t wonder why or how. I liked him alright, but I’d only met him a few times and he was still just the boyfriend to me. All I could think was, “After everything she’s been through...dear god, I can’t even begin to imagine...I’ve got to get there.”

Arriving at the hospital, I parked and ran through the rain, cursing my flip flops and lack of umbrella. My glasses fogged as I sloshed through the lobby, wet pants legs clung to my ankles and dripping hair was plastered to my neck. I rode the elevator alone to the third floor, getting out in front of another, nearly empty, lobby.

We saw each other at the same time. She was sitting in a chair next to two women and as I moved toward her she stood up and took a step, clearly unable to do more. But we crashed into each other with the same force that we had on that summer day ten years ago.

I held her thin, shaking frame tightly, until her knees started to buckle. Then we sat and I held her over the armrest, noticing that the two women she’d been sitting beside were staring. The one closest to us introduced herself awkwardly over my cousin’s crying. It was his mother. “I’m glad you’re here for her”, she said.

After a few minutes I was able to let go and she began to tell me the story. The more she spoke, the sicker I felt. She’d told me before that he had anger and depression issues, had threatened to kill his self before, but the way she’d relayed it made it sound like it was all in the past. Apparently things were strained and he “flipped out” too often. She’d always been able to calm him and talk him down before, but not this time.

And still, after I knew the details, I couldn’t think about him and his issues. I didn’t think about how I’d laughed with him at the wedding the weekend before, how young he was or about what a blow it was for his family. All that would come later. What I couldn’t stop thinking about was how close she came to being killed, how horrific it must have been to witness such a thing and how maybe, if I’d been talking to her more often, she would have told me everything from the beginning and I could have helped her get out of the situation.

After speaking with his mother, it was decided that I would take her back to their neighborhood to get her dogs safely put away. She has two Great Danes that she loves more than anything and they were scared and alone. She immediately agreed and we left.

I didn’t think we were going into his house where it happened because the dogs were at his mother’s right around the corner, but she said she needed her keys. I was hesitant, but I couldn’t let her go alone so I followed her into the entryway. While she went to the bathroom immediately inside the front door, I stood in the foyer. I stared at a cell phone lying halfway open on the carpet, surrounded by broken glass and shredded items, and shuddered.

When she came out we decided to get some of her clothes so we wouldn’t have to come back, but that required us going through the master bath and into the closet, where he’d done it. I’ve always been an extremely squeamish person, covering my eyes during anything bloody on TV and occasionally vomiting when around bodily fluids, so she told me I didn’t have to go in there...that she’d already seen the worst. But again, I couldn’t let her do that alone.

I cannot go into detail, but it was the most grisly thing I’ve ever seen in my life. She was unable to go all the way in after all and I had to make my way around the closet, picking things that were clean and holding my breath. I steeled myself and thought of nothing but getting her out immediately. It wasn’t until she was settled back at the hospital that I made my way to the bathroom and was sick.

All day we sat and waited, alternately speaking to friends and family as they found out and called to check on her. She broke down every once in awhile, finally passing out from a pill and exhaustion for about half an hour.

He made it through surgery, but was still critical. His parents were able to see him for a moment late that afternoon and they allowed her to go in too. She wouldn’t leave the hospital until she’d seen him anyway, and when she came out she nearly collapsed. I said “enough”, and took her home with me.

*****

These past few days have been exhausting, emotionally and physically. She’s getting a little better each day and truthfully, I’m in awe over her ability to keep going. He’s as stable as he can be at the moment and won’t be awake this week so she’s staying away from the hospital for now. Yesterday she saw a trauma therapist and it went well. She’s still staying at my house and between our family, his family, and their friends, there’s someone with her all the time. I’ve been managing the phone calls, the insurance information and anything else that crops up. Making sure she eats and rests.

I’ve been silently struggling a bit, trying to comfort her and keep things together. It’s a repetitive, draining task and I’ve never had to deal with anything quite this difficult before. But I love her and I’m going to keep helping her and listening, distracting her and making her laugh. And though I’d never wish this tragedy on anyone, ever, positive things have happened as a result. She’s getting therapy, which we’ve been trying to get her to do for a long time. Bridges are being mended. He’s going to get the help he needs.

And I know now, without a shadow of a doubt, that we’re going to be ok. Because when everything fell apart she dialed my number...and I fought my way there, without hesitation, to hold her hand.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wedding day, part one - Preparations

I was determined that after the last two weddings I was in, I was not going to do everyone’s makeup. It always stressed me out and had me rushing into my dress at the last minute, feeling not as put together as the others. But unfortunately, one of my faults is that I have a hard time saying no to something that’s going to make me look good...like turning some busted bitch into the belle of the ball.

“Oh my god, you did such a good job on her makeup! She looks so much better!”

“I know.”

Own it, I say. False modesty is just silly.

This was, of course, how I found myself standing in a corner, applying foundation to the bride’s face, wondering why no one had had the balls to suggest she wax her mustache before her wedding day. I’d never been that close to her before and had I known how bad it really was, I most certainly would have said something. But there was no point stressing her out about it at that point – what was done was done.

Papa has always had a case of “keeping up with the Joneses”, so what was once, over 25 years ago, a one room fishing cabin is now a three story monstrosity surrounded by random porches and more brick columns than are strictly necessary. On the side of the house that faces the lake, the majority of which is his bedroom, there are huge side by side windows all the way around. The view is spectacular, but I can tell you from personal experience that it loses a bit of its luster after you’ve had to clean those suckers. Still, his room is my favorite part of the house and the one that’s always designated for bridal preparations.

So while Tess sat on a stool facing the two corner windows, the black hairs of her mustache shining in the afternoon sunlight, I applied makeup as quickly as possible. And all around us there was chaos. The bed and chairs were covered in plastic dress bags, bottles of hair spray and various undergarments that would have looked more at home in a torture chamber. The counters were littered with makeup and shoes were scattered at random across the hardwood floor. Bridesmaids and other female family members were running in and out of the room in various states of undress. One hair stylist had set up camp in the bathroom while the other, who happened to be a new neighbor, was stationed just behind me.

John, the new hair stylist, was an interesting character – tall, round in all the wrong places and in complete denial about his sexual orientation. Even I knew he wasn’t batting for the home team, and my gaydar is nonexistent. Ever seen Will and Grace? I’m Grace, with breasts...and hips. If there’s a hot gay guy in the vicinity that isn’t making out with another guy, I’ll probably hit on him.

He was teasing my cousin’s wife’s long blonde hair into a half up 80’s video nightmare. While he walked around her, swinging his hips and flicking his wrists, I saw her eyes dart from person to person, desperately trying to get someone to say something, anything, to stop him. But she was the “MOH” (read: maid of honor / supreme bossy douche bag) and guilty of choosing those horrendous dresses for us, so I just smiled and kept my mouth shut.

One of the girls walked into the bathroom carrying her dress and he stopped teasing long enough to confirm everyone’s suspicions. “Honey, make sure you shut that door! Just because I’m a male hairdresser doesn’t mean I’m gay! God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, mmmk! I’m marrrrrrriED”, he shouted, waving his ring finger in the air.

I caught Marie’s eye from across the room and grinned.

“I did my wife’s hair and makeup on our wedding day”, he continued. “I wasn’t letting anyone mess it up, no ma’am!”

By the time I’d finished Tess’s and the MOH’s makeup, the whole room was ready to kill him. Everyone looked great, with the exception of the MOH, but I thought to myself that I’d made a good decision in asking my godmom to do my hair instead of going with the crowd. At the very least I wouldn’t have to listen to anymore of his shrieking. I figured I had just enough time to finish Tess’s mom’s makeup (which she asked me to do completely last minute) and run up to my house for my godmom to just throw the lot of it atop my head.

Unfortunately it took me a little longer than anticipated. Tess’s mom doesn’t speak any English, other than the names of Papa’s seven dogs, the name of that stupid goose (Larry) and “hello”, so every time I turned my back to grab something, she’d slide off the chair and try to totter out of the room. I’d have to lead her back and mime sitting down and closing my eyes, showing her what to do. But at least I didn’t break up my words into a dozen syllables and shout at her like my Grandma does when someone speaks a different language. Those poor Burmese children down the street are still suffering from post traumatic hearing loss.

When I finally made it home, Leigha had claimed my hair appointment and I was left waiting. Angry about being pushed aside, I grabbed my things and stomped back down the hill, cursing and threatening to walk down the aisle with a frizzy ponytail. That’s when John offered to do it and, feeling defeated, I agreed.

I relaxed into the chair and sighed.

“How do you want it done”, he asked.

“I want the front pulled back, soft curls”, I said, thinking that maybe it would be alright. He walked around my chair, lifting a piece of hair here and there, studying me like a bug under a microscope.

“No big 80’s shit either”, I added, just in case.

“No problem”, he said.

But less than five minutes later, after blow drying it and curling it under with a round brush, he sent someone for his straightener. “I think I’m going to do something different with you”, he said.

At first I panicked, my eyes flicking to the MOH’s unmistakable frizz tower, but after glancing at my phone and realizing that pictures were less than half an hour away, I gave in and thought, “Fuck it. There’s no time.”

“Will you let me do whatever I want to it?”, he asked.

In my experience nothing good has ever followed that sentence, but I glared at him and said, “As long as it’s not big 80’s hair, I don’t care. Just do it.”

And do it he did, throwing out the Adam and Steve line at least two more times in the process.

After spaying me with the bright red can labeled “BIG SEXY HAIR” and something to make it “shine”, he let me stand up. As I walked to the mirror he said, “You could be a model for the makeup store! This hairstyle really opens up your face.”

My eyes opened wide and an involuntary “Oh!” slipped from my mouth. I looked like a lion. I was surprised my reflection wasn't roaring and licking its wrist. He’d styled the front to stand up in an arch and the sides were flipped out and styled the same. I could hear the other hair stylist sniggering in the background, but I waited until he left the room to comment.

“I look like there’s a fan pointed at my head! I’m going to have to run down the aisle so it looks like the wind is actually blowing it back!”

I tried to use a pick to soften the bridge across my forehead, but it was too stiff. “BIG SEXY HAIR” apparently does its job. And there was no time to redo it; we were being called outside for pictures.

“It looks fine”, Marie said.

“You look like a lion”, Cory laughed.

“Ah! What scared you”, Ben asked.

And after an hour and a half of pictures, I walked down the aisle that way. I decided to pretend like it wasn’t happening – like I wasn’t dodging goose shit on a brick pathway in a booger green dress that as soon as I’d pushed my shoulders back had popped the new seams the altering lady had put in to keep the twins from jumping out and yelling “surprise”, with a lion’s mane framing my face.

But, little did I know, I’d soon have more than a hairstyle and escaping breasts to worry about.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The stairs

I tap my foot impatiently, one step up from the last time I stood on these stairs, and three steps down from the time before that. There’s a bottle of lime beer held behind my back, hidden in the folds of my black and white sundress. I’m wearing sunglasses and I keep my face tilted up to the sun, passively listening to the echo of the preacher’s voice. He’s not saying anything I haven’t heard dozens of times, and been a part of a least half that.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...”

The beginning is as predictable as the conclusion, and though the middle can vary a bit, it’s still heavy with repetition. And it makes me wonder why there is a rehearsal. Everyone, even my sister standing on the topmost step, who has never before been blessed with bridesmaid duty, knows the drill. You walk, you stand, you smile benignly at the couple, and when they ask if anyone objects, you remain silent – no matter how many reasons you may have to speak out.

The place where the couple stands is shaped like a halved octagon with steps spilling down on every side, the bottom row surrounded by brick paths and greenery. The narrow flight of stairs behind the platform leads to the third floor balcony, and it’s at the beginning of these stairs that they put an archway of vines and flowers. There’s no doubt it’s beautiful, but I’ve no desire to stand in that spot. Should the day come that I have the option, I know I’ll disappoint my Papa by choosing a different path, one he doesn’t own. As immersed in the traditions of my family as I am (and there are a lot of traditions), a marriage is personal. And these steps have seen too many weddings, most of them filled with unspoken objections, for me to make them mine.

My cousin Ashley stands to my left, up a step, and her husband stands on the other side, down two from her. She whispers to me that she’s glad she doesn’t have to be his walking partner and I smile, amused because I had the same thought, though I know our reasons are vastly different. She simply wants a break, the feel of a different arm hooked through hers and the novelty of an unfamiliar gait. I, on the other hand, find him repulsive. I’ve learned far too much about his extra-marital habits since I stood gazing up at them on that platform ten years ago, and I already knew enough on that day. Just because she can take him back and forgive, doesn’t mean the rest of us forget – a fact he’s well aware of and, if the constant scowl is any indication, visibly bitter about.

There are three married couples in the wedding party and all of them were pronounced husband and wife on these steps. Two of them have children placed at intervals in front of each gender line, and my daughter stands in front of me – giggling next to Ashley’s. I tug on her ponytail and ask her to quiet down.

“Then I’ll ask if anyone can show just cause why this couple should not be wed, and so on”, the preacher says.

Ashley glances at me with a half grin and does a hacking cough to cover words I don’t catch, but I know what she’s implying. Thankfully it’s so quiet no one else catches them either. And though the majority of us are doing the same on the inside, and aren’t thrilled that our Papa is marrying again, we know better than to tell him so. He’s been with his fiancĂ© for nearly eight years and he’s been pushing for this wedding for a very long time. Anyone that voices a concern is sure to be banned from “The Compound” indefinitely and we are all, in one way or another, too dependent upon him to risk it. I like to think of him as a mob boss – loving all, trusting none, and granting favors to those that please him most.

The bride, Tess, stands in the grass a few yards from the steps, watching with her arms crossed. One of the groomsmen’s girlfriends is standing in for her, as its bad luck for the bride to actively participate in the rehearsal. The wedding has come together in less than three months and Tess doesn’t care about a bit of it – it’s Papa that’s pushed for the traditional ceremony et al. She’s uncomfortable being the center of attention and I can’t say that I blame her, considering her rather checkered past. She answers every question with, “I don’t care”, or “it doesn’t matter”.

The preacher finally concludes his mock ceremony and asks us to bow our heads in prayer. I sigh as I do, knowing it will take awhile. He’s very loud and very long-winded. I notice that at the beginning of every sentence he says “please dear lord” and after the seventh or eighth time, it sounds quite comical.

I lift my eyes from the ground and glance around – it’s an old habit and one I enjoy. I’ve always found it interesting, watching people pray...or pretend to pray. To my right Claire is looking down, eyes wide open and focused on the ground while she scuffs her shoe against the pavement. Her fingers trace the words on the bottom of her t-shirt: “Whose baby is this?” To my left Ashley, Marie, Leigha, and Heather are all standing diligently with their eyes closed and hands clasped in front of them.

I branch out a bit, sweeping my gaze over the spectators and Tess, standing alone in front of the staircase filled with someone else’s family. I watch her laced fingers, thumbs rhythmically sliding over each other again and again, and I wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder if she’s starting to get nervous or if her attitude of disinterest extends from the dress and decoration choices, to the man up there practicing his vows to her. I wonder who, out of the two of them, is making the greater sacrifice.

I know that she knows next weekend, when she’s standing under the archway, there will be silent objections. I wonder if she cares. But even more than that, I wonder how many silent objections of her own will be joining their ranks. And if, like the 12 of us standing watch, there are enough to fill these stairs.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Here's a quarter

I’ve lived in the same small town all my life and, as a result, things are rather predictable.

For instance, I know that the post office is never open after 4 o’clock on a weekday, and even during regular business hours you’d be lucky to get service because of all the gossips taking up space. Every Wednesday and Sunday the restaurants are packed with church goers – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From 5 to 7, Monday through Friday, most of the county workers will gather at the tiny convenience store just outside of town to shoot the shit and drink beer. And on Friday and Saturday nights, the lakeside bar two coves over from my house has either a live band or a DJ, and the tiny dance floor is always full.

I also know that at every single one of those places, and countless others I didn’t name, someone is going to know who my father is. And they won’t be able to stop themselves from approaching me, no matter how much I discourage it with “don’t talk to me” body language, glares, fiddling with my phone or engaging someone else in conversation. It’s like he’s a communicable disease that they can’t wait to pass on – only for some reason they don’t seem to realize when they’re hacking all over me that I’ve had the pleasure of being infected, straight from the source, for almost 26 years.

I was about ten the first time I really remember it happening.

The old country store a few miles from home was our hangout of sorts. We (my cousins, sister, and I) would swim all morning and then take a snack break in the late afternoon, piling in dad’s truck in our wet bathing suits and bare feet. He had an account there, something they don’t really do anymore, and while he went straight for the beer cooler we would rush to the candy aisle and grab whatever we wanted. I would always get two Slim Jims, one for me and one for dad, saving them to eat together on the ride back home.

Sometimes we’d stand next to him and drink Yoo-Hoos, the white and beige checked linoleum cold under our feet and our hair dripping puddles of lake water. And sometimes, like that particular day, we’d take our spoils outside and spread our towels on top of the tool box of his truck, sitting Indian style in the hot sun and waiting on him to finish “visiting”.

Leigha was a pudgy little thing in her ruffled strawberry one piece, sitting next to me on the box, and Ben was on the other side in his trunks, covered in white flecks from the chest up due to a pack of powered doughnuts. A woman I recognized as a school friend’s mom parked near us and went in, coming out a few minutes later with a bag.

By then I’d remembered her name and called out a greeting. She walked over, looked up and shaded her eyes with her hand. She studied me, her top lip curling grotesquely, and said, “I didn’t know you were his daughter.”

“Um...yeah”, I said, confused.

“Your daddy is a sonofabitch!”

I stared at her and Ben did too, taking a break from licking all the powder off his hands. I knew dad was sometimes mean to me, but I wondered what on earth he’d ever done to Ashley’s mom to make her say something like that.

She said a lot of other things that I don’t remember well, not leaving until Ben flipped her a slobbery bird and said, “Beat it bitch, before I go get Uncle Jimmy and he kicks your butt!” I was too shocked to comment at the time, but later encounters like that would become a regular occurrence.

My dad always made friends easily, so I’d hear nice things every now and then. What he had a lot of trouble with was keeping them, and that’s when the “sonofabitches” would start. Whatever the case, things usually opened the same way. “Hey, aren’t you Jimbo’s daughter?” or “I know you...” or “You’re one of the ______ girls, aren’t ya?”

I learned to say yes and walk away. Lying about it was pointless, especially when I started high school and he suddenly seemed to be everywhere – showing up at the parties I went to and the weekend hangouts. Often times I thought having some old lady come up to me, and yell about how he’d fucked her over, was way better than having the hottest guys in school notice me because my dad was that sucker that acted like he was 17 years old with a fake ID.

When I got pulled over for speeding, the cops knew who I was. When I went to the grocery store, the Budweiser guy unloading his truck knew who I was. When I graduated and moved two towns away, every goddamned mechanic, bartender and waitress knew who I was. My dad, apparently, got around. I got so used to being approached by strangers that I pretty much stopped listening the minute they said his name. I just shrugged, murmured something noncommittal and went on about my business.

It did die down a bit when he moved to Oklahoma. But now...he’s here again, visiting for the longest period of time since he moved away five years ago. And it’s driving me insane.

He’s staying with my Papa, practically next door, and he’s always calling and texting, wanting to know what I’m doing. And worst of all, he’s been hanging out at all his old haunts...which means I haven’t been able to hear the end of it. The occasional stranger or old friend approaching me once every few months has snowballed because of his return home. Now there are also phone calls and picture messages of him around town – it’s ridiculous. For some reason it never seems to occur to people that I already know what he does and I’m embarrassed enough without extra proof, thank you very much.

“Your dad was so drunk he fell off a bar stool!”

“Your dad bought shots for everybody and when the waitress told him that someone didn’t want theirs, he said, ‘so the fuck what, gimmie the goddamned thing and get outta here!’ Then he slapped her ass!”

“Your dad said he was going to move back here and build a house right next to yours!” (Now that one was terrifying.)

I’ve found myself hurrying in and out of places, doing my shopping in the city on my way home from work rather than going to the local, and staying home whenever possible. I feel harassed and irritated and he’s only been here a little over two weeks...with two still left to go.

And after this past Saturday night I’m not so sure I can handle another day, let alone two weeks.

*****

When my friends decided they wanted to have a few drinks at the lakeside bar instead of our usual downtown hangout, I was hesitant. I knew he’d been in there recently, likely more than once, and there was a strong possibility that I’d run into some of his A) brethren, B) enemies, C) women, or D) all of the above. But they promised it would be an early night, no later than one, and I really loved the band that was going to be there, so I found myself agreeing anyway.

The bar has been there forever and, though it’s changed owners and names countless times, it remains the same. I go in maybe twice a year, not counting the times we dock for gas or the like in the summer, because it’s really just not my kind of thing. It’s the trolling ground for some of the funkiest looking redneck cougars I’ve ever seen and the men are even worse.

Ten of us crammed into a corner around two tables, ordering drinks and food. After about an hour of cutting up, listening to the band and drinking the cheapest Jack and Cokes I’ve ordered anywhere, I decided it wasn’t so bad. The people watching was certainly sublime.

Even dressed down, our group looked out of place amid the bikers and the women that, I’d wager, had been ridden harder than any Harley. An older woman with short, dull brown hair danced every song with a man the band kept calling MC Hammer. Her white t-shirt barely touched the top of her jeans and every time she would move her arms it would rise up, showing a disturbing amount of wobbly flesh and the waist band of her white underwear sticking out of her pants. MC Hammer would slouch around her, alternately jumping up then crouching down low to the ground and doing pelvic thrusts at empty air. His eyes were glazed over and he looked like he might start drooling on himself at any minute. When a slow song came on, they would plaster themselves together and move in a jerky circle, occasionally running into the other couples.

There was a taller version of Willie Nelson decked out in silver buckles and plaid, his eyes so squinty and surrounded by wrinkles that I wasn’t sure he had any, dancing with a woman in ripped turquoise that gave new meaning to the term muffin top. There was a younger group of girls, probably late 20s or early 30s, sporting the cropped t-shirt and unflattering flesh trend of MC Hammer’s woman – dancing on each other and whooping when they managed to grab some poor unsuspecting cowboy from the sidelines. A severely thin woman with dark hair down to her waist swayed alone in the middle, with her arms lifted above her head and a beer clutched in a hand adorned with dangerous looking press on nails.

We laughed and drank shots, getting up to dance only once when several couples vacated the floor briefly for a smoke break and, apparently, a make out session on the pier.

“Look you guys”, I said pointing out the window behind our table. MC Hammer was lounging on his side on the railing, one leg stretched out and one bent at the knee, propping his head up on his hand. And his woman was glued to his face; her hands roaming over places I really hoped would stay covered.

Everyone leaned over or turned around to look and even the band members, who were taking a short break, had to peek.

“Ahh, they’re gonna fuck tonight”, half of our group sang in unison, as they often do when spotting outrageous PDA.

It was shortly after, when the band started playing Let’s Get It On in honor of the returning couple, that a girl approached our table. She was tall and heavy set, with streaked strawberry blonde hair cut short. Freckles covered her cheeks and the bridge of her nose – she was almost cute.

“Hey”, she said to the group at large, smiling. “Ya’ll having a good time tonight?”

After a scattered yes, she focused on the girl to my left. “I know you!”

She went round the table establishing family connections and moving past the “do you know’s” with everyone, because that’s the first part of any conversation in the South... “Who are your people?” Then she finally came to me.

“And you. You’re a _______, aren’t you”, she asked, tossing out my last name and pulling a face I recognized all too well.

I stared up at her warily. “Guilty.”

“Uh huh. And you’re Jimmy’s daughter, right?”

“Yes.” I sighed.

Her hand went immediately to her hip and she leaned over the person in front of me, “I’m sorry”, she said without a trace of remorse, “but I fucking hate your daddy.”

I could feel the heat rising up my neck as I stared at her, and everyone else stared at us.

“He’s a sorry piece of shit. No...I really hate him”, she continued, as if I’d accused her of the opposite.

I crossed my legs and leaned forward in my chair. She started to say something else, but I cut her off. “Right”, I said calmly, then turned my back and started talking to the girl beside me.

She walked away a moment later and the chatter started. “Are you kidding? What a dick! So rude! Who does that?”

I was absolutely livid and it was only the antics of MC Hammer that made me crack a smile for the rest of the night. But I wasn’t just angry at her, I was angry with myself too.

I kept thinking of brilliant comebacks hours after the fact, which only made me angrier. I could have said something like, “I appreciate your right to an opinion, but in the future if you have a problem with my father, you should take it up with him and not a stranger. Because that’s what I am to you – a stranger. Not his daughter, in this case, or the head of his complaint department. Whatever sense of entitlement or commiseration you feel spending time with him has granted you, I assure you, you won’t be getting it from me. So why don’t you fuck off.”

Or, “Now that we’ve been properly introduced and you’ve said what you had to say, why don’t you go back to your table, sit down, and I’ll come over and needlessly insult one of your family members in front of your friends. Call it a learning experience.”

Or, “Bitch, you don’t know me. How you gonna come at me like that? I will cut.you.”

Something like that.

And even though I know that responding to her rudeness with that of my own wouldn’t really have been the right thing to do, it still would have felt nice to let off some steam.

After all, I’ve got two more weeks left of this shit. Anyone would be tempted...right?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Fixing it

Most days the 5am blast of music takes awhile to register. Like chipping away at a particularly stubborn block of ice, the initial cracks are imperceptible – the fluttering of an eyelid, a quiet sigh, the slightest twitching of limbs. But today I’ve done the unthinkable and risen before the alarm.

I tiptoe through the dark house, quietly stepping over sleeping dogs and the odd toy. In the bathroom I leave the light off, locating the contact solution by feel. I drip a bit in each eye, blinking with relief when the liquid allows me to open them completely.

I stop in Hannah’s doorway to check on her, to make sure her covers aren’t on the floor and that she isn’t hanging from the side of the bed like a trapeze artist. She thrashes in her sleep, just like me.

The revolving fish aquarium night light atop the cedar chest allows me to see her face, slack with sleep and miraculously, still on the pillow. I push the pullout trundle back underneath the bed so I can reach her and straighten the covers. The bed is so tall that we leave the trundle out at night, just in case she rolls off. As I pull and tug, working the sheets from underneath heavy limbs, I decide to tuck myself in with her. I’ve got time.

I gently push her over and lie down, covering us both. She smacks her lips and squirms as I smooth back the hair from her face. She’s soft and warm, clean from last night’s bath, her hair smelling faintly of watermelon kid shampoo. And even better than that – she’s quiet.

It’s been a week full of stressful nights – whining, crying and the usual drama. She’s developed a smart mouth to go along with her overly sensitive demeanor – a combination I find frustrating. She stamps her foot and shouts, ignores me and deliberately taunts me. Yet when it comes time for the inevitable punishment, she cries and shrieks like she’s being branded with a hot iron. In reality all I’ve done is say, “You’ve lost your TV privileges for tomorrow” or “give me the DS”.

Hannah is spoiled and I’ve my mother to thank for that. She grins when the screaming starts, often saying, “You’re just getting back what you deserve”. She pets her and overthrows my punishments and guidelines, turning even the simplest of things into a battle. I often wonder, while I’m getting what “I deserve”, why this form of revenge is passed down like tradition. There are times when I wouldn’t wish Hannah’s behavior on my worst enemy, much less Hannah herself, should she ever have her own child.

I close my eyes and wrap my arm around her, drawing her closer. It’s easier this way, while they’re all sleeping. I find it hard to be affectionate with her in front of my family, my mother in particular. She has this odd way of making me feel embarrassed when I show my softer side. She smirks and makes snide comments, just because I’ve never really been the cuddly type, as if I’m doing it just for show. Yet she doesn’t like the “stern” side of me either, often calling me cold-hearted. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t – which is, more often than not, the way everything is with mom.

Technically I’m a single parent, but due to current living arrangements, Hannah has a lot of people telling her yes, no, and everything in between. I know it’s sometimes unfair or confusing for her, but I also know she sometimes works the system to her advantage. And there are days, like yesterday, when it’s just the two of us and she’s unmanageable for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom.

*****

I picked her up from school and brought her home early, saved her from an afternoon of daycare. She was happy for 10 minutes of the ride home, then a switch flipped and suddenly she wasn’t. It got worse as the day wore on, the whining and the unnecessary tantrums, until I’d finally had enough.

“What is the matter with you today”, I said, standing in the middle of her room while she scowled at me and scuffed her sneaker on the hardwood floor.

“You won’t let me do what I want!”

“If you’d stop whining and misbehaving, maybe you’d get to do what you want.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and shouted, “I want to go back to Oklahoma with Grandpa and live there!”

I stared at her, surprised. Where the hell had that come from?

“Right. You want to leave all of your family...your friends, your school, everything...and go live with him? Are you ill?”

“Yes!”

“Yes you’re ill?”

“No! You’re mean and I don’t love you anymore. I hate you!”

I sighed. “If I was really mean, I’d let you go live with him. Then you’d see how good you have it here, kid.”

The rest of the night was a fiasco, with mom contributing to the already escalated situation with her usual remarks. I could feel my temper flaring up and, at one point, had to go outside, jump up and down and scream like a maniac.

When I finally put her to bed, I kissed her quickly on the forehead, pulled out the trundle, and hot-footed it out of there. I even sighed with relief.

*****

I lay here thinking about all of that – what she said and did, how I had to calm myself down and couldn’t wait to get away from her, how I want to kick mom in the shins. And it bothers me. I don’t want it to be this way. I know I’ve got to fix it, but I haven’t figured it out.

I kiss her forehead. “Boog”, I say, rubbing her arm and back. “Boog, it’s time to get up.”

She starts stretching, her body uncurling from mine, and her eyes squinting up at my face. A big sleepy grin immediately follows and I grin back.

“Hey mama”, she says, wrapping her arms around my neck.

“Hey sugar. Did you sleep well?”

“Uh huh.”

“You ready to get up?”

“Can we stay here like this for just a minute?”

“Yeah”, I say, settling back into the blankets, holding her tight.

We lay quietly for awhile; until I hear the others begin to move around. Then I push myself up and out of the bed. “What do you want for breakfast?”

“Fruit loops”, she shouts, vaulting up and holding out her arms. I let her jump into mine, causing me to stagger back and my muscles to pull a bit painfully. She’s getting way too big to carry.

She wraps her legs around my waist and buries her face in my neck. “I love you thissssssss much.” She squeezes me as hard as she can with her arms and legs, then pulls back to kiss me.

This!”, I suddenly think, kissing her back.

When there are days and nights like yesterday, when I can’t take it anymore, when she hurts my feelings and I have to hurt hers...this is what I’ll think about. That’s how I’ll fix it – by remembering moments like this... and maybe, by getting up early a little more often.