We both have had a rough ride getting here, you and I. You know, put through the grater by friends and family. From middle school through high school, I was an easy target for ridicule or pity. I had a toad’s complexion but lacked an amphibian’s elegance in water—or anywhere else. I was the picture of self-consciousness, of belonging nowhere, except perhaps in a dermatologist’s waiting room. My skin was a bloody mess, raw with flecks of pus, the caked canvas and pocked palate of every dermatologist in town. I was their most compliant guinea pig. Anonymously, I managed to slash the leather chairs in my doctor’s office, poetic justice for the pocked mess he had left me with. By the time I graduated, the drugs they put me on had sent me through endless cycles of depression, anxiety, and mania—and the ever-present nausea and migraines. I missed as many classes I’d attended. I puked my guts out at least once a week in the cafeteria, eventually raising grunts of disgust from anyone I’d try to sit with, until I gave up even trying to be with the other kids. I would have loved to have developed a drinking problem in high school, but alcohol was a forbidden deadly combination with the vats of poison I took in daily. Eventually, sunlight itself was forbidden because it activated something teratogenic in the medications. I became a night owl, a prowler of the dark streets and alleys, a night stalker. It was a short route to finding myself peering into bedroom windows, and becoming a connoisseur of the architecture of bushes—the arch of spaces that conceal while they reveal. The things you see at night in a small town. And all the while I was seething with envy, and anger, and bitterness–bitterness that I exuded everywhere, like a toad exudes its numbing, delirious toxin.
Myra drove me back to the desperate measures of my teenage years. For weeks I had successfully shadowed her at a distance. In a grocery store, I thrilled to her breath misting over as she reached into open freezer bin to get a bag of vegetables. She got dangerously close in the chip isle where I stood, and I mentally rehearsed the look of pleased surprise I’d need if she noticed me. I rounded the aisle and u-turned to produce, where she was talking to a black guy in a red baseball cap and matching coat and shoes. She held a pale jade green melon in her hands and pressed tenderly at points as if to shape it, like a baby’s soft, unformed skull, before sniffing it and handing it to him. His fingers spread around it like a tarantula’s legs around a pure ostrich egg. I was frightened for her and filled with jealousy at the same time. I was outraged at her intimacy with this stranger. Then I noticed he wasn’t even looking at her. He seemed perfectly perplexed by the honeydew, gave it a tentative squeeze and a cautious sniff before he nodded thanks to her, and dropped the melon onto the upper rack of his cart with a brutal clank.
I shadowed her until she stopped to pet a gray cat sitting on the stairs up to the porch of her yellow row house. A willow grew close to the side of the house, serendipitously jade in its laughing leaves, and a burst of hydrangeas stretched adoringly toward the back windows. I tracked back to a nearby bus stop, sat on a bench and propped my feet on a newspaper vending machine to roll myself a cigarette, another forbidden fruit from my high school days. The only thing left of the boy I was, that and this curl is his only telltale sign and as absurd as it is, I can never seem to give it up, have it sheered away and leave him permanently lost in there, like the tinniest Russian doll glued inside myriad layers of its own likeness.
As you might imagine, my parents weren’t the understanding type. My father beat anything that moved, including the dog. I remember him treating a poodle like it was being interrogated at Guantanamo, holding the animal like a linty rag and slapping it front and back hand, like the slap the commanding officer gives a coward infantryman in a flick about the French foreign legion. You can imagine that if he hated the cowardice and unmanly nature of Mimi or whatever that poor primped up mutt’s name was- he despised me with the same brooding, hair-triggered hatred. Not much to say about Mom except she had the good sense to leave him–but not before she’d had the three of us. Sometimes after she’d leave he’d disappear for what I now know were long treks in search of sex and a brawl or two at some bar before coming home, turning on the electricity and brewing himself a pot of coffee that smelled like heaven descending in the kitchen, spreading warmth from the electric stove and the resplendent canopy of light from the ceiling’s bare bulb. Often before the coffee was brewed, he would collapse on the kitchenette table, folded over an accordion abandoned in the middle of a tune, or a fallen angel, dashed into oblivion. Alerted by the bitter smoke, I would sneak by him to turn off the burner and prevent the cheap aluminum percolator from melting down, and sneak a few sips from his dirty coffee mug.
My father and the power thing was really weird. I mean, literally, he had a power thing. Before he’d leave, whatever time of day and whether we were still pleading against it or not, he’d open the padlocked circuit box and pull the main lever down with a flip and everything electrical would come to a stop — a strange silence would descend over everything, only a few clicks and gurgles from the Frigidaire on its way to hibernation until his return. So Jenny and Carey and I would be there running around the house and yard like frightened farm fowl until dark, or we would make our way to school like we were marching off to a funeral, knowing we’d be feeding ourselves out of a warm refrigerator smelling of moldy rubber, the door flung open so candlelight would carry into its eerily warm recesses as we poked around in it, like a hunter cleaning a kill by flashlight. You could say we worshiped those candles, or maybe the correct analogy is that we felt they were sacramental. There was never any discussion about them. He always tossed some on the kitchen table before he’d leave, the same way he’d dump some dried dog chow in a bowl to overflowing for whatever miserable canine he hadn’t kicked into cripplehood, or that hadn’t yet, like Mom, developed a greater sense of self-preservation than of loyalty, and run off.
Mimi hadn’t made it through the first six months after Mom left. I was worse than those poor mutts, since I rebelled, but never left. I was the oldest of three, the leader of the little band, it was our duty to maintain our courage, to only give up our identity, our rank, and to plan on escape, but it had to be together; we would leave no legionnaire behind to deal with the Cyclops alone. Sometimes I doubt that he could have been such a single-minded dumb and cruel monster, and then I would just pop open one of the gum-taped boxes they give away at the liquor store that are stacked up in the funky garage of my memory, confirm that it contained had been nightmarish, but was now dead and worthless to me, before I would wrap childhood up in newspaper again and shove it somewhere beyond the crimped-up white aluminum Christmas tree we never dragged out again after Mom made her escape.