On November 2nd, 1986, I flew from Ontario, California to Austin Texas. I had already shipped my stuff to my dad the week before. All that was left to send was me. Things had gotten to the point of insane with mom and it was time to see if dad could handle things better. I had already moved out of mom’s and was staying at Art’s house for that last week before going.
Dad was going to meet me at the airport. I was nervous. I hadn’t seen him since 1978. My memories of him were slightly blurred, but I still had some clear memories. I have written about a lot of them in my time here. Regardless, the nights of lying awake wishing I was with him, missing him deeply, were about to be over. I recognized him instantly at the gate. He was a little heavier around the middle than before and his hair gray at the temples, but it was dad.
The moment was awkward beyond measure. I didn’t feel comfortable hugging him, but did. We grabbed my carry-on (backpack) and headed for his car. As I shut the door to it, an intense wave of vertigo swept over me. The world spun. I had ’seen’ this exact moment 2 years before. The actuality of it made my vision blur and my stomach flip. The memory of what I saw in my dream and the reality overlapped and I felt like I would fall out of the car if I hadn’t already shut the door. Deja vue to the ultimate extreme is another way to put it. He didn’t notice since he was looking over his other shoulder as he pulled out of the parking spot.
The wave of vertigo finally passed, the world stopped spinning and my stomach landed with a bump back in my middle. It was not a pleasant experience, though familiar. I didn’t say much as he drove me back to his job at a department store. He was working at Beals, I believe. I was to hang out there with him until he got off of work at 9pm. He introduced me to some of his co-workers and left me in the break room. I sat there in a daze the whole time, brain shut down. I was in Texas. I was with dad.
On the drive to his house he told me the truth finally. Sylvia, his wife of 9 years, did not know I was coming. I looked at him in disbelief. He hadn’t told her?!? He was springing me on her like a stray puppy? I am thinking, “Oh fuck!” How right I was. He explained that they married not long after I went with mom to California. Sylvia did not want children (and this is a Professor of Family and Child Development at Southwest Texas University?!?) and told him that I would NOT live with them if they married. Even though he had custody. Even though the court had declared my mother unfit. Nope, I was to stay with my mother, period.
Not much I could say to what he told me on the drive. The night’s darkness flitted by the car’s windows, the headlights illuminating the cedar woods to either side of the road as we drove. Dread sank into my stomach. The certainty that I had screwed myself worse than staying with my mom was settling into my head. God, I wanted a cigarette bad. My hands were trembling more than usual. Adrenaline is not a pretty sight with my CMT. I look like a tree shaking in a gale when it happens. Naturally, he knew nothing about my hereditary neuropathy. I was only diagnosed the year before.
We pull up to the gate and he gets out to open it. The car is pulled forward and then he shuts it. They have a 22-acre lot with cedar forest and some cleared pasture. They are raising Arabs and half-Arabs for show. I like horses, so that seemed cool. We pull into the driveway of their 2-story house. It looms in the dark out of the cleared space among the trees. A barn is behind us, as well as the horse stalls and corral. The floodlight is on a motion sensor and pops on as we park. Reminds me now of a prison yard with the spotlight. Should have given me a clue of what was to come.
We go into the house. He had called before leaving work. She is standing in the kitchen waiting as we come through that door. She is furious. Her fury is the arctic ice kind. The kind that kills with coldness and indifference to anything that is not to her expectations. Her eyes look me up and down once and then turn to him. I say hi. I am ignored. She tells dad she wants to talk to him in the other room. Ice is in that voice. He tells me to have seat at the table and he would be back shortly.
I sit in that unfamiliar kitchen and wait. I can hear them talking but not the words. I know that she is pissed. His voice is a monotone. I think that I am in big trouble here. I am not wanted. I am an inconvenience. I am a burden. I am not worth the trouble. All of these thoughts are counter-balanced by: he’s my dad, he loves me, he wants me, it’ll be ok. Eventually they come back. Her eyes refuse to look at me. He is sad looking.
He takes me to a downstairs bedroom and tells me this is where I’ll stay. She follows and tells me not to change anything. That the room is stay exactly as it is. That it is not mine but hers and to keep it the way she has it now at all times. The one nice thing about that room is that it had its own full bathroom attached. I hated the room instantly. It was girly with a nasty floral bedspread, knickknacks on the surfaces and just plain not me. And would never be me.
I put my clothes into the ugly dresser and got into bed. I was exhausted. Intense despair gripped me and I didn’t know what to do. But I am a stubborn cuss. I would survive. I always do. No one would ever break me completely. I didn’t believe it was possible. Still don’t to this day. I always survive. Always will. That night though is the closest I ever came. I had my dad again, but he was a stranger married to a monster. And this is where I was stuck. I passed out pretty quickly.
Dad got me up at 4am. I was to help him feed the horses, chickens, guinea fowl and goats. I dragged myself up from sleep and pulled on some clothes haphazardly. The horses were beautiful. I loved them instantly. They had 8 at the time. We feed them and checked their water. I was told that I would be mucking out their stalls each morning before school. Um, ok. Once all of the creatures were fed and let loose for the day, we went back inside.
Dad made me some Malto-Meal along with his. Then he told me I was going into work with him for the day. Sylvia did not want me at the house when dad wasn’t home. I was not to be inside the house unless one of them was there. I was not to have a key to the house. I was to do the chores given me and that I was to make myself useful. That I was to get good grades in school. That I was to get a job immediately. That I was to pay back the airfare for the plane trip. That I was to pay back the shipping costs on my stuff. That I was to pay for driver’s Ed so that I could drive the horses to the vet if needed. That I was only to eat what I was given and to stay out of the food otherwise.
I sat stunned. This flood of instruction did not sound right. It sounded like a sentence for crimes I didn’t even know I committed. In a way, that was it exactly. My crime was being there. My crime was intruding on Sylvia’s happy life and imposing myself without invitation. My crime was existing. That was pretty clear. Those frozen eyes refused to grant me the right to be there. She refused to even speak to me for over a month. Not so much as a hello, good morning or good night. Not a single word. She would tell dad what to tell me. When she finally did talk, it was to order me or to snap at me. To tell me I was doing something wrong and that this was her house.
I got into dad’s car that morning feeling as if the world had gone photonegative. It wasn’t until we got to his store that I realized today was my birthday. I wanted to cry but didn’t. There was no earthly way that I was going to show one iota of weakness to anyone. I would sooner die. I gritted my teeth and bore it. The weight on my heart became an endurance trial. I won in the end.
Nothing was said that day as I sat in that break room. I read a book and kept my mind off of everything else. His co-workers were sweet to me. I am glad someone was. The back of my mind was re-enforcing the walls around my heart and soul during that bleak quiet day. No weakness could be allowed. No emotion would be beyond my immediate grasp. Everything would have to be calculated and considered before action. And lines would have to be drawn. I drew the first one on the way back to her house.
I informed dad that I smoked. Not in his house he said. I said fine, outside is just dandy. I informed him that Texas law (at that time) allowed 16 and over to buy cigarettes. I would not smoke indoors but I WOULD smoke outside. He spluttered over it but I did not back down. I would make sure the butts were out and I would make sure they got put into the trash. I said that this was just something that would have to be accepted, just like I had to accept all of the other rules imposed. This was not open to negotiation nor would I accept anyone’s authority on it. This was my choice to make no one else’s. I then said nothing else for the rest of the drive.
He drove in silence for a while before laying into me again. What happened to his talkative little boy? When had I changed so much? I snorted. Then I shot back, “Well, maybe that happened when you left me with mom for 9 years. What the hell do you expect after that? That I remain unchanged while I am with someone I didn’t want to be with? That I wanted my dad and couldn’t find him. Come one, get real!” That pretty much ended that conversation.
I went to bed that night without so much as an acknowledgment of my birthday from anyone. Nothing. No words. No card. No present. No cake. Nothing at all. The day was just another day and it didn’t matter. I bit my lip as I lay in that horrible room staring at the ceiling in the dark. The taste of blood finally made me stop. I finally understood the true meaning of hell. It meant that I didn’t exist except as an unpaid field hand and general burden. A body to be ordered about, a rag doll to do whatever and then shove in a corner until needed. A stray that is only taken in because your hand is forced. This was what hell meant. The absence of love.