My brother and I had been camped out with our ears pressed to the heating vent for months. My parents battles had escalated to a nightly event. It had become so predictable that Terry and I would set up pillows and snacks while we waited for the fighting to begin. We would count how many times Fran would use the “f” word. Our voyeurism would end without discussion as soon as my mother would cry. As much as we wanted to hear Fran’s colorful language and my mother’s criticisms of Fran’s questionable parenting skills, we had limits. My mother crying was our unspoken limit.
My mother told me of her plans to divorce Fran and leave my brother and me in his charge as she drove me to my fourth sleepover at Lisa’s that week. I had begun to spend as much time away from home as possible. Truth be told, my family was just as happy to be rid of me. I was difficult under the best of circumstances. I was convinced I had been the cause of all of the household problems as it was, but the reality of being without my mother was devastating.
What was Fran going to do with us? What if I got my period? What if he forgot to pick me up from school? Who would cook and do the laundry? The only thing he could cook was fondue, and not real fondue; oil in a pot with leftover meat and Saucy Susan hardly constitutes fondue or real food, and, the one time he did do laundry he turned all of the white clothes pink, including my brother’s baseball uniform.
My mother assured me that I shouldn’t worry about such things. She would handle everything. I loved my mother desperately but I knew she wouldn’t handle anything. She would try but she wouldn’t be successful. Paralyzing shyness, eroded self-esteem and fear would prevent her from mustering the courage to cross Fran.
I arrived home on the last day of school to find my mother packing her Datsun B210 with garbage bags full of her belongings. I just stood and watched her sob and pack. We didn’t speak a word.
Summer had arrived as my mother left.
I was coming off a tough year and was ready for the reappearance of normalcy. Whatever that meant. My mother was gone. I’d miss her but nothing the salve of compulsive eating couldn’t soothe. I had hoped that I would have the summer to convince my parents I had changed, maybe even display enough personal transformation to warrant a trip back to my old school. I wanted to return to my life, the one I had before I was a sinner, when I was innocent. Summer would save me as it had so many times before.
As little kids, Edward, Wally and I would go on adventures, pockets stuffed with cookies, magic rocks, bottle caps, baseball cards and homemade weapons. I’d like to say I never used my eclectic array of fashioned armaments but that would be a lie, one that can easily be substantiated. A rock wall ran the length of our block and provided endless hours of salamander hunting and precarious crag from which any potential drama could sprout. A trapped foot or a dropped trinket into a dark, potentially snake-ridden crevice, too scary to gingerly fish around in, are risks taken by true adventurers and we were those explorer.
Many a risky rescue took place at the highest peak behind the Stein’s house. The rescue usually consisted of us throwing rocks at the trapped hiker until he leapt to his death four feet below.
Those days of exploring the wall, or the hours of innocently playing with matchbox cars under our giant oak tree, were long gone. Thinking about it made me nostalgic for simpler times. Times when I could pretend my parents had a good marriage, when nuns were merely cloaked, evil dwarfs that travelled in packs, were gone. I longed for those days of blissful ignorance, before I was a gluttonous sinner, before I was ashamed of who I was. I missed my former self but I knew she had died, a slow, painful death: a Christian death.
None of that mattered at that moment. I could breathe again, full shameless breathes, one’s I didn’t have to feel guilty for taking away from those more deserving. I didn’t have to see those nasty women, accept in church, where I'd openly antagonized them without fear of retribution, overly confident about never seeing them again. I wouldn’t spend a second in that rectory for the next three months, or ever, if I had my way. I am in no way trying to cheapen the intended sentiment, but, I was, free at last.
I had dreamt of summer for weeks. Fantasies rich with baseball, ice cream and kick the can. There were 13 boys my age in the neighborhood and my presence was required to make even teams, no matter how begrudgingly the offer was made. With a neighborhood full of kids, a game of Wiffle ball could last all weekend. Breaking for meals and peeing, well, I broke for peeing. The boys just peed where they stood, a classy bunch.
By Sunday night the score could easily be 63 to 77, as it had many times before. With so many boys in the neighborhood I welcomed the opportunity to introduce Lisa to the mix. I had assumed they would treat her the same way they treated me, tolerated at best, and liked on the whim of the pecking order. I was mistaken. Lisa was a real girl, who knew?
I was stunned.
You would think they had never seen a girl before. They tripped over themselves trying to impress her. It was then I realized how real girls were treated. I wondered if they knew how foolish they looked fawning all over her. If they had taken a minute to know her as a person and not a bra size, they would have realized she only had eyes for ballet dancers and their wasn’t a dancer in the lot. It was going to be a long summer.
My brother seemed unmoved but the disaster that had become our life. As long as Bugs Bunny wasn’t being taken off the air, he seemed okay with all the chaos. Maybe he was just better at keeping it to himself. Things didn’t feel much different for the first few weeks. The house was a lot messier, we ate cereal for at least two meals a day, and my father seemed unconcerned with my whereabouts. We would see my mother on weekends, if Fran allowed, and the rest of the week just blended together.
All rather innocuous until the emergence of the grandmother, the bathrobe fanatic, who began appearing at my home, everyday, at the crack of dawn.
I would try and escape before she arrived. I’d stagger, bleary-eyed, out into the neighborhood, greeted only by skunks and garbage men. I’d sit on the curb and wait. Wally usually woke up first. He’d say it was because of the barrage of rocks flying at his window. I did find throwing them by the handful was the most efficient.
We’d sit outside Edward’s house until Edward’s old man got home from his night job. It was the only time he was friendly. Edward would eventually roll out to the curb, half-dressed, barely coherent.
Finally our day could begin.
Eventually even I had to go home. Eaten alive by mosquitoes? Or the grandmother? It was a tough call. The grandmother ran a tight ship. Regardless of my lack of sailor qualities, she demanded that I lose weight, clean my room, and act like a respectable Catholic girl. She continued the genocide of my spirit, picking up where the nuns had left off, the attempted exorcism, seemingly necessary, to rid the world of chubby little smart-mouthed girls.
My only hope was to wear her down, if I could. She had skills. I had met my match, or maybe, she had met hers.