It’s a sentence that follows me around. My first time hearing it I was sixteen, a Walkman stuffed in my jacket to help me make it through tenth grade English class, and someone had passed back a pirated copy of The Clash’s “London Calling.” The song was “Lost in the Supermarket,” and to drive home the point Joey Strummer punctuated the sentiment with crooning and obvious “no one seemed to notice me.” It stirred something in me, like someone had just insulted me in a way which I’d have normally taken as a compliment, and I would listen to album, and even the song, over and over again from there, obsessed with the unpleasant feeling it made me feel.
Like brushing chewed finger nails over crushed velvet. Sucking air into a decaying tooth. I loved the song, and was fascinated by how terrible it made me feel.
And like all things, with repetition the effect wore off. Eventually it just became my favorite song, or at least one of them, and I could smile when I heard it, tap my toe, and sing along. And eventually, I got it, I understood why it touched me like it did, and I knew why I loved it despite it constantly making me cringe.
I grew up in what you’d call sub-suburbia, a housing development never quite finished and used for mobile homes. Hindsight being what it is, I think I was perhaps my parents’ last chance to salvage their marriage, a grand gesture meant to unify the two of them in their care for me. It is perhaps the oldest cliché, the family which was doomed from the start, who continue to make the worst decisions in the hope that somehow two wrongs could eventually make a right. Foolish of them, but not deluded like Mom once described it – no, I think they knew exactly what their marriage was, and bringing me into the world was the acknowledgement of just how bad it had gotten.
So my life began in the company of two screaming fugitives from one another. My father, who hated his job, retreated to it, working longer hours for less pay, reaping no reward other than peace and quiet, and a chance to pursue the things that would occasionally make him happy. Drugs, women, and alcohol. Saying it like that, it makes me vaguely wish it was as grandiose for him as it sounds. But ultimately, it was unfulfilling, because he couldn’t take it home.
Mom ran too, though further up and further in, making the home that my father couldn’t have her defining attribute, a shining example of how good life could be if her husband who loved everyone and everything more than her would just get his act together. She retreated into her head, so assured in her righteousness in this situation, so justified by benefit of actually possessing the thing she knew he wanted – their home – that when, inevitably, they would cross one another, she knew win, lose, or draw she was the good guy. It was a staggering power, the same sort of assurance you hear from terrorists, religious fanatics, and future suicide bombers, and she stood unmovable for what she had, just as he could stand unmovable by benefit of what he didn’t.
And so they fought.
I don’t remember when I started walking about the house with my head down. I remember, specifically, a dream I once had, at the height of their battles, when fighting had become so mundane to them that they would do it while completing other tasks – Mom cooking dinner, and my father watching TV. It was the same in this dream, and as they fought it began to get particularly heated, with him stepping up the verbal assault during an opening when she had to pause, and taste test the sauce. And here, in my dream, I did the only overt intervention I ever attempted between the two of them, and snuck up behind my father and clamped my hands around his chattering mouth.
I could feel the shock on his face through my hands, and he tried to jerk himself or me around and unlock my grip, but for that one moment I held tightly, and for a split second knew no difference between his face and my fingers. They were absolutely the same, a part of me and a part of him.
And then he bit them off.
So from there I kept my head down. It didn’t matter that it was just a dream, nor did it make a difference in my mind whether my father or Mom had severed my digits. I knew in either case, no matter whom I directed my actions I would lose just the same. So I kept my mouth shut, and my eyes down, and they were never bothered during their battles. They never seemed to notice me.
Which is not to say I was ever neglected, either. I remember, for the most part, loving parents, who looked after me when I was sick, put together birthday parties for me with kids at school who I never talked to, and rewarded my accomplishments when they came. But all of this, particularly that last bit, accomplishing things, seemed counter-productive to keeping my head down, and out of the way, so accomplishments remained few and far between. Which was fine, as they just believed me to be an introvert, a late bloomer, someone who had to be pushed, when they weren’t pushing each other, and from this I gained more of the attention that I was trying so desperately to avoid.
But the important stuff still went unnoticed, and I was, of course, thankful for that. There was a close call or two, one teacher in particular, who’d taken an interest in me upon recognizing how I’d avoided her attention for so long, even called my parents in, and questioned if perhaps my “distraction,” my shyness wasn’t a byproduct of some problems at home. My parents were naturally scandalized and insulted by such an accusation, and I, even at such a young age, remember being gripped with such rage at this person, this educator, who was just meant to push me through as she did all the other finger-painters and block-builders, and now here she was, so close to blowing the brilliant plan I’d constructed to keep my fingers.
I just kept my head down. The same bluster my father and mother had so deftly crafted to torture each other was surprisingly convincing when turned upon some third party in stereo. It all went away. They kept hating each other onwards to divorce, and I just got to be “backwards.”
I felt I had a lot to look forward to as we approached the big day. Television had taught me that before the divorce there would be “the talk,” where I would be informed that under no uncertain terms was I to think this was in any way my fault. That Mom and my father both still loved me as much as they ever had, yes, they even still loved each other, but that this was the arrangement that would be best for everyone.
And I would be expected to ask certain questions, things like whether or not they thought they might get back together, or how we’d do Christmas, and of course who I’d be living with. There was even a possibility I’d be asked to make a choice, to decide where it was I wanted to go, and I both bristled at the thought of the responsibility while feeling simultaneously gleeful at finally being asked for my input on something.
Soon there was [marginally] less screaming, and more packing, and a lot of relatives around I only saw on holidays. And on occasions when I’d walk the hall, watching my feet as I went, I might glance upward and see Mom cry, or my father punch something – a cabinet, or a drawer. And they wouldn’t notice, so I would quietly shuffle away, putting it in the back of my mind that this was how people who were upset were expected to act when they thought they were alone.
The talk never materialized, and honestly, I didn’t mind. It felt a little bit like success [an accomplishment], to be forgotten about like that, to avoid such a rehearsed an unpleasant subject matter, and on that last day, as Mom and my father went it one last time, I did something I’d never done before. I opened the car door and buckled myself in. Craning my neck to look over the dash, I waited patiently for Mom to reappear, and realize who I’d picked.
I expected more things to change.
I remember once while out to eat, long before the divorce, a special milestone – the first time, for reasons having nothing to do with my maturity and purely predicated on availability, I was given a grown-up glass to drink from. The waitress had likely forgotten who it was for, and it had come to me very full, of ice and soda, and I’d been absolutely over the moon with the prospect of getting to sip from that.
But in my eagerness I did not wait to be given a straw, and wrapped both hands around the glass and tipped it up for my reward. The liquid inside quickly turned the cup against me, and I lost control, spilling the contents all over the table, and our dinner below. The accident made hardly a sound, but the mess was spectacular enough that I did not cry right away. Instead, I heard Mom cry out, loudly enough that the surrounding diners went silent.
And then there was a crack, and my head snapped backwards not particularly hard, but with enough of a shock to be jarring to me, with my father’s hand-print now red across my face.
I burst into tears.
The rest of the dinner was little more than hushed, angry whispers for me to be silent, and the threat of similar punishment while the restaurant watched on in silent awe and, I fear, some approval. The dinner ended soon after [perhaps it was already over], and on the way home Mom continually told me, with what sounded like regret, that my father and I would be having a talk when we got home. We were barely inside the door when Dad had me over his knee, and I was spanked soundly and sent to bed to sleep on a tear-stained pillow.
These events never repeated themselves, and it wasn’t until after they’d separated that I’d even dared to challenge the big boy glass again. Enjoying her newfound freedom however meant Mom wanted to do more than just stay at home with me, and while yes, that sometimes involved men I did not know, or women I had not seen with her in years, other times that just meant putting on my nice coat and going with her to some place my father had deemed too expensive.
And as we sat and ate, I felt a newfound safety, and felt like perhaps I’d finally be given a chance to try growing up, and even though it was still very much in my nature to keep my head down, I really couldn’t contain my excitement at the prospect of trying the big glass again. And indeed, with stronger hands and that slight [now archaic] fear driving me, it was no chore at all to drink deeply from the cup without a straw. I finished my drink with a self-satisfied smile, easily set it down, and so sure of my accomplishment felt the need to do something grand, like a magician finishing a trick. So I opened my arms wide and pushed out my hands, and went to say “Tah-Dah!” with a big, open smile.
And with my enthusiasm the glass went again.
I stopped. More accurately, I froze. It crossed my mind to immediately burst into tears, pre-empt the punishment by going immediately to its intended results. And then I realized, my father wasn’t there. I lifted my head. Tried not to smile.
Then I felt the sharp pain of Mom’s hand stinging fast against my face. To my surprise, it hurt worse than my father’s had. Perhaps he had been pulling his punches? But without her enforcer, Mom clearly felt the need to overcompensate.
I dropped my head again, and bawled.
From here I was fatherless.
It had little to do with me – with Mom finally gone, my father had his home, and in it he began filling it with tropical fish, and pornography, and gallons of alcohol and special lamps which grew weed in his closet. And eventually there’d be the sound system, and the big screen TV, and the final woman of all the women who either won or lost the honor of moving in with him, and being the perpetual fiancée.
And though that was no place for a child, he still might have had a place for me, if only he could bring himself to stand Mom for another minute more. And maybe he could have even done that, but I always think he had to have been afraid. Terrified of losing what he’d wanted so bad when they were together – and being unable, once braving that, to ever be able to go home. So my father exits my life. I would make little movement to replace him with a surrogate. From here, all my role models would be women. Not a single one would pull their punches.
For someone who they thought so little of, my father seemed like a lot to make up for.