Until I reached high school, I would spend part of my summers with Dad and whichever wife he was married to at the time. From first grade to fifth, this would have been Mel the crazy wife who loved fast cars and art and who would eventually die of a heroin overdose and from fifth grade to eighth, Vicki, the incorrigible skank who hated the sight of me. By the end of his life my dad would take seven wives. Someone once commented, “at least he believed in the idea of marriage.” But, my dad and his wives and his fear of being alone are a different story.
I have written about Vicki before. She was a bit of a Monet, from a distance a pretty petite outline with long blond hair, but up close the blurred lines give way to the detail that seethed through her prematurely aging skin soaked in contempt and bitterness. She was a succubus clinging to the remnants of her dwindling youth. Vicki was unhappy and spiteful and hated the fact that I was young, optimistic and my dad appeared to genuinely like me. When I first met her I couldn’t figure out why she was so cold and distant besides the cruel stepmother thing, but soon recognized her briny jealousy.
Vicki had a daughter very much like herself. Her name was Tina and was five years younger than me. During my summer visits I was the default babysitter and would spend large amounts of time with Tina while Dad and Vicki were at work. I would take her to the park, to the store to buy candy and generally tend to her. Although Tina was still young and unscathed by the hazards that had claimed Vicki, it was clear by the ways she wielded the powers given to her that she was Vicki’s protégé and was certain to turn out just like her mother. She was doted upon, spoiled and encouraged to narc on any of my small 7th grade infractions.
Because Vicki thought that my dad showed a skewed affection toward his own kids, a moratorium was placed on our interactions. To avoid Vicki’s wrath, Dad’s interactions with me became very limited and carefully monitored. He stopped hugging me, avoided talking with me and made sure to stop telling stupid jokes to reduce the laughter between us that would certainly set Vicki off. He walked around Vicki on eggshells trying to keep peace. Tina still jumped on my dad when he got home from work and receive big hugs, those things I had given up. She loved the attention and had picked up Vicki’s habit of smiling at me during these moments. I knew it gave both of them pleasure and I was determined to not let my pain show. I swallowed the lump in my throat and willed myself to grow a thicker skin. I began to see my dad for the weak, limited man that he was.
The next summer Vicki would employ these same tactics toward my younger brother when he and I both came to live with them in Texas. Because of a perceived bias that my dad showed, Vicki put clear criteria on the discipline (beatings) that Dad gave Jason to ensure that it was sufficient and not prejudiced with affection. I remember her yelling down the hallway, “that’s not enough, he needs more!” My dad always would break down and comply.
The plan was to spend the summer in Eugene with Dad before returning to Mom’s in Portland for the start of school. Dad would stop at home during his lunch break so that I could spend a few unguarded minutes with him where I would make his favorite mustard and bologna sandwich on white bread. He would laugh and tell me stupid jokes as if everything was completely normal like, “do you know why the “V” of birds flying south is never quite symmetrical? Because there are always more birds on one side of the V.” Dad’s playful, goofy sense of humor was one of his defining characteristics and I was so desperate for his acknowledgement of my existence that I was quick to forgive him for his limitations and accept the hugs and affection he showed during these brief moments. Of course Tina was present and these interactions were always reported back to Vicki.
Soon Vicki put an end to the lunchtime rituals and demanded that Dad stop coming home for lunch to see me. Again, my heart was broken but I was determined to not let Vicki see any sign of victory. I forced the boulder down my dry throat and it scraped the meaty walls and tore open my insides. I could taste blood as the tears welled up in my eyes. Vicki threatened to send me home early to Portland if Dad continued to come home to see me. As instructed, Dad stopped coming by during lunch and continued to limit his interactions with me. I couldn’t tell if it bothered him because he maintained a jovial veneer with Vicki and Tina.
About two weeks later, Tina and I were playing in the driveway and Dad surprisingly stopped home for lunch. He jumped out of his truck like normal father fashion, picked me up in his arms and gave me a bear hug. Like the many times that would follow, I immediately forgave his infractions and accepted the warmth shown to me. It became a habit in between wives that Dad would woo me back into his good graces. My mom also claims that he initiated their own reconciliation on occasion, usually when breaking up with a wife but also while married when times got tough. I can see it for what it is now, but in the moment, I kept thinking this will change and I will get my dad back. I made Dad a sandwich and enjoyed a half hour of joke telling.
Tina was quick to milk the opportunity for all that it was worth. After my dad returned to work, she showed her cards and demanded a trip to the park and a stop for candy on the way home. The negotiations seemed fair although I was wary that she might not have the capacity to keep her end of the bargain to not tell her mother that Dad had stopped by for lunch. There was a clear power shift that afternoon and Tina demanded my attention and obedience. I kept thinking, oh how I wish these were different circumstances, as I’d love to push her face in the dirt and hold her down. She was tiny and venomous like her mother.
That evening after the parents had come home, I was in the back yard playing with the dog, Shlitz. Tina came outside and began to taunt me with threats. “I think I’m going to tell Mom that your dad came home today,” she said through squinty eye and a slow grin.
“No you won’t,” I answered, studying how the light bounced off of her icy blue eyes. “You know she’ll send me home and I won’t be able to take you places anymore.”
“I don’t care, my mom will take me,” she volleyed back.
I tried negotiating with Tina to not tell her mother and reminded her of the fun time we had at the park earlier. I began to see that it wasn’t a trip to the park or candy that interested Tina but rather she was motivated by the same thing that motivated her mother, the manipulation of power. Later in life, I’m sure she would learn to wield the power in her sexuality in the same ways that Vicki did, but for now she was just in training. She was enjoying watching me squirm and stared at me like a greedy amateur drunk on her spoils. Tina turned toward the back door and said, “no, I’m gonna tell.”
It was clear that she was testing the boundaries of her power and so far I had been playing really nice. She was completely unaware of my rage and my strength, I had never shown it, and the injustice of my situation was fueled by the hottest burning rocket fuel in my gut. I could feel the fire coming up my esophagus and grabbed the only thing that separated me and Tina, a toy shopping cart that she had been playing with earlier that day. I snapped and shoved the front of the cart into Tina’s stomach and pinned her to the side of the house. She let out a quick yelp before I pushed it harder to stop her cries. I had pushed all of the air from her lungs and could see that the position of the cart was not allowing her diaphragm to expand and take in more air. I knew that I could kill her and just sat with the decision for a minute while she slowly turned blue. I recall having enough sense to do a quick total sum analysis and knew that the end result would not be good for me if I killed Tina. Oh, but I wanted to. It was as if I had dumped all of my pain onto the shopping cart and was presenting it to her. I jabbed the cart harder hoping to break a rib or two. Tina’s eyes filled with fear and I could see the carbon dioxide poisoning causing her eyes to quickly shake. I knew I had to make a decision fast. I got one more quick jab in before I released Tina.
Tina fell to the ground and began gasping as the snot expelled from her lungs and covered her face. I proceeded to the front door to go pack my bag as Vicki and Dad rushed out the back to assist Tina. I was certain that nothing coming would be as bad as I felt already. I was ready to leave.