In this strange past place lurked many a ghost. A childhood friend was there from elementary school- this is a different one than the one I mentioned before. She had an unusual name and an even more unusual skin condition, and parents who openly hated each other. I can’t remember much about the father other than the fact he looked like he was going to work even when he was not, sort of like Darren on ‘Bewitched’ but somewhat sloppier. He seemed to stare at all of us girls but not in a pervy way, more like a combination of suspicion and resentment, as if we were secretly in cahoots with the mother, and we would all decide we needed to do away with him, and he would wake up from falling asleep on the extend-rocker only to find himself tied and surrounded by gasoline-soaked rags.
The mother was tall and large-boned, and had a sensible, slightly longer than chin-length blunt cut- her hair was that thick but super-straight heavy kind like my sisters, so you could see how it all separated when she moved and every chunk knew just where it needed to return. I found it fascinating that it seemed to not have any ‘fluff’ to it. None of those endless little baby waves close to the hairline, and her hair never seemed to change with the weather, collecting all the fog in it and turning it into this wavy matted mess, like mine. I knew she probably couldn’t do anything with it, the way my sister’s heavy straight hair could not take a curl or even a permanent.
I remember thinking more than once, I were her size, which was likely close to 6′, no one would ever kick my ass again, I wouldn’t care that I would have to wear sucky clothes, maybe special ordered from the women’s big and tall store catalog, I was already wearing sucky clothes. Her voice was on the deeper side with a slight accent from somewhere I couldn’t place- it wasn’t from anywhere in the West, or south and it wasn’t anything I could remember from TV. Now I think it might have been Northeast. Her voice when irritated would seem to make this accent gear up and she could reach a pitch that would make me cringe.
I remember thinking hmm this is a different kind of fighting than my parents. They scared me but I liked the way at least their fights had an end. One would slam the door or leave or tell the other one to go to hell and then there would be quiet.
Even though I was a witness to it, I also thought at least they had the decency to get their bullshit over with during the day, instead of keeping their kids up in the middle of the night, having conversations where both sides seemed like they were not heard or understood no matter how much yelling, crying, asking what the other wanted, apologizing, winding down, starting back up and nothing ever really getting resolved. At least her parents fought neatly, it was during the day and it was short, At the time, I didn’t think they also could be fighting in the middle of the night. Their style seemed to be a constant undercurrent of contempt, marked by abrupt nastiness in small bursts.
In this fucked-up attic of the distant past lurked the various houses my paternal grandparents lived in, the house my maternal grandparents lived in San Francisco, which now sits empty. Some people like to deny history, like the time I found the gun in a metal box under this dresser-like thing that held all the ‘good china’, next to a bunch of crayons. I brought the box to someone, I can’t remember if I got yelled at or not. Why the youngest aunt, the one only 7 years older than myself- to this day denies it happened.
Yes, I was a kid, but I knew what it was, knew that it was real,and I knew it was dangerous and I shouldn’t play with it. I remember thinking that they were either stupid or crazy to have a gun like that on the floor next to the stuff my sister and I played with. Many times I thought the adults that surrounded me were stupid or crazy or both. Then I felt bad for thinking this, but it made me not trust them insofar as trusting the whole concept that adults had their shit together and knew what they were doing.
At that same grandparents house I was trying to skate outside their house although it wasn’t easy on sloping hills. I got thirsty and there was a metal frozen orange juice can with the top off on the workbench, I thought it was water inside, but it was turpentine. I remember not being able to talk but bringing the can up and pointing to it. They made me drink milk, I didn’t get sick. I think someone yelled at me but I don’t remember who. They mostly all gathered around and stared at me and talked about it. I can’t remember if they called to ask advice. I know I didn’t go to the dr.
The time my sister did something to herself on these awful metal playground bars when she was probably about 7 or 8, hurting herself. My parents thought it was maybe her getting her period, but I had not gotten mine, and I was 18 months older than her. We had some kind of insurance through my father’s job, but it seemed they always waited forever to take us to the Dr. She kept bleeding and bleeding until finally she had to go to the emergency room and get stitched up. As different as my sister and I are, and as much of a pain in the ass she can be, I often think that she could have bled to death and how angry I would have been at my parents for not wanting to pay the ER co-pay, and this was with them having decent insurance from my dad’s job. I would have known, ok this kid is too young, it’s not her period, she said she hurt hurt herself on the bars, this is definitely a doctor visit.
Another time, when my parents were asleep one morning, and this is when we were very young, I might have been maybe 6 and she 4 or it could have even been five and three- she was playing with a kaleidoscope and had opened it up. It was one of the things I couldn’t stand about her, she was always breaking everything, every time she borrowed my clothes she wrecked them, or spilled stuff on my books or puked on my favorite blanket. Her endless ear infections and high fevers and carsickness. We both cut our heads on a sharp ended low coffee table as babies or toddlers. How did my mother not get it to get rid of the table with kids that close in age?
I was probably like 4 or 5. Even at that age I knew she had fucked up badly. It looked like in getting the kaleidoscope apart, she had about cut her little finger off. I remember thinking, great now I have to wake them up. I kind of don’t blame them, I’m a night person myself, we all are- except for the being the kid part. I knew I had to, it was bad, but they hated being woken up and feared they would not believe me, or not take me seriously when I said her finger was hanging off, that she had almost cut her finger off. I used my most serious little kid voice and didn’t try to hide how freaked out I was. I may have even had to say ‘please go look’.
I guess one of them must have gotten up and saw the horror. The drive to the hospital, the white kitchen towel with ice and blood. I remember being pissed off that I had to go too, when I wasn’t the one who was always doing these kind of things.
Like the other time when she was running down our steep hill like a rhinocerous straight into someone’s open car door and put a gash in her head. Why she was doing that I don’t know. She was officially a girl but she always kind of seemed like a boy, and she didn’t look like me or either one of my parents really, she looked like my mother’s father, the one who alphabetized his classical music collection and talked to his bird more than anyone else.
Yes I did overdose on flintstones kid vitamins and also baby aspirin when I was pretty young. Too young to know what would happen, but old enough to climb onto the kitchen counter and go in the cabinets. I didn’t have to go to the hospital though, I just got sick and that was that. Aside from the hives and the ODing on good-tasting goodies found in the cabinets, I can’t remember many injuries or even very many sicknesses of note, I just wasn’t as rough and tumble as my sister.
I guess I thought no one’s parents watched them and all this was normal. The time I had hives really bad back when I was allergic to chocolate. The hives were not small, they were like raised continents. I got dragged to dinner at some people’s house that my dad worked with. Why it was such a big deal to have to go there I don’t know, it’s not like they were closing a deal. The guy worked at the same place as my own father, the wife dressed up more than my mother and wore more makeup, but they lived in a similar crappy tract house subdivision not a mile from us.
I remember taking a bath there while I was over there covered in hives, one of the adults thinking that would help. I had the hives before we even left our house. Of course at the end of the night, when it was clear it wasn’t going to go away, the ER as last resort on the way home from the oh so vaunted Weinberg’s (not their real name). A shot. They said it would make me jittery. If it did, I didn’t even care at that point, I wasn’t afraid at all. I was relieved that it seemed at least temporarily, I was in the semi-care of sane, rational people. I kind of didn’t want to go home. I didn’t care anymore about never going to Disneyland, I probably wouldn’t like it anyway.
I regularly wondered why my parents sort of worshipped one or another of their friends,and whatever friend or friend rotation drama was going on seemed to eclipse everything else in their life at the time. My kid self wasn’t really all that bad of a kid. Thinking back, I am lucky my sister and I survived my parents. Not because they starved us and beat us but by not really paying attention, being so absorbed in their own stuff, their friend’s stuff.
This large group of weird hippie friends would hang around the house , drop by whenever, and worse, sit and drink with my mom and go on and on and it was all so vague and spacey, I hated it. They thought they were speaking in ‘adult code’ so either myself or my sister, who had zero interest in listening to them ( but used every drawn-out drunken-hippie conversation to get away with something) would not be able to figure out what was really going on. Of course then I didn’t know as much about them as I do now, but although I could easily tell the ‘code’, listening to them only served to enrich my overall disappointment in adults.
I don’t know if I even can accurately portray the type of roundabout, airheaded, go-nowhere conversations they had. Knowing how my mother is now, I pretty much know she either envied these people’s problems, thinking that their lives contained more adventure or something than her own, or by turn had contempt for them and thought them stupid or boring, or just didn’t care-or maybe it she was so bored it was something to do- like a soap opera, days of our wine-fueled, post-shit-war-had-two-kids-too-close-together-wish-I-had-been-a-painter lives.. but she could smoke and drink wine while listening to their bullshit and my dad wouldn’t rag on her for drinking if she was ‘being supportive of a friend’- at least not while the friend was there. How they could sit there and go on and on with my mom being, well, my mom, not really empathizing with anyone but asking informational questions, I don’t know.
Perhaps they saw it as she was trying to be neutral like a shrink, because that was the good way to see it. Maybe that’s why sometimes I don’t know how to respond the approved way to people’s problems verbally with something like ‘Oh I’m so sorry, I’ll pray for you..” and instead want to feed them or hug them or rub their back or make them laugh or just let them rant, or affectionately tell them they are being crazy or agree with them that whatever it is royally sucks. I don’t know, maybe that is good enough.
“I just don’t know what I want, you know Lisette? I love Werner, but I need my space to be Gayle..it’s just the energy of all the water because I’m a Pisces, and he’s a fire sign, I mean, I’m just not used to all the intensity..when I was with David and he would have his poetry blah blah blah blah”..(or gee Gayle, maybe it’s because Werner is probably still hung up on my mother- I don’t know why except for the fact she probably didn’t expect much from him and probably wasn’t that attached to him either- from when he lived with us with his kid after he got out of Vietnam . Of course this was probably when my dad was busy with Sue or Marge..or weirder, maybe Gail did know this since all of them were always ‘oversharing’ and that’s why she thought she would come to my mother for advice, which would be the worst possible idea). Sometimes I wish I could be selective about which memories to lose or rather specific information. Just because you can now make better sense of things doesn’t necessarily make anything better.
My sister made me not want to have kids and so did my own parents but I did anyway. Is consoling myself with the ‘at least I’m not like them’ not such a good thing? I have my faults – not anything that would make the news or cause child protection to come out, more like I just hate schmoozing with other moms and talking endlessly about stupid shit like shoes and ombre hair and if corn syrup is more evil than gluten and hate making art collages of presidents and annoyance at the schools changing the way they teach basic skills every couple years and all the lame cutesy things they feel compelled to rename everything. “oh we don’t call it sounding the word out anymore, we call it ‘word blending’ and crap like that. I know I’m not like my mother as unsocial as I can be, people say I’m not cold. I used to think I was like my father, but now I’m not even so sure of that.