Tuesday, April 21, 2015
An excerpt from Just Another Number
My relationship with my stepfather, Carl, had always been complicated. He came into my life when I was six years old. My mother met and married him in four months, igniting my temper tantrums at the news of their engagement. Despite going through the motions of legal adoption, Carl never developed the “I’ll kill you if you lay a hand on my princess,” protectiveness stereotyped in southern daddies. When my mom wasn’t watching, Carl didn’t flinch on the nights I stumbled into our front door slurring my speech and practically drooling out the corners of my lips.
My teenage sex talk was as simple as, “Yer sixteen. If yer not fuckin’ now, you will be soon. Let’s getcha on tha pill.” In Mom’s absence, Carl played good cop, making it easy to for me to sneak gulps of Grey Goose from his garage liquor cabinet while he lounged on our large back deck and entertained his belligerent buddies with his vibrating, ten-thousand-dollar stereo system. However, in Mom’s presence, Carl was the domineering, temperamental disciplinary who barked orders, sentenced groundings, and demanded the title, “Sir.”
“This is nuthin’ compared to what ma parents woulda done,” was his go-to justification for every outburst of belittlement. “Yer just lucky I haven’t beat tha tar outta ya like ma old man.”
Carl constantly told horror stories of cursing and beatings from his father and the twenty-four-hour blackout screaming of his alcoholic, pill-popping mother. He used his trauma like a caution sign for what he could do if I didn’t silence my backtalk.
As a child, I ate up the image Carl strived to portray: An inspirational rags-to-riches tale of a go-getter emerging the hell of his sulfur-scented, Podunk Texas upbringing. With a community college dropout education, Carl managed to reach six figures as a mobile home lot manager when the trailer park industry boomed in the early nineties. He decorated his accomplishments with a large house, yachts, and weekly morale shindigs for his salesmen bursting with open bars and filet mignon. However, my mother was by far his prettiest accessory. When they met, she was the prized, sparkly-eyed-twenty-six-year-old, platinum blonde daughter of the wealthy chiropractor who owned the land his lot stood on.
Even into middle age, Annie emulated the innocence of a six-year-old girl because she never had to face responsibilities beyond that maturity level. As a child, her four siblings would be elbow deep in yard work beneath a layer of grimy sweat within the scorching South Carolina summers while Annie lollygagged in the bathroom, claiming that she could not so much as touch a pine cone until her golden locks were curled to perfection. However, Annie was far too adorable to be scolded for laziness. She grew up without discipline or even obligations to hold humbling service jobs as a roller skate waitress or greasy fast food cashier. Although my grandparents lived like the depression babies they were and almost relished faking poverty, their bank accounts were mysteriously bottomless. Annie was cheery, charming, and universally likeable. Her interests were too cluttered with beauty products, baking, and cute, fluffy animals to allow room for controversy. The first true crack in her yellow brick road was my out-of-wedlock birth. Even though it was considered one of the greatest sins within my staunchly religious family, my conception was shrugged off as a brief slip from a girl swept away with her first love.
“I would have followed him to the end of the world,” Annie always said of my biological father.
My mother’s true appeal went beyond the clash of the beautiful trust fund darling as the arm candy of an overweight trailer salesman. Carl grew up in harsh, chaotic poverty. His escape was the alcoholism that was conceived during puberty and flourished throughout adulthood. His initial career was a diesel mechanic wearing faded coveralls with oil up his nails and sweat on his brow. His earliest homes were the dingy trailers he would later profit from. His first marriage was doused with benders, acid trips, and sex crazed parties packed with orgies with a first wife who’d lost track of number of dicks shoved down her throat in the midst of intoxication. I don’t know what sparked his revelation, but at some point, Carl decided to fiercely pursue the world he envied. He wanted a life of starched, white shirts, ties, SUVs, and picket fences. He ached for the scent of steaks grilling on his sunny patio. He dreamed of white-collar southern beauty and my mother, in all her naïve innocence, was the loveliest possession he could ever obtain.
Once Carl charmed my grandparents, I stood as his only obstacle. Six-year-olds just aren’t old enough to be swayed by sales tactics.
After his honeymoon, Carl was welcomed home with mail fraud accusations. The three of us moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was four hours away from my grandparents. That’s when my problems began.
One would have thought that my grandparents resented me for the negative attention my conception drew around their religious Easley Baha’i community. Although gossip and backbiting is considered the Baha’i Faith’s most detrimental sin, southerners have mastered picking, choosing, and rationalizing religious texts to fit their social agenda better than their own mother’s fried chicken recipe.
“Psst! Don’t sit on the toilet seats,” Grandmother would hiss to her children before entering the Baha’i gathering at the home of Osie Jones. “Her daughter, Rhonda has herpes.”
I can only imagine what they said about my mother. Parenting had never been Grandmother Adele Young’s forte. At seventeen, Adele boarded a bus from her dusty, cotton factory farm town, Thomaston, Georgia, to Palmer Chiropractic College in Davenport, Iowa. She socially and academically fought her way through chiropractic school as one of just two or three women in her graduating class. I don’t know if my granddaddy put her in her place, or that she just gave up, but Adele surrendered her path as a female medical pioneer for the life of a privileged housewife. Far too intellectual for her role, she busied herself with spa retreats, pottery camps, pilot school, and acquiring college art degrees she would never use. To this day, her children claim she was both physically and emotionally absent, suspecting she popped out five of them out of pure boredom.
But by the time I came around, Grandmother softened into her fifties and her maternal instincts finally developed. My mother and I lived under my grandparents’ roof. They funded each and every one of Mom’s flighty, short-lived goals towards incomplete college educations, beauty school, and finally pet grooming. While Annie played mommy here and there, Grandmother handled the grunt work, getting me into Greenville’s most prestigious Montessori preschool and flaunting me around the southeast for Baha’i retreats like her beloved doll. To my grandparents, I was much more than a granddaughter. I was their do-it-right-this-time prize they finally had the maturity to mold into their pristine human being.
“You weren’t an accident,” Grandmother repeatedly told me. “God put you on this earth for a reason. You, Miss Maggie, are destined to change the world.”
It wasn’t really a loud-mouthed, hyperactive little pig-tailed blonde that made Carl cringe. It was what I represented. While his upbringing was battered humiliation, I was spoiled, doted on, and spoon-fed by the world. I don’t think he was even aware of his intentions to reduce that child to his own state of self-loathing, but he was truly brilliant at it. Carl never crossed the line of abuse. He just crept up to it and lingered there. He never hit me. He never touched me. He only played subtle, but potent mind games as fluid as the air he breathed.
My mother, forever a child herself, remained at her back seat parenting. She just watched, numb and empty headed. At seven years old, Carl felt that I wasn’t eating enough vegetables. He spent hours forcing me to swallow the chalky, adult-sized pills that were too big for my throat. I wailed like a prisoner unaware of the crime I committed. I thought I would die right there in the kitchen chair I was confined to, choking to death. Then I figured I could chew that pill to freedom. I remember breaking open the gel cap between my baby teeth and feeling the bitter, dirt paste seep into my mouth. I struggled to collect enough saliva in the crevice of my gums to wash away the taste until my stomach jolted uncontrollably. My throat felt like floodgates pried open by a tsunami as vomit exploded out of my mouth. I was so embarrassed. I just cried as Carl demanded I clean my mess, rolled his eyes, and stormed away.
I quit sleeping when we moved to Tennessee. I didn’t understand the cause of my insomnia. I only knew that sleep meant surrendering control of my body. That terrified me.
It wasn’t that every day was hell with Carl. Before we moved away, he was actually an attentive new stepdad. I ate up the masculine activities he introduced to me, like fishing and camping. Since Carl wasn’t a Baha’i, he brought the Christmas rituals I’d been deprived of. We ventured into the woods and chopped down a flimsy, malnourished pine tree to layer with plastic red and green balls and Wal-Mart candy canes. He loaded my stockings with toys and even bought the massive, Pepto-Bismol pink Barbie Dream House I’d been drooling over. I can only imagine how endearing he seemed to my mother as he knelt over to drill his Mega Pro screwdriver into the glitter sunroom. In his earliest daddy days, he sat through Disney movies, fastened hair bows, and gracefully accepted F’s when we played school. That’s why I spent my childhood in denial of the relief I felt when he was gone.
When I was nine, our patio talks began. Carl would lean back on a cushioned deck chair, his gut toppling over his belt. He held a teal, plastic liter mug filled with iced Jack and Coke in his right hand and a cigarette in his left. We would banter back and forth about society, human nature, and life goals. To an outsider, the interaction between the middle-aged southern salesman and a child may have seemed bizarre, but it provided a philosophical outlet Carl couldn’t find with my mom. Annie lived to please others. She was raised by Granddaddy at the height of his male domineering ferocity. She grew up around Granddaddy’s frustrated scowls at my retaliating Grandmother, Adele, questioned him. She challenged him. She outwitted him. She was the better chiropractor and the tougher fighter. Time and time again, he kicked her out of his office, knocked her up, and restricted her chiropractic adjustments to kitchen tables and living room floors. In the end, he preferred a bubbly housewife who knew when to marinate her pot roast and shut her trap.
“I just wanted my dad to like me,” Mom often told me.
Although I’ve known Mom my entire life, she’s a stranger to me because she is a stranger to herself. She had nothing to teach me beyond scouting discount facials and manicures. There was no denying that Mom dumbed herself down to please the men in her life, but I still can’t figure out whether it has been an act all this time or permanent damage. I just know that she blossomed from the perfect daddy’s girl to the ideal wife. She cooked Carl’s chicken fried steak, laughed at his jokes, and adopted his opinions. When they argued, she pouted, but never defied him. Although she was the puppet he cherished far more than the rest of his toys, the oblivion that made their marriage work was also its void. Carl saw me as a little girl precocious enough to entertain him, but naïve enough to nourish his ego. I could spout feedback to keep the banter alive, but he would always be the father of all knowledge. Carl saw the immediate impacts of our talks, like nods, grins, and arguments but the premonitions stopped there. Our chats occurred during my construction. A child is like a soft lump of clay. Carl was my artist. My life views on sex, men, dating, and self-worth were sculpted by the unfiltered ramblings of a drunken misogynist.
“The last thing ya wanna do is get fat,” Carl mentioned.
I was eleven and on the brink of a prepubescent chubby phase.
“Now yer not bad now. Only bout fav’ er ten pounds overweight. But you don’t wanna lose control. The worlda’ treat ya differently. You’ll have less opportunities and it’ll be harder ta landa man with a good payin’ job.”
Starvation was the first indication of my self-discipline. I was devoted to anorexia. I went the distance of memorizing the calorie content within every bite of food while calculating the exact amount of exercise I needed to burn double my consumption. I was luckily young enough to mask my excessive exercise with juvenile hyperactivity. Nobody thought twice about the fact that I was constantly rollerblading, biking, and running for hours in stifling summer humidity. I learned to cut my food into tiny bites and move it around my plate. I read that standing burned more calories than sitting, so I refused to watch television without doing crunches, leg lifts, or at least walking in place. When socially forced to soldier through a movie, I tapped my foot in desperation to knock out about seventy-five extra calories. From age eleven to twelve, I dropped forty pounds and halted the one period I’d had.
“I’m proud of ya. You look great!” Carl told me.
But I couldn’t let my guard down. I knew that Carl’s eye was watchful because my puberty progression was a constant conversation topic. Carl liked to talk about the female form. Once I lost weight, he elevated my status above my cousins because they were getting chubby into puberty. He praised my genetic lottery by telling me, “You look exactly like your mother,” he told me when I was about twelve. “Cept’ you got tha ass. I have no idea what tha hell happened to hers.”
Carl often spat out advice for my future dating life. He never described the type of man I should go for beyond one that makes a good bit of cash. He never taught me to seek intelligence, education, or respect. He never cautioned me to look for chivalry, door openings, dinner payments, or flowers on the right occasions. It wasn’t about how he would earn me, but how I would earn him.
“Every man wants sex and nuthin’ more,” Carl told me. “So, if ya give ‘em what he wants right away, he’ll think you’re a whore, stick his dick in ya, and move on. String ‘em along for ‘bout a month. Get ‘em investin’ his time. Play hard to get. Give ‘em blue balls.”
“But once ya get ‘em,” he told me one night when I was about fourteen. His face was bloated and flushed from his third liter of Jack and Coke. “Don’t be a prude lak your muther.”
Carl discreetly turned his head to the left and then the right to make sure Mom wasn’t within hearing range.
“I tried to stick it in er ass once and she didn’t speak to me for a week,” he nearly whispered before belting out a slur of loose chuckles. “And gettin’ ‘er to do ya on top? Forget about it!”
In ways, I morphed into Carl’s description of the ideal woman. Like Mom, physical beauty was my ultimate priority. I spent hours on end stripped naked, posing in front of my full length bedroom mirror at every angle so that each wrinkle, roll, and pinch of fat could receive sharp scrutiny before I strived for complete self annihilation. I made it a habit of studying every Teen magazine model and the skinniest cheerleaders in my middle school yearbook. I observed their arms, legs, and hips. I held their images against mine with a goal for my bones to protrude further and calves spread further apart when standing straight. However, I saw the way Carl bent his head down and lowered his voice when he spoke about Mom, as if it was our job to keep a feisty, barking puppy believing that it was our guard dog.
“Ure mom can’t help she got half ure I-Q,” Carl would chuckle.
I took pride in our superiority. I made valiant efforts to be Mom’s opposite. I rebelled against her smiley, likeable character. I grew into a confrontational, brooding teenager. I learned to push buttons and to make snide, inappropriate remarks in front of their friends. While Mom was a blonde ball of sunshine, I wore despair like a fashionable cloak. Bulimia was flattering apparel.