The Ties That Bind
It occurred to me, digging through Yesterday, that in none of those photos did I appear to be happy. I didn’t just look unhappy, I was unhappy. I was flat-out miserable. But nobody seemed to notice or care, so long as I was where they wanted me to be and I was doing what they wanted me to do. The most striking thing about those old photos wasn’t that I looked unhappy but that nobody else in the photo seemed to notice. A Christian counselor explained it this way: a toxic relationship is still toxic, even when it’s your own family. My choice was simple: go on pretending just to keep from hurting their feelings, or live with the guilt of shutting them out of my life. This is how emotional blackmail works.
This was an unimaginable horror. My wife. This girl I’d adored
since high school. The person I trusted most in the world, now
standing on this busy street making this appeal to me to go
away. Go away and stay away. I’d come by without calling. I was
in New York on business and stopped by to apologize for a missed
opportunity when she’d recently been in Colorado. More than
that, I’d come to say good-bye. We’d been divorced two years but
I was still wearing my wedding band, still in some state of
denial. I assumed, at the very least, we’d emerge from the hurt
and the anger as friends, perhaps better friends than when we
were struggling through the marriage. I could accept divorce,
but I could not conceive of losing her. She was family. File all
the paper you want, there’s a bond that cannot be broken.
Sixteen years later I’m still on that street, still hearing her
exasperation. Will you please just go away. Which, ironically,
was why I was there. To tell her there’d be no more visits. No
more letters. No more calls. To let her know I’d finally heard
her. Her sister watched us through venetian blinds with a phone
in her hand, ready to dial 911. I couldn’t imagine the comic
paranoia, these women thinking—what were they thinking? That I’d
kidnap her? That I’d harm her? What part of our life together
would ever make her think that? The vertigo of just seeing her,
smelling her, being with her, robbed me of my thoughts. Whatever
organized, scripted cohesion I’d gathered was displaced by the
earnestness of her plea. Let me go. Stop bothering me. Stop
doing this to me. All things I’d finally decided to do, but none
of which I could articulate. There she was. There we were. The
familiar beats, the rhythm of our conversation. Those eyes. How
could any of this possibly be happening.
“If you were my father and my brother, instead of my mother and sister, I wouldn’t have anything to do with you.” There was silence on the other end of the phone. I knew I’d hurt her. Finding ways to not hurt my mother’s feelings was, for me, a full-time job. The words, along with anything else I’ve ever said to her, just kind of bounced off of her force field while she tried, as she always did, to talk me into making the trip to Florida. I didn’t want to go to Florida. Florida was her idea, not mine. I didn’t leave her, she left me. But, every six weeks there’s some stupid holiday, some excuse to make the cross-country dash to the Sunshine State, where I’d be miserable and she wouldn’t notice or care. “She abused me,” I said, pointing to my sister on my last trip down there, “And you let it happen.” “I didn’t know,” she said. “You did know because I told you. I told you over and over again.” But she assumed it was just what kids do—get on each other’s nerves and fight. I wasn’t fighting with my sister. I was hated and loathed by my sister, who spent every waking moment of her pathological, self-absorbed childhood robbing me of mine. Beating me, yelling at me, taking my things, ridiculing me, lying on me. I was the little brother, defenseless before a bigger, psychotic kid who, from crib to high school, thought only and exclusively about herself. She tortured me, tortured my mother, destroyed everything she touched. I grew up in a constant state of anxiety because, each and every day of my childhood, I never knew what this girl would do next. Sitting in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant, as adults, these two women just dismissed my words into the air. Chris has obviously had some sort of psychotic episode. Their memory of those years, presuming they actually have one since Mom was almost never home and sister fried her brain with drugs, is some benign Normal Rockwell whitewash of a loving family pulling together through tough times. Truth was, I was a prisoner. I didn’t have language for it back then. I didn’t have the courage to even examine it. During her teen years my sister routinely violently attacked my mother. She would either get thrown out or run away, like clockwork, and I’d be relieved. Thank God. But, 2 o’clock in the morning, Mom would find her crying on the front steps. I’d be in my room praying, Please, God, don’t let her back in. For all her accusations that Mom loved me best, Mom sacrificed most for her. Gave up everything for her. Ultimately, Mom lost me trying to save her.
The Circle Broken: Richardson-Whitfield in I Will Follow.
The Concrete Jungle Revisited
There is this picture I used to carry in my wallet, back when I
used to carry a wallet. A very old picture of me kneeling on a
New York City street holding my niece who looks tired and
aggravated. The lady behind the camera was my mother and the
girl standing behind me was my sister. It was my high school
graduation and what struck me about the photo was the little
girl’s expression but, additionally, my own. It took me about a
half hour to find this photo, looking through bunches of old
photos while being hammered by phone calls I’ve yet to return
and emails I’ve yet to write. It occurred to me, digging through
Yesterday, that in none of those photos did I appear to be
happy. None of them. I’m not terribly photogenic and have never
enjoyed having my picture taken, but also, I’m not quite sure
that I’ve ever been happy. “Happy” seems kind of relative, and
we each define happiness in different ways.
The most striking thing about those old photos wasn’t that I looked unhappy but that nobody else in the photo seemed to notice. I think we live life in phases: childhood, where we’re too stupid to realize our parents are insane and our lives are horrible, young adulthood where we’re incredibly arrogant, rejecting everything mama taught us and making a mess of our lives, and then you have that 40-60 range where you’re the busboy clearing away piles of dirty dishes your first twenty years of adult life left behind. Cigarette put out in the scrambled eggs. Looking at the photos, I had a visceral memory. I didn’t just look unhappy, I was unhappy. I was flat-out miserable. But nobody seemed to notice or care, so long as I was where they wanted me to be and I was doing what they wanted me to do. This is likely the plot of the next novel in a line of novels I’ll probably never publish: an examination of this phenomena, of people choosing not to see how utterly miserable you are.
I grew up in daily mortal fear and with an acute awareness of where I could and could not go, the difference between the two being as little as a city block. I’d wake up to the thunder of jungle drums: idiots who’d literally point giant speakers out of their windows and start blasting what would later become known as Hip-Hop music from their homes in a kind of jungle warfare. It was tribal: the precious little dignity these young boys had centered around their material wealth or the illusion thereof created by who had the loudest sound system. These boys filled their days hanging out on stoops, hustling for beer and reefer money, playing basketball, and telling lies about sex. You could tell the guys who were actually having sex from the liars because the guys actually having sex usually left the jungle because they got some stupid girl knocked up, just as my sister, a stupid jungle girl, got herself knocked up. Like we didn’t already have enough problems. There wasn’t a huge distinction between life in the jungle and life in the yard at Rikers Island. All we had was time and far too much of it.
I was terrorized, daily, first and foremost by my own sister, who escalated sibling rivalry into Josef Mengele-level masochism and who routinely encouraged and joined in with the neighborhood bullies who beat and terrorized me just as she beat and terrorized me. For three consecutive years I never once came in alone through the front door of my own house, but went out the back and jumped over neighbors' fences to avoid bad guys and worse guys. I was afraid to be on the streets, I wasn’t safe at home because my sister would routinely invite the streets inside. I mean, I’d come home and find the jungle in my house, waiting for me, my sister serving these people snacks and entertaining them. I spent the majority of my childhood wishing to be away from these people I lived with. That was my only goal in life: Get Away From Here. Get away From Them. I was a little kid. Their job was to protect me. Neither ever did. I knew, maybe as early as ten years old, I was completely on my own.
Mine was a world of bad guys and worse guys, and no matter how hard I prayed for Superman or Jesus to come and save me, neither ever did. My father, whom I have never met, lived in the same borough of the same city but allowed us to suffer winters without heat and weeks without food. Mom used to make what I called her famous “Five Day Soup,” a concoction of whatever was lying around that actually wasn’t bad the first two or three days you ate it. I kept looking for the man with the white hat or the man on the white horse to ride to the rescue, but the reality was my mother, sister and I standing in waist-high snow waiting for a bus that wasn't coming.