Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Stand Where I Stood: Bittersweet

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…”

The first lines of the familiar song roused me awake. I was asleep, it was my birthday, and this was really not what I had in mind for my Sweet Sixteen. It was nineteen minutes after nine on that day in the middle of July. Exactly sixteen years prior was the moment I took my first breath. The symbolism of the moment was not lost at all on my mother and once the fog of sleep had cleared not on me either. She and my baby brother stood next to my bed, mom sat down and presented me with a card from both her and my brother. Proclaiming that in honor of my sixteenth birthday I would have one present every hour for sixteen hours! The blowout of all birthdays had been the summer before when she threw a surprise party for me and invited both my closest girlfriends and my puppy love boyfriend (that I had for a hot minute) AND the guys he was friends who were also my friends! My first co-ed party and the girls were going to stay the night… but the boys lingered a bit too long and we ended up in a huge water fight between the girls and mom versus the boys. It was amazing and I still have friends that reference that party. Looking back now I am glad I had one last party where I oblivious to the dark things that existed and could haunt you in the night and it was the best party ever.

This was my sweet sixteen and I would be lying if I said I was not a bit disappointed that some elaborate plan had not been hatched for this particular rite of passage. That summer was different than the one before, something lost on me at the time; I was not really speaking to any of my friends. He dominated all of my time and did not like any of my friends; especially my best friend Hana* she was the worst of them all as far as he was concerned. The only friend on the approved list was Alena* who he liked because she liked him, a lot more than I realized at the time, and she would smoke pot with him; something I refused to do. He had slowly and surgically cut me off from the life blood of a teenager, friends, so deliberately that I had not really noticed. Alena was always there so I was not really lonely and he was always there; the summer seemed to be flying by so I did not have a real sense of missing anyone.

My mother’s enthusiasm was contagious, she was rarely this excited as a medical professional it took a lot breach the calm of her well-practiced professional exterior. She seemed almost giddy and that made me smile. I got up, locked myself in the bathroom, and splashed cold water on my face. I checked a greenish yellow bruise under my arm; thankfully low enough I could still wear sleeveless shirts. Gently touching I winced in pain I applied a layer of Arnica gel. I was lucky I had long been a ballet dancer so the smell of different salves on my skin did not create any suspicion because I was always repairing some blister or raw spot on my toes from dancing in pointe shoes, or sore muscles from pushing myself a bit harder. Just a drop of White Flower Balm, barely a drop, to give it a bit of heat and help it relax a little because it hurt to take deep breaths. The bruise on my hip down and around to my back side was fading now and looked more like a shadow than a bruise.

These bruise checks had become a necessary evil, if my parents saw one the stories to explain a weird bruise were limited. I did bruise easily though and it was that fact that I told myself when a new mark would appear; that it hadn’t been a blow or grasp too hard I was just an easy bruiser, really it wasn’t so bad as all that. (Always telling myself not to be a drama queen)  Looking back at all the justifications I made for it all and everything to come I can’t help but wonder if anyone who happens upon this might think I am crazy. That which is so clear now should have been obvious then; obvious to anyone, but life is rarely obvious at the time and people see what they want to. No one wanted to see this happening, I didn’t even want to see it, and so no one did.

My mother’s voice rang out from the other room, she was growing impatient. I flushed the toilet and the White Flower Balm cotton ball down with it. Pulled my sloppy pajamas back on and sleepy but alert walked out and into our open plan living room. She and my brother, who was also excited, sat there with the first gift. I hadn’t opened it yet! All this build up I couldn’t help but laugh when it was a package of socks I had said I needed a couple weeks before. We ate some breakfast, I recall cheese grits because they are one of my favorite sinful foods. I got up to get in the shower; he was coming over, as was Alena. Standing in the shower I let the water wash over me warming sore muscles and cried. I was greatly disappointed my father had taken a trip to see my family members, including my dearest grandmother in Texas. I could not understand missing your daughter’s “Sweet Sixteen” and I was hurt by it. In the midst of my own private and secret hell and I was pissed off about my dad missing a silly birthday. Clearly teenage priorities were at work here.

I was almost ready when Alena arrived. She sat on the couch in the den and I came out she had a balloon and some present and card we giggled about but I do not remember now. Unfortunately she could not stay so she made her exit. I had just finished my hair and makeup when I heard the sound of his beater of a truck pull up on the curb. Hurriedly I finished. He did not like waiting on me, especially if it meant my parents would try to make small talk. Sliding into place in front of the door as my mother opened it I had just made it. I was wearing a new white, jean, mid-drift vest that I had buttoned up like a shirt (it was the 90’s), my Wrangler jeans, and my boots. Hair in place, outfit appropriate, flawless makeup, all the boxes ticked. My performance smile plastered on my face, he stood there looking at the ground; with his right arm extending to the door frame and propping himself up. Without moving his head he looked up over his sunglasses and I saw him scan me, a smile coming to his lips. Not the Jekyll and Hyde smile but one he gave when nothing had gone wrong… yet. This was the okay smile.

Relived I ushered him in, he was wearing dirty jeans, a shirt that the sleeves had been so deeply cut out of that the side of his body showed, printed on the shirt was something about “Peckers” and some double entendre about the chickens that starred on the shirt and the slang usage of the word pecker. Crestfallen, and struggling to hide it, it was time for my next gift. It was a puffed heart necklace that made a tinkling sound of tiny bells inside it when you shook it; it was quite the in thing at the time and I was thrilled. As I leaned over across the love seat to show him, I smelled that heady scent of pot, mingling with his Camel cigarettes and a fresh coat of Drakkar (he must have applied in the truck) I knew immediately he was higher than the Space Needle downtown. Working quite hard to not react at all to his complete and utter indifference to my new necklace I pulled myself back across the couch.

If my mother recognized the smell on him, she was lady enough to not mention it to me or to my knowledge to him. Thankfully she also did not bat an eyelash at his choice of attire. I on the other hand was embarrassed but knew by this point not to show it and definitely not to mention it. My mother looked over expectantly at him, this was clearly her segue to his gift presentation. When I glanced in her direction she was staring at him intently and she moved her head forward slightly and raised her eyebrows. Cutting my eyes back to him he was staring back at my mother and he raised one eyebrow.

“Maybe at the restaurant then?” she asked cheerfully.

Nothing was said in return.

My baby brother wanted me to ride in the car with him. Like an insane person I thought we might all ride in one vehicle… looking to him I got a look back that said not gonna happen. Letting my brother down entirely I went and climbed into the truck. We were all going out to eat at my favorite restaurant and I was looking forward to it. He fell into traffic behind my mother and had turned on some Alice in Chains. My mantra reverberating in my head, be small, be quiet, no sudden moves, he was high and that made him unpredictable. The truck fell silent as he turned off the radio and looked at me. He said that he had an idea of something special I could do for my birthday… for him. I furrowed my brow and glanced at him; he pointed to his lap and said something about always wanting to have me do that while he drove around. I must have looked appalled because he started laughing and said he was totally joking. Breathing a sigh of relief as we were now directly behind my mother and then to my horror he lit his pipe up right there at a stop light, still behind my mother. I rolled down my window and leaned against the door frame.

Pulling into the restaurant parking lot I hopped out of the truck; he took another long toke on his pipe and my audible sigh received an unwelcoming look. It was my birthday but you wouldn’t think there was anything special about it from the way he was dressed, or acting, or treating me. I don’t know what I expected but this was not a “Sweet Sixteen”. Treading the line, and I knew it, I shot him a look that questioned the wisdom of his smoking pot, in public, with my mother and brother just a few hundred feet away. The look I got back could have wilted flowers; clearly he did not care what I thought.
This getting high to be around my parents, thing was kind of new. We had all gone to see Independence Day (the movie) on the 3rd of July, so did most of the world it seemed that day. Finding a seat where my family and the two of us could all sit together was difficult. We managed to find a place, but it was less than ideal. He sat in the last seat against the wall. He got up a few times throughout the movie and each time he came back smelling like cigarettes and pot and somewhere in the middle of the movie he put in a dip and proceeding to spit into his empty coke cup. At some point I had stopped reaching for his hand when he would come back; he reached over and grabbed it and squeezed hard. Whispering against my neck that he loved me he just couldn’t stand my family

“They’re boring, you know?”

I simply sighed; I wasn’t going to start a fight in defense of my family right there in the middle of a movie. He leaned against the wall and fell asleep. It was a great day.

Inside the restaurant there was another gift following giving our orders.  It was a beautiful chain necklace. Mom again looked at him, smiling, he just stared at her. So she prompted

“Now would be a good time to do presents don’t you think?”

Oh God, she just assumed he would get me something. I held my breath not knowing what was about to happen. Knowing he wouldn’t expose himself entirely to my family I still worried what he might say later. He finally broke the silence and said

“Um… I had planned on giving it to her a little later; when we go out tonight.”

It was summer but where were we going on a Monday? I looked at him funny and he said something about taking me out to dinner later. Mom was satisfied with the answer and moved on. She would occasionally try to engage him in conversation but he was so wasted there really wasn’t any talking to him. Mostly we chattered to each other about whatever was going on at the time. Until she mentioned Hana’s name and he kicked me under the table, I did not even know he was listening. She asked me how she was doing and if I had talked to her. The answer of course was no, I hadn’t seen anyone but Alena and him and his friends. I muttered something about her being really busy with her boyfriend.

“Y’all should do a double date! Do kids do that anymore? Or am I totally uncool for suggesting it?”

I could literally feel the heat of his skin rising when I interrupted mom

“Yeah no that’s not really a thing people do anymore.”


To be continued…

*Names have been changed in order to keep identifying and concerned parties private.

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