2004: No Calls Please

I draft a letter to Dad for my next weekly session with Dr. Vee while repeating my silent mantra: you can do this…you can face your fear.

The plastic casing surrounding my BIC pen cracks as I squiggle my signature with defiance. Done. Wonder what Dr. Vee will think when I show up with this totally unexpected letter today?

He greets me in the waiting room. “All set for you now, Jenny.”

Trembling, I remove the loose-leaf sheet from my purse, and hand him the trifold. “I want to show you something. A letter that I intend to send to my Father, today.”

Dr. Vee reads the note intently as I take my usual place on the sofa and mentally recite every painstaking word.

Dear Dad,

 I am writing to let you know that I can no longer talk to you every day on the phone. This is not because I don’t love you, but it’s become too difficult for me. Other people don’t talk to their parents several times a day. This is not normal behavior. So I’m proposing a schedule to talk on the phone twice per week. I will not answer my phone if it is not one of those days. Again, I know this will be difficult for you, but I hope you can understand in time.

Love, Your Daughter,

Jenny Leigh

Stunned, Dr. Vee says, “Once again, I’m blown away that you had the courage to write this letter to your father already. This is only your first month of therapy. You really are a resilient person.”

I blush a little while welling up at his accolade. You always have a hard time with compliments, dummy. You’re supposed to say, ‘Thank you.’ But you don’t deserve any credit.

He asks, “Are you really going to send him this letter?”

“I think I have to after our last couple of conversations confirming his severe mental illness. If I don’t start setting some boundaries, he’s going to kill me. I can’t take it anymore. I have to stop letting him control my life like this.”

“Are you afraid of his reaction?”

“Yes. I’m so frightened that I’ve devised a plan with my fiancé. We’re taking off on a trip for a few days when Dad will receive the letter. I feel safer that way. In case he shows up at our apartment with an ax.”

I realize our session is up as Dr. Vee glances at his watch. “Good luck and safe travels, Jenny.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I’m sure I’ll have news next time…you know, if I’m still alive.” He shoots me a concerned look followed by a reassuring smile.

Exiting the office, I drop the letter in the nearest outgoing mailbox. Swish. All gone. Too late. 

On our second morning at the bed and breakfast, my cell phone rings. Dad.

My hands tremble so profusely; I nearly shut my blue Motorola before answering.

“Hello?” Let’s get this the fuck over with.

“Jenny. It’s your Father. Or have you forgotten about me?”

“No, Dad.”

“I received you letter in the mail yesterday. Threw Daddy for quite a surprise.”

God if he stays this calm, you’ll end up feeling guilty.

“Listen, don’t do your Father any favors. No one ever has. Not one person in my family. Not one motherfucker has ever been there for me in 60 years. After all I’ve done for you, and you can’t talk to me on the phone! Well don’t fucking worry about it! You’re a no good WHORE just like your mother and all the rest of them!”

Pheww…you didn’t send the letter in vain. Stay strong…like he trained you, but for YOU this time.

My heart pounds to a nearly audible beat. Dad’s tone grows fiercer with every syllable. “Dad—Dad—are you going to let me—get a word—in…” “NO!!!” Click. The bastard hung up. Couldn’t take the heat.

I glimpse over at my fiancé as he sits patiently on the edge of an elaborately carved mahogany four-poster bed. Jesus…Surely he’s never witnessed anything like that before.

For the next hour I pace the room and rehearse the events while clenching my fists and breaking out in cold sweats. Fuck, you can’t go through with this. You tried to do too much too soon.

But as my toe catches the corner of the substantial bedpost…Ouch!!!…I remember Dad’s cruel words to me. “You’re a no good whore like all the rest.”

 Twenty years of brutality. Haven’t you sacrificed yourself enough for him? God’s plan…Last daughter…Prisoner. Enough!

While rubbing my injured limb, I reach for my cell phone on the hotel nightstand, and shut it off for three whole days.

2004: Shrink Session

After my carpet-burned belly incident, I browse online for the name of a good psychologist. One that specializes in childhood trauma.

My first fifty-minute session with Dr. Vee flies by as I hurriedly recount the past 20 years.

My parents had an affair in 1980.

My Father lied to my Mother about having a vasectomy.

Then he brutally forced my Mother to carry me once she became pregnant.

While they were both married with children.

My Father moved my mother in with his family. Not pretty.

She abandoned me after he threatened her life multiple times.

Everyone considers me to be his property. Even she does.

I don’t.

I’m afraid of him.

He’s threatened my life countless times.

I know my fear is not irrational.

I can’t go on like this anymore. What now?

I watch Dr. Vee scribble furiously on a legal pad propped against his knee. Offer him some proof. “Next time, I could bring you some of the letters he’s written to me…if that would help?”

“Sure. That would be very useful. It was a pleasure to meet you, Jenny. I’ll see you in a week.”

During our second appointment, Dr. Vee reads Dad’s letters while I sit across from him on a velvety mushroom hued sofa. I fidget with the pillows to distract myself from the anticipation. Please, please let him recognize that Dad is crazy. Don’t let him be fooled like every teacher, friend, and warm body who thought he was god’s gift as a single father. Just let one person understand

“Well, Jenny, after reading these letters, my diagnosis of your Father is that he’s a psychotic-schizophrenic-paranoid-narcissist.”

Yes! He understands! Wait, he’s what? That’s even worse than you thought…

Dr. Vee stares at me intently. “People, like your Father, with this particular combination of mental illnesses, they are usually very dangerous. I want you to be very careful—particularly in confronting him.”

I take my first breath since Dr. Vee’s diagnosis. “Yes. I’m glad someone finally understands what I’ve been coping with for twenty years. Believe me, I have always been cautious around him. A few weeks ago he let himself into our apartment without knocking. The next day, my fiancé changed the lock. Before that, we got into a fight over the phone—which by the way, I’m sick of talking to him five times a day—and he threatened to kill me because I don’t believe in his predictions or whatever. This has to end!”

“Jenny, I understand your frustration here. I want you to know that I don’t see any qualities in you that are like your Father. You understand what happened to you very deeply, and you’re far more normal than you might realize. Next time we will discuss the possibility of limiting contact, or cutting ties completely. Though I caution you, that can be a very difficult thing to do, psychologically.”

After wringing my hands the whole session, I rise from the couch and sling my purse over my right shoulder. “Thank you, Doctor. This is going to help me. I’m so glad I came to see you.”

As I make my way across the narrow hall, and down two flights of stairs, I feel lighter somehow. Progress! You can do this…you can face your fear. Just you wait until next week, Doctor Vee.

 

1993: ATM

Dad grins ear to ear as he waves a letter in my face. “Jenny! Oh boy! Just wait ‘til your Father tells you what I have here.”

Please let it be about us getting a new car. Fully working transmission and brakes.

I stare at him blankly while the corners of my mouth turn up slightly. He’s never this happy about receiving a letter. Only bills and threats come in the mail.

“This, my child, is your Mother’s new bank card and pin number!”

My eyes narrow into a squint. Huh?

“Jenny, don’t you get it?” No, not yet. “The bank sent your Mother’s new card to the house. They don’t know that the bitch moved out, yet. We’re gonna eat like kings this month. Daddy might even buy us a steak for tonight. Now hurry up and get your shoes on.”

Think. Oh my…no! He can’t be thinking of…because that’s illegal.

I catch myself shaking my head no as Dad replies to my silent protest. “Come on, Jenny. You’re not going to wimp out on your Father now are you?”

Flinching, “Dad! Won’t you get in big trouble?”

“No! You know your Father is a genius. I have a plan. I probably could have been mafia or a perfect thief. But God had other plans for your Father, I guess. Damn shame, too. I would have loved to be real mafia…just like the Godfather. Make my whole family bow at my feet!”

Yes, thank you God for allowing him to be violent and insane…but not mafia too.

Dad hurries me into the car. “Come on, Jenny. I want to do this in the middle of the day. Nothing suspicious. Here’s the plan. We walk up to the ATM together at Price Chopper. You’ll stand off to the side. Daddy will stand in front of the camera, but I’m going to keep wiping my face. They won’t be able to get a clear image that way. They’ll never prove a thing. Just like Uncle Fester.”

What more can you say? He’s made up his mind. If he goes to jail…you’ll end up with her. What if she doesn’t want you? Used goods…

 “Now, Poppa doesn’t want you feeling bad over this or anything. This is between your Mother and me. Daddy’s glad you’re a good girl and that I raised you right, but this is not the same as stealing. Do you hear Daddy?”

I shoot Dad a side glare. Thud. Ugh. The car’s rear end bottoms out at every road bump. “Goddamn, Jenny. We got to get the back shocks fixed!”

Dad resumes his tirade. “Let your Father tell you why this is not stealing. I want you to understand the difference between right and wrong. Your Mother has never given us a single dime. All the times I called her in California…when you and Dad were homeless…starving…she didn’t give a shit…she said ‘Tommy what I don’t see, doesn’t bother me.’ What kind of a fucking Mother says that about her own child? So this, Jenny, is just money that’s rightfully ours. She owes us this. And I know Deborah too. She never has less than a thousand or so in the bank. She’s better with money than a goddamn Jew.”

She never gave us money. That’s true. Probably wrong. But you lied to her about getting pregnant, and then you made her give birth to me. Stealing is stealing. It’s still wrong. But I can’t stop you.

Dad confidently strolls into Price Chopper and makes a beeline for the ATM. I scan the place with only slight turns of my head. Don’t look suspicious. If you blow his cover, he’ll kill you.

My heart pounds rapidly as I see Dad punch in the pin #1224.

Withdrawal Amount?

He enters $300.00.

Three hundred dollars!!! Is he out of his mind? She’ll have him hung for this.

A man walks up behind Dad. Oh no, it’s a cop. They know. We’re done for. I’m innocent!

 Jesus. Calm down, Jenny. It’s just a man waiting to use the ATM.

The machine spits out twenty-dollar bills in rapid succession. 5 make 100, 10 make 200, 15 make 300.

Dad grabs the bills without hesitation. He folds them in half and sticks the bulging wad in his right pants pocket. The man behinds us takes his turn at the ATM as if we’re all here conducting the same business.

“Hey, let’s go see if they have any of that bottom round that’s expired for half price. You know Daddy can cut the steaks so they taste almost as good as filet mignon.”

Yeah. Better than chicken livers, anyways.

1992: The Walk

I stand in the driveway as the tow truck repossesses our silver Oldsmobile. No! Bring it back! Why did they have to take away the best car we ever owned? How can he let them do this? Why didn’t he find a way to pay the bill?

“Well, Jenny…no time to feel sorry for ourselves. I knew they would take our car away after your mother left us! Again! What was she here, 2 months?” Maybe longer if you hadn’t threatened to hack her up with an axe?

“My brother George won’t care either. He filed for bankruptcy last month so they can’t come after him for being cosigner anyways.” Yeah but he still has a new truck. And we have nothing.

“Don’t worry. Pops will find a way to get us a car. Like I always do. Come on. Let’s go for a walk.”

Rusty leaves crunch beneath my feet along the curb. Let’s just keep walking forever.

As we make our way around the neighborhood, Dad says, “Jenny, you know that Daddy has always been honest with you. There’s a reason for that. I don’t want anyone else to tell you tall tales one day about your Father.”

Can’t we just have one walk in peace? Crunch, crunch, I can’t hear you.

“Jenny. You know that God told me to go to your mother and that you had to be born because he has a purpose for you and your Father. I was supposed to have one last daughter. You know Daddy tricked your mother. Told her I could never have any more kids…”

I hate you for tricking her. Why did she have to be part of your plan?

“…of course, Daddy didn’t know if I could have kids because of the fucking rheumatic fever. You know the doctors thought I might never walk again. Lost all my teeth…”

I still hate you.

“But none of that matters because I knew you were going to be born. I even knew what you were going to look like before you were born. Right down to the birthmark on your chest. Just like your Father.” Dad pounds on the left side of his chest.

“My first wife, my other kids, none of them matter. I had a job to do. To raise you. God told me, go to Debbie. And I did. What did it matter that I was married? That we all lived together while your mother was pregnant for you. That life was over. And I guess God wanted us to be alone, you and Poppa. Riding the dragon’s breath…like I always told you.”

As Dad drags on, my fists clench beneath my sleeves leaving marks on my palms. Fuck your dragon. I’m not riding on his breath or going along with your plan anymore.

“Dad. What you did was wrong. You had a wife and children. I never should have been born!”

“Don’t you dare judge your Father! After everything we’ve been through. You don’t even know. Your mother wanted to abort you…”

“Good. I wish she had. I don’t want to be alive if I caused all that pain for people.”

“Bullshit. Your Father wasn’t going to let some needle kill my baby. I told your mother I’d hack her the fuck up, and her goddamn sister too.”

I hang my head. You’re an asshole. You’re a bully. I can judge you. And I will live a different life than you.

Dad grunts a bit as we make our way back to the apartment complex in silence.

Jesus…did you just challenge him out loud? Yes, and it felt really good.

1988: Knickers

When the recess bell rings, we all charge out the front doors and race across the playground toward the brick wall. Sure enough, Dad waits for us by the secret archway with a fresh shipment of popsicles. My classmates shout “Mr. K, I want orange…I want cherry…grape, please…” over one another.

Dad grins. “Yes, Yes, children! Don’t worry. Mr. K brought plenty for all of you.”

Why does he do this for my friends? Some of them aren’t even my friends. Is this his orphanage?

I wait until the herd clears to grab the last grape flavor. Dad slaps my hand—knocking the Popsicle back in the box. “Jenny. You know better! Come back to the convent for a minute while Daddy washes it for you first. Who wants to eat all that nasty glue they put on there.” I salivate as the dribbles of water re-freeze along the sides on the Popsicle. “Thanks, Dad. Got to get back to the playground now so I don’t get in trouble.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at 2:15 sharp. Just come back to the kitchen. Daddy won’t walk over to pick you up today. I have too much cooking to do, here. We’re getting ready for this big dinner, tonight. A hundred nuns.”

For the remainder of recess, we play red rover. You’re fast. They’ll never catch you. You’re home free. I tag the brick wall so hard that pieces of mortar cling to my hands. Ouch!

At 2:15 we line up as instructed. Dismissed. I bolt once again toward the brick archway, tagging the chain link gate as I cross the finish line.

I pass the gravel parking lot—sights set on the back kitchen door—when I notice Sister Jean outside gardening. Dust flies up as I halt suddenly. “Hi Sister, Jean.”

“Oh, Hi Jenny. How was school today?”

“It was good. We got to play red rover, and we’re learning multiplication. I like multiplication much better than subtraction.”

“That’s wonderful news, Jenny. I know your Father will be looking for you so you best run along to the kitchen. I’m sorry we haven’t had a talk this week, yet. I’ve been very busy getting the grounds cleaned up for fall. I hope you will stop by my room, tomorrow. I love it when we pray together.”

I nod and smile. I love you Sister Jean.

Dad stops chopping onions and looks up at the clock. “You’re late, Jenny.”

“Sorry, Dad. I saw Sister Jean outside on my way in. I just stopped to be polite.”

“Okay good. You don’t want to make your Father worry about you. Not with crazy people out there abducting babies. You remember everything I taught you right?”

“Uh-huh.” Run, scream bloody murder, never go with them, they’ll kill you anyways.

“Good, now do Daddy a favor. I want you to get the ketchup out and squeeze some into the bowl slowly as Daddy mixes the meatloaf.” I hold my breath to block out the smell of the onions and raw ground beef. “Hold it! That’s perfect. Dad scoops a bunch of raw meatloaf in his palm and molds it. See, Jenny. It’s perfect. Daddy’s teaching you to be a first class chef one day.” Someday I’ll never touch food again. I’ll hire a chef to cook for me.

Pleased with his work, Dad declares a five-minute break, outside. “Hey, how did your friends like the popsicles?”

“They really liked them, Dad.”

“Good. I don’t know what it is, but your father always had a thing for being good to kids. I think it’s because we grew up poor with nothing. Your Father starved, you know. Many times, I would get nothing but lettuce with salt on it for dinner. This was back in the 1940s. You know my Father would only give my poor Mother a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids. He was one of the foolish Greeks. While every other family was buying up land cheap and owning restaurants, he was gambling like a fool.”

Dad shakes his head at the memory and continues, “God has a plan for you and your Father, Jenny. I know he brought me to this convent for a reason. One day, your Father is going to take this place and turn it into an orphanage—like I told you—so poor kids will never go without again.” I look at Dad sheepishly, not sure how to respond.

Godmother Madeline breaks the silence by pulling up in her frosted blue Plymouth. She unloads two large black garbage bags from the trunk. “Thomas, I was at the Salvation Army today and picked up some clothes for Jenny.” Madeline hands me a brown wool coat—suggesting that I try it on. I cringe. Is it dirty?

While I lean on the hood of our new white Oldsmobile, she pulls out several pairs of checkered wool pants, too.

Impatiently, Dad interrupts, “Madeline, Jesus Christ! They’re knickers! That’s what kids who were dying-dead-poor during the depression wore. I’m not putting my daughter in that garbage.”

“Now Thomas, you shouldn’t judge an honest gift that came from the heart. Just take the clothes. They will be good for Jenny.”

The regional dinner for the sisters goes off without a hitch. Dad seems to have forgotten about his earlier annoyance with Madeline, but on our way home, He really opens up on the Northway. We’ve only owned the new car for two weeks. Dad says, I wouldn’t have bought this piece of shit if I realized it was a Diesel engine!” I stroke the fuzzy burgundy interior. I hope we have this car forever. It’s so nice.

Dad glares at me intently at me, now. “Jenny, I want you to open the back windows. And when I say, so that there’s no other cars around us, throw those goddamn garbage bags full of rag-clothes out the window.”

I look at him as if to resist. I hate the clothes. They’re itchy. But Godmother was just trying to be nice.

But Dad persists. “Now! Well, don’t just stare. Hurry up and throw those bags—both of them—out the goddamn window before someone sees us.”

Obedient, I watch as the bags bounce on the inky pavement behind us. What will Madeline say when I never wear the clothes?