1994: Another Act of God

For Easter break, Dad allows me spend the night at my friend Lauren’s house. Lauren’s parents buy all the brand-name snacks like Doritos and Fruit Roll Ups. And they don’t nag us while we squeal over Dirty Dancing.

Dad’s hyper after I return home the next day. You’ve been away for more than an hour—eye roll—so you know this is how he’s going to behave.

“Jenny, you’re not going to believe what Daddy found this morning while you were at Lauren’s!”

I never ask what. I just wait for his words to terrorize the air.

He strides over to the front door and points to the spiny green mat outside. This was lying there, perfectly, outside our door.”

In the palm of his hand he holds a small tree branch. Tree branches fall all the time, right?

“Do you see it Jenny?”

I narrow my eyes in confusion. Nope.

“God left this for your Father! It’s a branch shaped exactly like a cross. Right outside our door. Laying there. Just like this! Can you imagine the odds of a tree branch blowing off in the shape of a perfect cross and landing dead center on our door mat!”

No but I can imagine what the authorities would say if they knew I lived here with you. Please let this be one of his 24-hour notions.

 “This time your Father’s not giving up. Seven years ago when you were only a little girl, God came to me in a dream and told me his name. But I forgot it when I woke up. Well, I didn’t tell you but last week God came to your father again. But this time he kept me awake all night so I couldn’t forget. God said to me ‘Thomas, you must tell the people they can have whatever they want and do whatever they want. And my real name is Gabazar.’ He kept your Father awake all night repeating his name, Gabazar. And his message to the people.”

You know God doesn’t do things like that. Not that you have conversations with him. There was that dream about Jesus when you were 8 years old. But you didn’t go around telling everyone that Jesus gave you sparkly pastel fairy dust.

Hurry think of something to escape! 

“Dad I have to finish my math assignment for tomorrow. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”  At least he can’t check over math homework.

Despite my breath of relief for the afternoon, I am wrong.

The branch shaped like a cross doesn’t turn out to be one his 24-hour notions.

“Jenny, Daddy’s worried about just leaving this cross lying around when we leave the house. I mean what if this place burned down. I need a way to protect it and display it. I want to have a giant wooden cross carved, and then I’ll whittle out a special opening for this one to fit in.”

Dad traces the curves of the branch with his index finger as if he’s mentally measuring. Hatching his plan.

“That way, when I walk through the streets bringing God’s message to the people, I can carry this.”

You can divorce your parents, right? He can’t be serious. This is far even for him.

“You know they’re probably going to kill your Father, right?”

Who, the voices in your head?

“They always kill people who tell the truth. Your Father will die a martyr. I can’t help it. God chose me. He chose Moses once and now he chose your Father. We are the first two of God’s new chosen people, the Gabazarians.” Refusing to look at him, I lower my gaze, counting bits of carpet pile—praying that the real God will send my real Father to rescue me.

Convinced of his calling, Dad hand-writes what he calls an official church document for the Gabazarians. He brings the document to the notary, and hangs it with a single blue tack in our kitchen near the cordless phone.

“Jenny. I want you to record a new message on the answering for Daddy because you have a much better voice. Here you go. I wrote it all out for you exactly as I want you to say it.”

I reluctantly accept the loose-leaf sheet he hands me. I shake as I read the words, “Hello, you’ve reached the home of the Gabazarians, God’s new chosen people. We’re not home at the moment. So please leave a message, and we will get back to you shortly.”

Please leave a message with the number of someone who will save me. This man can’t be your Father. He just can’t.

I don’t know how I utter these words with such clarity. But I do. Because I have to.

1995: Ants in the Pants

Each $100 car Dad procures presents us with a particular dilemma. Last year, Mrs. Smith’s car lost reverse. The flowered contact paper that Dad hastily applied to coverer over rusty body holes brushed the lawn each day as we drove over the grassy hump—the barrier between stone parking lot and road.

Now the retired taxi.

Rumors about Dad punching the crazy cabbie wane just as he discovers that the back brake lines leak.

“Goddamnit, Jenny. It’s always something for you and your Father.” He looks up at the pop-corned apartment ceiling as though he can see straight to heaven. Shaking his fists, he proclaims, “God, Lord Gabazar. I’m going to do your work. I’m gonna to get your message to the people, but could you cut my daughter and me a break for Christ-sake?” Jesus. Not Gabazar again. Can’t we just go back to being good Catholics? I swear I won’t complain about Sunday Mass at 7:15am anymore.

“Well, the hell with this, Jenny. You and Daddy will have to fix it ourselves. Like always.”

Let’s get this over with. Let’s pray the jack doesn’t fail this time. Pumping that up last year while he screamed, “get this motherfucking car off my stomach” scared you for life.

Dad grabs his toolkit and pries the triangular orange jack from the trunk. “Now, Jenny, you remember how to pump this up, right? In case this fucker falls on your poor Father, like last year?” Fighting back howling laughter, I nod with a slight snicker.

While Dad inches his way under the car, he yells, “Motherfucker! Who put this goddamn nut on here? A thousand-pound gorilla? Jenny! Hand me the half inch would ya?”

I scan the toolbox. Where is it? Nine-sixteenths…no…hurry up idiot, he’ll be growing impatient.

“Motherfucker!!!” I’m hurrying. Give me a second.

“I-m—uh—I’ve almost found it…”

Dad keeps yelling while scurrying out from under the car.

Jesus. He’s getting crazier by the day. Now he’s gonna kill you for not finding the socket in under thirty seconds.

I brace myself for a backhand across the bridge of my nose. Instead, Dad scampers around the parking lot while shaking his pant legs. “Dad?” I call out softly. Oh well, let it go. At least he’s not after you.

When he loops back toward me, I hold the half-inch cylinder up. Disinterested, He yells, “Didn’t you see what just happened to your Father?” I narrow my eyes in confusion. “Fire ants! Thousands of them all over this shitty fucking driveway ate me alive! I have to go in and change my pants. Watch the car and all this shit!” I look down to see the tiny red villains marching over the jagged stones. Jumping back in surprise, my cheeks begin to quiver. You’re going to lose it. He’ll kill you if you burst out laughing. Suck it in. It’s not that funny. They ate him alive. Yes, it’s fucking hilarious.

After Dad disappears for a moment I squat behind the mailbox and double over. He returns just as I compose myself, again. “Sorry, Dad.”

“Yeah, yeah, you probably loved seeing your old man getting eaten alive. After I move this car, just hand me the tools I need.”

I shoot him my aye-aye-captain look while he jams a screw in the left back brake line—followed by the right one. “Well that oughtta hold us. Now we just have to find some sucker to let us pass inspection. And why should anyone care. You don’t really need back brakes, anyways!”

1998: Open Wounds

I run through the familiar woods, roots passing beneath my feet, imaginary streamers rippling in the breeze alongside. Now the stinging sensation barely present on my bottom lip. You’re free when you’re here. Safe.

Free from his tyranny. The bully’s reign will soon be over. But you gotta play it cool. Just one last year. You have to graduate. And run. Don’t ever let him stop you from running.

 As I emerge from the towering pines to the expanse of gravel track, someone yells, “Jenny. Jenny Penny!”

Mom?

My feet move with their own rhythm despite my protest. I drop my head toward my knees as the runner’s nausea washes over me. Heaving, I hear Mom’s voice again over my shoulder.

“Jenny, man you can run fast. No wonder you’re the best one on the team. You know I could run like that when I was your age. You got that from me.”

Twirling around, I face her. I expect her expression to be happy, but instead her face contorts to a look of horror.

“Jen? Hun what happened to your face?” She takes a step back to examine me further.

The throbbing returns to my lower lip. Damnit. Get your lying face on. No don’t. just tell her the truth and run away with her.

I run my index finger over the dry edges of the wound. “Oh this? It’s nothing, Mom. What happened is that—is that—I fell.”

I avert my gaze from her penetrating eyes. How many more times are you going to have to lie for him?

As I wait for Mom to hug me, she waves her arms in the air. “Bullshit! You think you can lie to me like all these other fools? I know that bastard Tommy did this to you!”

I shake my head no, but her words run their course. “No, Jenny. Don’t even try to lie for him. I’m your Mother. You don’t think I don’t know?”

If your face weren’t red hot from adrenaline, she would see your shame.

As she continues, oblivious, I scan the exposed track for team members, for coach. Please don’t let anyone hear this. You can calm her down.

“This is a mother’s worst fear. He’s doing this to punish me, that bastard. He’s beating you the way he beat me. You know he kicked me in the stomach the day I came home after giving birth to you? He wouldn’t let me feed you. He wouldn’t let me even hold you. Everything I did was wrong!”

An imprint of my Father’s black shoe lodged in Mom’s abdomen sticks in my mind. He’ll pay for it all one day, but for now you have to stop her.

My eyes boar into my mother. I plead, “Mom, please, please don’t say anything to him. You know what he’ll do to me. He’ll kill me.”

“I knew it! So you’re admitting what I said is true?”

“Yes, because you knew. But I’m begging you, if you care about me, leave this alone. I’m almost out. One more year, Mom!”

“I don’t know, Jenny. I don’t know if I can keep letting him get away with this shit!”

Don’t you get it? You were there once! Don’t you care about what will happen to me? It’s not like you’ll be there to save me. It’s not like you ever have been.

“Mom, please. I need you to promise me.” I reach across my cheek to wipe a preemptive tear.

“Okay, Jenny. But just this once.”

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Coach drops the team off in the school parking lot. I run toward Dad’s car. Shit we’re late again.

I hop in swiftly. Dad smiles and waves at Coach, but when we speed off he launches into an attack.

“Can you just answer your Father one fucking question? What do you people do that makes you so late? Every fucking day you’re a half hour to an hour late. And I’m the poor bastard, the Father, who has to wait for this bullshit! Now do you think that’s fair?”

Yeah I think it’s fair! Because everyone else my age has their driver’s license and a car so their mommy and daddy don’t have to wait for them!

“Well do you, Jenny? You better fucking answer me when I talk to you, or I’ll smash you again!”

I stammer, “No, Dad. It was just some people were slower getting out of the woods today. And I’m not really sure what happened. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is no fucking good. I’m done with this shit and you’re done running for your punishment!”

I grip my jaw to match my balled fists. You’ll have to kill me first. I’ve given my life to you. Not this. This one thing. It’s mine.

“Speaking of bullshit, and I ought to kill you for this…your Mother called me just before I left. Went on some screaming rant about how I hit you! Fuck that whore. I’ll do whatever I want with my own daughter.”

No, actually. Fuck you, and fuck her, too. She betrayed you? She really did? Why?

His grip on the wheel tightens. “Didn’t I motherfucking tell you what to tell everybody? That you fell. Or are you too stupid to follow that one simple instruction?”

“No Dad. I swear. I told everyone. They all believed me. But then…” Do you really want to take his side? No! But she gave you no choice. Survival. Not much longer now.

“But fucking, what?”

“Ummm, well she just showed up at the track. Causing trouble. She didn’t believe me. She was causing a scene. I kept telling her what really happened. She’s the one who…”

“Your mother is a fucking asshole. Now I hope you see why your Father is raising you. Why I had to take you from her. She’s a horrible woman.”

I lick my wound, literally, to soften the chapped parts, and give him a military nod. You’re a wimp. But wimps get to live. Just keep running. That’s where you’re free.

1986: Lab Rats

Knock. Knock. Knock…on the steel motel door. Mom?

Dad springs from his nap and squints through the glass door hole. When will I be tall enough to see through there?

He cautiously opens it after a moment of consideration. A man and a woman dressed in white coats confirm Dad’s identity.

Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Dr. Vasquez and this is my colleague, Dr. Mirabelle from Duke University. We have been studying genetic causes of the disease, Neurofibromatosis. Our studies led us to your family. Normally the disease skips several generations but we found your family to be an anomaly in that sense.”

Dad shakes his head. “Oh good, Doctor. I’m glad you people found us. Duke University, you said? That’s a good college. I’ll gladly help if it means getting these things cut off me one day.”

They’re here to cut Dad’s body up?

When Dad waves his digits in my direction, I flinch. “This is my daughter, Jenny. She doesn’t have the bumps. Thank God.”

Dr. Mirabelle lays a leather case on the edge of the bed. This causes the bumpy orange and brown coverlet to drag on the carpet. “Thank you for the information. What we would like to do, with your permission is perform a preliminary test on you today. Perhaps we could perform the same test on your daughter as well?”

No! I don’t have bumps! Dad just told you that. No cutting, please.

“Okay, doctor. Where do we have to go for the test?”

“It’s a simple test which involves us inserting a few eye drops to determine if you carry the disease within your genetic structure. We would be doing the same test on your daughter, right here.”

“Let’s do it. Hey, I have a question for you? How long did it take you to become a doctor?”

Dr. Mirabelle ignores Dad while proceeding to snap open the leather case while Dr. Vasquez examines him quizzically.

Dad clarifies. “I know it must be at least 12 years right?” He points at me, again. “Because I told my daughter, Jenny, here that she has to become a doctor one day and cut these things off of me.”

I imagine blood squirting from bumps covering Dad’s body. No. I’ll never become a doctor. It’s too scary.

With a smile, but no answer, Dr. Mirabelle approaches Dad with a small plastic bottle in her right hand. Dad tilts his head back. Drip. Drop. Both doctors examine his eyes, holding the top and bottom lid open with their thumb and first finger.

They don’t talk while they inspect him. They just nod and make small gestures.

I consider bolting out the steel door. Run before they get you.

But I don’t know where I’d go if I run. I imagine an angry family of cockroaches waiting for me in the dank hallway to avenge the one Dad killed yesterday. A shiver runs down my spine. I back against the wall between the kitchen and the bed, waiting my turn.

Dr. Mirabelle extends my eyelid. She assures me, just a single drop and a look. Ouch. It burns. It burns. Once they are finished, I stay pressed up against the wall like a dried out piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

They ask Dad a few more questions, and shake his hand. “Thank you for participating in our research. It will help us immensely in finding the genetic basis for this disease. Also, you should be aware that you don’t have the markers, what we refer to as lisch nodules, for Neurofibromatosis in your irises. Neither does your daughter. Our finding should confirm that none of your children have this disease.”

Dad nods and smiles generously at their response. “See, Jenny, Daddy knew I wasn’t supposed to get these fucking things on my body. It’s part of the curse that no good gypsy woman put on my goddamn mother for being cheap. She cursed our whole family. Even you. That’s why your Father had to have you. God wanted that curse broken, and you’re the only child who can do it.”

I imagine my grandmother and the gypsy woman. What’s a curse? Is that why Daddy rode that dragon? How can I break the curse?

1995: Forbidden Words

I scan the cupboards for something to eat. Nearly empty. Except for a Hostess box. I rip open a ring ding and shove the whole thing in my mouth. Some of the white filling oozes out the corners. I wipe my cheek with my index finger. Gross. Also, yum!

Dad approaches me as I gulp the last bit. He smiles. “Oh good. You found the last cake. Daddy saved that for you. I ate the other one earlier. Might be another bad Christmas. We could go to my sister’s house, but fuck that! You know I’d rather stay here and starve. And Daddy loves you for staying here and starving with me.”

My stomach growls in the middle of Dad’s tirade.

“Anyways, they’ll probably call and invite us again, but ever since the time we were homeless, and my own family turned us away, so we had to sleep in our car—our fucking car—in the dead of winter, your Father never really wanted to be around those people. That and they make the goddamn turkey so dry.” At least they make a turkey.

I nod, while gazing across the room at the crooked Gabazarian memo hung by the phone. He changed the tack from blue to green. What the fuck is he up to?

“Hey, Jenny. Let’s you and Poppa go rent a movie—like we always do on the first day of your vacation. No cable but we got a VCR.”

I nod. “Okay, Dad.”

“I guess that great hack me up movie—Die Hard with a Vengeance—just came out!”

“Dad, I bet it’s already rented out. Everyone will want to see that one.”

Dad’s hands move in a blur towards my abdomen. Bam. Pow. Ouch! He continues, pushing me into the laundry closet. I shield my face while he jabs my ribs. Even through my coat, his blows are lethal.

“You know what this beating is for? For fucking saying ‘I can’t!’” For doing wha—? Oww…I never said can’t…

“Daddy’s teaching you a valuable lesson here. It’s too bad at your age, I still have to do this, but maybe you’re stubborn like your cunt of a mother.” I’ll kill you one day. If I can ever figure out how.

“What you should have done was to think positive. Maybe they don’t have the movie, but you’re never gonna get anywhere in life with that shitty attitude.” Oh, fuck. You should have known better. Always keep your mouth shut. Say less. Nod more. This is going to hurt later if he lets you live.

When Dad feels satisfied, he retreats from my slumped body. “Come on. Get up. And I better not see any tears, either. Fucking—big—baby is what you are.”

What I’m trying to do is hide my glare, you bastard. You’ll pay for this one day.

On the ride to the video store, winter wind travels through the rusted floorboards, numbing my toes. Fucking Mary Jane shoes.

When we arrive at Hollywood Video, one copy of Die Hard rests against shelf. Of course. He had to get his way. At least this will distract him for the night.

On the way out, Dad grabs two free bags of popcorn. As we drive up Glen Street, I flinch, inching closer to the door. “Lock your door, Jenny, before you fall out.” I glance at him. I wouldn’t get that lucky.

“Daddy’s not gonna hit you again. I made my point. So long as I know you’ll never say that you can’t do something, ever again.”

I nod, while pressing my right shoulder hard against the window.