2003: Another Engagement Ring

The familiarity of the Northway comforts me.

But my stomach churns, too. Nostalgic fool! Who are you kidding? You’re filled with dread at the monthly visit. A weekend of walking on eggshells. Like you never left.

We lurch into Dad’s driveway. Confronted once again by—“GABAZAR”—Dad’s vanity license plate. You’ve officially arrived in hell. Just tell him, quickly.

With caution, Dad raises the middle-ish blind slat. His eyes beam though his mouth remains concealed. Look at him. He can’t wait to see you! How in God’s name did you end up being the last one? His final victim?

He opens the door before we’ve finished climbing the three cement steps. I shove my hands in my coat pocket—feigning aversion to the late November air.

Bill allows me to step inside Dad’s apartment first. God I can’t believe this man will endure this with me—for me.

“Good. Daddy’s so glad you’re here. Bill too. Hi Bill. How was the drive? Did you find they started driving like shit as soon as you got off the Northway? These fucking drivers around here don’t know their head from their asshole, I swear.”

Jesus. Just shut up and let me show you something.

“Anyways, your timing is perfect. I don’t know how you do that but Daddy was just about to make the gravy. I want to show Bill how I do it. And you both have to try one of my rolls—new recipe your Father just came up with two weeks ago. I’ve been perfecting it because I’m sick of the shit bread they sell, nowadays.”

“Umm Dad, listen, I umm…” His eyes, impatient, scan my face. Stop stuttering. You used to have some guts. You still do. So what if you didn’t ask permission first. You would never do that.

I jerk my left hand from my pocket and shove it up toward Dad’s face. He takes a moment to adjust his vision. I scrunch my face and squint hard so I don’t have to see his hand coming at me when he strikes. “Holy shit! Jenny Leigh!”

I open my eyes. Was that happiness?

Dad takes my hand to examine the diamond more diligently. “Platinum? What is it a couple carats?”

I nod.

“Wow that must have cost at least ten grand.” I glare at him. Does the narcissism ever relent?

He moves suddenly toward Bill. I pivot on my heel, ready to strike, if necessary. But instead, Dad wraps his arms around my fiancé. Did he just hug your future husband?

I jiggle my head to make sure I’m not hallucinating. By now, Dad’s back in the kitchen demanding our full attention.

The combination of Dad’s relentless chatter and the adrenaline drain produce a constant dull migraine. Damn these headaches! Will you ever be rid of them?

With my right index finger, I twist my engagement ring back and forth. This is what Mom deserved. The love. True love.

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.