Friday, July 30, 2004

PART 25 - Daniel

Oh Elton, he of the outrageous costumes and equally outrageous glasses. He's all classy now with his hairpieces and his steady boyfriend, but give me Bennie and the Jets anytime.

Elton John

Daniel my brother, you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If I could point to a golden era, it would have been that first summer in the sweet yellow gingerbread house. Our energies were blended and concentrated on common goals, and we never tired of working to adorn our pride and joy. We loved nothing better than staying at home. Soon after we moved in, we added a pool, and by that time we had a pair of boxer bulldogs that loved nothing better than taking a dip in the heat of the day and sunning on the deck. We delighted in having friends and family over for cookouts and swim parties. To me, it was paradise.

We had set up our 2nd bedroom as a home office, and the 3rd bedroom was reserved and furnished in anticipation of the little visitors that we were expecting. We had completed all of our foster parent certifications, so we were "on call" with DFCS. We had been designated as a first response emergency placement couple, since we had no other children, we had a bedroom that was empty and equipped to accommodate up to 2 little kids, and we could respond to a late night call without disrupting other children.

The summer slipped by without any calls, and no placements. Of course, as much as I was looking forward to having little people in the house, I was also relieved that no children seemed to be in crisis at that point. FedEx employees received travel discounts, and taking advantage of what might be our last break for quite a while, he and I booked a cruise to St. Croix.

It was almost too much to believe or bear. I felt like I was living in a dream. My job was interesting and lucrative, our house was beautiful, he and I were in a comfortable groove, and we were planning a romantic getaway. Our weeklong cruise was like a fantasy; we were catered to, we rested and sunned and enjoyed each other's company with no distractions or schedules or outside interferences. We both returned well rested, with golden tans and souvenirs for all the kids.

The last days of summer dwindled away, and we closed the pool for the winter. The days got a little shorter, and we spent less and less time outdoors. It was about this time that I received a call from a DFCS officer late one Friday afternoon. There was a boy in need of placement, and even though we had requested to have placements of very young children, this boy was 11. There were no other suitable accommodations available, and the DFCS officer was frantically trying to find a placement before the weekend. The few details that I got on the phone were that he was removed from him father's home for suspected abuses, and he was to be placed in foster care until court hearings could take place. I could feel the tugs on my heartstrings, and I invited the caseworker to bring him over.

His name was Daniel. He was a beautiful child, tall with an angelic face, glittering blue eyes, sandy blonde hair, and a dark tan. He was quiet and polite, and seemed so nervous. He had next to nothing with him; the caseworker said that they weren't able to locate much clothing for him at his father's house. Within 15 minutes, the caseworker was gone, and Daniel and I were there, alone, in the silence. He fidgeted, and couldn't quite seem to meet my gaze. Pretending not to notice, I asked him if he had eaten dinner yet, and he shook his head silently "no". He followed me into the kitchen, and as we sat at the table together, he picked at his plate while I tried to make conversation. I was busily chatting away when I glanced at him and noticed his eyes full of tears, his mouth still full of food. He carefully put his fork down, and bolted from the table to the guest bathroom, wrectching and vomiting, sobs shaking his thin body.

After the vomiting subsided, he was mortified, slumped on the floor of the bathroom, trying desperately to clean his face with toilet paper. I wet a washcloth with cool water, tenderly wiping his face, and wanted so desperately to do something, ANYTHING, to make him feel better. "Cooking's that bad, huh?" I said to him, a look of worry on my face. That seemed to shock him temporarily out of his misery, and when I cracked a smile at him, he giggled. That seemed to alleviate some tension. "Come on, let's go watch TV," I offered, holding my hand out to help him up. He stood, and I put my arm around his shoulder, and we retired to the couch to watch tv. Within 10 minutes, he was fast asleep.

When my husband got home at 7:30, Daniel was still sleeping soundly. "So, what's the deal with him?" my husband whispered to me in the kitchen. I told him what I knew, and my husband then asked me the question that EVERYONE asked EVERYONE in that town. To me, it was the strangest custom, but for locals, it was as natural as two strange dogs sniffing each other's butts: he wanted to know who Daniel's "people" were.

When I had first moved to that town, I was taken aback by the abruptness of the question. It was asked of me at the grocery store, at Belk's (the only department store in town), at the gas station, and pretty much every where that I went and encountered a stranger. The question was used primarily to "size you up", to find out what kind of stock you were from. Usually, I dodged the question altogether, answering, "Oh, I am not from here," which usually shocked people enough - very few people in that town WEREN'T from there. A slight variation on the question was, "Oh, who are you married to?" Asked for the same reason, it was a way to categorize you based on your extended family and their social position in the community. I learned quickly from the looks of shock and discomfort I encountered early on not to let on who my "people" in that town were - and I more clearly understood my husband's unrelenting efforts to change the mindset of an entire town.

I paused when he asked me the question. What WAS his last name? Daniel . . . Daniel . . . . . . hmm. I thought and thought and realized that I had never been told. Daniel awoke just enough to steer him to bed. He smiled at my husband's greeting of "Hey buddy," and crawled into bed, falling back into a deep sleep as soon as I put the covers over him.

The next morning, I awoke to hear the television on and Daniel and my husband talking. I dressed and descended downstairs to join them for breakfast. Daniel was eating cereal, talking with my husband, and when Daniel saw me, he excitedly said, "Hey! Rita! He knows my dad!" I glanced over at him, reading a newspaper, and he gave me a quick glance and with raised eyebrows, I knew just about all I needed to know: this kid's dad must be a doozy.

Being a fireman, he knew every cop in town, and being a local, he knew every family and damn near every story in town. Rising from the table and folding his paper, he announced that he was going to fill up his truck and pick up some mulch for the flowerbeds. "Hey Daniel, wanna ride with me?" he asked, and Daniel lit up like a Christmas tree. He gulped his cereal down, and I watched the two of them pull away, Daniel's window rolled down, sun on his face.

I spent the morning calling family, letting them know about Daniel. All of the nieces and nephews were anxious to meet our "new kid" and despite our repeated attempts to tell them that he was just staying with us temporarily, they insisted on referring to him as their "new cousin".

Daniel spent the day outside, mulching flowerbeds and meeting the kids in the neighborhood. Like the night before, Daniel went to bed early. He seemed to need alot of sleep and alot of food, and I was beginning to wonder what he had been through before he got to our house. Sitting on the sofa that evening with my husband, I was given a brief overview of Daniel's "people":

No big surprise, my husband declared Daniel's father a complete waste of air and space. He was from a family that was considered to be even lower and trashier than our own, and his arrest record was long and varied. He was a drug addict, and had been busted over and over for possession and selling of all manner of narcotics. The extended family inhabited a cluster of old trailers on a small patch of family land, and were generational welfare recipients.

Hearing this, I was shocked that Daniel was allowed to lived with his father. There was an answer for that too: his mother had gotten pregnant with him after being raped at 13, and had long fled the town after leaving Daniel behind with his paternal grandparents to raise while Daniel's dad did time for statutory rape. Evidently, she had seen Daniel sporadically over the years. She eventually married and now had 2 young children, but had recently cut all ties with Daniel. I was beginning to get the picture.

As I was buying clothes for Daniel the next day in preparation for his return to school, I wondered what kind of abuse he had suffered at the hands of this man, and why he had finally been removed. What could have driven the authorities to FINALLY step in after a seemingly endless string of events had happened that could have terminated parental rights long before now? Foster parents are generally given basic information about kids in their care, but some information is kept confidential for the protection and privacy of the kid and his family, especially when there are outstanding charges of some kind. I asked our social worker a few questions that she deftly sidestepped, just as she had downplayed his family. She had worked in the town long enough to know how to sidestep the pitfalls. So I was left with my thoughts and suspicions, but no real information.

Over the next few weeks, we got to know Daniel better, and he got more comfortable being at home with us and at his new school. We had a few little bumps . . . he was written up on the bus for picking on some smaller kid, and he had been a bit too rough with the nieces and nephews during a birthday party, but I just chalked that up to sugar and overexcitement. He was a sweet kid overall.

One afternoon, I retrieved the mail and saw an official-looking envelope addressed to us from the county. I figured it was some kind of form or something that needed our signature, and I left it in the pile of mail on the kitchen counter while I started dinner. Daniel was playing basketball outside - we had installed a goal on our lower driveway, and the neighborhood boys usually had an early evening pick up game going at our house most days.

As I was laying dinner out on the table, and calling Daniel in to eat, my husband pulled in from work, took the mail and retired to change his clothes and take a cool shower. In a few minutes, he was back downstairs, still dressed in his uniform, and handed me the opened letter from the county. It was a copy of a summons notice, requesting Daniel's appearance in court at the end of the month. "Yeah, so?" I said, handing him the note back, "We knew he was going to have to go to court."

"Yeah, but we didn't know he was the defendant," he said, handing me the letter back. There were a few other pages stapled to the summons copy, some kind of complaint. I scanned the forms, wanting to get to the part that might have some information, anything to give me a hint.

There, at the bottom of the form, was the plantiff's name. It was his mother. She had accused him of raping and sodomizing his two little half sisters the last time he had visited. The police report was there, along with doctor's reports from the emergency room. It made sense now. He was an emergency placement because of the charges, and there were no other accomodations that would work because he couldn't be housed with other kids.

I felt sick. This kid was a rapist. He had raped little girls. He was in my house, and he played with my little nieces. I didn't know, no one told me. I wanted to run. My breathing got faster, I started feeling the room spin. I gripped the kitchen table, and the next thing I knew, I was looking at the ceiling, watching the fan spin, my husband standing over me, patting my hand, urging me back. I had passed out from the shock.

As I got to my feet, Daniel came in the front door, glowing from the game, smiling, with the basketball under his arm. He looked like an All-American kid, and he was crowing, "Man, I wiped the COURT with those guys!" Seeing me, his smile faded, "Hey, are you ok?" Wordlessly, I stepped past him, up the stairs, into my room. I nervously sipped a little water from a glass on my bedside table, and I crawled into bed, feeling an overwhelming need to hide. I remained there until bedtime, when my husband joined me. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you about the papers before I gave them to you," he said, thinking that I was upset by the receipt of the notice and trying to soften the blow.

There was no way to explain my reaction. I was paralyzed with fear and overcome with a black dread the likes of which I had never experienced. I had to protect him, I had promised to care for him. I had to protect our kids from him, and I couldn't divulge anything about why without risking charges. But more than that, I had to protect myself from my memories. Heavy doors, bolted shut long ago in my mind, were being flung open, and the bats were flying out in every direction.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

PART 24 - Believe It Or Not

Who didn't like this show? Catchy tune, too.

Greatest American Hero Theme Song Lyrics
Believe It Or Not

Look at what's happened to me
I can't believe it myself
Suddenly I'm up on top of the world
It should've been somebody else
Believe it or not, I'm walking on air
I never thought I could feel so free
Flying away on a wing and a prayer
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it's just me . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The only thing you can count on is change. After a couple of years at the Boy Scouts, I left for greener pastures. During my tenure there, I had learned (at that time) a very valuable skill: I had learned how to operate a WANG word processor. My sister had started her career as a LAN/WAN administrator, and she had worked with a couple of technical writers. "Rita, you can write as well as these people. They make pretty good money. Why don't you look for something like that?" she suggested. Good idea, except I had zero experience as a technical writer. "Well, you wrote correspondence and reports for those lazy ass Boy Scouts, and you worked for me documenting my networks," she said with a wink. I thought about that. It could work. She and I didn't share last names anymore - we were both married. So, I embellished the ol' resume, and struck out to find my fortune as a technical writer.

Within a few weeks, I landed a nice contract at a software company near my parent's house. The founders of the company, two college dropouts, were incredibly smart guys, and they had money to burn. They didn't blink at my unfinished degree, knowing WANG was enough, and I began editing their massive library of software documentation.

There was no desktop publishing back then, it was all word processed pages printed out, with screen shots and hand-lettered flowcharts cut and pasted into "makeready" originals to hand off to the printing company. It was a labor-intensive way to publish, and I was looking for a better way. Somebody mentioned that there had been a machine at one time that was supposed to create graphics, but no one could really figure it out. After a little searching, I found it. It had been relegated to a corner, and when I first saw it, it was pretty dusty. It was rumored that the guys had paid better than $9,000 for it, and it had been sitting idle for a couple of years.

The Apple LISA - a technological marvel

It was called an Apple LISA, and it was amazing. The whole thing fit on a desktop - no mainframe and workstation (this was 1988, remember, PCs were a rarity.) It had its own printer, and its own software built in. The screen had pictures of file folders, and it had a mouse attached that guided a pointer on the screen! I had never, ever seen such a thing, and I fell in love, right then and there. Every spare minute I had, I devoured everything I could find to read or learn about that machine, and within a few months, I was dubbed the "Apple Master" and hired on as a permanent employee with an even nicer bump in pay. I had to shake myself; was I really earning this kind of money?

Initially dubious of the contract and the opportunity, he urged me to be cautious and think long and hard about leaving the BSA. Once I landed the contract, my salary nearly doubled. He was stunned - I was outearning him. Not by much, but I made more. He was incredulous that I could sit at a desk and generate more income than he could fighting fires and sweating in the sun for hours. It was a tough blow. He was proud of my accomplishment, but I could tell that it hurt him, too. The balance of power shifted - let's face it, I was getting a little older, and for the first time, I was able at this point to earn enough to live with or without him.

Not one to back down from a challenge, he resigned from the fire department and took a job with FedEx. With his new schedule, he didn't have time for the landscaping business, so he sold that and pocketed a little profit. He still volunteered for the county fire department, and the boost in salary made us neck and neck, salary-wise.

He seemed to mellow, a bit. Maybe it was because he was able to be home every evening and didn't have the other job waiting for him. Maybe it was because we were financially stable, maybe it was because a suitable amount of time had passed in the marriage without any betrayal on my part. We enjoyed our home, and we tried to spread the wealth a little with his family.

Good Lord, his family.

He was the next to youngest in a family of 7; 6 boys and one girl. The eldest brother was a HUGE man, 400+ pounds, and I loved him dearly. He was sweet and kind, and he always had a twinkle in his eye and a funny story to tell. His weight had been the bane of his existence, and he had tried and failed many times over to shed himself of it, which made me love him all the more. He was married with 3 kids, and he was pretty much the most easygoing one in the family. His weight had pretty much disabled him over time; the doctors had told him that it would be hard to imagine him living much past 40. Already in his mid 30s, he was beginning to feel the ravages of the weight.

The next two brothers were fairly unremarkable - hard workers, married with children, and they pretty much kept to themselves.

The fourth brother was a drug addict and a drifter. He constantly floated between his hometown and Chicago. He had been in and out of trouble his entire life, and was considered a bad apple. I had never seen a bad side to him, certainly nothing like LP. To me, he was sweet, unassuming, and grateful for the kindness of others.

The lone sister had run far away from her family and the town when she was 15. After many years of living in Florida, she had returned with her husband and three girls to the hometown, and had taken up temporary residence with Brother #2, her favorite. She was as industrious as my husband, with a quick temper and a funny disposition. I liked her immensely, and I always got a kick out of watching her smack my husband on the head or chastize him for any perceived misstep or wrongdoing. He never crossed her, and he loved her dearly. She cleaned houses for a living, and because I was working long hours with long commutes, she offered to clean for us. Initially, she wouldn't accept payment, but we insisted, and we became the first of many happy customers. She was as meticulous a worker as he was; I could have NEVER done as good a job as her; it seemed effortless for her.

The baby brother was a late life baby, like me. He was incredibly smart, and incredibly angry. He resented his parent's poverty, and often threw temper tantrums that were only settled when my mother in law summoned my husband to come over and "straighten him out". My husband was more like his father than his brother; their father was too old and too worn from years of hard labor and drinking to deal with the boy. Their mother was prone to long bouts of black depression and fits of anger, which was hard for me to fathom until I saw it for myself.

SO . . . each facet of this family had their own special brand of pressing need, and we seemed to be the "go-to guys", since we were childless and well-heeled, comparatively. We got the call, whether it was watching kids, or refereeing squabbles, or paying for unexpected car repairs, or wiring money for bus tickets. We wanted to help; it alleviated a little of the guilt of the inequity of our lives versus theirs. It was a tight family, and my husband seemed to thrive on being the lynchpin. I enjoyed being in a large, boisterous crew, so different than what I was used to. I loved all the nieces and nephews (all 10 of them) , and I usually had some subset of them at my house on weekends to swim and spend the night.

It felt like the right time to start talking about kids. Well, one of us thought it was the right time. He always seemed to adore kids, all kids. He would smile and wave at little ones at restaurants, he was always the fireman that conducted the class tours of the station, all of the nieces and nephews giggled with delight when he played silly games with them, and he always took care to pick out birthday and Christmas gifts for every one of them. He seemed to adore kids, but he was adamant about not having any of our own.

The first couple of years of marriage, I was beginning to hint, but he wouldn't entertain a discussion about children while we were struggling so hard. By our third year of marriage, we had worked our way up to a debate. Back and forth, many of the same old arguments came up to discourage me: he would zing the ball into my court, saying we were in debt, we couldn't afford for me to have a baby. I would return with a backhand, reminding him of the fact that we would have plenty of money if we stopped handing it out. Unfazed, he would smack the ball into a corner just beyond my reach, winning the point, saying that I was too heavy to think about getting pregnant, and anyway, he wasn't sure if I would be a good mother . . .


Once again, he was setting a bar for me. Once again, I felt compelled to prove to him that I could and would meet his expectations. It was an old pattern for us, and I fell right into it. It seemed completely reasonable to me that he would point to some flaw or shortcoming I had as a reason not to have kids. He made it seem matter-of-fact; he didn't want unhealthy kids, therefore, he wouldn't have kids with an unhealthy wife. The evidence was there. I had stopped taking the pill years before when my doctor wouldn't renew the prescription for me; my blood pressure was too high to safely be on it. Frankly, I was surprised that I hadn't gotten pregnant already, but the explanation that I was at fault seemed completely plausible.

I grudgingly agreed. Along with gaining weight, I seemed to be tired alot. I was struggling to keep up with everything that I had going on. I didn't really enjoy all of the things that I had loved before: keeping my house, visiting friends, cooking. There were days that I just called in sick to work and stayed in bed all day. He didn't really know what to make of that; he figured the extra weight was just tiring me out and declared that more exercise was the answer to the problem.

I began to diet again. Each time was proving to be harder than the time before; all of this yo-yo gain and loss was taking a toll on me. My diets got more drastic, and I began to use over the counter stimulants to help jump start the loss. I was exercising, and I was losing. I wasn't sleeping much anymore, but I was feeling panicky, just like I used to. I tried to ignore it and get back into the swing of my routine, and when the weight was finally gone (again), I pressed him on the children issue.

Evidently he had been thinking about it for quite a while, because he approached me with what seemed like a perfect idea. "You know, last Christmas, the fire department delivered toys to the Family & Children's Services offices. I was talking to the workers there, and they were mentioning how many kids were in the system, and how hard it was to find good foster care placements. That got me thinking: why don't we become foster parents? It will help the kids, and it will give us both an idea about what it is like to have kids full time." It seemed as close to a concession as he was willing to make, and I was willing to do it to prove myself AND to help the kids. It wasn't a perfect solution, but by this time, I had learned to adjust my expectations to my reality.

While we were completing our parenting classes and foster care certifications, he got word that FedEx was planning to close the sorting facility in our town and transfer the workers to another facility near downtown Atlanta. I was already commuting 2 hours a day; his commute would be closer to 3. We were both growing a little weary of his family's constant presence, and we were beginning to turn ourselves inward toward our own goals and plans, knowing full well that we couldn't continue providing a safety net to them forever. It seemed like divine planning: we would sell our house and move closer to Atlanta, giving us some distance and some time alone.

We put the house on the market when the announcement of the closure was made. Our pretty little house sold in 10 days, netting us a nice profit of about $15,000. We had been looking at homes closer to Atlanta, and had found one that we both loved when word came down: FedEx had reversed the decision, and decided to EXPAND the facility in our town and transfer the Atlanta workers north to our station instead. Here we were, no house, caught with our pants down.

Things were iffy there for a few weeks, when I saw a very small ad in the local paper "For Sale By Builder - Must Sell. New 3 bd/2 baVictorian style home, full bsmnt. $79,900. Seller pays closing." Right, I thought. This place must be a crackerbox. On a whim, I called and got directions to the place and spoke to the builder. He and his partner had built the house, and the sale had fallen through and they had not had any takers since. They were paying the construction loan every month, and they had started a new subdivision one county over and wanted to dump this house, quick. When I assured them that we were ready and able to close and move in a week, he drove out to meet me right then. Driving to the property, I tried to keep my expectations reasonable. We were in a pickle; if it was a decent house, it would be a good buy.

The house was located about 4 miles from his work. When I pulled up, I shrieked and covered my opened mouth with my hand, in complete disbelief. This was the most beautiful house I had ever seen. Wraparound porch with gazebo, cheerful yellow siding with white gingerbread accents, beautiful backyard that backed up to a wooded stream. This was too good to be true. The inside was beautiful: stone fireplace, crown molding, oak cabinetry. I turned to the builder and asked him if he could wait 15 minutes for me to call my husband. Within the hour, he had arrived, and we signed a contract to buy that house.

2 weeks later, when we moved the last of the furniture in that beautiful home, it felt as though we had won the lottery. Too giddy to sleep, we congratulated ourselves for all the hard work, for the search that had uncovered this treasure, and for all that we had been through to get us here. That night, surveying our property from the gazebo, his arms around my waist, we softly kissed and whispered thanks to each other for sticking it out for this reward. We had never been happier.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

PART 23 - Against the Wind

I was walking through the Target and it suddenly dawned on me that the Muzak was playing Bob Seger's Main Street. I laughed and wondered if the Target corporate office was aware that their store was broadcasting a song about a stripper. I laughed all the way to the checkout.

Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
Against The Wind

Against the wind
We were runnin' against the wind
We were young and strong, we were running
Against the wind

The years rolled slowly past
And I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way
There were oh so many roads
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I suppose at this point in the story, you are probably wondering why in the world we were sticking together, and all I can say is: nothing unites like a common enemy. Despite the fact that we were from very different places, had married under duress, and were seemingly at odds, he and I did share a common driving force from the beginning: both of us were extremely proud people. Everyone had quietly (and not so quietly) voiced their opinion on how soon the marriage would crash and burn. We both had something to prove, and the naysayers and doubters that grimly ate our wedding cake added fuel to the already blazing fire. We were both driven to earn more, have more, and accomplish more just to prove everyone wrong.

He would have sold his soul to the Devil himself to change the social standing that he had been born into. Being a fireman in his hometown was Step 1 of Operation Reputation Rescue. His new truck, always clean and waxed, proudly displayed his status as a fireman, and he loved driving it through town. At work, he tirelessly cleaned the engines and the firehouse and was first in line to go into any blaze, perform any act of heroism, or offer his time and energy for any worthy cause. To everyone that knew him, he was a kind, decent, honorable, trustworthy man.

My focus was different, but parallel: I was determined to prove to everyone that this marriage was viable and thriving, despite most people's initial doubts. I didn't let ANYONE in on even the smallest disagreement that we had, much less the larger trust war that was constantly raging. I was masterful at keeping secrets and putting on a brave, happy face. To the outside world, we presented the image of a loving, hardworking couple.

The one thing that belied this perfect, successful image was living in that shitty trailer park. We were both determined to get out of the trailer ASAP, and within a year's time, we had saved enough money to put a downpayment on a new house on the outskirts of his hometown and fill it with beautiful furnishings. The subdivision was surrounded by rolling pasture and woods. It was a gorgeous, serene setting, and the house was my pride and joy. It was a little 3 bedroom 2 bath ranch, with a front porch and a large country kitchen. I was overjoyed with the house and could barely stand to leave in the mornings. I had daydreams of rocking babies in the front porch swing.

He was thrilled to have a half acre backyard, and we added a fence, a pool and a large storage barn for all of his equipment. The front yard was a showcase for his landscaping business. We had beautiful climbing roses, hibiscus, well-tended islands of annuals, and pristine hedges. Not satisfied with the builder's standard landscape package, he had ripped out everything that the builder had planted, tilled up the whole yard, and to the disgust and dismay of the entire neighborhood, spread a DUMPTRUCKLOAD of chicken shit from a local farm before seeding and spreading straw. The smell was disgusting until the next rain, but damn, the yard was absolutely beautiful.

His family's reaction to the house was guarded, at best. They were pleased that we now lived "back home" but none of them had ever lived in a subdivision and none had ever had a mortgage. They all were certain we were setting ourselves up for a big fall, and they were also nearly certain that maybe we deserved it, trying to act and live "higher than we really were." They lived in the same town in squalor, while we were decorating a brand new house. No matter, we were thrilled to bits with the place.

Not long after we got settled in, he started inviting "friends" over for dinner. I didn't know a soul in the town, so it was a nice way for me to meet new people. I would get a little aggravated with the short notice, though. He would invariably call me at work to let me know that he had invited friends to dinner at 7:30, and could I stop by the grocery store and pick up some steaks? This happened a few times before I began to realize that the "friends" that were visiting were people that had known his family long ago, or school acquaintances that had snubbed him that he hadn't seen in years. Since he worked in the center of town, and was often out in front of the firestation, he saw lots of folks that he had known back then. Many of them could barely hide their shock that he had "made something of himself", considering how poor and destitute his family was. He took advantage of every opportunity to spread the word that he was doing well, and actually better than well, and that he was happily married. Somewhere in the midst of catching up, he would feel compelled to invite them over to the house for dinner, and would seldom take no for an answer.

The minute I would arrive home, steaks in hand, the Chinese firedrill would commence (no disrespect to either the Chinese or firemen, or Chinese firemen). I would feverishly sweep through the house, straightening comforters, throwing out papers, wiping bathroom mirrors and sinks, dustmopping the floors, vacuuming the rugs, and basically spit-shining the place. It had to be pristine, every time. Not only did he expect me to do it, I was compelled to do it. I wanted the perfect house and I wanted him to be proud of me and our home.

More often than not, the dinner conversation would be somewhat stilted at first, seeing that we were complete strangers, but I would always try to find common ground and usually within a short while, we would all be engaged in pleasant conversation together. It was a bit like driving a car that was badly out of alignment; he would steer the conversation toward how well he was doing, how much money he had made, how many accounts he had, how much equipment he owned, and how much he had accomplished, and I would struggle to pull the conversation back to center, asking our guests about their families, jobs, anything to keep the conversation from focusing on him. It was just another power struggle, and I would often be debriefed as he and I cleared dishes after our guests departed for the evening.

"Why did you keep interrupting me?" he would snap as he wiped the table clean.

"Because you sound conceited when you talk about yourself all the time," I would counter, rinsing dishes.

"I noticed you didn't think HE was conceited, did you? " he would sneer, and in his girliest voice would mock me, "Oh you are so funny! Your job sounds so INTERESTING!" as he flounced around the kitchen. Disgusted, he would grumble, "Why do you always have to be such a flirt? How come you have that happy face for everybody but me?" He was certain that I saved the best parts of myself for others. Truth was, I felt the same about him.

Every time we were waiting for company to arrive, I couldn't stop myself from comparing him to Wayne Newton getting ready for a performance, backstage getting his makeup freshened up, being given a swig of water and a last minute coiffure check before stepping out before an adoring audience. Where once I had been the adoring audience that he preened and posed for, I was now a backstage hand.

His energy was vast, but it wasn't limitless. He seemed to be a perpetual motion machine, constantly working on his equipment, or working in the yard. He never really took a day off. He spent his weekends going full-tilt, and his weekdays working his two jobs. The one luxury he allowed himself was a leisurely dinner, either at home or out. When we went out in the evenings, I always drove, and he napped in the passenger seat until we arrived. He would come to life when we arrived, and we would generally have a good time with whatever company we were keeping at the time. I loved being with him when we were out, it was the only time I saw traces of the man that I had fallen in love with. The ride back home was always a time for silent decompression, and more times than not, he was asleep when we pulled in the driveway.

It won't surprise anyone to hear that my weight began to creep back up. I was constantly running to work or back home, trying to keep up with the house, and our pseudo-social life, family, and him. I was doing what I had always done to cope with stress - I binged. This time, though, he didn't have alot to say about the weight, other than a little jab here and there. A comment he made to one of his brothers in jest seemed to be as reasonable an answer as any, when at a family gathering, he gave me a hug and announced, "She's getting chubby, but at least I don't have to worry about anyone stealing her away." In humor, there is always a little bit of truth.

Even in the privacy of our bedroom, appearance was important. I had never experienced the sexual pleasures that I had read about in magazines. He had always been the initiator, sexually, and although I had never fully enjoyed sex, I never turned him away. I had always enjoyed just pleasing and accomodating him, but I began to respond in a way that I had not in the past. This was a very unwelcome change, and he voiced his displeasure one night, quickly extricating himself from me when I began to grip his back and moan during intercourse, urging him into a pleasurable position that he wasn't used to. "Don't act like that, it makes you look like a slut," he snapped as he grabbed a pillow and blanket to go sleep on the sofa. Shame and embarassment washed over me; all of the old messages were revitalized and reinforced. There in the dark, as I laid alone, I was angry at myself for having tried, and hurt that I was rejected and humiliated for what I was feeling. I vowed to part ways with those desires then and there, hiding them in the dim recesses of my mind, and pretend that they never existed.

Monday, July 26, 2004

PART 22 - If You Don't Know Me By Now

This pretty much says it all.

Simply Red
If You Don't Know Me By Now

If you don't know me by now
You will never never never know me

All the things that we've been through
You should understand me like I understand you
I know the difference between right and wrong
I ain't gonna do nothing to break up our happy home
Oh don't get so excited when I come home a little late at night
Causse we only act like children when we argue fuss and fight

We've all got our own funny moods
I've got mine, Lord knows you've got yours too
Just trust in me like I trust in you
As long as we've been together it should be so easy to do
Just get yourself together or we might as well say goodbye
What good is a love affair when you can't see eye to eye . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Monday after the wedding, while he was still at the fire department, I drove over to my parent's house to pack my clothes. Stepping into my bedroom closet, I began pulling the clothing from the hangers. I reached back into the corner of the closet floor and memories flooded back: this was the corner where I had hidden so many times, terrified, during my dad's rages. It seemed so small, but I remember fitting into it perfectly. With a mixture of sadness and resolve, I stripped my bed, vacuumed my floor, left my housekey on the kitchen table and shut the door quietly on my way out. It was an easy move; I had no furniture, no linens, nothing. I loaded a couple of black plastic bags of clothing into the little car I had gotten just before the wedding, and just like that, I moved out of my parent's house. No one was even home, which seemed fitting. Driving away, I glanced into the rearview mirror and watched their house disappear from my view.

For me, married life seemed to fall into a routine pretty quickly. I did laundry, grocery shopped, cleaned, cooked dinner, and kept the little house in order. He was working his way through his required fire and hazard training courses, often being gone from home for days at a stretch. When he was home, he seemed relieved to have me there; his house had been just a place to flop before, and he seemed to enjoy coming home to a cooked meal and a waiting wife. Slowly, his house turned into our house, and I delighted in finding new ways to decorate the little place. We were settling in nicely.

With tuition money revoked, I dropped out of college and started interviewing for a full time, real job. I found one pretty quickly with the Boy Scouts of America, which needs a little bit of explaining.

The world of Scouts was a mystery to me - the only thing I knew about it was that my brothers had been Cub Scouts back when the family went to church. That was it - end of my Scout knowledge and experience. After a couple months there, I got a whole new perspective.

There are two sides to the Scouts organization, the side that deals with the kids and volunteers, and the administrative, very corporate side full of professional Scouters, or Scout Executives, hustling for money. Huge, obscene amounts of money. There is a hierarchy for these professional Scouts. The young guys start out at the local level, work up to the larger city councils, then up to the regional council level, and finally to the national council level. The Southeast Region office where I worked was situated close to a small airport, and there was a private jet that would take SEs back and forth from our office to the national headquarters in Dallas, TX. These guys were pulling down some serious cash - the financial reports that I saw listed salaries anywhere from $85K all the way up to $200K just in our office. And these bastards did NOTHING, I swear to God. Any administrative work was done by the secretaries.

This place was incredibly chauvanistic. Every Scout Executive (SE) was a white male. Each SE had an executive office and private (female) secretary. The SEs referred to each other by their first names, but the women were required to refer to them as Mr. So and So; women that worked there were all addressed by their first names by everyone; that, or they were called Darlin' or Honey or Sweetheart.

The scam I ran, er . . . I mean . . . the department I worked for was volunteer training. My chief responsibility was to create certificates for volunteers that had paid their $250 for various "certifications". These certifications were required for anyone that wanted to be a Scout Leader of a troop. These poor troop leaders were bled dry between the uniforms, required books and training.

My other responsibilities included checking all new volunteers against the "blacklist". The blacklist contained names of known pedophiles. Many was the time that I saw a new volunteer application come in from, say, Alabama, after the guy had been kicked out of, say, Tennessee. Creepy.

Creepier than that was the quarterly Death and Injury report that I gathered for our region. It listed in great detail every kid that had been killed or injured while on a supervised Scout activity. Drownings, amputations, falls from trees, arrows shot through little bodies, burns from campfires - it was horrific. It happened more than you can imagine, and the BSA had a slush fund to pay out any lawsuits that came up, and it never made a dent in the coffers, or a splash in the newspapers. The real estate holdings were incredible. Shiny new corporate buildings were donated to the BSA, and at that time, the BSA owned more wooded land nationwide than any other single landowner in the United States.

We are talking big money. No wonder they never had to sell cookies.

Anway, when we had been married about 6 months, my calm little world came crashing down. One of the SEs lived in Florida, and would call me pretty often to check on certificates, or training, or reports, or sometimes just to shoot the shit. I always knew it was him, because he always, always responded to my greeting with "Hey darlin . . ." He was jovial, and I liked him fine, even if he did call too damn much.

One afternoon, I was busy getting together stacks of mail to go out, when my phone rang, and I heard the familiar "Hey darlin . . ." I launched into a quick explanation, "Hey Bob . . . listen, I am up to my elbows in mail, can I ring you back at your office in a few minutes?" My heart nearly stopped when my husband answered, "Who the FUCK is Bob?" Holy shit. I nearly threw up right then and there. He had sounded JUST LIKE Bob, and there was no way to convince him otherwise. The jealousy that had sprouted during the courtship and that he had suppressed up to now came out with a vengeance. This Bob fiasco launched him into orbit, and by the time he came back to earth, he had once again accused me of fucking all my friends in Florida, and now he was convinced that I was fucking this old Boy Scout too.

Those evenings that he was away from home had at one time been serene. I had initially used them to go to the grocery store, to take long hot baths, to call friends and catch up, and to just relax. They now became torturous - my after work freedom was essentially revoked. He called several times an evening to "check on me". I would incur his rage if he reached a busy signal or the answering machine, so I was always careful not to tie up the line too long (no call waiting) and to be within reach of the phone, which ruled out trips to the store, or a movie, or even an extended bath. I was determined to prove to him that I was trustworthy, and this seemed like the price I had to pay.

Paired with this lockdown, I was coping with being alone in a trailer park full of very questionable folks. One trailer a few spaces over housed a traveling motorcycle gang. They came and went for days at a time, always leaving behind one woman who always seemed to have a cast on either her arm or leg. Another guy on the same stretch had lined the edge of his paved drive with garden gnomes, statuettes of the Smurfs, rabbits, and other eye-catching things. He seemed sort of harmless until he was busted for child molestation and distributing child porn. He had been taking pictures of kids in the neighborhood in his back bedroom in exchange for candy and toys.

So, just like when I was a child, I was living under strict orders not to leave the house, I was alone and scared, fearing monsters just outside the door, and praying for the benevolence of the one that lived within my own four walls.

PART 21 - Weathering the storm

I recently visited the Hard Rock Vault in Orlando, FL. This wondrous place is a treasure trove of rock memorabilia. Walking tours are given on the hour. I was enthralled, and when I was sure no one was looking, I lovingly caressed the crotch of Jim Morrison's leather pants.

Riders on the storm
The Doors

Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born
Into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm

There’s a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday
Let your children play
If ya give this man a ride
Sweet memory will die
Killer on the road, yeah

Girl ya gotta love your man
Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

6:45 AM. An ungodly hour to awaken when you are on vacation, in my opinion. Luckily, I was awake when the phone rang; I had been holding a vigil next to the phone all night, listening to a torrential downpour outside, waiting. I snatched up the receiver as soon as I heard the beginnings of a trill.

"I'm downstairs in the office. Let's go," he announced and hung up. As quietly as I could, I stood up stiffly and started walked toward the motel door where I had placed my suitcase the night before. Tiffany stirred. "Are you sure about leaving?" she mumbled, half asleep.

"Yeah, hun. I'm sure," I whispered. I hugged her goodbye and stepped over a few sleeping lumps on the floor. Reaching the door, I grabbed the suitcase with one hand, and opened the door with the other, momentarily blinded by the sun glimmering off the wet parking lot. Stepping out onto the walkway and quietly pulling the door shut, I slipped my sunglasses on and glanced down at the parking lot. And there he stood, waiting for me. I felt my stomach flip - too much alcohol, too little sleep, too much bullshit, and somewhere, believe it or not, a thrill that he had actually come down here for me. For ME. On my terms. Everything was going to plan, he was holding his position and my friends were blissfully sleeping, undisturbed.

As I made my way toward the stairs, I glanced down at him standing next to his truck, a huge black Dodge Ram. His pride and joy, he had just purchased it a couple months before. Even with my sunglasses on, I could tell something was amiss. There were two wide rows of exposed metal on the hood of the truck cab, front to back. Peeking over my sunglasses, I saw that the paint had been literally scraped off down to the metal, seemingly with some kind of industrial-strength ice scraper. I couldn't imagine what happened.

It was a less-than-joyful reunion, no running and jumping into his arms, no giddy kisses. He waited for me, not moving a step from his position, hands dropped to his sides. I approached him slowly and carefully, as you might approach a wounded wild animal on the side of the road. Wordlessly, he took my suitcase from me, threw it into the back of the truck, and turned to me again, arms outstretched, his face contorted in pain. I stepped into his arms and felt them wrap around me, squeezing me tightly, then I felt his body nearly collapse against me. We stood there, he and I, in a wordless embrace. Finally, stepping back from him to meet his gaze, I was shocked. His eyes gaunt, with dark circles underneath, he looked like he had dropped weight, he seemed . . . defeated. Glancing down, I noticed what appeared to be paint splatters on his light blue Adidas warmup pants. Red paint splatters. Seeing the question on my face, he let out a long sigh and said, "Long story . . . let's go get something to eat."

Over large cokes and steak club biscuits from Mrs. Winners (his favorite), he began to recount his trip down, as I struggled to steady my queasy stomach:

Seems that he was in somewhat of a frenzy to get on the road after we spoke. He threw a few things in a duffel bag, took a quick shower, grabbed his appointment book to call a few clients the next morning and took off. The first few hours were uneventful, except for his 80+mph streak down 75 south. He was making pretty good time when he stopped and filled up near the Georgia/Florida line; even with the rain, he calculated he would be at my motel by 5:00 am.

About an hour after that stop, he was traveling a small 2 lane road (a shortcut) and found himself behind a farm truck with a very large hog in the back. The truck was a flatbed, with wooden sides that evidently could come on and off. He noticed that the truck seemed to be hopping momentarily, and just as suddenly, he saw one of the farm truck tires peel off of the rim and come flying toward his windshield. He jerked the wheel to the right to avoid the blowout remnant, and in doing so, found himself still right behind the farm truck, which had also veered right to avoid oncoming traffic. All of the bumping and swerving had jostled the poor hog off of its little hoof feet, and it lurched against the wooden sideboard, smashing through it and bouncing onto the highway.

Stunned, he stopped his truck and got out to assess the damage. He had a flashlight, and was shocked to see that the hog was still very much alive, squealing to high heaven and running around in circles, bleeding. The farm truck driver and his helper were standing on the roadside, helpless, watching the scene unfold. They were young guys, probably hired to transport the hog to market on their rickety old truck, and had no idea how to recapture the hog.

One of them came up with the inspired idea to grab a large hammer from behind the farm truck seat and commenced to smacking the huge hog in the head with the business end in an attempt to knock him out. In so doing, the hog turned on the fellow and began to try to bite and trample him. Slipping on the wet pavement and fearing for his life, he started screaming and continued to smack the hog in the head with the hammer, and at some point, the hammer twisted in his hand, and the claw end poked one of the hog's eyes out. The hog squeals were deafening, and not being able to stand watching their stupidity or the hog's torture anymore, my hero went to his truck, grabbed a loaded .38, and felled the hog with one shot behind his left ear, execution style. The blood blowback spattered his pants and jacket, and the hog fell over, dead.

He then turned his attention to the two geniuses, who by this time were trembling in fear, probably of the hog AND him. When he saw that his truck was unharmed, other than a cracked headlight lens and some residual hog hair stuck to the grill, he said his goodbyes and left the idiots there with their 500 pound slab of wasted bacon.

Disgusted, he drove to the next major exit and pulled into a truckstop to try to clean up. Even though he got the stink eye from the cashier as he walked through the convenience store with flecks of brain matter and sticky blood spattering his clothing, he wasn't stopped or questioned by anyone as he made his way to the men's room to wash what he could off. His jacket was pretty much a loss, and he blotted his pants as best he could.

Outside, he proceeded to drive his truck over to the carwash bay. There were 2: one for 18 wheeler trucks, and and automatic one for everyone else. The large bay was occupied, with a few trucks waiting, so he pulled up to the automatic wash, deposited the coins, and drove in. As he rested there, waiting for the cycles to run, he heard an ear-splitting screech. He jerked to attention, not knowing what was going on, when he realized that the carwash mechanisms were pressing down and gouging the hell out of the roof of the truck. He attempted to open the door, to no avail. Not knowing what else to do, he put the truck in drive and gunned it, leaving most of the hood paint behind.

I stared at him, incredulous. I was too stunned to laugh. I was too sickened to eat, and I wordlessly handed him my steak club biscuit, which he wolfed down with shocking speed. When he had finished the last morsels of that, he wiped his hands clean, turned to me, and took my hand. I was still visualizing the one-eyed hog when he began to speak.

"Rita, I have had to fight for anything I have ever wanted. I spent my life trying to build something better for myself. I wanted the best for you, too, and I put off what I wanted so that you could finish school and grow up a little. And I got screwed for being the nice guy. I'm not willing to put my life on hold anymore, and I'm not willing to be alone anymore." Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a little ball of tissue paper, carefully peeling it away to reveal my ring. Still holding my hand, he slipped the ring on my finger, and with complete sincerity, he looked into my eyes, and said the words that I had always hoped to hear. "Rita, please say that you will marry me."

Speechless, I nodded yes. At that moment, every problem seemed to fall away. I wanted to start my life with him, I was filled with love for him, and the feeling of success was intoxicating. I had made it. We had made it to the top of the mountain, and we both were ready to yell to the world, "We are getting married!"

I stepped out to call home. My mother answered. I told her that I was fine, that he had come to Florida, and that we had decided to get married. I heard her crying, and begging me to come home first, and asking me to promise her that I wouldn't do anything until we came back home. I made that promise - I wanted to have a wedding, and I needed time to plan.

We spent a few days in Florida visiting his sister and relaxing. It was a nice break, and we were blissfully happy. Arriving back home, we stepped into a shitstorm. At the forefront of it was my dad. "What in the hell do you mean, you are getting married? Are you crazy?" This caused some confusion for me, since he had been the one to divulge my whereabouts. In his mind, he was worried for me, and had divulged my location knowing that I would be quickly retrieved and brought back home to safety. I don't think he ever thought about any other outcome, and he was completely undone that things had taken this twist.

"You can kiss your car goodbye," he announced, taking my keys from me. "Same for your college tuition. You think you are grown up? Let's see how grown up you really are," he challenged, so angry that his hands were shaking. In a show of solidarity and strength, I was escorted to the local Chevy car lot the next day to choose a new car that was financed and delivered by my betrothed. My father was absolutely livid.

Meanwhile, my mother began to help me plan a small ceremony. I found a sweet white dress on a clearance rack. I ordered a cake. Two weeks later, I was taking my vows in a small ceremony of my family and a few close friends. His family was noticeably absent. Weddings in their family happened at the justice of the peace in private. Not one member of his family was in attendance. Not one of his six siblings, neither parent, not one cousin. They had shied away from coming into Atlanta from their little town, and they all felt that they had nothing appropriate to wear, and they all felt that they would have been an embarassment to him. The disappointment on his face was unmistakeable, and my heart ached for him.

After the ceremony, he and I went to the trailer and changed out of our wedding clothes. We had not made any honeymoon plans, he said that our trip to Florida had cost him as much time as he could spare. Plus, he had been offered a position as a fireman in his hometown, and he had to be at work for his first shift the next day. He was busy assembling his uniform and shining his shoes as I looked forlornly at my dress laying in a heap on the bedroom chair.

As usual, I had won the battle but lost the war - yet another milestone of my life had transpired with as little fanfare as possible.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

PART 20 - Is It Love?

This is right for so many reasons. I can't hear this song without remembering cool sea breezes and tasting the salt on the rim of Tiffany's margarita glasses.

Mr Mister
Is It Love

I say I love you
And hold you near me
You say I scare you
Well that's your fear
I know the message
My heart is sending
But you don't read it
You keep me guessing

Is it love is it love you're after?
Is it love?
Is it, is it love?

The broken record
Goes round and round
Within a circle
Without a sound
I'm under water
In overdrive
You hide in laughter
What's on your mind

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When I was a kid, my favorite movie was Wizard of Oz. Hands down. No matter how many times I saw the movie, I would wait with breathless anticipation for Dorothy to open the front door of her crashed house and step into the vibrant colors of Munchkinland. It was hard not to make the comparison when I stepped out of the car and into Daytona Beach Spring Break 1986. I was wide-eyed, and completely out of my element, and excited for the adventure. Tiffany cooly surveyed the surroundings and proceeded to carefully unload her oversized suitcase from the back of her Camaro, cigarette held precariously between her lips, eyes squinted against the sun and the swirling smoke.

We had followed the directions the guys had given us and ended up at a delapidated, sunbleached 2 story walkup seaside motel. The glass-walled office downstairs was full of tropical plants and had its somewhat faulty neon sign working overtime alerting all who passed that it had "No Vac c es". We walked past the office terrarium and up the cement stairs, passing happy partiers leaning on the bannister with toxic colored drinks in plastic cups, and finally arrived at Room 214. One timid knock on the door later, and the door was jerked open from the inside to reveal a shabby excuse for a motel suite and 4 shirtless, drunk, gleeful guys hooting and catcalling our arrival. Tiffany looked over at me and with a smile drawled, "Aww, aren't they cute at this age?" We entered, dragging our suitcases behind us. As I shut the door, Charles announced with great fanfare "Let the debauchery begin!" "Too late, asshole . . ." somebody bellowed from the back room.

The guys had been busy. Beer was icing in the kitchen sink, the kitchen table was transformed into a poker tournament, an impressive boom box was broadcasting the local radio station, and the living room was stockpiled with grocery bags of junk food. One of the guys was helping Tiffany with her rather large suitcase. "Goddamn, Tif, what in the hell did you pack in here?" he complained as he dragged the suitcase into the bedroom. "Oh, just some essentials, " she said with a coy smile, unzipping the suitcase and producing a blender, bottle after bottle of Bacardi rum, margarita mix, and lastly, a salt well. "I might be slumming it, but I'm not drinking that horse piss beer those guys always buy," she advised me confidentially. Wasting no time, she blended a tropical perfection for she and I and told the guys to deal her in.

"We thought you two wouldn't be here until tonight . . ." Charles said, between bids. Tiffany piped up, "Yeah, well, we had to get Rita out of town a little quicker than we had planned. She finally dumped that shitkicker, so it seemed like a good time to ride." Everyone laughed and drank to my newly minted freedom . . . and to pretty much everything else for the rest of the evening.

Within the first 48 hours of the trip, I had ingested more alcohol than I had ever drank collectively in my lifetime. I had played my first game of quarters, ever, to the delight of my friends. I had won a few games of poker, met a few cute guys on the beach, weaved my way in and out of countless motel room parties, and had had more fun than I could remember having, ever.

On the third morning of the trip, the phone rang, jangling the nerves and the sleep of all 6 of us. We had all given our parents the number to the hotel for emergencies, and we had passed the number to a couple of new friends after we arrived, so either way, it was probably an important call. I was the closest, and I answered it. It was my dad. "Rita, I just wanted to tell you that your boyfriend has called here several times, looking for you. He's pretty upset, and I told him I would ask you to give him a call, it's the only thing I could do to get him to hang up." Unfazed, I told him that I had no intention of calling and that I would be home the following week. Problem solved. I hung the phone up and went back to sleep.

We all went to a concert on the beach that afternoon. MTV had been down all week, peppering the beach with their vans, stage setups, and giving out tshirts and visors to every man, woman, and child within shouting distance. Mr Mister was on the main stage, and we were part of a fairly small crowd that seemed to have ever heard of them. They were on rotation in the Atlanta market pretty heavily, but it was early days, and they hadn't really hit, so they weren't pulling in a big crowd. They gave an excellent show, and afterward, we all went back to the room to shower and go out for some seafood. We had been living on chips and alcohol since we got to the beach, and we were all ready for something decent to eat.

When we got back to the room, we found Brian laying on the sofa, still trying to recover from the binge the night before. "Man, Rita, your dad has called here 2 or 3 times, saying that dude keeps on calling him. What the hell?" Pissed off, I jerked up the phone receiver and called to leave him a message to stop calling my folks. My anger turned to surprise when I heard him answer the phone. What was he doing home in the middle of a workday? I wondered momentarily, just before I launched into a full scale attack. "STOP calling my house! LEAVE my parents alone! Leave ME alone! Got it?!" I could hear him talking as I hung up the phone. Mission accomplished.

We all decided to go to a seafood restaurant that looked like a shipwreck, I can't for the life of me remember what it was called. It was PACKED and we were all starving, and waiting for a table, when we saw a group coming in the door. It was Mr Mister and crew. No one seemed to recognize them but me. "Hey, look who it is . . ." I said to my friends. No one really reacted, so when they approached us, I stood and spoke to the lead singer "We saw your show earlier today, it was great! Are you going to perform again while you are down here?" He smiled and thanked me and said that they had only been scheduled for one day show on the MTV stage. Funny enough, they had to sit and wait on a table just like us, so we continued to chit chat while we waited to be called. I told them that I heard them alot in Atlanta, and they asked us which stations they were being played on, and what college did we go to. When I heard the hostess tell her manager that she had two parties of 6 waiting, and only one table for 12 available, I suggested that they share our table. Much to my surprise, they took me up on it, and we dined with Mr Mister that evening. I couldn't help but think of LP and GB (my brothers) who had studied so hard for so many years, while I heard them talk about their new release and their tour schedule. All in all, it was pretty cool.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel to rest and gear up for the late night festivities. Gear up of course meant drinking. We were all 3 sheets to the wind when the phone rang. Brian, who had taken my dad's calls earlier that afternoon, insisted on answering it. "Hello?" he giggled into the receiver, and tried to put a mock serious look on his face as he listed to the caller on the other end. "Rita? Yeah, I think she's here . . . can I tell her who's calling?" He got an excited look on his face as he covered the receiver and stage whispered, "It's HIM, man!" Clearing his throat, he uncovered the receiver and said with no hint of humor, "Hang on man . . . Hey Charles, are you and Rita through fucking yet? This guy's on the phone for her." We all screamed with laughter, and Brian, who was enduring a violent verbal assault via long distance, began to yell, "Fuck YOU, asshole! Fucking pussy! Leave her alone man, damn!" and hung up the phone to gales of laughter across the room. This began a series of ever-escalating phone tag, and each time he called back, another one of my friends had their turn telling him how they were currently violating me. One told him in great detail how I had, in the throes of passion while riding atop him cowgirl-style, announced that I had NEVER had anything close to that pleasurable in my many years with him. It got way out of hand, and even drunk, I knew that this was a terrible turn of events. I finally stepped in and took the phone, ready to end the little game and get some sleep.

His voice was strangely calm. He asked me if I was alright, and I assured him that I was, that my friends had been nothing but gentlemanly and had just gotten a little out of hand with him on the phone. I asked him how he had gotten my number, and he said that my father had relented and given him the number upon finding out that I was sharing a motel room with 5 college guys. It took my pickled brain a moment or two to make the connection, but when the realization hit, I was immediately sober: if he had the number, he knew where I was. The switchboard. He could be here. As if he read my mind, he said, "You tell your little friends that I will be there in 8 hours. Let's see how fucking funny it is when I get there." I was terrified. What had I done? What harm had I brought upon my friends with this bullshit? I came up with the only thing I could think of.

"You can drive down if you want, but I won't be here. I'll take a flight out of here tonight, and I will tell my friends to have the cops here waiting for you . . . You are not going to get anywhere with this temper tantrum," I warned him, praying that he would bow to the bluff. My friends were quiet, taking this all in, and realizing the enormity of what I was facing.

He was sobbing by this point, "Please . . . I can't sleep, I can't eat . . . I can't work . . . you are my whole world, and I am so scared that I have lost you. Please, tell me that you still love me. I want to come get you, please let me." I began to feel waves of sadness wash over the anger. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the previous 2 weeks of putting on a strong face, but I began to crack. I was worried about him, I was convinced that it was my parent's will that he come get me, I was worried that my father had the wrong idea about this trip, I was scared for my friends, and I was becoming more and more convinced that I had thrown away 4 years for a one week beach fling. Disarming this situation was my first priority; I figured that I would think about the ramifications later. This was my fault, and I was going to do what it took to fix it. Alone. It was a split second decision that would change the course of my life. "When you get to town, call the room. I will meet you outside. DO NOT come to the door of this hotel room. If you do, I will call the police. You WILL NOT speak to my friends, or do anything to hurt them," I lectured.

I packed my things while my friends gathered around me, begging me not to go. The guys repeatedly said, "Let him come! We'll kick his ass!" I was touched that they wanted to help me, but I knew full well that it would be a bloodbath.

One by one, my tipsy friends dropped off into a sound sleep. I sat quietly in the dark, calculating how long before he arrived, contemplating what the next few hours would hold for me, and wondering if there was any way that this could end peacefully.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

PART 19 - Tainted Love

Soft Cell. King of the One Hit Wonders. Their masterpiece couldn't capture this post any better, so with that, I will introduce this post with their singular hit. Marilyn Manson did a pretty damn good version, too, but when given my rathers, I always pick the original.

Tainted Love
Sometimes I feel I've got to
Run away
I've got to
Get away
From the pain that you drive into the heart of me
The love we share
Seems to go nowhere
And I've lost my light
For I toss and turn I can't sleep at night

Once I ran to you
Now I'll run from you
This tainted love you've given
I give you all a girl could give you
Take my tears and that's not nearly all

Don't touch me please I cannot stand the way you tease
I love you though you hurt me so
Now I'm going to pack my things and go . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I entered 1985 with renewed vigor. I was entering my junior year in college, I was attending a school that I loved, and I was landing some decent temp jobs through a local placement agency. The money I was making was better than decent, and I could work short assignments with breaks in between without going broke. I didn't have much office experience, but I wrote myself a resume and during my initial interview, I was careful to label the Weather Channel job as a "paid internship" which cleanly explained why I left while sparing the embarassing details. My stint at the dress shop had taught me how to "dress for success", and after a few glowing reviews from happy clients, I was getting some pretty plum assignments and exposure to lots and lots of companies in Atlanta.

It might or might not surprise you that I didn't give very much consideration to being engaged. Even though I wore the ring every day, I didn't really feel "engaged". We had never discussed a wedding date. He had never asked me to marry him in so many words. The months following Christmas, I had not looked at one wedding dress, or made the first wedding plan. The initial excitement of the "engagement" became pretty lackluster with my friends and family when they would ask me about plans with wide-eyed expectation, only to see me shrug my shoulders and admit that we HAD no real plans.

When winter quarter turned to spring, I took time to closely examine my transcript. My credits from the technical school were listed, and all of the classes I had completed were listed correctly. I was getting deep into my classes for my major, but I still lacked several elective credits that were required to graduate. I had already preregistered for spring quarter, and I decided to go through drop-add late registration to pick up an elective. Standing in a long line in the Student Center, I poured over the list of elective classes. I saw that most of the art classes were full, and quite a few of the music appreciation courses, too. I hadn't played an instrument since junior high school, and I didn't really want to pick up the clarinet again. There was a penciled-in class that was newly offered that spring. I considered whether or not to sign up for it. I could read music well enough, and I had always (secretly) enjoyed singing, so I signed up for a Beginning Voice class.

I walked into the Music building that first day of class and was surprised to see that the assigned "classroom" was a small studio with a piano, a chair and one woman waiting there for me. I must have looked confused - I had assumed that it would be a large group choral setting. The woman stood from her place at the piano and walked over to greet me. She was a large, very pretty woman with a friendly face, long blonde hair and a mellifluous voice.

"Hi, I'm Hillary," she said as she extended her hand to me. "I'm so glad to see you! I wasn't sure that I would have any students at all this quarter, being added to the schedule so late!" I liked her immediately. She and her husband had just transferred to my school - he was the new dean of the music department and she was a new teacher, but a very experienced opera singer. He and she had founded the Dallas, TX opera, and both were extremely talented.

"I have to tell you that I have absolutely no experience whatsoever. I'm not sure I am the caliber student that you were counting on. I thought this would be a Beginning Chorus class. I think there is still time for me to drop-add, if you think that I was incorrectly registered," I offered, hoping to nip all of this in the bud.

"Well, let me hear your voice first before you dump me!" she said. She was comfortable with herself in a silly way, and she was going to great lengths to make me less nervous, which I appreciated more than she would ever know. "Let's start with a few scales, simple stuff, ok?" she tossed over her shoulder as she got comfortable on the piano bench. "What's your range?" she asked me. My blank stare reminded her. "Oh, right . . . beginner. Gotcha. Sorry about that," she smiled. "Let's just see what you can hit, how's that?" With that, she began to play 5 note scales, up and down, pausing in between to wait for me to emulate the scale. When the scales reached higher and higher, my voice began to crack. "I can't sing any higher in my real voice," I apologized to her.

"What do you mean, your "real" voice?" she laughed.

"You know, my natural voice, not my fake high voice," I explained. "You've reached the top of what I can sing in my normal voice."

"Tell you what, just for fun, let's see what you can sing with your "fake" voice," she said calmly, playing the last scale I had cracked on. I was able to hit the notes by using a much different version of my voice. She played scales that went higher and higher, and I repeatedly hit the notes, my "fake" voice becoming more ethereal, but still pure.

"You have never had any training, ever?" she asked, looking somewhat surprised. Nope, nothing more than singing for myself, by myself. I did tell her that I had grown up with lots of classical music and had always loved listening to music. I told her that it was almost painful for me to hear music or singing that was off-key, and she smiled a knowing smile.

I learned that day and the quarter that followed that my "fake" voice was my falsetto, or head voice. I learned to seamlessly bridge my normal voice and my falsetto voice. I also learned that I had a range that very nearly equalled hers, and I had perfect pitch. She was delighted to teach me, and I was delighted to have my raw skill honed by such an accomplished teacher.

I began to spend more and more time on campus. I had become good friends with a girl from my Political Science class, and I began to hang out with her and her friends most afternoons - my weekends were still reserved for him. Tiffany was a fun girl, smart as a whip, beautiful and independent. She drove a Camaro, smoked Virginia Slims, and a wicked laugh. She reminded me alot of Donna, actually, who I had not seen since I left high school. I was one of the few female friends that Tiffany had; we got along perfectly. Through her, I met a group of guys that she had been friends with since high school, and we all hung out nearly every afternoon, shooting pool and goofing off.

Somewhere toward the end of fall quarter, when we were all stressed about finals and depressed at the harsh cold temperatures, someone suggested that we should all start making plans for a Spring Break trip to Daytona Beach. Everyone got excited about the prospect, talking about accomodations, and how much each of us would need, and how much liquor to pack, and how much fun it would be. I enjoyed their enthusiasm, but knew that I couldn't go - he would never, ever allow such a thing. It would be the end of us. One of the guys, Charlie, was exasperated with my refusal to even consider going. "What the hell?! You aren't MARRIED! He's not your DAD! Goddamn, we have never even SEEN the sonofabitch in the 6 months that we've known you! I sure as hell don't need MY girlfriend's permission to go. If she left me over a vacation trip, I would laugh and tell her not to let the door hit her on the ass on the way out!" That began a constant barrage of encouragement for me and beratement of him, bent on the destruction of my objections and my presence on the beaches of Spring Break 1986.

God, I was so tempted to go. I had missed my high school spring break trip, and I had not been on a vacation of any kind in years. Through Christmas break, I thought about bringing it up to him a time or two, but I never did. When I returned to school in January, I was ambushed by the group. "Well, did you tell Daddy that you want to go to the beach? Or did you pussy out?" Tiffany said with a laugh and a perfect O-ring of smoke. "Let me guess - he won't let you, right? What bullshit . . ." she said with disgust.

"I haven't even had a chance to tell him I'm going yet!" I snapped at her. A big smile crossed her face. "You ARE going, aren't you?!?" she screamed as she threw her arms around my neck and hopped around and around. Yeah, I was going, damnit. I wanted to go. I was going to go. I gave my buddies my part of the hotel money and tried to keep my excitement contained as I thought about 7 whole days of fun and partying with my friends. We had all seen the commercials on MTV about their plans to broadcast live from Daytona Beach, and we were staying within a stone's throw of the action.

I mentioned the trip to him 2 weeks before we were scheduled to leave. Despite my carefully worded delivery, he erupted like a volcano, pacing the kitchen while I sat on the couch, watching him boil over. With three long strides, he was across the room, his finger in my face, his face inches from mine. "There is NO FUCKING WAY you are going to go on Spring Break with a bunch of guys. What are you, some kind of GODDAMN WHORE? What do you want, a GANG BANG? God Damn Rita, you are out of your fucking mind! Don't you EVER mention that to me again. EVER!" I sat there, motionless, while he ranted and screamed, and then as the fury subsided, he sat on a chair opposite the couch, his head in his hands, looking at the floor. "What kind of fucking dream world do you live in?" he wondered out loud. "Here I bust my ass every day - every FUCKING day - and all you do is prance up to that college and giggle with your friends - and you have the nerve to come in MY house and tell me that you are going on vacation with a group of guy friends. You must think I am an idiot. I bet you are fucking every ONE of them, you bitch . . ." He was beyond furious. I had never, ever seen him this mad. I grabbed my keys and headed for the door, and as I got into my car, he leaned out the door of his trailer, still screaming after me, "Yeah! Run home to daddy, you fucking WHORE! Don't EVER come back here!"

Driving home that evening, I flipped from being scared to death to feeling like I was set free. I was elated and scared and crying and mixed up. I was mad, too. Mad enough to withstand the fear this time, and mad enough not to talk to him when he called my house every night for 2 weeks. The night before I left for the trip, I answered the phone, knowing it was him. When he heard my voice, he was in tears. "Please - I have to see you. I am so sorry, please, let me see you for just a few minutes." I agreed to let him come to the house, and I told him that we could talk outside. He arrived a few minutes later, his face a mixture of happiness and panic. He hugged me and told me how much he had missed me, and how wrong he was to have yelled at me that way.

"What if we took a trip, just you and I?" he offered. "I could use a little time away, and I know you are disappointed that you missed the Spring Break with your friends . . ." I interrupted him at that point. "I haven't missed a thing. I am leaving tomorrow. I don't have alot of time to talk, I am packing. Thank you for telling me that you are sorry. Maybe we can talk about it when I get back," I said as I turned away from him to walk back toward my back door.

He grabbed my arm - tight. "You aren't going ANYWHERE! You hear me? If you go, you and I are THROUGH!" he screamed.

"Let me end the suspense," I said as I cooly took off the ring, handed it back to him, turned on my heel and went into the house without a backward glance. I finished packing, called Tiffany and told her that there was a change of plans. We were leaving and we were leaving NOW.

2 hours later, she and I were headed south on I-75. Van Halen was blaring from the stereo, and when she caught me looking down at my naked finger, she lit a cigarette, took a long draw, and said with complete confidence and without glancing off the road, "Best thing you've ever done. Now forget about that fucker and let's go party!" She was eloquent like that.
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