Entry 3: The Look
When I was little, Dad bought a 10 gallon fish tank and pimped it out. 6 months, 20 fish, and 1 litter of kittens later, it sat empty in the garage.
One day, Dad found a baby lizard and decided to put the old aquarium to use. He made an impressive habitat with a layer of dirt, a few small rocks, and several well placed sticks. It was a mini forest, and in the center, he put a chunk of petrified wood that looked exactly like Pride Rock.
I was one happy camper. I named him Gecko and moved him into my room. One morning, I noticed Gecko hadn’t moved since the night before. I poked him, but he still didn’t move. Gecko was dead.
It was a shame he died, we only just met. I didn’t know what kind of funeral a lizard would want, so I settled for placing his body on top of Pride Rock while I mulled it over. I was paying respects, it was a position of honor. I thought it a very considerate thing to do, I didn’t relish touching a dead lizard, in case that wasn’t clear. With that chore done, I resumed playing Mario.
Several days later Dad came to check on Gecko. As he looked into the aquarium, I wondered if perhaps I should have mentioned Gecko died. Before I could decide, Dad said, “Pause your game sweetie, we need to talk about Gecko.”
I hesitated, trying to decide if I should pretend to be surprised, but I couldn’t pause at that moment. “Is it because Gecko’s dead?” I asked without looking away from the tv.
“You… you know he’s dead? When did he die?!” Dad’s tone was either amused or angry, it was really hard to tell which.
“Yea. I mean. He didn’t wake up yesterday.” Yesterday probably sounds better than last week.
“Why didn’t you say anything? Wait… did… did you put him on the rock after he died?” His look made me feel like the answer mattered.
“Umm. Yea…no..sort of before?” My voice trailed off as I strung together every answer, hoping one was the right choice.
The Look Dad gave me as he carried away Gecko’s house was one I would become intimately familiar with. It is the Look that begs, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’
Oh how I wish I knew.
I think Dad understood I was developing… issues long before Mom. At least to the point of taking action. It’s not surprising, he’s a social creature. Everyone knows a guy like Dad. He’s the guy who holds you hostage in conversation each time you randomly bump into each other. Some try to escape, but few succeed. Not once did he go in Walmart without seeing a minimum three people he knew. They pretended not to see him, he chased them down, and the long wait began. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m bashing Dad, I’m not, he’s the nicest, most honest, caring man I have ever known. For that reason, he just isn’t capable of grasping the concept Mom and I are not that way.
At first, people started off with greetings and a smile, but then came the worst part. As they listened to Dad prattle on about what he’s been up to, they felt obligated to acknowledge me. Some actually tried to touch me. Whether it was ruffling my hair, patting me on the back, or just holding out their hand for a high-five, I wasn’t playing along. I stood out of arms reach, and kept quiet when asked the crap people usually ask kids. They mostly took the hint and tried for their own escape, but it cost me the Look. Totally worth it in those cases.
“Well, it was great catching up, but I really need to…” that’s how far most got before Dad interrupted.
“Oh I forgot to ask, how’s your mother?” He targets a weak point, but calls it ‘manners.’ No one can run off on such a considerate question. Especially one that opens up several more avenues of talking points regardless of the answer. Small talk is a fencing match, never let anyone tell you different. It’s a deadly dance of words and wit, where words cut like swords and wit is your only shield.
In the end, it was left to me, I was the only one in a position to save us all. In the best interest of myself, Dad, and his victim, I had to intervene. “Dad! Dad! Daddy, can we go now? I’m ready to go Dad, come on I wanna go home!”
The trick is, you gotta find yourself a good handhold, something like a belt loop or pinky finger, something they fear could tear or break if pulled hard enough. Then you yank on that as you beg to leave. Most of the time, his victim understood I was showing them mercy, and helped me out with a push from their end. Something like, “Aw, she looks tired, you better get the little one home.” The really smart ones are already walking away, one hand lifted in a goodbye wave, as they said it. I appreciated those so much, we were kindred spirits.
Unfortunately, some could be bad as Dad himself. I had to exert extra effort in those cases. “Dad! Can I have this really expensive toy I just fell in love with? Please, please, please!” Or there’s always the classic, “Dad, I need to potty really bad.” That one didn’t give me a chance at new toys, but no one wants to deal with a piss soaked kid. No one.
It was rare for all three of us to venture out, but if we did, Mom and I ditched Dad when his antics began. She, like myself, ran away from familiar faces. Mom encouraged me to interrupt anyone fool enough to corner her into conversation, and I was rewarded handsomely. Until I told someone, “we have to go, Mom hates talking to you.” That one got me the Look from all parties, and dragged away by the ear. Let me tell you, that’s a pain I still remember. Tv portrays it as a cliche way to handle children, but it seriously hurts, it should be classified as child abuse.
Dad was more sympathetic to my plight. He told Mom, “Something like that was bound to happen with you teaching her that shit.”
I find it ironic he be the one to worry about my ability to socialize. He became so distressed I went through kindergarten and first grade without making friends, he began to arrange play-dates for me. How he was unable to see the correlation between my appearance and lack of friends, I’ll never understand. I went to school looking worse than Ruby Sue from Christmas Vacation. I wouldn’t let Mom dress me in outfits or do my hair, and she didn’t have the patience to force me. Dad thought it was adorable, I assume because of some kind of parent blinders, there’s no other explanation.
The first play-date Dad arranged was fishing with a work friend while the man’s daughter (Girl) stayed at our house. We were the same age, but it was hate at first sight. Dad wanted it to be a surprise, and a surprise it was. My angry tears flowed hot with rage before she was introduced.
Mom was also upset, “Why would you do this? Do you expect me to watch that kid too? Did you think our kid was going to enjoy this? While you go fishing?!” She bypassed the usual warning signs and went straight into a full blown episode. I didn’t mind it this time. I viewed her episodes differently once I felt the intoxicating power of having one on my side.
“You’re making it sound worse than it is, we’re fishing in our own pond, we’re only going to be a few feet away. If you have any trouble just holler for me.” Dad shoved Girl inside before Mom could protest more. He made fast introductions and ran for it.
It was the motivation Mom and I needed to finally put aside our differences and join forces, Dad’s actions were unacceptable. What was I suppose to do with Girl? Why on earth would I want to entertain some kid I’ve never seen before? Did he think she could go in my room or touch my stuff?
Spoiler Alert: That’s exactly what he thought.
“Hey, take her to your room and play back there.” Mom, like myself, was glaring at Girl.
“No way, she’s not allowed back there!” I argued, still wiping snot off my tear-streaked face.
“Don’t argue with me, you get her back there now!” She gave me the Look, except when she gave me the Look, it came with an additional meaning.
Aside from the usual “what the hell is wrong with you?” it also meant, “do what I say right now, or I’ll have an episode that makes you regret being born.” Well I already regretted being born, thank you very much.
I took the kid to my room, and immediately felt claustrophobic. The tiny room was even smaller after cramming in bunk beds, entertainment center, dresser, and shelf. I felt suffocated with her standing in the middle of my room. I retreated to the top bunk, hovering over her like a gargoyle.
It made me feel safe. Safe she couldn’t get me, safe she wouldn’t try to climb up. All my stuffed animals lived up there, I couldn’t let her sully them with her sticky touch. I knew she was sticky, they’re all sticky. Except me, I was the exception to the rule. You could tell by how pristine my possessions were.
After she lost what I concluded to be a staring contest, Girl spoke. “Do you have any Dogs?” She asked.
“No, just cats.” Not that you can pet them. I answered.
No, I mean dogs like toy dogs. Do you have any?” She tried again.
Uh-oh I have lots of stuffed dogs. If I say yes, she’ll want to play with one. “No. I don’t have any kind of dog.” Final answer.
“No! Doll! Do you have any dolls? Like barbies?” She clarified.
Oh gods it’s worse than I imagined. “No! I hate barbies! They’re the worst things ever. The only barbies I ever had were hanged, decapitated, or burned at the stake. I might have some of their heads left if you want to see those or the guillotine.” I glared into her like I was Darth Vader.
Then it happened. Girl gave me the Look. “Why would you do that?” She asked. After a long pause, “don’t you have any girl stuff?” She was looking around my room, trying to find something of interest.
It’s one thing to get the Look from my family or an adult. I had no choice in that matter. Pain and punishment followed any retribution I sought against them, but Girl was no one. Just a stranger Dad brought home. A stranger Mom didn’t like either. If I wasn’t so afraid of leaving Girl alone in there, I would have gone to tell Mom whatever she needed to hear to end the horrible nightmare. As it stood, I was stuck. I had to come up with a plan.
“I don’t play anything. I watch tv. Nothing else.” Brilliant, tv is perfect. She wouldn’t have to touch a thing. I grabbed the remote and had it on Cartoon Network before she could respond.
Then she started climbing the ladder. “What are you doing?! You can’t come up here! There’s no more room!” Obviously, improvisation was not yet a talent, give me a break.
She gave me the Look again as she stared at the empty half of the bed. Slowly, she lowered herself to sit on the bottom bunk. “You have Nintendo! Cool, what games do you have? Can we play?” The Look was gone, she sounded excited.
“No, it’s broke.” I’ll sacrifice my entire body if I have to throw it off this bunk to keep you from getting my controller sticky.
“Oh. I just don’t really feel like watching tv. We can watch tv anytime, let’s play something.” Girl said sheepishly, looking at my beloved tv like it was an insect on the bottom of her shoe.
Bitch gotta go. “I love tv. It’s the only thing I do, it’s the only thing there is to do. I don’t understand why you’re even here, why would you come here?”
“I came because Daddy said we were gonna be best friends, but you’re just a mean girl.” She sobbed.
Oh great, now she’s crying for no reason. They’re gonna blame me for this. Well… if I’m getting blamed anyway…“I’m not forcing you to stay here. You could always get off my clean sheets and go fishing with Dad.” This was his mess anyway, let him clean it up. Otherwise, how will he learn. Too bad I didn’t think of it before she started crying.
Spoiler Alert: Dad never learns this lesson.
“I don’t like you at all!” She jumped up and ran to the door. “I’m never coming back here again!”
“Ok thanks, have fun out there!” I said sarcastically.
** Real quick, for the sake of accuracy and my future team of psychologists, this is a good time to mention my tone problem. I haven’t known how to explain it, but I was unable to identify or convey sarcasm like you norms can. Everything came out of me in a monotone voice. Whether I were serious or joking, it all sounded exactly the same. It got me in lots of trouble, but over the years, I’ve (mostly) mastered identifying sarcasm, and almost always convey it correctly. Just know for the majority of my stories, when I say the word “sarcastically” there’s a 90% chance the other people in the story did not interpret it the same way. **
Girl paused with a foot out the door to give me one last Look. When I didn’t try to stop her, she walked out of my life forever. After hearing the front door close, I went to give Mom a heads up. She also came out of hiding when she heard the door.
“Where’s she going?” Mom asked.
“To fish with Dad. That girl was so weird I hate her.” I answered.
“Shit. What did you do to her? Tell me everything you said. Exactly. You didn’t hit her did you?” Mom bent down and gave me her full attention.
This was extremely rare, I wanted to encourage it. If I couldn’t train my cats to do tricks, maybe I could train Mom. I reinforced her behavior with a full account of the truth, and ended my report with a request to have my bedding washed. I wouldn’t be able to sit on the bottom bunk until it was sterilized. The more Mom laughed, the more confident I became my actions were correct. Clearly, I handled the crisis better than she hoped, I was quite proud.
Mom looked out the window as she spoke, “Great job, kid! They look like they’re packing up, I don’t think Girl likes fishing. When your daddy comes in, let me do the talking. You stay quiet and watch tv. In here, and look pouty. Come on, go put on a cartoon real fast. If he asks you a question, you have to go along with what I say, you can do that right?”
I had no clue what she was doing, but it sounded like fun. If she wanted the hassle of talking, I wasn’t going to argue with her. “You bet I can!” Food and tv sounded lovely too.
Dad’s friend was driving away as Mom set food in front of me. I settled on my Dalmatian pallet, ate, and watched a tornado throw Dorothy into Oz for the zillionth time. Dad stormed through the door. I never bothered looking up, my part was done.
“What the hell was that?” Dad asked. I’m not sure who he was addressing. If I looked at him, I might blow the game.
Mom jumped in before he could ask again. “What did you expect? I told you that wasn’t going to go well! That girl was awful!” She protested.
“What do you mean she was awful? I heard some pretty awful things, but nothing her fault.” Dad argued. I could see his shoes out the corner of my eye, he was standing really close. I shoveled a load of food into my mouth and made a neutral grunting sound. Please don’t step on my blanket, please don’t step on my blanket.
“Did you find out anything about her at all before you arranged this whole thing? That girl was a bully!” Mom dropped her voice low, like she didn’t want me to hear any more of it. It must have worked, Dad walked his dirty shoes away from my blanky and toward the kitchen.
His voice also dropped drastically. “What do you mean bully? What happened?” Anger gone, concern the dominate tone. Victory was ours.
“It was inconceivable to Girl we don’t have doll houses or barbies. Our kid has enough problems without you dragging drama into the house! What’s next? You want to put her in dance lessons? See how well that goes?!” Mom was on fire, once she gets started there’s no telling where she’ll stop.
“That little bitch! She came out there and told us she got bullied! She told us the exact opposite like she wasn’t allowed to play with anything. Oh I’m so sorry! What am I going to do? How upset is she? Should I say something?” I almost felt sorry for Dad, but my conscience was years away from developing… plus it really was his fault.
“No! Don’t you dare say a word! I just got her calmed down. She’s fed, she’s comfortable, she’s got that god damn movie on again. Just sit in the room and make sure she doesn’t burn the house down. Do not make her talk about this again. I’m going to watch tv in bed, I’m exhausted now and I can’t tolerate watching this movie one more time.” Mom exited dramatically, slamming her bedroom door for a final touch.
That night, I slept well and deeply in the comfort of knowing such a horrible thing would never happen again. If Mom or I had known Dad was not properly swayed, I like to think we would have taken further action. As it stood, neither of us could see Dad thought his mistake lay in the character of the kid he chose, not in the act itself. Needless to say, we were in for another surprise a few weeks later.
“Ok before you get upset, let me explain. I knew you wouldn’t give it a chance if I said something ahead of time, but this is an entirely different situation.” Dad explained as he wiped the sweat from his brow.
This time, it was an old school friend bringing his son. We were all fishing together. This automatically excluded Mom. Our newfound partnership crumbled as quickly as it began. She threw me to the wolves, and without a second glance, retreated to her room. The man and kid were outside, waiting for us.
“Don’t do this to me! Why? What did I do wrong?” I haven’t done anything wrong!” The angry tears were on full blast.
“No, no no no, it’s not like that at all! This is a reward! It’s a good thing!” He said. Now it was my turn to give him the Look. “Boy is only a year younger than you, and he loves fishing. You love fishing! If we all fish together, we’ll have lots of fun and you can make a new friend! Doesn’t that sound nice?” He waited for my response, but I felt like the Look was a response unto itself.
15 minutes later I was on the embankment with Boy while our dads fished off the pier. My rod stuck in the ground, I refused to participate. I told Dad I wouldn’t fish, but he baited the pole and forced it into my hand anyway. When he got serious with his threats, I pretended to fish until he was distracted. Then I ditched my cricked and cast the empty hook back into the water. I shoved my pole in the mud and stared at my bobber, knowing it would never get a bite. Dad’s glances became less frequent as he convinced himself I was cooperating.
I tried different tactics to get Boy to leave me alone, but he seemed to enjoy talking just for the sake of hearing his own voice. If asked a question I responded “No.” regardless of what he asked. When he realized what I was doing he thought it was funny to ask crazy questions.
“Do you eat pizza? No?! Whoa! Do you breathe air? No?! Wow! What do you breathe then?” To his credit, Boy was having a blast. He thought he was hilarious, but couldn’t seem to fathom I didn’t share his feelings.
“Hey look! I got a fish! Look! Look, hey, why aren’t you looking?” He got loud enough to draw the adult’s attention.
“Alright, way to go Boy! Reel that sucker in!” Dad shouted encouragement.
“She won’t watch! Why won’t she watch?!” Boy whined.
“Uh.. hey! Kid! Look at him go, did you see that?” Dad tried awkwardly to draw my attention.
I continued staring at my bobber like it was the most interesting movie in the world. Finally I heard Dad say, “she’s just concentrating really hard, she does that.”
By then, Boy had his fish reeled in. “Look at the size!” He said, proudly holding it out for my inspection.
“No.” I said again.
“But why not? You could just look, you know?” The way he said it made me turn to face him. I already knew what I would see. He was giving me the Look.
I stared daggers into him. “No.” I said it just to piss him off. It didn’t matter if it made sense or not, I would not suffer that Look again. Not from another strange kid Dad brought home. Like Dorothy, I would need to stand my ground, and melt this bastard with water. “No.” Barely a whisper that time, but he was still giving me the Look.
Boy lost his shit. “Oh yea?! Let’s see what you have to say about my fish now!” He let out a primal scream and charged at me, his fish held out like a weapon.
“The crap?” I didn’t have time to say more. It’s amazing how big of a size and strength difference a year made at those ages. The scuffle was no contest.
Boy lunged the fish at me like it were a sword, but he was slow and clumsy about it. I easily dodged his thrust and grabbed his wrist. Just like I saw on tv, I squeezed until he dropped the fish. He cried out and flailed, catching me with an elbow. That really set me off. I felt so embarrassed, more rage leaked out. When he got free of my grip, he tried to turn to face me, but I was already swinging. I intended to punch him on the back of his shoulder, as he was walking away. But the way he turned, combined with my inability to actually aim a punch, resulted in my hitting his face. Suddenly, everything happened in slow motion. Boy’s head snapped back, and his body followed suit. He fell straight back into the water. He was soaked, I watched his face change as he looked himself over. He cried, looked to me, to his ruined clothes, back to me, he continued this until finally, the adults arrived.
Later, I was told he had a nice bruise on his cheek, but I got lucky with this interaction too. Somehow, the adults only saw Boy rush me with the fish. They thought he was being a typical little boy who learned a hard lesson. I like to think the smile Mom gave me as Dad related the events meant she knew the truth. It probably did, she was pretty smart when it came to those things.
That ordeal was my last blind play-date. Afterwards, Dad switched me over to cousins, but they came with their own hazards. I’ll save that for later, one day when I’m very, very not sober.
Before I go, one last thing; we may all be crazy, I may carry decades worth of resentment about arguably ridiculous things, and sometimes, I say terrible things about my parents; but when it’s all said and done, I have some damn good memories too, and I truly do love them. I understand the way it reads doesn’t always come off that way, but remember, they only had my best intentions in mind when they made terrible, terrible decisions. You’re only hearing one side to the story, and we can never hear their side because we are not, and will never be, that kind of family.
Alright, good talk.