Age Rating: 18 +
The crackling of the policeman’s radio was the first sound I remember hearing after I hit the bottom of the steps. The room pitched a little as I opened my eyes and a wave of nausea made me close them again. Red and blue tracks of light were playing on the wall and penetrating my closed eyelids. The memory of the evening’s events came flooding back as I began registering the pain in my head, my back, my legs, my ribs. Everything hurt so much. I wanted to go back to sleep, and the female officer next to me wouldn’t stop talking.
“Sweetheart? Come on, Honey. I need you to open your eyes and look at me,” she said cajolingly. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”
I winced and realized I wouldn’t be able to pretend to be asleep. I remembered the fight with my father. I remembered his anger that I didn’t want to watch the movie I’d asked him to rent, for wanting to go to bed at two a.m. instead of sitting through one more film to alleviate his boredom. I remembered him screaming at me that I was an ungrateful bitch just like my mother, and my angry reply that I would rather be like my mother than like him. I remembered storming up the stairs, my brother screaming, and then the dull metallic sound of the aluminum can full of beer connecting with my retreating skull. The flash of memory, of the jumbled sound and light as I fell down the stairs, made my stomach pitch again and I turned my head expecting to be sick. That’s when I realized my mother was there with my brother, and with Frank.
* * *
My parents separated when I was 11 and the man who would be my mother's second husband came into our lives almost immediately thereafter. I was honestly thrilled at my parents' separation. My father wasn't exactly a model citizen. Drugs, alcohol, violence, and abuse were his constant companions, and there was little room for a daughter and son to occupy the leftover space in his life. I resented the male intruder, the interloper named Frank, who would certainly be just as bad as my own father had been. When he came through the door the first time, I gave him a look that said I knew who he was, and he wouldn't be around long if I had my way. The insufferable creature just smiled at me and asked me if I could tell him where to put his bag. I bit back the urge to tell him he could return it to wherever he'd come from, and instead pointed at a hall closet, then took my brother and retreated to my bedroom to blare MTV in a gesture of rebellion. Jacob was confused. His eight years of life had been colored by the atrocious behavior my parents exhibited when they were together, and he welcomed the chance to have a man in his life that wouldn't hurt him. I had no such trust in this man, this stranger, this person who wouldn't stop looking at me so kindly. I was, after all, practically an adult at 11 years old, and I was far too bright to fall for any tricks.
The next few months were a whirlwind of activity as my mother and the intruder prepared for their wedding, and almost everyone settled into a comfortable routine. My brother reveled in the attention of a man who would play catch with him, who would help him do his homework, who would patiently explain the eternal question "why?" as many times as it took without getting angry. Jacob had found his hero, a man who looked at him and saw a son, not a mistake. At the time my brother and I still had to visit our father every other weekend. I hated admitting even to myself that I would rather stay in the cozy space that was our home once Frank moved in. I wouldn't tell HIM that. He wasn't my real father. I didn't have to appreciate him, and I certainly didn't have to like him. As many times as he'd interrogate me about what I would like to do that day or how I was doing in school I would just answer him as simply as possible and retreat to my bedroom. The day he asked me what my favorite book was he caught me off guard and I answered before I could assemble a sarcastic comment. I waited warily for him to laugh at me, for him to criticize the favorite book from my childhood. Instead, he smiled and nodded his agreement that it was, indeed, a very good book.
He continued to try to be my friend and to take interest in the things I enjoyed. He often picked up a package of baseball cards when he went to the store and would quietly and without fanfare put them on my dresser while I was at school. He was careful not to give me the opportunity to accuse him of trying to buy my affection. Things settled into a wary truce over the next few months. Mom and Frank let me invite 10 girls to our house for my birthday, and when I shyly thanked them, Frank shrugged and told me I was a good kid, that I deserved a party to celebrate me. I had to leave the room so he wouldn't see my tears, or my ridiculous grin. I had never felt like someone thought I should be celebrated before that moment, and it knocked a little more of the chip off of my shoulder.
The weekend of “the incident” (as it came to be known by my father’s attorney) I came home in tears, raging against every single person who dared inhabit my life. In spite of my conviction that Frank was just like my father and would prove it any second, I couldn't stop myself from crying in front of him, from letting him wrap his arms around me and speak soothing nonsense against my swollen head, ignoring the bloody bandage. I loathed myself for taking comfort from him, for falling into his trap, but at the same time I needed the hug so badly. I needed the safety and protection he offered me in that moment. I felt myself beginning to thaw a little when he took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped my face. While my mother dealt with the police Frank drew a tub of water for me, handed me a towel and pajamas and told me that he'd make me something to eat when I got out. Then he closed the door and I locked it and sank into a heap on the floor. I cried with anger at my father, with frustration at the world in general, and with shame for the way I'd been treating Frank. It finally sank in that he wasn't going to hurt me, that I had been wrong about him. When I came out of the bathroom he put one hand on my shoulder and told me he loved me, asked me if I needed anything. I simply hugged him again, resting in the soft flannel shirt and the faint Barbasol smell that always clung to him. In that moment I knew I loved him, too.
The weeks to come were stressful. My body healed and I prepared for court where I would tell a judge I no longer wanted to visit my father. My parents' divorce was finalized. My father was furious with me for testifying and wouldn't allow me to claim my things that remained in his home. Mom and Frank continued planning a wedding that everyone believed would be wonderful. To my astonishment, I thought it would be wonderful, too. I even caught myself occasionally calling him "Dad", accidentally of course. He never made a big deal of it, never stressed it. Eventually it came easier and easier until "Frank" seemed like a foreign word.
The day of the wedding I woke up and found a book on my dresser. It was a beautifully illustrated edition of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. My mind snapped back to months earlier and the conversation about my favorite book. It hadn't occurred to me he'd actually listened to me, or that he'd realize that my favorite book had been left behind to my father's anger. The book about a bunny that was made real because he was loved so well seemed to be the perfect story to begin the day that would bring me a new father.