He’d sail around the living room of his stuffy two bedroom apartment looking absentminded, and I’d watch him, burning with longing, but always invisible.
That’s how it was, always, I was see-through, not even a person, just part of the necessary weekend decoration of his living room once or twice a month, the Saturday and Sunday girl, a piece of furniture, a couch, coffee table or picture frame on the wall. And he’d walk by me on the speckled, grey linoleum floor sighing and yawning, while I’d follow him around like a hungry puppy dog, a really dumb one that never learns its lesson, desperately seeking for his eyes, but never finding them, because they’d always look away from me, somewhere above my head, up on the wall, to distant places.
“I think I need to go take some papers to the office,” he’d mumble to himself and stare at the clock on the wall.
Or he’d lie on the couch and hide from me behind his newspaper. And I’d sit there at his feet on the armrest of the black leather couch and wait for miracles and watch the grey clouds pass by on the dull sky behind the large living room windows framed by long, psychedelic curtains.
My sister Sonja, she had her own way of surviving it, huddled in the beige armchair by the window she’d read books for hours on end, piles and piles of them, with a strange expression on her face, a chilling half-smile that was meant to convey indifference and some kind of disturbing contentment, some elevated state of mind that made my stomach turn. She’d sunken into her falseness like some dark, silent womb, rendering her as impenetrable to me as the rest of them, just another wall for me to bang my head against.
She held on to that lie too, that contentment with everything she had, and didn’t want me to ruin everything with my sickening honesty. During dinner time she’d keep kicking me under the kitchen table whenever I spoke. Somehow everything I said was always too much for her, too outrageous, embarrassing, or loud…just always something, and therefore — the constant foot hammering on my calf, our little dinner-time routine. I knew why she did it too, I understood, and forgave her. She was just scared to death I’d ruin things for her with Dad, and we’d lose our last chance with him and he wouldn’t want us back next time, something that was so easily prevented in her mind, if I only could’ve understood to stay in my lane and keep my mouth shut and not always, always destroy everything by — being myself!
But I couldn’t help it, of course.
I didn’t have her ability to lie and go on comfortably, I completely lacked that skill. I was too simple of a creature with no games and deceit in me. I just loved and longed for my Dad and couldn’t hide it, plain and simple.
And that’s why she despised me.
I took myself down with this quality too, I went asking for it.
Once, as I sat there on my usual spot on the couch, worshipping at his feet, he yawned loudly behind his newspaper and said, “Maybe I should go eat something.”
That’s when I felt my moment had come.
I almost stumbled over myself as I rushed to the kitchen, that’s how much in a hurry I, the five year-old me, was to help him out, to prove myself, finally. My heart was pounding, I was sweating, I was shaking.
“Dad? I asked out of breath by the kitchen door, trying to hide my enthusiasm. “You want me to make you a sandwich?”
”Hmm,” he said, staring at the newspaper.
“What kind of sandwiches do you like?” I insisted. “What do you want on them?”
“Hmm, dunno,” he said, and flipped the page. I went on to explore the content of the refrigerator. “You like this?” I returned to the doorway and swung a package of bologna in my hand. “Yeah, that’s fine,” he mumbled and yawned again, now clearly bothered, with a little wrinkle appearing on his forehead.
But I had decided to make that sandwich, so that’s what I was going to do, with all my little girl’s love, with a heart full of amputated, dismembered dreams, headless princesses and blackened, bombed castles floating around in the sky of my mind, I was determined to make that sandwich no matter what, so I did, I placed margarine and bologna and swiss cheese on it, and all my tears, my wet pillowcases and my blood on top, and asked him shyly by the kitchen door to come and eat.
But he didn’t come. Like he never did come.
Instead he left that sandwich there, rotting on its plate on the table. He forgot all about it. It was still there the next morning, all dried up and sad, with a big fat fly feasting on it, mocking me and my rotten little girl’s heart.
Later, when my stepmom came into the picture, and soon after that, my baby brother, the downward spiral intensified, and whatever claim I had left on my dad was forever gone. At seven years old it was a done deal already, I already knew what these visits once a month to dad’s were all about.
It was about “doing time”!
That’s why we came and that’s why we stayed, just doing what we’re supposed to, like little inmates. It was our job, a bit of child labor if you will, none of it really having much to do with our relationship with dad, after all, he wasn’t even there, he was working, he came and went, I was lucky if I got a hello.
Meanwhile, I was busy babysitting my brother, the little prince on a pedestal, playing with him in his toy covered bedroom, those gazillion toys that I could only dream of, or pulling him around in the snow in his red sled in the front yard of the new house.
It’s not that I disliked him, my baby brother with the angel hair, he was as innocent as I was to the inequality, the difference in treatment between the two of us. It’s just that I had a problem, and the problem was that I was a child too, with my own needs, a fact that everyone seemed to have completely forgotten about. I was just sinking in their midst, invisibly, like a ship going down slowly and steadily and disappearing into the waves, with the waves being this huge play, this gigantic, twisted theatre production called “The Happy Blended Family,” mostly created by my stepmom, who was the director, and whom I couldn’t please if my life depended on it.
She’d rolled into the scene a couple of years earlier with bouncy curls and a tight grin that made it clear to everyone that she was taking over this ship now. Always smiling, always full of energy, but a heavy, aggressive sort of energy that left you constantly feeling somehow insulted, confused and hollow.
She had this sneaky habit of constantly delivering tiny insults to me with a smile, and undercover, always behind Dad’s back. There was always some jab in there in everything she said.
“What did she say now, the little miss? What did you need help with? Your suelaces? What are those? I’ve only heard of shoelaces.”
Once when Dad wasn’t home she really let herself loose. I’d been slaving away in my brother’s toy room for hours on end trying to clean it up in some desperate effort to please her when she appeared huffing and puffing at the doorway like some sea monster ready to eat me head first. I’d been trying to prevent my brother from dumping all his toys back on the floor after spending a good portion of the afternoon putting them away, turning a major dump into a palace, thinking she’d be all proud of me now. I’d worked so hard, feeling a bit like Cinderella covered in ashes, so tired, but so proud of my work, when my brother came with his chubby little hands dumping all the toy containers back on the floor again.
“No, Sebastian,” I scolded. “Don’t make a mess again, I just cleaned that.”
I wanted to surprise my Dad and stepmom with the new gleaming room, I wanted them to love me so bad.
“Sebastian has the right to play with his OWN toys in his OWN house!!!”
She was standing at the doorway with her hair a tangled mess, all tired and grumpy, dressed in stained sweatpants, a t-shirt and an apron, and a spatula in hand, an image of a housewife from hell, fire coming out of her nostrils and her mean eyes glowing at me, ready to kill. I hadn’t realized she’d been standing there, listening. My ears were ringing from the echo of her scream, I was in shock, all shaken up. She walked in and yanked the tin container from my hands and dumped its contents on the floor with a crash. Then another container, and its contents, back on the floor, then another. And while doing it, she muttered angrily to herself, but really to me: “Outrageous! Unbelievable! The audacity! To think! Sebastian’s certainly allowed to play with his OWN toys in his OWN room! Sure is! And NOBODY’S going to come and think they can try to stop MY SON from playing with his OWN toys in his OWN house…”
His toys. His house. Not mine.
I was just an invader.
I lowered my face to the floor and fixed my eyes on one of Sebastian’s baby toys sitting there in front of me, a plastic police officer with a clownish smile frozen on its face. It had a fat, round bottom. If you tried to knock it over, it would always raise itself back up with a tingling sound, always right back up again, with that eternal smile on its face. It was invincible, like a mountain. I sat there staring at its horrific face, tapping on its round little body, watching it turn into a blur before me, while my step mom kept moving around the room with jerky movements dumping container after toy container back on the floor.
A few years earlier she’d played a different tune, keeping up with the show. This was when Sebastian was still in her belly and I was about five years old. That’s when I had the worst nightmare of my life.
We were still at dad’s old bachelor pad then, the boring two bedroom apartment, and my sister and I were sleeping in Dad’s office. In the dream I was being chased by a humongous spider, the biggest one in the world. It was black and hairy, like a tarantula, only worse, only a hundred times bigger and meaner, like something from a science fiction movie, and holding every fear of mine in its dark belly, this embodiment of all my fears, that was now chasing me around the world, with no question about it: It was going to kill me.
Oh how I ran. I ran and I ran and I ran. I ran into a forest filled with dark trees, they flew by as I ran, branches and leaves and tree trunks coming at me in mixtures of shadow and light, constantly feeling the spider after me, right behind me, breathing into my neck, and not letting go of the chase. I ran into a desert, hot bright with yellow sand dunes rising and falling into far horizons and my terrified feet pedaling through the heavy sand, going as fast as they could, but still not being able to outrun the spider. I ran up to the mountains with the spider still after me. I jumped over huge valleys, launching myself from mountain top to mountain top as if wearing seven-league boots, even thinking it to myself, and then finding out that I really was wearing those legendary boots. I realized I had super-powers and magical abilities and was running faster than any human ever before me, but so was the spider, and still it kept up with me. Finally I had run around the whole world, covering the entire planet with my seven-league boots, but still not being able to shake the spider, because it was still following right at my heels.
I arrived at the ocean shore, which next turned into a giant aquarium. I stood on the edge of the glass tank observing the underwater content. I saw colorful fish swim by underneath the gleaming surface, I saw delicate seahorses move lazily past my eyes and blue sea stars rest peacefully in the white sand on the bottom. Suddenly the thought hit me: I’ll be safe under the water! After all, I had to be safe there, I thought, because the spider wouldn’t be able to come under the water, because it was a spider, and spiders are afraid of water, and also because it wouldn’t be able to breathe!
So I dove inside the tank and sunk all the way down to the bottom where I sat myself down on the white, silky sand and turned my face up against the gleaming surface where sunlight blinked and glimmered. And as I sat there watching I saw all my deepest fears come true, when first the black shadow appeared on the surface, and then, after waiting for a moment as if thinking, break through and dive in, slowly starting to descend towards me in a black shadowy mass that was growing bigger and bigger until it was covering up all the light from around me, turning the whole world into a dark suffocating paralysis where nothing else existed anymore, except for pain and screams and the heavy echo of my own heartbeats.
I woke up. In the darkness of the night I called for him: “Dad! Dad!”
But the house was silent.
So I called again, and again and again: “Dad! Dad!” And finally the light was turned on in the hallway and my stepmom’s silhouette appeared at the bedroom door.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“I had a nightmare. Can you tell Dad to come?”
“He’s sleeping,” she said.
“But I need him,” I sniffled, with a faint whine in my voice. “I really, really need him!”
Just this once, my mind was begging. Just this once!
She disappeared from the doorway, and went back to her bedroom where he slept. I waited in the dark, shivering under the blanket. After a little while she appeared at the doorway again.
“Dad’s tired,” she said. “He needs to sleep. But it’s okay, you can talk to me. What’s the problem?”
Talk to her? This woman who hates me? I thought. Why would I tell a woman who never missed an opportunity to humiliate me of my nightmares and my deepest fears?
She lowered herself beside my bed and whispered that I could completely trust her and tell her everything, because Dad was sleeping and she was here now, and telling her was just as good as telling Dad.
In my body I felt that she was performing. Everything in me knew that she was telling me stories and playing the part of the good stepmom. It felt wrong and fake to me.
But I told her anyway. Because it was the thing to do, the only thing. Because I had to play my part too, of course, out of obligation, but feeling very hollow and sad inside while doing it and not comforted at all.
“It was only a dream,” she concluded. “Go back to sleep.” And soon after that her shape disappeared from my side and the house was silent again.
So what do little girls do when they’re left alone in the dark with their nightmares to rot?
I pressed my tears with my knuckles so hard that I started seeing colors under my eyelids. I saw all sorts of colors explode before me, white and purple and fiery red flowers and green fire crackers filling up the dark space underneath. And when my eyes started hurting, really hurting, I just ignored the pain, and pressed even harder, to see even more colors. “We’re at the movies now,” I told myself and my toy dog, Tina, who was sitting next to my pillow watching the show.
I had to cheer us both up the way dads cheer up little girls when they’re really, really scared, because, after all, someone had to be the parent here.
Tina had long plastic ears and kind big eyes, and looked a little like Lady from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. She was sitting there faithfully by my side guarding the darkness with me. “Look at all these colors,” I told her, imagining her nodding to me, my only friend. “Look Tina! This is a funny movie, can you see? This is Oliver and Hardy stumbling on banana peels and each other and a ladder on the street. Can you see them fall?”
I’d seen an Oliver and Hardy-movie before on TV. I remember how I’d laughed then.
“This is a good thing.” I told Tina. “To watch this movie here in the dark, just you and me. Do you see all these colors that came out of nowhere, just like magic? Can you see what a wonderful thing this is, this funny, funny movie?”