originally published in Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving (Harrington Park Press, 2002)
“I’m serving the soup,” my mother sang out cheerfully. Her voice bounced off the beige walls of the suburban house, enveloping and collecting my father, my brother, and me. Wherever we were, whatever we were doing, we heard her command: Come to the dinner table. Now.
My mother ladled Campbell’s soup out of the Revere Ware pot into three turquoise Melmac bowls, and returned to the kitchen to set the pot back on the range. She stood tall and ide between the kitchen and the dining room until she had discerned hat we all were indeed in our designated places at the table. Then she turned from the kitchen with the pot of reheated soup and ladled it into her own bowl. If there was a little extra, and only then, did she top the soups already served.
“I like mine piping hot,” she informed us, every evening. As if she needed to explain why we, the second-class citizens, had been summoned before she served herself.
I sat at the oblong Formica table, directly across from my mother. Along the other axis, the length of the table, sat my father and my brother. I faced my mother directly, he lowered, and glanced only occasionally in my father’s direction. I usually ignored my annoying little brother.
As soon as the soup bowls were empty I sprang up to collect them and carry them into the kitchen. Now the bowls of iceberg lettuce moved center stage. A bottle of Wishbone Italian dressing was shaken, poured, and passed. Four times. Individually. After a few minutes of crunching, the contents of these bowls were dispensed with too.
Next came the main course. Tonight, it was what my mother called Swiss steak. One of the few real recipes she made, it was chunks of potato and carrot and beef in a savory tomato sauce. She carefully spooned servings onto our plastic plates as we, her acolytes, held them toward her. She sat back and surveyed the table. We all bent our heads and began eating in earnest. It was delicious.
Suddenly my father coughed.
Four forks froze. He coughed again. Our faces fell. My brother and I stopped breathing.
“Hold your arms over your head,” my mother commanded, modeling the movement. My father’s face reddened. Our faces went white; our eyes widened. Finally he breathed normally, and a sense of relief, release, ricocheted around the table. My mother felt obliged to ex plain what might have happened.
“You know, because your father had polio of the throat, he sometimes has trouble breathing. If he had continued to cough, I would have had to cut open his throat.”
She told us this regularly, matter-of-factly, each time my father coughed. My mind immediately materialized the image of her getting up and going into the kitchen, pulling open the drawer where the carving knives were stored, and selecting a long, sharp knife.
My father nodded agreeably during this description of the narrowly averted disaster. If he so calmly acquiesced to her slitting his throat, what other choice did we have?
The first drama past, another command shot across the table.
“Don’t play with your food!” I looked up to see if it was directed at me, since I was older. I was relieved that this time my brother had intercepted her disdain.
“I’m mashing my potatoes,” he explained.
“Well, don’t make such a mess.” She glared at him, then turned to me. “Tell Dad what you did in school today.”
“Nothing,” I mumbled. I had already told her all about my day as soon as I got home. Why would I want to repeat the story, even part of it, to my father? My father continued shoveling Swiss steak into his mouth, seemingly oblivious to the adjacent negotiations.
“Ed, show some interest,” he was instructed. He looked up from his plate and pretended to pay attention, b t still I refused to repeat any part of my recounting. But it wasn’t a request. It was another way for my mother to exert control over the contents of the conversation. I decided to let her win this battle and offered up the Reader’s Digest condensed version of my day. I waited while my mother interrupted me to add her perspective, or to betray confidences I’d shared earlier in the day, or to challenge me on my interpretation. It was as if it was all happening to someone else.
I reached for another spoonful of see. “That’s for my lunch,” my mother stopped me.
“But I’m still hungry,” I whined.
“If you’re still hungry, you can have old cereal.”
I eyed the large, covered casserole dish. Should I argue for more dinner, knowing I would lose, or acquiesce, and pour myself some cereal from the cupboard full of boxes and boxes of Cheerios, Wheaties, and Special K? Or, and this seemed the smartest solution, should I use this as an opportunity to be excused from the table?
“May I please be excused?” I obsequiously requested.
“I guess so,” my mother agreed reluctantly.
I leaped from the table, eager to escape to the safety of my bedroom. So determined was I to depart that I had forgotten to inquire what was for “D.” Whatever dessert might have been planned: canned fruit cocktail, instant butterscotch h pudding, or Jell-0 of some lurid color, it wasn’t worth waiting for.
“Finish your homework,” a final injunction flew down the hall.
“I will, I will,” I assured her as I sprinted to my room, glad to have survived one more supper, one more serving of soup.
“Close the screen door!”
I thought I was sneaking in slowly and quietly. But my mother, with eyes in the back of her head, as she so often reminded us, heard me enter through the back door. I carefully pulled shut the-aluminum frame of the screen door.
“You’ll let in mosquitoes,” the disembodied maternal voice continued from afar. “And don’t slam it.”
I hated mosquitoes. Their buzzing noise loud around my ears as I tried to fall asleep drove me crazy. I didn’t like it when I woke up in the morning with a bite or two, which I was repeatedly admonished not to scratch. But usually, it was my younger brother who woke up bitten.
“It’s because he’s so sweet,” my mother frequently explained. What about me? Wasn’t I sweet? I examined my arm and contemplated the buzzing bugs sucking blood from my brother’s soft, white skin. Blood that would splat into the beige walls of the bedroom when we smashed a mosquito. The reddish-brown smear on the wall was a symbol of a successful swat. Quickly, before mother saw it, we wiped it away with a Kleenex we moistened with spit. We knew to remove the evidence.
Something else was also sucking our blood, but she didn’t leave an itchy bump. This other vampire was slow, imperceptible. Unlike the mosquitoes, this one preferred my blood to my brother’s.
As the screen door thudded shut, I padded across the cool linoleum floor, my bare feet suntanned on top, toughened below by a summer of hot asphalt streets and hotter beach sand, sometimes soothed by fresh green grasses, refreshing oceans, and suburban swimming pools. I went into the hallway bathroom, shut the door, and locked it.
After I peed, I let the faucet dribble a little water across my hands so that if questioned I could answer truthfully, yes, I had washed them.
I looked at myself in the mirror, but I couldn’t hold the gaze. There was something about my face that reminded me of my mother. I tried to look into the eyes of this person, not a boy, not a man, who stared back at me. I couldn’t figure out who he was. The inner me, the one no one knew about, or so I hoped, seemed to have nothing in common with the browned boy with blue eyes, the one whose face I wanted to know and like but from whom I felt oddly estranged.
It was a handsome face, according to my mother and my grand mother, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t permit myself to know about handsome, for only boys were handsome and if I said a boy was handsome that would mean I’d looked at him, liked him, maybe even hoped he liked me. So, to make sure I wasn’t suspected of being like that, I never looked, not even at myself. Then neither I nor my mother-would know. That I was a boy not about baseball or racing cars, but about books and records, dreams and, yes, even love. love: that elusive thing that I’d heard about, but never understood.
“I’ve never been in love,” my grandmother confided to me one afternoon. I was amazed. How could cha be? I thought everyone had been in love, especially someone who h been married, even if she was now divorced and lived alone. My fourteen-year-old self was confused.
When I read about love, or saw it in movies, it seemed like a good thing: healing and happy and helping pie become whole. In my own life it seemed horrible: malicious and manipulative and maddening. And most of the time it was all mixed up. So love was to be avoided as surely as looking at other boys, looking at myself.
“What are you doing in there?” My mother’s voice startled me out of my rumination.
“Uh, I’ll be right out,” I muttered, still facing the mirror.
My mother’s mean glare came back me from the mirror, out of my own eyes. “You are the most selfish person I know,” she’d tell me repeatedly. And I tried to believe her, because my mother was always right, about everything. But I didn’t feel selfish. I just felt like there were other things I wanted to do, places I wanted to escape to, someone else I wanted to be. But because she didn’t want me to want those things, I was selfish.
Sometimes now when I look into a mirror, I see a strong, handsome face, one whose gaze I am able to hold. Someone I can imagine loving a little more, perhaps can even imagine letting loved. Certainly not by my mother. But by another boy — I mean a man. A man like me, willing to risk coming out of the locked bathroom, the stone tower, the hardened heart to see if it might be safe to s are. A dream, or a hope, or a life.
Sometimes I recall my mother’s recounting of what happened rather than the actual events.
Like the story of the ice cream. With great delight my mother repeatedly regaled us with how, when I was little, she and my father would go for ice cream. But because I made too much of a mess, she explained, I would be given an empty cone.
“You didn’t realize the difference,” she exclaimed happily.
But then, when my brother Rocky came along three and a half years later, the trick didn’t work so well.
“He could tell right away that you had something he didn’t.” Almost lamenting that if it hadn’t been for me and my ice cream, they could have continued the ruse with him. And also, that he caught on much more quickly than I had. I was apparently more than willing to accept their deceit: “No, dear, ours is just the same as yours.”
I have known this story for years. Why now does it float to the surface of my consciousness? Because now I see it as a lie. One, that in my adoration of my parents, I was all too willing to believe, over my perception of the empty cone I was holding in my hand. And also, because not only did it happen many times, I would have doubtless forgotten the episodes had they not been brought back to my attention, reinforcing the shame and humiliation that was my mother’s well-honed modus operandi.
And I laughed at myself with her. I collaborated with her, laughed at the joke of my own naïve trust, my stupidity, my belief that by being the protagonist in her story I was being attended to. That even though it made me feel queasy, being held up to ridicule was some thing I was willing to endure if it would buy me her love. I would keep quiet, would squelch the feelings that something was wrong, devastatingly wrong. I have kept quiet for nearly fifty years.
I learned to lie from my mother. Then I learned to lie to my mother. “I don’t know where you get these ideas, dear,” she cooed sweetly. I didn’t either. I guess it as my way of trying to figure out how to fit together her lies with m truth.
I was good at jigsaw puzzles because I could see quickly both the shapes and the colors, could get a sense of the big picture and the tiny corner I was attempting to enlarge. It was like that with Mom too, except that every time I thought I’d made some progress toward figuring it out, the pieces would change shape, or the finished picture that had been the goal, actually finite and attainable, would change into a completely different picture and I’d have to start all over.
My mother didn’t know she was telling lies. Repeatedly, destructively. Until recently, I gave her the benefit of the doubt, let her off the hook. After all, she’d been kidnapped by her father, taken at the age of six from her mother and her native land of France. She’d had to learn a new language, English, as a motherless child. I don’t believe my mother ever understood the truth of what happened to her.
I remember my mother telling me proudly: “I was fifty before I could say the words: ‘My father was an alcoholic.'” She’d already told us about carting away her father’s empties as a teenager after dark so the neighbors wouldn’t see. How did she expect us to believe that she hadn’t known the truth?
I have spent my life lying to myself believing my mother would have loved me if she’d been able to. Poor thing, she just didn’t have it in her. Now I see it’s more sinister than at. It is difficult for me to articulate other possible truths. I have to invent myself and my mother all at the same time.
I knew it wouldn’t end up like Donna Reed, or Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best, the weekly shows we watched religiously together as if we might get a glimpse of healing or wholeness or how to do it out of this small box that had only recently become a member of the family.
That wasn’t the truth either, though I so desperately wanted it to be. So, I lie to myself, telling myself the same lies my mother told me (and perhaps herself): Of course I love you. Of course I’m proud of you. It goes without saying. Is that why I still don’t know how to say it to myself? Don’t know how to feel it might be the truth when hear it from someone else?
My mother is doubtless still telling herself lies. And I am trying to tell myself truths. Perhaps that is why we don’t communicate, haven’t spoken for years. May never, Harvey, my therapist, compassionately counsels me, be able to have a relationship.
With Harvey I have been working on sorting out the truths from the lies. Sometimes I still tell myself lies, and he lets me. But gradually my need to lie lessens, and slowly I see more clearly my truth.
I was a good boy, probably too good. Then why was I whipped? What infractions of unspoken rules must I have inadvertently succumbed to?
When I tell people that I was frequently whipped, I always feel a current of electricity course through my body. I can’t quite tell if it’s warming or chilling, whether it makes me angry or sad, I just know it happens, every time. Asif the pain and humiliation and unfairness are still embedded in my body after all these years. Shouldn’t the energy have dissipated, run its course, gotten grounded?
Initially, I explain, it was with a belt, one taken from the many hanging in the closet. Or, if time was of the essence, from around my father’s waist, coiling like a snake preparing to strike. Later he used a dog whip he’d inherited (perhaps from his father), which hummed as he ripped it through the air with relish.
“Go lie down and get ready for your spanking.”
Even as I write these words the shame washes up my neck and out the top of my head. So I’d dutifully lie down on my own corduroy covered bed, the one whose bolsters turned it into what my mother called a “Hollywood sofa.” I liked the sound of that name; it went well with my fixation on Hollywood movies and their stars.
So, I lay face down, my pants and underpants pulled past my knees, in preparation, as I had been taught. And waited. Waited, wondering what I had done to deserve discipline in such a fashion. It must have been something serious because my parents wouldn’t insist on inflicting it if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Would they? I wondered as I lay there. My parent loved me, of that I was sure. Wasn’t their whipping me “for my own good,” as they always reminded me, proof of that? Weren’t they trying to teach me right from wrong, like they told me, to make sure I would always a good boy?
Finally, my father entered the room. he asked if I understood why I was being beaten. I lied and said yes. And as he took the strap to my white uncovered legs, I kept myself from crying, from giving him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d betray d me, believing my mother’s version of what happened before mine. believing, as she wanted him to, that I was bad. Not that I had exhibit bad behavior, but was intrinsically bad, so bad that the evil needed to be beaten out of me. So if they both believed it, what other choice did I have but to believe it too? I buried that belief deep in my bod , by not crying, by not allowing myself to hate them.
One recent afternoon at Esalen, I treated myself to a massage. I couldn’t really afford it, having spent so much on my weekly visits to the psychotherapist, the body worker, the acupuncturist. But I was there in hopes of healing something I wasn’t able to identify. Some tactile tissue contact, something seldom get, seemed necessary.
Peter, the masseur, came to collect me from the hot tub where I had been soaking. I told him about my pain as we walked to the massage yurt. He listened carefully to the descriptions of the throbbing, aching, tingling, and numbness that continually ran from my neck and shoulders down my left arm and in my hand. He listened sympathetically as I quickly chronicled the visits to the chiropractor, osteopath, and neurosurgeon, and the unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the pain with drugs. He gently helped me lie down on the massage table. Sometimes even this simple position is painful, but today the discomfort was minimal. As Peter reached under my body and pressed up into spots across my back, the discomfort turned to pain, and then intensified. It quickly became excruciating.
I felt my eyes squeeze tight with the pain. Surely he noticed my agony, but he pressed on, igniting spasms of burning that built on each other until I couldn’t stand it anymore. was lifted out of my body on a canopy of pain. From that raised perspective I looked down and saw not a forty-eight-year-old man being massaged but my father whipping his eight-year-old son. I felt the sting of the whip, the humiliation of knowing it was intended for dogs. And then, rising higher in the paroxysms of pain, I saw my father’s father beating him, perhaps with the same whip. Of course, how could it be otherwise? And though I couldn’t actually see it, I imagined my grandfather being beaten by his father.
From there I plunged back into my body, even below it. It was like I was on a carnival ride of pain. I felt my arm freeze and my hand go numb. Had I made a terrible mistake? Had my massage transformed the pain into permanent paralysis?
Usually I don’t want my massages to end; I thought this one never would. Finally it did. And slowly as I began to breathe, sensation came back into my body. Oily now, I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel any worse for my workout. Was it my imagination that I actually had a bit more mobility, a bit less pain? Or was it only that I’d found part of the answer to my unanswerable question of why I was whipped?
“Exhale!” Roy, my burly body worker, exhorted. “Good. Now do it with your mouth open. That’s going to be your homework.”
“That’s always my homework,” I counter in a combination of adult sarcasm and childish complaint. I never even realized that I don’t breathe. Well, of course I breathe, but it’s very shallow, and my mouth usually remains closed. It’s as if I don’t want to get caught breathing, don’t want to get caught, period. Don’t trust that there will be enough air for my next breath.
Roy asks me if it’s all right if Jack, a student intern, sits in on our weekly session. “Oh sure,” I say blithely. I have conveniently forgotten that the only other time Jack “sat in” was a few weeks ago: he held my shoulders down on the table while I raised my knees to my chest and Roy pushed my bent legs over toward the table until my vertebrae exploded “popopopop” like a string of Chinese firecrackers. Immediately, I burst into spontaneous laughter.
“Fire,” Roy explained to Jack. Then they twisted me to the left side. More uncontrollable laughter.
It doesn’t dawn on me that today the process is to be repeated. When I realize what’s about to happen, I inadvertently hold my breath. After instructing Jack, Roy tells me, “Your job is to breathe.” Together they perform the adjustment on my spine.
“Popopopop.” Fewer firecrackers this time, and no laughter. Just an ongoing series of deep exhalations, ne right after another. After allowing me a few moments to recover, hey twist me to the left. This side isn’t as explosive, but the deep exhalations continue.
Roy mentions grieving, a topic we have often discussed. He suggests that there might be some tears mixed into the exhalation, but I find none. I realize I don ‘t know how to grieve. I can cry, but it’s not the same thing. Earlier that week, face with the return of a story I thought had been accepted into an anthology, I didn’t know what to do: Get drunk? Call a friend and complain? Play songs I knew would elicit tears? Go to bed? It was ten o’clock and I was tired, so I chose the last of my narrow range of option , and collapsed into a deep sleep.
But the next day I realized it wasn’t only the disappointment of the rejected story. I was also starting to acknowledge rejection by a man I had been spending time with. He seemed to see me, and I thought our intellectual connection was slowly leading g to one of emotional and/or physical intimacy. Though the message had been mixed I was finally forced to face the fact that he wasn’t interested, at least not as interested as I was, not as interested as I want him to be. And so without shedding a tear, while Roy and Jack watched, I exhaled and exhaled and exhaled.
As I put on my shirt. I mentioned to Roy that my resistance to exhaling was related to my fear of inhaling, having to replenish my air supply with a fresh batch.
As I drove home, I remembered taking scuba diving lessons years ago. It took a long time to assemble a climb into the equipment: wet suit, mask, snorkel, fins, air tank… Even though I was thin, I wore more than the estimated number of lead weights on the weight belt. Nevertheless, I continually bobbed to the surface. More weights were woven into the belt around my narrow waist and still I wouldn’t sink. I finally realized that it was because I was afraid of completely exhaling, of voiding my body of used air in order to refill it with a fresh supply from the tank on my back. I had checked the gauges, the 0-ring, the regulator mouthpiece, and still I was afraid. Afraid that after exhaling there would be no air to inhale. So I kept my breaths shallow, breathing a little out and a little in. Eventually, involuntarily, I floated to the surface of the water, away from the other divers.
With Roy’s repetitious reminders, I am getting better at breathing, getting ready to begin grieving. It’s as if I need to be continually convinced that there is an inexhaustible supply of air around me. Fresh, sweet, restorative, purging, healing air. It’s the concept of porosity, Harvey has noted. My systems, emotional and physical, are so controlled that nothing gets in and nothing gets out. The air just stays in my body along with the grief. I’m trying to trust that there will be enough air to breathe in, trust that it will be safe to exhale the grief.
When my trust in my air supply is more secure, maybe I will decide to dive deep into disappointment. I’m still afraid I’ll be overwhelmed, still don’t know whether I’ll sink or swim in this sea of sorrow. For now, I stay in the shallow end and give myself permission not to grieve. Then I take a deep breath, and exhale.