“Mommy? Mommy, I can’t hear you!”
“Move!” my brother says, shoving me aside. He leans down to the heater vent and calls to our mother, whose voice comes back to us muffled.
Our stepfather Harold storms through the house. His kingdom is never enough of anything — never clean enough, quiet enough, obedient enough. He has once again shoved our mother into the bedroom, locking her in, and then locks us in our rooms. We yell to each other through the vents. He can probably hear us but he rarely intervenes at this point.
I hear Mom tell my brother to go out the window and run to the neighbor’s house. We’ve worn a path in the woods between our homes with this plan of action. It never leads to being saved, only to ridicule from the same sheriff’s deputy who comes out every single time.
“Now, you know he didn’t mean it,” Deputy Tommy always says. He’s Harold’s friend and it’s the 1980s, so all domestic violence is just a hush-hush scuffle of sorts. “You can’t keep calling us every time you can’t get along.”
My brother decides he’ll run for help one more time. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time another officer will come out. Maybe this time he won’t suffer the consequences of trying to be the protector of our lives.
This is one memory and a million. They mush into each other, the details playing out the same, the punishments for breathing too loudly in the same space as my stepfather the same. Always tiptoeing, trying to avoid the new something that will set him off this time. If the dishes aren’t finished, he’ll pull them all from the cupboards and tell us to begin again. I stand on a chair to reach the sink, always trying to keep water from the floor so I don’t have to mop it with my own little head. If the dogs bark, it’s our fault. If it rains, it feels like that’s our fault, too.
He has no concept of love.
Except once upon a time, I thought he did. I was sure of it. He loved me. He doted on me.
I was his little girl.
I used to call him Daddy, not Harold.
Too often, I think it is worse to have been loved briefly by someone who now hurts you, than to never have been loved at all. I don’t understand the change of his affections, what I did wrong, and how to make it right again.
This try and try again to fix love, to put it where it belongs and how it feels right, will become the way I operate with all relationships — friendships, teachers, bosses, and anyone else I meet along the way. How do I make you love me right? How do I perform to keep you happy?
I become a chameleon early in life.
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