Being the spawn of an irresponsible teenage mom definitely had its upside. Dinner choices included things like Count Chocula or cold Chef Boyardee ravioli straight from the can. "Motel Hell" and "Porky’s" were considered family movies. And having no money for childcare meant that me and my younger sisters got to hang out at the bar where my mom worked as a cocktail waitress, pounding unlimited green olives and maraschino cherries into the wee hours of the night.
But there was definitely a downside. Things like seeing your parents passed out in the 69 position at the age of six, picking up scary hitchhikers on the way home from Pic-n-Save and finding out when you’re eight years old that the man you thought was your daddy wasn’t actually your real father.
Yeah, that last one stood out even amongst all the other crazy shit. I never thought I’d say this but, if the rumors are true, I feel ya, Khloe K. I feel ya.
The day the shit hit the fan started off as one of the best days of my life. My mom surprised me by telling me that we would be going on a mommy/daughter lunch date to Red Lobster. She even helped me put hot rollers in my hair for the occasion. I felt like fucking Annie. After years of Long John Silver’s, I was going to an actual fancy seafood restaurant. Sure, I had my suspicions, but like any good child living in a neglectful home, I was excellent at focusing on the Nellie Olsen curls and the broiled lobster tail, while completely ignoring the black eyes and howling make-up sex.
And things just kept getting better and better, as my mom said yes to all of my most extravagant wishes. Surf and turf? Sure. Shirley Temple? No problem. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! (I had already decided that if I was ever to end up on death row this would be my last meal -- with a Dairy Queen banana split for dessert. I’m betting last meal fantasies are common amongst other young girls who idolize the Bad Seed and declare Helter Skelter to be their all-time favorite movie ever at the age of seven.)
Then my mom asked the question that always meant she was about to lay some serious shit on my ass. “Are you my big girl?”
Fuck that. I decided to change the subject.
“I need more butter.”
Then I put all my energy into performing a silent-film version of getting a waitress’s attention.
"Punkin', I have some bad news," she said as if she had been taking notes on how to act from a TV mom on a very special episode. "Daddy and I are getting a divorce."
I knew I was expected to be really upset, but my child survival instincts kicked in and I thought about what I would ask for to make me feel better, all that cheap junk that is a waste of money -- Wacky Packages trading cards, Chunkys and real "Day of the Week" underwear, not the cheap Pic-n-Save brand that she bought me that included the inexplicable "weekend" pair. I was so busy fantasizing about my life as a spoiled divorced child, with parents buying my love with Cabbage Patch Dolls and Pound Puppies, that I barely heard her when she dropped the next bomb.
"But don't be too upset about it, because the truth is, he's not your real father anyway. Do you know what that means?"
Quite honestly I didn’t. So I continued focusing on what I did know. The divorce angle. What does this mean about custody? So there won’t be a fight over me? No loser parent kidnapping me, dyeing my hair and changing my name to Jennifer, convincing me that it's all some exciting game of play-acting? Using the vast resources of real world knowledge I had gained from watching daytime soaps my whole life, I asked the only logical question available to me.
“So, I’m adopted?”
“No. I’m still your mom. I’m still your mom,” she said as if I would find that sentiment comforting. Then she stared at me…waiting. I know she wanted me to say everything would be OK or to scream and cry…something. But I couldn’t. I didn’t want her to know how I felt. I didn’t even know how I felt. I only knew that I didn’t want her to know anything about me ever again. But I had to say something.
"Can I have your hush puppies?" I asked. She silently scooped them onto my plate and then watched me eat them.
I have pinpointed this as the exact moment when I started eating for comfort.
By the time we got to the car I had already adjusted to my new situation. If convulsively shrugging every time my mom looked at me counts as moving on. Even though I kind of knew I wasn’t OK, I also knew that my mom was happy to believe I was and wouldn’t press the issue. But I had become obsessed. I should’ve seen it sooner, I thought. I mean what’s the likelihood that two dark-haired, olive skinned dummies managed to have a strawberry-blonde ghost child in the gifted-program? Things I should’ve noticed started piling up in my head.
About 10 minutes into our drive home, I got carsick and we had to pull over. I leapt out the door and casually vomited the most expensive meal I had ever eaten as I strolled by a bed of California poppies, bending down to smell the flowers as if the vomiting was an afterthought. When I got back into the car my mom handed me a butterscotch Lifesaver and informed me that I needed to keep pretending that Keith was my real dad since he didn't know about the divorce yet.
She then spent the rest of the car ride telling me all about what a "bastard" he was and that he had "been fucking around" and how she was gonna "screw that fucker." Apparently my mom would put up with alcoholism and physical abuse, but she drew the line at cheating.
I spent the following weeks avoiding my old dad and fantasizing about who my real father was. I was moving on the only way I knew how, through extensively thought-out fantasy. I knew my mom's type, so I deduced that he was a musician with a mustache. I eliminated John Oates and Kenny Loggins immediately due to their coloring. I was catching on to genetics fast.
For various reasons, mainly being that he was a high school friend of my mom's older brother and his possession of a golden mane, I decided upon Ronnie Van Zant, the deceased lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd. A practical choice with no possibility of an awkward meeting later in life, where he is initially attracted to me, thinking I'm some foxy groupie, and tries to kiss me, as I push him away, saying "I'm your daughter!"
I began obsessively reading meaning into all of Lynyrd Skynyrd's lyrics. "What's Your Name Little Girl?" Her name is Candy and she's my momma! "I Ain't the One" was all about how my mom got pregnant but he couldn't marry her 'cause he was a free bird and if he stayed things just wouldn't be the same. "Sweet Home Alabama" became my anthem, convincing me that Neil Young was a jerk and making me feel bad that the South lost the Civil War. I was the illegitimate daughter of a dead rock star. Finally I was getting the life I deserved.
Unfortunately my mom had one last truth that she felt obligated to unload on me as we shared a pack of Ding Dongs while watching "The Young and the Restless" together.
"His name is Bunny," my mom said.
"Bunny? Bunny?" I think I repeated this a dozen times. Who is she talking about, I tried to think, even though I knew the answer.
"That's just what we all called him," she said as if that made things better.
Then she showed me a picture of a guy sporting the classic hitchhiker look -- long blonde hair, a handle bar mustache, and a missing front tooth. A poor woman's Ronnie Van Zant. He was standing in front of a beat-up old boat. Not exactly a houseboat, but a boat that he lived in. My fantasies quickly deflated, accompanied by a sad-sack chorus of flatulent trombones. He was a loser, just like my old real dad.
Apparently my mom’s bad taste in men was a trend. One that would unfortunately continue for the rest of my childhood. So yeah, Khloe, I feel ya. Especially if it turns out to be OJ.