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When I was 12 years old, my mom sent me to live with a stranger.
Sure, technically he was my biological father, but I had only found out about him 4 years earlier and had met him only once, at the age of 11. A meeting where we mostly discussed my mom’s new boob job and whether or not she was dating anyone at the moment.
But according to her, he was promising me a life that she couldn’t provide, a life of wealth and privilege in Fort Worth, Texas. And so I was shipped off to live with a person I didn’t know, a person she frequently referred to as a lowlife.
I flew from New York to Florida, where my dad picked me up in a brand new baby blue Lincoln Continental. I had to admit it was nice to be in a car that wasn’t an old Volkswagen Bug painted mostly primer gray with a few smears of Bondo.
He thought the long drive would be a good opportunity for us to get to know one another, but we hardly said a word to each other the whole drive that didn’t involve deciding whether or not to stop at a Stuckey’s. I spent most of the long car ride fantasizing about my new life as a modern-day Annie with my own personal Daddy Warbucks. The fact that my mom had all but abandoned me to enjoy the carefree childless life she had never had, was carefully scrubbed away. I was an expert magical thinker.
We arrived in Fort Worth in the dead of night; I awoke to the gentle crackle and sway of an unpaved road. I groggily sat up and looked out the window.
“Are we lost?” I said.
“Almost home,” my dad replied.
It was pitch black but I could easily sense that this street was more Hooverville than villa. It was at that moment I allowed the panic I had been corralling to have free-reign of my body
We pulled into an opening in a chain link fence. It was dark, but a streetlamp gave the clear impression of a dilapidated house. My mind was spinning as we exited the car.
All of my thoughts about the house exterior paled in comparison to what I was about to encounter upon entering my shack sweet shack. I watched as my dad reached through a broken glass pane to unlock the door. He must not have anything worth stealing, I remember thinking.
My dad kicked open the half-hobbled door. I literally shuddered when the first thing I saw was a bathroom in the middle of the living room. Apparently a stained sheet constituted an adequate sound barrier. I immediately decided I would never shit again.
I waited for the apologies one might hear upon entering an untidy home:
“I’m so embarrassed! I wasn’t expecting company. Otherwise I would have changed the tattered hefty bags that patch our broken window panes.”
“Please excuse the mirrored Coca-Cola tray on the table with cocaine on it. We left in the middle of snorting it and completely forgot to clean up our straws and razor blades.”
A simple, “I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to launder the bathroom wall” would have done. I felt myself shutting down. I just wanted to go to bed, but at the same time I was afraid to sleep.
As my dad walked me through the house to my room, I noticed that everything seemed to be covered with suspicious stains. Within minutes I had become completely jaded when it came to excessive scumminess. I was hardly shocked at all when, in lieu of a back door, I pass through a cloudy tarp that had a slit running through it.
My momentary shock upon finding out that my room was a camper trailer in the backyard, quickly turned into relief that I would be occupying a completely different living space than the stains and the cocaine.
I entered my trailer and turned on the light, a light bulb in a bright orange cage with an extension cord that ran to what I decided to call, for the purpose of making things sound better than they are, the main house. My dad said good night and left me to go to bed. I sat in my teeny camper dinette stunned.
There was a pair of sheets sitting on the bed cushion, still wrapped in their plastic packaging. I picked them and actually hugged them, I was so grateful for something clean and new.
That night as I tried to fall asleep I remember thinking about Heidi, Annie and Pollyanna. Up until that moment, those pint-sized heroines and the way their positive outlooks eventually helped them overcome adversity, was everything to me. That night a bitter cynic was born. I became the miserable wheelchair-imprisoned Clara, only trailer-imprisoned, poor and without the annoyingly positive Heidi encouraging me to look on the bright side.
The next morning it took me a long time to leave my trailer, a place that had strangely become safe to me. I took in a breath as I swung the door open. The backyard was crisp and dry. I half suspected a tumbleweed to blow through to the sound of a lonesome cowboy whistle. The smell of dog shit in various stages of decay, fresh to fossilized, filled the air. The fact that there was no dog to be seen made it all the more disturbing.
As I walked toward the house, I tripped on what appeared to be an old tuna fish can. There were more cans scattered on the lawn, taunting me with the idea that my dad just didn’t give a fuck.
The mounting evidence was too much for even a master of denial like me to sugar coat. We were trash. Now my mom’s side of family may have been uneducated and not the most sophisticated. They were loud, and some of them did have beer cans on their lawns, but they at least knew how to act like decent people.
At the very least, they would clean up the dog shit and tuna cans when company came over.
“My dad is a fucking liar.” I thought. “My mom was right. He’s a fucking liar. My mom fucking sent me to live with someone based on the promises of a fucking liar without once saying, “Wait a minute! He’s a fucking liar who fucking lies.” Now I’m fucking screwed living with a fucking lying fuck?”
I pushed my way through the tarp determinedly, as if I was about to be confrontational. I saw my dad sitting on the sofa watching Wheel of Fortune. He just sat there saying nothing, as if he couldn’t be disturbed while he was struggling to guess the goddamned puzzle.
The answer to the puzzle was obvious to me. It was also obvious that guessing it before he could would be a huge mistake. But I choose to do it anyway, my passive aggressive way of confronting him over his lies. I screamed out the answer: “What goes around come around! ” I added a feeble “Daddy” in a lame attempt to not appear confrontational.
He stood up. I didn’t know it then, but I quickly found out my dad was one of those rare dicks that is super-competitive with children.
“You think you’re a smartass?” I knew a trick question when I heard one so my strategy was to stare blankly and say nothing.
“Not so smart now,” he says as he flicked me in the noggin. “Say it. Say you’re a smartass.”
His size was imposing but there was something else about him that truly frightened me from ever being a smartass again. He was wearing what appeared to be a piece of elastic around his waist with fabric hanging off it, what you might call a white trash loincloth. The fabric was so tenuously keeping the form of underwear that I feared it might actually disintegrate into a pile of urine dust at any moment.
I tried not to breath too hard for fear that the slightest breeze may result in the shifting of coverage, and seeing just a sliver of ball sack would surely have sent me into some kind of seizure. I still get a shiver thinking about what filthy thing he might have shoved in my mouth to keep me from swallowing my tongue.
I was relieved when he sent me to my trailer as a punishment. That trailer became my refuge.
I lived this lie with my father for one year. And in a classic case of cutting off your nose to spit your face, I never told my mom a single bad thing that happened to me during that period as a way to punish her.
But I went even further than that in my efforts to hurt her. Every phone call we shared was a lie. I told her about the ballet, jazz, and tap classes I was enrolled in. I told her about pool parties and ponies. I always ended each phone call hurriedly to go off to some other fabulous lie I had created.
I made sure she knew I didn’t miss her. I made sure she knew I didn’t have time for her. And I made damn sure she knew how great my life was without her.