|Me, circa 1999, wearing the glasses with the wavy frames.|
This is a sequel to August: a memory.
I remember beginning a very unique sibling rivalry that week. I pitied my younger brother and also despised him. His father took him to live at his house while I went to live with our aunt and the raw emotions of not having him as a parental figure were still fresh in my nine year old mind. I called him Dad for six to seven years at that point and to be shunted aside was easier dealt with than you'd imagine when combined with the stresses of being displaced in the way that I was. That year would essentially be the end of my relationship with my brother's father and when the divergence between my brother and I had begun to take shape. We always had access to something that the other didn't and we likely took our concerns over our situation out on each other.
While my brother's needs were, presumably, being met by his father and his new family across town I had become the responsibility of my Aunt and Uncle. Despite having a relatively new toddler in their home they obliged to take me in and found room for me on their third floor which was furnished but generally unused. With the help of my grandparents we acquired some new pants, shorts and shirts in time for me to go on vacation with my aunt, uncle and their friends to Ocean City, Maryland. Luckily for me, the self-awareness of being a burden and the associated guilt hadn't developed yet in that week and I genuinely had fun. When looking back I try to ignore the idea that I was quickly adopted into everyone's plans and I convince myself that my company was truly being enjoyed.
You can tell that I desired normalcy (and found it) that week by how quickly I latched onto strangers. It was slightly foreign to have a normal vacation with friends of my aunt and uncle who I had never met before but since they were nice to me I immediately thought of them as my friends too. Again, I try to ignore the idea that the extra friendly affection by those who had never met me before was due to being plucked from a hellish ordeal; I'm sure the knowledge that they were briefed on my situation was in the back of my mind but it never made an appearance until later years. It was made clear by everyone how much they needed a vacation. Both families were blue collar laborers who worked hard for what they had and I was lucky to be included in their down time.
I don't think anyone realized how much those few days meant to me though. In less than two weeks I went from eating macaroni noodles off of a Tupperware lid and talking to social workers to spending my days at the beach and perusing the boardwalk. I remember the simple glee of looking down at my new shirt glowing under a black light at one of the nicer restaurants we ate at. These little memories add up quickly.
A laser pointer was bought for me in one of the shops and it was probably the greatest thing on the face of the earth at the time. That night I went onto the balcony style walkway outside of the door to the condo with my uncle and his friend. They were smoking cigars I think and drinking a few beers as we watched the cars and bright signs light up the street just off the beach. I stood out there with them, feeling wholly involved, soaking up the moment. The warm, salty air was perfect as we tried out my laser on the dark macadam below. I was amazed that it reached across the street, even with the bright lights, and was entirely amused by teasing the people waiting at the bus stop. I'm positive I made some childish joke about the Hooters restaurant that was lit up orange behind the bus stop in an attempt to fit in with the guys. The easy laughter and hair tussling satisfied my ego and topped off one of the greatest memories I have.
Against my best wishes, that week had to end. I'm not sure if I wanted the fun to continue or if I dreaded what waited for us back home, my new home. I don't remember crying the entire week at the beach but I could feel the lump in my throat and butterflies in my stomach when I thought about starting at a new school and wondering how long until something else changed or forced me to be uprooted again.
I don't know what kind of effort my aunt made to get me enrolled in the school district I would attend for that year. I don't remember even thinking to grab my birth certificate, social security card or anything like that; I was nine and generally competent but I don't think anyone expected that much from me. I do, however, vaguely remember starting school a few days late and that might have had something to do with the difficulty in signing me up.
My grandparents helped my aunt pay for a lot of the things I needed. It was quite clear that I needed new glasses. I don't remember expressing this concern but I was certainly open to the idea. I had that pair since I started wearing glasses in second grade and they were well past their prime and prescription. The hinges were loose or bent and one of the nose pieces were missing, rubbing my skin raw where the metal was allowed to touch my flesh. When we went to the mall I was pretty excited. One of the boys of my brother's father's new family had glasses with wavy frames. It was a gimmick and therefore I had to have it. I was allowed to get them and, combined with the new addition of bifocals, I thought my pair of glasses were the best thing ever (alongside that laser pointer, of course). Additionally, the bifocals made reading much more comfortable and fostered a renewed love of books which would shape my entire life in that year.
I started school and quickly fell into a routine. Every morning I would get woken up as my aunt and uncle left for work and to drop my cousin off at his babysitter. I'd call my grandmother as I got dressed. Every day she'd make the same joke about the Johnstown Flood as I used the toilet and everyday I'd make toast for breakfast and I'd eat it on my way to the bus stop down the street. Every single day I would come home before everyone else, I'd call my grandmother again for a little bit before I put on cartoons or music videos. I really liked the idea of being helpful so I'd sometimes clean up the living room and kitchen, start the dishwasher or set the table. I'd rush around getting everything done so I could enjoy the praise when my guardians got home. I definitely wasn't a perfect child and I often had a problem remembering to keep my room clean or perform the weekly task of bringing the trash to and from the curb.
No matter how far I fell into routine it couldn't help but being ruined by those who made me. My mother, still unmedicated properly, wanted my brother and I back. No one wanted to give us up, thankfully, because they knew it would be no time at all before we were back in the same situation. My brother's father sought legal custody of him and my aunt filed a protection from abuse order against my mother to buy some time to make a case for keeping me for the year at least. In this attempt I've gathered that my real father was contacted in Massachusetts and thus his interest in gaining custody of me was piqued. I can't remember if he visited me once in September but I do remember as September died and October of that year was born he came and nearly changed everything that my life would be.
In the first week of October my grandfather would turn fifty years old and we were planning a surprise birthday party for him. I like to think that I was helping quite a bit with the planning when my father came down that weekend to see me. In one of the most awkward moments I've ever experienced my biological father was invited to stay the weekend with me at my brother's father's new home. I had barely known my real father and called the other man "Dad" for most of my life. I remember not addressing either of them properly that weekend and using identifiers like "Hey!" and "You" quite often. I was annoyed that anyone would put me in this situation.
It was the night before the party and we were playing video games in their basement when they broke the news to me. My father was sitting next to me as my "Dad" was standing behind a couch near the entrance to the room when I was told that my father was taking me back to Massachusetts early in the morning. I felt my eyes well up as I said I didn't want to go. I stared at the Dale Earnhardt memorabilia on the walls because I couldn't look anyone in the eye as the tears streamed down my face. I explained that I already started school. I explained that I had a bedroom and I liked being near my family and being able to see my brother. It didn't matter. I was told that I wasn't allowed to use the phones to call my aunt, my grandfather, anyone who I thought could help me.
I begged my "Dad" not to let him take me. He said that it was best for me and that I should be with my father. I have never felt so betrayed in my entire life. I pleaded. I wasn't above frantic begging on my knees, crossing my fingers and shaking my little intertwined fists up at him not to let him take me. I went upstairs to the dining room, the phone wasn't plugged in. No luck. The cordless phones weren’t on their base. No luck. I begged my "Dad's" future wife to not let him take me. I could see she pitied me but offered no help. I sat and cried with her mother, who lived with them, who just kept telling me it would be okay.
I didn't talk to my father that night. He stayed downstairs in the basement where he would sleep. I stayed upstairs but I didn't sleep much. I laid in the bunk bed crying knowing that the boy with the same glasses as me was fast asleep below. I contemplated my options. I could run away, of course. There was a convenience store a mile or two away that I could call my family collect by using a pay phone. I was afraid of being caught. I was afraid of walking in the dark. I was afraid of making the phone call and waiting to picked up. How long would they take to drive there? What if they didn't answer the phone? What if the police found me? It felt like hours that I cried and silently panicked about what I could do. How long would it take for them to realize that I wasn't coming to the party tomorrow? The sick feeling was at its peak when I decided to climb down from the bed and sneak out of the room. I'd have to find my shoes and then I could leave.
When I opened the already cracked door I found my "Dad's" girlfriend and her mother in the hallway. I was already caught. I started sobbing again and I tried once more to beg them to let me call my family, to stop my father from taking me, anything. They said they were sorry but they couldn't do anything about it. That was when I felt the vomit rise in my throat. I ducked into the bathroom and starting throwing up the pizza we had earlier that evening, the pizza I ate before I knew I was being kidnapped. I emptied my stomach quickly but didn't stop heaving. My tears and snot dripped into the water as I retched and pleaded at the same time. I think my “Dad” watched from the door but he didn’t say anything and I was too sick to look up. I don't know how long this continued or who was rubbing my back but eventually I cried myself to sleep.
When I woke up my throat hurt and my eyes stung. My heart felt like it hadn't slowed down a beat since the night before and tears instantly felt like they were a moment away. It is cliche to wish it was all a dream but I did and facing reality as it was made this wish stronger. All of the adults were in the living room when I left the bedroom. I hadn't resigned to going but I couldn't bring myself to start begging right away either. Something changed though. I was told to get a shower and to get dressed because someone changed their mind and the plans. I was still being forced to go to Massachusetts but someone convinced my father to let me go to the party to say goodbye to everyone and gather some of my things. Finally, hope.
The drive over to the party was scary and seemed to last forever. It was just my father and I in his vehicle. I wondered if he would follow the plan or if he'd change his mind and turn away at any moment. He took a different way than anyone else would have and I panicked. This was it, he was taking me without so much as letting me say goodbye to anyone. I was wrong. We drove onto a street that was familiar and eventually made it to my aunt and uncle's house. As we turned onto their street I was told not to say anything to anyone about leaving. I agreed but I'm not sure I had any intent to comply.
When we came around the bend in the road I could see all of the cars lining the street. Everyone was invited to this party. Each car that I recognized was another person I secretly hoped would stand up for me and not allow me to be taken. How would I do it? Would I whisper in someone's ear? Would I start crying and panicking, screaming not to let him take me? I was trembling. Would I be too afraid to say anything? What if I did say something and they couldn't stop him? Maybe he would keep driving. I'd see the party but we wouldn't stop. Another pang of hope; we stopped.
I can't remember many details after walking in the front door. I know I was greeted by people I didn't get to see often, I know I spoke to them but I can't remember a word that was said. It is all a blur. My eyes were stinging again and I was trapped in my own head. Many of these people hadn't seen my father since I was a baby. They all pretended to be delighted to see him. I do remember sitting on the couch next to my father and he didn't talk to me. He must have known I was afraid. He didn't comfort me by saying that I'd like it as his house, that this was in fact better for me. Nothing.
When we went out the back sliding door to the rest of the party I saw my grandmother sitting on the patio. Someone was talking to my father, shaking his hand, questioning him about something trivial. I felt my eyes well up as I went to give my grandmother a hug. I blinked a lot to clear the tears and I almost whispered "He's going to take me." in her ear. I didn't have to though. My aunt showed up with my uncle and grabbed my hand. She said she wanted to show me something related to the party and pulled me back inside. My father was stuck talking outside and didn't follow immediately.
We walked quickly through the dining room and living right up the stairs. Now we had my aunt's two friends with us. Both of the women joined us in my aunt and uncle's bedroom and they locked the door behind us. I was being saved. I couldn't believe it. Somehow they knew already. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I hugged my aunt. I don't even remember what she was telling me. We watched out her window as a cop car pulled in behind my father's car, parking him in. We waited in the bedroom for a while. I was too afraid to look out the window, too anxious and still on edge from not being quite sure if I dodged a bullet. I guess I did.
From what I understand, my "Dad" alerted my family sometime in the night or as my father and I drove over to the party. Either way, they knew I was in danger of being taken and the plan was to get me to that party to prevent it. I still felt betrayed that no one stuck up for me all night long, letting me beg and plead and cry, but I am grateful that the effort was made to convince my father to go to the party and for the forewarning that was given to my family.
I don't think anyone really said anything to me about it during the rest of the party. In fact, it was as if everyone pretended it didn't happen which I really appreciated. Relief was the dominating emotion when I ate my grandmother's bean soup and watched my grandfather open his gifts. One of his gifts was a new camcorder which I was given to use for the day. It was my job to record the party. It was probably to get my mind off of the day's events but I was honored and I took the job seriously. For the second time in so many months I ignored the extra affection I was being given because of what I was put through and soaked it up as genuine appreciation for myself as a person. Out of these moments I fabricated another great memory of the closeness I felt to my friends and family that, even with crystal clear hindsight, I'll maintain forever.