My stepfather speaks to his dogs like good men speak to their children, and speaks to his children like bad men speak to their dogs.
I act like his jittery, neurotic dogs, too.
When he was in a bad mood, I avoided him, holding my breath whenever he came around. When he went back to his lair of online poker and convenience store candy, I could breathe again. I was careful not to be too loud in case I woke the beast. When he was in a good mood I was suspicious, with every right to be. His good moods never lasted long. I was wary of gifts, of smiles, of any comments that weren’t patronizing or degrading.
Conversely, our dogs were always happy to be near him, and he was happy to be near them, too. They would sit at the foot of his rolling leather computer chair, waiting patiently for his freely given attention. Sometimes they would lie there, half asleep, only to spring up like daisies when his voice took on a playful shade. The three of them sat by his desk like the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell, ready to greet whoever was unlucky enough to be summoned to his presence.
This is how I lived for most of my life, lost in the expanse between these two parts of him, trying desperately to make my way to the other side.
As a child, I imagined my stepfather to be many things. I knew about evil stepmothers but nothing of stepfathers. Storybooks seldom mentioned anything about them and so I made characters for him myself.
He was a volcano and I was the city in the valley below. He was Jekyll and Hyde, except his outbursts were not caused by strange science but by his own volition. He was a werewolf whose rage made me stand not on eggshells but on broken fragments of glass. Or, he was a dog, unbearably loving at one moment and then snapping his jaws at your jugular at another.
In reality, he wasn’t evil. He raised me and cared for me and I made Father’s Day presents for him at school and called him Dad. But I was so afraid of him that I was unafraid of anything else. My lack of fear unsettled my mother, who saw the same sides of him that we did but let her love blind her. It unsettled my siblings, too, who took solace in his good days when his love shone down on us like the heat from the sun. It was only me standing alone in the shade even on those glorious days, for fear of being burned.
He was the creature under the bed, the ghost in the attic, the monster in the closet.
“Are you ready, Dad?”
“Just wait a second.”
He adjusted the camera, making sure that I was standing in the center of the LCD screen. He moved back a few steps and bent his knees. He was in an uncomfortable position, but he held his body there. I looked back one more time at our scene—the construction zone of a half-built community center, abandoned for the weekend. I looked back at him, nodding reassuringly and he did the same. Then he gave me a thumbs up. We were rolling.
“Hello, everyone! Welcome to our show! Today I’m going to teach you about machines! Do you see what’s behind me?”
Dad panned the camera to my right, to the pile of dirt nearly twice the size of me and the yellow bulldozer beside it, clumps of dirt falling from its bucket. Some of the dirt was picked up by the wind and flew into the shins of his faded jeans, but he didn’t leave his crouched stance.
“It’s a bulldozer! A bulldozer is a compound machine! That means that it’s made up of two or more simple machines! What kind of simple machines can you see in this bulldozer, Dad?”
“I don’t know,” he said from behind the camera in a sing-song voice. “What simple machines can you see?”
“There are the wheels, and the wheels must be attached to axles! It’s made of a lot of wedges and probably a million screws! There are all kinds of gears, too. Can you see them, Dad?”
“I see them!”
In the quiet of the night, I heard the sound of my mother’s voice. She said the name of someone I don’t know, a man. She called out as if he were nearby, but it was too late for visitors.
“Go back to sleep,” she said, tiredly.
“I want to play with the kids,” answered my stepfather, though I didn’t know why. It wasn’t his name.
My mother called the name of the man again and my stepfather answered again. It was simple. A call and a response but with and to a name that I had never heard uttered from my mother’s lips.
“The kids are sleeping.”
“Let’s wake them up. It’s not fair. I never play with them.”
“It’s time for bed. Let’s go to sleep.”
There were two points at which things were at their worst. Both had to do with my stepfather’s firstborn son, who I call my twin brother despite us being born three and a half months apart and from completely different parents. To an outsider, we could pass as twins. We had the same ovular heads, the same pale complexions, and the same black eyes, so the lie always spilled easily from our lips. Years later, my mother would explain this was the reason why I was different in my stepfather’s eyes. She would say that it was because I reminded him of his son, my twin.
The first occasion came not long after we moved into that basement apartment on the east side. I was starting my second year of kindergarten, my mother was pregnant, my father was living with his parents, and my twin was being kept from my stepfather by his ex-wife.
My parents told me often that I was lazy, and when I wasn’t lazy, I was irresponsible. I was lazy when I didn’t help around the house, unlike my sister who had gotten used to boiling hot dogs and making rice for our dinners. I was irresponsible when I took long showers. I remember my stepfather walking through the fog of the bathroom to dump buckets of ice water onto my head.
At night, in my bedroom, my sister and I talked from the different levels of our bunk bed. Sometimes, we wrapped our Sesame Street blankets around our heads and pretended that we were brides. I stood in the middle of our room and walked down an imaginary aisle, back rigidly straight, while my sister hummed Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Our apartment had thin walls so we could hear when our stepfather came striding down the hallway. Then we’d panic and jump back into bed, shutting our eyes and pretending we had never been awake.
He ducked his head through our door, and I swore he could hear my quickened heartbeat and uneven breaths. Then, he called me out to the living room. Sometimes, I pretended to be asleep, but I learned quickly that wouldn’t deter him. Most of the time, I accepted my fate.
In the living room, he sat in his armchair and made me stand in front of the clock on our television. Then, he would tell me to raise my one of my legs and for ten minutes, I had to stand there, teetering back and forth like a dazed flamingo. If I dropped my leg to the floor, which I often did—first because of my lack of balance, then later because of exhaustion—I had to start again. I was responsible for keeping time, but I didn’t dare cheat by even a minute in case he was counting in his head. Sometimes, after a stretch of failures, I’d be on my sixth or seventh try and he’d fall asleep. Even then I thought it might be a trick to test my honesty.
I never told anyone about this, not even my sister who heard me leave our bedroom each night, her eyes screwed shut like the monkey that sees no evil. I came to doubt my own memories. I heard once that children block out traumatic memories to protect themselves, and I wondered if I had subconsciously created a false version of events. Sometimes, it made more sense to me that something worse had happened, because even the thought of those nights still makes me anxious. Sometimes I think it doesn’t seem that bad, but I suppose nothing ever does.
It was rare that the five of us kids were together for an entire holiday. Usually, we had to coordinate around things—if my sister and I were going to our dad’s apartment, if our brother (my twin) was going to his mom’s place. Usually, we would split the holiday in half so that we could spend time with everyone and our two youngest brothers didn’t feel left behind.
Mom was working one Easter, and had left a bag of chocolates with Dad. We were upstairs playing video games when Dad’s voice cut through the sound effects, like a thundercloud announcing the presence of a storm.
“Kids! Come down.”
The boys and I scrambled downstairs first. Soon enough, our sister came along, too, though she lagged behind. Dad was standing in the middle of the living room with his arms crossed behind his back harshly. He had a drill sergeant expression on his face and it made me nervous, but as we stood in front of him, his features softened.
“Welcome to our first Easter Games!” he shouted. “The first event is the chocolate egg hunt! Whoever finds the golden egg is the winner!”
From behind his back, he took out five cheap straw baskets and threw them toward our chests. He threw me the blue one—my favorite color. Then, he put a bunny ears headband on each of us. I looked around at my siblings: we all looked ridiculous, barely fighting smiles. He arranged us in a circle, our backs to each other.
“Ready… Set… Go!”
We ran out into the living room like we’d been shot from cannons. A giggle burst from my lips as we pushed each other around the house, diving for tiny metallic-wrapped chocolate eggs. Suddenly, we were all laughing with the wild carelessness of children. Even Dad.
My stepfather’s sobs broke through the cover of night. Anguished wails, like a newborn baby suffering for the first time. I could make out words through the walls: My brother’s name, my twin’s name. The one who had fled for his mother’s house after an argument gone wrong. The one who had gone away from my stepfather again.
The second occasion came when I was a teenager. After a year of living with us, my twin brother moved back to his mother’s and didn’t talk to us for nine months. During those nine months, I had been taking driving lessons. I was supposed to practice regularly but I rarely did because I was afraid of inconveniencing my parents.
It was my stepfather’s turn to take me. My mother told me to ask him when he got home. I didn’t want to. I begged her to take me instead, but she insisted. When he got home, I asked him to take me driving, and he screamed at me like he had never screamed before. I could feel the house shaking. My siblings pretended that nothing was happening; my flesh tore away from the bone with each shout.
Inconsiderate. Lazy. Useless.
I looked at my mother and waited for her to defend me. She said nothing, and I went upstairs to my room. I shut the door and put the full weight of my body against it but he raced after me and pushed hard, still hurling insults. I was surprised that with all that force, he didn’t blast through the door and crush me.
Even when he reached a lull, I couldn’t relax. At any given moment, he could break through. I had been afraid of him thousands of times before, but this was the worst. I couldn’t bear to be in the house. I went out to my balcony and slept under the stars.
Days later, my mom apologized on his behalf. She said that he wasn’t doing very well since my twin left. Things were really difficult. I wouldn’t understand.
My brother came back.
I never asked him to take me driving again.
Just as my mother and I were about to leave, she reminded me to say goodbye to Dad. I had been loading my luggage into her trunk, three suitcases filled with what I wanted to take from this life and bring to my next.
I hesitated—we were just barely on schedule, and I had a flight to catch. I told her that I had already said goodbye, but she told me to say it once more. I went back into the house, shucking my shoes at the door. I ascended the stairs and when I got to the top, the dogs were at the landing, all of them sprawled out on the carpet.
The dogs stood and followed me, wagging their tails and trying to entice me into play as I walked across the hall to my parents’ room. I leaned down and kissed each of them on the head. They were getting older and I didn’t know when I would be back. I wondered if this was the last time that I’d see any of them, or if they’d think that I’d died.
In my parents’ bedroom, Dad was quiet and as soon as I entered, the dogs lay down on the carpet, surrounding him, his three protectors. The only thing I could hear was the sound of his online poker game. He didn’t move when I came in, keeping his eyes glued to his computer, but I knew that he was listening.
“Dad. I’m leaving now.”
I leaned down and hugged him, maybe for the first time in my life. Dad in his computer chair, to the strange symphony of cards shuffling and poker chips falling, hugged me back. It only lasted a few moments.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” he said. His unsteady voice surprised me, so I looked him in the eye. I saw that his eyes were tight, not with their usual harshness, but in the way that clouds tighten and close into themselves before the rain bursts through.
“Bye, Dad,” I said, one last time. And then, in case he didn’t know: “I love you.”
My mom called when I was in a hostel somewhere, asking me to come home and visit. She told me that things had been bad since one of the dogs died. Each night, she woke up to him standing by the photos of the dead dog. He spoke to the dog like it was alive, like it was right in front of him licking its paws. It was getting worse every night. She was scared that my brothers would overhear and they would finally realize.
I believe that the love of a child is the most inauthentic love that exists. It is born out of foolish naiveté, created from ignorance. As children, we love because our lack of experience leads us to believe that the people around us are worthy of our love. A child’s love is unadulterated, but at its core it is nothing.
It follows then that a child’s detestation is also worthless. A child’s detestation is created of inaccurate perceptions, warped by inexperience. Everything seems like the end of the world and everyone might be a monster. The silhouette of a sweater poking out from a darkened closet. The late-night rumbling of a dishwasher. The shadow of the gnarled beckoning branches of a bare tree. Errors in perception cloud a child’s judgment.
When I eventually learned about my stepfather’s mental illness, it only further complicated the hodgepodge that he had become in my mind. His goodness and his badness sloshed together—I didn’t know which parts were him, and which parts were so beyond his control that they were someone else. At random, any one part could be hidden away, inaccessible to him or to me or anyone else.
My stepfather’s sickness does not absolve him of his sins. But the image I once saw of him as a beast and myself as a hero who would one day rise against him was just another childish fantasy. In reality, there are no monsters and there are no heroes. There are only humans who make mistakes, and humans who are left picking up the remnants.
He’s different now from how he used to be, but despite my mother’s pleas and hopes, I can’t seem to shake my memories away. She wants me to revise our history with my present understanding, but I can’t change a past so imbued with emotion. It should be simple, she thinks, to put his smiling face as he crouches in a construction site, video camera in hand, the white bunny ears hanging off his head, the sound of him telling me that he will miss me, over everything else. But it isn’t simple. Feelings can’t change retrospectively; they can only be layered underneath more feelings.
I don’t want to change anything, and I don’t want to forget anything. The way he would yell at me so loudly that I heard it a dozen times before it absorbed into the walls. The way that he sat at birthday dinners not making a single noise excepting the sound of his fork scraping against his plate. The way he would let the dogs wake me up for breakfast on Saturday mornings, their wet noses pressing kisses into my face. I want to remember all of it.
In my memory, the dogs are running around in the backyard. Dad calls me outside and at his voice, the dogs calm and settle on the grass around him. I stop preparing lunch and go outside, ready to face his wrath, but he just tells me to sit down with him, between the dogs.
After a few minutes, the dogs stand again and begin to chase the birds. Tiny sparrows and swallows that land for a moment of rest. They follow them at a fast pace, saliva dripping from their jowls as they tire themselves trotting back and forth. Eventually, the birds flutter over the fence and fly away.
I sit with him only for a moment and then I dust myself off and go back inside to finish making lunch. From the kitchen window, I watch the dogs settle around him, panting in the midsummer heat. I can’t tell which version of him sits in the backyard, and which I’ve imagined. I can only see the back of his head, looking at the dogs, stroking each of them in the spaces between their ears. He seems happy, but he might be angry. From where I am, I can’t tell. For now, I rinse my hands and turn away.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.