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Homecoming

I try not to talk about this too much and am fond of making grand jokes about it, but the truth of the matter is that I had kind of a shitty childhood. There are things I’ve never told anyone, not even Esteban. Once without thinking, I mentioned something relatively minor in passing to my sister Mo and when I heard her reaction, I realized my head is just a Pandora’s box. Besides, to drag things back into the front of my brain makes me angry and bitter. The story is full of lots of maudlin bullshit that would fill an entire Weetabix-themed week of primetime on the Lifetime network, starring Tracy Gold, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Ricki Lake, Yasmine Bleeth and Camryn Manheim (in the heartrenching body image themed feature) respectively. In it, there would be the physically and emotionally distant father (played by Tom Wopat, John Heard, Mark Ruffalo, Craig Bierko, and Dale Midkiff), a good old boy stepfather (played by David Keith, Gary Cole, Nick Searcy, John Schneider, and from beyond the grave, Steve McQueen) and a struggling and occasionally unfocused mother (played by Cher, Valerie Bertinelli, Cher, Naomi Judd, and Cher).

In truth, I try not to focus on it very much, or even really talk about it. After my mother divorced my father for what was most likely a very good reason (drinking and cheating are likely, but I can’t remember if I knew that or if I heard it in a Patsy Cline song), she began dating (and eventually married) my stepfather, the man who I would later call in a national magazine ‘an ogre.’ In what is almost a perfect metaphor for that time of my childhood, I have a faint memory of watching my father’s back disappearing down the stairs of the tiny second-story apartment we were living in after he dropped me off after a soon-to-be-ended father/daughter weekend. In what is also a perfect metaphor for that time of my life, my first memory of the man who would become my stepfather was when I was about two or three and couldn’t fall asleep during naptime. He came into the room and spanked me. Hard. I remember sitting there crying, shocked that a)he thought spanking me would somehow make me sleepy, b)my mother had just sat there and let it happen, and c)this person I barely knew was now someone I would now have to fear.

When a story has more than one villain, it’s hard to remember who to root for.

There were other things. Things that happened. Things that were done. You’ll have to trust me on that, as I’m not going to be the poster child for childhood trauma anymore than is necessary.

However, the one shining thing in this was that my new stepfather had a wonderful large family of very loving good old Wisconsin folk. They hunted, they fished, they drank and they laughed. There would never be a doctor or a scientist from their ranks, but they were hard workers, decorated for every holiday and threw on a good spread at dinner time. And, to their credit, they seemed to accept the fact that the first wedding in their brood was going to be to a girl who had one failed marriage and a three-year-old before she had hit a quarter century. Apparently anything that would domesticate the family hellion was probably a good thing.

And even after my mother packed up my sister and I in the middle of one cold November night (after I had accidentally spilled that he had left me (age 7) to watch my sister (age 2) while he and his friend went off somewhere with two giggling girls until after dark and I had been too afraid to go into the ancient farmhouse where I decided Frankenstein was waiting, so I made us stay in the barn where I felt safe with the horses), his family would still invite me to their Christmases (although there was a weird disparity between the presents for my sister and myself, mostly because my stepfather chose to only lavish attention upon his blood daughter) his mother always made sure that she treated me exactly the same as the other grandchildren. And then as I got older, I started to feel a weird vibe that may or may not have been legit, but I decided to stop going. However, his sister Sharon still sent me birthday cards, still sent Christmas presents home with my sister for me. She came to my graduation. She attended our wedding. I still think of her as my Aunt Sharon, in a weird post-millennial family kind of way.

So when I got an invitation to her 50th birthday party, I was pleased that she had thought about me, but I felt weird about going. I mean, there surrounded by all of those memories. It wasn’t like I never saw any of those people. I saw them at Abby’s birthday parties and bumped into them from time to time around town. But all at once, with no buffer save for my sister. It was pretty intense. So my passive-aggressive tendencies took over and I forgot about it, despite the handwritten invitation that I left on my bathroom counter. And then there was a work thing for all the people who are getting riffed. I sort of had to go to that too. They were both on Friday evening.

Truth be told, I didn’t want to go to either. I really didn’t want to be in a bar. I didn’t want to deal with the thick subtext, all of the things going unsaid in both situations. I went home after work because I had a headache and ostensibly to change my clothes and eat something before going out. Except that I didn’t’ I stayed in the performance fleece pullover and tshirt and jeans I had worn to work. I ate a pear and some cheese for dinner (very European, non?) and then after chatting with Esteban, who was trying to catch up with his Sisyphusian job, we talked about how I sort of didn’t want to go be around all of those people. Esteban then declared that he would go to the birthday thing with me, because he wanted to get out of the house. Great, way to lock me in, babe.

In bold deflecting move, I decided that I would just check into the coworker thing. As soon as I walked in, I was glad that I didn’t submit to my curmudgeonly ways and had kept at least one of my social obligations because I do genuinely like many of my coworkers. I chatted with them a bit, made plans for later, and then left to make an appearance at Aunt Sharon’s birthday party.

But then I started waffling. I didn’t have a present for her, and I hate going to birthdays without a present. Also, the coworkers wanted to go to the Bad Bar later and were going to call me, so I needed to go home and charge my cell phone. Or something. There were clearly a million reasons why I should just go home and take a nap instead. When I walked in the door, Esteban said ‘Your sister called’ she wanted to know if you were going to show up.’ ‘What did you tell her?’ ‘That I didn’t know. She wants you to call her.’

‘Fine, let’s go.’ I grumbled. Esteban was happy, because he’d been working for fourteen hours at that point, but I was already making plans to come in, wish Aunt Sharon a happy birthday and then hide in a corner, perhaps using Esteban as a flannel plaid shield, for an acceptable amount of time and then leave.

When I got there, I went over to Aunt Sharon, who was so ecstatic to see me, that immediately I felt bad knowing that I had been about to pike for my own comfort rather than thinking about this sweet lovely woman who had made it a point to always sign her cards ‘Aunt Sharon’ long after her brother had remarried. She tactfully reminded me of everyone in the room, by going up to her own siblings and saying ‘Uncle Mike, you probably don’t recognize Weetabix because she’s all grown up now’ but of course I recognized all of them. However, with this reintroduction, I was forced to talk to them and it officially broke the wall of years between us. I was chatting with his mother, whose face absolutely lit up when she realized that I was there, when someone tapped me on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see Esteban, but instead, there was my stepfather.

I hadn’t talked to him in years. It was always a mutual understanding of a nodding distance, and quite honestly, I was fine with that. Avoidance is my medium of choice, and I paint elaborate still-lifes of estrangement and silence. However, apparently after more than a few drinks and watching his family all excited to talk to the unofficial first of the next generation, he felt the need for an armistice.

And so there I stood, trying desperately to receive this conversation in the spirit it was intended (a little drunk, perhaps, a little ‘God, I shouldn’t check out her boobs’, but still well meaning). I escaped back to the bar where Esteban and Mo were smoking, but he followed me. There he told a story about how once we had been at my Great Grandparent’s house and I had apparently slammed a cupboard door and he had yelled at me then, and how my Grandmother had never liked him from that point forward, and then even called our house later to tell him that the cupboard door did tend to close very loudly and how she was going to have my Grandfather fix it. I was struck by how touching that was, how these people, this man, were all conduits of my history. Despite how I had tried to forget about them, he was now the only person who could share how my little five foot tall quiet and ladylike Great Grandmother would champion my case against a hard ass, in her own impeccable polite way.

Mo heard the tail end of the story, so he repeated it, this time demonstrating with eerie verisimilitude how he had said ‘Weetabix! You don’t slam the cupboard door!’ It’s amazing how the tone of a particular voice can make you a child again, but in that second, I tensed right up, could have iterated exactly how he would sound had he needed to say it again, and how he would sound the third time and how there wouldn’t be a fourth time.

He hugged me at least three times throughout the evening, kissing my cheek and telling me that he loves me, he means it, he loves me, and anything I need, anything, work on my car, work on my house, call him and he will be there for me. Which, to be honest, is more than my own father has ever said in my entire life.

I rolled my eyes at Mo and Esteban, because I’m an asshole. Mo reminded me that he was trying and I should be nice, and she was right. He was obviously trying and I should be nicer. It’s just very hard and I can’t resist being a bad person sometimes.

On the ride home, Esteban and I were talking about it. I was wigging out, because the whole thing had been really surreal. I didn’t know how I felt being suddenly accepted by the Public Enemy Number One from my shitty childhood and how it was to be hugged and kissed by him and how I couldn’t respond when he said that he loved me, how human instinct is to reply ‘I love you too’ but I couldn’t make the words with my mouth. I mean, who tells a five year old that no one will like them because they are too fat? Who? Especially when they are just a normal-sized kid? And then sends them to their room because they can’t finish their supper? And the worst things that happened weren’t the worst things, the viewer discretion advised scenes that would get Emmy nominations for Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and dead Steve McQueen ‘ they were these little comparative nothings that shouldn’t have mattered as much as they did.

I didn’t say any of that, though, because sometimes you just can’t talk about such things, especially when the completely unexpected happens and the villain gives you hugs and tells you how much he loves you.

Esteban, however, could hear everything that I couldn’t say. ‘You know, maybe he’s trying to make up for being such an asshole when he was younger. Maybe he knows and he’s sorry now. Maybe he’s trying to show you that.’

‘He should be’ was all I could answer. There was so much to say, so much anger and sadness that I have every right to have, but at the same time, I want to be done with all of this crap. It’s such a waste to spend the next sixty years of your life trying to get over the first ten. ‘He should be.’

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