The Unbearable Politeness of Being Me
People hurt other people the most when they're trying to kill their own pain, real or imagined. -- Frank J. Page.
When I returned, Colorado had lost its green.
The spring almost had me fooled. It was as if I was being courted by Colorado, as if Washington and Oregon had been rival suitors. The spring was cool and green and full of storms. But after fourteen years, I think I know Colorado, his duality, his square maverick ways.
Sunlight that feels like a whipping; the same old arguments. Straw under my feet; the same old failings.
I understand Colorado. I don't like it, but at least I understand it.
* * *
I insisted on driving the 1000 miles home. I couldn't be a passenger. I was afraid of feeling trapped in the car again. And I needed to be the one to take us away from Illinois.
* * *
No magic, this trip. Except the lightning bugs. I was right, I got one thing right. The rest...?
* * *
We shouldn't have gone. I know that now. O tells me, “This is it. This is the last time.” And I agree. But, then there's my mom. I want to make her happy. There aren't any other grandkids, nor will there be. I'm her last living child. And I had thought I was making my dad happy too. Before the boyos were born, when I was sitting on the couch trying not to breathe too hard for fear of another bout of premature labor, he groused on the phone that his grandchildren would never know him because we lived so far away. “They'll think I'm some old man. They'll be afraid of me.”
They adore him, by the way. Or, they did. Yeah, I'm sure they still do. Kids are resilient, isn't that what they say?
“Come on out,” says my mom. “You need a break. Stay as long as you want. Stay all summer if you want!”
So we went. And the trip out pretty much set the tone. Being polite is a high priority in my parents' household these days. Unfortunately, the boyos didn't get the memo. They were perceived as being loud, unruly, out of control, immature, and intolerable. And it was my job to keep them quiet. All the time. It wasn't long before I felt like a crack mom who'd brought her illegitimate children home. And I hate myself for feeling that way, for seeing the boyos through my father's eyes. For looking at them and thinking that they are indeed out of control and that I've already failed them somehow.
I tried to see things from his perspective. He's newly-retired, and struggling with that. He fights battles with his mother, the Grandmonster, and you can't imagine how unpleasant THAT is. He tries to appease her, and here I am, his daughter, making her own demands that do anything but feed the dragon.
But. I'm realizing now that I've spent my life trying to make everyone around me happy. Trying to make up for things that happened that I see now were beyond my control.
* * *
We were in the car. We were going to spend the day in the car going from one thing to the next, but I didn't know that yet. My dad wanted to show off the boyos to 'the ladies'; his former office colleagues. On the way there, he said, “This is what we call closure.” And I realized that my dad had an agenda, and we were baggage.
We saw the ladies. The boyos were shy and quiet, just as their grandpa wanted them at any other time but this one. He wanted them to perform and they didn't.
On we went to the next destination where they were too wild. I suggested lunch, since we'd been out for over an hour. They didn't sit still enough at lunch, or clean their plates, which I guess was a sin. Then it was on to a plant nursery to look for yellow petunias. Then another one. And another one. And another one. And a stop in-between. An another one. Toward the end, he insisted that the boyos and I stay in the car, since they couldn't behave. He took the keys. It was hot, and the three of us were bored, noisy baggage.
This alone would have been sad enough, but then there was that stop in between that I mentioned. An antique shop full of stained glass. Perfect for overtired boys, don't you think? Of course they were impossible to keep calm. They didn't break anything, but it was on leaving this place that I nearly broke.
Leaving, he said, “Now let's go to grandma's house.”
Scroll down to the previous entry, if you will. Remember what I said about grandma's house? Was that clear to you, Dear Readers?
“We are not going there,” I answered.
“Let's go to grandma's house.”
“We are NOT going there.”
And then the dirty trick: “Hey guys! Do you want to go see great-grandma?”
“We are not GOING there.”
To my credit, I kept my voice low and even. And the boyos to their credit said they didn't want to. This woman creeps them out, as well she should.
My dad didn't say anything back. We got in the car, the issue unresolved. And that's when my heart started pounding in double-time, my mouth went dry and my tea light went out.
I didn't know where we were going. My parents moved from the house where I grew up to one on the opposite side of town, so everything is backwards to me. Not to mention that a lot has changed in the 18 years since I left. I couldn't tell direction. And then something disturbing happened.
* * *
When you form a mental picture of the Grandmonster's house, you would do well to remember the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. Her house is painted frosting-pink, with white gingerbread trim. There is a German Hex on the garage door and lacy curtains in the window. Bright, plastic flowers line the walk and fill hanging baskets on the porch that is just a little too dark to be welcoming.
I think she actually cultivates this witch-in-the-woods image – consciously or unconsciously I don't know anymore and don't care to speculate, because I'm not sure which is creepier.
The inside is worse. It smells. And the smell is not gingerbread.
To breathe in that house is to breath her in.
* * *
So, back in the car. We passed a neighborhood from behind. There was a house, perhaps five years old, a two-story painted light blue-grey. It looked like every other hastily-constructed new house on this booming side of town except for one thing. White gingerbread trim.
I remember seeing the house, and it looks the way that I described to you. But in my head was a voice screaming, “That's her house! He took you to her house!”
And another voice was saying, “No, it isn't. That is not her house. It is a completely different house.”
This argument went on well after we had passed the entire neighborhood. I don't know when it stopped, but thankfully it did, and it has left me shaken and wondering about what exactly happened to me there in the car.
* * *
Nursery after nursery after that, looking for the rare and elusive yellow petunia. Stuck in the car.
* * *
There is one other tent pole that holds up this carnival of misadventure:
The boyos were watching a video and fighting over couch space. I sat down between them to try and end the conflict. The elder protested, kicking me instead. My dad came in from the other room. He yelled for quiet. He got into my son's face. I watched my dad's scalp turn bright red as, teeth clenched, he roared at my son.
“Be quiet! Do you understand me!”
Then he gripped my little boy's arm and squeezed. He shook my son.
At which point, I yelled, “Get out of his face!”
He stopped. He let go of my son's arm. His scalp stayed deep red. My father looked at me with spitting hatred.
“Fine.” Through gritted teeth. He left the room, slamming the door behind him.
The three of us were quiet after that.
I didn't cry. I shook, but I didn't cry. And then I got up and started packing.
My mom saw me. She'd just come home from work. I wonder if things would have been different if she'd had the time off, like she told me she did.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Downstairs, I could smell the dinner my dad was cooking.
“We're in the way here,” I told her.
“What do you mean, 'in the way?' What are you talking about?”
“We're in the way.” I folded another shirt.
“I don't understand,” she said, tearing up.
She started crying. “No. No. Don't do this to me. Don't do this to me!”
I stopped. “I'm sorry.”
“I've been working! I haven't even had a chance to see them!”
“Just stay. It's ok. You're not in the way here. Just stay.”
“He...” I couldn't finish.
* * *
We stayed. I felt guilty for pouring the drama out on my mom. It got nominally better with her there. The boyos continued to act out, reacting to all the tension in the air. But my dad quieted down. So did I. I think there was a day when I didn't say more than a dozen words.
* * *
My dad burned some CDs and DVDs and put them in my room. The entire Beatles and Steeley Dan catalogues. Yellow Submarine. Pan's Labyrinth.
You don't know how this breaks my heart.
* * *
O drove out to get us and I drove us all back.
The ugly girl Nebraska had put away her velvet dress. Colorado had lost its green.
We got to I-25, about two dozen miles from home, and I joked that I was going to pull over and let O drive the rest of the way. And then I realized the traffic was getting heavier. After 15 hours of comparatively thin traffic, I was getting confused. He didn't realize. I drove in on autopilot. And when we got home, I looked around. Nothing looked right. It wasn't home.
* * *
I'm better now. I've tried writing this over and over but I couldn't until my voice came back. I've spent a week coming home.