My parents met in the third grade and my father swears he knew immediately that she’d be the girl he’d marry, especially when she corrected his Staten Island pronunciation of ‘soda.’ “It’s sodaa, not soder.” Or that’s how the story goes. My mother tells me, now that I’m older, that as a teenager she used to masturbate to the thought of having his children. Not to the thought of him, but to the thought of me—the potential of me, and my sister Victoria.
For Christmas, all I wanted was a chisel set—smooth mahogany handles and blades curved like the slopes of fingernails. I unwrapped the paper—dancing with Santa’s elves—and my father said, “They’re real sharp; you’ll have to push away from yourself.”
He showed me how to hold the handle, how to steady the block of soft white pine with my left hand, how to make a sunflower grow from the wood grain. “You have to take away what’s not there, what shouldn’t be there,” he’d say. And I would wonder how he learned to invert the world, how he knew what didn’t make a carousel horse.
Because my father was a carpenter, our property held structures like a monopoly board: the pavilion, the storage unit, the overhang, the hunting blind he named “Little Mexico.” They stood with the aid of pressure treated 4x4s, and sometimes he’d turn the trunks of trees into the supporting columns. He had a flourish for the ornate, so when, at eleven years old, I read Vitruvius’s The Ten Books on Architecture, I showed him the Corinthian columns and he brought me to the pavilion. In silence, I watched him carve an old man into the 4×4—the beard winding like the roads that lead to Athens. When he finished, in just a few hours, he brushed away the shavings and whispered, “Zeus.”
These old men appeared everywhere. “Gandalf,” he’d say, then “Dumbledore” when the time came. He carved them into the tongue and groove pine of my parents’ sloping ceiling, letting the dark knots set reliefs: high cheekbones, an angular jaw.
My earliest memory came in our second house by the lake. My father carried amber-stained pieces of oak to my pink room, fit them together like a puzzle. He designed my bed close to the ground. I remember watching him while I sat between my mother’s legs—she gently covering my ears as he nailed each piece together. I marveled at the rounded bedposts, the ones he softened with band saws and sanders.
The bed moved with me to the house on the acreage. It supported a canopy of camouflage mesh and faux leaves for years; it helped me feel safe. When my aunt came to visit, my sister, Victoria, and I begged for her to paint for us, decorate our room with her art. Victoria asked for a fairy, one with transparent wings and soft brown hair. When the fairy was painted, I couldn’t help but think it looked just like my baby sister, cheeks always red and swollen with smiles. I had my aunt paint a brown bear—its back rounded and hulked under the smooth curve of the bedpost, tufts of grass under its long clawed paws. The oak’s grain let the bear’s fur flow untangled, without matting.
In eighteen years, I will break that bed apart with my father’s hammer. I will mistake my tears for sweat and the process will only take two minutes. I will throw the splintered boards out the window and carry them to the burn pit where my mattress has already smoldered to coils. My mother will pat me on the back. I will only save the bear.
Hunting, or more accurately, poaching, is what property owners in Northeastern Pennsylvania are best at. So when my father spilled out of the woods in early fall, his gun slung on his shoulder, he carried the blond coyote like a hog over his back. We called our family friends, had them ogle the canine, its teeth bared under its drying lips. This animal deserved a full mount, to stand stuffed on some log or fake rock in our library. We laid black 44-gallon trash bags down in the back of the Ford Expedition so the blood wouldn’t stain the upholstery, and drove to the local taxidermist—a middle aged, closeted lesbian. I’ll never forget the way she brushed its fur, ran her fingernails through it, the way a partner might touch her lover’s hair. She gave an estimate: $600 for the full mount and $350 for the rock perch.
Months would pass. My mother would call and be politic, polite, inquire about the timeline. My father would shove me in the car and drive down to visit the woman. He would make threats and lean his body over the counter, his voice a low growl. He would throw a piece of firewood at the side of the house when he found out she’d abandoned her business and left the area.
I have never once found a four-leaf clover, though I have searched. Victoria would run up to me after my baseball games with fists filled with four-leaf clovers. She would smooth each leaf on her palm and hold them out to me—an offering. For her eighth birthday my parents gave her a laminator, so she opened her journal and dumped the dried clovers onto the carpet. I watched as she laminated clovers, each at the center of a sheet of plastic the size of a business card. I kept one in my Velcro wallet, my mother one in her fanny pack, and my father one in the pages of his books.
Once, he called me over to the couch—two pillows stained yellow with Rogaine behind his head, two pillows on his lap to rest the book. He was reading The Rape of Nanking, with its red dust jacket. He said, “This is what bad men do to women,” and turned the glossy picture toward me: a Chinese woman; decapitated; limbs severed; a bayonet stuck vertical, piercing her vagina.
In college I will buy that book on Amazon, have it delivered in three days. I will weep through the prose that tells me how 200,000 people were butchered, how women were raped by a marathon of men until their bodies gave out, how they had beheading contests: 100 plus per contestant. I will hate my father for showing me what men are capable of.
I dreamt vividly when I was younger. The bloody marshes of Nanking lit up with garish red like I’d never seen. I stumbled over disembodied heads as I ran away—my feet sticking in the suction mud. They would pin me, rape me. I remember waking to stinging above my vagina’s hairline—a spider bite that swelled malignantly. I never told anyone, just rubbed it away with Benadryl and Neosporin.
I have always understood the importance of self-defense—pressure points, kidneys, a thumb in an eye socket. My father taught me what I needed to know. We would play a game called Mercy; he would curl my fingers into a fist, until my nails were his piano keys. He pressed each nail, harder and harder, until I hit my knees. “Mercy, mercy”—the high-pitched notes of my hand’s piano.
On Fourth of Julys, we entertained over a hundred: family, friends, local politicians, my entire baseball team. After the fireworks, the adults drank more quickly. The fathers pitted their sons against each other, races and pull-ups and arm wrestling competitions. Before puberty, girls run faster than boys; for a brief span, girls are the stronger sex. My father brokered this like a bookie, watched the bearded fathers crush empty Budweiser cans in their fists when I beat their sons, when I pushed their thin arms down hard onto the table. It was in these moments—the moments of my violent strength—that my father smiled at me, the carving of Zeus lit with a lantern behind his head.
We treated target practice the way some families treated picnics in the park. I could burn through half a box of Remington .22 long rifle ammunition: nearly 250 shots ripping through plastic Pepsi bottles, dry rotted soccer balls, and light bulbs for the drama, the pop. One summer Saturday, my father and I—searching for targets—found an old fire extinguisher in the pavilion. We wondered what might happen if we shot the red metal. Would it explode into a white cloud of shrapnel? Would it dump out feebly like dust balls from a vacuum, or spaghetti from its colander? Would it, in the event of our hitting it at the exact same time, not do anything? Just sit, balanced?
When we did shoot the fire extinguisher, it sat still, left a puddle of foam on its log perch—wet to the touch, white water broken on sand—the father and daughter firing stalemate rounds.
At flea markets and garage sales I used my allowance to buy old baseball bats: short, long, aluminum, wood. The aluminum bats were the best for me, light and easy to wield. My father and I trundled into the woods, brought a sand-bucket of cracked golf balls that the driving range sold for five bucks per hundred. He pointed to a tree 30 yards away, like Babe Ruth calling his home runs. The Maple, back there, behind the birch, he’d say. I watched him toss the golf ball, slice the bat through the air—a samurai sword glinting in light that made it through the canopy. He called his shots and I’d watch as the ball ricocheted off maples, our property speckled with thousands of little crushed eggs.
When we shot clay birds, I’d call the shots. Pull, I’d say, and the disks would fly up our neighbor’s hay-baled hill. At eleven, I was a better shot than the neighbor’s son, and I like to remind him about those days when he’s back from Afghanistan for the holidays; he’s a sniper for the U.S. Army. I tease him, remind him how his father screamed at him not to be a pussy, how my father beamed at me and patted the back of my fluorescent orange vest. I remind him how, on that very same hill, when we were 16, he held me steady as I pissed out my first binge drink—Molson Canadian and whiskey from a plastic bottle.
My mother taught my sister and me how to dance dirty in the laundry room—the door locked from the inside. We rolled our hips to TLC’s “Waterfall” and “Creep.” My father would have beaten my mother for this, would have called her a “skank,” as he did when he turned down the radio in the Ford Expedition if the song had a “sexy” beat. I remember him grabbing her wrist when she tried to turn the volume back up—the red imprint of his fingers cuffing her for the rest of the day.
When I go to my first high school dance, I will dance like a “skank.” I will dance with the only black man in my class. I will grab his penis through his dress pants on the dance floor and feel him swell—his lips watering. I will do this to spite my father’s hands on my mother, on the volume dial. I will never feel more sexually attracted to a man than I did in that moment, and I will never parse if it was my rebellion against my father that aroused me, or the way that boy held my rolling hips.
Before the money my father made dwindled, before he lost his flare for custom spiral staircases, we vacationed often, spent winter months in Florida. We hauled our schoolbooks down the coastline and did our homeschooling in rented condominiums, tennis courts and hot tubs always in sight. On weekends, we would travel to amusement parks: Disney, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Old Town, Central Florida Zoo, Botanical Gardens, and Reptile Land. I would think of the carousel horses my father had carved, running in circles on the cold woodstove—the water shut off to prevent the pipes from freezing. I would think of how their hooves must have frozen while I rode every carousel I could find, wanting always the black horse—me, the dark rider. My mother would take pictures with her 30-millimeter Nikon at every revolution—my father behind her with his arms crossed, muscles tanned and large enough to cast patchwork shadows.
When in Florida, bad things would happen: my grandfather had a heart attack and later, on another trip, he committed suicide, leaping into his home’s empty pool; my great grandmother died; and both of my parents broke their necks. My mother went first, slipping in the ocean’s condensation that slicked a Daytona walkway. That very same week in Daytona, Dale Earnheardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500. He was pronounced dead at the same hospital where we brought my mother, of the same injury: a basilar skull fracture. She wore a neck brace like the Padaung women of Burma—her neck long, her head straight.
On another trip, we visited St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos, where the U.S. kept Apaches penned like animals. We bought postcards and then spilled onto the highway. Before Georgia’s state line, a left lane maroon four-door veered and smacked our Expedition’s front end. It was a gentle crash, a nudge off the road into a gully. No one would suspect that it snapped the bone spurs off my father’s battered spine, sent them floating to pinch and scratch at nerves. No one would suspect the way, when we got back to Pennsylvania, my father would lose control of his hands and they would curl like the browning leaves of a spider plant. No one would suspect the emergency neck surgery to save him from paraplegia. But everyone would suspect the Oxycontin abuse, the syringes of Toradol, the eyes rolled back—white cumulous clouds. When I think of Florida, I fear for my neck.
When my father up and left for Kauai, he left the house abandoned. The water poured into the basement when it rained. The black snakes and mice turned the place into a warzone. When my father up and left for Kauai, he took Victoria. When I destroyed her bed and mine, because they stank of rodent piss, I imagined what it might be like to see her again. Had she grown taller than me? Lost her baby fat? Cut off all her hair, like me? I wondered, while I broke through those bed frames, if her voice had matured? I wondered if in the three years it had been since I’d seen her, spoken to her, she had become a mother? Been in a horrific car crash? Been attacked by a Galapagos shark? Adopted our father’s heroin addiction? I wonder every day if my sister is even alive.
In the last year before my parents separated, my father wrecked car after car in his drug abuse. He rolled them; he drove them, sleeping, half a mile through a cornfield. He crashed into the pavilion he built at the end of our driveway, and the carving of Zeus bent to look at the ground. In that moment, when Zeus bowed, the top of his carved head showed me what my mother had always known, what she had painstakingly crafted. I am Athena—the goddess of heroic endeavor—the goddess who leapt from her father’s head. I will think of my mother’s confession, how the idea of me led her through this life, how she carved me out of my father, how she had always lived by the words he had taught me: you have to take away what’s not there, what shouldn’t be there. Where I walk now, there are slivers of the white marble of him all around my feet.
Gorgeous, evocative, haunting. Thank you for sharing.
A overdue visit ……. to years that I missed.
This was one of crispest memoirs I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to hear more from you. Thank you for sharing your stories, for grouping them together, for laying them out with such a fine hand. Amy Gigi Alexander