When I was in second grade, my sisters and I went to Catholic school. Much to my mother’s chagrin (“I already pay for school! It’s called taxes!”), my father was making a last-ditch effort to win the favor of his East Coast Italian mother–which was ridiculous, considering he was already wrapped so tightly around her finger that he invented interstate hemorrhoids–so he sent us to St. Ann’s. It was awesome–no lie! Second grade was when I received speech services to get rid of my lisp; received my first kiss from a boy; and learned what it meant to flip the bird at someone. It was also where I first learned to make excuses for a man’s bad behavior, since it was a boy who teased me by flipping me off, and when he wouldn’t tell me what it meant I asked Sister Mary Theresa. I didn’t need my keen ability to read the emotions of other people to know that Sister Mary Theresa did not at all take kindly to my flipping her off while I asked her what it meant; she grabbed my sinful hand in both of hers, pulled me close, and seethed, “WHO SHOWED YOU THAT?” I knew better than to turn in this boy, because he already spent a not-insignificant amount of time in the office, mostly for trying to see my answers during math tests. Thinking quickly, I whispered back, “There’s a man across the street who was doing it while we were playing Kimba the White Lion at recess.” I’m pretty sure Sister Mary Theresa made the sign of the cross over me and directed me toward my classroom, and then proceeded to call the police and maybe the Pope to report the public indecency. Meanwhile, my boy was safe because of my lack of integrity, and it earned me a kiss on the cheek under the monkey bars after school. “My dad is going to kill you,” I told him. (Later, when I told my father–expecting him to be furious and determined to defend my honor–he merely laughed. No anger, no vengeance, just amusement that a seven-year-old boy would display such brazen entitlement. The fuck, Dude??)
My father left town at the end of second grade, and even though I returned to public school afterwards, I remained friends with the few kids from St. Ann’s who lived near me. One of them lived just up the street from me, and I remember walking to her house many times during the school year. She had a trampoline in her back yard, which was quite a rare and awesome thing in those days, and we spent hours jumping on, then laying on, then hiding under it. Other friends came too, and it was so much fun and camaraderie and normalcy and fit-in-edness. At some point in the summer after second grade, however, she started turning me down when I called to ask if I could come over to play. She stopped inviting me, even when I knew others in our friend-group were going. I finally asked her why I couldn’t come over anymore, and she told me her dad forbid it. She said it had something to do with something my father had said or done–which, even at that age, made a certain sense to me. Even an eight-year-old knows, instinctively, if her dad’s an asshole. Later, I learned that my father had written nasty editorials about my friend’s father in the newspaper that my father operated. I’m sure it was probably some rant against capitalist progress; her dad was a prominent, well-respected businessman in the community, and my dad was… well… not. Still, a word to the prominent, well-respected business man dad: not allowing your kid to be friends with the daughter of an asshole is a bit of a douche bag move, in my opinion.
So I lost the trampoline access. It was one of my first experiences with shame, associating myself with a disgrace that limited my opportunities for fun, for pleasure. It made me aware, for the first time, of stereotypes and discrimination and judgment and guilt by association. It also made me aware of just how big a motherfucker my father must have been.
I remember querying my mother on the details behind our parents’ separation. My mother is, and always has been, a thoroughly decent human being. She is kind. She is smart. She is thoughtful and considerate. She is not what you would call “emotional,” and she has never been one to cast aspersions upon others for ill-fated circumstances. Consequently, it took years for me to learn the details of my father’s motherfuck-edness (spell-check doesn’t sanction that word, but I don’t care, it’s motherfucking apropos). So all I knew to do in those early separation/divorce years was not ask people for what I wanted; rather, I was supposed to wait for an invitation to whatever it was I wanted. Don’t ask to go jump on the trampoline; let them invite you. Don’t call the neighbors to see if I could swim in their pool; wait for them to call you. (Note to those of you with swimming pools: please spare the humiliation of all the repressed kids from dysfunctional families and post a fucking invitation to swim on social media, for crying out loud.) I learned it was too risky to make your needs known; better to sit stoically alone than to risk the embarrassment of being told “no” because someone in your lineage was once an asshole.
In my mother’s defense, she came by her stoicism honestly. She hails from a long line of Northern European stoics–“stiff upper lip” and all that rubbish. By today’s standards, her own childhood was sorely lacking in emotional connection, physical affection, and fresh vegetables, so it’s no wonder that, during my formative years, she was the embodiment of how to tolerate and transcend personal rejection, social indifference, and occasional constipation. She did not spend much (any) time or energy cultivating my resilience in situations where my expectations and desires were unmet, because that was simply not a “thing” in the world she had come to know. Also because she had to raise three young girls with no support on a teacher’s salary and she was fucking exhausted. “Cultivating resilience” was somewhere below “keep the lights on” and “split the atom” on her list of priorities.
Of course, for the imaginative among us, sitting stoically alone was not bereft of creative exploration. Saturday nights were devoted to “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” on television, and I’m pretty sure that’s where my vast understanding and keen interest of love and sex were born (notwithstanding the discovery of my best friend’s brother’s stash of Playboy magazines). Except you really don’t want to be developing your understanding of love and sex watching television with your stoic mother; I mean, there is no way to navigate that shit with Captain Stubing at the helm and Tattoo screaming at airplanes and your mother snoring in the Laz-y-Boy–not without the assistance of Sigmund Freud and Jack Daniels, anyway. Still, if you cover yourself with the afghan and slump down low on the couch and keep your heavy breathing quiet, you can figure out a good many things that will come in handy (pun intended) later in life–except they really won’t, because you have been conditioned NOT to ask for what you want. Dammit. You’re fucked even when you’re not.
Which is kinda the story of my life. Starting with second grade.