My father picked up a series of inventive punishments from the short time he spent in the US Army. He would make me do push-ups or lie on the ground with my legs six inches in the air until my stomach muscles spasmed, or employ the “hands and feet position,” in which I lay on the ground and held a rocking chair or other large object above my head.
I was never a daddy’s girl.
In Basic Training, my father had been assigned to the fat program, so he was on a strict diet. His drill sergeant stapled a bag of M&Ms to a corkboard in the barracks to taunt the trainees and promised to eat it in front of them on their last day. A week later, my father sneaked to the cork board in the middle of the night and stole the M&Ms, slicing the bottom open with a contraband razor then filling the bag with toilet paper. When the sergeant discovered the thievery, he made everyone do pushups until someone ratted. To teach my father a lesson, the sergeant commanded him to do sit ups while holding a heavy log for hours.
My father was involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him when he was stationed in Oklahoma. His left leg shattered, leaving it almost two inches shorter than the other; the lack of symmetry caused immense back pain that worsened over the years. Because of this injury, he was honorably discharged. He then moved back to North Carolina, where he met my mom while leaning against his Mustang at a gas station.
Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening my mom took us to Awana, an evangelical, youth-indoctrinating, pre-teen gossip session and basketball championship. I’m now an atheist, but my mom believes I’m saved anyway. “You were baptized,” she says, “so you already have your ticket into heaven, even if you’re a little lost.” She prays for me every day.
As a child, I accepted my mother’s religious beliefs as absolute fact, very much like children believe in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. When bearded men slide down your chimney and bunnies hatch eggs, deities don’t sound so far-fetched. But if I was ever truly devoted to something, it was the strength of my will. I clung to it like rosary beads in my fists. I hurled back-talk like holy water at my father but he never burned like the movie villains. His will was proportional to mine; the more I fought back, the stronger he became.
My father skipped church to sink into one hobby or another. Sometimes it was model airplanes or refurbishing cheap computers to sell on eBay. I obsessively observed his projects, pining for an opportunity to contribute.
He’d say, “Keep back so I can concentrate,” so I did. Occasionally his hobbies would cross over into my world, and those were the best times. For the Awana Grand Prix, we made an extraordinarily aerodynamic derby car that won all the races. The accusations of cheating made us proud.
Perhaps my favorite of his hobbies was go-kart racing. I’d watch him ride around Woodleaf track, while I clung to the fence and yelled, “Go Daddy!” as loudly as I could. The dirt got under my fingernails and in my nostrils and sat permanently under my skin, the smell of methanol burned into my memory so that whenever I smell it now, I think of my father, re-experience the adrenaline, and remember the rusted playground outside the track where we’d find and count change to buy candy at the concession stand.
If you visit my old home on Hickory Tree Road and dig up the earth to the left of the shed out back, you’ll find the remains of a family pet and several wild animals I found dead, then buried. When our cat Tigger died of feline leukemia, my father wrapped him in a blanket and put him in a box and we had a proper funeral in the garden that had been tilled but never sown, next to the tree house that had been promised but never built.
Every time I found a dead animal after that, usually a mole or a bird and once a squirrel’s head delivered by our half-feral cat Daisy, I would grab the animal with a mechanic’s glove or paper towel, and bury it in that garden. I would preach the merits of that animal, its ecological contributions and physical aesthetics, and lay a rock over the spot. Then I’d imagine what it would be like if the animal came back to life, secretly hoping that would happen.
I don’t know when my parents stopped loving each other. It could have been when my father started going to school at night while working full time and spending weekends with his hobbies. Maybe it was when my mother became dissatisfied with the role of staying at home, often alone. Perhaps it was when my father met my step-mom in an astronomy class while getting his MBA. It may have been after a third child still didn’t help them find whatever was missing. Maybe it was when my mother became pregnant with me, four months after they met.
I don’t know when the love stopped, but I know when they called it quits. The divorce transformed my first ten years into a memory that sits behind translucent glass. Those memories feel uncomfortably foreign, and sometimes false; if it wasn’t for the testimony of my parents, I’m not sure if I would believe they were ever married.
My early childhood survives in sensory memory—the taste of bubble gum my mom gave me to stay awake in church, the aching in my wrists and carpet patterns pushed into my skin from too much time in the hands and feet position that still feel as intense as if I’d just collapsed onto the floor. The smell of methanol involuntarily thrusts me into the nostalgia of the go-kart track.
In the past six years, my father has had two grand mal seizures, fracturing discs in his back when he fell, both times. He already had an emerging Vicodin problem from the pain caused by his motorcycle accident, but the surgeries and resulting depression left him entirely dependent on the drug. His addiction escalated to morphine, which eventually wasn’t enough either. When he finally decided to seek professional help, he told me, “I realized that the only place I had left to go—the only thing that could make me feel anything again—was heroin. And I wasn’t going to do that.” Today, “professional help” takes the form of Suboxone dependency.
My father was out of work for a year after he broke his back the second time. This changed him more than the drugs ever did. His proudest accomplishment was providing for his family, which was now nearly impossible. He refused to accept help, so he used up all of his savings and 401(k) to keep us in his nice house in the suburbs. He would sit in front of the TV in his bedroom, eating cereal out of mixing bowls and dipping chocolate bars into jars of peanut butter. He gained 60 pounds. Perhaps the worst part was that seizures affected his short-term memory. He began relying on my stepmom for his scheduling, doctor appointments, and reminding him to drop off the kids at school. Even now, if I want to arrange lunch with my father, he says, “Ask Nina if I’m free.”
While my father managed his pain with drugs, my mother chose to ignore hers. When I was young, she would say, “I put all the pain in a little box in my mind, and then I shove that box off a cliff. It seems to help.” She has fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. She has felt pain all over her body and in her joints for the better part of twenty years. It has gotten worse with time. Hand massages with lavender-scented lotion have replaced hair-braiding sessions and dance parties at sleepovers have become watching movies on a heating pad.
A Web of Addiction
My grandpa was an alcoholic for 40 years.
My uncle was an alcoholic until he started going to church.
My cousin is addicted to Xanax, among other things, and hasn’t had a job in ten years.
My grandmother can’t sleep without pills.
Both of my parents can’t function without depression medication.
My stepbrother is addicted to heroin. He’s twenty-two years old.
When I was five and six and seven and I was losing baby teeth, but not fast enough, my father would pull them out with pliers. I would wait until the tooth was really loose, then I’d present it to my father who would say, “Are you sure?” And he’d “yank that sucker right outathere,” without any complaints from me. This impressed him. With my ultimate goal achieved, the 25 or 50 cents I earned was just a bonus. But now the idea of pulling a tooth out with pliers and tasting metallic blood and feeling that fleshy empty spot with my tongue makes me feel sick. When I had my wisdom teeth removed a year ago, I was careful to avoid grazing the craters left in the back of my mouth.
My father was also a big fan of ripping off bandages quickly or digging at splinters until they came out because the pain didn’t matter. Mom would say that the splinters would fall out on their own or get absorbed into my body, but to me and my father, the splinter was a mind game. That splinter wouldn’t get the best of us, and we certainly weren’t going to let the bastard sit in our bodies like it paid rent. The pain was a challenge that meant you deserved to have toes without splinters and holes in your mouth to make room for stronger teeth.
It’s easy to forget how I cried and begged him not to rip out the teeth and splinters. How in adrenaline-endorphin fog, I was proud of getting through the ordeal and winning parental approval. But in my father’s own self-doubt, he yearned for my trust. To this end, we played a scary game. When I was still small enough, I’d be lifted by my father’s insistent arms to the top of our refrigerator where I shivered and he begged, “Jump into my arms!” I’d shake my head no and hold my legs close to my body. I’d close my eyes, pretend he wasn’t there, pretend I wasn’t so high up, and believe that when I inevitably slid off the refrigerator, I’d land safely. It isn’t so scary when you just pretend, when you can believe there’s anything more than fear and floor beneath you.
Kristen Scarlett is a writer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has appeared in Cape Fear Living Magazine, and East End Elements, and she received second place in the SCCC Creative Writing Award for College Writers in 2015. Her hobbies include fancy teas, existential crises, and musing with her cat, King Charles.